Judging by the fair few people in the audience who had dressed up in hippie garb for the occasion, this 50th anniversary production of the tribal love-rock musical was as much an experience as a stage performance.
As such it pretty much works, with members of the cast going into the audience (you need to be in the stalls to get the full experience), having bits of banter, throwing things around and eventually encouraging people on to the stage for the finale. I was going to say all daft fun but it is meant to be outrageous which it was back in the late 1960s.
Yes, it is a hippie fest although, of course, these hippies weren’t even a glimmer in their parents’ eyes when the then revolutionary show exploded on the stage. In the sixties the original cast were of the period – now it is largely the audience.
It is impossible not to see this as a bit of a museum piece – highly entertaining, uplifting, maybe even occasionally joyous but still a bit of a throwback. This then begs the question, is it being revived because it is now just a bit of bums on seats fun, is it just a nostalgia trip for the audience or is it a show that merits being restaged and performed? The truth lies in it being something of all three.
The attempt at 21st century relevance, having Trump referenced in the opening, wasn’t necessary as anyone with half a brain cell can tell that anti-war sentiment has not gone away but what that does do is set a tone of intellectual sadness to the whole show. Similarly, songs called Sodomy, raised more of a titter than outrage and the ubiquitous cock and butt humour just seems now, well, crass.
Better to just indulge in the jollity of this group of young people as they experiment with a drop in, drop out lifestyle of drugs, free sex (and its consequences), alternative sexualities, challenging contemporary material values and, of course, all set against avoiding being called up to fight in Vietnam. The story and lyrics created by Gerome Ragni and James Rado maybe be legendary but it is the music by Galt Macdermot that makes the work worth reviving. Enjoy the trip and just love the innocent songs.
What grabbed the headlines at the time (yes, I was around) was the nudity and in this show it is there and kept discreet, dimly lit, at the back of the stage. Now I like to think this was to hint at the fact that at the time is was shocking rather than intentionally low-key.
The set is all colourful streamers to create this hippie colourful world and there are simple stage effects to create dreamlike, tripping out sequences and the clothes are what you would expect.
The show is packed with songs (some might say too many) and they usually requires singers who can not just belt them out (although some certainly do this) but also the ability to create an communicate their characters as there is a lot of this sort of introduction songs in the first half. The second half is very different to the first with lots of bits of fun, songs about whether white boys or black boys are better lovers, a skit on American history and its heroes, all leading to the rather depressing Let The Sun Shine In conclusion and then slightly contradictory happy hippie encore.
What makes the whole piece worthwhile is the music which again is a little ironic as the most memorable songs are the most conventional, gorgeous lyrical ballads and unforgettable melodies. The more raucous, rock songs, are all part of the experience but it is the handful of timeless songs, such as Good Morning Starshine, Aquarius, Easy to be Hard that still stand out.
There are excellent performances in what has to be a tight ensemble work but worth note was the particularly strong stage presence of Aiesha Pease as Dionne and Marcus Colins as Hud. Natalie Green as Cassie, Paul Wilkins as Claude and Alison Arnopp as Jeanie were delightful in their roles. Daisy Wood-Davis as an enchanting Sheila has a lovely vice while Jake Quickenden as Berger was full of verve and energy, cheek and also selfishness.
Led by musical director Gareth Bretherton, the on-stage band kept the show flowing as it surfed Galt Macdermot music.
There are a lot of TV faces in the cast apparently but I will have to take the programme’s word for that.
Main image: Jake Quickenden.
Images: Johan Persson
Until Saturday, April 20.