Review – Flahooley, Lost Musicals, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadlers Wells, 13th May 2012
It’s Lost Musicals time again! We always like to go once a year, because no matter what show you see, it’s always a delight. In case you don’t know, every year Ian Marshall Fisher resurrects two or three old musicals that haven’t seen the light of day for donkeys’ years, and gets a bunch of talented actors and musicians to sit in a semi-circle, resplendent in evening dress, scripts in hand, Mark Warman on the piano, no scenery or props, and they enact the forgotten masterpiece. Sometimes they really are masterpieces. Other times you realise precisely why they have been forgotten. But even if they are lost because they’re not that great, the actual choice of which musicals to resurrect will always be of significant historical interest for some reason or other.
Flahooley, which opened this year’s season last Sunday, enjoyed a mere 40 or so performances on Broadway in 1951; but it was written by (inter alia) E Y Harburg, who had enjoyed great success with Finian’s Rainbow, and in his earlier days, had also written the lyrics for the songs in the film The Wizard of Oz. Being (shock horror) a socialist, Harburg had felt the rough side of the McCarthy witch hunts, and this show was a pretty thinly veiled attack on those dark days. It’s an allegorical tale of a young dreamer who creates an amazing new doll for his toy manufacturer employer, but when the market becomes flooded with them because a magic genie misinterprets his wish about how many dolls would be made (don’t ask), the dolls become valueless and are hunted down and destroyed. Are you catching some of the McCarthy allusions? There are other rather bizarre plot elements involving American-Arabian political relations, as well as the love story between Sylvester, the inventor, and Sandy.
Personally I felt the story was a little too over-the-top to take that seriously, even with the prior knowledge of Harburg’s perfectly reasonable vendetta against McCarthy. Musically, I found many of the tunes to be rather delightful, but also many of the lyrics to be syrupy beyond endurance. Still, no matter – the occasion’s the thing, and when the performers march out onto the stage and take their seats, you know you’re in for a treat.
I was delighted to see that many of my favourite Lost Musicals regular performers were in the cast. James Vaughan has plenty of opportunities to let rip his stentorian tones in his dual roles as the March of Time voice and the Arab. He has a face and a voice that is just perfect for both being pompous and then allowing the pomposity to be ridiculed. Stewart Permutt plays Abou Ben Atom, the genie, in his usual larger than life way, suitably camp as a row of Arabian Night Caravanserai tents; the kindly and generous aspects of the character are well suited to his highly expressive voice; and of course his jolly mannerisms mean the show always perks up whenever he’s on. Matt Zimmermann (whose performances I have always enjoyed over the last 35 years – gasp!) plays Bigelow the toy manufacturer with subtle gusto. Myra Sands turns in a comic bravura performance as the witch hunting, vigilante organising Elsa Bundschlager.
Other very enjoyable performances came from Emily O’Keeffe’s sweet looking and sweet singing Sandy and Margaret Preece’s Princess Najla who basically has to sing a load of gibberish all the way through. That’s a take-off of the Princess Zubediyah from Kismet I thought; then I researched and found out that the musical version of Kismet came two years later. And talk about when two worlds collide – regular readers will know I’m a Eurovision aficionado; Constantine Andronikou, who is in fine voice with the role of Tonelli, has twice entered the Cyprus National Finals for the Eurovision Song Contest – in 2006 and 2008 – and indeed was one of Annet Artani’s backing singers in Athens for “Why Angels Cry”.
If I’m honest the show probably looked a little under-rehearsed in comparison with some of the Lost Musicals we have seen, and indeed Mrs Chrisparkle thought the musical director looked thoroughly relieved at the end of the show that they all got through it unscathed. But it is, as ever, an excellent mix of the delightful and the curious, and I congratulate Ian Marshall Fisher and his super cast for recreating this old show so vibrantly.