Tribute shows have swamped the West End in recent years but, to its credit, this is a slightly different prospect- a musical paean from the creators of Buddy not to an individual but to a place, specifically Harlem's legendary Apollo theatre in New York.
Set both backstage and in front of the curtain, 125th St seeks to recreate the magic of a typical evening in 1969 when the Apollo boasted some of the biggest names in showbusiness- and also hosted its regular amateur spot where the likes of Michael Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald begun their stellar careers.
However, on this particular evening there are problems galore. As the show begins everyone's warming up for a live TV broadcast of "Tony Sorrento''s Big Night Out." But out in the streets there's mayhem as demonstrators cause chaos galore and none of the stars billed can get to the theatre. So in time-honoured fashion, it's up to the unsung backstage crew to entertain the notoriously demanding Apollo audience and prove that there are new stars just waiting for their chance in the spotlight. As the cheesy Sorrento, Domenick Allen is first-rate and similar plaudits to Gilz Terera and Philippa Waller as wannabe and presenter respectively.
The framework of the show is effective and engaging; it opens with preparations for the broadcast which involve the theatre audience and then moves between the backstage machinations of the venue's staff and the performance spots where's one treated to renditions of classics like When a Man Loves a Woman, I Say a Little Prayer et al. Where weakness sets in at present is in the show's middle section which encourages theatregoers members to take the opportunity to sing onstage; a slot that curdles the stomach. Each week the show will feature an authentic amateur singer and this is testimony enough to the spirit of the Apollo- there's simply no need for another impromptu singalong session.
You do get a good sense of atmosphere generated by the enthusiastic cast and with the judicious editing of about twenty minutes it'd be an entertaining show, topped off by what is an indisputably scorching finale.
Notices from the popular press....
LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "This show isn't at all bad when the undoubtedly talented cast are allowed to get on and sing. Most of the time, though, they are gagged by a flabby, predictable and sentimental script." TIM COOPER for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The chances of discovering the new Aretha Franklin or Michael Jackson are, on tonight's evidence, slim." MADDY COSTA for TIME OUT says, "There is a generosity of spirit about '125th Steet' that is gnawingly persuasive." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A great musical could be written about the heyday of Harlem's Apollo Theatre. Unfortunately, this isn't it." GERALD BERKOWITZ for THE STAGE says, "A good night out for the not particularly demanding."
External links to full reviews from newspapers
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