'Crazy For You' review – this Gershwin spectacular is pure musical theatre heaven

Read our five-star review of Crazy For You, starring Charlie Stemp, now in performances at the Gillian Lynne Theatre to 20 January 2024

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Who could ask for anything more? No, really – who could emerge from this dazzlingly staged, astonishingly performed, gold-standard, shimmering dream of a show without walking on air? Susan Stroman's Crazy For You is pure musical theatre heaven.

This Gershwin spectacular draws gasps and applause right from its opening scene, as the silky Art Deco-style curtains swish open to reveal the Zangler Follies (based on real Broadway revue Ziegfeld Follies), featuring statuesque showgirls with towering headdresses. Reluctant banker Bobby Child longs to join the show, but his audition ends badly when he stomps on Zangler’s foot.

Bobby’s imperious mother sends him to the remote town of Deadrock, Nevada, to foreclose on a theatre. Instead, he falls for its owner’s daughter, the spirited Polly, and offers to save it by putting on a show! (And yes, Crazy For You winks at this hoary plot by joking that it’s just like those Mickey Rooney movies.)

After Polly rejects him, Bobby disguises himself as Zangler and brings the showgirls to Deadrock. But his plan goes awry when Polly starts to fall for “Zangler” – and when the real Zangler arrives…

It’s knowingly silly, packed with fizzing puns and visual gags, yet with the odd poignant moment drawn from the 1930s Depression-era setting; Deadrock is in a slump following the decline of gold mining. You also have to believe in Bobby’s showbiz dream and in the romance – and both are wonderfully expressed.

But then the whole production is a marvel, powered by the explosive meeting of two sensational talents: American director/choreographer Stroman and our own Charlie Stemp. Stroman built her Chichester revival around Stemp’s once-in-a-generation abilities: the seemingly effortless virtuosity that recalls both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, combined with the rubber-limbed clowning of Donald O’Connor.

It makes total sense of the character: Bobby comes alive when he’s dancing. We first see it in a fantasy sequence, as he spins, jumps, and floats across the stage. And his glee is infectious: as the Deadrock townsfolk join together to create their show, they’re suddenly energised and smiling.

As are we: it’s the most giddily joyful audience experience imaginable. Part of that is the sheer thrill of seeing what the endlessly inventive Stroman will come up with next. The dancers might run up a flight of stairs formed out of suitcases, teeter on a pyramid of chairs, or create a double bass out of a piece of rope and an angled showgirl.

“I Got Rhythm” stops the show cold; it’s that rare standing ovation before we’ve even reached the interval. But no wonder, when it creates music from a washboard, jug, hammer and saw, and features girls lifted with pick axes, tap dancing on the roof and on metal trays (requiring absolute precision), or a foot-swivelling, hand-slapping conjoined chorus line where any tiny mistake would send everyone flying.

Throughout, Stroman takes these big, exciting risks, giving you a sheer adrenaline rush. But Ken Ludwig’s 1992 show – essentially a jukebox musical, using George and Ira Gershwin songs from numerous productions – is also perfectly paced. An electrifying ensemble set-piece will be followed by a yearning love song, like “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “Embraceable You” or “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”.

These are sincerely and stirringly performed by Stemp and Carly Anderson. The latter gives Polly dangerously quick wit and indomitable strength; it’s only through song (with rich, smouldering vocals) and dance that she expresses aching vulnerability.

Tom Edden is a hoot as Zangler (his vaudevillian double act with Stemp is a highlight), Natalie Kassanga vamps it up as Bobby’s sophisticated fiancée, and Sam Harrison and Rina Fatania are wildly hilarious as a pair of braying British tourists.

Beowulf Boritt’s sets, William Ivey Long’s costumes and Ken Billington’s lighting are all swoon-worthy: it feels like tumbling into a Golden Age MGM musical. Even the curtain call is a triumph. Five stars just isn’t enough – I wish I could give it ten.

Crazy For You is at the Gillian Lynne Theatre through 20 January 2024. Book Crazy For You tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Crazy For You (Photo by Johan Persson)

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