Apparently there's no end to the thirst for musicals among audiences, or at least there's no end to producers who thirst for the massive profits this genre of entertainment can generate. So, slotting into the schedules at the Novello is 'Desperately Seeking Susan' - a film turned musical with songs by the band Blondie.
You might be tempted to think that we've seen it all before, and indeed we have. A film popping up as a stage musical is not exactly unique - just opened up the road at the Shaftesbury theatre is 'Hairspray', for example. So, what's different about 'Desperately Seeking Susan'? Well, it turns out to be rather more of a grown up musical, demanding some respect because it treats the audience with rather more good sense and intellect than some other offerings in this overdone genre. There is some fairly obvious visual humour - in one instance based on underwear - but it's easy to forgive that because of the general tone.
The success of the show lies largely in Angus Jackson's pacey and down to earth direction. It keeps the action moving along fast enough to stop us thinking too much about the forced coincidences that the plot involves, but there's another element to Jackson's direction which is much harder to define, yet takes the show into the realms of what might be described as an 'adult' musical. That's not just due to the subject matter, which as one would imagine encompasses sex, drugs and violence.
Roberta Glass is a bored housewife whose husband seems to provide her with most of the things she needs in the material goods department, but leaves her wanting excitement. Roberta is addicted to reading the personal columns in which she follows the adventures of Susan who is almost the exact opposite of Roberta's suburban ordinariness. Susan wears outrageous clothes, begs accommodation from her pals, and generally leads a self-indulgent life, surviving on her wits. When Roberta unsuspectingly buys Susan's cast-off jacket from a clothes stall, her life changes dramatically as she's pursued by an underworld mobster seeking some stolen earrings.
Kelly Price is the suburban housewife more at ease in the hairdressers and who doesn't know quite what she's got herself in to, while Emma Williams is the care-free, streetwise Susan who seems to cope with just about any circumstance and predicament. The two leads are both convincing in their own ways, though Williams probably has the stronger singing voice. Mark Maghee provides excellent support as punk band singer Jay Shea.
Tim Hatley's set is mostly brick wall daubed with graffiti and iron staircases which provide the setting of Lower East Side, Manhattan. All the remaining scenes are created by rolling on furniture and lowering lamps, or by changing the backdrops. Two conveyor belts - one at a higher level and one at stage level, allow for more movement than might otherwise have been possible, and they are both used to great effect in a neat chase scene.
The band, arrangements and ensemble singing more than do justice to the catchy Blondie numbers, and the dancing is evocatively appropriate for both the plot as well as the era in which the story is set. In some musicals the choreography seems to bear little relationship to the story, but not here. Andy Blankenbuehler has carefully integrated the dancing into the rest of the action so that it never seems obtrusive or artificial.
Everything was going along swimmingly until the end when, the story over, Jackson couldn't resist going into a kind of hero-worship finale reprising the songs and getting the cast to don white shirts and black ties. What had gone before that was more than strong enough to make an impact, and the gear change rather spoilt what had been a fluid and interesting take on the plot. Disappointing though that was, the show has a refreshing approach to both story telling and action which at least puts it a cut above the norm, and provides an enjoyable evening's entertainment, particularly for Blondie fans.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "I succumbed last night to the narrative appeal of Peter Michael Marino's book...the interpolations of greatest hits, from Rapture to Rip Her To Shreds, by the New Wave/punk/disco group Blondie, left me continually longing for gratuitous songs to end and exciting action to resume." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A delightful film has been adapted with clunky literalism and the resulting mess has been pumped with phoney energy by the uninspired direction and by the well-executed but terminally banal choreography." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The show feels like a business product calculatedly tailored to appeal to Blondie fans. What it never acquires is the ecstasy that is the musical's justification." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Unfortunately, wonderful though Blondie's hits are, they have absolutely nothing to do with the movie's plot....Whenever a musical number comes along you are left scratching your head, wondering what on earth the song has to do with the show...I fear that Desperately Seeking Susan will leave most discerning theatregoers desperately seeking the nearest exit." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Where, oh where, is the show’s imagination?"