The comic story concerns Jan and Nick Cheyney who have moved into a new flat. However, when they remove some of the old wallpaper they discover a message from a previous occupier written on the wall. It was written by a 1920s silent film Hollywood star, Maddie, who was killed in a car accident at a very young age. When Jan touches the message with her hand the ghost of Maddie possess her body. Maddie cannot rest in peace until she has had one last chance of fame, by using Jan's body to go for a screen test.
I have seen the film of this story, and it was very funny and entertaining. I was therefore looking forward to seeing it done on stage with music, but I was to be disappointed!
The team that written 'Maddie' were attendees of Stephen Sondheim's legendary course at Oxford University in 1991 so a lot was expected from them. However, I found the whole production quite amateurish, the music repetitive and lacking any originality and depth, and the lyrics sickly and tacky. The only thing that saved the show for me was the story itself, which was strong enough to hold your interest.
This new musical received critical successes when it premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse last year, but I'm afraid it has lost something on its way to the West End. I personally feel this show is not good enough for a big West End venue, it is probably more suited to the Fringe or Regionals.
The music and lyrics were not Maddie's only problem ! The acting was also poor from some of the performers. Lynda Baron, who plays 'Cordelia Van Arc', a rich widow who tries to seduce Nick, cannot not pull off the part at all. This upset me a little as I'm quite a big fan of Lynda Baron. The same goes for Kevin Colson who plays Al Turner, who was Maddie's dance partner in the 20s. His singing was terrible on the evening I saw the show. Both performers failed to come across convincingly and as warmly as they should. However, Graham Bickley as Nick Cheyney and Summer Rognie as Jan were more convincing, but still failed to shine. But then what chance had they with such poor material. Summer Rognie shows a lot of talent as she switches from playing Jan and then Maddie. It must be very difficult to do, but she does it very well.
NICHOLAS DE JONGH of the EVENING STANDARD echoes my thoughts, saying the show is " Balderdash, babble and baloney leading to a dead end" and goes on to say "It's a grim night." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE thinks the same, describing the show as " lacking in wit" and "suffering an almost excruciatingly boring second half." Funnily enough I thought the second half was better than the first!! However, not all critics panned it. JOHN PETER of THE SUNDAY TIMES says Maddie is " A real find" and THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says "The piece still strikes me as a breath of fresh air in the West End."
I have seen a few new musicals lately, 'The Fix', 'Enter The Guardsman' and now 'Maddie'. All have not lived up to expectations. I am all for giving new musicals and plays a chance on the West End, but surely the producers should come up with something better. I would prefer no new musicals rather than endure these below average efforts.
With blockbusters still filling London theatres, it is easy to forget how long it is since an original British play was mounted in the West End - and survived. Hopefully, MADDIE, by it's success will herald a new dawn and be seen as an object lesson for all aspiring playwrights, composers, lyricists, actors, directors and producers.
Based on the lessons from this musical, only madness and inability to feel pain would allow consenting adults to go through the eight years of trials and tribulations which have been necessary to bring their new play into a West End auditorium.
In varying degrees, the writers, Shaun McKenna and Steven Dexter, and composer, Stephen Keeling were blessed at the fonts of the Oxford Sondheim Masterclasses and the subsequently formed Mercury Workshop. Knowing the right way to do things prepares you for the hurdles - not necessarily how to overcome them.
MADDIE is an adaptation of a Jack Finnie novel, Marion's Wall, in which the ghost of an aspiring actress returns to take over the lives of an unsuspecting husband and wife, Jan Cheyney (Summer Rognlie) and Nick Cheyney (Graham Bickley). More specifically, the ghost figure Maddie, enters the body of Jan and lets loose the thespian frustrations which had been cut short by her death during the ragtime flapper years of the mid 1920's.
Everything in the garden might have been rosie, but for the fact that the contemporary Jan and the reawakened Maddie, are at opposite ends of the mercury scale. Jan is a cool, polished and devoted wife to her cool, polished devoted husband - while Maddie is a neurotic dynamo of sexual energy who feels she is legitimately entitled to ravage her alter ego's husband.
The unbelieving, but hopeful, former lover of Maddie, Al (Kevin Colson) is now old enough to be her father but is still utterly besotted. He becomes proprietorial about her reappearance, and objects to her spending time with her real life husband, Nick.
Nick, a museum curator, has his own problems in the shape of Cordelia Van Arc (Lynda Baron) the multi millionaire widow, who'd willingly give up her Rubens to his gallery if he would give up his fidelity to her, and sample her knick knacks. Cordelia is the gem role of the play. Her aim in life is to do everything right so she can indulge herself doing everything wrong.
Jan, in the form of Maddie, has her moments. Notably, and gloriously when, as the dutiful wife, she is expected to attend Cordelia's high profile fund raising party for Nick's museum. At first, Jan is too drunk and overcome with ghostliness to appreciate that for Cordelia, charity has it's price. The hostess let's us know that the best way for the museum to get it's hands on $420,000 and other valuable treasures, is for the curator, Nick, to jump into her gold lame jump suit.
TV watchers have all been nurtured on Lynda Baron. She's been round the block a few times but she's still looking friendly, comfortable and generous. To a fault.
The merry widow sings I'll Have My Way - meaning her way with him - in a manner which leaves nothing to the imagination. She scoffs at the adage that money can't buy happiness - for her happiness is a cigar named Nick - or something like that - and smoke it she will.
It takes a powerful actress to overcome attrition like that, but the transformed wife - arrives at the party in a skin tight imitation of a dress, as the ambitious, thrusting ghost, Maddie. She does things with her person, and with every other person, which makes her husband question where she's been getting her tuition in the amatory arts. She does things with a long stemmed rose, which a rose shouldn't do.
Without doubt, the play is driven by the opportunities for madness of the two women, Maddie and Cordelia. Summer Rognlie is a powerful actress who will develop her characters' sensitivity as the run progresses. Better by far to give it all, than to give it nothing.
Kevin Colson playing Al, on the other hand, gives it too much. He unnecessarily portrays a surfeit of slushy sentimentality when genuine, unspoken, touches and gestures might be more effective.
Interestingly, Graham Bickley brings his Sunset Boulevard experience, as Joe Gillis, to his role as Nick. He does it with his customary professionalism, in a charming way which is completely in character. He never hits a bum note - unless you can say that making love on a park bench with a stranger who is actually your wife - is off key behaviour.
In Sunset Boulevard he played the ill-used Joe opposite Petula Clark, and briefly, opposite Rita Moreno. Summer Rognlie brings a little of each to her role. She is powerful, sexy and humourous.
The score and lyrics, by Stephen Keeling and Shaun McKenna are faultless. Caroline Humphris, the Musical Director and Orchestrator, might find that more light and shade in the instrumental and vocal treatment will enhance her work.
Everyone, from the producer Kenny Wax, through the director Martin Connor to the golden oldies Jon Rumney and Michael A. Elliott, have paid their dues.
MADDIE is not going to break your heart, or the bank. It's real and it's live. It's lively.
But be quick.