Michael Bennett's imperfect 1978 musical Ballroom remains somewhat a footnote in his otherwise illustrious career, framed either side of its 116 performance Broadway run by the unprecedented success of A Chorus Line and his later hit Dreamgirls, shows that reinvented the genre and provided audiences with slick and gritty new musical hits. Conceived somewhat out of artistic frustration it's a musical that Bennett expected to flop, acting as a creative buffer from the overwhelming critical and commercial success of A Chorus Line giving him room to move on to bigger and better things which he inevitably did.
Based on the 1975 television drama 'Queen of the Stardust Ballroom' the musical is woefully underwritten and relies on a great deal of creative craft to bring its hidden treasures to the fore. This modest production at the Waterloo East Theatre has its heart in the right place and is brimming with enthusiasm but systematically fails to paper over any cracks in Jerome Allan Kass's book, Billy Goldenberg's music and Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman's lyrics, and at times gauges those cracks wide open.
A mature cast work faithfully to bring to life the colourful world of The Bronx in the late 70s as the widowed Bea Asher is cajoled into attending the Stardust Ballroom where she falls in love with a married milkman turned dancing partner. At times it feels like an unintentional parody, almost like a Phoenix Nights episode waiting to happen but suffers from a distinct lack of humour or even drama. Whereas Baz Luhrmann's 'Strictly Ballroom' makes the best of a thin situation-based narrative set in a similar environment here we're expected to be so vested in Bea's search for life after her husband that it becomes the sole driving force of the entire plot. When the meatiest scene involves watching a game of Scrabble happen in real time, you know there's trouble.
Accents are almost uniformly awful across the board, hindering the acting that regularly falls into the realms of warm-hearted community theatre. Nancy Kettle's choreography is gentle and functional but rarely impresses. For a Bennett show that offers numerous possibilities in staging and theatrical ingenuity it all remains reliably pedestrian throughout and coasts along at one level, hindered by Gerald Armin's prosaic direction that helps the story bumble along but fails to inject a sense of life or urgency in any of the scenes. Bennett is remembered for the fluidity and preciseness of his staging – he despised blackouts and scene stallers, something that this production offers in abundance complete with shuffling furniture arrangement in semi light under a gentle vamp.
Even Inga Davis-Rutter's band sound underwhelmed by proceedings, never swelling into the often melodious score or real capturing the essence or heart of the piece. Like the production as a whole they hit all the right notes but often at the expense of creative energy or ingenuity.
Amongst the uneven cast there are some stand outs who keep you hooked. Colette Kelly is fun to watch as one of the more realised ballroom regulars and maintains the right level of charm throughout. Natalie Moore-Williams is the show's saving grace in the role of Angie, keeping the pace and driving the show forward with a crisp character and mischievous fun. In the Dorothy Loudon role of Bea Asher Jessica Martin works hard to make the character land, somewhat tentative vocally but otherwise impressive in charting the somewhat two-dimensional journey she's given. Commanding the majority of the score she offers the most engaging vocals and is comfortable to watch. Saddled with some questionable wigs she remains reason enough to stay invested and does what she can in the more intimate scenes where the romantic drama fails to blossom.
Michael Bennett fans may have been waiting to see this iconic flop musical come to fruition in London for almost 40 years but I can't honestly say this production has been worth the wait. Not quite 'fifty percent' successful, I'd go with a generous twenty.