The London Musical Theatre Orchestra seems to be going from strength to strength, and this concert presentation of Jason Robert Brown and Andrew Bergman’s Honeymoon in Vegas has raised their bar even higher. Offering the West End premiere of the 2015 Broadway musical based on Bergman’s 1992 film of the same name, the occasion allowed theatregoers the chance to see a Broadway show without the bells and whistles of a fully-fledged production, making the music and the storytelling the focus of our attention – and this show absolutely deserves our attention.
Honeymoon in Vegas tells the story of Jack Singer, madly in love with his girlfriend Betsy Nolan, yet unable to shake off the promise he made to his mother on her deathbed – that he would never get married. A snap decision to elope to Las Vegas has disastrous consequences when Jack uses Betsy to pay off a gambling debt he owes to Tommy Korman, a Las Vegas conman who makes advances on poor Betsy. It’s a madcap story of gambling and deceit and this musical adaptation is crafted with real class and style – it’s an old school musical comedy in the same vein as Guys and Dolls and The Producers, with shades of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels thrown into the mix.
Brown’s score is a far-cry from his previous works in style, but his commitment to finding the musical sound of a time and place are still in fine form. With Big Band jazz harking back to the Sinatra-swing, the score is punchy, dark and brooding in places and, ultimately, a winner – Las Vegas through and through. But unlike Las Vegas, the music isn’t gaudy or fake – Brown’s ability to centre a character through song is, in contemporary musical theatre writing, unrivalled. The raw openness that he brought to characters such as Leo Frank in The Last Five Years and Francesca Johnson in The Bridges of Madison County is still present here, just in characters with fewer complications. And what a joy to have him conducting. It’s so rare to have a composer conduct his own work, and I’m sure that Brown relished every moment of performing his most recent Broadway show with a beefed-up orchestration for this occasion.
The London Musical Theatre Orchestra itself played with great style and flare – I would imagine that the excitement of working with Brown made them up their game even higher; it was a particularly impressive sound. There were times that the orchestra overpowered the singers, but these one night occasions are often guilty of some technical/sound issues. The chorus were well utilised throughout, playing cameo roles and singing up a storm in ensemble numbers.
And then we have the title characters. When your supporting players are made up of West End regulars Rosemary Ashe, Simon Lipkin and Nicolas Colicos you know you’re in for a treat, with Ashe as Jack Singer’s mother almost walking away with the show within the first 10 minutes during her number ‘Never Get Married’. Samantha Barks, recently seen in Brown’s The Last Five Years at the St James Theatre (now The Other Palace), was a delight as Betsy – in fine voice and bringing light humour and warmth to the role. Maxwell Caulfield struggled slightly with some of the music, but played the devilish rogue Tommy Korman with great swagger and Sinatra-style. Particular highlights of the evening were Maisey Bawden as the hypnotic-Hawaiian Mahi and the crew of Flying-Elvi - how could they not be a crowd-pleaser!
But the star of the show really was Arthur Darvill. Oozing charm and comedic dexterity, and blessed with a pleasingly natural singing voice, Darvill didn’t miss a beat as Jack. Tackling Brown’s score with both gusto and ease, the role fitted him like a glove and allowed him to blend his obvious musicianship and instant likeability into a near perfect leading man. It’s a shame his only other foray into musical theatre has been Once – he belongs on the musical stage.
All in all, it was a very satisfying Sunday night at the London Palladium – an absolute joy to see a finely-assembled Broadway musical that, I say with sadness, will probably never get the commercial West End run it deserves.