Review - Sleepless: A Musical Romance at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre
You have to admire the energy and chutzpah behind this new musical, based on the much-loved 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle. The project has been kicking around for over a decade, and had an outing, in a different incarnation, at California's Pasadena Playhouse in 2013. A total rewrite by a new creative team followed, and the transformed version was set to premiere in London in March - until pandemic struck, and theatres went dark. Now, with a plethora of Covid protocols in place, it arrives - the first large-scale indoor show since lockdown. So, have the stars finally aligned?
I truly wish I could say that they had. But however much applause the producers deserve simply for making it happen, Sleepless is a slog. The screen version, co-written and directed by romcom master Nora Ephron, offsets its sentimentality and shameless plot contrivances with a pleasing wryness and dryness. The musical is like wading through syrup. Morgan Young's staging, with a flat-footed book by Michael Burdette, plods mechanically through every familiar beat, the reworked dialogue lacking crispness and conviction.
And where the movie gives us a soundtrack of classic standards - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "As Time Goes By" - the show's score, by British writers Robert Scott (music) and Brendan Cull (lyrics), combines forgettable jazz lite and Hollywood pastiche with thuddingly predictable rhymes and sheer schmaltz. Every moment gets a song, whether or not it's dramatically warranted. Here is a story that relies utterly on setting hearts aflutter, yet it's fatally short of emotional authenticity.
The leading roles of Sam, the widowed Seattle architect with a smart-mouthed son, and Annie, the Cary Grant-obsessed Baltimore journalist who becomes smitten after hearing Sam on a phone-in radio show, were, of course, indelibly created by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Their featherweight counterparts here, ex-pop stars Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh, struggle to create chemistry. McGuiness has a pleasant enough presence, but none of Sam's waspish wit, bitter despair, or gnawing grief for his late wife.
Walsh does her earnest best with drippy numbers in which she "stumbles, fumbles and crumbles" as she pursues her romantic destiny and stalks her dream man across the United States. City landscapes never looked so neat and clean as they do in Morgan Large's revolving set and Ian William Galloway's video designs, with architectural drawings of urban skylines melting into a neon-bedazzled climax atop the Empire State Building. It's all perfectly inoffensive, but also bland, sexless, and soulless.
And sometimes, it's frankly toe-curling. Annie and her friend Becky (glorious-voiced Tania Mathurin), mooning over movie stars, are dismayingly wet. A song in which a trio of radio listeners write letters pleading with Sam to save them from imminent old-maid-hood is a stale, sexist joke (and, musically, heavily indebted to "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Sondheim's Company). It's a shame, too, that Sam's son Jonah doesn't get to hang out with spiky cohort Jessica (onscreen a young Gaby Hoffmann); instead, he's lumbered with some excruciating horseplay with dad's irksome pal Rob (a gamely ebullient Cory English).
Dismantling this well-meaning musical feels like punching Jonah's teddy bear, but the undoubted passion behind it is curiously absent onstage. Still, it's great to be back in the theatre - and this courageous, if far from perfect production is surely a sign of better things to come. That, in itself, is worth celebrating.
Sleepless: A Musical Romance is at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre until 27 September.
Sleepless: A Musical Romance tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Kimberly Walsh, Jack Reynolds, and Jay McGuiness in Sleepless: A Musical Romance (Photo by Alastair Muir)
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