'The Drifters Girl' review — Beverley Knight wows in a doo-wop musical celebration
"There’s only one New York Yankees, you can’t have another just because it features some ex-players” says Faye Treadwell in The Drifters Girl. The pioneering African-American music manager has the unenviable job of managing The Drifters, a doo-wop band who on hand dominate the music world, but also suffer from an ever-changing lineup and “copycat” rivals who look to steal their identity.
But rest assured, while The Drifters Girl storyline shines a light on the band's issues, there's nothing wrong with this musical retelling. Thanks to its zippy, upbeat music and a warm, progressive heart, there's no musical in town quite like it.
Based on an original idea by Faye Treadwell's daughter, Tina Treadwell, writer Ed Curtis faces an unenviable job of compiling decades of Drifters history into two and a half hours of musical entertainment. Rather than following moments in Drifters history, The Drifters Girl musical centres around Faye's daughter as she asks questions about her mother's life in the music industry.
There's plenty of tough questions to contend with: band members drafted into the army, the sudden death of George Treadwell, and society's attitude to black performers in the midsts of the civil rights movement.
It’s all expertly shown in slick fashion by Beverley Knight as Faye Treadwell and a cast of four males — playing dozens of roles between them and barely leaving the stage, they must be the hardest-working actors in the West End right now.
But people aren't always coming for The Drifters Girl story. They want to hear the Drifters' greatest hits. The musical packs over 20 Drifters hits into a series of stand-alone songs and medleys. With audiences (politely) singing along, the whole show is akin to a celebratory concert.
The opening medley sets the Drifters scene, but there’s also emotionally-charged renditions of chart-toppers: Tosh Wanogho-Maud’s performance of “Stand By Me” is simply spinetingling. Plus there’s all the endearing boyish charm you could wish for from Tarinn Callender as Johnny Moore and others, as well as Adam J. Bernard as George Treadwell and others and understudy Curtis Scott as Clyde McPhatter and others.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Drifters Girl choreography is reminiscent of Jersey Boys. Both musicals follow a singing foursome growing in popularity in 1960s America. But Jersey Boys centres on the artists. And just like the Drifters were originally formed as a backing group for Clyde McPhatter, the Drifters here ultimately serve as a backdrop — albeit a highly-skilled one — for Beverley Knight, a soulful master at work.
Walking onto stage to rapturous applause before she’d even said a word, Knight delivers the goods. Her lead numbers, "Nobody But Me" and "Harlem Child" showcase her swooping riffs and almost ethereal vocal abilities. The Act One closer, a mashup of “I Don’t Wanna Go On Without You / Stand By Me” is worth the ticket price alone. Thankfully, The Drifters Girl soundtrack is available to stream, so you can listen to it on repeat once you've left the auditorium.
The Drifters Girl boasts impressive design too thanks to Anthony Ward's clever set and Ben Cracknell's carefully-considered lighting transitions. Together, the pair complement each other in an accomplished fashion: in a few moments we're taken from a recording studio to theatres to meeting rooms.
The Drifters Girl doesn't have many working parts. But what can happen with a cast of five and a few set and lighting pieces is truly remarkable. More importantly though with a jukebox musical like this, the audience walk away with their heads held high, singing their favourite hits. Only now, the audiences learn more about The Drifters' manager herself, Faye Treadwell.
Photo credit: The Drifters Girl cast (Photo courtesy of production)
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