Upstairs at The Gatehouse 31 August – 25 September. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The MGM Story is subtitled “The magic of the musical”, and this show truly delivers an evening of magical entertainment.
Chris Burgess is an old hand at expertly crafting a coherent and fully rounded show from huge back catalogues, and for this production has focussed on a few key musical behemoths from MGM’s history, and the struggles of Arthur Freed to keep on delivering box office hits. Sticking to the tried and tested format of four performers (two females, two male) and a small but perfectly formed onstage band, director and choreographer Matthew Cole manages to squeeze some nostalgic and authentic choreography making use of handy stepladders, clothes rails and wooden blocks in the small performance area.
After a quick whizz through the first musicals produced, the story hits its stride portraying the first audition of Judy Garland – a beautiful and haunting rendition of Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart by Emma Kayte Saunders – and carries on to tell of the troubled production of The Wizard of Oz, with a jaunty rendition of We’re Off to See the Wizard, If I only Had a Brain and a charmingly phrased version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Saunders doesn’t try to impersonate Garland’s voice, but captures the essence of Garland’s performances while adding her own twist. Moving swiftly through the Garland and Rooney years, the next musical examined is Meet Me in St. Louis – one of my favourite films, so I was in heaven during this section – with an energetic version of The Trolley Song and Miranda Wilford’s moving performance of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Easter Parade is up next with a heartfelt duet of It Only Happens When I Dance With You by Wilford and James Leece contrasting with a gloriously goofy version of A Couple of Swells by Saunders and Steven Dalziel. Burgess doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that some of the musicals churned out were purely commercial, lampooning an Esther Williams number with some dryland synchronised swimming, and highlighted Freed’s fall-back plan of plundering songwriters’ back catalogues to create their life stories. The men make the most of the spotlight before the interval with two songs from On the Town, leaving the audience buzzing.
Act Two, even though there are lots of exuberant numbers, has a more downbeat feel, as the narration charts the gradual decline in popularity of musicals and the end of the studio era. Doin’ What Comes Naturally is first awkwardly performed by Saunders as a miserable and miscast Judy Garland, and then by Wilford as her replacement Betty Hutton. The cast get to tap like maniacs in I Got Rhythm, and Leece makes a fantastic Gene Kelly in the Singin’ in the Rain numbers – with a much richer voice than Kelly. Dalziel steals the show with Make ‘Em Laugh – still able to sing strongly through his gymnastic clowning, and it is impossible to watch this version of Good Mornin’ without a cheesy grin on your face. After a sweet Gigi section, there is a melancholy performance of By Myself by Leece as the demise of the film musical is recalled. But the show ends on an upbeat note as the release of That’s Entertainment and its sequels in the 70s heralded the renewed interest in Hollywood musicals.
There are a few technical issues to be ironed out as lighting cues can be hit and miss. The band playing as the performers narrate is a good idea potentially, but the sound balance is at times a little off, and the words can be lost. Fitting their lines into a set interval also makes it tricky for the cast at some points, as they have a lot of lines and leads to a few stumbles. The sections where the backing music was absent were a lot more coherent. The use of a moveable floor lamp and an old style camera add to the atmosphere, but their positioning did obstruct the views of a few audience members.
These few issues aside, The MGM Story is a fantastic celebration of great musicals. Entertaining and exhilarating, leaving you basking in a warm glow of nostalgia, this is a must see show.