Review – Copacabana

Oct 29 2011 | By More

★★★☆☆     Passionate

Church Hill Theatre: Run ends 29 Oct 2011
Review by Thom Dibdin

The music and the passion are right in place in Allegro’s bright production of Copacabana at the Church Hill Theatre until Saturday. But while the fashion is frothy – and the dresses are, on occasion, “cut down to there” – it doesn’t go as far in that direction as it might.

Copacabana, the 1994 musical, is as knowingly cheesy and outrageous as the Barry Manilow hit on which it is based. As a favourite of the retro-disco dancefloor, Copacabana the song gets guys and gals all over the world miming to the tragic tale of Lola and her love, Tony.

Elaine Graham as Lola with Fraser Jamieson as Tony. Pic Joni Smith

The song gets central billing in the musical too. It is the song which ambitious New York tune-smith Stephen is attempting to write on the night of his fifth wedding anniversary, much to his wife Samantha’s despair. He has his head in the music while she is desperately getting ready for their big night out.

This framing narrative soon fades, without totally disappearing from view, as Stephen becomes immersed in the creative process. Out from behind the gauze step the Copacabana showgirls in all their feathery glory; fresh up from Oaklahoma comes the lovely Lola La Mar; and Stephen himself slips on the mantle of Tony, a singer at Manhattan’s world-famous Copacabana club.

Fraser Jamieson makes a convincing Stephen – and an even more convincing Tony. He doesn’t just make sense of the music either. You can quite believe that he his attention to his marriage is wandering. So that, as Tony, the progression of his love towards Lola – who bears a more than passing resemblance to Samantha – provides a nicely balanced arc to the whole story.

Elaine Graham is quite the thing as newly arrived Lola. Fresh off the train in Just Arrived, you know she’s going to be feisty and self-assured – in all the wrong ways, at all the wrong times and with all the wrong people. Which is, of course, how it falls out.

perfect for the part

Fortunately, there’s Gladys the ex-Copa Girl now on cigarette tray duties at the Copacabana. While Tony’s busy mooning over the new girl, Gladys is busy giving her good advice. Laura Jordan Reed is perfect for the part – fronting out her over-stiff wig to put in a great turn in Copa Girl, outlining all the show-girls side benefits when Lola hits her lows.

Fraser Jamieson as Tony with the dance chorus of waiters and waitresses. Pic: Joni Smith

The ensemble helps all this turn round in excellent fashion under director Janice Bruce. The storytelling of the whole piece passes smoothly, with the big montage scene of Lola and Tony’s auditions – culminating in a sizzling audition of Man Wanted – a stand-out in the first half.

The singing stands up to scrutiny, too. The delivery is crisp and there is excellent understanding of how to allow the music to serve the ebb and flow of the narrative.

Choreographer Alison Scott has had fun with her dance troupe. There are some suitably juicy routines for the six-strong core group of Copa Girls, without going too far over the top. They are admirably served by the four male dancers who double as waiters while the second string waitress dancers help give the impression of a big chorus line.

The six-strong chorus of Copa Singers get in on the dancing, too, adding a bounce of raunch – although ultimately not quite as much as they could – to I Gotta Be Bad. That’s down to the choreography, however. When they get wiggling along to the line “We’re the ones who put the Man in Manhattan”, with flaunting like that, you better believe it. Hot stuff!

Not quite so hot are the costumes. To be fair to the Allegro costume department’s designer -and to Wardrobe Mistress Kate Dixon – the costumes look good. As far as they go. But they provide no more than an indication of might have been. And anyone expecting an outrageous cheese fest will be somewhat underwhelmed.

More flamboyance and more attention to detail is what is needed. If the lack of multi-feathered and pineapple bedecked head-dresses is sad, their absence is forgivable. Learning dance routines is one thing, but learning how to manipulate several pounds is weight and feet in length of outrageously cheesy head costume is another – particularly when it has to be manipulated in close quarters around a small and crowded stage.

Less understandable are the missed opportunities for the evening gowns for the ensemble in the Copacabana scenes. There is little sense of 1947, post-war glamour among the rich, powerful and well-connected of the trendy Manhattan set. The understanding of the use of gauzes in the Copa Girls’ outfits show that they do know how to be subtle – but there’s little point in using long swathes of glittery material if the cut doesn’t do if for the wearer’s figure. Still, the glitter is there.

Less forgivable are the slips in costuming. You might raise your eyebrows at mismatched lengths of long gloves and put it down to hurried costume changes – and there are plenty of those. But the brain screams “NO!” to the hosiery faux-pas of tights’ waistlines rising above the level of the bikini briefs. So what if the top is hidden in a discreet belt, it’s the sort of attention to detail that sets stag-do drag from the real thing. Gok Wan would be having the hissiest of hissy fits.

That said, this is as much fun to watch as it must have been to stage. As the action moves to Havana when the unsavoury Rico (Eddie McDowell in full-on slime ball mode) kidnaps Lola, it even hots up a notch.

Melanie Sherwood puts in a great turn as Rico’s fading flame of a Havana showgirl, Conchita. But it is the growing feelings between Stephen and his imaginary showgirl Lola that make the second act purr along. Their duet works a treat.

A production which could afford to be more daring, but which still leaves the audience transported and leaving the theatre with the tunes humming through their heads.

Run ends Saturday 29 October


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