A Damsel in Distress: A New Musical
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin
Book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson
Based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse
and the play by P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Hay
Directed and Choreographed by Rob Ashford
Set by Christopher Oram
Musical Director Alan Williams
Chichester Festival Theatre,
Saturday 20th June 2015, 14.30
Lady Maud (Summer Strallen) & George Bevan (Richard Fleeshman)
It’s quite a hybrid, so much so that the subtitle “A New Musical” is on everything connected with it. Wodehouse’s original book was 1919, and a silent film version appeared in 1920. Next it became a successful West End stage play in 1928. In 1937, it became a musical film with music and lyrics by the Gershwins, starring Fred Astaire, with George Burns and Gracie Allan. Wodehouse was one of the scriptwriters, which is galling for me, as my thesis was on writers in Hollywood and, er, I missed Wodehouse. However he was one of eight contributors, which might simply mean script approval. The film was George Gershwin’s idea, and Wodehouse said that it was because the central character was an American songwriter. Gershwin died during the making of the film.
The concept in 2015 takes the 1937 Gershwin score, but (I assume) rewrites the novel / stage play extensively. The film changed the lead name to Jerry Hallyday from George Bevan for starters. The male lead was a dancer in 1937 (if you’re casting Fred Astaire that’s the obvious thing to do), a composer in 2015. This version goes back to the novel’s composer, George Bevan, Wodehouse’s original concept. As the adaptor, Jeremy Sams is hot at Chichester 2015 Festival, directing The Rehearsal from his own adaptation at the same time.
Alice Keggs & Lady Maud
The plot? It opens at a rehearsal for a musical. George Bevan is an American writer and composer, who has just brought his Broadway smash hit “Kitty In The City” to London, along with its American star, Billie Dore. George is dissatisfied with his fluffy musical and wants something both sadder and more serious. The stage door man wants to go and leer at the rehearsing chorus girls and George offers to take his place on the stage door. Lady Maud Marshmoreton races in to the stage door, hoping to escape her dragon-like aunt, Lady Caroline. George helps hide her but falls hopelessly in love.
Lady Maud & George Bevan (posing as Stage Door Man)
Maud’s dilemma is that she is trying to avoid marrying Reggie Byng, Lady Caroline’s stepson. Reggie in turn is in love with Alice Keggs, his stepmother’s secretary.
George and his leading lady, Billie, set off to pretend to be tourists, and visit the Marshmoreton stately home, or rather castle so as to meet Maud. There we meet Lord Marshmoreton, interested only in roses and pigs. He and Billie fall in love. Maud is of course in love with someone else, an American poet, Austen, who she met in the Alps. When everyone else sees George is American, they assume he’s the poet.
Lord Marshmoreton (Nicholas Farell) always dreamed of a chorus girl (Sally Ann Triplett)
OK, off we go for two and a quarter hours of fun and capers. The songs are Gershwin, though only It’s Nice Work If You Can Get It and A Foggy Day (in London Town) would be well-known Gershwin.
It’s set in the 1920s, and we get three lots of costume: rehearsing dancers / theatre crew at the Savoy Theatre, then the high society and servants at the Marshmoreton castle in Totleigh, Gloucestershire. It’s all leading up to a ball where Reggie will pop the question to Maud, and the ball is in medieval fancy dress … thus fitting George’s fantasy of being a knight errant saving a damsel in distress. Lots of costumes. All excellent.
Dancers. Centre Alice in green, then Maud.
The five star set design, by Christopher Oram who did the whole Grandage 2013 season is stupendous. The orchestra are hidden away on high turrets, and the solid-looking castle set revolves to reveal exteriors, kitchens, a turret room, the ballroom area.
They have really gone to town on the production following last year’s success with Gypsy (now in the West End). Oram as set designer is matched with top American musical director, Rob Ashford. Every one in the cast shines. George Bevan (Richard Fleeshman) looks fittingly like Astaire or Fairbanks, and Summer Strallen as Lady Maud looks the perfect 1920s English upper class rose. Sally Ann Triplett with suitably red hair is a perfect “American musical star.” Richard Dempsey was a perfect Bertie Wooster … sorry Reggie Byng, Nicholas Farrell as Lord Marshmoreton actually managed to be believable and subtle among all the necessarily “big” playing. Isla Blair was a terrifying Lady Caroline. Particularly loud applause at the end went to the French cook (David Roberts) and his English assistant, Dorcas (Chloe Hart). They had two very strong cameo scenes, did great dancing as well as having some of the better-written comedy lines.
Keggs (the butler) and staff
It’s Wodehouse. So there are stock characters obviously. Reggie is a silly ass in plus fours and red and yellow socks (Bertie Wooster) and his pal, Bungo, is an even sillier ass (like Pongo ). Lady Caroline is a fearsome and domineering English lady. Lord Marshmoreton is a pig farmer (Lord Emsworth). The comic butler, Keggs, rules the house and is an ally of his lordship (Jeeves). Alice is a relative of Keggs and so has an “off accent” and is considered not good enough by Lady Caroline. She marks her status with spectacles.. The larger-than-life stock characters inevitably veer towards pantomime. Having two funny kitchen scenes veers pantomime-wards too. Sophisticated very funny pantomime, but when all the couples get paired off at the end, it’s pure panto pairing- even Lady Caroline gets paired off with Austen.
Someone somewhere, probably Wodehouse, had an axe to grind on high art (which Maud and her poet swain, Austen, aspire to) versus the popular art of musical comedy. At the beginning, George Bevan was beginning to aspire to higher things, but we end the whole with the opening number from Kitty In The City that he had earlier rejected. One of the great moments is when Austen performs his poem to impress Maud, and George counters by singing A Foggy Day. OK, Wodehouse (and Gershwin) wins there. All the main characters get at least one decent song each too. Even Reggie gets I’m A Poached Egg to sing. Nice Work If You Can Get It is the best song, I think, and the melody gets recycled somewhat by the Gershwins. It originated in A Damsel in Distress, sung by Fred Astaire, but got recycled in both Crazy For You and the 2012 musical which borrowed its title.
Musical comedy is not a genre I’m attuned to, and forms a small minority of our theatre going. This was very “1920s / 1930s” not only in script but in music. I’d guarantee it will move on to the West End. The weaknesses, and also strengths, are Wodehouse’s light and fluffy concept. Perfect entertainment for a Saturday afternoon. However, I can’t see me recalling it in detail this time next year.