It may seem surprising that Milton Musical Society has chosen to perform a Valentine-type show in November; I thought this would be a concert mix of isolated songs, sketches and jokes, but it actually turns out to be a cleverly written original “show behind the show” story, from the initial reopening of the Top Hat Club in London, through the rehearsal period, to the opening night of the club itself.
There is also a nod to the more recent spate of shows (with themes of Armistice, Remembrance and commemorating the centenary anniversary of the ending of World War I) that have been performed around the South Coast, as Isn’t It Romantic is set 10 years after the conclusion of the War.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Milton Musical Society’s November show is designed to “encourage and develop new talent” within the Society and Isn’t It Romantic is the ideal vehicle to showcase the “hidden talents” of the unsung heroes of any drama company – the ensemble. The chorus can make or break a show, but the talented performances on display this evening, whether “singing solos they didn’t know they could sing” or “dancing steps that they didn’t know they could dance”, demonstrates the depth of quality within the Society.
Although this production is set in 1928, the songs range from the 1920s through to the musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Era, but they all seem to fit perfectly into the narrative. Act One is more of a traditional type of musical theatre, with the storyline progressing between the songs, under the watchful eye of director Pete (Tim Berry), supported by costume-lady/love-interest Vera (Tracey Bryant) and choreographer Julia (Pat Barnett), while Act Two is more like a concert as American club owner Sam Bonnetti (Lionel Tunnard) provides the MC patter to introduce each musical item. Seating the audience around tables, cabaret style, in the hall brings everything together, linking the actors on stage with the audience.
From the first notes of the wonderful Al Hume Combo musicians, the tone is set for an evening of great songs, great music, great characters and great enjoyment. Even slightly imperfect performances are actually perfectly in character, with the whole show gelling together cohesively and with credibility. Writer/director Les Del-Nevo has not only written this narrative to the strengths of both his players and audience, but has ideally cast it to bring out the very best in each and every member of the company, with Janet Del-Nevo’s choreography (ranging from soft shoe shuffles, Charleston routines, tap dances, to ballroom and balletic movements) also being set to suit the ability of each cast member; the Top Hat Singers and Dancers deservedly take the applause for their dancing in ‘Black Bottom’.
Les Del-Nevo’s first-class direction has ensured terrific pace, distinct characters (maintained even when the focus is elsewhere on the stage), brilliant stage business and comic timing throughout. It takes real skill to oversee bringing all this together with such style. The lighting and set designs are deceptively simple yet intelligently created to reflect the various stages of the rehearsal process through to the glamour of the club’s inaugural floorshow.
It seems churlish to pick out individual performances, but the ‘sketches’ that I enjoyed the most came from the three maintenance men and four senior seamstresses; these wonderful comic actors all prove that age is no barrier to talent and are genuinely hilarious. ‘Slow Boat To China’ reveals some very nifty footwork (with wonderful attention to character detail in the choreography!).
I’m sure that everyone in the audience has their own personal favourite songs and performers; music, after all, is very subjective, but my musical highlights included ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’ (Emma Hardy, Cayton Francis), ‘You Belong To Me’ (soloist Beverley Harris), ‘They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful’ (Tim Berry), ‘Begin The Beguine’ (Chloe Hall) and ‘Baby Face’ (Jilly Nuthall, Terry Barnett). Marie Coltman gives a delightfully flighty diva characterisation to her role as the American ‘star’ and beautifully sings ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ to conclude the show. However, for me, the stellar performance of the evening is the wonderfully sultry tones of Suzanne Teather as she sings ‘Once In A While’. The ensemble, as with the soloists, have excellent diction and a rich, warm tone.
If the standard of this reduced production is anything to go by, showing both great depth of talent throughout the company and some diamonds in the rough, waiting to have their ability nurtured and further developed, then I cannot wait to see how they transfer their shows from an intimate village church hall to the Regent Centre in Christchurch next April!
Isn’t It Romantic ends 1 December, 7.30pm – get your ticket and enjoy an evening of heart warming entertainment.