Review: Top Hat – Theatre Royal, Norwich

There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance. And dance away any troubles they certainly do in a spectacular that doesn’t put a foot out of place.

Irving Berlin’s musical first aired as the 1935 movie vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but now makes its overdue stage premiere. Unlike many film to stage adaptations, however, this one fits well, perhaps aided by the sheer showbiz theatricality of the original.

American song and dance man Jerry Travers heads to London to star in his first West End musical but, on arrival, in the UK his head is distracted by an infatuation with the woman of his dreams, Dale Tremont. Travers’ seduction technique is somewhat unorthodox – tap dancing in the room above Miss Tremont’s through the night, terrorising her on a horse and carriage, and swamping her with an entire florist’s stock.

It’s hardly surprising then that Tremont’s stock reaction is to slap Travers.

The course of true love is further frustrated by a misunderstanding of Travers’ true identity but, despite the hurdles placed before him, he’s determined to fly across Europe to get his girl, whether she likes it or not.

This is a gloriously unashamedly old fashioned musical, though here that’s not a derogatory term; a celebration of bygone style with Hildegard Bechtler’s Art Deco sleek set and Jon Morrell’s opulent costumes evoking the period perfectly.

Matthew White’s direction makes great use of the fluid set, whisking from location to location and mixing show stopping spectacle with the intimate love story. As befits the Astaire/Rogers heritage, Bill Deamer’s choreography literally taps up a storm with enough references to that golden age of film choreography but still kept fresh and relevant. From the lavish tap precision extravaganza of Top Hat, White Tie and Tails through to the sweeping romantic Let’s Face The Music And Dance, Deamer’s spot-on routines perfectly complement Irving Berlin’s classic score.

The Astaire and Rogers shoes are daunting steps to follow, however Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen more than rise to the challenges.

Chambers may not be the strongest singer on the stage but it works with the character. He oozes charm and masters those Astaire steps with flair. Summer Strallen’s West End pedigree shines through with soaring vocals but there is also an inner torment here of a woman torn between her affections and her perceived barriers to love. There’s a nice chemistry between Chambers and Strallen and both manage to stamp their own identity on the roles to avoid comparison with their famous predecessors.

Top Hat, however, is more than a two-person show and the entire company shines. There are strong supporting performances from Vivien Parry and Martin Ball as the warring Hardwicks and a show stealing comic turn from Stephen Boswell as Hardwick’s put upon valet, Bates.

In true ‘the show must go on fashion’, a technical issue with the set didn’t faze the company on the first night in Norwich but, apart from this slip up, this is a smooth, slick and sumptuous production.

The 1930s and 40s were seen as the golden age for glamorous movie musicals and this lavish production brings that glamour and spectacle to stage with panache. Here is a show that isn’t afraid to be traditional and wear its heart on its sleeve. It is lush, lavish and doesn’t put a foot out of place. As one of the characters says in the show ‘everyone loves it, even the critics are laughing’ and this critic, along with the rest of the capacity audience are likely to be taping their feet for days.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

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