It’s hard to figure out why you would want adapt to a movie as iconic as Top Hat for the stage. After all if you want to see Fred and Ginger hoofing to Hermes Pan’s timeless choreography you can rent the movie whenever you like. I suppose one reason is that this was a movie musical short on songs – only six – and maybe by plundering Berlin’s back catalogue you can improve the balance between dialogue and music. Even with the endorsement of Fred’s daughter Ava, it might seem a somewhat foolhardy project to ‘improve’ something as perfect as Top Hat. However, it does seem from early reports of the new production of High Society at the Old Vic that such a thing is possible.
Matthew White and his team have, very sensibly, resisted the temptation to reproduce the movie. There are references, of course: that bandstand, that ostrich feather dress. But with Alan Burkitt, built in the Tommy Tune mould (long, long legs), you are never going to get ersatz Astaire. So Burkitt, like all the characters in this production puts his own slant on the character. Most importantly, all of the original choreography has been reworked for the stage and Bill Deamer has done an excellent job of it. It is so good to see tap making a come-back, and when you see it done as well as this you wonder why it ever went out of fashion. It certainly gives hope to all those thousands of kids up and down the land who continue to slog away week after week at tap, ballet and jazz.
The flimsy plot is an irrelevance and serves only to provide some comedy cameo roles, most notably Bates (felicitously played by John Conroy); and Sebastien Torkia makes the most of the role of the Alberto Beddini the most shamefully stereotypical and un-PC Italian you could imagine. But really this is just a vehicle for an evening of high class song and dance; and when it is served up with such slickness and professionalism who can complain? One reason why live stage musicals are making a come-back is the ingenuity and ability of musical arrangers (in this case Chris Walker) to combine the skills of multi-instrumentalist pit musicians and digital sound to produce big punchy musical accompaniments with the smallest of bands – in this case, just eleven. What a pity this wasn’t matched by the Gareth Owen’s sound design which was lacking bottom and reverb and seemed very dry.
I truly believe that musical theatre can be as profound and uplifting as opera. The opera community has always maintained a successful balance between new work and work which is strong enough to remain permanently in the repertoire. It should be no different for musical theatre, and it seems as though this is starting to happen. Long may it continue!