BETTY BLUE EYES the new musical about to open on the West End (I saw it halfway thrugh its run of previews) is an adaptation of the film A PRIVATE FUNCTION, a sendup of small town life in Britain in the austere late 1940s. It is an old fashioned book musical comedy, the sort of thing that was once the dominant genre on Broadway and on the West End. Unfortunately, the tendency is to judge such an effort not in relation to contemporary musicals, but in comparison with classic musical comedies of the past. The book is probably stronger, the production values higher, the cast at least as good. So why wasn't I totally sold on it?
Since most London musicals are imports from the US or planned as future exports to the US, one seldom sees a musical that actually takes place in England. The success of BILLY ELLIOTT may have inspired producer Cameron Mackintosh, the man responsible for those nineteen-eighties megamusical exports, to come out of semi-retirement and mount this show. Mackintosh was co-producer of MARY POPPINS another "English" musical which failed in London but has been a successful export.
If you don't know the movie, A PRIVATE FUNCTION is about the theft of a pig meant to feed the guests at a local dinner party in honor of the wedding of Elizabeth and Philip. There are corrupt city officials, snobbish wives and an obsessed meat inspector.
The plusses of this show. First and foremost, the fine Richard Eyre production is built on performers with personalities. Mackintosh and Eyre have allowed a cast of excellent character actors who are delightful to watch to do what they do best. Reece Shearsmith and Sarah Lancashire are charming as the meek chiropodist and housewife who wants to be part of local society. They are ably supported by a group of veteran actors one is used to seeing at the National Theatre. Adrian Scarborough and David Bamber stand out as the mad meat inspector and tyrranical first citizen of the town. On the whole, it's a fine cast that coheres as an ensemble with the exception of Ann Emery who plays Shearsmith's dotty mother-in-law. I hope Eyre manages to tone down her amateurish mugging and divaish obliviousness of her fellow actors.
Ron Cowen and Daniel Lippman's book is both faithful to the story and spirit of the film and stageworthy. The material is funny and everything about the production is lovely to watch.
Composer-lyricists George Stiles and Anthony Drewe know how to create musical numbers that fit the characters, situation and period, a stark contrast to the wash of musical goo Andrew Lloyd Webber pours over his poperettas. I was also impressed with how every song seemed to come naturally out of the story, a tribute to them and to the book writers. BETTY BLUE EYES is almost a textbook example for aspiring writers of traditional musical comedy. However, and this is a big however, great musical comedies of the past were also written to showcase great, memorable songs, in the style we now refer to as "the American songbook." The American songbook is a thing of the past. It was also American, so perhaps the standard I set for a score like this is totally unrealistic. This score is sort of Noel Cowardy -- light, pleasant but never heartfelt. And never really breaking into melody as if that would just be too sentimental. My partner said, "Those weren't songs, they were jingles." Their lyrics are a cut above most lyrics these days (compared to the lyrics of LOVE NEVER DIES they are masterpieces) though I could anticipate the rhyme every time. There were no surprises, as there are with really great lyricists (all but one of whom are dead, I know, so weren't available). I wouldn't rush out and buy the cast album. I kept thinking, "Where is Frank Loesser when you need him." I know, he's American and dead. Who is around to do a better job with this show now? Probably no one.
I enjoyed BETTY BLUE EYES, though I never totally surrendered to it as one must to really appreciate a musical. I am willing to admit that the problem may be mine. Perhaps I want the show to be something that it is not and, though I am an Anglophile, I wanted an old-fashioned song-filled American musical comedy and the show's Britishness distanced me somewhat. I must say that the packed house roared its approval at the end. Oh, yes, the animatronic pig is very funny.
BETTY BLUE EYES. Novello Theatre. March 31, 2011.