"Puttin' On The Ritz" is a show based on some of the classic songs of those three great American show tune composers - George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and the show takes its name from a song by Irving Berlin.
The show is pretty much based in the 1920s/1930s (a few later numbers too) and gives the cast of vocalists and a large ensemble of dancers some classic song and dance numbers to work with. We also have some later songs by the show's "special guest" - "Showbiz Royalty" - Lorna Luft.
The six singers of the show are Sarah Earnshaw, Kate Sommerset How, Emma Kate Nelson, Paul Hazel, Simon Schofield and Callum Simon. All are more than competent vocalists and they worked their way through group and solo sets of classics such as The Continental, Puttin' On The Ritz, Night and Day, My Heart Belongs to Daddy and many more. The problem for me is that none of them made any of these classics songs their own. Everything was very nice and enjoyable to listen to but a bit "by the numbers formula singing" for me. Giving the singers hand-held microphones for some of the numbers that involved dance routines seemed an odd choice too.
The dancers were all very talented and had some good period style costumes in the show, but what to me let them down a bit was the very simple single set setting of basic stairs left and right. This set stayed in place all night. The Playhouse is an enormous stage and offers set designers an amazing space to work with. I think the design team missed an enormous opportunity to use the theatre space to its best advantage tonight.
The first half of the show (Lorna Luft excluded from this) just did not seem to work that well. The rather formal "introduction" of songs just seemed to slow things down and there seemed little continuity between the songs. An overhead screen showing the titles of the songs and some classic film clips was too bright most of the time to be easily seen from my view and there also seemed to be a few sound problems. The dancers seemed not to be meshing together on some numbers too.
The second half however was like a completely different show. All problems seemed to have been fixed. For once the stage was used for a setting in "The Cotton Club" and it is the numbers from this final part of the show that were for me the best of the show. The entire dance crew also performed this wonderful syncopated hand/ upper body number sitting on the edge of the stage. One beat out by any of them and this whole number would have just fallen apart...wonderful concentration and timing from all was needed to pull this one off.
Now of course to our star guest, Lorna Luft. We had two numbers in the first half - Zing Went The Strings of My Heart and Chicago and a wonderful interpretation of "The Man That Got Away" in the second half. Lorna Luft also gave us one of her mother's "live show" numbers "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby". After a lifetime in show business, these songs were a master class lesson to a young show crew in "how to do it".
I enjoyed tonight's show a lot despite a few little problems. It is what it promised to be, and that is an enjoyable night out listening to some classic show tunes, singers, dancers, costumes all on stage. With a few tweaks the show could easily move to the next level up, and I suspect that just having the experience of being on stage with someone like Lorna Luft and watching her work an audience will give many in the cast the boost that they need to move on up a level.
Review by Tom King