High-Kicking Beauty, Berlin Magic Fail to Lift ‘Top Hat’

Tom Chambers and the male ensemble of "Top Hat" at the Aldwych Theatre in London. The choreography is by Bill Deamer. Photographer: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg/Premier PR via Bloomberg

There may be trouble ahead, sings the hero of the 1930s tap musical “Top Hat” in London. It’s closer than he thinks.

If this lackluster staging becomes a long-runner, I’ll eat my own top hat. And throw in the white tie and tails.

Based on the 1935 Rogers-Astaire movie scored by Irving Berlin, the new West End show tells the story of a debonair Broadway hoofer called Jerry Travers who falls for smart-talking socialite Dale Tremont.

Byzantine misunderstandings take place during trips to London and Venice. Dale believes that Jerry is a two-timing snake married to her best friend, so she weds a flamboyant Italian dress designer in revenge.

Do people ever marry in revenge? I guess they have to in shows like this, or the plot would wind up about half an hour too soon.

There’s a trick to carrying off wispy theatrical fluff. Everything has to look easy, light, fast. Snappy jokes, perfect timing, and novelties are all needed to disguise the weakness of plot. “Singin’ in the Rain,” currently at the Palace Theatre, does the job with whipped cream and sprinkles.

“Top Hat” is as snappy as a tax bill. In Matthew White’s stage adaptation, the one-liners wilt and writhe on the floor.

An example: “A thief stole my wife’s checkbook. I haven’t reported it. He spends less than she does!” This was old when Methuselah’s grandmother was a girl. I bet she didn’t find it funny, either.

Bad Timing

There can be a pleasure in groaning at bad jokes, of course, if they’re delivered with a wink. It’s all in the timing.

Some of the cast need more help in this area than Matthew White (who also directs) gives them. Tom Chambers, in the role of Jerry Travers, misses the mark most times.

The lumpy scene changes don’t aid the flow. Designer Hildegard Bechtler uses sliding panels, the size of the whole proscenium, to hide the art deco set transformations. It looks cheap, as does the tatty painted back-cloth of St Mark’s Square, which is supposed to conjure up the romance of Venice.

It’s also slow. The director has to fill the dead time in front of the panels with bits of padding. Mostly this involves tiresome business with waiters and chambermaids.

Bill Deamer’s choreography is another disappointment. Sometimes the tap routines seem to grind to a halt. A dance with a hat stand (recreating one of Fred Astaire’s famous routines from the film “Royal Wedding”) looks oddly like a guy dancing with a hat stand.

Leggy Beauty

The shame is the greater because there are some good performances. Summer Strallen (whose sister Scarlett is currently starring in “Singin’ in the Rain”) is every inch the self-possessed beauty she’s supposed to be. Her voice is sweet, and her extraordinarily leggy high kicks seem to tickle the end of her nose.

She looks terrific in a swirling recreation of Ginger Rogers’s floaty-feather dress used in the “Cheek to Cheek” duet.

There’s lively support from Vivien Parry as a cynical socialite, and Ricardo Afonso as the fiery-tempered dress designer Alberto Beddini.

Irving Berlin’s score is full of great numbers. “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Let’s Face the Music,” and “Top Hat” are all classics.

They’re like lonely flowers growing in a swamp. Without the mystery ingredient which makes light farces believable, the show feels weary.

“Top Hat” hits rock bottom.

Rating: *½.

“Top Hat” is at the Aldwych Theatre. For information: http://www.tophatonstage.com or +44-844-847-1712

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Muse highlights include: Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art, Ryan Sutton on New York dining.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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