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Spice Girls Musical Lacks Pep; Soldiers Romp: U.K. Stage

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'Viva Forever'
Lucy Phelps, Dominique Provost-Chalkey, Hannah John-Kamen and Siobhan Athwal in "Viva Forever" by Jennifer Saunders at the Piccadilly Theatre in London. The new jukebox musical is based on music released by The Spice Girls. Viva is visited on her houseboat by friends. Photographer: Tristam Kenton/Mark Borkowski PR via Bloomberg

Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Where there’s an immortal back catalog, a jukebox musical will follow.

Think of The Beatles, Abba, Queen, The Four Seasons. Then think of The Spice Girls. “Immortal” isn’t the first word that springs to mind.

The new London musical “Viva Forever,” based on the 1990’s barrel-scrapings of Posh, Baby, Ginger, Scary and Sporty, was never going to win hearts and minds with its deathless hits. The only guaranteed memory-claw in the whole package is the song “Wannabe” with its catchy refrain “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want.”

What was really, really wanted was a gloriously cheesy plot to hold it all together. Instead scriptwriter Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”) recycles characters from her old sitcoms. Then she throws in some toothless satire about TV talent shows.

Here’s how it goes. Young Viva (Hannah John-Kamen) lives on a houseboat with her feckless adopted mother Lauren (Sally Ann Triplett) and Lauren’s skinny libidinous friend Suzi (Lucy Montgomery).

Lauren and Suzi drink, horse about, and flirt inappropriately with hunky young rowers on the towpath. Sound familiar? It’s as if Eddie and Patsy from “Ab Fab” have risen wrinkled from a long pickling in brine.

Girl Band

Viva joins a girl band, and the four songbirds swear eternal fidelity to each other. When they get on a TV talent show, they meet the bitchy, shallow, glamorous ice-queen judge Simone (Sally Dexter), who immediately splits the band up and chooses Viva to be a soloist.

Simone is a rehash of Vivienne Vyle, another of Saunders’ former sitcom monsters, and about as dramatically successful.

None of the dramatic elements here is successful, in fact. Viva’s conflict between fame and friendship lacks clarity of focus. The other three members of Viva’s band are barely seen in the second act, so their climactic appearance for the girl-power finale (yes, she chooses friendship) lacks any sort of impact.

It’s what’s known in the business as “unearned emotion.”

Love Interest

Then there’s a mismanaged bit of padding about Viva’s biological mother and a tacked-on love interest in the form of a sententious stud called Angel (Ben Cura, who only gets to sing half of one duet.)

Paul Garrington’s staging is lively enough, and the numbers go with as much swing as can be injected. The set rotates between Viva’s houseboat and the television talent show with elegant ease. The performances are all watchable, and Sally Dexter does an enjoyable Cruella de Vil turn as the low-rent villainess Simone.

With a botched book, forgettable songs, and lame jokes, those pluses are not enough.

Viva forever? I wouldn’t bet on it. Rating: **

Frocks, Farce

Director and producer Michael Grandage opens his new five-play season at the Noel Coward Theatre on a high. His production of the satirical farce “Privates on Parade” (1977), starring Simon Russell Beale on terrific form, is a sharp and amusing piece of work.

Peter Nichols’ musical play is set among a troupe of British military entertainers working in southeast Asia in 1948. China is fomenting unrest, their commanding officer treats them like cattle, and the British Empire is crumbling.

No matter. They don their outrageous frocks and perform numbers in the style of Marlene Dietrich and Carmen Miranda.

The mix of geographical, military and sexual politics (three of the soldiers are openly gay, one flamboyantly so) makes for a thought-provoking evening. The questions about masculinity and war which it raises feel as relevant now as they did 35 years ago.

Grandage’s triumph is to make the show as funny and entertaining as it is chilling

Faltering Tension

Once or twice the dramatic tension falters when Nichols’ writing becomes repetitious, and the monologues delivered straight to audience tend to lower the temperature too.

Things quickly pick up. The final sequence, in which the performers are led as decoys into hostile territory, is gripping and disturbing.

There’s not a dud member of the cast, and Christopher Oram’s set -- a crumbling concrete proscenium arch holding huge corrugated iron doors -- serves beautifully for all the locations. If the rest of Grandage’s season continues like this, we’re in for a treat. Rating: ****

“Viva Forever” is at the Piccadilly Theatre. http://www.vivaforeverthemusical.com or +44-844-871-7627

“Privates on Parade” is at the Noel Coward Theatre. http://www.michaelgrandagecompany.com or +44-844-482-5140

What The Stars Mean: ***** Excellent **** Recommended *** Average ** Poor * Bad (No stars)Worthless

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

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

To contact the writer of this review: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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