The rain may be falling but it’s all about Summer in the Aldwych Theatre this year. On arriving, it’s the name I hear the most and when leaving it’s the voice I can’t get out of my head. I’ve heard of ‘stealing the show’ but Summer Strallen has taken the phrase to a new level.
Top Hat is a musical sensation based on the 1935 film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a movie famous for its musical hits and jaw-dropping tap numbers. It’s the story of boy meets girl, girl thinks boy is married, boy thinks girl is crazy, girl slaps boy, boy carries on pursuing her anyway. Oh, and a lot of tap.
Sitting in the plush Aldwych Theatre – the third row in the stalls no less – a hush falls over the audience as the musical director conducts the orchestra to begin. In the style of 1930s musicals, a long overture introduces us to the music of the show and immediately you start swaying in your seat, smiling along with Irving Berlin’s stunning score. Then, the beautiful show girls and the six-feet-four men enter instantly giving us what we want – a big old tap number.
As the huge opening number ends and the incredible dancers ignore the sweat seeping through their costumes, we are introduced to our main attraction (emphasis on attraction) Jerry Travers, played by the talented Tom Chambers. Jerry is the lead of this touring tap show and a star in the business. He is natural, relaxed, confident in his talent and very, very handsome. The only thing he hasn’t got is a West End credit. Enter Horace Hardwick (Martin Ball) a pill-popping West End producer keen to get Jerry’s show in town.
Horace invites Jerry up to his hotel room so they can talk business but Jerry’s passion and talent get the better of him and before we know it he’s tapping away around the room with a hat stand as his dance partner. This outburst causes much displeasure to another hotel guest staying in the room below Mr Hardwick. A stunning revolve appears at the back of the stage, a silk-lined bed with a breathtaking beauty ringing down to the front desk. On the roof of the revolve is a dimly lit dancer mirroring Jerry’s moves. A gorgeous moment, both clever and classy.
The woman is clearly aggravated so storms down to the room herself. When she enters, the room lights up. She is so beautiful that Jerry falls instantly in love. Her name is Dale Tremont (not that she will divulge this information to Jerry) played by our very own Summer Strallen. She politely asks him to keep it down and leaves. Jerry treats us to a cheeky grin before lining the floor with sand and continuing.
From here on in, Jerry becomes obsessed. He sends the whole flower stand up to her room and hijacks her horse and carriage, disguising himself so she will talk to him. Out in the rain they share a dance and a kiss, a truly magical moment.
The complications begin when Dale asks the hotel manager the name of the man staying below her and is told ‘Horace Hardwick’. It gets even more confusing when we discover that Dale is friends with Horace’s eccentric wife Madge Hardwick (Vivien Parry). Horace and Madge have been married three years and they survive on barely seeing other and spending all of Horace’s money. The pair are a comedy duo at its best, a lovely contrast to our two dramatically romantic leads.
Hilarity ensues as Dale continues to mistake Jerry for Horace. The story, as you can imagine, becomes a slapstick event of disguised butlers, dancing porters, unintended marriages, hilarious mistakes and sad misunderstandings.
The melodrama of this show is heavily supported by a fantastically talented cast. Tom Chambers is truly charming Jerry. He is a love-sick puppy with a smile that makes your knee’s weak, the voice of an angel and moves comparable to Astaire.
The supporting roles especially feed our comedy needs, with Stephen Boswell playing the adorably loyal Bates, Horace’s butler and spy, and Ricardo Afonso playing the overly camp, dramatically eccentric clothes designer Alberto Beddini. Bates is sent to watch over Mrs Hardwick and Dale and he does a fantastic job hiding himself under the identities of a waiter, a priest and a woman. Alberto, although seemingly camp, ends up confessing his love for Dale and becomes insane when he discovers that Jerry/Horace has eyes for her too.
The back bone of this show is the ensemble. Not only do they dance with stunning discipline, they are also required to play what seemed like ten roles each. Transforming themselves from an ensemble of tap dancers to maids and waiters and guests and beachgoers, these gorgeous women and very tall men are a constant source of delight.
However, the true star of this show is Summer Strallen. Her performance of Dale Tremont is timeless, classic and spot on. Not only does she look sublime, her voice is gorgeous and she plays Dale with charm and grace. She is instantly loveable with a fiery quirk that keeps Jerry wanting more. Not forgetting the famous Strallen sister high leg kick, which we see plenty of in ‘Wild about you’.
The most stunning number for me was ‘Cheek to Cheek’. It shows Dale and Jerry in a ballroom, still engulfed in all the confusion, Dale is furious with Jerry (who she thinks is Horace). But, just for a moment, she lets her feelings take over and accepts an invitation to dance with him. The lights are low, the music a masterpiece and suddenly it’s just the two of them. Jerry is in a fine suit and Dale in a flowing feathered baby pink dress. The romance is heart-wrenching, complimented by the soft choreography and the perfect harmonies.
By the end of the show, my cheeks were hurting. The show, although undeniably cheesy, has you grinning throughout. The music, the laughter, the dancing – all has that feel good factor. So, if you’re looking for a bit of sunshine on a rainy day, Top Hat is the show to leave you smiling, Cheek to Cheek.
Review by Rebecca Birch (Twitter: @BirchR)
Monday 30th April, 2012