Top Hat – Hollywood’s greatest musical live on stage
I was very excited when my friend invited me to join her family for her birthday celebrations in seeing the relatively new musical Top Hat, even though I’m not a massive Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers fan. I like them; I always enjoy their films. But you’re more likely to find me watching The Avengers.
However, I dare anyone not to fall in love with this genre of film. It made love, life and everything look easy. You will meet the love of your life, there will be a silly mistake or a misunderstanding, there will be capers and adventures, then everything will be resolved and you have your happily ever after. Sadly I grew up and found out this was not true. But it offers hope and a dream and I’m a big fan of hope. And an even bigger fan of dreamers.
So Top Hat the stage musical, is based on the 1935 movie of the same name, which stars Fred Astaire as the enigmatic American Broadway star Jerry Travers and Ginger Rogers as the captivating Dale Tremont. The story line is practically the same. So I can hear you asking – why should I see this in the West End, why don’t I just see the original at home?
The reason why is that on stage, it is pure magic.
In the original film there are only five musical numbers (No Strings (I’m Fancy Free), Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?, Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, Cheek to Cheek and The Piccolino). This led the director and co adapter of the stage version, Matthew White, raiding Irving Berlins entire back catalogue to cherry pick some of his classics to supplement the original five.
And whom is Irving Berlin I hear you ask. Irving Berlin wrote the original music for Top Hat, but he is known for writing some of the most classic songs of that Golden Era in Hollywood (As well as musicals and films). He had a life that spanned over 100 years with an archive boasting more than 1,200 songs. To quote Jerome Kern “Irving Berlin has no place in American Music – he is American music”.
These songs are classics. You feel the gravitas of these songs resonate with you when they are performed (by a wonderful cast and fantastic orchestra may I add – more on them later).
The chorography is breathtaking. Astaire is well-known for his tap dance to Top Hat, White Tie and Tails but Tom Chambers in the male lead role gives him a run for his money. He is not Astaire of course - but no one else will ever be. And Chambers does make it his own. I adored the tap dance routine. It was mesmerising – you could hear the audience gasping and sighing with delight. A true pleasure to watch. And that’s just one number! I could go on about each separate dance and how amazing it was. Cheek to Cheek was so beautiful, I swear they were dancing on clouds.
The show is perfectly cast, and the chemistry between them is electrifying. Tom Chambers you will recognise fresh from his tapdancing win on Strictly Come Dancing in 2008,(who I feel cheated a little being that he was a good tap dancer, but had never done Ballroom and Latin before. Talk about a technicality. Cheater Cheater Cheater. Anyway…). Summer Strallen (who popped up in a weird Hollyoaks storyline in 2007 as part of taking over the role of Maria von Trapp in the Sound of Music) does a wonderful job as Dale Tremont. The whole cast was dazzling – I do not have the room to do them all the individual justice they deserve, but just know that they were all outstanding.
The plot is definitely not Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. If you are looking for something gritty, you will not find it among the feathers and sequins of this musical. If you want to see something that will lighten your heart, then look no further.
Aside from the production itself, the film musical has an incredibly interesting history – there are so many interesting anecdotes I’ve found when researching this review. From how the production of the film got under way when Astaire’s own daughter got involved and approved, to the feather fiasco from the original film. In fact, I can think of no better story to finish this with.
Ginger Rogers wanted to make her own dress for the Cheek to Cheek routine. It was to be adorned with ostrich feathers. However, when it came to the dance. It turned out that the feathers did not stay attached to the dress. And as Astaire (not very democratically) put it “it was like a chicken attacked by a coyote, I never saw so many feathers in my life.” Poor Ginger got upset, but they fixed the dress and Astaire gave Rogers a golden feather at the end of filming for her charm bracelet and parodied Cheek to Cheek for her changing the lyrics as follows
Feathers — I hate feathers
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak
And I never find the happiness I seek
With those chicken feathers dancing
Cheek to Cheek
Fred Astaire from then on gave Ginger Rodgers the nickname Feathers.