Ballroom – Waterloo East Theatre

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Jessica Martin and Cory Peterson in Ballroom at the Waterloo East Theatre, London. Picture: Robert Piwko

Ballroom continues at the Waterloo East Theatre, London, until 4 June.

Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩

Waterloo East has dug up this almost-forgotten 1978 Broadway musical and given it a modest UK premiere almost 40 years on at its 100-seater theatre just a short waltz from Waterloo Station.

Ballroom’s main claim to fame (and maybe only one) is its terrific 11 o’clock number ‘Fifty Percent’, in which lonely widow Bea settles for having half of her dance partner Alfred’s affections rather than nothing at all (spoiler alert: would you believe it, he turns out to be married).

The driving rain on a miserable night in London undoubtedly impinged on attendance and it is often difficult for actors to get a buzz going when they have only 20 for an audience. Fortunately, ticket sales were going much faster for the weekend.

Ballroom, with music by Billy Goldenberg (from a Jerome Allan Kass tele-play) and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, ran on Broadway for 116 performances but is rarely, if ever, performed anywhere these days.

It was the Bergmans’ second and, I think, last stab at Broadway – they were much more involved in films, the English version of Michel Legrand’s Oscar-winning ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ for the original Thomas Crown Affair was theirs as were ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me?’ for Yentl and ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ – Streisand’s duet with its composer Neil Diamond hit No. 1 in the 1978 charts – among many other notable successes.

Being mostly set in the Stardust Ballroom with people desperate for friendship and late romance – but no longer in the first flush of youth – dancing their hearts out, it is a musical for the middle-aged: bitter-sweet and often charming in an old-fashioned way, but with little obvious appeal to anyone under 40.

It was director/choreographer Michael Bennett’s fill-in show between A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls and was always likely to struggle after the huge success of the former. Even so,  Bennett’s choreography won a Tony for it.

Thin on storyline and, after ‘Fifty Percent’, short on top-drawer songs, it’s still worth seeing.

‘A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd’ gives the evening a lively start, but the humour isn’’t quite sharp enough nor the music strong enough (here with a band of four responding well to musical director Inga Davis-Rutter) for Ballroom to get a 10 or even a nine from this judge. More like Len Goodman’s go-to score of ‘seven!’

Junk shop owner Bea’s upbeat ‘Somebody Did Alright For Herself’ and the Bea-and-Alf duet ‘I Love to Dance’ are pleasant enough, but it takes ‘Fifty Percent’, with the now-redhead and glammed-up Jessica Martin’s powerfully assured treatment of it, to lift Ballroom to a different level.

The best scenes take place on the Stardust dance floor with twinkle-toed and dapper old-stagers Gerry Tebbutt and Dudley Rogers rolling back the clock and ostentatiously having a ball.

They aren’t the only ones to benefit from Nancy Kettle’s choreography, a big job given all the ballroom scenes.

Natalie Moore-Williams as blonde Angie, who encourages the reluctant Bea to get out of the house and go dancing with her, stands out, although it is a shame that, in search of Bronx authenticity while forever chewing gum, some of her words are hard to catch.

Jill Francis, Annie Edwards, Colette Kelly, Olivia Maffett (good also in her other role as interfering Aunt Helen who thinks Bea is insulting her late brother’s memory by flinging herself at cheating postman Alf), Tim Benton, Garry Freer and James Pellow, with Cory Peterson as Bea’s persistent suitor, play the rest of the Stardust regulars with enthusiasm and various degrees of competence.

Getting six out of the 11 songs to perform, Stardust hosts Danielle Morris and Adam Anderson made the most of some not always inspired material.

A very simple set frames the action and director Gerald Armin still has time – Ballroom runs into June – to give this interesting relic a bit more oomph and bite.

Jeremy Chapman

www.waterlooeast.co.uk

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