Flora, The Red Menace is performed by Guildford School of Acting MA Musical Theatre students at the Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford, Surrey.
Unless you’ve lived near Dundee, Richmond, Brighton or the London Fringe, you are unlikely to have seen Kander and Ebb’s first collaboration Flora, the Red Menace, as this 1965 forerunner to Cabaret and Chicago has never made it to the West End.
Lasting no more than ten weeks and 87 performances on Broadway, it nevertheless became 19-year-old Liza Minnelli’s springboard to fame.
Her portrayal of the headstrong fashion designer who joins the Communist Party for the love of stammering boyfriend Harry and loses her precious job in Depression-era 1935 marked Minnelli’s Broadway bow and made her the youngest Best Actress in a Musical Tony winner.
Only one of its songs, the haunting ’A Quiet Thing’, has truly stood the test of time, but that isn’t to say it is short of good tunes and there is plenty for the GSA’s one-year MA students to get their teeth into.
As ever, standards are extremely high, and it will come as no surprise to find a fair percentage of the 11-strong cast making names for themselves at a high level.
While Rachel Anne Rayham may not quite possess Minnelli’s magical voice, this pint-sized pocket rocket packs plenty of power and New York pizzazz into the name part. It is hard to imagine that Liza-with-a-Zee could have acted the kooky Flora with any more conviction.
Rayham and the tall, striking Cassandra McCowan, a New Zealand actress who is terrific as the domineering Communist agitator Charlotte, also with eyes for Harry and hilarious in the vamping scene, vie for acting honours with the polished Bryan Hodgson, the object of their affections.
Director Ian Talbot, last seen at GSA breathing new life into Twang!!, a show that was an even bigger flop on the professional stage, gets every ounce out of this leading trio as well as a strong supporting cast in which jazz dancers Joe Whiteman (Kenny) and Lucy Carne (Maggie) conjure up the chemistry to make the most of their big number at the start of Act II.
Whiteman is a particularly interesting actor, while Romero Clark also makes a strong impression as Mr Weiss and Owen Gardiner, Jess Barker, Nikita Sellers, Eleanor Keene and Gareth Elis are right on top of their smaller roles.
The whole show goes at a tremendous lick, thanks to Talbot’s skilful pacing and Phyllida Crowley-Smith’s stunning choreography. MD Tim Whiting’s piano, backed up by Hannah Lawrance on clarinet, is quite sufficient musically, while Andrew Riley’s uncomplicated set is entirely fit for purpose.
All in all, yet another GSA triumph as well as an important piece of further education to the many Kander and Ebb fans who previously knew this flawed early work only via record or CD.
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