The Grand Tour continues at the Finborough Theatre, London until 21 February.
3 stars ***
The Grand Tour used to be known as a traditional trip around Europe taken by young men of means as an educational rite of passage. Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s long neglected musical of the same name is based on S. N. Behrman’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel and follows the perilous journey through Europe taken by two incompatible men thrown together out of necessity and trying to flee mainland Europe.
Polish-Jewish intellectual S.L. Jacobowsky optimistically buys a car he cannot drive and then by chance meets the aristocratic, anti-semitic Colonel Stjerbinsky who knows how to drive but has no car. The two men reluctantly agree to join forces in order to escape the Nazis, and together with Marianne (the Colonel’s girlfriend) they travel on a Grand Tour, experiencing many dark and dangerous adventures, along the way reappraising each other, with complications ensuing when Jacobowsky also falls in love with Marianne.
Thom Southerland’s intimate, warm revival of this 1979 musical in the tiny Finborough Theatre space is enchanting as well as unsettling, with wonderful, masterful staging and a beautiful set with hidden hinges and doors that takes us on a journey across Europe by car, train, river and simply trudging along. The original Broadway production only ran for 61 performances (after 17 previews), struggling to gain an audience against Sweeney Todd, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and They’re Playing Our Song, although it did receive favourable reviews.
Perhaps the time it was set was too close for comfort in 1979. But although based on such a dark period of time, it demonstrates that against all odds the human will to survive is tremendous and that the pursuit of liberty and love can conquer all. The three characters at the centre of the story are all wonderfully cast by Danielle Tarento.
Alastair Brookshaw delivers a wonderful, warm Jacobowsky, full of humanity and optimism despite overwhelming odds. He sings the long opening number ‘I’ll Be Here Tomorrow’ with great artistry and storytelling skill, and his opening Act II day-dreaming song about ‘Mrs S. L. Jacobowsky’ is perfectly judged and touching. He is funny without being trite, intense yet light, profound and heart-warmingly vulnerable. When he confronts the Colonel about his wanting revenge in a duel, the truth of his words is exceptionally powerful.
Nic Kyle’s Colonel is inflexible, intransigent and unforgiving as is the nature of such a character. He is a tortured soul although he doesn’t realise it. His frustration at his inability to understand Jacobowsky as he begins to question his own character is extremely well done and he sings ‘Marianne’ very beautifully.
It is difficult to see exactly what Marianne, played beautifully by Zoe Doano, sees in her Colonel apart from a dashing exterior, as he is really impossible to live with – even slightly thawed he is still a very uptight character. We wonder whether she will also fall in love with the more loving and ‘human’ man she acknowledges as her ‘special friend’ in Jacobowsky.
There are some excellent cameo performances from a high energy supporting cast, especially Laurel Dougall’s exuberant Gypsy Madame Manzoni and her mad circus, Blair Robertson’s chilling SS Captain, Michael Cotton’s Undercover Agent and Vincent Pirillio as an affecting Papa Clairon.
The score won a Tony Award in 1979 but remains relatively unknown. Here adapted for two pianos at the Finborough, and wonderfully played by Joanna Cihonska and Chris Guard, it perfectly suits the intimate space and voices well and makes you want to listen to these songs sung with a full Broadway orchestra. There are some beautiful and sensitive musical moments.
At the end we do not see the end of anyone’s journey and so their Grand Tour continues in our imagination. Watching on an evening when Europe was again plunged into a nightmare scenario with senseless murder in Paris, I found it particularly poignant. The Grand Tour is given an attentive and affectionate revival at the Finborough with outstanding performances from its leading players and entire cast and crew. Timely, and a revival very much worth doing and seeing.