Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Not a year goes by without the London College of Music, the musical theatre arm of the University of West London, giving us a Sondheim, and here they really had to stretch themselves to make the rarely-seen Saturday Night seem vibrant and relevant 61 years after it was written.
The great man’s first musical, written before he found fame and fortune as the lyricist for West Side Story, is a reworking of Julius J and Philip G Epstein’s play and book Front Porch in Flatbush about New York life as lived by a bunch of Stock Exchange runners from Brooklyn.
Frankly, it is a long way from being the masterpiece that Sweeney Todd, Follies and A Little Night Music became but it does feature a raft of clever material that forewarned of Stephen Sondheim’s exceptional gifts, both as lyricist and composer.
What’s not to enjoy about ‘So Many People’, ‘What More Do I Need?’, ‘A Moment With You’, ‘One Wonderful Day’ and the title song, three of which featured in the 1980 revue Marry Me a Little long before being seen in their original context because Saturday lay unperformed for 42 years.
Saturday Night has had an amazing history. The main backer died before its intended Off-Broadway launch in 1955 and it remained unloved and unwanted until 1997 when the Bridewell Theatre in Fleet Street, prodded by the Sondheim Society, gave the show its first professional airing. Broadway had to wait even longer, until 2000.
Spanning three consecutive Saturdays in 1929, the plot follows Wall Street dreamer Gene Gorman and his fellow Flatbush bachelors as they bid to breach the class divide between Brooklyn and Manhattan society, with women and money-making schemes topping their list.
As one song declares: “Alive and alone on a Saturday night is dead”, a theme Sondheim further explored in Company, but it looks as if poseur Gene has struck lucky when he meets the seemingly wealthy Helen, apparently from rich Southern stock (but a Brooklyn belle through and through), at the posh Plaza.
They get on like a house on fire, but in trying to convince her that he’s the real deal, he spends all his money, and some that isn’t his, on renting a classy apartment for the two of them.
But he can’t pay the bills and foolishly sells his pal’s car to keep creditors at bay. Because his pal is also a Eugene Gorman (how likely is that?), he’s the one who gets into trouble until Gene comes clean and it all ends happily ever after.
It’s all rather dated, more than a bit clunky, and nowhere near as funny as it should be for a musical comedy, but the energy and enthusiasm of LCM’s talented cast wins the day.
There’s one hilarious moment when Laura Jane Baron brilliantly impersonates a record stuck in a groove and the second half is a lot tighter than an overlong Act I which takes time to get going.
Two casts were used for the six-performance run to give as many as possible the chance to shine. Mikey Wooster was an instantly likeable juvenile lead in both teams with Sophie Towns and Hannah Bailey playing opposite him in sharing the show-stealing Helen Fogel role.
Bailey’s fake Southern belle accent was spot-on and her pleasing voice and warm stage presence made her solos ‘Isn’t It?’ and ‘All For You’ highly enjoyable. Equally praiseworthy were her duets with Wooster on ‘So Many People’ and ‘A Moment With You’ which vied with ‘Exhibit A’ – a comic list song delivered with terrific flair and aplomb by Justyn Huntley’s livewire Bobby – as the Act I highs.
Kieran Lawson as Hank, the married one in the Flatbush crowd, put his impressive baritone to excellent use in ‘I Remember That’, while Emily Arnfield’s colourful, scatty Mildred kept catching the eye.
While it’s well-nigh impossible to mention everyone in a large cast of 17, nobody let director Graham Hubbard down and Thomas Michael Voss’ choreography delighted in the ensemble numbers.
Credit to the four well-hidden musicians, MD Dan Smith on piano, Michael Baxter (keyboards), Stuart Ness (bass) and Thomas Connor (drums), for handling Sondheim’s tricky score so well in a well-schooled production that got as much out of the mixed material as it possibly could.
As Sondheim himself said: “It’s not bad for a 23-year-old. There are some things that embarrass me so much in the lyrics but I decided: Leave it. It’s my baby picture. You don’t touch up baby pictures – you’re a baby.”
So many thanks to LCM for rolling out this little baby, one who grew up to become arguably the greatest of them all.