Redhead was performed by students from the London School of Musical Theatre at the Bridewell Theatre, London.
Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It’s a real treat to go to a show not really knowing what to expect and then discovering a wonderful ‘lost musical’ performed by an exciting cast. And so it was at the Bridewell Theatre this week when London School of Musical Theatre students brought the house down with this rarely done 1959 multi Tony Award-winning musical. Redhead is a murder mystery musical set in a wax museum in 1880s London around the time of Jack the Ripper. It opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers Theatre) on 5 February 1959 and closed on 19 March 1960 after 452 performances.
The writing team of Albert Hague, Dorothy Fields and brother Herbert first wrote a musical titled The Works for Beatrice Lillie. When Sidney Sheldon and David Shaw joined the writing team it was renamed and rewritten for Gwen Verdon, who had just had two smash hits on Broadway (Damn Yankees and New Girl in Town). Verdon took the lead only on condition that Bob Fosse would direct as well as choreograph. The latter triumphed in his debut as a director, in addition to his role as choreographer, winning Tonys for both Best Musical and Best Choreography. Redhead won five Tony Awards in total, and yet it still remains rarely performed.
For this production, Hannah Chissick does a great job as director, masterfully transporting us to a Victorian waxworks where grotesque, contorted life-size wax models become real characters: real ladies of the night, police inspectors, old aunts, theatre performers, tappers, and Victorian ladies and gents. On a set using just a few different coloured painted doors, a large dresser, a chaise longue and curtains (set and costumes are by Nigel Hook), she successfully creates the eerie and creepy backstreets of London, the waxworks, vaudeville theatre and a Victorian living room (credit to the brilliant lighting design from Andrew Ellis).
Add a great score played wonderfully under the excellent musical direction of Sarah Travis, and lovely choreography from Mark Hedges (especially the tap routines – ‘The Uncle Sam Rag’ is fabulous) we are immediately immersed in a dramatic mystery and a quest to discover who the purple scarf murderer is…
There is tremendous energy and pace from the outset with the full company closely communicating with the audience and offering great vocals, harmonies and very well danced routines. There are no weak links.
The ensemble songs are very strong indeed with lots of individual character and detail from everyone – ‘The Simpson Sisters’; ‘My Girl is Just Enough Woman For Me’; ‘Two Faces in the Dark’; ‘We Loves Ya, Jimey’; ‘Pick-Pocket Tango’.
As this is a theatre school production the cast members are all young which always brings challenges for those who have to take on older characters. Both Bethen Fflint as old Aunt Maude and Stephanie Hedger as Aunt Sarah play these roles very well with great characterisation and skilful make-up. Aunt Sarah’s ‘hysterical’ acting is fun.
There are also other well-judged cameo characters including Amy Day as May and Laurie Evans as Tilly who make the most of their moments. There are others, but not all characters are noted in the programme, so I can’t name them unfortunately. As for the leading men performing ‘Just For Once’ – Robson Ternouth as ‘strongman’ Tom Baxter and his exuberant side-kick George Poppett (Steven Dalziel) – they also pay great attention to detail and timing.
However, the real gem of this production is a unique leading lady in Katie Ann Dolling as wax model maker and ‘determined to get married and have ten to twelve children’, Essie. She is truly captivating and also very funny. It is impossible to take your eyes off her when she is on stage, which is most of the time.
Truly special, fresh, quirky (in a great way!) and genuinely engaging, she is also a fabulous singer and dancer (she reminded me a little of a young Barbra Streisand). Her singing of ‘The Right Finger of My Left Hand’ and ‘Merely Marvelous’ is beautiful, and the tongue-twister ‘Erbie Fitch’s Twitch’ is masterful – a new and exciting star in the making. The audience adored her.
There is a lovely moment when Tom finally realises he loves Essie and the latter also becomes aware that her dreams are about to come true, and is terrified! (“I is so scared because I think you’re going to kiss me now, and I’m not sure you’ll like it!”) There was an audible ‘awwwww’ from the audience as Tom swept her up in his arms and kissed her. The following love duet ‘Look Who’s in Love’ is beautiful, as is their Act II number ‘I’ll Try’.
The unveiling of the murderer in Act II is a sort of Keystone Cops farce, fun and fast and melodramatic. Well done to the creative team that produced this great staging with a fabulous group of young performers.
Redhead opened on Broadway the same year as Gypsy (currently storming the Savoy Theatre of course) and The Sound of Music, and was rated alongside those and other shows such as My Fair Lady and West Side Story, so perhaps it was overshadowed by them at the time after it closed? It would be wonderful if this excellent LSMT production inspired a few more revivals.