Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robbie Sherman – the third generation of songwriter in the successful Sherman clan – keeps the spirit of his father and grandfather alive in a new family-friendly show packed with parrots, penguins and plenty of toe-tapping tunes.
Love Birds is a fantastical reimagining of 1920s vaudeville in which a 70-million-year-old plesiosaur named Armitage Shanks (John Guerrasio) manages a pandemonium of singing parrots, the Macaw Sisters (Ruth Betteridge, Joanna Sawyer and Anna Stolli) fronted by the flamboyant and haughty ‘bird of colour’ Baalthazar (Greg Castiglioni).
When the top-billing Baalthazar gets in a flap over a disrespectful audience member chewing loudly during his big aria, he flies off, forcing Shanks to replace him with a barbershop quartet of penguins, quickly dubbed the Quack Pack (George Knapper, Jonny Purchase, Ryan Willis and Rafe Watts). Before long, on-stage relationships between parrot and penguin intensify, and mayhem ensues when one routine ends with an interspecies kiss…
Robert ‘Robbie’ J Sherman is the latest in a line of Sherman songwriters and musicians that can be traced back to a court composer in the employ of Emperor Franz Josef. It’s the relatively recent sound of his American forefathers, though, that resonates throughout Sherman Jr’s Love Birds. There’s the obvious vaudeville connection to his grandfather Al, who plied his trade on Tin Pan Alley as one of the most sought after songwriters, but it’s his father’s and uncle’s influence – as the Disney tunesmiths known together as the Sherman Brothers – that can be heard most clearly. You’ll even recognise those penguins as the boatered and waistcoasted quartet that appear in Mary Poppins, one of the shows for which the Sherman Brothers wrote the songs.
Love Birds, then, is both a pastiche of and homage to the bygone musical traditions of vaudeville and the golden era of Broadway and Disney. Director Stewart Nicholls keeps it all primary colours and bright lights, thanks largely to milliner Verity Louise Finney-Green and Gabriella Slade’s flamboyant costumes. Nicholls also does an impressive job with the choreography, with the boys in particular doing well to tap dance (or should that be flap dance?) through one big number in swim fins. Slade’s set is basic and suitably vaudevillian, enhanced by the snappy three-piece band – MD Neil Macdonald, percussionist James Pritchard and bassist Marcus Pritchard – on stage throughout.
Sherman’s tunes are unashamedly bright, breezy and easy on the ears but with a simplicity that can only come from years of studying and mastering the form. The seeming simplicity of his lyrics equally bely a depth that, like the show, will engage adults while also keeping the kids amused. The same can’t quite be said of the ‘jokes’ that pepper the script, but at least the drummer is on hand with a badoom-tish to tell you when to laugh (or more likely groan).
The subtext is the marking of the ends of eras, a bit like an avian version of Sondheim’s Follies (Pollies?) It’s no coincidence that the fantastic Guerrasio plays a dinosaur… one who might be surviving the crunch but at least while still wearing a hat (a delightfully knowing nod to Sondheim and the new wave of show-makers in the lyrics to Shanks’ number ‘Old-Fashioned Guy’). The death of vaudeville is also heralded, with the Love Birds’ inevitable descent to flapping (as in the Charleston, signalling the start of the jazz era) and, shock horror, stripping. This is clearly a nod to Gypsy Rose Lee, and the Styne/Sondheim musical, as Shanks’ hoary, old-fashioned song is revitalised as a burlesque routine by Joanna Sawyer’s parrot Veronica).
The show also celebrates a progressive new era of tolerance and forgiveness, and there’s even a nod to drug abuse. The racism and sexism issues are evident in the parrot-penguin relationships, and in a vaudeville number involving a parrot’s scandalous relationship with a crow. George Knapper and Ruth Betteridge give lovely performances as the star-crossed lovers Puck and Valentine, who shock audiences with their interspecies kiss. And the show-stealing Castiglioni shines most brightly when singing gymnastically about Baalthazar’s addiction to crunchy crackers – the parrot equivalent to crack cocaine.
At just one hour long, Love Birds is clearly crafted and compacted to meet the requirements of the Edinburgh Fringe, but there’s plenty here for a longer, more traditional two-act show, preferably with a beefed-up script and a little more time spent honing the comedy. With its unapologetically old-school and catchy tunes, delivered by an unflappably talented cast, the show deserves to take flight, and I’d hope to see Sherman and his feathered friends in the West End some time soon.
KPS Productions/MusicWorld (UK) Ltd
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Interview – Robert J. Sherman reveals new musical Love Birds at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe