The Irving Berlin estate has, hitherto, been very protective of the great composer-lyricist’s humungous catalogue and while there have been several revues built around the many hits Berlin wrote during his 101 years, no stage adaptations of any of his original screen musicals during the 1930s and 1940s have been forthcoming.
Happily, his estate has finally given their approval for a stage adaptation of the Astaire-Rogers classic Top Hat, whose score Berlin composed for RKO in 1935, and whose five songs – including "Cheek to Cheek," "Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)," "The Piccolino" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" – remain as fresh today as they were 77 years ago.
Five songs were clearly not enough for a full-scale stage musical, so nine other Berlin standards have been recruited, making this the best score, by far, you’ll currently hear anywhere in the West End.
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the book Matthew White and Howard Jacques have refashioned from the original screenplay is anything but vintage. Indeed, in common with most Broadway musicals of the 30s, the plot evaporates in the mere telling of it and exists solely as a base for the musical numbers that embellish it.
As in the original, Top Hat is the story of Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers), a Broadway star who, while appearing in a new musical in London, falls in love with Dale Tremont (Summer Stralen), an attractive young woman who happens to be staying in the same hotel as he is.
That reliable old standby, mistaken identity, rears its Medusa-like head, causing all kinds of confusion and chaos during the show’s two-and-three-quarter-hour running time (the film lasts a mere 101 minutes), with the object of Jerry’s affection believing him to be married to one of her best friends.
Logic and common sense, together with your top hat, are best checked into the cloak room, so that when Jerry tells us, just hours before his opening night, that he must dash off to the theatre to meet the cast for the first time, you accept it unquestioningly.
So, forget about the plot and concentrate on the positives, namely Berlin’s evergreen score, Hildegard Bechtler and Jon Morrell’s evocative sets and costumes, and Bill Deamer’s tap-happy choreography, which Tom Chambers brings engagingly to life. Chambers even appropriates, albeit briefly, the famous hat-stand routine Astaire devised for his 1951 film Royal Wedding.
Strallen in the Ginger Rogers role is a delight – as she always is – and she and Chambers create some genuine stage magic as they face the music and dance cheek to cheek.
There’s good work, too, from Ricardo Alfonso as an outrageously over-the-top Italian clothes designer in love with Dale, Stephen Boswell as Jerry’s camp butler Bates, Martin Ball as a harassed producer, and Vivian Parry as his wise-cracking wife.
It s directed with dash and an appropriately brazen disregard for logic by Matthew White, who, together with his choreographer, will send you home smiling. And, of course – that rarity in today’s musicals – humming the tunes!