Flora the Red Menace [Landor Theatre]

Flora the Red Menace
Lyrics by Fred Ebb & music by John Kander with book (originally adapted by George Abbott & Robert Russell) based on Lester Atwell’s Love Is Just Around the Corner revised by David Thompson

Flora Mezaros – Katy Baker
Harry Toukarian – Steven Sparling
Charlotte – Ellen Verenieks
Kenny – Greg Sheffield
Maggie – Kimberley Moses
Elsa – Carly Mackelvie
Mr Weiss – Joe Shefer
Mr Stanley – Simon Ouldred
Willy – Scott Slaytor

Aaron Clingham (keyboard, musical director & arranger) and Adam Storey (double bass)

Randy Smartnik – Director & Set Designer
Kate McPhee – Choreographer & Costume Designer
Guy Dembury – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Tom Vallance

Reviewed: 29 June, 2012
Venue: Landor Theatre, Clapham, London

A warm welcome for this revival of a neglected 1965 Kander & Ebb musical, which introduced Liza Minnelli to Broadway when she was nineteen years old. They would go on to compose Cabaret and Chicago, and to remain closely associated with Minnelli. Based on Lester Atwell’s Depression-set novel, Love Is Just Around the Corner (1962), Flora the Red Menace was originally adapted as a musical by Robert Russell as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand. When director George Abbott became involved, he re-wrote much of the libretto and tried to persuade Eydie Gormé to take the leading role. The composers and the producer Harold Prince had difficulty persuading him to cast Minnelli, though she had already scored success in an off-Broadway production of Best Foot Forward.

Abbott was eventually to become one of Minnelli’s greatest admirers, though he is generally blamed for the show’s short run, despite critical raves for Minnelli, who won a Tony Award as best actress in a musical. She played an aspiring costume-designer seeking employment during the dark days of 1935 and falling in love with a committed Communist, who persuades her to join the Party. A prime reason for the show’s lukewarm initial reception is thought to have been its flippant approach to the Depression and communism, which in 1965 came perhaps too soon after the horrendous period in the 1950s when the ‘red scare’ ruined the lives and careers for many former members of the party. Abbott was strongly right-wing. Kander later said, “George Abbott couldn’t understand why anybody could ever have been a Communist.” But the authors recognised some of the show’s failings and in 1987 a revised edition was produced off-Broadway, with a substantially altered libretto by David Thompson, three songs cut and new ones added. This is the show that is joyously presented at the Landor Theatre with a splendid young cast.

The show is now presented as a play within a play, being performed as a Federal Theatre Project and, though I could not honestly see the point of this, the other alterations are all for the better, starting with a new theme song, ‘Mister, give me a job’, during which someone states, “A crash could never happen again”, cueing a knowing response. The character of Flora, who has an apartment which she shares with other aspiring artists and performers on a ‘pay what you can’ basis, is neatly drawn in her first big number, a typically catchy creation, ‘The kid herself’, cut during the show’s tryout, while the song that replaced it for Flora, ’All I need is one good break’, is now given to five of her friends.

The supporting players have had their roles strengthened and the show is no longer such a star vehicle as it was, though Flora remains the significant figure. The versatile Katy Baker seems older than Minnelli was (Abbott considered her too young for the role of the arch fixer), and brings total conviction to Flora’s actions and dilemmas. She handles the ballads with more authority than she does the belting numbers – the beguiling ballad, ‘A quiet thing’, and the lovely lilting waltz, ‘Dear love’, are both beautifully sung, and she touchingly conveys her pain as she has to choose between joining a picket line to keep the love of her sweetheart, or crossing it to keep her job.

When stammering boyfriend Harry (Steven Sparling) first gets her to join the Party, his number, ‘Sign here’, in which he asks her if she believes in such things as democracy, the rights of man, free milk and cookies for babies, erosion of slums and work for all seems an insidiously loaded recruitment tract in the light of what was really happening in the Soviet Union, but Sparling and Baker give it conviction. ‘The Flame’, sung by a Party member at a meeting describing the thrill of activism, leads to a rousing Russian-style dance, one of the choreographic highlights. The number is led by Ellen Verenieks, who plays the scheming Charlotte, jealous of Harry’s love for Flora. The splendid Verenieks presents a winning display of malevolence, and Simon Ouldred has a delightfully impish mischievousness in several roles, notably that of Flora’s employer, proclaiming in one of the new songs, ‘I always say exactly what I think’. The show’s first Act closes brilliantly with an elaborate staging by Kate McPhee of ‘Dear love’, with Flora surrounded by cut-out hearts and live cupids.

The momentum is neatly resumed in the second Act, which opens with a terrific tap dance performed by Kimberley Moses and Greg Sheffield. Their song ‘I’m keeping it hot’, replaces the original show’s weak cod-western number, ‘Palomino pal’. Indeed, none of the replaced numbers is missed – the other two are ‘Hello, wave’ and ‘Knock knock’. Scott Slaytor and Joe Shefer must be lauded for their sterling contributions and Carly Mackelvie has a splendid musical pedigree, so it was possibly just her performance that I attended that seemed underpowered – the lyrics of ‘You are you’ were not always audible. That song, the final one in the original production, has been judiciously moved to the penultimate spot in the show, and Flora’s big number, ‘Sing happy’, is now correctly the final one. The end of the show is still a little flat, but overall a great job has been done in making Flora The Red Menace a viable and most enjoyable entertainment.

  • Flora the Red Menace is at the Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, Clapham, London SW9 until Saturday 14 July 2012
  • Tuesday & Thursday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees Saturday & Sunday at 3.30
  • Tickets on 020 7737 7276
  • Landor Theatre

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