Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi [London premiere at the Union Theatre]

Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi
A musical by Phil Willmott with additional music and arrangements by Elliot Davis

Thompson – Jon-Paul Hevey
Alice – Ally Holmes
Jo / Young Alice – Rebecca Hutchinson
Neil – Matthew Markwick
Lord Rothmore – Paddy Crawley
Thompson’s Mum – Jodie Michaels
Fritz – Will Stokes
Babs – Jamie Birkett
First Movie Star / Frank and Brad Finkle – Marc Antolin
Roy Rogers – Matthew Naegeli
Delores Gilmore – Lucyelle Cliffe
Rose – Emily Barlow
Gemma – Emma Barr
Paddy – Benjamin Bond
Fred – Nicolas Collier
Lilly – Joanna Goodwin
Henry – Rudi Last
Dorothy – Lucinda Lawrence
Masie – Lindsay Scigliano

Band: Michael Bradley – Musical Director & Piano
Mark Aspinall – Keyboard II
Dermot McNeill – Bass
Nick Polley – Drums

Phil Willmott – Director
Andrew Wright – Choreographer
Elliot Davis – Musical Supervisor
Charlie Cridlan – Set Designer
Geri Spencer – Costume Designer
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 7 March, 2010
Venue: Union Theatre, Union Street, London SE1

Phil Willmott wrote “Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi” for the 2008 Liverpool Capital of Culture celebrations. Having often stayed at Liverpool’s famous Adelphi hotel, he felt it would make a suitable backdrop for a romantic musical show. Inspired by the shows of the 1950s and 1960s by the likes of Frank Loesser (“Guys and Dolls”), Jerry Herman (“Hello, Dolly!”, “Mack and Mabel”) and Rodgers & Hammerstein (“The King and I”, “The Sound of Music”) he hoped some of their talents would rub off on him. To a large extent they have. Willmott has produced a suitably nostalgic show in the classic vein. What’s more it is a totally original show having no basis in any book, play or film, and extremely rare as such. The result sold out in Liverpool on an extended run. There were plans to take it further, although initial interest eventually came to nothing. However, it garnered national and regional awards and an amateur company is now planning another Liverpool production in May this year. With that in mind Willmott and his company decided to stage it just one more time.

The real star of the show is the Adelphi hotel or even Liverpool itself. It deals with two stories, one about two young people working at the hotel now and the reminiscences of someone who used to work there in the 1930s. Today it’s all hectic hen-parties and awkward customers, “just like Saturday afternoon at Primark”. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was about the famous (and the infamous) arriving from New York and Hollywood off the great liners docking at the port in Liverpool. It was a time when Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger could book into the hotel (true) and Adolf Hitler was allegedly working in the kitchen (apocryphal!).

Jo, a young manageress at the Adelphi, is called to investigate someone up on the roof who might be about to do something desperate. When she gets there, it’s an older woman called Alice waiting for her former lover. She then tells Jo her story of how her boyfriend, Thompson, was a petty thief but she gave him a chance to mend his ways by getting him a job at the hotel. The show then follows young Alice as she tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. Thompson prevaricates about committing himself to Alice and, through a misunderstanding, eventually joins the Resistance and goes to fight in France in World War Two. However, he does later promise to meet Alice on the hotel-roof where they can once-again dance. Echoes of the films “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle” perhaps?

It’s an unashamedly romantic piece that harks back to the sentimental musical-comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Willmott’s songs, which are nice pastiche versions of the numbers of the time, and Andrew Wright’s superbly physical choreography for his splendid company of singer-dancers, ensure the piece has everything going for it. Many of the songs, including ‘Once in a Lifetime’, ‘Tell Her’, ‘Dance for Me Boy’, ‘Just Fine’ and ‘Yippee Ai Eh!’ recreate the period-feeling with terrific gusto. ‘A Wedding and a Yacht’ sums up Hollywood royalty and what their arrival in Liverpool could mean to a hotel maid like Babs who’s yearning for no-one less than a millionaire. Perhaps the song that encapsulates the essence, the zeitgeist, of the times, is ‘Show Tune’ which is a celebration of the traditional musical-play or film that recalls Jerry Herman’s ‘Movies Were Movies’ (from “Mack and Mabel”), and Maury Yeston’s “Grand Hotel”, in its Busby Berkeley-type routine. It’s a real tonic and brings the house down. Michael Bradley’s band provides brilliantly vivacious backing to all the numbers.

The young company performs with immense energy, the pace never flagging. Jon-Paul Hevey exudes charm as the roguish Thompson, while Rebecca Hutchinson as both Jo and the young Alice has a commanding brand of charisma. Jamie Birkett as the rich husband-hunting Babs recalls the wisecracking Joan Blondell roles in those Warner Brothers “Golddiggers” movies of the 1930s. The cast doubles-up in numerous roles that give the proceedings a real company feel; these performers are really enjoying themselves, as is the audience.

The tiny Union Theatre in Southwark is nowhere near the size of the Liverpool Playhouse but the show fits like a glove even in such cramped quarters. It is obviously going to do well at the Union, which has a well-earned reputation for mounting great productions of both musical premieres and revivals. Perhaps “Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi” could follow the Union’s previous success with “A Man of No Importance” into the Arts Theatre, where it could stand comparison with all those musicals that have hogged the West End theatre scene for so long.

  • Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi is at the Union Theatre, 201 Union Street, London SE1 until Saturday 27 March 2010
  • Tuesday to Sunday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Sunday at 3.30 p.m.
  • Tickets £12.50-£17.50 on 08444 77 1000
  • Union Theatre

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