Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet

Me and Juliet
Musical comedy with music by Richard Rodgers, book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II [European premiere]

Bob – John Addison
Lily / Juliet – Gemma Atkins
Jim / Don Juan – Terry Doe
Susie / First Carmen / Daniella Gibb
Larry – Robert Hands
George / Happy Mourner – Reeda Harris
Mac – Dafydd Gwyn Howells
Betty / Carmen – Jodie Jacobs
Ruby – Peter Kenworthy
Jeanie – Laura Main
Herbie – Brendan Matthew
Charlie Clay / Me – Stephen McGlynn
Buzz – Tom O’Brien
Monica – Olivia O’Shea
Sidney / Voice of Mr Harrison – Anthony Wise
Voice of Mrs Davenport – Susan Travers

Thom Southerland – Director
Joseph Atkins – Musical Director & Piano
Sally Brooks – Choreographer
Alex Marker – Designer
Howard Hudson – Lighting Designer
George Dennis – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 10 October, 2010
Venue: Finborough Theatre, London SW1

Although celebrated for their great stage musical successes such as “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific”, “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music”, Rodgers & Hammerstein occasionally made a few mistakes, usually when creating original material rather than adapting from an existing property. In 1947 it was “Allegro”, which told the life story of a doctor, from cradle to middle age, which had a short run of 315 performances. Later on it was “Me and Juliet” (1953), a show, like “Kiss Me, Kate!”, about theatre people and their backstage lives, and “Pipe Dream” (1955), an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday”, that were not that successful, although the former made a modest profit, but the latter did not.

In “Me and Juliet”, Rodgers & Hammerstein wanted to create a musical piece about actors putting on a show but without resorting to the usual theatre clichés. As Rodgers said, “We established the fact at the beginning that the show within a show was a success. The backer didn’t pull out, the star didn’t quit and the chorus girl didn’t take over.” All they wanted to do was use the theatre as a framework for telling a love-story while also taking a few satirical swipes at show-business and the sort of people they knew.

The plot concerns the relationship between chorus-girl Jeanie and Larry, an assistant stage manager, although Jeanie still carries a torch for Bob, an electrician on the show, even though he is totally unreliable and almost psychotic. A subplot involving Mac, the company stage manager, and a dancer, Betty, who joins the show against Mac’s wishes because he never has relationships with company personnel, pads out a rather thin storyline. The novelty comes in seeing the show within a show (actually called “Me and Juliet”) being performed while the actors and stagehands are playing out their own life stories offstage (such as in Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off”).

The show opened out of town, as all Rodgers & Hammerstein creations did, in New Haven (a fact that Larry mentions in his first song), moving on to Cleveland and Boston before opening in New York in March 1953. It starred Isabel Bigley (Miss Sarah Brown in the original production of “Guys and Dolls”) as Jeanie, Bill Hayes as Larry, Mark Dawson as Bob, Ray Walston (from “South Pacific”) as Mac and Joan McCracken as Betty. It ran just 358 performances on Broadway, a short run for Rodgers & Hammerstein but it recouped its investment within six months. However, a projected national tour with a cast of over seventy performers and just as many in the stage crew, closed after eight weeks in Chicago.

Having already given the European stage premiere of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “State Fair”, the enterprising Finborough pub-theatre in West London now does the same for “Me and Juliet” with the same director, Thom Southerland. His staging of “State Fair” was so successful at the Finborough that it transferred to the West End for another sell-out season at the Trafalgar Studios. Southerland has an impressive body of work in staging big musicals in small spaces. For instance, he has directed “Call Me Madam”, “Calamity Jane”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Divorce Me Darling!”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, “The Pajama Game”, “Oklahoma!”, “Mack and Mabel”, the UK stage premiere of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, and all-male productions of “HMS Pinafore” and “The Mikado” at tiny fringe venues in and around London. Somehow he has the knack of bringing these classic shows to vivid life again and he is to be encouraged because nobody else seems bothered about reviving old musicals in mainstream theatres any more.

If “Me and Juliet” is not classic Rodgers & Hammerstein, it is never less than entertaining. You have to hand it to them for trying something different and in the process portraying their own territory. The problems of putting on a show, any show, are here spelt out in spades, with the clash of personalities, the fight to get a part at auditions, the love-affairs and other relationships that come and go – all this is hard to maintain in a close-knit and highly emotional situation among a community of actors and stagehands working closely together in intimate scenes in the production that can easily spill over into real life. They paint at times an unpleasant picture offstage that contrasts immensely with the show itself, a typically mindless concoction of corny tunes and cheesy lyrics bound up in a song and dance extravaganza typical of its time but not typical of Rodgers & Hammerstein who are sending-up a genre they knew only too well.

Southerland elicits the best out of the show, not least in the staging of numbers such as ‘Keep It Gay’ and ‘Marriage Type Love’ which are performed tongue-in-cheek by the show-within-the-show’s leading man (Charlie Clay as ‘Me’), in which Stephen McGlynn captures just the right sort of ghastly egotism you would expect from a leading man of limited talents. John Addison makes a fine and thoroughly nasty job of Bob, the jealous electrician. Robert Hands rings true as the meek but focussed Larry who wants Jeanie at all costs. Dafydd Gwyn Howells as Mac, the hard taskmaster of a stage manager, is well characterised and as Betty, his would-be opposite number, Jodie Jacobs demonstrates again her way with a bitchy line.Anthony Wise, a stalwart player in the Southerland repertory company, is fine as Bob’s alter ego on the spotlights, Sidney, as well as contributing other parts as a member of the audience and the show’s producer, the unseen Mr Harrison. As leading lady Jeanie, Laura Main proves again that she is a durable Rodgers & Hammerstein heroine (she was also in “State Fair”), sweet and simple and oh so sympathetic. The rest of the cast – sixteen in all rather than seventy-something – double up as ushers, bit players, chorus, dancers, members of the public and other assorted characters, entering into it with terrific spirit. Even pianist Joseph Atkins gets roped into the plot with a strand about a female in the audience who fancies him.

The only song to come out of “Me and Juliet” as a popular number was ‘No Other Love’ (the tune originally written by Rodgers for an episode of the TV series “Victory at Sea”) which at the time was a hit for both Perry Como and Ronnie Hilton. It’s a love-song for Jeanie and Larry and stands out merely because it is familiar. Other songs of note are ‘The Big Back Giant’, ‘The Baby You Love’, ‘We Deserve Each Other’ and ‘I’m Your Girl’. ‘Intermission Talk’ is an amusing point number that drops famous names of the time (Rosalind Russell, Bea Lillie, Yul Brynner, Tom Ewell) in a song about the then current state of the theatre. Altogether “Me and Juliet” is a pleasant, undemanding frivolity and certainly earns its revival or, as here, its European premiere.

As it is quite likely that Thom Southerland’s production of “Me and Juliet” will have the same success as “State Fair”, perhaps it is time for him to turn his attention to “Allegro”, another Rodgers & Hammerstein show that never really made it into the big time but one that has lately gathered more kudos. It should be ready for rediscovery any time now.

  • Me and Juliet is at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW1 until Saturday 30 October 2010
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m.; matinees on Saturday & Sunday at 3 p.m.
  • Tickets on 0844 847 1652 or online
  • Finborough Theatre

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