BWW Review: THE CHOIR OF MAN Provides an Ode to Pub Culture at Kennedy Center
Even before a performance of The Choir of Man officially begins at the Kennedy Center - as part of a North American Tour - it's clear that this hit of the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe is going to be one of those shows that features audience participation. Let's discuss the pre-show. As with the Broadway musical Once, patrons are invited to come onstage and hang with the cast in a pub-setting and engage in a bit of craic. In this case, there are no opportunities to buy drinks from the bartender although the cast shares a few pints with select audience members later on.
As most of the patrons return to their seats, one cast member gets the rest of the audience riled up, encouraging them (with the help of two kids) to participate in the wave and a whole lot of hand clapping. Frankly, as I very much like the whole concept of the fourth wall in the theater and detest forced merriment, I fear the worst. The worst-case scenario does not come to fruition, although what follows is certainly a mixed bag with a little more awkward audience participation to come. Some great singing gets lost in a whole lot of unnecessary gimmicks and forced dialogue.
When the show officially begins, a narrator (Denis Grindel) welcomes us newcomers to a local pub. The Jungle (designed by Oli Townsend) looks like most any average, non-descript, local pub you might find in the UK or Ireland. It's a place where everyone knows each other and everyone has a story. The group of men come together on a regular basis to talk (or not talk, depending) about their lives, escape from the daily grind, and forget about things like the death of family members or job losses - or seek solace with those who have experienced the same challenges.
This pub is a little different than some, however, in that some of the regulars have formed a choir, which they call the Choir of Man. The narrator introduces us to some of the regulars - all of whom have nicknames - as well as the barman (Mark Loveday). There's Tapper (Freddie Huddleston), Bore (Andrew Carter), Hardman (Tom Brandon), Beast (Peter Lawrence), Casanova (John Sheehy), Piano Man (Connor Going), and Joker (Aidan Banyard). In the eighty so minutes that follow, the men share songs and generally hang out - inviting newcomers (audience members) to join in on the drinking, dancing, and general merriment. It's essentially an ode to pub culture.
Unfortunately, Ben Norris' (writer) numerous monologues - mostly delivered by the narrator - do little more than beat the audience over the head about why the pub is so important to the men and in general to the local community. When the men perform (the unfortunate, never-ending urinal number aside), it's far easier to just sit back and enjoy.
Musically, the show delivers although the decision to use a pre-recorded instrumental track is most unfortunate. Cast members play a variety of instruments (including, piano, guitar, trumpet, and bagpipes) onstage at various points in the show, but there are numerous points where other instruments that do not appear onstage can be heard. My perspective on the importance of live music aside, this decision actually detracts from what I think the creators are trying to achieve. The audience is asked to engage in an authentic, down to earth pub experience. I am not sure, apart from karaoke bars, pre-recorded music tracks are a mainstay in such venues.
Still, the cast is talented. Freddie Huddleston (also the show's choreographer and music director) performs a wonderful tap number. Connor Going slays on the piano and on the bagpipes. The rest of the cast delivers some great vocals on an eclectic set of songs. When is the last time you heard "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha, "Teenage Dream," "Hello," and "Dance with My Father" in the same show? Each are exceedingly well performed even if the context in which "The Impossible Dream" was performed is eyeroll worthy.
Musically, the last ten minutes of the show soar the most. It's as if the creators (Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay) decided to stop trying so hard to say something and just let the music do the talking. Some delicious harmonies make a cover of "Somebody to Love" one of the standout moments of the night and made me forget the song is overdone.
Overall, if you are willing to overlook a few of the gimmicks, you can have a good time at the show. Even if it may not appeal to the most jaded of theater nerds, it is a feel-good kind of audience show. I can't fault any production that entices the audience to sit back and listen to some great music without the hint of autotune.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
THE CHOIR OF MAN plays the Terrace Theater at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through Sunday, November 25, 2018. Purchase tickets online or by calling the box office at 202-467-4600.