BWW Review: STRIKE UP THE BAND, Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Long before Milo Minderbinder bombed (and strafed) his own airfield for financial gain in Catch 22, but even longer after the East India Company ruled over a whole subcontinent, George S Kaufman wrote the book for Strike Up The Band.
It follows the fortunes of the Horace J Fletcher, who prosecutes a war on behalf of the USA against Switzerland, initially in retaliation for the imposition of trade tariffs on cheese (very zeitgeisty) and subsequently to cash in on the tourist business. But the Swiss don't so much roll over as not show up at all, and the whole escapade fizzles out.
Yes, there's more than a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan in this 1927 musical that, confused and clumsy though it is, soars whenever the songs of George and Ira Gershwin punctuate the silliness. And it really needs those songs.
The best one is now a standard, "The Man I Love", given full value by Beth Burrows, the standout voice in a cast amongst whom the female vocalists frequently outshine the male (who seem inexplicably under-amplified). Burrows gives her Joan that feisty proto-feminist attitude that one finds in musicals around this time - she'll marry whom she jolly well likes - but her ambition is still to be a homemaker.
There's a few more cookie-cutter characters on parade. Richard Emerson is the bull-headed, bullshitting capitalist self-made cheese millionaire Fletcher; Paul Biggin the square-jawed, principle-touting journalist dedicated to uncovering the truth; Charlotte Christensen the coquettish young thing with an eye for every boy.
So the satire, heavy-handed though it may be, feels remarkably contemporary, but the characters and even the structure of the show feels dated (maybe the 1930 re-write would be worse, as the anti-capitalist stuff was dialled back to placate indifferent Broadway audiences).
But, never mind all that hokum. We're left with the Gershwin songs which, played live by an eight-strong band, are as delightful as ever, a real thrill to hear up close for two hours or more. The thought persists, however, that maybe a concert performance rather than a full revival would have been more enjoyable.
Photo Andreas Lambis