Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi

The name alone conjures up nostalgia, decadence, style and class … and this show delivers. It’s a musical theatre show in traditional Rogers & Hart / Hammerstein style, which follows the course of two main love stories, both played out against the backdrop of the Adelphi hotel, Liverpool. Yes, Liverpool … and why not, when regional pride seems to be the exception rather than the rule in contemporary theatrical writing. At the present day Adelphi, Jo and Neil, two front-of-house staff members are in a quandary … he’s leaving for Japan and has asked her to follow him. Does she sacrifice career, familiar surroundings, and the delights of Liverpool to follow him? The question is left open as the other main love story, set in the past, unfolds and eventually helps Jo come to a decision. The setting of the musical, and its chosen traditional musical theatre genre, inevitably invite comparisons with – not least – Grand Hotel. And the comparisons check out. The score works – it’s inventive, yet traditional. The libretto is strong, and the songs are not just set pieces – they move action forward. There are amusing minor characters, and sub-plots. The piece is so strong it demands to be seen in a large-scale theatre with a professional cast, inventive lighting and set. It’s no surprise the show worked at the Liverpool Playhouse, where it was first presented. This London performance is a chance for musical-theatre fans in the capital to see why this musical received a Theatrical Management Association Award for Best Musical Production in 2008 and a WhatsOnStage nomination in The Target Live Best Regional Production category in 2009. The low-budget fringe production is full of stark contrasts… of retro black and white, modernistic Art Deco, light and dark, high and low, front and back, as well as contrasts in period. In theatre at its best, as in all other artistic media, stark contrasts of the kind on which this piece is built inevitably take on a symbolic role, enabling us consciously or unconsciously to transcend dualities of life, our hopes and fears, acting on us like metaphysical Symplegades, the clashing rocks through which Jason had to pass through in one piece in order to get to Colchis to retrieve the golden fleece. While the contrasts in this production fall short of realising their symbolic role of a magical threshold leading to a heroic, transcendent and potentially transformative rite of passage, they certainly provide a full evening of rousing tunes, great music, and strong performances in intimate surroundings for a fraction of the price of a West End show. The Union Theatre, tucked away under a railway arch in Southwark, is too small for this show. Although Steve Miller’s lighting design and Geri Spencer’s costumes seem constrained in this production – perhaps by budget, but certainly by space, the energy of the youthful cast of 19 with a band of four musicians makes up for this and the show succeeds in exploding out well beyond the confines of the space. Tellingly, however, Jodie Michaels, in the cameo role of Thompson’s Mum, steals the show, with exceptionally clear resonance, strong vocal technique, majestic stage presence and near-excellent diction. More artists of her calibre and experience performing in a bigger space are exactly what this show needs. If value for money is your litmus test, you can’t go wrong. If theatre is about a transcendental experience for you, then you might choose to wait until this show hits a bigger stage. Alternatively, you could, as I did, just judge the laudable fringe production on its own terms and enjoy it for what it is … and what it foretells. If you do go, I hope, for the show’s sake, and yours, you get the chance to dine out on having seen the show at the Union before it 'got big'.

Reviews by Leon Conrad

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The Blurb

Following a sell-out extended run at the Liverpool Playhouse and a 2008 TMA award for best musical, Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi finally arrives in London in an energetic new production.

1930’s Liverpool, and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood pour off the luxury liners for their first taste of England: a night in the city’s most fashionable hotel.

Amidst all the decadence, no-nonsense Alice from reception has fallen for the dashing Thompson from accounts - but fate, Hollywood, two wars and a dizzying array of staff and guests intervene in an epic love story spanning 60 years.

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