‘One Touch of Venus’ is Kurt Weill’s most ‘commercial’ American score, attached to a kind of variation on the Pygmalion theme, in which an ancient statue of Venus, brought to America from Anatolia by dodgy art collector Whitelaw Savory, is accidentally brought to life by a humdrum little barber, Rodney Hatch. The rest of the plot revolves around two related themes; Savory’s search for the now-missing statue, and Venus’s courtship of Rodney, since by bringing her to life he has bound her inextricably to him.
Rodney is the ultimate suburbanite, a drab conformist whose one dream in life is to buy a little box in the new development of Ozone Heights, and commute daily to his barber’s shop. Venus, with, shall we say, a somewhat chequered history, has altogether earthier designs. American Puritanism versus ancient Pagan sensuality. That at least is what the dynamics of the relationship dictate, and should form the basis for a sparky character comedy of opposites. However, after a promising start the book muffs this in a maze of plot mechanics and a haze of romantic perfume. To its credit, though, this adaptation has cut the book to the bone so it zips along.
The lyrics do little to rescue this confusion. Ogden Nash, great versifier though he was, is not a natural lyricist. Every lyric sounds like a Nash poem, regardless of the character who is singing it. So, for example, Venus, who at her first appearance is jumping at the never-heard sound of the telephone, is within a few hours singing of getting plumbers and having Antoine to fix your hair. Moreover his lyrics are clogged and over-wordy, running towards a succession of list songs in which the lines go straight over the audience’s head. They are also fogged by numerous period references now totally lost – how many now remember Maxwell Parish or Platinum Fur Tax?
It was Kurt Weill’s tragedy that after working with Brecht he hardly ever found collaborators worthy of his talents; despite this he kept delivering music which deserved much better material. One of the great glories of Weill’s American period is his orchestration (he and Gershwin were the only two Broadway composers to do their own orchestrations in the 30s and 40s), and there are inevitable losses where ‘One Touch of Venus’ is presented, as here, with piano accompaniment only. In particular the two ballet sequences, ’40 Minutes for Lunch’ and ‘Ozone Heights’, suffer. However, what Weill’s own finger-breaking piano transcription does bring out is the harmonic adventurousness and range of the score. It is beautifully played by MD Aaron Clingham.
Also intact from the original are the vocal harmonies in the chorus work. Here the Ensemble has been drilled within an inch of its life, and the result is glorious. The opening number “New Art is True Art”, and the chase sequence “Catch Hatch!” lift the show into a different dimension.
Of the principals, Kendra McMillan (Venus) is very tall and statuesque, while David Jay-Douglas (Rodney) is a little butterball. Instead of playing to this mismatch for comic effect, the production seems to be trying to ignore it or apologise for it. Venus in particular suffers.
It is not an easy part to play. Etherial or earthy? It was originally conceived for Marlene Dietrich, who turned it down as being too profane, and ended up with clean and chipper Mary Martin. McMillan is more Martin than Dietrich. She has a great voice and delivers her ballads movingly, but elsewhere has problems in maintaining our belief in the Goddess. She’s not helped by her costume; whatever else Venus might wear, she would emphatically not arrive in polyester, change into a rather creased M & S petticoat, or sport battered black ballet pumps.
Jay-Douglas is well cast, but seems to have some problems with his lines. However, his singing voice is true, and he pulls off his big number ‘Speak Low’ well. Clingham has the tact and sense to allow the ballads room to breathe, and give the performers time to be quiet, and to establish rapport with the audience.
All Star Productions have a well-established reputation for bringing neglected musicals to life, and ‘One Touch of Venus’ is a worthy addition to the roster. Forget the weaknesses, the glories of Weill’s score and the way it is sung more than justifies a trip to darkest Walthamstow.