Hey, 90s children! What did you watch when you were growing up? … Oh really? I’ve never heard of that… Or that… No, I didn’t watch that either. But I do know the words to every single song from every single film that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made in the 1930s. I guess we had very different childhoods. My adoration for the black and white masterpieces that Fred and Ginger made with RKO has continued well into adulthood. Follow the Fleet, Swing Time and the rest are the perfect combination of 30s glamour, snappy dialogue, gorgeous music and utterly sublime dancing – they are so much better than the vast majority of modern musicals and I will never get tired of them. So I had very high expectations when I headed to Manchester Opera House to see Top Hat, the first ever stage adaptation of what is widely considered the best Astaire-Rogers film. (Released in 1935, Top Hat tells the story of famous tap dancer Jerry Travers, who meets Dale Tremont and is instantly convinced that she’s the girl of his dreams – the only problem is that she’s convinced he’s already married. To her best friend.) I certainly didn’t think my expectations would be met, but they were well and truly trampled into the ground. With shiny tap shoes.
The fantastic orchestra kick off the show with a jazzy overture that seamlessly blends Irving Berlin’s fabulous tunes and gets me tapping my feet before the curtain’s even raised. But instead of beginning with a quiet, staid scene in a gentlemen’s club (as the film does), which would inevitably take a sledgehammer to the pace, we start with a dazzling and energetic rendition of Puttin’ on the Ritz. Not only is this a fabulous ensemble number, complete with bowler hats, canes and spats, it also introduces us to the lead character. But more about him later. Initially I wasn’t sure about the inclusion of songs from outside Top Hat, but every single one incorporates well into the story – and as they’re all Berlin songs, they fit musically too. The heartbreaking Better Luck Next Time, originally sung by Judy Garland in Easter Parade, emphasises Dale Tremont’s anguish and justifies her rash decision to marry the wrong man in a way that the film doesn’t. Likewise, the decision to include the iconic Let’s Face the Music and Dance at a point in the story when Jerry and Dale do have to face the consequences of their actions is an inspired one. The film’s sharp script has thankfully been preserved, and seamlessly blends with new, witty back-and-forth dialogue that elicits plenty of laughs from the audience.
Visually, this show is gobsmackingly stunning. Both set and costume designers have recreated the glamorous excess of old Hollywood movies down to the last detail – I particularly love the white, Art Deco-style sliding panels used in place of fabric curtains. I love that the lead characters light cigarettes at every opportunity, just as they do in the films. Really, the whole production is so classy I felt like I should have at least bought it a drink first. But it isn’t just looks. The hardworking ensemble act, dance and sing their socks off, and there are stellar comic turns from the suppporting roles: Clive Hayward as a bumbling, pill-popping Horace Hardwick, Sebastien Torkia as the flamboyant Italian Alberto Beddini (his very 1930s striptease to ‘Latins Know How’ had me crying with laughter) and the superhumanly deadpan John Conroy as the valet Bates. All three actors bring the original characters to life without being slaves to the film.
As for the leads, Alan Burkitt embodies Fred Astaire in a way I thought no human being ever could. He combines quickfire tap rhythms with Astaire’s trademark easy grace – I’m sure he spent more time airborne than with both feet on the ground – and delivers the quippy dialogue with abundant charm. He can act, he can sing and he can dance more than a little! Charlotte Gooch is both stunning and a gorgeous dancer (those high kicks!) in the role of Dale Tremont, but she doesn’t quite nail the wry, sassy character that Ginger Rogers crafted. However, she really does look and dance the part in the romantic ‘Cheek to Cheek’ sequence, right down to the moulting feather dress.
As much as I was impressed by the visual glamour, fabulous orchestra and wonderful dancing in Top Hat, I think one of my favourite things about it is how sensitively it has been adapted from screen to stage. Additions to the score and the script are well-judged, whilst choreography and staging nod to the film without being slaves to it. In the film, ‘The Piccolino’ is a big musical number purely designed to show off the enormous studio set – the lyrics to the song are terrible, even if Ginger Rogers is singing them, and it does nothing for the story at a relatively crucial moment. By moving the number to the start of the show’s second half and creating a distinctive accompanying dance style (a sort of Argentine Tango/Quickstep hybrid), ‘The Piccolino’ gets its own identity and introduces the audience to sunny Venice. This decision shows intelligence and respect for the original Top Hat. The old is reinvented, instead of being thrown out and replaced with the new – and as a result, we get a wonderful show that pleases die-hards like me and (hopefully) introduces the magic of Fred and Ginger to a whole new audience.