★★★ After the recent success of Bad Jews, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you won’t succeed in getting a show at St James Theatre if it doesn’t have the word "Jews" in the title, because now comes You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if You Don’t Have Any Jews. This compilation show is fresh from its own successful run in Tel Aviv, complete with a cast of 18 – most of whom are talented young triple threats (they sing, they dance, they act) – and featuring Jackie Marks, an original cast member of Les Mis and one of the first to play Fantine (the audience loved her singing 'I Dreamed a Dream'). For those who follow The X Factor, it also features Lloyd Daniels, sixth season finalist and headliner on a sell-out X Factor tour.
“As Dorothy Parker once said,” roughly in her words (though not to her boyfriend as Cole Porter has it in the opening line of ‘Just One of Those Things’), “this is the kind of thing that will appeal to people who like this kind of thing.” The idea of a canter through the considerable contribution that Jewish composer/lyricists have made to the Broadway musical is alluring and raises expectations with that witty title taken from a show-stopping comedy number in Monty Python’s Spamalot (penned by non-Jewish partnership Eric Idle and John Du Prez). It’s just that here the story is told by a rather portentous voice-over, while a screen is lowered with visual aids, some old photos and deft cartoon sketches of those creatives, often at the piano. Each decade gets its own voice-over and image montage.
The narrative is confusing too; touching on songs and whole musicals from which we’ll hear nothing in the show, but mentioning others that will feature, without segueing logically from the last subject of the narrative into the next song and dance. After a while you learn to control the expectation created and go with the flow, but I was disappointed that Sondheim, for one, despite being hailed for his extraordinary range of creations from Company to Sweeney Todd and so much more, was restricted to just the lyrics of ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ and one number of his own, ‘Getting Married Today’, undeniably a brilliant and intricate patter song, but not exactly representative of the man’s genius.
And if it had been left to that 18-strong cast to tell the story, I think it would all have moved a lot more smoothly and swiftly. There is much to enjoy, especially where the context of the number is evident. I may have found it hard to appreciate a mash-up of Lerner and Loewe’s 'I Could Have Danced all Night' from My Fair Lady and 'Lusty Month of May' from the pair’s Camelot, but I fell in love with the ruthlessly self-deprecating, witty 'Four Jews in a Room' from William Finn’s March of the Falsettos and would love to get to see the whole show.
I did appreciate the chance to enjoy 'All Good Gifts' again from Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, the bittersweet songs from Jonathan Larsson’s Rent and a number from Parade that nicely illustrated the deeply troubling drama of Jason Robert Brown’s story of racial hatred in America’s Deep South. And watching the parade of Jewish musical genius was a reminder of how many successful Jewish songwriting partnerships there have been and still are.
The company execute Chris Whittaker’s rather literal choreography with style, enthusiasm and panache, and musical director Inga Davis-Rutter’s band of nine produce a rich, plangent sound with dominating strings providing that “Jewish” echo, thanks to Davis-Rutter’s own orchestrations. As a programme note recalls, Cole Porter is indeed claimed to have said “The secret to success on Broadway is to write Jewish songs” and this show testifies to that. And judging by the applause, laughter, clapping along and even standing ovations the night I saw it, it is the kind of thing that appeals to a lot of folk.
By Judi Herman
You Won’t Succeed on Broadway if You Don’t Have Any Jews runs until Saturday 5 September. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £15-£35. St James Theatre, 12 Palace St, SW1E 5JA; 084 4264 2140. www.stjamestheatre.co.uk