There’s usually a good reason why largely forgotten material from the oeuvre of a master such as Jerry Herman remains forgotten. The Grand Tour had the shortest run of all Herman’s shows and has not even achieved some form of cult status among the cognoscenti, despite US actor Joel Grey starring as the original Jackobowsky.
Thom Southerland’s imaginative staging of The Grand Tour in the tiny space of Finborough Theatre is a minor creative miracle and makes you wonder what made it less than a success in the first place (in the same season as hits such as Sweeney Todd, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and They’re Playing our Song). Perhaps the New York audience wasn’t ready for a chamber musical with production values that didn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the story.
And that’s just what we have here, in the tale of Jacobowsky, a Polish Jew and eternal optimist who's been keeping one step ahead of the Nazis all the way to Paris, and Polish nobleman Colonel Stjerbinsky, who's almost comical in his knee-jerk anti-semitism, and who has papers he must get to London as they play a vital part in the fight against the Nazis. Jacobowsky has a car but can’t drive and the Colonel knows how to drive but has no car. They reluctantly agree to join forces, along with Colonel’s girlfriend, Marianne. The Colonel's initial dislike for Jacobowsky is reinforced as Jacobowsky befriends and then falls in love with Marianne. But is it possible that through their joint experiences in evading the Nazis and learning to survive, the two men might get over their differences and even come to admire each other?
Herman's source material was Jacobowsky and the Colonel, an original, semi-autobiographical play by Czech writer Franz Werfel, who collaborated with screenwriter S N Behrman to bring it to the stage in 1944. Like the main character in his play, Werfel, a prominent Jewish intellectual and playwright, was chased all over Europe by the Nazis before successfully escaping to America. Later Danny Kaye played the mercurial Jacobowsky in a film of the same name.
Phil Lindley’s fold out backdrop and fold up floor make maximum use of the limited space to create hotels, countryside, rivers, railway carriages, a café, circus, a Jewish wedding and a Nunnery! And Cressida Carre marshals the 11-strong cast with intricacy and panache to people all these spaces.
What also works this time round is the use of just two pianos, under the musical direction of Joanna Cichonska, to provide the right tone for this small-space chamber musical, allowing the words to dominate. Jerry Herman can’t write an un-tuneful song, even if they are not always memorable, and all 11 numbers here do at least move the plot along rather than hold it up.
The show gets off to a spellbinding start as Alastair Brookshaw’s beautifully understated and thoughtful Jacobowsky opens not with a song but with a whisper. And then he takes his audience into the spine-tingling opening number, 'I'll Be Here Tomorrow', detailing his family's painful path across Europe, settling in one city after another, not just escaping persecution, but making a new life every time. Here Brookshaw has this heartbreaking quality in his voice, but he also displays delicious comic flair, for example in 'Mrs S L Jacobowsky', dreaming of marriage to Catholic Marianne: "I'll go to mass and I'll respect her wishes / And she'll start using separate dishes".
Nic Kyle’s Colonel thaws appropriately in an almost caricature part and gets to sing (beautifully) the best ballad in the piece, the haunting 'Marianne'. Zoe Doano makes a charming Marianne and the rest of the ensemble splendidly fill the many other parts, especially in the requiste first act finale, 'One Extraordinary Thing'.
Southerland’s direction brings out the tension between the European acting style and the US musical style to great effect. It does not always paper over some clunky plotlines and the music just occasionally underwhelms, but this Grand Tour is worth seeing in its own right and not just by collectors of musical ephemera.
By Judi Herman.
The Grand Tour runs until Saturday 21 February. 7.30pm (also 3pm Sat-Sun). £16-£28. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 020 7244 7439. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk