When thinking of classic crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Bobby Darin, the word timeless comes to mind. They remain endlessly charming despite the passage of time and changes in culture and trends. Based on old clips, you can see that their stage presence radiates through and with just a wink and a smile, they could captivate an audience. The golden music of their time also has this magical ability to sear right through to your heart and render you helpless.
Crooners, which played for one night at the Richmond Theatre, is dedicated to celebrating these performers and is billed as bringing back variety entertainment but with a British twist. However, the show which ran for over 2 hours and 30 minutes felt like a sorry misfire.
There were many promising elements including the exquisite nine-piece band, the smooth choreography during the musical numbers and the brilliant song selection featuring hits such as ‘L-O-V-E’, ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ and ‘You’re Awful’. But, the relentless silly antics by performer Roman Marek who also wrote, co-choreographed and co-produced the show seemed doggedly determined to drag the show down and took his co-stars down with him too.
Through a voiceover imitating David Attenborough, we learn in the show’s opening moments that the extinction of Crooners is imminent. Charlie (Roman Marek – the hyper fireball), Winston (a suave Jim Whitley) and Rupert (a classy Tim Harwood) are the remaining crooners in existence (the exception, they say, is Tony Bennett). They must find mating partners in Richmond in order to procreate and guarantee the survival of their species. This thin premise just about suffices to carry us through the night of musical performances, slapstick, farce and enough jokes to make your head spin.
The highlight of the night was Whitley’s confident performance of Mr Bojangoles in which he was able to showcase his gift for tap dancing, singing and whistling in tune. Rather than going down the outlandish route, his delivery was introspective; as he danced he would often look at the ground so that his hat covered the top half of his face. Yet, he gave a completely engaging performance, delivered with a lot of heart. Although the number was most likely the result of countless rehearsals, it came across as effortless and it was a joy to relax into this moment where he shone.
On the other hand, Marek had the energy of a disruptive child that was keen to gain attention. His hijinks began fairly early on with a gag about not being able to hold his clipboard under his arm – this joke felt wrung out for far too long. This was later followed by lots of gyrating of his hips, lifting up his costume to show his underwear and throwing props all around the stage. Initially, it was easy to forgive these moments because the musical numbers had the quality of being able to transcend whatever craziness had come before them. But later on, it did grow tiresome.
Harwood’s performance as Rupert could be described as much more reserved. He was able to draw laughs from the crowd during his comedic moments and thanks to his fine voice, he dazzled most when he sang directly to the audience without any frills.
Unfortunately, the show reached a point where it decidedly took a turn from being enjoyable but slightly flawed towards disaster. This was when a heckler asked what spooning was. Taking the bait, Marek attempted to give a live demonstration but broke character and couldn’t stop laughing about it and this had his co-stars in stitches too.
This struggle to maintain character continued throughout most of the first act. I had assumed that the break from the interval would give the trio the chance to compose, but it just got worse. Charlie’s antics were upped of course too – putting a sock in his underwear, falling off the stage and slipping on steps. There were many moments where the show paused as the cast couldn’t stop laughing for long enough to deliver their lines. Although this drew laughs from many audience members too – it had the feel of laughter at an unbelievable car crash rather than entertainment in the class of the performers that this show is meant to pay homage to.
The most entertaining aspect I found in all of this was that despite the chaos, the double bassist was able to keep a stone-cold face. This probably mirrored what I felt inside, mixed with a tinge of disbelief and dismay.
Indeed, variety shows may not be as popular as they once were and the vitality of swing and jazz music is probably nowhere near what it once was. So there is nothing wrong with trying to update and evolve the genre as the Crooners show has attempted to do. But I do wish that the creative team had a little bit more faith in the ability of the timeless music to wow an audience rather than resorting to laying the comedy on so thick. Unfortunately, my lasting memory of the show will be the cast members holding dearly onto their fake moustaches in a desperate attempt to suppress their laughter rather than a successful attempt to make crooners relevant again.
Photo Credit: The Crooners Production Website