The West End arrived at Oxford’s New Theatre last week for a short run of the award winning musical Top Hat. Based on the classic RKO black and white movie of 1935 starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, this recent adaptation of the film to stage show is now touring the UK for 47 weeks after a successful London run garnering Olivier Awards for Best New Musical, Best Theatre Choreographer (Bill Deamer), and Best Costume Design (Jon Morrell). A treat to see such a full and colourful musical production with large ensemble and live band, and to enjoy wonderful and witty Irving Berlin songs. To fill out the show original favourites from the film such as “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”, and “Cheek to Cheek”, have been supplemented by hits from other Berlin musicals, such as “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, as well as some intriguing lesser known numbers, thus providing more opportunities for ensemble dancing, as well as songs for leading characters originally with just acting roles.

A skilled cast and stylish sets conjure up a fabulous and frivolous world of fashionable society folk attended by an army of hotel managers, perky waiters and chamber maids; sliding panels enable fluent transitions from opulent bedroom suites to hotel lobbies in London and Venice in this farcical story of mistaken identity. The central romance of popular hoofer Jerry Travers and the glamorous Dale Tremont is complicated by comical intrigue involving the bumbling Horace Hardwick, his acerbic wife Madge, temperamental fashion designer Alberto Beddini and Horace’s disapproving manservant Bates, in a story whose ludicrousness and out-dated attitudes we are prepared to accept because of the excuses it provides for witty repartee and wonderful song and dance numbers.

While evidently making some reference to the original choreography of iconic Astaire and Rogers numbers, Bill Deamer’s choreography overall seems to have a bouncier, busier, more energetic feel, drawing on the athletic qualities of contemporary performers. I enjoyed his reframing of “The Piccolino”, which abandoned the stylised formation dancing of the film version, and enabled individuals to emerge from the ensemble as different characters, including a sharp pair of Latin dancers and four bathers. Amplification of voices, tapping and band perhaps encouraged singing which seemed more belting than crooning, and the effortful dancing missed the languid understatement of movement in the original film whose visual style epitomised art deco elegance of line. In the leading roles Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch never quite attained the subtle chemistry of their incomparable predecessors. Perhaps this was an inevitable consequence of stage performance outwardly directed to a packed and enthusiastic live audience, rather than inwardly focused on each other and the intimacy of a dancing relationship made viewable by the camera. But there is still much to learn from the expressive grace, the sensitive inflection of the body and the rightness of detail of the incomparable Astaire and melting Rogers, whose electrifying dancing together in the original film brought unforgettable depth to this frothy entertainment.

Susie Crow

1st February 2015