Society: Wimbledon Light Opera Society (WLOS)
Venue: London Oratory School Theatre, Seagrave Road, London SW6 1RX
Credits: Music by Barry Manilow, Lyrics by Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman, Book by Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman
Performance Date: 30/05/2018
Paul Johnson | 01 Jun 2018 16:18pm
Photo: Ben Copping
Like Mandy and Could It Be Magic, Barry Manilow’s huge 1978 hit song, Copacabana (“The hottest spot north of Havana”) remains a firm favourite at the superstar’s live concerts to this day. His 1985 adapted musical of the same name – originally written by James Lipton as a TV-movie starring Manilow himself, but subsequently being adapted for the stage with a book by Manilow, Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman (opening in the West End in 1994 starring Gary Wilmott) – hasn’t faired quite so well.
The production has been available to the amateur market for over ten years with no signs of a professional revival in any pipelines that we’re aware of.
As a four-minute song it has all the Latin soul one could ask for. Lola who used to be a Copacabana showgirl now sits in the corner drinking herself to oblivion “Still in the dress she used to wear, faded feathers in her hair.” In Lola’s head the ex-dancer is still living “30 years ago, when they used to have a show” where she met and fell in love with Tony, the bartender. That is until Rico showed up, made a play for Lola, felt the jealous wrath of Tony and got into a scuffle… resulting in Tony getting shot dead. Not a bad storyline for a song.
However, in adapting this single song into a full-length musical, a little over-thinking has arguably been employed. I’ve adored Barry Manilow’s music for years but just because you “write the songs that make the whole world sing,” it’s not always a wise move to seemingly act on one’s …dare I say vanity.
In the show Stephen is a 1980 song-writer, possibly developing a whole production or perhaps just a single number. His wife’s comments – shouted from the bathroom – inspire the writer to drift off into his imagination, and 1948 Havana. There we meet Lola in a Peggy Sawyer-style role, attempting to become a star, attending audition after audition. Part-time bartender, Tony, with his own dreams of becoming a professional songwriter, like Lola, is also touting his talent but to record producers – also with little success. Tony meets Lola at the Copacabana where the pair instantly hit it off, until Rico appears right on cue… and the rest is history! Except for the musical theatre happy ending (it’s no West Side Story!) where Tony, somehow, escapes death at Rico’s expense and lives to walk off into the sunset with his showgirl.
Under Jonny Clines’ direction, Kim Findlay’s choreography and MD Sam Fisher (orchestra un-credited so presumably hired) Wimbledon Light Opera Society have done what they can with a pretty weak and dated book. The London Oratory School’s state-of-the-art John McIntosh Theatre (it was all tarmac and playground when I went there in the late-70s) is a fine venue fit for any ‘grade’ of production, but the limited playing space does rather struggle to accommodate WLOS’ entire company at the start of each act. I’m unsure if the society operates a pay-your-subs-and-you’re-in-the-show policy to get as many bums on seats as possible, but a restriction on ensemble numbers would give Findlay much more artistic control and less of a crowd-control role.
So much of the show’s potential success hinges on Tony (Alexander McKinven) and Lola’s (Connie Nash) onstage chemistry which, sadly, I struggled to believe for most of the performance I saw. The required undeniable electricity which pulls the audience into the story is all-too-often the make-or-break element, but with only eight males in the whole cast compared to twenty-six females, the audition stage of an amateur production is never an easy challenge.
That said, the pairing of Rico (Jacob Botha) and past-her-prime-leading-lady Conchita (Sarah Grey) is a strong one with both actors in no doubt of their purpose. Elsewhere, Kate Chesworth provides a fine lesson for her fellow cast (no doubt picked up from her professional training) in the art of stage presence and delivering clear end-to-end lines (spoken & sung) as Gladys Murphy.
I know I’ve said this before but I would like to have seen the dramatic scenes picked apart a little more and completely mastered in the rehearsal room. I’ve said that it’s not a great book (as with quite a few other musicals, sadly) but there’s still a lot of comedy to be used and – without wanting to sound condescending – these are moments where professionals will often find that bit of extra magic and also develop their characters further. But it needn’t be that way. Three years training in singing and dancing might always be a telling factor but in a dramatic setting it ought to be much more of a level playing field.
Musically, the title song obviously needs no introduction but it is nice to hear other slices of Manilow magic such as Who Needs to Dream… although numbers such as this really ought to bring the house down, which didn’t happen on the night I saw the show.
Visually, there’s much to enjoy with the show, which inludes plenty of uplifting and colourful Latin content. The ensemble – when not overcrowded – are well-disciplined and provide much of the show’s strength.
Copacabana plays at The London Oratory’s John McIntosh Arts Centre until Saturday, 2 June.
Photo: Ben Copping
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- : 30/05/2018