It’s fair to say that, with ‘Sugar’, Wellington Operatic Society had a hit on (or rather in) their hands even before the first rehearsal. A musical based on the screenplay of ‘Some Like it Hot’, one of cinema’s very best films – ever – couldn’t really be anything other than a success, providing audiences with a fast-moving, farcical, hugely entertaining caper.
But there’s a downside: how can any stage production reach the level achieved by a film staring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe – and directed by Billy Wilder?
‘Sugar’s’ Director/choreographer, Susan Stratton, finds an answer: by maintaining pacy dialogue, creating visually glorious and varied images, adding important physical detail and business and having a company of performers who offer energy, skill and vitality – and a backstage team willing – and able – to follow her lead. Of these, Matt Redstone deserves much credit for his lighting. The stage in all its guises from gritty Chicago, to Miami beach, to Seminole-Ritz hotel (there are more!) is presented in startling and appropriate colour – and the projections onto the constructed proscenium are ingenious. Add to that a set of well-defined, varied dance routines and a company skilful and well-drilled enough to execute them and the visual elements are all delivered – well! Nancy Powell-Brace’s extensive range of period costumes adds much to the overall effect – but Op Soc’s costuming is always exceptional.
The plot has a runaway train momentum as struggling musicians Joe and Jerry become entangled in a speakeasy Mafia massacre. Escaping, disguised as members of an all-female band, leads to all kinds of cross-dressed antics, including very close contact with sad singer Sugar Cane, whose hopes for a stable future rest exclusively on catching the eye of a millionaire.
As the two male leads, Leon Searle and Ian Oliver set the pace. Both are accomplished performers and their own comfort (and enjoyment) in their roles gives them a sound platform. Being disguised as Daphne and Josephine offers unlimited comic opportunity – and both performers embrace the roles, underwear, outerwear, footwear with obvious pleasure. That they walk as men and grapple with manly matters in close proximity to the girls – Sugar and other Society Syncopaters – is rich comic territory that they both exploit fully. Jerry’s moments fending off – and then responding to – the attention of Nick Thompson’s expansive Sir Osgood Fielding are a delight – as is Joe’s adoption of a second disguise as heir to the Shell fortune in order to seduce Sugar. As Josephine, Joe’s likeness to Eddy Izzard is almost disconcerting, but agreeably so.
Hannah Green conveys Sugar’s vulnerability and sadness without belabouring them. The role’s charm comes from her naivety and willingness to be duped when the chance comes her way. The actor’s movement – a particular feature of recent performances – accentuates her ditzyness and her gorgeous voice powers her big musical numbers. The show’s songs may not follow the audience out into the night as they do from better-known musicals but Hannah (and the rest of the cast) make sure the performance is remembered.
As Sweet Sue, the leader of the band, Monica Spalding fills the stage with both schoolmarmy bossiness when attempting to chaperone her wayward girls and gutsy, tinselly glamour behind her microphone. Darren Burns is a credible, fidgety Bienstock, seemingly at a loss in managing the band of naughty broads. The baddies – led by Michael Cole’s Spats Palazzo – lack a bit of menace, or rather comic menace, which belies the powerfully worked tension and effectiveness of a syncopated stomp routine in their seedy garage.
The girls who fill in all the background detail – including the Society Syncopaters’ vibrant and busy scenes – are superb, always presenting authentic visual touches whether as bellhops or beach belles and they deserve particular praise.
The set design by Kevin Stratton grapples with multiple scene changes by using trucks and minimal scenery – both sensible – and a lot of cleverly crafted period detail. On The Wellesley’s stage, with strictly limited wing and flying space, the mechanics can be taxing – and it’s worth remembering that the team use pure muscle-power, not hi tech machinery to make it happen. The scene changes could be brisker, though – and they will be as the run gathers momentum. Hilary Wickham and her band do provide musical cover for some of the transitions – as do performers – and these moments work well. The band itself is marshalled and led by an able and experienced Musical Director who knows how to maintain pace and provide assured backing for fine singers.
This is a production which the audience will certainly enjoy. Those who know the film might be tempted to make comparisons, but there’s much to relish in this stage version. It’s an accomplished, visually stunning production which deserves praise – and full houses. To have a company with OpSoc’s varied talents on hand in Wellington is, without doubt, to the town’s advantage.
Review: Gill Paltridge
Performances are at The Wellesley from Tuesday 10 May to Saturday 14 May at 7.30pm. Matinee on Saturday 14 May at 2.30pm. Tickets from Odette’s Tearoom. 27 High Street, Wellington or by phone from 0844 997 9000.