Review by Daz Gale
The musical that got everybody talking last summer was a new production of Crazy For You at Chichester Festival Theatre. Winning rave reviews across the board (including a 5 star one from me) a West End transfer felt inevitable. Sure enough, it has made the Gillian Lynne Theatre its home for six months. But would it manage to retain all of its magic from the Chichester run or would it have somehow lost its rhythm?
Featuring the timeless music of Ira Gershwin and George Gershwin, Crazy For You premiered on Broadway in 1992, arriving in the West End the following year. It tells the story of Bobby Child who heads from his home of New York to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on a theatre’s mortgage. It is there he falls in love with Polly and comes up with the idea to put on a show in an attempt to save the theatre. It all gets a bit complicated when he begins impersonating Bela Zangler, giving opportunity for a whole lot of absurdity and hilarity to ensue.
The book by Ken Ludwig is inspired by the 1930 musical Girl Crazy while borrowing elements from other Ira Gershwin and George Gershwin musicals. It achieves the admirable feat of feeling classic and contemporary at the same time, helped by the fact this musical creation is in itself only 30 years old. Ludwig’s writing is sublime, weaving in classic tropes such as mistaken identity and love triangles with ease in a way that is easy to follow and not at all convoluted. It treads the fine line of never feeling too thin with enough bite to keep you invested while not necessarily requiring your brain to go into overdrive to keep up. To that respect, it does what theatre does at its best and that is provide complete escapism. It also can’t be understated how brilliantly funny Ludwig’s book is, with some truly rip-roaring one-liners providing plenty of comic moments.
Charlie Stemp returns to the role of Bobby Child he originally played in Chichester last year. Stemp has fast become known as one of the most exciting and consistent performers in the West End, having blown away audiences with his star turns in Half A Sixpence and Mary Poppins. In Crazy For You, he is at a career best. The role of Bobby Child feels like one he was born to play, perfectly playing up to all of his remarkable talents. A true triple threat, his singing, dancing and acting lends itself perfectly in a role that demands impeccable comic timing – something Stemp does with ease. Completely astonishing to witness in a non-stop performance that left me exhausted just watching him, he not only proves why he is one of the best in the business but here shows he will continue to get better as the years get on. If I was blown away by his take on this role in Chichester last year, it was on a whole other level this time around as he really gets to spend more time and a greater feel for the character. A flawless character performance, I am left in no doubt Charlie will land himself an Olivier nomination for this role – and deservedly so.
As amazing as Stemp is in the role, many of his cast-mates also deserve plaudits for their mesmerising turns in this magnificent musical. Carly Anderson is a delight as Polly Baker, proving herself to be a defiant match for Stemp’s Bobby. With bundles of charisma, a beautiful singing voice and a huge stage presence, she is a joy to watch throughout. Tom Edden gives a standout turn as the larger than life and exaggerated Bela Zangler, providing one of the standout moments of the night with the ingeniously staged ‘What Causes That?’. Natalie Kassanga may be underused in parts as Irene but manages to standout and threaten to steal scenes with her comparatively short stage time, particularly in the fabulous ‘Naughty Baby’ with Matthew Craig perfect at playing comic fodder as Lank Hawkins. Sam Harrison and Rina Fatania are always joyous in their hilarious turn as double act Eugene and Patricia Fodor. Crazy For You is a show with a huge ensemble, all of which deliver gold standard performances with not a weak link to be found.
Having the Ira Gershwin and George Gershwin songbook at its disposal means Crazy For You is packed full of iconic and classic numbers. ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ are some of the legendary numbers that make up the shows score, while even ones you may not be immediately familiar with keep the high standard of music consistent throughout.
The production value in Chichester was wonderful in itself, but feels even grander this time around. Making the most of the large stage at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, the whole thing feels that much slicker and well put-together, giving the feel of a real classic. The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt is a glorious spectacle, effortlessly transforming scenes from the glitz and glamour of New York to the run down town of Deadrock with ease, and some clever twists in between. Every prop present has been meticulously placed, allowing a show that always feels visually stimulating. Exceptional lighting design from Ken Billington and some truly beautiful costumes from William Ivey Long complete the beautiful aesthetic.
There is another star to be found in this production of Crazy For You and that is in director and choreographer Susan Stroman, Every detail of this production has been so carefully considered, allowing a completely correct understanding of what works and how to get the maximum impact of each choice. Every single aspect of the direction is pure perfection, but it is the choreography that really sets this show apart from the rest.
We have all seen shows with fantastic choreography, right? There are several of them in the West End at the moment that boast truly impressive and often gravity-defying movement. Dare I say there are none that do it like Crazy For You. Susan Stroman’s choreography is out of this world to put it mildly. Feeling utterly classic while making some bold and creative choices, the stage comes alive on the bigger musical numbers with truly inventive staging on the showstopping ‘Slap That Bass’ leaving me in doubt that this is the most well-crafted and choreographed show on the West End at the moment.
Most shows would kill for a showstopping number like ‘Slap That Bass’ – Crazy For You has showstopping numbers to spare. The aforementioned genius staging of ‘What Causes That?’ with all its precision in choreography creates a memorable moment, while act two number ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ may be better than some of the biggest numbers in many a West End musical. However, it is the act one closer that truly brings the house down. A sequence as creative and crowd-pleasing as ‘Slap That Bass’ should hands down be the greatest performance in the show… but then this is a musical with a hidden trick up its sleeve, and that is act one closer ‘I Got Rhythm’. Upping the ante and growing into an absolute beast of a number, it reminded me of the title number from ‘Anything Goes’ and, like that recent production, it received a rare mid-show standing ovation… as it should.
Crazy For You blew me away at Chichester Festival Theatre last year, earning its place as one of my favourite shows of the year. Between its cast and production, I didn’t think it could get any better than that.
I was wrong.
The West End version of Crazy For You is bigger and even better than ever before. With its slicker production value, completely maddening choreography and a lead performance from Charlie Stemp even more astonishing than last year, this really is musical theatre at its best. Crazy For You is the kind of show that should be used as an example of what the perfect musical looks like. This feel good family fun, crowd-pleasing show will guarantee you have a smile on your face all through the show… and long after you leave the theatre. Truly one of the greatest musicals that has hit the West End in a very long time, you really would be crazy to miss it.
Crazy For You plays at the Gillian Lynne Theatre until 20th January 2024 Tickets from lwtheatres.co.uk
Photos by Johan Persson