Set in Belle Époque France, CAN-CAN! sells itself as a fun and frivolous new dance musical adapted from Offenbach’s original operetta Orpheus in the Underworld featuring a 17 strong all-singing, all-dancing cast. Held together by a somewhat frail plot, the production is largely a series of musical vignettes, informed by the diverse tastes (from classical to bawdy and even bodily function) that characterised 1890s Paris.
A revolving proscenium arch denoting front stage, back stage and the stage door made for an innovative (and occasionally nerve-wracking) setting which, when added to successful lighting, sumptuous costumes and flawless all-cast set pieces, gave the production a very slick feel. This was enhanced by some excellent performances from the more senior cast members, including a scene-stealing Corinna Marlowe (Madame Olga/Countess Bontoux) and heartbreaking PK Taylor (La Goulue). Sadly, however, the ambitiously wide musical scope of the production was ultimately beyond the vocal skills of the performers.
This show marks the professional debut of Kathy Peacock, who made a beautiful and captivating lead, though with a voice far better suited to a light and floaty Hammerstein heroine than a musical theatre lead tasked with singing full-on opera (Barcarolle). Emily Barnett-Salter’s Yvette set a wonderful example of brash and powerful music hall-style singing, particularly in her ‘Tiddly-pom’, but at other times her vocal power felt rather at odds with that of the rest of the cast. The few magical musical moments came largely from Rosa Lennox (musical director/one woman band/the only musician I’ve ever seen truly pulling off acting as part of the cast) and from Lauren Wood, whose musical ear shone through the various minor parts she was allotted. The male romantic lead (Damjan Mrakovich) was evidently cast on the strength of his dancing and stage presence, and the decision to ask him to sing some of the hardest works included in the production was perhaps an unfair one.
The dance content is the real strength of this show, and marvellous to behold. Just when you’ve been blown away by the skills and strength of the chorus of male dancers, the females demonstrate tremendous stamina and skill culminating in the famous can-can. Grace Manley (Margot Bontoux) deserves a special mention for a gorgeous ballroom/latin routine (ably partnered by James Alexander-Chew), which made for a beautiful moment of respite. That the cast contained such spectacular dance talent was clear, and this production would have been much improved by focusing on this strength, rather than repeatedly exposing its musical weakness.
Somewhat shaky singing from much of the cast and a paper-thin plot means that you will probably consider leaving. But don’t leave. Stay for the ambitious and successful dance moments, and revel in the spectacular finale.
CAN-CAN! is running from 6th February – 9th March as one of the productions in the Essential Classics 2019 season: ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. Tickets
[Images: Scott Rylander]