Watermill - Copacabana
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Watermill - Copacabana

15th July to 4th September 2010.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Barry Manilow may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of musicals, but he developed his song Copacabana into this full blown musical. The plot is rather on the thin side: boy meets girl; girl gets kidnapped by baddie; boy rescues girl and baddie dies. But we haven’t come for the plot, we’ve come for the songs, the dancing and the production, for this is another musical extravaganza from Craig Revel Horwood and Sarah Travis. And like all Revel Horwood / Travis shows it’s overflowing with energy, accentuated by being compressed into the Watermill’s small stage.

It’s 1947. Lola from Tulsa comes to New York to make her fortune on the stage, and meets Tony from Brooklyn. After a series of unsuccessful auditions, with Tony’s help she gets a job as a showgirl in the trendy Copacabana club. Here she catches the eye of Rico who drugs her and abducts her to Havana, from where Tony and Copacabana boss Sam rescue her.

Edward Baker-Duly as Tony and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Lola are a well-matched couple but are outshone by Julian Littman as Sam and Watermill favourite Karen Mann as Gladys, the ageing cigarette seller at the club. Antony Reed is a menacing Rico, and Basienka Blake gives a moving performance as his moll Conchita. Cassie Pearson and Sally Peerless are alluringly tireless as the two Copa showgirls.

But how does it stand up as a musical? Well, I was surprised at how good the songs were, with some powerful swing numbers and dancing to match, with a bit of humour thrown in. Tony’s Dancing Fool adds some tap dancing and Copa Girl gives Karen Mann a chance to go over the top. Act 1 ends with the sensual and disturbingly violent Bolero D’Amore and Act 2 gets off to a cracking opening with Havana/Carumba. As usual with the Watermill musical shows, the actors are also the musicians, playing from the sides when they’re not on stage.

Although not as good as some of the other Watermill musicals, Copacabana has a lot going for it, and judging by the enthusiastic response from the audience it should be a sell-out.

PAUL SHAVE

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Watermill's Manilow magic

Clever cast of actor-musician-dancers head for success at the Bagnor theatre

Copacabana, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until September 4

A drum beats, down the aisle sways a tall, glamorous girl in the briefest of glittering costumes, to be followed by a songwriter in T-shirt and scruffy jeans. One by one the actor/musicians of Copacabana filter on to the stage and suddenly the glitz hits the music and we are back in 1947 New York at the famous Copacabana nightclub, and the pace is hot.

A brief scene follows with songwriter Stephen (Edward Baker-Duly) at the piano, searching for inspiration, while wife Samantha (Laura Pitt-Pulford) nags at him from the shower above. What follows is a dream and Stephen and Samantha metamorphose into Tony, who works at the Copacabana, and Lola, a country girl from Tulsa, set on becoming one of the nightclub's showgirls.

Hilarious auditions get Lola nowhere until Tony takes over and updates the raunchy Man Wanted number so successfully that she not only gets the job but is kidnapped by gangster Rico (Antony Reed) to appear in his Havana nightclub, the Tropicana.

Copacabana is a show with dance as the main character and costumes a close second. It is steamy, glittering, fast - as Karen Mann (Gladys, the ex-Copacabana showgirl in a costume which reminded me of an ostrich) says: "That tempo will give you a hysterectomy."

It is possible that audiences, men and women, will need fanning to cool them down at the display of lithe young bodies on display. (Oh... those brief black shorts - on the boys.)

As you'd expect with Craig Revel Horwood directing, the dance routines, including the salsa and occasional touches of the Maori haka, are polished and tight - loved the lads in Dancing Fool.

There was excellent acting throughout, with Laura Pitt-Pulford combining naivety with showgirl-glam superbly, Edward Baker-Duly getting it exactly right as the guy who loves her and Basienka Blake (Conchita) nicely combining elegance with pathos and pizzazz.

Comedy came from Karen Mann's Gladys and the be-toupéed Julian Littman as Sam, manager of the Copacabana, a vociferous pairing which had the audience laughing time and again.

Barry Manilow's music, brilliantly arranged by Sarah Travis for this clever cast, stands the test of time and, combined with CRH's direction and choreography, make this another potential hit for the successful team.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

Review from The Times.

Three stars
The Watermill has a great record for reviving musicals using casts who double as musicians. A brilliant use of this small space’s resources, it’s also a lively aesthetic that ensures that these shows are never in danger of getting stately. Sweeney Todd set the trend when it went to the West End and Broadway; more recently, Craig Revel Horwood took Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard to the West End.

However, I cannot see Revel Horwood’s revival of this 1994 Barry Manilow musical doing the same trick. It’s not for lack of trying. As the cast come on stage playing the title number, which our singer-songwriter hero Steven is trying to write at his piano, it’s sheer showbusiness in the best kind of way. Showgirls float down the aisles; the disco bass line grabs you in; trumpets and saxophones blare out. It’s propulsive, inventive, enormous fun.

The next couple of numbers are almost as good. Sadly, it cannot last. Manilow’s music is always skilful, not always inspired. But the real problem is a shaky story, co-written by Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman, that lacks any inner life. Steven, played well by Edward Baker Duly (pictured), turns into his alter ego Tony at the Copacabana club in 1940s New York. Enter Midwestern blonde Lola — “she was a showgirl” — whose wants to make it big. Tony helps her to get hired — he’s a hell of a musician who sorts out her terrible audition routine. “They fall in love.” But then evil Rico — “he wore a diamond” — drugs, kidnaps and, in a piece of staging that doesn’t fit the mood, prepares to rape our Lola.

The longer it goes on, the less interesting it becomes. And it goes on: two-and-a-half hours, plus interval, to act out the lyrics of Copacabana? With a half-hearted framing device about the guy writing the song? But no real heart to the characters? Really? The first act is harmless fun, propelled by enough half-decent jokes and tunes that you don’t question its plastic romanticism for too long. But the second act, set in Rico’s cabaret compound in Havana, is terrible. Inert. The cast’s keenness starts to look hollow, particularly when they get going on a camp fantasia that seems largely designed to showcase Baker-Duly’s pecs again.

Still, Sarah Travis’s arrangements do the job and Diego Pitarch’s design summons up Forties glamour on a shoestring — even if Rico’s champagne is visibly flat. Half the time Revel Horwood and co get away with it. Laura Pitt-Pulford is a golden-voiced Lola, the other ten cast members put a smile on your face with their commitment. But they need better material.

DOMINIC MAXWELL

Review from the Daily Telegraph.

Three stars
“Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl.” Whatever you think of Barry Manilow — and we’re encouraged to think sniffy thoughts, aren’t we? — it’s near impossible not to know the opening line of his 1978 hit Copacabana, and hard not to be intrigued by the exotic life it conjures up.

For all the catchy, euphoric razzmatazz of the chorus, which celebrates the legendary New York night-club — “the hottest spot north of Havana”- it’s the glimpse of a personal drama within the song’s incidental details that does much to explain its ongoing appeal.

Copacabana the musical, which grew by degrees out of a 1985 TV movie until it was West End-ready in 1994, strives to give us the full lowdown on Lola, the men in the song of her life - Tony and Rico - and an answer to the riddle “just who shot who?” when things got out of hand.

The essential problem with it, though, and it’s one that this strenuously and sensuously entertaining revival at the tiny Watermill theatre in Newbury can’t solve, is that Lola — the smalltown girl who tries to make it big in NYC and winds up getting whisked to Cuba by a lecherous gangster, still lacks a crucial quality of substantiality.

The show’s modern-day framing device — in which a preoccupied composer, the creatively and romantically blocked Stephen, brings Lola into being and then falls in love with her through his own 1940s alter-ego is crafty but constraining: Lola is only ever a figment of his somewhat navel-gazing imagination.

The flimsy storyline — which originally kept casino audiences entertained for a wham-bam hour — outstays its welcome when the running-time approaches more than twice that length, bulked by amiable but forgettable pastiche swing and Latino numbers.

Using fresh arrangements by Sarah Travis, director and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood deftly capitalises on the Watermill’s shoebox dimensions to generate the requisite louche intimacy while allowing a spirited sense of camp mischief to prevail. But even as you marvel at the fleshy allure of the silver-tassled, feather-crowned chorines (Cassie Pearson and Sally Peerless) or at the remarkable versatility of the actor-musician ensemble you’re still conscious of it all feeling at one-remove from anything that actually matters. Edward Baker-Duly and Laura Pitt-Pulford as the romantic double-leads Stephen/Tony and Samantha/Lola twinkle as brightly as the lovely spangly costumes but they can’t pierce the heart. Bazza’s Copa overfloweth with nostalgic frolics that smack essentially of cardboard.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

Review from the Oxford Times.

How much toothpaste can you squeeze out of a tube? It’s a question you could well ask about the Barry Manilow musical Copacabana. Starting life as a catchy single in 1978, Copacabana went on to become a TV movie, then an hour-long stage show. Finally it was extended into a three-hour (including interval) musical extravaganza in 1994.

If anyone can capitalise on the full-length show it is surely the Watermill’s dream team of director/choreographer Craig Revel Horwood and music arranger Sarah Travis. With an award-winning production of Spend Spend Spend! most recently under their belts (a revival tours to the Oxford Playhouse in October), it is easy to imagine the Watermill duo licking their lips at the prospect of Copacabana’s be-sequinned, up-tempo, dance numbers, not to mention the accompanying smoochy love story.

The ratio of sequins to titillating bare flesh (both male and female) varies from number to number, because the show is set first in the Copa nightclub in New York, then in the Tropicana, Havana. At the Copa, harassed manager Sam (a most convincing characterisation from Julian Littman) auditions wide-eyed, innocent Lola, newly arrived from “Tulsa, Okla”. The audition is a disaster — until cool, handsome Copa songwriter and dancer Tony (Edward Baker-Duly) gets involved. Result: Lola is hired, and falls instantly in love with Tony. All is well until thoroughly nasty Rico (Antony Reed, suitably chilling) turns up. Rico, an Italian gangster, is in town to “visit his Godfather”, and finger fresh talent for the Tropicana, which he owns. In tow is now-waning Tropicana star Conchita (a heartfelt performance from Basienka Blake).

While the Copacabana storyline gets few marks for originality, it does offer Revel Horwood and Travis plenty of opportunities. They start with a pulsating version of the rather prosaically named Copa Opening: its top hats, tails, and splayed hand gestures suggest a hot mix of Fred Astaire and Al Jolson. But there’s much inventive and original choreography too — Havana/Carumba, which opens the second act, is sensational. Travis loves playing with rhythms, and it’s the fast numbers that work best — a couple of the contrasting, treacly ballads would benefit from serious cutting.

As always in a Watermill musical, the ensemble cast must be able to sing, dance and play at least one instrument, sometimes simultaneously. There are absolutely no weak links, but a couple of performances stand out. Laura Pitt-Pulford is terrific as Lola, the hick-town girl who has to become streetwise mighty quick, while the role of Gladys, the golden-hearted Copa girl who’s been there forever, might have been written for Karen Mann.

‘You’ll end up meeting a prince from a country that sounds like a type of cheese,” Gladys tells newly-arrived Lola. Wearing a far-too-tight skimpy costume, and sporting a luxuriant ginger wig, she’s the icing on the cake of a production that lifts a very ordinary, over-extended, musical into a higher — and thoroughly entertaining — league.

GILES WOODFORDE