TOP Hat started life as one of those classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films in the years leading up to the Second World War, only being adapted for the stage seven or eight years ago. As might be expected, the plot line is pretty thin, but with its host of (mostly) memorable tunes by the great Irving Berlin, it provides a wonderful vehicle for some spectacular song and dance. With a terrific orchestra, under the direction of Gill Merrifield, some colourful art deco sets, stylish costumes and above all magnificent choreography, Yeovil Amateur Operatic Society’s production captured all the glitz and glamour of the period.
The set pieces were simply superb and choreographer Sheila Driver’s well-drilled tap routines in particular, such as Puttin’ on the Ritz and Top Hat, White Tie and Tails were dazzling – in the case of Puttin’ on the Ritz quite literally so, the dancers’ glittering costumes reflecting the stage lights and filling the theatre with colour. What an opening number it was – you just wanted more and more! Son, Shaun Driver (as Broadway star Jerry Travers) and Naomi Lawton (as society beauty Dale Tremont) danced their way through the Fred and Ginger roles with real panache, and were ably supported by the rest of the cast. Jay Westaway and Ali Enticott, as Horace and his feisty wife Madge, were natural comedians – I loved their rendition of Outside Of That I Love You, and Nick Mountjoy made the very most of his cameo role of Bates, Horace’s personal valet. Mention must be made of Sarah Andrews’ exquisite solo in What Is Love while Zack Welfare gave a truly sparkling performance as Beddini the Italian fashion designer. He may have been rather more Mañuel than Milan, but he brought the house down with his performance of Latins Know How.
In contrast with many of the musical numbers, some of the dialogue scenes, particularly in the long second half, could have done with a bit of energising or maybe even cutting – assuming that the performing licence would have allowed director Brain Epps to have done this. But that is to quibble; we were here for the music and the spectacle and once the orchestra struck up we knew we were going to be in for yet another treat. Songs such as Lawton’s emotional Better Luck Next Time (not a song I knew I must confess) were beautiful in the extreme, while the little ensemble of a cappella hotel waiters were a real delight and kept our interest alive. Nice to see a few youthful faces among them too.
Although Epps’ grouping and general stage “picture” was almost invariably full of life and fun to watch, there were continuity issues. Many of the scenes were short (there were 29 altogether!) and whilst there were some quite stylish crossovers and other linking scenes, too often we were faced with seven or eight panels which were simply drawn across the stage enabling scene changes to take place behind them but leaving not much happening in front. Actually, these panels seemed to have a bit of a life of their own at times, which jollied things along, and things will no doubt tighten up – it was opening night after all.
Although the YAOS production had a cast of three dozen or maybe more, Top Hat is primarily a show for its two leads, and Shaun Driver and Naomi Lawton clearly relished the opportunities it provided for them to both sing and, in particular, dance the night away. This they did, with confidence, style and bravura.
Top Hat runs at the Octagon until 24th March.