A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!




English National Ballet

Raymond Gubbay and the Royal Albert Hall present

Strictly Gershwin


Conceived and Choreographed by Derek Deane

Principal Guest Singer: Maria Friedman

Guest Pianist: Jonathan Scott

Guest Tappers: Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson

Guest Ballroom Artists 

Bryan Watson
and Carmen

Rachid Malki
and Anna Suprun

Jake Davies
and Ivana Ostrowski

and the Maida Vale Singers

Lighting Designer Howard Harrison

Costume Design Roberta Guidi di Bagno 

Ballroom Choreographer Peter Maxwell

Royal Albert Hall

9 – 19 June 2011

On tour until 15 January 2012




This lavish, swift moving show is, for the most part, more of a tribute to the music of George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira, than one offering recreations of Gershwin works in their original forms. That said, longer pieces such as the quintessentially American Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris act as centre-points from which individual songs flow like tributaries, in a myriad of different directions.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) was without doubt, one of the musical geniuses of the 20th Century.  Echoes of his unique composing style continue to be heard in Broadway scores today, just as surely as ripples of his seminal opera Porgy and Bess (1935), overtures and aforementioned definitive masterworks are reflected in contemporary music, classical and otherwise. In the course of his comparatively brief composing span, beginning with his first published song in 1917, when he was just seventeen, and his first million seller (sheet music), ‘Swanee’, popularised by Al Jolson, it is an unsurpassed canon which includes standards such as ‘I Got Rhythm,’ ‘Embraceable You’, ‘The Man I Love’, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, ‘A Foggy Day (In London Town)’ and many others, often gleaned from he and brother Ira’s string of hit Broadway shows and motion picture scores. Gershwin was lauded many times, his final honour being a posthumous Academy Award Nomination in 1937 for ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ from Shall We Dance. He was one of the few composers to work simultaneously in both the classical and popular music genres successfully.

Singing honours on this fascinatin’ programme were capably handled by West End star Maria Friedmann.  Being able to see Ms. Friedmann’s face on the big screen at times, especially while she was singing Gershwin’s classic ballad, ‘I Got a Crush on You’ helped viewers to feel the emotion in the song. Call me a purist, but four singers who oft harmonised, more in the somewhat corny style of a group doing a modern television variety show tinged take on the ‘30’s rather than imitating the style of the era itself grated. Sans telly myself, I am not privy to the Strictly Come Dancing ethos.

Athletic, yet dapper tap dancers Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson handily steered us toward the right era, smiling through one cleverly staged routine after another, putting a set of light up when you step on them stairs to excellent throwback ‘30’s use, along with canes and shiny top hats.

In the context of this production, showcasing both the dancing of English National Ballet and the music of Gershwin, while nearly every number was being played by the orchestra, audiences were treated to a bevy of ballet dancers moving in time to sounds of the Big Apple 1930’s style and luxuriant piano or orchestral accompaniment as sequences shifted. This no doubt posed a challenge for the dancers, as Gershwin’s music is nothing if not diverse, and we watched as they impressively moved from classical form on ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, the ladies in tutus displaying a nocturne of hues from dusky to deep midnight, tiny matching hats perched on their upswept hair, men in black and white formal dress, before shifting into ballet with a decidedly modern edge for the detailed sequence for ‘An American in Paris’, inspired by Vincente Minneli’s 1951 film. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who with composer Frederick Lowe went on to write top musicals, among them My Fair Lady, wrote the script for Minneli’s film.  Another retro romantic sequence in this frothy programme featured dancers in sparkling white floor length gowns trimmed in black fur, finger-waves in their blonde, Harlow hairstyles, with men in tails who waltzed them round the expansive floor to one of Gershwin’s headiest numbers.

Though there are photos of old time movie stars like Joan Crawford and others of vintage Broadway and New York showing on screens high above the stage, there is rarely a true sense of the actual times of Gershwin’s music in the production, largely due to more modernised arrangements and the sheer scale of the venue. There is, however, a sense of spectacle and excitement in what is perhaps a more contemporary take on what some of the production numbers from Gershwin musicals might have been like. There is also, as you might hope, some beautiful dancing and wonderfully evocative choreography. And conductor Gareth Valentine enjoys his job so much that he fairly dances his way through the programme, perhaps overstepping the limelight at times.

The huge circular floor of the Royal Albert Hall allows dancers to form couples or spread themselves into patterns ‘in the round’ which must have offered a visual treat on par with the dance routines of large scale MGM musicals from higher levels of seating. However, from our place on the lower level, we could see the expressions on the faces of all of the dancers in turn, as women in 1930’s gowns sprinkled with Swarovski crystals, like so much stardust, sighed dreamily before being lifted high or twirled gracefully by their male counterparts in elegant white tie and tails a la Fred Astaire.

One of the most memorable segments of this hybrid show was that recreating the dream sequence from An American in Paris, featuring special guest dancer Guillaume Côté, in the Gene Kelley role, whose impassioned facial expressions and unsurpassed grace encouraged memories of the star himself. Likewise, Tamara Rojo moved seamlessly from Leslie Caron’s hesitant school girl to knowing siren of nearly mythological proportions, whose sultry movements put one in mind of a silkily clad snake as she danced her way into the arms of her dazzled partner. The evocative pairing of these two superbly emotive dancers conjured fond memories of the golden era of Hollywood musicals.

Erina Takahashi and Vadim Muntagirov make their marks through their impressive abilities to shift between a number of different dance styles. Whereas, in the ‘Summertime’ sequence from Porgy and Bess, Daria Klimentová and Friedemann Vogel of Stuttgart Ballet moved singly and, in close, nearly sculptural harmony like tall, lithe reeds swaying in the scant but welcome breezes of a hot summers day.
     Royal Albert Hall
Box Office:  020 7589 8212  
 Tamara Rojo: 9, 10, 11 (evening and matinee) and 12 (matinee) June
Friedemann Vogel: first 8 performances
Guillaume Côté: 9, 10, 11 (evening and matinee) and 12 (matinee) June   
Oxford New Theatre
6-9 October
Preview Week
Manchester Palace Theatre
12 – 15 October
Southampton Mayflower
18 – 22 October
Wales Millennium Centre
25 – 29 October
Liverpool Empire Theatre
1 – 5 November
Milton Keynes Theatre
15 – 19 November
London Coliseum
4 – 15 January 2012

Copyright © EXTRA! EXTRA All rights reserved