Leicester Square Theatre and nationally
Burlesque and cabaret has been getting a lot of flak recently so it's a brave decision to produce a burlesque musical and send it on a national tour. However the risk largely pays off in this surprisingly engaging production.
Miss Nightingale is an original musical set in wartime London. It follows the highs and lows of Maggie Brown (played by Amber Topaz), a nightclub singer, and her composer George (Ilan Goodman), as they make their way through the clubs of London as entertainment for the troops.
As a Polish, Jewish homosexual, George doesn't have much going his way. He laments for Weimar Germany, a liberal paradise long gone, and fears for the safety of his family overseas. His homosexuality is also not something to shout about during these repressed times.
Neither is Maggie in a great place, given that she's in love with a married man and her brother is miles away fighting the Germans. But when the pair impress Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Tomm Coles), a rich and well-connected entrepreneur, things start looking up.
Given its subject matter and its construction - a dark narrative following the tragic personal lives of its protagonists as they navigate the cabaret scene of a city at war, interspersed with witty, tongue-in-cheek musical numbers - this musical is inviting comparison with other, more famous productions.
Certainly the constant references to Weimar Germany don't help its cause, nor does one particular number when George, dreaming of interwar Berlin, picks up a chair to perform choreography that looks an awful lot like Mein Herr.
However there is much to recommend this production. It has a completely original score, written by Matthew Bugg, and the numbers are delightful. Whether its saucy tongue-in-cheek numbers on the lack of sausages or bittersweet laments on broken dreams, the songs are excellent. They are also purposeful, each number illuminating developments and challenges in the unfolding stories of its main characters.
Yes there are a few production issues - sometimes the sound of the music drowns out the vocals and the dialogue is at times clumsy and full of exposition. But this musical has great bawdy humour and real emotional pathos.
The cast is strong and each of them brings both strength and fragility to their characters. But it is the musical numbers that are the highlight of this show. The live band brings a real sense of spirit to the production and, given the limited budget of the show, the set design and wardrobe is excellent.
The centre of the musical numbers is Maggie Brown, re-christened Miss Nightingale to bring a sense of evocative glamour to her night-club shows. However as Miss Nightingale is being promoted as a 'burlesque musical,' this might give you the wrong impression on what to expect.
Though Amber Topaz is an established name on the burlesque stage, the musical numbers are not a series of stripteases or fan-dances or even tassel-twirling. Instead the full breadth of the term 'burlesque' is employed with Amber Topaz bringing showmanship, great comedic timing and strong vocals to her performances. In her able hands, the development of Maggie Brown from shy Northern lass to confident modern woman is believable and heart-warming.
That the show ends on a high note rather than a bittersweet one, is a surprise given its subject matter, and perhaps a little jarring. Nevertheless I, for one, would rather see a production like this, which is bold but flawed, rather than one that chooses to play it safe.