With echoes of both Bob Carlton’s Return to the Forbidden Planet (adapting Shakespeare with a rock and roll score) and The Heather Brothers’ A Slice of Saturday Night (pastiching very specific pop songs with very recognizable hooks), Bob Eaton’s Roll Over Beethoven rocked into the Belgrade Theatre this evening.
It is 1956, and “sensible” music still rules the roost in England. It is also the year Chuck Berry released the song that gives the show its title. Denmark Street, London’s answer to Tin Pan Alley, becomes the jumping off point for a plot, loosely based on Hamlet, that centres on how Rock and Roll usurped other more traditional musical styles, and with it came the arrival of the Teenager.
From the opening strains of classical piano, through Skiffle, lyrical dance band music (with a beautifully restrained muted trumpet solo from Oliver Beamish) and Connie Francis teen-pop to the concluding Chuck Berry style finale led by the rocking Matt Devitt, the music throughout this production is simply wonderful. Bob Eatons’ songs, with very specific resonances towards songs by the likes of Elvis, Danny and the Juniors and Jerome Kern, are given fantastically idiomatic arrangements by Ben Goddard, and are delivered with real panache by this talented company of actor-musicians.
This is a show that deals in broad, bold colours. The music is designed to raise a smile, the book is lighthearted and knowingly corny at times, and the cast are fully committed to the cause. Performances are universally excellent, with Devitt as a delightfully lugubrious Ghost providing many of the evening’s best moments. But there is also time for a moment of pathos and social comment midway through Act 2 that was beautifully judged and performed (no spoilers here!).
The simple but effective set is supported by good use of projections, often cartoonish, to support the action. And special mention to Sound Designer Charlie Brown; we could hear (almost) every word, which is crucial in a new musical with no previous familiarity with Eaton’s witty and heartfelt lyrics.
The audience clearly enjoyed the show, but had one small complaint; when encouraged to stand up and dance during the encore, the music was far too short for them to get a good boogie in. I’m sure Ludvig Van B would want them to get even more of this wonderfully warm entertainment.
Roll Over Beethoven plays at the Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 17 September.
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