Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:
When a US senator dies in the middle of having sex with a prostitute, his widow wastes no time in attempting to re-secure her family’s place in political history. Hiring her brother-in-law to coach her layabout son Cal into political glory, the family embarks on a campaign that starts at city council, with the White House firmly in their sites.
John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe’s political musical is a step away from the fantasies of The Witches of Eastwick or Zombie Prom. Premiering at the Donmar Warehouse in 1997 with John Barrowman as Cal, a refreshed version was staged at the Union Theatre in 2012. It is this latter version which director Michael Strassen has revived, the first production in the Union’s swanky new space across the road from its previous home.
The choice to revive a recent show may have been a deliberate one, to emphasise ‘business as usual’ at this first step into the Union’s new life. And as we head into the political conference phase of the US general election with two shamelessly calculating and self-serving candidates facing off against each other, maybe it felt like the right time to bring the show back. Unfortunately, far from the staging showing off the new venue to its best advantage, it rather highlights that the move into new premises is a work-in-progress all round.
In an auditorium which, on press night, was unbearably hot (hopefully a short-term failing that the venue will be able to rectify), the comfortable new seating has a very shallow rake, meaning that from only a few rows back the actors are visible from the waist up only. Infuriating, then, that many scenes involve characters sitting or lying down, promptly disappearing from view from anything but the first few rows.
Of course, what is not affected by such shortcoming in sightlines is the human voice, and Strassen has assembled a fine vocal ensemble here. Ken Christiansen, fresh from a similarly impressive role in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, the Union’s final show in its old space, shines as Grahame, the fixer.
Opposite him, Lucy Williamson’s scheming matriarch Violet is a wild-eyed performance of barely-controlled pantomime, in keeping with her wild scheming that makes Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate look like Mother of the Year. It is an enjoyable performance which pays off in the show’s final scene.
Fra Fee, who as Cal is the focal point of the show, possesses one of the most engaging voices in London’s musical theatre scene – but at times in Act I he is curiously subdued, sometimes becoming drowned out by the strong chorus. As events progress, his singing voice is able to cut through and his musical performance improves immeasurably, but his characterisation of Cal remains free of emotion, making it hard for the audience to root either for or against him.
Dana P Rowe’s music draws on numerous American styles, from vaudeville to gospel, and as performed by musical director Josh Sood and his band is the definite highlight of the production. John Dempsey’s book and lyrics, though, tell a story that lacks enough originality or sharp satire to really bite.
Since the Union’s first take on this musical four years ago, both House of Cards and the real world have overtaken it in terms of the caustic satire and machinations of the former, and the depressingly real absurdity of the latter. As a result, what should be a timely production feels more dated than it should. And while Little Voice ensured that its old home ended on the highest of highs, The Fix provides a level for the new Union Theatre to build upon.