That’s Entertainment, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Anybody watching an ITV talent show will, at some point, have heard Simon Cowell or any one of the other interchangeable judges decry some performance as “a bit cruise ship”. Quite apart from the suspicion that none of those judges have ever set foot on a cruise ship, let alone made the effort to discover the range of entertainment modern liners offer, the implication is there and understandable: it’s cheesy, all jazz hands, eyes and teeth middle-of-the-road fare.

And in that regard, That’s Entertainment is the embodiment of everything that is meant by “a bit cruise ship”. In its celebration of music from the 1940s and 1950s it’s far from perfect, its choice of song selection rarely strays far from the overly familiar, and there are certainly jazz hands aplenty. But there’s also a hearty embrace of all the clichés that defies any dismissive put-down. This is a show that knows what it is and is determined to provide as much fun as possible in the process.

As the show is touring around the UK, it is joined by several “star guest” soloists. Currently filling that role is West End diva Ruthie Henshall, who pops up at several points during the show to deliver her own take on standards. Given her long association with Chicago, it’s no surprise that her first outing is a rendition of All That Jazz, albeit one that’s a little looser than the show’s style demands. It’s paired well with Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries, the 1931 song which has since resurfaced in several revues including Fosse. It’s a little odd to hear two songs so explicitly not from the 1940s and 1950s in a show which prides itself on representing that period, but they don’t feel too out of place. Far more fitting for the period are Henshall’s Gershwin numbers, inspired by her time in Crazy For You, although the arrangement of But Not For Me is a little too breezy for its lyric.

But Henshall’s role is, after all, a brief series of guest spots. The majority of the show is given over to four key performers – Loula Geater, Emma Kate Nelson, Simon Schofield and Sean Smith. Rattling through a variety of Hollywood musical standards, there’s a keen sense of celebration throughout at the possible expense of nuance and lyrical meaning. The quartet is backed up by an impressive octet of dancers, whose tap sequences provide the greatest contribution to the celebration of Hollywood’s golden age – and, in the bizarrely out of place but enjoyable “Cockney knees-up” sequence, provide a sit-down clap-and-slap performance that is perhaps the show’s most fun moment.

Indeed, the dance ensemble is so strong that it is a shame that the show’s recorded backing track – disappointingly taking the place of a live band throughout – chooses to drown out the percussion of their own coordinated tap dancing with prerecorded tap sounds. While the sound they produce may not be of the volume that the large ensembles that originally performed to such standards as I Got Rhythm could achieve on their own, it’s a shame that this production chooses to compensate for its smaller cast size in a way that both draws attention to the show’s budgetary limitations and distracts from the achievements of its dancers.

A lacklustre tribute to the Rat Pack apart, That’s Entertainment does provide a fun evening in the company of some great standards. It may be cheese, but it’s a Waitrose cheese board – vacuum-packed selections that are packaged nicely, are at the above-average part of the quality scale, but which are ultimately a triumph of inoffensive populism over inspiration and originality.

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