arts & books: So it's hello and goodbye, girl

THEATRE The Goodbye Girl Albery Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
The Goodbye Girl had to bid a fairly rapid farewell to Broadway, where the Hamlisch/Zippel musicalisation of Neil Simon's hit movie proved to be no Hello, Dolly! at the box-office. Watching the extensively reworked version premiered now at the Albery prompts the thought that, if this really does represent a major improvement, then one needn't be exactly inconsolable at having missed the original.

The fact is that the show rarely justifies itself as a piece of musical theatre. Giving the emotions breathing space in song (and the audience some welcome respite from Simon's relentlessly wise-cracking dialogue) merely exposes how tritely conceived and/or phony these emotions are. Having a chorus on standby for just two stage-filling numbers (one set in a bitchy New York exercise class; the other a spoof-fantasy of a glamorous movie musical) only underlines the basic resistance of this material to being turned into a song-and-dance show.

What the piece needs is heart. But director Rob Bettinson's idea of heart is to dim the stage and throw a shaft of heavenly white radiance on Ann Crumb's heroine, as if a visitation from the angel Gabriel were imminent, whenever she unbosoms herself in a solo song. Crumb, in fine voice, plays Paula, the defensive divorcee (and single parent) who finds herself sharing her apartment with a struggling off-Broadway actor. In the latter role, you need someone who can start out abrasively self-centred and cocky, and gradually find the obligatory warm human being within, as much through contact with the 11-year-old daughter as with the mother.

But if there were a Nobel prize for niceness, you would unhesitatingly award it to Gary Wilmot, whose sunny good nature (the essence of his strong appeal) shines through even in the earlier stages of his winning portrayal of Elliot. Not that the show is much concerned with plausible development. The reasons for the rapport between Elliot and the daughter are so under- dramatised, you're tempted to put it down to some magic ingredient in the breakfast cereal they eat on the first morning. As played by Lucy Evans, the girl is just the kind of smart-ass American kid that makes you muse longingly on the death of Little Nell.

"You've never seen the world from a father's shoulders/ I've never seen the world through a daughter's eyes," Elliot warbles to this brat as he climactically overcomes her mistrust. With Hamlisch's unblushingly glutinous melody at this point (like most of the score, both anodyne and mechanical) and with the mawkish lyrics of his new collaborator, Don Black, you certainly feel that you've seen musical theatre from the bottom of the barrel.

There are compensations. Wilmot is charming and funny and, evoking a collision between Dick Emery and Barbara Cartland, even keeps the comedy going as a transsexual Richard III in that overbroad skit of an off-Broadway production. The show-stopper, though, is a sizzlingly comic red-hot momma number from Shezwae Powell as the landlady.

You still come out wondering why any of them ever bothered. "This show's gonna run for a hundred years," sings Elliot: I fancy that the life expectancy of The Goodbye Girl will be considerably shorter.

Booking: 0171-369 1730

Paul Taylor

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