Musical: Don't worry, be happy

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The Independent Culture
A QUARTER of the way through The Best of Times, I wondered what Samuel Beckett would have made of the composer and lyricist, Jerry Herman. It's hard to think of two less likely collaborators: Herman, with his irrepressibly upbeat, dogmatic endorsements of life - "There's a `thank you' you can give life/If you live life all the way/Tune the grand up,/Dance your shoes off,/Strike the band up - it's today" - and Beckett who, when someone said of a lovely sunny day that it made life worth living, replied: "I wouldn't go that far." Just imagine it: Herman's musical of Endgame with Angela Lansbury lifting herself out of that dustbin and, God darn it, rushing off to meet the parade.

The point, though, is that bleakly humorous misgivings about life can be more fortifying and consoling than endless exhortations to "Tap your troubles away" or "Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out" or "Open a new window" or "Whenever you're down in the dumps/Try putting on Judy's pink pumps" (try stopping some people). So I'd worried beforehand that this compilation revue, which crams 50-odd songs from Herman musicals into two hours, would leave me feeling just a mite suicidal. I'm happy and surprised to report that it genuinely does lift the spirits.

The ingredients are good: five versatile, attractively differentiated singers; an ace pianist (James Followell); a small, note- perfect band; and a format that doesn't impose any obtrusive concept but cleverly segues the numbers into shapely sequences. So, for example, the comically hick chauvinism of "It takes a woman", is soundly countered by Kathryn Evans' rip-roaring rendition of "Wherever he ain't", which gives men the finger in no uncertain terms. The initiative is then seized back by the guys, Garth Bardsley and James Golding, with the complacently philandering "Hundreds of girls", before Sarah Payne storms into Dolly's withering valediction, "So long dearie".

There's no disguising the fact that Herman's songs are formulaic and he's never going to be charged with over-sophistication. "We need a little Christmas/Just this very minute/Candles in the window/Carols at the spinet". Carols at the what? Oh, but of course, middle America is forever clustered round the spinet when it isn't conjuring melodies from the dulcimer. And the tunes have what can be most politely termed a strong family resemblance.

But the show has the wit to compensate for this, with cracking arrangements, artfully altered tempi and superimpositions of one song on another. Herman's biggest icons - and glittering pension plans for actresses of a certain age - Dolly and Mame, get to meet here in "Bosom buddies", the lethal bitching song from the latter's musical. The funniest moment, though, is Lindsay Hamilton playing a heavily pregnant frump in huge puppy slippers ("I wandered off and found a prince/And have I been nauseous ever since") who, encouraged to tap her troubles away, enthusiastically out-dances the line-up. Not the best of times, but a pretty good one.

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