It may seem like phenomenal chutzpah for Phil Willmott to be competing with Cole Porter, but the great songwriter's version of the Jules Verne novel wasn't one of his proudest moments. The 1946 musical sounds as if Porter wrote it when drunk and depressed – at that point in his life, a strong probability – and it lasted only 75 performances. Moreover, Willmott's aim was only to write a typical English musical, a work that, Noël Coward apart, aims to be cheery and pleasant.
Even in this modest ambition, however, Willmott (who also wrote the book, directed, and plays the villain) has overextended himself. While the first half of Around the World in 80 Days is mildly enjoyable, in the second half, we have to go through the whole damn thing again – the company milling and twirling in various native costumes, the comic leaping about and pulling winsome, droll faces, the wisecracks that, like the lyrics and melodies, are but gestures in the direction of the real thing.
In using a folk song and two vaudeville tunes, Willmott provides atmosphere at the expense of unflattering comparison. Though very minor stuff, these songs have the propulsive power and lyrical beauty absent from his own material – long lines wandering about in a vaguely musical way, chirpy short ones. The lyrics are also dreary, and sometimes painful, suffering from the delusion that "cub" rhymes with "rug", or "pandemonium'' with "opium." Lyrics and dialogue, however, are likely to be drowned out by piping little voices demanding, "What's going on?". When the actors face us, it's hard enough to hear them; when they turn away, it's often impossible.
Along with their sex appeal and ferocious energy, American musicals are different from English ones in being cast with people who can actually sing and dance. Around the World, however, asks us to admire performers whose sound couldn't fill a bathroom and cancan girls who can't. Rae Baker, as the love interest, is the only one in the cast with a voice, but it's small and not very well used. After being saved from suttee, her character is reborn as a feminist vixen, noisily indignant and ungrateful to Phileas Fogg – who, played by Bill Ward wearing a morning suit and topper for the whole trip, is quite comic and sympathetic. He'd be funnier if he were even more of an inhumanly perfect English gent, but the thought police have got their hooks into this show, too – I wish I hadn't taken a sip of my drink right before Fogg confesses: "I just can't show my feelings. I've never been able to... I wish I could let go."
This is far from the worst musical I've seen, but it's amateurishness is what, sadly, so many people associate with the form. If you want your children to get a taste for the real thing, take them, instead, to the splendid revival of the musical Cole Porter wrote next, Kiss Me, Kate.
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