First Night: Desperately Seeking Susan, Novello Theatre

Lacklustre Madonna rehash fails to get into the groove
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The Independent Culture

A group of seats in the centre of my row remained thrillingly empty as we waited for curtain-up at last night's premiere of the stage musical makeover of the mid-Eighties Madonna-starring movie. I was all but fainting at the heady prospect of Madge suddenly arriving with entourage. As she clambered over my computer case, I looked forward to telling her how flattered I was she had taken the advice I gave her in my review of Up For Grabs. Well, she's never appeared in a West End show since.

And I wanted to tell her about the high hopes I had had for her career when I first saw her sexy, elusive performance in this film before she dwindled into a world dominatrix. But the lights went down and that was the exciting part of my evening over.

The selling point of this lustreless extravaganza is that the screwball plot, unfolding in New York in the 198Os has been allegedly amplified by the insertion of Blondie's greatest hits. This kind of thing can work. Look at Mamma Mia! But that musical has everything that Desperately Seeking Susan lacks. The former demonstrates a genuinely cheeky flair for finding droll or moving dramatic context for the songs. It offers the giddy pleasure of anticipating where they are going to have the nerve to stick the next number. And – the only reason for these glorified juke-box jobs – Mamma Mia! generates a wonderfully happy party atmosphere. Also, it comes up with an original plot.

Here, a delightful film has been adapted with clunky literalism (by Peter Michael Marino) and the resulting mess has been pumped with phoney energy by the uninspired direction (from Angus Jackson) and by the well-executed but terminally banal choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler).

Easing with finesse into Madonna's ripped tights, Emma Williams is in strong voice but fails to tantalise as a SoHo vamp. She and Kelly Price as the housewife from Squaresville who assumes Susan's identity are swamped by the idiocies of the adaptation.

Take the glorious bit in the movie where Madonna dries her armpits using an upturned hand dryer in the toilets. Williams is allowed to raise her arm for all of three seconds in the vague direction of an unmodified machine. The moment does not work either as an allusion to the film or in its own right. If the housewife starts off singing like Debbie Harry, how can there be any dramatic development musically? In the supposedly blissed-out post-coital languor, Price and Alec Newman's Dez sing as if they are about to embark on the New York Marathon.

Frantically seeking profit, this is a show that may have to be renamed "Desperately Avoiding Closure".

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