You have to hand it to English National Ballet: it thinks big. Cursed with sailing second to the Royal as a national flagship, hobbled by not having a theatre it can call home, struggling to find an identity, it has produced a string of large-scale crowd-pleasers and become "the one that does the Albert Hall".
Its latest in-the-round project, one year on from the umpteenth revival of its gargantuan Swan Lake, is in some ways the most ambitious yet. Again conceived and choreographed by Derek Deane, Strictly Gershwin aims to match the big-budget glamour of the MGM musical. Here are massive orchestra, illuminated stairs, top-hat-and-cane routines, a veteran Broadway singing star, and half a ton of Swarovski crystal sewn into some seriously fabulous gowns.
The pitch, it quickly becomes clear, is to tap into Britain's new sofa-bound enthusiasm for all things ballroom and to this end TV's favourite foxtrotters, Strictly Come Dancing coaches Darren Bennett and Lilia Kopylova, have been roped in too. The result is a high-gloss mishmash of tap, ballroom, ballet and cabaret that doesn't always cohere, but keeps up such a dazzling showgirl smile that it feels churlish not to respond in kind.
The music, as it says on the tin, is 100 per cent Gershwin: the show's best selling point as well as its one linking factor. Acoustically, the Albert Hall is hardly ideal – some of the detailed orchestration gets lost in that great rotunda, and the piano playing in Rhapsody in Blue comes out more like Debussy's submerged cathedral – but solid-gold tunes like these have survived worse indignities, and the rhythmic edge of Gareth Valentine's conducting cuts through the building's pea soup. The man is a bit of a show-off, actually, and though his energetic boogieing initially provides a spot of fun, the exhibitionism soon grates. I felt for the brass section when they finally got to stand up and claim a piece of well-earned limelight, only to have their conductor goof about, hogging it for himself.
The show's two halves each deliver a string of songs, mostly danced by couples, climaxing in ensemble ballets set to George Gershwin's more expansive orchestral scores. Anyone who hadn't seen the film might be floored by Deane's take on An American in Paris, a vortex of pram-pushing nannies, wimpled nuns, man-eating cancan girls and a bicycling gendarme, but it bubbles with life and the dancing is first-rate. Canadian guest Guillaume Côté is a dead ringer for Gene Kelly as the GI who loses his heart in the city of love; ENB's Fernanda Oliveira flips neatly from ingénue to vamp in the Leslie Caron role.
As the evening's closer, Rhapsody in Blue fields lines of shimmering tutus that wobble like jellyfish as the clarinet musters its ascending wail – Roberta Guidi di Bagno did the costumes, and they're fabulous throughout. In general, though, Deane's choreography looks happier when Gershwin has his serious-composer hat on. In the loucher songs, you're aware that the whole mindset of ballet, its discipline and control, is badly at odds with the jazz idiom.
That said, there are plenty of good things, above all the dreamy Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur in "The Man I Love", the nearest we get to Fred'n'Ginger symbiosis. Broadway veteran Barbara Cook also brings unalloyed joy. At 80 (astonishing!) her voice wears a husky veil but her diction, timing and – oh my! – her phrasing are a masterclass.
As Ira might have said: 's wonderful, 's marvellous, in parts. But it may be a mistake to let that ballroom duo stand too close to ENB's dancers. With their meaty tanned limbs, they make the ballet cast look horribly underfed.
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