THEATRE / 'This can't be real.' Too right: Spangly out-of-season panto or third-rate tacky enterprise? Paul Taylor and Edward Seckerson on Manilow's Copacabana

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
That tempo could give you a hysterectomy,' rasps Conchita Alvarez, dress-rehearsing one of her vigorous Carmen Miranda rip-offs in Copacabana. Prolonged exposure to material like this could give you a frontal lobotomy, but as mindlessness goes, the new Barry Manilow musical is really rather enjoyable - a spangly, out-of-season panto for the Radio 2 crowd.

Barry penned the music. Barry did the orchestrations. And Barry co-wrote the book. Barry doesn't star, though, which proves there's a loving god somewhere. Instead, that honour goes to Gary Wilmot, who is all dimply, open- hearted charm in the dual role of Stephen, a New York songwriter, and Tony, the hero of a song we see him struggling to compose.

It's then a case of Manilow- meets-Pirandello as Tony gets sucked into his own illusion. Transported back in time to the Copacabana night-club, his alter ego falls madly in love with a new performer there, an innocent from Oklahoma called Lola (excellent Nicola Dawn). But she gets drugged and abducted to Havana (well, with this rhyme- scheme it couldn't have been Reykjavik) by an old Cuban heel (hiss, hiss), the dastardly Rico Castelli . . .

The show is principally a kitsch collector's paradise. I gave up all resistance at the point where the befeathered chorines appeared with fruit- encrusted bongo drums at either hip. Elsewhere, they are to be seen wearing large models of the Chrysler building and generally making the Ziegfeld Follies look like something by Peter Brook.

The music has a heard-it- all-before acceptability, a number like 'Dancin' Fool' leaning heavily on 'Puttin' on the Ritz' and the likeably preposterous 'Bolero de amor' getting a little help from Ravel. The dialogue too has a venerable ancestry. 'I was given this step by Carmen Miranda and, boy, was she glad to get rid of it.' They were cracking that joke in Ancient Greece about Sappho: 'I was given this poem by Sappho and, boy . . .' As drama, the piece suffers because the frame story barely exists, thus making the resolution resoundingly hollow.

There is a glorious section, though, with the campest, most scantilly clad pirates you've ever seen and Lola caught in their rigging. It's going to be a huge hit - that's as plain as the nose on Barry's face. PT

The title song - the one we go in humming - doesn't get aired until the final curtain call. That's because it hasn't been written yet. You see, the leading man, the songwriter, the Barry Manilow alter ego, is having problems with it. Could this be art imitating life?

On the evidence of Manilow's paltry score, I'd say yes, definitely. For old time's sake, he comes through with one winner - just one, shining like a beacon. Called 'Who Needs to Dream?', it's an archetypal Manilow hit with an insidiously wistful catch in the melody. The best kind. The one other big ballad is summed up by its title, 'This Can't Be Real'. Too right.

Rule number one: don't squander ballad opportunities in your first musical. And this is the worst kind of lazy, formula, pop ballad: one of those numbingly predictable tunes which lives for the big key-change and a Wurlitzer of synthesisers. Manilow's leading man even makes a joke about key- changes: works every time, he says. Wrong, Barry.

Has Manilow been fazed by the genre? You bet. He manages a passable Broadway-style opener ('Just Arrived'), and toys with Latino pastiche and 1940s Swing. But it's bad pastiche. He and his collaborators (masters of the bad rhyme and toe-curling innuendo) have no idea how to structure a musical, how to make the best of even third-rate numbers (and there are a few of those). The whole tacky enterprise might just pass muster as a cruise-ship entertaiment (all at sea, eyes desperately fixed on the horizon), but the West End? Broadway? Back to the drawing board, Barry. ES

'Copacabana' continues at the Prince of Wales (Box office: 071-839 5987)