THEATRE / Throwing a guilty party: Rhoda Koenig reviews Connecticut Yankee, revived at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park

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The Independent Culture
A positively Shavian exercise in role reversal, Richard Rodgers' and Lorenz Hart's joyous Connecticut Yankee (1927; revived, with six new songs, in 1943) has three brassy girls who make the first move, and the next one, and the one after that.

Martin, a naval officer having a jolly stag dinner, is interrupted by his fiancee, Fay, who turns the affair into her last night to whoop it up with the boys. The next uninvited guest is Alice, whose insistence that Martin really loves her leads the enraged Fay to brain her beloved with a bottle and send the Arthurian buff into a two-act dream, in which he is transported to Camelot. With 20th-century know-how, Martin becomes installed as Sir Boss, impressing the sex-mad queen Morgan Le Fay and running the kingdom on sound business lines. Though he pines for home, there are such compensations as Lady Alysande, or Sandy, and such distractions as Lady Evelyn, eager to carry the infuriatingly pure Sir Galahad off to a desert island ('Let the foolish people quarrel; / We'll forget them for the nonce. / If they think our love immoral, / Honi soit qui mal y pense').

By 1927, Rodgers had already reached the height of musical sophistication, both in his inventiveness within the song and his understanding of its importance to drama and character. In the first duet, 'My Heart Stood Still', the nearly static melody reflects Martin and Alice's seemingly hopeless situation, but the unpredictable, melting harmonic shifts tell us their feelings are too strong to be held back. Two songs from the 1943 revival show that his work was still on the same level. In 'You Always Love the Same Girl', King Arthur reassures Martin, who is feeling guilty about Alice, that he's not being unfaithful if he loves the same kind of girl again and again - that, no one can do otherwise. But, knowing what we do about our inability to resist repeating emotional patterns from childhood gives the lyrics an edge - one emphasised by a melody with an undercurrent of relentless threat.

'To Keep My Love Alive' has the form of a madrigal, but the prettiness of the tune mocks the catalogue of Morgan Le Fay's methods of disposing of unwanted husbands: 'Sir Philip played the harp; / I cussed the thing. / I crowned him with his harp / To bust the thing. / And now he plays where harps are just the thing.' (The orchestra rushes the tempo of this number a bit too much for the jokes.)

Though the first half of A Connecticut Yankee is practically unalloyed bliss, the second is lumbered with the heavy tread of anachronism ('Hiya, king] Slip me five]' etc), and the plot degenerates into nervous bustle. Director Ian Talbot could have given it a stronger emotional line: the beautiful 'Can't You Do a Friend a Favour?' is chopped to a pointless comic turn for the wicked queen and the ineffectual Merlin (Christopher Biggins). And is it not possible to provide choreography which is witty rather than simply good-humoured?

Anna Nicholas, as Morgan Le Fay, and Catherine Terry, as Evelyn, make wonderfully comic supporting hussies. The palm for the evening, though, the laurels, the roses, and the whole damn garden go to Janie Dee (Alice / Sandy), an actress whose adorable, quivering goofiness suggests an alliance between Walt Disney and Robert Crumb. Her singing voice is not only sweet but sincere, and she levitates into the hero's arms from a standing start as if she does it all the time. The male cast ranges from adequate to in-, with the exception of a charmingly dim Arthur Pendwagon from Basil Hoskins.

Booking: 071-486 2431.

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