Tonight's The Night, Victoria Palace, London

Adam Scott
Wednesday 12 November 2003 01:00

Ben Elton's second catalogue musical - built around the hits of Rod Stewart and the Faust legend - seems a little flat compared with the fanaticism that met We Will Rock You. Perhaps Rod's fans are more laid-back than those Queen devotees who slavishly re-enact the "Radio Ga Ga" video at the Dominion each night, like the participants in some scary pop Nuremberg.

As with We Will Rock You, the volume is cranked up to Spinal Tap's mythical 11. As a consequence, we lose much of the vocal clarity that is such a cornerstone of Rod's own voice. For all their famed gravel, Stewart's vocal performances retain a crispness redolent of his great hero, Sam Cooke. A respected interpreter, Stewart always serves his songs well. Here, the songs serve the plot. And what a lot of service it needs.

Stewart's hits are shoehorned into the proceedings with wilful slapdashery. Elton seems sure that musical comedy should be silly, but doesn't trust his audience. Everything is executed within inverted commas, as if a big hand were about to descend with a flashing light to point out: "This is cheesy, laugh now." It feels condescending.

There are only two comic characters, and Elton throws one of them away. Jorge, Rod's gay butler (Howard Samuels) takes centre stage for the genuinely funny number "Hot Legs", only to be swamped by a chorus of Benny Hill-style masseuses. Hannah Waddingham's marvellous Satan, a blend of little-girl tantrums, PVC catsuit and vast voice, is given more space. Her energy lifts the show. But so flat is the evening that even the choreography of Stephen Mear (Anything Goes, Singin' in the Rain) seems perfunctory.

The voice of the night belongs to Catherine Porter as Baby Jane (ouch!), who belts a storming "This Old Heart of Mine" that soars through three key changes. The seven-piece band are as tight as a pair of Rod's spandex pants.

In the interval, I overheard that the ink is already dry on Elton's signature for a Tina Turner project. Perhaps it was this news that made me feel Act II started with a whimper, though it may have been to do with the staging of the sublime "Reason to Believe", which resemblesthe video for Barbara Dickson and Elaine Paige's "I Know Him So Well".

By the time we get to a bombastic "I Don't Wanna Talk About It", the overlong second act is dragging, with its resolution already as predictable as closing the show with a sway-along "Sailing".

If We Will Rock You is anything to go by, this will be a hit. But then the deluge. The new book musical is on ice until we've mined the catalogue seam right down to Phil Collins.

Booking to 7 February 2004 (0870 165 8787)

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