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A muddled investigation that remains worth seeing



Review by David Munro

EVERY once in a while there appears what I can only describe as the 'spoof' musical, when an idea which is quite funny in conception, is taken and garnished with a few mildly humorous songs and flogged to death for a couple of hours for the delectation of a not too demanding audience.

The genesis of these is the Off-Broadway little theatres, or supper shows, which proliferate in the provincial cities of the United States

Some of them are worthwhile, Song of Singapore and Nunsense are two such examples which spring to mind, and some are not ,and I am afraid, Brenda Bly Teen Detective falls into the second category.

The spoof detective story is nothing new; as witness Something Afoot, which parodied the Agatha Christie house party thriller, and the appalling Dick Barton series, which emanate from time to time out of Croydon.

Brenda Bly Teen Detective is clearly inspired by a series of books about a girl detective, Nancy Drew, which are much admired in America, but are hardly known over here, which puts the show at a disadvantage from the outset.

This wouldn't matter if the material were intrinsically funny, and the performances were strong enough to steamroller the audience into acceptance of the authors' premise.

A lot of Brenda Bly is funny and some of the performances are very good indeed, but at the end of the evening, this, to me, was not enough.

The story revolves, as the title implies, around a schoolgirl detective who, for purposes of plot, has to discover who knocked out her best friend during the rehearsal of a school musical and why, thereby complicating her own love life.

This enables the authors to make fun of amateur musicals which is dangerous, unless your own product is above reproach, and to fill the stage with eccentrics like the headmistress, who is an actress manqué, the games (?) mistress, who has a crush on a pupil (now there's a twist), and has written the musical for her and to which is added a pair of twin superannuated film starlets fighting for the lead role... In addition, two soldiers provide the love interest, and one of the better numbers of the show.

And that is another point. A musical depends on its music and while in these spoof musicals there is a plethora of humorous numbers, there are seldom one or (even) two, really strong ones, and Brenda Bly is no exception.

Set firmly, as we are reminded constantly throughout the evening, in 1958, the numbers, as a whole, parody the rock styles of the era in a sub-Grease manner.

In contrast, Ruth Madoc, as Vera Van Strander, the headmistress and her lover, the security guard, Cecil Sessille, played by Charles Shirville, have a comic duet and dance in the style of Edwardian operetta which, as a relief from the previous relentless rock numbers, rightly brings the house down.

As the eponymous heroine, Cassidy Janson sings well but tries too hard to be cute and clever, and loses a lot of the humour in her part by overstressing her lines rather than throwing them away.

This may, of course, be the fault of the director, Fenton Gray, who imposes a frenetic style on his cast, which, while effective for the most part in the supporting roles, fails with Brenda, thereby throwing the whole show out of focus.

In a quieter performance as Darcy, the lead actress in the stage musical who loses her memory and her ability to act when knocked out, Jessica Robinson shows a real comedic style and is an effective foil to the frenzied activity which surrounds her.

This is led by Autumn, the oddly named authoress of the musical, played by Laura Checkley, whose effort to get the show on, no matter what mayhem may be occurring around her, is very funny.

As the twin ex-Hollywood tots, Gidget and Bridget, Sara Annis and Lisa Baird send up the has-been aspect of their roles to the limit but, nevertheless, manage to extract a lot of laughs from the hackneyed situation.

Melitsa Nichola, as Madeleine, the French exchange student with little command of English (or American) makes the most of her big scene at the denouement of the plot and, as the man hungry, unsuccessful in love, female so beloved by writers of musicals, Holly Graham, as Jo-Jo, adeptly side steps the travesty of the role and is spikily funny.

The love interest, if it can be called that, is handled by Joshua Dallas, as Buddy Rogers, beloved by Brenda, and Richard Ronalis, as Stud, his comedy sidekick, chased by Jo-Jo, and who gets into the obligatory drag with the consequent misunderstandings.

The rest of the male characters are played by Charles Shirvell, in a variety of disguises, and he shows how a professional can make bricks without straw.

His doctor is an extremely funny parody of every TV doctor from Kildare to E.R. and the dance number he does with the patient in the wheelchair, surrounded by inefficient nurses, is side-splitting.

Ruth Madoc has too little to do but nonetheless gives the show the gloss that only a real comedienne can achieve. Sadly, the authors do not support her, in that her main and virtually only solo number is woefully underwritten and ineffective.

The choreography, by Sam Spencer Lane, is bright and effective and is well executed by the cast, all of whom appear to be superlative dancers.

This is a bright and entertaining show but not one I can wholeheartedly endorse, as I feel that it could be have been so much better if the book and score were stronger and the pivotal leading role were better played.

These cavils aside, it deserves to be seen as the cast, on the whole, make the evening a worthwhile, experience and it is not their fault that the authors have not provided them with better material.

To sum up; Brenda Bly is the little girl who, when she is good is very, very good, but when she is bad, she is horrid.

Brenda Bly Teen Detective. Book by Kevin Hammond, Lyrics by Kevin Hammond, Music by Charles Millar, Directed by Fenton Gray, Set and Costumes by Amy Jackson, Choreography by Sam Spencer Lane, Lighting by Fenton Gray, Musical Director Colin Billing. WITH: Ruth Madoc (Vera Van Strander), Charles Shirvell (Cecil Seccille), Cassidy Janson (Brenda Bly), Joshua Dallas (Buddy Rogers), Jessica Robinson (Darcy), Holly Graham (Jo-Jo), Laura Checkley (Autumn), Melitsa Nicola (Madeleine), Sarah Annis (Gidget), Lisa Baird (Bridget), Richard Runalis (Stud) and Colette Fraser. Produced by Glenn Lee and presented Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm (Sunday at 3.30pm) at the Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, London EC4. Tickets 020 7935 3456.

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