As the familiar Barry Manilow chords strike out and the curtain comes up on this new shoestring production you ready yourself for an evening of sheer flim-flam that you know won’t be filled with high drama but hope will be abound with exuberant (and fiercely camp) frivolity at least. Alas Thom Southerland’s production that hits the road out of the Harlow Playhouse is filled with neither.
Manilow wrote the title song back in the seventies as a tribute to the real Copacabana club that he frequented at that time. It wasn’t until the eighties that he, along with collaborators Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman decided to build an entire musical around it. Made for American TV it soon transported to the stage with only limited success.
With the current appetite for nostalgia and fun seemingly unabated it may have seemed like a good idea to resurrect the show, but with a plot as weak as an all-inclusive cocktail and songs as cheesy as a Butlins Red Coat it needs to rely instead on a bit of glitz and style and falls down on both counts. The very plain design with its high level gantry on three sides which is reached by two staircases that are irritatingly trundled endlessly around by the company gives us no sense of location or of fun or glamour.
The small ensemble work spiritedly to fill the empty space and the principals gamely do their best with the material they’ve got. Jon Lee leads the company in wholesome style as the budding young songwriter Tony Starr who sets his sights on the naïve starlet Lola, vibrantly played by Jennifer Harding. Richard Grieve is a silver haired Sam Silver but never seems sure what kind of character his nightclub owner should be. Camp, moody and a little bit wet all take their turns. Grieve was a delight in his recent outing to the outback in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Here he looks all at sea.
There is comedy in the form of a lively performance from Sharon Sexton as a raunchy and passionate Conchita as well as brooding Cuban mobster Rico by Ricky Johnston. Neither hold back and make for some light relief in a show that otherwise fails to sizzle. This is supposed to be ‘the hottest club North of Havana’, but for this production there is a distinct chill in the air.