TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT AT THE NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE, BIRMINGHAM
Theatre Run: Monday 24 February - Saturday 1 March 2014
Performance Reviewed: Monday 24 February 2014 (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Tonight’s The Night is the Rod Stewart musical. In case you didn’t catch that from the name, it’s handily emblazoned above the title itself. He’s also mentioned within the opening few minutes of the show. Frequently. He also plays an incidental off-stage role within the story of the show itself throughout. He’s also referenced in what seems like every major scene and held in what can only be described as an almost quasi-revered regard. The lead character looks, sounds and performs exactly like him, though isn’t actually him yet nonetheless becomes a burgeoning star acting uncannily like him in a world in which we are repeatedly reminded Rod does indeed exist.
He’s just on something of a casual stolen-soul career break.
The borderline sycophantic approach with which the creatives behind Tonight’s The Night implement Stewart’s inclusion into the show is glaring from the offset and almost threatens to derail and undermine what becomes an already convoluted and painfully derivative narrative. A glaringly perfunctory musical theatre romance 101 dovetailing into a good-guy-turned-rocker-rebel rags to almost-riches story is punctuated by cookie cutter characters and an overwhelming pall of predictability and over-familiarity. Thankfully though, the terrifically talented cast and company do a superb job of elevating the material they are given to work with and are ably abetted by a proven playlist of Stewart’s admittedly excellent, and in places iconic, signature numbers.
Tonight’s the Night follows Stuart (not Stewart, mind, they’re being subtle, you see...) a shy, retiring car mechanic working on humdrum ‘Gasoline Alley’, where he longs for the attentions of fellow employee Mary (Jenna Lee-James) who, unbeknownst to him, already reciprocates his feelings (thus making much of what follows completely redundant). In desperate hopes of winning her over, he quite literally makes a pact with Satan (a wonderfully bombastic Tiffany Graves, who dual roles here) to, bizarrely, swap souls with Rod Stewart and be imbibed with his spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and general ‘mojo’.
From the outset, the writing and direction is so illogical and seemingly self-contradictory that it’s hard not to be puzzled by fairly pertinent issues. When is this story set? All indicators point to modern day, with throwback mentions to the likes of the ‘early 80‘s’ amongst others, but how contemporary and realistic is it to have a young man instantly opt for Rod Stewart for this bizarre soul swap idea? Why not opt for someone who is actually current and demonstrating the desired traits of success with the ladies? The Rod Stewart hero worship that permeates fairly thoroughly throughout instantly confuses the period and muddles the overall premise entirely. For instance, why would a young rising artist who looks, acts and sounds exactly like Stewart not instantly be disregarded as anything more than a tribute act sound-a-like? Let alone be taken on by Stewart’s own management and follow some bizarrely replicated re-run of his life and formative years, complete with his own Mick Jagger doppelganger?
Oh, and why does Stuart already sing and sound like Rod Stewart before the soul swap has even taken place?
It may sound unfairly pedantic, but the list of incongruences and narrative faux pas are so numerous and jarring that one must refrain from allowing them to consume this review any further. They are, however, palpable book and writing issues, and it is incredibly difficult to shake the sense that what Tonight’s the Night embodies is a schizophrenic battle between a Rod Stewart biopic-lite and a terribly unoriginal jukebox musical vying for attention over one another.
Thankfully, as mentioned, the show boasts some extremely worthwhile saving graces. It is a visually arresting audio-visual treat, and one of the more audacious and technically ambitious touring productions of recent memory. The set design is in places a little Footloose-by-way-of-Rent, all grease, alluminium and grit, but nonetheless, in tandem with some bold, enlivened lighting design, does a great job of bringing a genuine rock concert look and feel to some of the shows punchier, headlining moments.
One of the other key draws of this touring production is undoubtedly it’s brilliant cast. Ben Heathcote as Stuart channels Rod effortlessly throughout, and pushing aside the myriad of questions surrounding plot and character, he carries the show with disarming confidence, erupting into raw, earthy vocals with uncanny likeness and impressive clout. Heathcote’s greatest achievement, notably in spite of and not in any way aided by the show’s book, is that he never comes across as merely a Rod Stewart impersonator on repeat but rather, despite the undeniably accurate vocal stylings and physical mannerisms, manages to just about keep his Stuart a distinct and interesting character on his own merits.
Jenna Lee-James does great work making the most out of criminally underdeveloped and de facto love interest Mary, the show’s female lead, and as well as an endearing performance delivers some ferociously powerful vocals throughout. It’s impossible to not feel Lee-James as giving it anything than her absolute all throughout, and she does a terrific job of offering some of the wow factor and keeping it all looking and sounding of a suitably West End or Broadway-esque standard. Jade Ewen and Michael McKell, likewise, shine in their supporting roles, despite both being unforgivably underused. Ewen plays Mary’s friend Dee Dee, and despite a somewhat disappointing lack of stage time and being yet another archetypal, paper-thin character, she is a genuine treat, with a sassy, confident turn met with beautiful tone and control to her singing - demonstrating a confidence to perform some subtler vocal gymnastics where Lee-James favours a strong belt.
McKell plays the extremely Mick Jagger-esque ‘Stoner’, and as with Heathcote the investment, transformation and imitation is utterly convincing throughout. The same meta, postmodern crises and conundrums arise as with the Stuart/Stewart characters, but unlike those, Jagger himself is never mentioned in name once, allowing the character to be a slightly less overt and always entertaining highlight. McKell’s wining and evident comedic prowess threatens to steal the show on multiple occasions, and again makes the question of why a straight-up Stewart and/or Jagger biopic wasn’t just opted for in the first place.
It’s difficult to summarise tonally what note to end reviewing Tonight’s the Night on. I didn’t dislike it by any means, thanks mostly to the cast giving such enthused, superlative turns and the prolific, proven nature of many of the songs, including such crowd-pleasers as ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’, ‘Maggie May’ and of course ‘Sailing’ meaning that by the end of the night the show has much of the audience on their feet in raptured delight and an irrepressibly celebratory vibe wins over in the end. When the show tries to tell it’s own original story it’s a bizarre, illogical mess, and when it doesn’t it goes so far into the realms of unoriginality and derivation one almost begins to question if it has gone full circle into satire. By the time one of the laziest and most predictable resolutions to a musical I have ever experienced wraps up, the audience are indeed mostly invested and enthused by the time the curtain call rolls around, though this is mostly external of the show itself, responding to moments of direct interaction from the cast, the ‘rock concert’ approach lobbying audience participation and encouraging the revelry.
In all, Tonight’s the Night is a production worth seeing once for the energy, vibrancy and talented company alone, unless you are a Rod Stewart enthusiast in which case much of the above criticism will likely be all the more insignificant anyway. It is just particularly regrettable given the high standard of talent and artistry evident in all facets of the production that it is so let down by the wobbly story, uninspired writing and facsimile characters. There is just about enough to recommend here for a one-off, lively, spirited night at the theatre, complete with great performances and set to some still-excellent tunes, but in all honesty it is unsurprising that this is a production generally regarded as the inferior (and decidedly less successful) sister show to We Will Rock You.
Tonight may indeed be the night, but it’s difficult to champion it as being anything other than strictly one night only.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * (3 out of 5 Stars)
TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT is running at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham from Monday 24 February to Saturday 1 March 2014.
Alternatively phone the Telephone Booking line on 0844 871 3011.
Press tickets for this performance of Tonight's The Night were provided courtesy of The New Alexandra Theatre directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.