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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Good Companions

My association with Andre Previn and Johnny Mercer's Good Companions goes back to 1973. At the time I was going through a British consortium investing in West End musicals. Andre Previn wanted to do a musical based on Little Women. When he approached Johnny Mercer to do the lyrics, Mr Mercer suggested J.B. Priestley's Good Companions as a better topic. Mr. Previn agreed and they obtained British playwright Ronald Harwood to write the book.

They secured the services of the great John Mills, Royal Ballet star, Cristopher Gable, popular British singer Marti Web, and a unknown young actress by the name of Judi Dench. How could such a combination go wrong? Needless to say, the consortium invested in the musical and it was booked into Her Majesty's Theater on July 11, 1974, after a one week run in Manchester. The critics gave it good reviews and said it was one of the better British musicals to hit the West End Stage. There was even talk it might transfer to New York or at least present an American cast to the State-side audiences.

The musical ran only 252 performances; not because of the notices, but, strangely enough, because of the I.R.A. During that summer there were many instances of I.R.A. attacks in London. Gross receipts receded as a result, and the production closed down after the five month run.

We saw the production several times that summer. It was the first British musical that my mate Eddy had ever seen, and we both fell in love Good Companions. It was so exciting to see Sir John Mills, and several of his numbers were enchanting. We also discovered what a wonderful actress Judi Dench was as she played the role of Elisabeth Trant. I had the great honor to meet this splendid actress back stage after one performance. One could see her greatness in her eyes.

Nothing ever came of an American production. Greg MacKellan, the artistic director of 42nd Street Moon, also loved Good Companions. He said it was one of his most favorite musicals of all time and he tried to secure the rights for an American premier. For several years he tried and finally he secured the rights for this season. I am so happy that he did.

This is a story of a troupe of down and out performers in the early 1930s who perform at seaside resorts in the UK. These troupes were very popular before the war, playing various seaside theaters during the summer, and inland towns and villages during the winter months. These vaudeville groups would sing, dance, tell corny jokes, and just have fun entertaining their audiences.

This particular group was having a bad time of it when they met up with three “travelers”. They met the mousy Elizabeth who has come into her own with some money that she made selling her British estate; Indigo Jullifant, an ex schoolteacher and aspiring song writer; and Jess Oakroyd, an out of work older man in search of adventure. They re-form as a theatrical group and call themselves “The Good Companions”. All goes well and they find moderate success. Now, if it was an American musical all of the group would have found fame and fortune and played at the Palace. However, in the British mood, they all found happiness in different ways.

The big song is “Pleasure of Your Company”, a very captivating and catchy melody, later recorded by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. It has the feel of a British musical hall tune. It also has lovely lyrics by Mr. Mercer. Most of the songs are very English, even though the score is by America's Previn and Mercer. The two and one-half hour show is pleasant and ever so easygoing. Don't expect a big and booming musical.

The cast is good, even though some of the English accents were slipping when we saw it. However, that little bundle of English dynamite, Marsha Lanzo, is a true Brit. She has a list of West End credits that include Cats ,Oliver Annieand Moby Dick. She played Susie, the love interest of Indigo in this production. However, she does try a little too hard to sell her songs on this small intimate stage. Her mannerism is more suitable for a large auditorium, and her powerful voice blows you back into your seat. She has two outstanding numbers in the musical. She did tone down her last number “Stage Door John”. Marti Webb played this role in the original production.

As usual, Bill Fahrner, as Indigo, steals the show. This is one of the Bay Area's most talented singers, and it is a shame that he has not gone to greater heights. This was his 17th stage concert musical with the group. Not only does he have a great voice, but he has a trunk full of very good accents. His British accent was impeccable. His song, “Good Companions,” was gangbusters.

Mark Farrell, who was so good as Rutledge in 1776 and Motel in Fiddler on the Roof, proved to be a valuable addition to this production as Jerry. He also stole the show with his novelty number “Slippin Around the Corner”.

Elizabeth, the Judi Dench role, was played by Alison Aylers and she made a strong company debut in the role. She was enchanting in the song “Darkest Before the Dawn.”

Once again we have Stephen Pawley as Jimmy Nunn, a member of the troupe. This man is appearing more and more on the Bay Area stages. He is always terrific in campy shows, and I just wish he would have toned down the camp in this production. He is a ham, but I like ham. In this case, though, the performance was jarring.

I am sorry to say that Don Cima, who is always so good in these productions, was just miscast as Jess. This was the role that John Mills originated in London. I know I should not compare Sir John's performance with Mr. Cima, but he just did not catch the nature of this out-of-work man who longs to see his family in Canada. One of the highlights of the original production was Sir John's number “Ta Luv.” However it just did Not jell in this production.

Greg MacKellan did an excellent job in direction, a challenging job adapting this piece to the stage concert style. There are dull spots when good sets would have helped. Also, the book tries to focus on too many stories within the allotted time. The book starts out with one person, jumps to another couple, and finally ends up with a third couple. The tones were sweet and the show is typically English.

Good Companions (now closed) at the Eureka Theater with tickets at $22 to $25. The next production will be Jerry Herman's Dear World, opening in September. They have also announced that the company, due to popular demand, will replay the new version of Cole Porter's Out of This World for the last two weeks of October at the Eureka.

Cheers!


- Richard Connema



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