Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Cameron Macintosh achieved universal acclaim when he brought Mary Poppins to the stage over a decade ago. And so it comes as no surprise that he has reunited the team behind it – writer Julian Fellowes and song writing team Stiles and Drewe – for a crack at reimagining another classic musical. Unlike Poppins, Half a Sixpence was originally written for the stage as opposed to a stage adaption of a movie, so the revisions and additions here are to spruce up a book and score that admittedly has never been fully satisfactory. The original show featured a few tremendous songs that have proven longevity but is otherwise mainly remembered for Tommy Steele’s star-affirming turn in the both the original London and Broadway casts and in the subsequent movie.
Musical theatre fans worth their salt will know probably no more than four numbers from the show: the lilting title number, the catchy If the Rain’s Got to Fall, and the two big showstoppers Flash, Bang, Wallop and Money to Burn (the one about the banjo). However, the rest of the original score is pretty forgettable and in this version some songs are dropped, while the surviving are embellished and quite a few new ones are interpolated in.
Like Mary Poppins, Stiles and Drewe do a very good job of writing songs that fit in with the existing ones. In fact, unless you were well versed in the original show, you cannot tell which are theirs and which are by the original composer/lyricist David Heneker. But although Stiles and Drewe are one of the best musical writers working today, their new songs here prove to be as equally bland as those they are replacing.
Happily, the newly inserted Pick Out a Simple Tune manages to rise above this and be the standout number on the entire soundtrack. Like the similarly themed Lambeth Walk from Me and My Girl, the song is a masterclass in how great vocal and musical arrangements, and enthusiastic performances can make a very simple (but damned catchy) ditty into a genuine showstopper. The fact that it stands so highly in this score against such stiff competition his high praise indeed. This alongside the old classics give this soundtrack just about enough to keep it interesting.
The cast here are all good with special mention to Charlie Stemp in the lead role of Arthur Kipps, however despite being enthusiastic and melodic, the entire cast could probably do with a lighter touch, with most of the characterisations being a little more realistic than the material requires. Clearly a directorial decision but one that doesn’t work to this recording’s favour. However, this is almost balanced out by the decision to record this from a live performance which includes the audience’s rapturous reactions.
Unlike most recordings of musical revivals, this CD at least offers something different from previous releases and even if the new songs mostly don’t stand up to repeat visits, the old classics plus one new one still make this a worthy purchase.