Writer: Warner Brown
Director & Musical Staging: Craig Revel Horwood
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Just when you think that the trend for jukebox musicals has exhausted every famous pop act’s back catalogue, along comes another one. To be fair, the songs of Dusty Springfield offer a rich and varied repertoire on which to base a musical but as Son of a Preacher Man unfortunately proves, you need more than some great songs to make a great show.
Jukebox musical plots are either based on the life and career of the performer or band or (as is the case here) they are an original fictional story used to string the songs together. Famous examples of the latter are Mama Mia and We Will Rock You which both take the concept of a musical based on pop songs to its extreme and have in turn a cheesy and just plain silly story. In both of these cases, they work because the stories match the type of music. The main problem with Son of a Preacher Man is that it takes the soulful songs of Springfield and places them into a frankly ridiculous story that makes Mama Mia’s plot look like Death of a Salesman.
Three separate people all go to an old record shop (now a coffee shop) in search of help with their love lives from the old owner known as The Preacher Man. It’s not clear why they do this, but they do. The man they are looking for is dead but they do find his son (creating the most obvious cue for a song ever). This son of a Preacher Man then feels compelled to help them connect with the people they desire. It’s not clear why he does this, but he does. Situations and circumstances devoid of any dramatic tension or emotional connection unfold, while people sing Dusty Springfield songs that often only vaguely have something to do with what is happening. That synopsis of Warner Brown’s book probably still makes it sound better than it actually is.
Thank God then for the fantastic songs and the enthusiastic and mostly exceptionally talented cast. Alice Barlow plays young Kat wanting to connect with an internet love. For someone so young, Barlow has a very impressive voice which is particularly pleasing in the lower register giving her the right tone to do Dusty’s songs full justice: something she leaves no doubt about with her rendition of the title number in the finale. Michael Howe plays Paul, a gay man looking for a lost love from decades ago. Howe is a seasoned pro and he too displays very impressive vocals, stopping the show with his rendition of I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten. The third member of the central lovelorn trio is Alison, a middle-aged woman finding herself attracted to a much younger man. Sadly, as Alison, Debra Stephenson struggles to keep up with the rest of the cast, her somewhat thin vocals and unexpressive acting being the weak link here. The rest of the cast are very good with special mention to the ever-present backups The Cappuccino Sisters as played by Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berkley-Agyepong, and to Nigel Richards as Simon (the title character) who gives a beautifully sincere and internalised performance.
Craig Revel Horwood’s direction is acceptable at best and at times is pretty bad, while his choreography only occasionally shines and is often shockingly repetitive and unimaginative. The real star here is Paul Herbert whose musical arrangements are superb, breathing new and exciting life into often-heard classics.
With an extremely weak script, this show shamelessly and unforgivably relies on nostalgia to carry it along. However, with Herbert’s fantastic arrangements of those wonderful songs, it could have been so much more. Or at the very least, it should have just been a concert of the numbers with no connecting material. Either way, frankly Dusty deserves better than this.
Runs until 10 February 2018 | Image: Contributed