The Glenn Miller Story – Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury
Director: Bob Tomson
Choreographer: Bill Deamer
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
When Major Glenn Miller’s plane disappeared in fog somewhere over the English Channel in 1944, en route from an RAF airbase to Paris, the 40-year-old trombonist and band leader was already a household name. In the 70 years since his status has risen to legendary levels. Perhaps the only surprise about a stage show celebrating his music is that it has taken so long to arrive.
One of the reasons that it has done now is that it has been created as a vehicle for Tommy Steele. Celebrating his 80th birthday this year, Steele’s long history of musical theatre performance means that he delivers the sort of name appeal to an older audience for whom the big band sound of the Glenn Miller Orchestra is a draw in its own right. But while the combination of performer and material make sound sense on paper, in practice it means thateven when reliving the character’s last days Steele is still playing a man half his age – and much of the musical is set well before then. The chronological retelling of Miller’s rise to glory starts with the jobbing trombonist auditioning at the fresh-faced age of 25.
Yet for much of the time it looks like the sheer audacity of casting Steele works. There is much breaking of the fourth wall, Steele reminiscing about Miller to the audience before switching into character – albeit an American with a suspiciously chipper London accent.
The discrepancy in ages does become harder to ignore when Steele plays against an otherwise delightful Sarah Soetaert as Miller’s wife, Helen. Their relationship is not helped by the show’s book, which is pedestrian in the extreme: the complete antithesis to the joy of the musical numbers it is supposed to hold together (it is perhaps telling that there is no attempt to give any writing credits in the show’s programme, save for the numerous musical numbers). The chronological structure overbalances the show, with Miller not discovering his now famous “sound” until the end of the first act. While there are some great tunes – most notably the classic Sing, Sing, Sing, which showcases Bill Deamer’s excellent choreography, executed with joyous verve by the young ensemble. But the interval curtain comes down on Moonlight Serenade which, despite its status as one of Miller’s best known and most beloved creations, hardly stirs the blood in anticipation of the second act.
And that’s a shamebecause the real fun lies in Act II. With the excellent big band on stage throughout, the hits come thick and fast – from the rambunctious Chattanooga Choo-Choo to the melodious At Last, delivered with great charm by Soetaert. But there are still opportunities for the moments between songs to let the side down and the final sighting of Miller as he steps out into the Bedfordshire fog lacks the emotional resonance that such a moment deserves.
With too many moments that have Steele (as Miller) describing how to make a good song great, rather than hearing the differences musically, it feels as if this show’s producers have not learned from the lessons their subject had to give. With more polish and less flannel, the entirety of The Glenn Miller Story could do justice to honour Miller’s legacy. As it is, that honour falls entirely on the perfectly executed music of the excellent big band, and everything else serves as a distraction.
Runs until 23 January 2016 and on tour | Image: Contributed