Book – Ben Elton
Music and Lyrics – Rod Stewart
Director: Caroline Jay Ranger
Reviewer: James Garrington[rating:2.5] Over-engineered.
Ben Elton is known for a number of things in theatre – he worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on The Beautiful Game and Love Never Dies, and has written a number of plays. There is little doubt, though, that one of his greatest claims to fame must be as writer of the global hit juke-box musical We Will Rock You which premiered in 2002 and was based on the music of Queen. The following year, Elton wrote a second juke-box musical, this time based on the music of Rod Stewart – and Tonight’s the Night is the result.
Unsurprisingly, Tonight’s the Night seems to have much in common with the earlier work. The music is loud, and the story is so far-fetched as to be ridiculous. It is based on the Faust tale, but in this case our hero Stuart deals with the devil not for riches or knowledge, but rather to swap his soul for that of Rod Stewart. The story seems to be almost incidental though, and serves only as a way of including as many of Rod Stewart’s hits as is possible – even when they don’t really fit comfortably. So, for example, we have a music promoter called Maggie May, who has been renamed Baby Jane, thus achieving two songs in one go; and the entire company somewhat oddly end up on a boat (how else can we include ‘Sailing’?)
These are just some examples of where the adaptation has been overdone; unnecessarily so because, on the surface, Rod Stewart’s music would seem to be very suitable for use as a show score. It requires, though, a more considered approach, only using the songs that actually make sense in the context of the story rather than trying to fit a story around the songs. Stewart has written music that has a variety of styles, including ballads, love songs and rock. It seems such shame that in this production much of the emphasis seems to be on producing as much energy as possible and so much of the music is belted out at full volume with little respite; in a typical boy-meets-girl story, such as this, there really should be far more introspection than the musical arrangements give us, especially when the songs often lend themselves to a more restrained approach.
Despite all of this, there are some high points to the show, and many of the individual performances are excellent, given the constraints of the material they have to work with. Stuart is well played by Ben Heathcote, who has a voice that is ideally suited to this sort of material, having a typical Rod Stewart gravelly quality. Alongside him is Jenna Lee-James, who is outstanding as Stuart’s girlfriend Mary, and whose interpretation of ‘Reason to Believe’ is one of the highlights of the show. She is a consummate performer who seems to be completely comfortable in bringing her own touch to some well-known songs. Tiffany Graves is as dependable as always in the rôle of Satan/Baby Jane, belting out her several numbers with energy, and Sugababe Jade Ewen (Dee Dee) provides some nicely-judged vocals, showing what a fantastic voice she has. It feels as though Ewen is somewhat underused in this show; her voice is sublime, and she certainly seems to be at home in an acting rôle, blending in completely with the rest of the company. Particularly memorable is Michael McKell, bringing a comic touch as he plays the rôle of Stoner as a hybrid of the entire Rolling Stones with a few other rock stars mixed in for good measure.
Director Caroline Jay Ranger ensures that the production moves along slickly, with a well-thought-out set designed by Andrew Howe-Davies helping to keep things moving. Behind the action, the on-stage band under the direction of Griff Johnson ensures that the pace never slackens, as they power through over twenty of Stewart’s biggest hits.
There was a very mixed response from the audience at the New Alexandra Theatre at this performance. A proportion of them were dancing along to the finale, but there were an equal number very content to stay firmly in their seats; and that, I think, sums the production up. Rod Stewart fans will most likely love it, but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Rod Stewart has written some great music, and this production has a number of very talented performers; they all deserve something better than this.
Photo: Alastair Muir | Runs until 1st March 2014 then on tour