Saturday Night @ Jermyn Street Theatre, London

cast list
David Ricardo-Pearce, Helena Blackman, Joanna Hickman, Nick Trumble, David Osmond, Lloyd Gorman, Harry Waller, David Botham, Lee Drage, Joanna Hollister, Kevin Millington, Charlie Cameron

directed by
Tom Littler
Stephen Sondheim’s first musical, here starring Helena Blackman, a finalist in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, was written in 1954 but did not officially premiere until 1997.

And, being set just before the Great Depression begins, there is something poetic in its UK premiere by a professional company occurring in the middle of another recession.

The 24-year-old Sondheim originally intended to stage Saturday Night during Broadway’s 1954-55 season.

When, however, the show’s producer Lemuel Ayers (responsible for Kiss me Kate) died, the funding dried up and it remained unperformed for over forty years.
This production, by Primavera, is based on Julius J. Epstein’s revised book of the show, and features for the first time two songs that remained unfinished when he died in 2000.

Set in 1929, Saturday Night concerns a group of youths in Brooklyn who search for fun with a girl every Saturday night, and who typically end up either without a date or with one who spends all their money. This is all good, honest fun,of course, except that we know these people are likely to live in long-term poverty, especially since the Wall Street Crash is only months away.

But over the Brooklyn Bridge lies the enchanting world of Manhattan. One of the Brooklyn boys, Gene Gorman, has a job there as a Wall Street runner, which makes him aspire to becoming a rich man. He consequently lives beyond his means, encourages his friends to invest unwisely in the stock market, and faces prosecution when he is forced to sell his cousin’s car to obtain money.

The sadness derives from the fact that, as is frequently pointed out, everyone knows Gene is not what he pretends to be. His crime, however, of being a ‘sham’, a term that implies he doesn’t deserve any better than what he has, derives only from his not being born into a rich family. We therefore feel for Gene as we watch him embarking on his foolish ventures, knowing both that he deserves to succeed and that he probably won’t. It is a story that many of us can particularly relate to in the present economic climate, and we laugh for more than one reason when Gene optimistically declares ‘Name me a single stock that has ever gone down’.

Saturday Night is still, however, a musical comedy, and, as such, has an upbeat ending in which the cast sing of how ultimately they love shabby Brooklyn because people look out for each other there. When, however, they add that they might as well like it because they can’t afford to move, we feel that they are equipped to face the Depression that awaits, but only because they have set their expectations so low to start with.

The musical is striking in revealing how early on Sondheim developed the writing style that we now associate with his later works. Though feeling comparatively green, the songs possess the same combination of colourful music and clever lyrics to be found in his subsequent creations. Particular highlights include ‘Saturday Night’, in which the quartet of men sing about what they hope and fear the evening holds for them, ‘Exhibit A’ in which Bobby describes the art of wooing whilst a dancer acts out the song with him, and the company’s joyfully exuberant ‘One Wonderful Day’.

Saturday Night also, however, feels grounded in the 1950s, a time when Broadway did tackle serious subject matters but generally in a light-hearted manner. Here, there is still a tendency to portray the women as shallow, gold-digging and blinded by the size of a man’s wallet.

This production in the compact Jermyn Street Theatre is highly atmospheric, with the stage’s backdrop consisting of the New York skyline in silhouette. What makes the show so all-embracing, however, is the fact that all the songs are played, as well as sung, by the cast members. The piano and drums sit in their respective corners throughout whilst the saxophones, guitars and double bass appear on stage when required.

Amongst the strong cast, particular accolades must go to David Ricardo-Pearce as Gene who frequently comes across as disparaging towards his friends as he tries to improve his lot, and yet presents a character for whom we can still feel sympathy. Helena Blackman is also strong as the lady who wins Gene’s heart, putting expression into every note she sings, whilst the assistant choreographer, Charlie Cameron, delivers some delightful performances in several small roles.

Whether the recession will prevent Saturday Night from moving on to a West End venue is uncertain, but I imagine that it could work in larger theatres, provided that the staging is sufficiently different in style to compensate for the intimacy that would almost certainly be lost. And if it did transfer to a more prestigious venue, there are several cast members already in place who should be held onto at all costs.

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