Derek Deane’s big, bold Gershwin show for English National Ballet was a notable success in its arena appearances at the Royal Albert Hall. Its rumbustious orchestrations, its big-hearted way with Gershwin’s impeccable melodies, its dance energies, all reached the further recesses of the dome, and its warmth of intention (and Deane’s undoubted mastery in making dance effective “in the round”) touched a huge public.
It was, no doubt about it, a whopping success, and a joyous cash-cow for a troupe that must ever try and balance its books. Last year it mutated and was re-shaped and re-thought in several varied ways to suit a tour of regional and proscenium theatres (its circles, in effect, squared). On Wednesday it arrived at the Coliseum, all flags flying, every note ringing loud, every step directed head-on at the public.
This Strictly Gershwin is unashamedly populist. The tunes are part of the common and happily shared understanding of Broadway and that Hollywood where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers live in memory. The production is burnished within an inch of its life, the big band plays roaringly on stage and its conductor behaves with a vivacity that is more than ingratiating. There are rows of lights framing the action, blatant costuming, hum-along melodies, projections of Hollywood stars – not least a clip of Fred and Ginger as reproach to almost everyone, not least the oh-so-determined tap-dancers and a couple of steel-cutting sopranos. And a couple of cyclists. It is vastly energetic, lapel-gripping and undoubtedly (at 150 minutes) too damn long.
But, and it is an inescapable but, Deane has re-organised it with skill and an unfailing sense of popular theatre, and in a couple of numbers (notably a Balanchinian Rhapsody in Blue where academic dance sits featly on Gershwin’s score) makes dance that looks intriguingly below the music’s surface charm.
There are dark moments, notably the musically null American in Paris, where cliché piles Pelion on Ossa. But ENB’s dancers are willing, joyful, and Daria Klimentová, Vadim Muntagirov, Elena Glurdjidze, Zdenek Konvalina, Anais Chalendard and James Streeter make handsome appearances in the melee. Indeed, for Klimentová and Muntagirov, Deane’s Summertime pas de deux is a touching commentary on their partnership, and expressive of a gentler emotional world than one might expect to find in this boisterous setting. Jonathan Scott is a fine soloist in Rhapsody in Blue.
And the band plays gallantly, boisterously on.