This production of “The Glenn Miller Story” is really at its heart a loving tribute to the music of Glenn Miller by two long-time fans of his music – Tommy Steele and Bill Kenwright.
Tommy Steele is of course one of the great song and dance men of British entertainment with a career stretching all the way back to the 1950s, and one of the few from this period to have moved from being a teen pop idol to working constantly over the years in film, stage and theatre.
Bill Kenwright has an equally impressive career C.V. as one of the most respected and successful producers around, so on paper this combination of theatrical abilities looks set to produce a great show and it does in parts, but not overall for me.
The biggest problem is the age gap between Tommy Steele who at 79 is playing Glenn Miller who was 40 when he got on board a plane from RAF Twinwood Farm in Clapham on December 15, 1944 to join his band in Paris and simply disappeared along with the aircraft never to be seen again. I hope that if I reach this age I am anywhere near as fit as Tommy Steele (never mind on-stage singing and dancing), but no theatrical magic can hide the fact that he is now 79, and this becomes more obvious when we roll back the time to him marrying his wife Helen or even earlier meeting her again by chance when the band play his old university city of Colorado and they later go to a college re-union.
Glenn Miller married Helen in 1928 (he would have been 24 then) and that meeting a few years earlier would have made him even younger. Sarah Soetaert who plays Helen Burger has from the start a pretty impossible task of playing a convincing love interest with this age gap, but does more than her best. Sarah does get to steal a fair bit of this show actually with her acting and singing performances.
Enough said about the obvious age gap issues though, this show is at its heart about that sound of Glenn Miller and that (as it should be) is what carries the show through as we move from a fairly slow first half of Glenn Miller looking for that unique sound to finding it and in the second half pretty much just the music itself from a live 16 piece band. I would have been happier just listening to the music than some of the song and dance numbers built around the tunes, but this is a musical show.
What was that Glenn Miller sound though? Technically it was his idea to make the clarinet play a melodic line with a tenor saxophone holding the same note, while three other saxophones harmonized within a single octave (thanks Wikipedia for that one), but it was more than just that...something unique and magical happened as this band played not only original compositions but new arrangements of old standards.
Many of the classic tunes are here tonight - “St Louis Blues March”, “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” to name a few and of course “In the Mood” and probably one of the most evocative of its time pieces of music ever written – “Moonlight Serenade” Sadly one of my favourite tunes “American Patrol” is not in this show.
Tommy Steele is a song and dance man and Glenn Miller was a dance band Leader, so that does show up a bit in this production too as the show becomes at times more Glenn Miller song and dance man.
With a very basic set of the interior of the pretty bare aircraft hanger that Glenn Miller arrives and departs from, there is nothing visually to detract from the music, the band, the dancers and of course our principal cast, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more done in this area at times and I’m sure some images of Glenn Miller and the period would have added a lot to the tribute feel of this show.
The show continues after Glenn disappears and his wife hearing his music playing on the radio after he has just gone missing is a very touching scene.
Our show closure is of course a medley of music from the band and a sing-a-long with it to the tunes, but again, I would have preferred this to have been the band alone just playing some of the most memorable music ever written and arranged from this period.
Tommy Steele obviously had a lot of loyal fans in the theatre tonight and they obviously loved his performance...I’m not 100% sure that Glenn Miller fans will say the same though. This show is very much Tommy Steele the song and dance man paying a tribute to one of his musical heroes more than portraying Glenn Miller at times. I just wish this show had been written from a slightly different viewpoint of maybe someone of Tommy Steele’s actual age reminiscing about being with the Band and allowing Tommy to portray someone his real age and let someone closer to Glenn Miller’s actual age play the part. Glenn Miller’s music after all was all about a unique sharp sound that no one had heard before and that a young audience danced the nights away to.
The Glenn Miller Story has already been told for many fans as many will know well the 1954 film starring James Stewart and June Allyson of the same name. There is still a wonderful theatrical story to be told there, but maybe coming from a slightly different angle.
A bit of an odd show – some lows, and some highs, but holding everything together, the magical sounds of Glenn Miller.
Review byTom King