There is a school of thought which propounds the theory that if you do something, you should follow it through without compromise in order for it to be a success. Bugsy Malone The Musical proves this to be true by making a huge compromise thus ruining a great idea.
This stage musical, as you would expect, is based on the 1976 film by Alan Parker in which the cast consisted entirely of children. Here, however, we have an ensemble made up of both kids and adults, which changes the whole dynamic. I am assuming the reason is due to the strict regulations covering child actors necessitating several performers alternating in the lead roles, so a complete change of cast each evening would not be viable.
The genius of the film is that, after the first ten or fifteen minutes, the participants become characters in their own right, rather than youngsters playing adult roles, whereas in this stage version you are constantly reminded that they are children by the presence of the much older actors. This is even weirder than it sounds, as the main characters seem to be only in their early teens at most, but are bossing the grown up gangsters around. The best example of this was the boy who played Dandy Dan. He was small and so young that his voice hadn’t broken so was squealing his orders to beefy blokes who were as ready to employ baseball bats as weapons as they were foam pies. I found one scene to be particularly disturbing when a tiny girl gatecrashes an audition session dressed in a vampish gown and informs the adult casting director that ‘Your star is back!’ It would have worked in the film with a child casting director but certainly not here.
Anyway, the piece is about two rival gang leaders, Fat Sam, who owns the Grand Slam speakeasy, and Dandy Dan, the local mobster. The gangs regularly attack each other using foam pies for weapons but when Dandy Dan obtains a consignment of Splurge Guns which do the job far more efficiently, Fat Sam decides to steal them and an arms race ensues. The sub-plot is that of Bugsy Malone and a girl named Blousey Brown who arrives at the Grand Slam for a job as a singer. Bugsy falls for her and drops his girlfriend Tallulah to help her fulfil her dream of a career in the Hollywood movies. A third strand is that of a chap called Leroy who saves Bugsy from a beating by muggers by giving them all a good hiding. Bugsy, being a boxing promoter, sets out to turn him into a pugilist which cues the best set piece of the night, So You Wanna Be A Boxer, in which the singing and dancing were superb but I must report that the participants were all adults.
The dialogue is rattled out quicker than the foam from a splurge gun, and with about as much nuance, but the songs, by the brilliant Paul Williams, are great, and performed superbly by the musicians. The set pieces are the most entertaining as either the adult cast are involved with their much more accomplished singing and dancing, or the children are made to slow down to perform the comedy walks and pratfalls.
I am sorry to say that I found the younger actors’ singing and dancing skills somewhat lacking, again perhaps because they were competing with stronger, more mature vocal chords and bodies. The embodiment of this, for once no pun intended, was the scene in which Blousey, after several attempts, finally secures an audition to sing in the Grand Slam. This should have been her Susan Boyle moment and brought the house down, but sadly it was very understated and a bit of an anticlimax.
The set was ingeniously changed with various pieces of furniture descending from above and returning to the heavens when finished with, or, being shifted by characters. In one instance a feature is made of this when Fat Sam has to do it himself and breaks through the fourth wall, interacting with the audience.
You will have noticed that I have not mentioned any of the actors by name, and do not wish to do so, as there are three children alternating in each role and so, should you go to see the show, it will probably be a different actor or combination from the one I saw. I also don’t want to denigrate the performances too much as it is the concept of the mixed adult/children cast which is at fault rather than the execution.
I realise that I have a particular way of looking at things so tend to keep an eye on the audience to see what the general mood seems to be. Not that I would ever change anything, but it is sometimes either reassuring or slightly concerning to note how my fellow theatregoers react. I was seated in the Dress Circle with three teenage girls to my right, who seemed to be in a competition to emit the loudest forced laugh, and to my left was an empty seat and then a family of four. The girls did not appear for the second half and the daughter utilised her area, and the spare space, as a playground to keep her amused as the production was obviously not fulfilling that need. My point of view was also seemingly vindicated at the end of the show when the cast was brought out on stage individually to dance to the ragtime music, rather than just walk on and take a bow. I inferred that this was also meant to get the audience on their feet bopping along, which it singularly failed to do. It seems that nowadays every show, no matter how bad or good, gets a standing ovation – one of those lesser welcome imports from the USA – but I noticed lots of theatregoers still sitting down even after the music had finished.
You can probably tell that I was disappointed with this production; the film has always been one of my favourites, even though I was 27 years-old when it was released, and I obviously had lowered my expectations because to find another Jody Foster or Scott Baio would have been pretty miraculous. I do realise that the children in the film had their voices overdubbed by adults whereas these youngsters had to sing live for which all due credit must be given.
If nothing else I hope that the younger members of the cast use this as a learning experience and go on to better conceived productions.
My final observation is that the programme says that the show is a ‘Play by Alan Parker, Words and Music by Paul Williams’. I know the second part to be true, but the first – really!?
For more information, and to make a booking, please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/bugsy-malone-2022/ the show runs until Sunday, 4th September.
Feature image from Leeds Heritage Theatres. Photographs by Johan Persson. The actors in the photographs are not necessarily the ones who took part in the production reviewed.