It wears a winning smile, and it’s one of the surprising successes of the season. Save the Last Dance for Me is spinning the vinyl and spinning the Congress Theatre all the way back to 1963.
Reviews during the show’s lengthy UK tour have been approving but sometimes underwhelming, as if a jukebox musical can only ever be lightweight. I actually think it’s better than that. The period is perfectly observed and the music is vibrantly authentic, and a talented, energetic company fills the theatre with infectious enjoyment.
Teenagers Jennifer and Marie, away from home for the first time for a rainy week in Lowestoft, are swept off their feet by US airmen Milton and Curtis. The plot is a swirl of naive excitement and fresh-faced passion, laced with a couple of social issues. But the music is all.
A gently witty script is laced with nostalgic references to seaside postcards, Corona fizzy pop, and petrol at four shillings a gallon. The audience - of a certain age - laps it up and chuckles along.
There is plenty of lightweight fun around UK-US differences and misunderstandings, but then one of the social issues hits you shockingly in the solar plexus. Curtis is black, and tells a bewildered Marie that their friendship would be forbidden in a still-segregated Southern US. Sweet songs can mask bitter truths; and yet it’s worth recalling that in 1963, in the great March on Washington, it was musicians - Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary - who walked then shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King in the cause of human dignity.
The pop music of the early 60s was its own little golden age, ahead of the Beatles, the Stones and Heavy Metal. Its catalogue brims with bright, easily memorable numbers which have never faded: all nicely formulaic with rhyming lyrics, a jaunty middle eight and just the occasional jazz chord or relative minor. And an astonishing 32 classic songs are packed into this score.
Never mind the relative minor, it’s the minor relative who steals the acting honours. Perfectly cast as younger sister Marie, Elizabeth Carter sings angelically, infuses the role with just the right emotion and pathos, and has the audience around her little finger. Big sis Lola Saunders skilfully handles a trickier role as the slightly caustic Jennifer, and - still only 21 - she sings like the pop diva which she proved herself on X-Factor. She leads the Ronettes’ Be My Baby - the best number in the show - with a wonderful breathtaking belt.
Opposite them Antony Costa, once of Blue, gives a measured and assured acting performance, and saves his finest knock-out number - Surrender - until the very end. And Wayne Robinson’s Curtis is just sensational: convincing and quite sensitive acting, and a magnificent voice with quite an Elvis quality.
Great support comes from Sackie Osakonor as the Sergeant and Alan Howell as an Italian ice-cream seller with a Brummie accent, and there is a priceless cameo from Anna Campkin as deadpan Doris, the slapper from Leeds.
Set a fabulous lead by inexhaustible dance captains Hannah Nicholas and Joe McCourt, the dance routines are immaculately authentic. Choreographer Bill Deamer’s renowned creative talents are scarcely stretched here, but his troupe is tight and exuberant. The ensemble singing is equally fine, hallmarked late in Act Two by a gorgeous a cappella version of Hushabye.
The negatives? Not many. Bill Kenwright’s productions do tend to sweat the assets, and while the use of actor-musicians works well overall, the ensemble seems one couple short and the dance floor looks a tad empty for some numbers. And Mark Bailey’s resourceful and flexible set is let down by the cardboard cut-out caravan, behind which exiting performers have to slink away awkwardly.
In fairness, the musos are all outstanding musicians as well as breezily joining the action, including one gloriously incongruous sight of Kieran Kypers and Rachel Nottingham riffing their saxophones while clad in the shapeless drab raincoats of Dad Cyril and Mum Mildred. One of many surprises in a surprisingly engaging show. It’s well worth catching before the weekend.