USHERS, the front of house backstage musical set in a West End theatre, has finally made the quantum leap from Islington’s cosy Hope; if not to Shaftesbury Avenue then at least to the busy-busy tunnel that is Charing Cross Theatre. Squeezed in to the two-hour gap between Lost Boy and Last Tubes and soon to share space with Finian’s Rainbow, this energetic and bursting-with-enthusiasm show makes the most of its little big break.
It’s a clever construct: the ice-cream and programme sellers tearing your ticket stubs and hustling the merchandise on big-budget low-brow Britney Spears jukebox musical Oops, I Did It Again! are mostly frustrated actors. They know they could do better than the on-stage talent, especially “some Pop Idol twanging his way through Marius like a chipmunk on crystal meth” and the in-jokes and broad swipes at theatrical nobility like “Sir Andrew Lloyd-Mackintosser” are enthusiastically received by the first-night audience, some of whom had possibly come straight from cashing up and compacting the trash at a ‘proper’ theatre.
We’re not talking about downtrodden and underpaid workers — this isn’t The Pajama Game – but the story acknowledges they have lives and dreams and, mostly, sex. The relationship between two gay guys is sweetly handled and they are given the best of Yiannis Koutsakos and James Oban’s original songs: the first act closer Loving You Is All I Know is truly tender and shows off the remarkable voice of Daniel Buckley, who recently understudied Elder Cunningham in Book of Mormon. The straight couple, played by a Russell Tovey-ish Ross McNeill and hilarious if slightly over-the-top Carly Thoms as a raucous stalker of West End leading men — inhabit more familiar musical theatre territory of deferred fulfillment but their clinch when it comes is also convincing.
USHERS deserves success because it’s a first piece for book writer James Rottger and also marks the collaborative debut of Search for a Twitter Composer finalists Koutsakos and Oban. The score is patchy but seamlessly fuses both pastiche and original material, as did Stiles and Drewe for Betty Blue Eyes, and the lyrics are clean and not tortuous, with flashes of cheeky wit.
There’s some slackness in the plotting, and it will need constantly refreshing for topicality: Ralph Bogard’s team-leader Robin is the least-convincing character so maybe there’s also an option to make the villainous theatre manager significantly older and oilier, and cast a succession of once-popular actors to give the show the longer shelf-life it needs to get past the monothematic concept.
USHERS The Musical continues at Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, until 19 April, performances at 10.15pm, tickets £17. See theatre website for schedule. Londonist saw Ushers The Musical on tickets provided by Kevin Wilson PR.