Goodnight Mrs Calabash, written by Tony Day, tells the beautiful life story of the great Jimmy Durante (1893 – 1980). Nicknamed Schnozzola because of his large nose, Durante was an eccentric and charming American singer, songwriter and comedian who rose to fame in the 1930s. Prior to his various film appearances, Durante started out at Diamond Tony’s Saloon in Coney Island as a honky-tonk pianist, before forming a trio with Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson – THE THREE SAWDUST BUMS. This story follows the twists and turns of his successful career, the on/off and yet life-long friendships, and the highs and lows of his loving, yet challenged, marriage. Jimmy Durante is still remembered for ending his many radio and television programmes with the line “Goodnight, Mrs Calabash, wherever you are...’ and this story poignantly delves into its meaning.

This is a wonderful production; heart-warming, funny and moving. Racky Plews directs with an ear for the story's humour as well as an understanding of its truth and poignancy. My only criticism is that the production takes a while to get going. Even though the show opens with a bang – "Poise’n’ Personality" is a cracking, upbeat opening number – the first half hour or so is quite slow. The energy lulls and there are a few moments where punch lines lack punch. This is perhaps due to the questionable humour of the script; but saying that, perhaps the writing is fitting to the period. Regardless, towards the second half of the first act, the pace picks up and suddenly... I’m hooked!

Lee Proud's choreography is incredible, with the movement and dancing components throughout the piece accurately bring to life the syle of Durante's era. The energy of the performers combined with Proud’s vision is, in some instances, actually breath-taking. The tap dancing numbers are slick and smooth, the jazz numbers are saucy and sassy, and the ballads are beautifully elegant.  Your feet will tap while your eyes enjoy the razzle-dazzle.

The singing ability of the cast cannot be disputed – as an ensemble, they sing in perfect harmony and the choral vocals are well balanced. There are a few issues with the sound, which will have to be ironed out over the run, but centrally nobody tries to ‘out-sing’ anyone. The soloists not only capture a sense of dramatic truth in the musical numbers, but the vocal range and tone of each singer is also outstandingly good. "The Beginning of the End" is a fantastic song, touchingly performed by Matt Palmer as Ed Jackson. The combination of music and Jackson’s angelic voice contributed to a serious case of chicken arms (that is to say, I got a lot of goosebumps). Jeanne’s (Jenni Bowden) "Jimmy", is superbly and sensitively sung, and her performance sent tears streaming down my face. And on the other side of the scale, "Men!", a witty number by double act Jeanne and Brooklyn (Rachel Ann Crane), which shows the pair getting increasingly drunk as the number progresses, had me and the rest of the audience in fits of giggles.

As a whole, the show’s production values are strong. The adaptable set is functional and through a simple shuffle of three purpose-built frames, we can imagine a range of settings; everything from a stage, to a dressing room, to a packed train.  Costume designer, Kingsley Hall, has embraced the style of the 1920s through to the early 1940s, creating striking designs that are eye-catching and contributing to a belief that the era is within reach.

Considering this is a jazz musical, I was pleasantly surprised by the non-existent over-acting, one-dimensional caricatures and ‘stage school’-esk jazz hands, which is sadly what I’ve come to expect. Usually, actors who exude an undeniable talent for singing and dancing often lack an equally matched acting ability, but not in this case. The strong cast breathe truth into the script and the majority embody convincing and well developed characters. Bowden particularly stands out as the beautiful yet increasingly bitter Jeannie, and Tim Frost does a convincing take on Durante, with the pair’s onstage chemistry so convincing that I’m led to question whether Bowden and Frost are a real life couple. 

Day handles Durante’s biography with respect and dignity. Despite the disappointing first few scenes, I loved this production and it was a great night out. The story touched my heart (I cried like a baby), offered an enlightened view on the era, and I was thoroughly entertained – what more do you need?

Goodnight Mrs Calabash, at Upstairs at GatehouseJo Sutherland reviews Goodnight Mrs Calabash at Upstairs at the Gatehouse.4