Ian Marshall Fisher's Lost Musicals have become something of an institution, and it's easy to see why - he specialises in reviving pieces that haven't seen the light of day in quite some time, collecting a group of talented performers, and producing a 'rehearsed reading' of the piece. Instead of trying to overwhelm or impress, this is a quiet, unimposing chance to enjoy pieces that time has forgotten, with actors in evening dress, a single piano, and no props or set - in this case, the piece is Flahooley, an early EY Harburg with his trademark childlike humour and witty lyrics.
Known as "Yip", Harburg's work is often characterised by a searing critical eye, which truly comes to the fore here: Sylvester, a toy inventor, creates the Flahooley doll as a new "Christmas Special", but with the parent company embroiled in a political fiasco and now obligated to fix a broken magic lamp, the Genie of which decides to make enough Flahooley dolls to give to every child in the world, will he ever be the man his girlfriend Sandy wants to marry?
Considering that Harburg's other best known work is Finian's Rainbow, it should come as no surprise that Flahooley is truly ridiculous - it's the kind of musical that, if staged in full, would be rife with neon colours and smiles, but there is a grim undercurrent running through the whole thing: commercialism, McCarthyism, recent advances in science and corporate greed are all speared quite aggressively, all in the guise of a fairy-tale. As Fisher himself relates in his foreword to the show (which, while fascinating, might do better as programme notes), Harburg had just been moved up to New York after the fallout from the McCarthy trials, so the almost palpable anger on display isn't entirely unsurprising. However, it never infects the generally jolly tone of the story, meaning that the piece works well as a bit of fun, with some acerbic witticisms thrown in for any incurably grumpy audience members too. The only tonally awkward moment of the evening are the two Arabic characters, who either speak in thick accents with requisite eye-rolling or in gibberish - this may have been fine in the 1950s but seems a little "edgy" in a modern context!
However, the main joy of the show is the sheer simplicity. Instead of hiding behind flamboyant costumes and effects, Lost Musicals' respectful and relaxed approach makes for a very different sort of experience. Having all of the actors in evening wear and doing away with props means that the focus is far more on them and the music. The anti-commerciality of the whole thing is a breath of fresh air, and meant I felt less put upon by needy producers and more encouraged to enjoy a hidden gem - which in this case, the musical well and truly is.
It's also a delight to see truly talented performers working just for the love of the music as well as a chance to be seen - which, for me, is what working in this industry is all about. Stewart Permutt camps it up excellently as Abou Ben Atom, who appears to be a quantum-influenced Genie (don't ask), and there's gorgeous singing from Emily O'Keefe as Sandy, but the whole ensemble deserves praise - I didn't spot a single off note, and the chorus work was especially strong.
What an afternoon this was - a delightful musical I'd never heard before, a talented cast performing it well, and an interesting and pleasant way of seeing new musicals. Obviously, this isn't a full-scale production (and now I really do want to see one), but that's more charming than you might expect. It's on this weekend - if you like your musicals, give it a whirl.
Described as “one of the most wildly imaginative musicals that Broadway has ever seen”, E.Y. Harburg (The Wizard of Oz), Fred Saidy and Oscar-winning Sammy Fain’s (Calamity Jane) Flahooley is an hilarious, highly satirical, Mary Poppins-esque allegorical fairytale about a genie, a magic lamp and a doll-maker.
Sadler's WellsRosebery Avenue
London Greater London United Kingdom EC1R 4TN