Tommy Steele made his stage debut at Sunderland Empire on 5th November 1956, a month before his 20th birthday. So it seems fitting he should celebrate his 60 years in the business performing at the Empire in the Glenn Miller Story.
It’s a difficult review to write because all the single elements of the show are individually good. The production is lovely, Bill Kenwright and Bob Thompson’s direction is excellent. The performers are fabulous, the singing and dancing sublime. The music is timelessly classic and the live band playing on stage are phenomenal. Steele is of course a legend and his voice his as powerful as ever it was but he is an old man and it’s much more than a suspension of belief to get past the fact a soon to be octogenarian is playing Glenn Miller from the ages of 24 up to his untimely death aged 40.
It looks wrong in the first act when he is falling in love with his wife-to-be, Helen, played on press night by the vocally exquisite Jessica Ellen. To me it felt like a pensioner and his carer rather than young lovers and it might have been better to have a younger actor in the early scenes. Ashley Knight, who acts as Miller’s good friend Chummy Macgregor, is also an older man, which evens up – or compounds – the age discrepancies.
The opening number, Without You, a duet with Tommy and Knight sets the tone for this show,
which is full of high octane energy with the big show stoppers, including, Sing Sing Sing, Chattanooga Choo Choo, St Louis Blues March, Get Happy and the finale of Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree, I’ve Got A Gal From Kalamazoo and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy where the enthusiastic audience were invited to sing-a-long and happily obliged.
It’s clear there’s a lot of affection for Steele, the production’s celebratory tone loosely allowing him to be 75 per cent Tommy and 25 per cent Glenn, while around him is placed an array of dancers who capture the 40s in mesmeric style.
When Glenn eventually found ‘the sound’ he had been searching for and the band he formed hit the stage with In The Mood one can fully appreciate the huge appeal the band commanded in the 1930s and into the early 1940s and today still, the glorious music with its unique formula is enjoyed by Miller aficionados globally. It is so very sad that the talented Miller died, in his musical prime. On that fateful night of 15 December 1944 , the plane he boarded to Paris went missing over the Channel.
However, the legacy he left the world is priceless and the audience had come not to dwell on inter-generational love but rather to enjoy the belting tunes Glenn turned out before his early demise. In The Mood, Pennsylvania 6-5000, Little Brown Jug, they’re all here, with Steele bobbing away at the front as the bandsman who saw his dreams come true.
Reviewed by Lindsay Sykes
Photo: Pamela Raith