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Review: Shaw’s Me and My Girl may not be deep, but it sure is catchy

Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson and Élodie Gillett as Lady Jacqueline Carstone in Me and My Girl.

David Cooper/Photo by David Cooper

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Me and My Girl
Genre
Musical
Directed by
Ashlie Corcoran
Music
Noel Gay
Lyrics
L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Book
Stephen Fry with Mike Ockrent
Company
Shaw Festival
Venue
Festival Theatre
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Sunday, October 15, 2017

Noel Gay, the British operetta and music hall composer born Reginald Armitage in 1898, wrote songs that we would call earworms today, seemingly simple compositions with often insipid lyrics that play on repeat in your head after you hear them, whether you want them to or not.

For instance, I'm writing this review a few days after seeing the Shaw Festival's entertaining production of Gay's 1937 hit musical Me and My Girl, and every time I let my mind go still for a moment, it fills with a section of the Act I finale song called The Lambeth Walk.

The particular syncopated part that I'm currently trying and failing to work out of my brain, like a piece of gristle stuck in my back teeth, goes like this: "Everything free and easy / Do as you darn well pleasy."

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Though I had never heard The Lambeth Walk before Saturday night, I now feel as if it has darn-well-pleasied about in my mind all my life.

Critic Sheridan Morley once wrote that Gay "wrote the kind of songs that people not only sang in their baths but also imagined they could write in their baths." I'd add only that he also seems to have written songs that people may think they have already made up in the bath.

Thanks to The Lambeth Walk, Me and My Girl was the most successful British musical until Cats, for whatever that's worth. And then, in the era of Cats, someone had the bright idea of reviving the musical on the West End – hiring Stephen Fry to update the old book by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber and interpolating a couple of infernally catchy Gay tunes that were not originally in the show.

This 1985 version is what we find on now at the Shaw in a production directed by Ashlie Corcoran and choreographed by Parker Esse that I'm not sure if I enjoyed or want to destroy before it has the chance to infect anyone else.

Bill Snibson (Michael Therriault), who hails from the cockney area south of the Thames called Lambeth, is suddenly discovered to be the 14th heir to the Earl of Hareford. He arrives at an estate full of aristocratic relatives and learns that all this can be his if he just ditches "his girl" Sally (Kristi Frank) for a more suitable upper-class match that pleases the executors (Sharry Flett and Ric Reid).

Or something like that. From a plot point of view, Me and My Girl is standard early musical theatre fare in that it's loosely connected song and dance. The contrived central conundrum could have been solved as easily in the first scene as the last. Indeed, it seems to be solved at the end of the first act when all the aristocrats and cockneys do The Lambeth Walk together, but somehow the reset button is hit during intermission.

In a way, Fry's update does a disservice to the material insofar as while it's easy to accept a show with irritatingly catchy songs but not plot that dates from the 1930s, it's much harder to excuse one from the 1980s (see: Cats).

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Likewise, back in its original incarnation, Gay's musical was a bit edgy about class and was put in service of fighting the Nazis. The British Ministry of Information deployed The Lambeth Walk to mock Hitler, editing footage from Leni Riefenstahl's classic Triumph of the Will so it looked as if he were goose-stepping to it.

In the 1980s, however, Me and My Girl was retooled as a piece of nostalgia and fit quite well into the Margaret Thatcher era.

This could all be forgotten if Fry had made the show funnier, but if the jokes were updated in the 1980s, then that era of humour is as lost to us that of 50 years earlier. ("What are those two bags doing here?" one character says, pointing to luggage. "Oh they live here," says another, pointing at two women, hardy-har-har. )

Designer Sue LePage has added in winks to the era in which Me and My Girl was revised with Frank, who sings a few of the musical's more sentimental tunes sweetly, indeed looking pretty in pink as Sally.

Lacking any clear meaning or coherent message, Me and My Girl seems to have been embraced for its sheer absurdity by the creative team at the Shaw Festival. The pointlessness of a patter song about a family solicitor (an enjoyably creepy Jay Turvey) is fully acknowledged and becomes a running gag. A sexist tune sung by a gold digger named Jacquie (Élodie Gillett) becomes an impressive dance number featuring the singer being tossed about by three men. The oh-so-obviously interpolated tune that opens the second act, The Sun Has Got His Hat On, is the most hilarious – with Kyle Blair, as the honourable something or another, grinning maniacally as he leads a chorus dressed in cricket gear through the ridiculous number. (Blair would be an international superstar if comic light opera were still in vogue.)

Still, Me and Me Girl could use more to hold onto. It could come from Therriault, but his every move is choreographed to such a degree that he seems to pratfall, shimmy and tap his way through the show without ever a chance to simply connect. He's an extraordinary talent, but it's only when he's allowed a soft-shoe called Leaning on a Lamp-Post near the end of that I came anything close to liking him.

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And yet, I'm not sure if Me and My Girl is so much about "liking" as submitting, and, like it or not, I can't get it out of my easy-pleasy-cheesy head.

Me and Me Girl continues to Oct. 15 (shawfest.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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