Musicals based on the hits of a particular solo artist or band face a central dilemma: to what extent is the singer or group to whom they owe their soundtrack a presence in the storyline? “The Band” is clearly about Take That, but doesn’t actually mention the name. The characters of “Mamma Mia” seem to live in an Abba-free universe. In “Son of a Preacher Man”, Dusty Springfield is a constant presence, a reminder of a musical golden age.
After three strangers, generations apart, experience the loss of a loved one, they are drawn to seek out a record shop in Soho that was a hub of the Swinging Sixties. However, they are really looking for the Preacher Man, the shop’s owner and an enigmatic guru of love who they believe can somehow sort their lives out. Instead of finding him, they find (surprise surprise) his son, who is grappling with the legacy of his legendary father.
Though the story is undoubtedly cobbled together around the Dusty songs, this doesn’t actually detract too much from the joy and vitality of the show. The main attraction clearly is the chorus numbers; this is an exceptionally talented cast, who whip out trombones and saxophones at the least provocation from the plotline. Vibrant costumes, an impressive set, an on-stage, dancing band – you really don’t have to be a diehard Springfield fan to enjoy it.
Nostalgia is clearly a central appeal of the show and is worked into the plot (judging by the enthused cries of “Ooh I know this one!”, there were many in the audience who remembered these tunes from the first time round). The old record shop has been taken over by developers and transformed into a hipster coffee bar, and there is considerable consternation on the part of the older generation of characters when they can’t obtain a cup of tea and a fig roll.
Some of the contemporary touches were thoughtful and funny – references to the bedroom tax and Donald Trump, for example – whilst some were a little strained; a sequence about online dating involved a laptop and a singles event in a community hall, which isn’t really how Tinder works.
I can’t wait to go to the Grand in forty years to watch the Beyonce musical looking back to simpler times before flying cars and holidays to the Moon. But this joyful, slick show is great entertainment in the meantime.
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