Opera North deserved a bigger audience for this rare staging of Gershwin's Let 'em Eat Cake at London's Sadler's Wells. The company is playing the piece in tandem with Of Thee I Sing, which tells the first part of the story of John P Wintergreen and his rise to the presidency of America by appealing to the hearts of the people rather than their heads.
Let 'em Eat Cake finds Wintergreen trying to be re-elected, but he proves unsuccessful and goes into the shirt-making business with his wife Mary. But the Wintergreens' blue shirts aren't selling because the economy is in such a dire state, so the ex-President takes inspiration from protestors in Union Square and decides to lead a revolution. The people march on Washington and Wintergreen leads a new dictatorship of the proletariat. The plot thickens in Act 2, but since this is a 1930s Broadway musical everyone lives happily ever after in the end.
Though the synopsis sounds convoluted and silly, the book by George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind is extremely amusing and satirical. It's quite easy when watching Caroline Gawn's slick Opera North production to blink and miss one of the jokes, because they come in such quick succession and are so subtle in nature. But if one truly engages with the script, the show is hugely entertaining, not least because the numerous digs at the economy, the military, international relations and the battle of the sexes are just as relevant to us today as they were in 1933 when the musical was first performed.
In some ways richer than Of Thee I Sing, the score and lyrics for Cake certainly have a harder edge. Whereas the motto in the previous show was 'Love is Sweeping the Country', this time Mary Wintergreen advises the woman of America to 'Climb the Social Ladder' – a more self-serving, ambitious, ruthless anthem that's typical of this decidedly less cuddly view of American politics. Also discomforting is the portrayal of the army as a bunch of stupid, corrupt thugs led by a self-indulgent general ('The General's Gone to a Party'), the explicit connection between Germany's brown shirts and Wintergreen's blue shirts (causing the White House to be repainted 'Blue, Blue Blue'), and an intriguing foreshadowing of the auto-da-fe scene in Bernstein's Candide – itself a satire on 1950s McCarthyism – in the form of a public guillotining ('Hanging Throttlebottom in the Morning'). Anyone who says this is dull, old-fashioned theatre needs to look again: it may not have the obvious hit songs of Oh, Kay! and Girl Crazy, but Let 'em Eat Cake is a tautly-conceived musical play that deserves more attention.
Heading an attractive cast was William Dazeley, once again excelling as Wintergreen. Though one can imagine the character being projected with just a little more power, he's nevertheless a charismatic and attractive leading man, with a well-controlled voice to match. Taking over from an ailing Bibi Heal, Rebecca Moon acted the role of Mary Turner with impressive confidence but was perhaps a little underpowered vocally at times. Steven Beard's Throttlebottom remains something of a show-stealer, due to his impeccable comic timing, but Richard Suart's swaggering General Snookfield, Nicholas Sharratt's Louis Lippmann, Martin Hyder's Francis X Gilhooley and Rob Edwards's Matthew Arnold Fulton are all engagingly acted and sung. The orchestra and chorus are in excellent hands under conductor Wyn Davies, who does a much better job of balancing the two than his predecessor in Of Thee I Sing: this time, I had no qualms about the (authentic) decision not to use amplification, since the orchestra never overwhelmed the singers and the playing was much more colourful.
With inventive sets by Tim Hopkins and some gorgeous costumes by Gabrielle Dalton, this show really deserves a wider audience. Although it's something of a connoisseur's piece, Let 'em Eat Cake has plenty to please anyone with a taste for intelligent, witty entertainment.
By Dominic McHugh
Photo credits: Tristram Kenton
Further performances of Let 'em Eat Cake:
The Lowry, Salford Quays: 27, 28 Feb
Theatre Royal, Newcastle: 6, 7 March
Review: Opera North's production of Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing
Review: Sondheim's A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Review: Opera North's production of Jonathan Dove's Pinnochio
Review: Opera North's Peter Grimes with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts in the title role