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Rod Stewart musical is all the better for jukebox revamp

ON the face of it, the Ben Elton-penned Rod Stewart musical Tonight's The Night should never have run for a year in London's West End, nor survived 10 years as a touring theatre show.

Elton's storyline is thinner than Rod's leopard-skin trousers, the characters are little more than outlines, and the story has the emotional resonance of the many blondes who once featured in the rock legend's lovelife.

Yet Tonight's The Night works as a musical theatre show. Now re-written and re-choreographed, the revision's Manchester premiere was a massive success. The audience not only gave a standing ovation, they were prepared to wear the supplied paper sailor hats, wave arms in the air and sing along heartily when Sailing popped up in the finale medley.

Perhaps some were pensioners on a day out from Bolton and parents themselves before Rod hit the charts with Maggie May in 1971, but they loved it, although there is little of Elton's comedy talent in the show, with the laughter limited (to judge by audience reaction) to one risque gag. Apart from the role of Stoner (Michael McKell), a musician wastrel who is part Keith Richards and part Kenny Everett's Syd Snott, there is not a lot to laugh about.

The plot is in itself straightforward Faustian-pact stuff: shy young Detroit grease monkey Stuart Clutterbuck dreams of life as a Rod Stewart-like rock star and sells his soul to the devil, who just happens to be a 6ft blonde in shiny thigh-length boots. On the road to success, he turns bad and has an endless run of one-night stands, dumping on the love of his life, Mary, in the process.

The new version of the show offers more dialogue and exposition, says director Caroline Jay Ranger.

"With a minimal three-week rehearsal period over Christmas, we all revisited the script and music with fresh eyes after seven years since the first tour," she explains. "With Rod at the top of the album charts, we had to deliver the numbers with world-class vocals. Luckily, we found an outstanding cast. We nipped and tucked the script under Ben Elton's keen eye, and the choreography and arrangements were given a new life to work toward the best show possible."

Scots-born female lead, Jenna Lee-James, who plays Mary, concurs: "There is more of a narrative this time around. And I think the show is better for it."

Production values are excellent, as is the staging, but what really makes the show are the 26 songs. The musical arrangements are outstanding, as are the performances, especially those of Clydebank-born Lee-James and former Sugababe Jade Ewen, while Ben Heathcote has a likeable Rod-type rasp to his voice.

Lee-James's performance is all the more remarkable when you know her background. "I'm not trained at all," admits the blonde singer. "My early experience as a singer was the working men's clubs in Glasgow. My dad was a sound man, so from the age of 12 I have been working the circuit. I also did the talent competitions, appearing in pubs such as Ivory Blacks, which I won, going up against the adults."

At 16, she faced a career crossroads - go to acting college or take up a job offer. She took the job, a summer season in Scarborough with Bobby Davro's show, Rock With Laughter. "It was great experience and, to be honest, I think I learned more than I would have done at college. I'm not saying college is a bad thing, but you gain so much from being in the business."

Lee-James went on to star in We Will Rock You for five years in London, has played the Narrator in Joseph and starred in Boogie Nights with Shane Richie.

But isn't she a little too young (in her mid-thirties) to be a Rod fan? "No, my mum and dad played Rod Stewart records all the time, and I think the songs are great. When I sing I Don't Want To Talk About It, it really gets to me. It's my journey, it's about me growing up."

Tonight's The Night certainly allows an audience to wallow in nostalgia, to recall the Stewart songs that were the soundtrack to their lives. While it's not hard to imagine Stay With Me or Gasoline Alley working in a musical, even Rod's naffest hits - Do You Think I'm Sexy and Hot Legs - work in a theatre when sung by women wearing outfits that would have your granny tutting all the way to the tea dance the next day.

Tonight's The Night is at Edinburgh Playhouse from February 17-22 and the King's Theatre, Glasgow, June 2-14

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