Someone seems to have missed the point, or points. The name of the heroine of Little Me, ‘Belle Poitrine’ is more or less French for ‘nice tits’ and the basic premise of Patrick Dennis’s 1961 novel was to satirise the rags-to-riches story of a topheavy girl from the wrong side of the tracks who found fame, fortune and a succession of useful suitors through her physical charms rather than her latent talents.

Bearing in mind that by 1961, illegitimate foster child Norma Jeane Mortenson from Brentwood, California had already ditched a childhood sweetheart to marry the leading baseball hero of the day Joe di Maggio, then playwright Arthur Miller – and bewitched top comedian Ben Lyon who helped her become Marilyn Monroe the starlet signed to 20th Century Fox before she ever had an acting lesson – it’s not hard to guess the source of Dennis’s fictional inspiration.

In the stage musical, it’s usual to cast a statuesque belter as the older Belle: Lynda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel) was particularly uncontained in the Russ Abbott revival at the Prince of Wales in 1984, topping and tailing the show with powerful numbers and interlacing it with a string of comic introductions to the chapters of her autobiography being dictated to ‘Patrick Dennis’ who in real life also wrote Aunty Mame.

In All-Star’s otherwise well-cast and directed production Julie Ross as Older Belle initially looks the part, matching her younger self for hair colour and height and sporting Barbara Cartland eyelashes and some major bling, but fails the chest test: she simply doesn’t have the lung power for the material. When she turns upstage, she’s inaudible over the band, and even facing front you can’t tell what she’s singing from the third row. She’s not bad in some of the comic interchanges with Dennis, but it’s hard to believe director Brendan Matthew couldn’t find a fiftysomething actress with more range and vocal strength. Or a radio mike.

As Young Belle, Emma Odell is hugely likeable, tuneful, drives her scenes with great energy and wisecracks her way through the still-mostly-sharp Neil Simon script, but it’s not the breathtaking performance of, say, Kendra Macmillan in All-Star’s first-rate One Touch of Venus.

So it’s left to the men to make the best of this piece, although there’s a running gag that some male roles are taken by women as though they’d just grabbed a hat and a moustache to come onstage in some haste. But there are nice turns from Richard Dawes in a professional debut as Belle’s first love George, and Ben Oliver has a touch of class as Patrick Dennis.

But the evening, the show and any success this production may have belong to Daniel Cane who plays all seven of Belle’s suitors.

When I saw Russ Abbott in this same role, it was funny but it was obvious the comedian was playing to his sketch show strengths. Cane’s is a cleverer more nuanced reading: each time he appears as a different character, there’s such sudden credibility you have to check your programme to be sure it’s him: his octogenarian Mr Pinchley for example has real pathos and subtlety, and when he sings down to a whisper, it’s both gentle and genuine. For his combination of instinctive comic timing with layered, thoughtful characterization, he reminded me of a young David Hyde Pierce.

The Cy Coleman score isn’t a patch on his On The Twentieth Century or even Barnum, and the only takeaway song is ‘Real Live Girl’ which Musical Director Aaron Clingham has freshened with new orchestrations but the musical staging doesn’t really take off until the hoedown chorus of ‘Deep Down Inside’.

Press night was only the second public performance so hopefully the under-rehearsed band, the sound balance, the clumsy and noisy scene changes, and the unevenness of the ensemble acting will improve through the run. One thing that does need addressing urgently is the ventilation in the auditorium: even on a comparatively cool evening, by the end of the 1 hour 25 minute first half it was like a Bikram Yoga studio. If you can’t have air-conditioning, please buy a couple of silent ceiling fans and at least move the air around.

Remote GoatOriginally published on