Shouldn’t put ‘bomb’ in the title of a musical. It makes for such a soft target.

It’s not often theatre reviews are bad enough to make BBC lunchtime headlines, but the writers of Miss Atomic Bomb should be donning their tin hats. When London’s most enthusiastic musical theatre critic, The Stage’s Mark Shenton, who just chaired the BEAM event to encourage new musical writing is out of his seat like a rocket to get a one-star review online before midnight, something must be wrong.

Thing is, it didn’t feel like a crapfest on the night. People laughed openly, applauded and cheered and there was a standing ovation at the end. We sat in front of Elaine Paige (the auditorium’s steeply raked, even she could see) and at the end she was saying how terrific she thought young lead Florence Andrews was.

‘So long Mom, I’m off to drop the bomb, so don’t wait up for me …’ wrote American humourist Tom Lehrer in 1965, and in one ninety-second lyric satirized US nuclear showboating, and the Commie-baiting cold war more effectively than nearly three hours of this musical. It’s a splendid original subject, and there’s a shattering true story to be told about soldiers who were ordered into the fallout zones to test the effects of radiation, and how in many ways the Nevada Test Site put Las Vegas on the tourist map.

Overlapping credits for writing and direction cite fine actors Gabriel Vick and Adam Long, his wife TV comedy producer Alex Jackson-Long and choreographer Bill Deamer: maybe their collective enthusiasm has spilled over into too many nods to too many other shows, musical styles and plot elements that Miss Atomic Bomb now feels more like Forbidden Broadway than a cohesive book musical.

It’s a collection of comic turns: fresh from success in Sondheim’s Assassins, Catherine Tate looks wonderful and sings strongly despite the constraints of a push-up bra seemingly borrowed from Jessica Rabbit but her fashion designer character is as eccentric as her accent which not only could ‘walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham’ but takes as lengthy a detour through the Australian outback as Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Playing an uncaring mortgage repo man, Daniel Boys has been encouraged to impersonate Inspector Javert from Les Misérables, intoning the account number as if it were Valjean’s 2-4-6-0-1 and giving it the full Russell Crowe. He does it well, but it’s ludicrous to employ a pastiche of the distinctive music of Boublil and Schoenberg in a show set in 1951 when they were both in short trousers.

As the Utah-raised farm girl who becomes the pageant queen, in pigtails and dungarees Florence Andrews looks like Ellie May Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies but sings both the country and western numbers and her ‘My Grandma’ torch song divinely and is decidedly one to watch. Her love interest is deserting soldier Dean John-Wilson, shortly to be Aladdin in the Disney blockbuster and he’s OK but eclipsed by his hotel manager big brother played to the hilt by Simon Lipkin, another leading man deserving of better material.

Nutty professors, bad drag, Vegas showgirls in three shades of Betty Grable wig, pantomime mobsters, sheep shearers and yes sirree American soldiery make up the hard working ensemble. If putting your heart into your job got star ratings, they’d deserve five. Pity the professional critics didn’t agree.

This review originally written for Londonist.com

 

As we do, @paulinlondon and I retreated to a corner of the street too dark to read the programme but made this just-out-of-the-theatre Audio Boom.  Listen here.  Please.