INDECENT PROPOSAL – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – not necessarily what I was expecting….

Lizzy Connolly and Norman Bowman, photograph by Helen Maybanks

INDECENT PROPOSAL

Book and lyrics by Michael Conley

Music by Dylan Schlosberg

Inspired by the novel by Jack Engelhard

Southwark Playhouse – until 27 November

https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show-whats-on/indecent-proposal/

“I had a really good time tonight” – actually no, not a line from Pretty Woman: this is from this new stage adaptation of an equally problematic slice of late twentieth century ‘romantic’ storytelling. Unlike the critically mauled Broadway tuner over at the Savoy however, Michael Conley and Dylan Schlosberg’s tangy and surprising chamber musical is only “inspired” by, as opposed to slavishly following, it’s source material, and furthermore they’ve gone for the original novel rather than the Robert Redford-Demi Moore Hollywood treatment that followed it.

The central premise – obscenely wealthy man offers a financially straitened couple $1million if the wife will spend the night with him – remains deeply icky, but book writer Conley has taken multiple liberties with the original story and characters, and added layers of interest. The title could put people off – indeed Rowan Pelling wrote an impassioned, cogent piece in the Telegraph pre-pandemic arguing that neither Indecent Proposal nor Pretty Woman were an appropriate basis for modern musical adaptation – but what has landed on the Southwark stage, under the sure and sensitive hand of director Charlotte Westenra, is rather more intelligent and careful than one might have expected.

Perhaps the musical’s strongest suit is that it establishes swiftly and strongly just how much Lizzy Connolly’s luminous Rebecca and Norman Bowman’s moving, would-be songwriter Jonny love each other, how high the stakes are for them (they both left other partners, and in her case, a life of considerable luxury) and how highly regarded they both are in their Atlantic City community. We also see very early on how much they are struggling financially. Furthermore, Rebecca, in Connolly’s terrific performance – witty and nuanced -has agency, intelligence and integrity, and is categorically not a victim of masculine machinations. The attempt then of entrepreneur and all round moneybags Larry (Ako Mitchell, vocally exciting but lacking the requisite suave charisma) to put their union asunder feels particularly obscene.

Structurally, it’s nearer to a play with melodic interludes than a traditional musical, most of Schlosberg and Conley’s attractive songs being presented as the numbers performed in the cabaret lounge at the boardwalk casino where Rebecca works and Jonny sometimes sings. The lioness’s share of these songs go to Jacqueline Dankworth’s blousy but lovely older chanteuse… and any show that starts off with this unique, impeccable talent is off on a winning streak, to employ a gambling metaphor (sorry, just had to), and her second act rendition of the melancholic, bittersweet paean to Atlantic City, is a real standout. Only the two leads sing within the context of the story, and they’ve been given some really belty, exciting stuff to get their magnificent voices around. All in all, this is an impressive soft rock score, rather superior to several of the newer musical adaptations of films currently in the West End.

If Westenra’s staging is short on opulence it makes up for it in energy, and dramatic urgency. Having the supporting cast double as the band is a particularly nice touch.

The cyclical nature of the storytelling is an excellent touch that pays genuine emotional dividends. Creditably, it doesn’t shy away from the morally complex, painful central issue. For some people this may make it unappealing subject matter for a musical but then neither are the themes of many other well regarded hits (Evita, Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures…the list is endless). While I’m not suggesting Indecent Proposal is in the league of these classics, it’s really a rather marvellous surprise.

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