Saturday 3rd January 2015, matinée
The Grand Tour was a must-see for us – another Jerry Herman musical for our delectation, getting its European Premier no less, and a new venue, the Finborough, which seems to have gained a reputation for reviving obscure musicals.
‘The Grand Tour’ is based on a play by Franz Werfel, ‘Jacobowsky and the Colonel’, which in turn was inspired by an intriguing anecdote, as told by Werfel himself to SN Berhrman, who encouraged him to write it as a comedy, and later adapted the play himself. The story was simple – in the panic to escape France before the Nazi invasion in WW2, a Polish Jew buys a car, but he is unable to drive. He strikes up a pact with an anti-semitic Polish colonel who can drive but has no car. Herman’s title is deeply ironic, not so much a Grand Tour as a desperate flight across Europe, especially in Jacobowsky’s case as he travels ever Westward in the face of persecution.
Ultimately, though, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. The idea of two born enemies forced to work together stands the test of time, but it is rather wasted here, with too many blind alleys and under-developed characters, and a surprising lack of tension given the dark theme.
There are two compelling reasons to come and see this production, however. The first is Jerry Herman’s music which is particularly strong. There is the powerful I’ll be here tomorrow, which some have said deserves to become a Jewish anthem just as ‘I am what I am’ became a gay anthem. There are comic numbers such as ‘Do it for Poland’, a beautiful love ballad in the form of Marianne, and the catchy and life-affirming You I like. The other key reason to see this production is an excellent cast, led by the outstanding Alistair Brookshaw as Jacobowsky. He is perfectly cast and pitches the performance right on the line between victimhood and resilience, with a self-effacing warmth which soon opens up to reveal a pragmatic and resourceful man, whose whole life has prepared him for the chaos of war. Never sentimental or self-conscious, Brookshaw lifts the mood whenever he is on stage with a fine sense of comedy and a rich and versatile voice.
Nic Kyle as Colonel Stjerbinsky is the chalk to Jacobowsky’s cheese (or should that be the other way round?), obsessed with honour and military tradition, yet dimly aware that he is missing something. His emotional journey from stiff upper-lipped duel-fighting (yes, really!) stuffed shirt to grudging friend is a pleasure to watch. Zoe Doano as Marianne, the Colonel’s fiance who captures Jacobowsky’s heart, exudes charm and fulfills the brief – to be unfeasibly beautiful and lovable. She is rather under-used, though, as her character stays strictly within the confines of the male relationship she helps to build.
We would be happy to go anywhere to see Jerry Herman performed, but it can’t be denied that the size of the venue at the Finborough is limiting, especially for a production this ambitious – the original Broadway production had 29 in the cast, here pruned to 11. Even with a Director as talented as Thom Southerland, the stage often feels overcrowded, and although Phil Lindley makes a virtue of necessity with his neat ‘flat pack’ designs, adding to the sense that the world is literally falling apart, it is hard to get a real sweep of history, and the powerful choral voices seem to be undercut by the claustrophobic space.
Our final comment may seem rather perverse given the subject matter, but the final reprise of ‘I’ll be here tomorrow’ is curiously downbeat, and we wondered whether this was a directorial decision or in the original book. Herman himself is quoted as saying that ‘The Grand Tour is about the indomitability of the human spirit, so it was a perfect piece for me’ – we couldn’t agree more that he has made a career out of lifting his often unlikely characters to an emotional high-point, so we felt a little deflated, robbed of the chance for an all-out emotional ‘grand’ ending. But if the journey is more important than the destination, perhaps we can’t complain too much.