I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road is one of those musicals whose cult reputation precedes it. Unlike a lot in that category, this one is a gem; a marvellously melodic, brightly angry musical about the way men and women treat each other. This gutsy, vibrant production, featuring a star turn from Landi Oshinowo, deserves full houses.
She is a vocalist, a singer who once had a record that reached 89 on the charts. She is turning 39 and she wants to take control of her life and her act. She wants to do something that means something to her and, with her band, has developed a new act.
Her manager is flustered by the strong feminist tone of her new material; his judgment might be clouded by the fact he caught his wife having sex with another man that morning and told her he was leaving her.
But it is not just that. His masculinity is offended by the themes and issues she wants to sing about. He demands that she sing old, vapid material; she rebels; they quarrel – extensively – and through those quarrels each discovers a deal about the other’s real attitudes and feelings.
In the midst of all this, the band produce a birthday cake to celebrate her birthday. She is slightly overwhelmed, caught mid-rage by an act of simple love. Then, out of the blue, the young good-looking guitarist blurts out his love for her, and offers himself as her partner, no strings, just as he is and she is.
Suddenly, she is confronted by the reality of the theoretical she has been arguing about. Someone who knows her as she is wants her as she is. What will she do?
This is Matthew Gould’s genuinely delightful production of Gretchyn Cryer and Nancy Ford’s chamber musical, I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road which opened tonight at the Jermyn Street Theatre. It should be a hit for the venue because it is terrific in many ways.
First produced at The Public Theatre in New York in 1978, where it played for over a thousand performances, I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road played the West End in 1981 and counts Betty Buckley among the stars who have played the leading role of Heather Jones. Gould’s production is superb and smart and Landi Oshinowo is thrillingly effective as Jones.
Cryer described the musical thus:
…a metaphor for the relationships between men and women. He liked her the way she used to be. He doesn’t like this new version of her.
As nutshells go, that is succinct and entirely correct.
Although some of the ways the language and conversation comes across (nearly forty years after its debut) is a little stilted and clunky, the sentiments and underlying themes are as prevalent and pertinent as ever. When top Tory politicians are making comments about suitability for high office based on the reproduction history of individual women, it is clear that society has not moved on too far from the kinds of issues which frustrate, anger and, ultimately, inspire change in Oshinowo’s character, Jones.
Edward Iliffe has transformed the small Jermyn Street space into a pitch-perfect late Seventies setting, complete with door beads; his costumes are quirky and fun with an air of The Partridge Family about them; entirely appropriate too. Everything looks right, feels right – and permits the period nature of the piece to pulse, even though the concerns which motivate Jones are, sadly, up to date.
Nick Barstow’s musical direction is faultless. The unfamiliar songs are given treatment which is meticulous and full of verve – from the plaintive In A Simple Way I Love You to the exuberant Strong Woman Number and the clap-along delight, Natural High. Diction is superb and the balance between the actor musicians, Rich Craig (Drums and Percussion) and the tunes is finely judged. The singing throughout is full of beauty, joy and fragrant close harmonies. From full belt to pianissimo floating, the cast master every vocal challenge of the fruity, raucous score.
Oshinowo is remarkable as the songstress revolutionary, Jones. Unafraid of exploring the dislikeable aspects of the character, she creates a realistic and natural woman, whose feelings and emotions are perfectly comprehensible and deeply affecting. She screams and rages when she needs to, but her tenderness and generosity of spirit is never disguised.
Vocally, Oshinowo is a dream: her pure, effortless voice is silky, smooth and vivacious. It is simple joy to listen to her navigate the score; from the sheer shimmering style of Old Friend (with excellent support from David Gibbons’ light tenor as Jake), to the harrowing simplicity of Lonely Lady and the hot vocals in Miss America and Put In A Package And Sold, Oshinowo gives her all and makes musical magic.
As the anti-hero, the Manager who thinks he has a hard shell but a soft interior, but who, in reality, is an un-reconstructed and slightly deluded “man’s man”, Nicholas Colicos is extremely effective; he provides the grit in the shell which transforms Jones into a pearl. It’s a loud, bullish performance, funny in parts, and punctuated with moments of realisation which amply demonstrate the inability of entitled males to understand the women in their life or to face up to the fallacies and falsehoods which sustain their distorted view of gender politics.
Oshinowo’s Jones removes the clouds from Colicos’ Joe’s eyes, one by one, but still he has difficulty seeing the truth. Colicos is excellent at conveying the frustration and misplaced certainties of Joe and it is interesting to watch his blustery facade crumble in front of your eyes. He is hysterically funny in a scene where he forces Oshinowo to sing one of her old songs and he raves encouragement even though her delivery of the song suggests she would lick hot bitumen rather than sing the soppy song again. It’s a difficult role but Colicos makes it work.
Oshinowo gets excellent support, vocally and dramatically, from Rosanna Hyland’s Alice and Kristen Gaetz’ Cheryl. Their harmonies are delicious, as creamy as Cornish ice cream, but warm and glorious.
Alice Offley has a breathlessly amusing, albeit slightly horrific, moment as Scottie, the hippest of hippies in the group, and the one who takes a significant phone call and delivers some difficult news with wry, deathless detachment.
Gibbons’ Jake is, despite some curious eye-makeup, endearing and sweet; the lad who holds a torch for Jones and who is integral to the musical fabric of the show. His voice is pure and blends beautifully with the female voices. He has good rapport too with Barstow’s pianist, unsurprisingly named Nick. The bonhomie between all members of Jones’ band is exquisite. It is not clear who is responsible for the choreography but it was spirited and fun throughout.
I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road is terrific entertainment, thoroughly captivating and laced with important thoughts about harmony between the genders. It’s a show one might have heard about but which few have seen in performance.
What Gould and Barstow have achieved here should result in a runaway success for both Jermyn Street Theatre and Oshinowo.