In the Jerry Herman back-catalogue, The Grand Tour rates simply a brief pit stop.
Despite being multi-Tony Award nominated, it didn’t last long on Broadway after opening in 1979, and is little remembered compared to the composer’s hits, Hello, Dolly! Mack & Mabel, and La Cage Aux Folles, to name a few.
But it opened in London’s intimate Finborough Theatre this week and, as a fringe production, it’s perfectly suited to the smaller space, beautifully produced, immensely enjoyable and with faultless performances from the trio of leads.
Directed by Thom Southerland as part of the Finborough’s 20 Premières Season, The Grand Tour has finally made its European debut.
It’s 1940. As the Nazis advance into France, downtrodden but optimistic Jewish intellectual S.L. Jacobowsky (Alastair Brookshaw) teams up with the heroic but anti-Semitic Colonel Stjerbinsky (Nic Kyle).
Forced together (Jacobowsky buys a car but can’t drive, the Colonel can drive but doesn’t have a car) they embark on a road-trip to escape France, picking up the Colonel’s squeeze Marianne (Zoe Doano) on the way.
Jacobowsky quickly falls for the radiant Marianne and she quickly, but platonically, falls for the philosophical Jacobowsky – while the Colonel glowers at them both in the background.
Brookshaw is particularly skilled at tugging on the emotions when he’s almost whispering his way through a musical number. He’s so incredibly likable it’s baffling that Marianne doesn’t jack the Colonel in immediately.
Kyle does a fine job at portraying a supposedly dashing but frankly rather dull military man who has spent far too long hiding behind his uniform, while Doano’s Marianne is a stoic, practical and refreshingly un-sugary love interest. No simpering damsel in distress here.
The war itself is hardly mentioned, with the fairly formulaic plot focusing on the growing romance, and reluctant (excuse the phrase) bromance between the three.
We’re essentially watching a buddy road-trip tale, with the Colonel, our closed-minded straight guy, realising he can learn a lot from his unlikely new friend.
With almost a dozen people squeezed onto a tiny stage, we’re a long way from Broadway, but the carefully choreographed ensemble do an admirable job in the space.
The occasional moments of overcrowding, when the whole cast pack themselves into a rail carriage for example, only help in emphasising the chaos of the attempt to flee France.
Blair Robertson plays a pantomime baddy of an SS Captain, stalking our heroes across the country as they hide out first in a travelling circus, then undercover at a wedding.
He’s a wonderfully menacing villain – you half expect a cloud of black smoke and a chorus of ‘he’s behind you!’ whenever he takes to the stage.
Which means it’s a slightly grating, uncomfortable, moment when he unexpectedly commits a brutal act of violence.
Herman’s musical numbers might not be sophisticated lyrically but they’re catchy enough and clearly sung – it’s a rare musical performance where you understand every word of a song, but this cast succeed.
The joyous Jewish wedding scene is rightly rather lengthy, illustrating that life, love and bravery persist, even in the midst of persecution.
It’s a shame Vincent Prillo is underused as the bride’s father, as his standout voice briefly rises above the rest.
The Grand Tour has a bit of an identity crisis, which probably explains why it wasn’t a hit on its original run.
The odd moment of Jewish humour is laugh-out-loud funny but the rest of the comedy raises a smile.
It has too whimsical a plot to be emotionally hard-hitting but it’s too straight to ever sit alongside the likes of The Producers, for example, as a risqué WW2 era farce.
**** Four Stars.
The Grand Tour runs at the Finborough Theatre until February 21.