A Night on the Town Review
For their latest release under the Ovation filmed theatre umbrella, Metrodome have opted for a 1983 BBC production of A Night on the Town. An “international cabaret” which takes in the songs ands music of Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, this piece sees its two protagonists (Ann Reinking and Lewis Collins of The Professionals fame) whisked back in time to a nostalgic recreation of the thirties as they take in the nightclubs of Berlin, London, New York, New Orleans and finally Paris.
Indeed, nostalgia is the key, but not a specific one. The musicals of the past are plundered and blended into one so that A Night on the Town never becomes, say, especially Berlin-esque in tone. Rather it demonstrates a more collective memory with references to The Blue Angel rubbing shoulders with those to Humphrey Bogart. That said, this lack of specificity results in the occasional awkward slip, especially for the more knowledgeable viewer, so that Elaine Paige’s take on Marlene Dietrich more greatly resembles Gloria Grahame and the impression of Bogie actually comes across as more like Peter Lorre.
In fact, any kind of familiarity with Hollywood in the thirties and forties, especially its musicals, proves damaging, as it is here where the definitive records of many of these numbers exist. Though essentially filmed theatre, A Night on the Town was recorded without an audience and as such the camera is able to get on stage with the various performers. However, director John Vernon still adopts the adage of recording stage shows and simply records the proceedings despite having the various actors and dancers solely for his benefit. The problem here is that the camerawork, and by extension the editing, is never able to fully interact with the choreography resulting in a lack of true audience involvement with the project.
The same can be said of the performers who seem to be taking an ironic approach to the whole affair. Collins adopts a raised eyebrow throughout, which may recall Dick Powell, but you never get the impression that the actor knows this. Moreover, the cast as a whole lack the conviction that should be integral to the musical form. When, for example, James Cagney started hoofing in Yankee Doodle Dandy or Gene Kelly did likewise in any of his films you were utterly convinced that every ounce of their energy was going into it and as such were hooked from the first step. With A Night on the Town, however, there is simply a sense of going through the motions, although this may in part be due to the casting, primarily, of singers as opposed to professional dancers.
This does, of course, mean that the songs themselves are largely free from criticism and, more importantly, at an hour and 45 minutes there’s also plenty of room from them. And, of course, with the likes of Puttin’ on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, Twentieth Century Blues and Anything Goes each is an absolute classic. Which makes it a rather odd to find a perfunctory narrative competing for space with them as opposed to utilising them in the manner of a song-after-song revue show. The problem here is twofold: on the one hand, the dialogue attempts to match the wit and sophistication of the various lyrics but fails miserably (which stands out all the more as these very lyrics are never that far off); on the other, the plotting is rudimentary at best. The globetrotting from nightspot to nightspot is never explained, but more damagingly simply means a replaying of the same romantic pairing with Paige. The only difference is that her accent changes, from cod Russian to a hideous take on “Noo Yoik”. Indeed, by the second - let alone third or fourth - variation things start to become very tiresome. And when you’re dealing with songs of this calibre that really shouldn’t be the case.
Considering its age A Night on the Town looks and sound surprisingly fine for its DVD debut. The original TV formats of a 4:3 ratio and stereo soundtrack have been adhered to and there really is no need for an upgrade. The picture is free of damage and looks as good as could be expected from videotape, with only the occasional trace of artefacting letting the side down. (The opening and closing credits are also a little harsh on the eyes, though this is likely to have been true of the original television transmission.) The sound is likewise as crisp as should be expected, indeed some would say a little too much as the miming during certain numbers is readily apparent. Disappointingly, the extras extend only to a handful of - admittedly detailed - biographies for the composers and various cast members.