Ambitious musical bites the dust


THE making of a few bob aside, it is difficult to know just what the creators of JFK, the big new musical at the Olympia, may have had in mind. Will Holt (music and libretto) and Tom Sawyer (libretto) say in a programme note they aimed to tell the John F. Kennedy story in terms of personal drama, but their selection of material provides only a superficial look at their subject, and nothing that recreates the catharsis of real life. A musical with an inadequate book is off to a sorry start.

The first half, entitled Prom Dance introduces the characters - they do it themselves at the start - and does the basic scene-setting. Joseph Kennedy is a rich, brash Irish-American with a voracious ambition for himself and his male children.

Eldest son Joe is his first choice for the political big-time, and when he is killed in the war, the mantle falls on Jack. In the second half, named Mardi Gras, we see him elected President, begin to escape his father's apron-strings and use power for worthy ends. Then the assassination, and finis.

Any average audience will know all this and much, much more. So much more, indeed, that there is a sense of editing, of suppression of the complete truth, in what is offered as biographical material. Strangely, the principal character, JFK, is sketchily drawn throughout, never three-dimensional. Father Joseph is far more interesting, with the only convincing personal drama in view. A feeling of caricature becomes pervasive as cardboard, almost music hall, versions of such as Castro, Nixon, Kruschev, Lyndon Johnson and others do their little sketches.

Then there is the musical score, of which I can already remember nothing. It is not essential to leave the theatre whistling tunes; Stephen Sondheim has proved that, but then he is a genius, and none of that rare quality is manifest here. But the music should underpin or enlarge the action, and here it has a mechanical quality that fails to beguile, and is sprinkled with reprises of tunes hardly worth their keep in the first place. There is virtually no dialogue, and the lyrics are an inadequate substitute.

A good cast do their best with what they are given. Maurice Clark has voice and presence as JFK, but the sheer charisma of the original is too vivid in memory for him to emulate. Monica Ernesti looks somewhat like Jackie and sings well, but is also up against reality. Stella McCusker scores in an underwritten part as mother Rose, but the evening's honours go to Gary Raymond in the unexpected lead of Joseph, manic father and conspirator.

Joe Vanek's rather static set has tiers of small dressing-rooms on either side of the stage, which seem to be there for the actors to hang around before the acts. This leaves an empty centre for the action, which includes surprisingly little dancing, with a balcony above. Director Larry Fuller achieves a slick progression with a few bright and brassy numbers; but the final impression is that of an over-ambitious project biting the dust.