REVIEWS: Half a Sixpence

Half a Sixpence - April 7, 2008
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Before the advent of Andrew Lloyd Webber, London used to send New York nostalgia musicals set in colorful times in Britain’s past. One of the most beloved was Half a Sixpence, based on the novel Kipps by H.G. Wells, which made an international star of Tommy Steele. This bright, bouncy rags-to-riches musical has never had a major New York revival. Musicals Tonight! is righting that wrong with a delightful concert staging by Thomas Sabella-Mills that features a star turn by animated, loose-limbed Jon Peterson as draper’s apprentice Arthur Kipps. The show also includes such toe-tapping numbers as “Money to Burn,” “If the Rain’s Got to Fall,” and the ingratiating title song.

Half a Sixpence is a musical by playwright Beverley Cross, best known as the late husband of Dame Maggie Smith and for writing the screenplay for the cult hit, Clash of the Titans, and composer-lyricist David Heneker, famed for the scores to such London hits as Expresso Bongo, Irma La Douce and the hugely successful Charlie Girl. Based on socialist author H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps, which was partly autobiographical, the story was earlier dramatized in a 1941 Carol Reed film version starring Michael Redgrave, Diana Wynyard, Phyllis Calvert and Michael Wilding. The Broadway version of Half a Sixpence became a dance musical and eliminated much of the score. The Musicals Tonight! production restores five witty songs not previously heard on these shores before.

Set in the seaside resort of Folkestone, England, in 1900, Half a Sixpence concerns Arthur Kipps, an apprentice in Shalford’s Drapery Emporium and Fancy Goods Bazaar. Although he is in love with Ann, sister of his childhood friend Sid, the couple is not able to meet often as she is in domestic service and he works long hours in the shop, including Saturdays. In order to cement their relationship, Arthur cuts a sixpence in half and gives Ann part of it as a lover’s token.

When Arthur inherits a fortune of £1,200 a year, he is courted by the gentry and finds himself falling in love with upper crust Helen Walsingham. When Arthur realizes that money doesn’t make him fit in with Helen’s crowd, he goes off in search of his true love Ann. After a series of unfortunate events, all turns out happily in the end. Half a Sixpence charmingly proves that money doesn’t bring happiness, and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.

As the Cockney hero, Peterson, on stage almost all of the time, is always animated, from his mobile face to his loose-limbed walk which suggests he would rather be dancing. His charm is ingenuous, and he makes Arthur Kipps an endearing character, very much in the Tommy Steele/Jim Dale mold. Appearing in almost every song, he leads the ensemble in the rousing production numbers, “All in the Cause of Economy,” “Money to Burn,” “A Proper Gentleman,” “If the Rain’s Got to Fall,” and “Flash, Bang, Wallop,” some of which include his own exciting tap-dancing routines.

As his true love Ann, Amy Griffin gives a particularly robust performance, making an interesting contrast to Kathryn Holtkamp’s demure, understated Helen. Her no-nonsense Ann demonstrates that women’s liberation was alive and well in the early Edwardian Era. She makes a strong impression which such restored songs as “I Don’t Believe a Word of It,” “I’m Not Talking to You," and “I Only Want a Little House,” sung in counterpoint to Kipps’ “I’ll Build a Palace.” She gives a sweet rendition of “Long Ago,” as well as the melodic title song, sung in duet with Peterson.

What is particularly memorable is that director-choreographer Sabella-Mills has obtained fine work from all of his leads as well as encouraging the rest of this cast to make the smaller roles truly well defined characters. Michael Jennings Mahoney is particularly strong as Kipps’ socialist friend and fellow employee Sid and is given able assistance by Sean Bell and Anthony Zillmer as the other apprentices. Robert Lydiard as the owner of the Emporium and Roger Rifkin as his manager give a good idea of the power that employers wielded back in 1900. Deborah Jean Templin, Patti Perkins and Danny Beiruti depict the snobbish gentry with subtle shading. Although Doug Shapiro as Kipps' actor-playwright friend Chitterlow is amusing, he can’t seem to make up his mind whether he is supposed to be high spirited or actorly affectedly.

With James Stenborg at the piano, his musical direction makes one want to join in both the singing and the dancing which appears to be good fun. Credit is due the tdf Costume Collection for the attractive period clothing for both upstairs and downstairs. Half a Sixpence offers gentle charms of good humor and nostalgia that are very refreshing in our era of raucous music and deafening miking. Musicals Tonight! makes an excellent case for this almost lost show.

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