WWII is hardly the most uplifting of settings for a musical. Yet just as one character in The Grand Tour complains about the lack of “poetry, beauty and heroism” in the twentieth century, that’s exactly what composer Jerry Herman brings to the fore. That juxtaposition of grave subject and often lighthearted tone is the key flaw at the heart of the show, given its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre.
Mostly this stems from lead character Jacobowsky, an overwhelmingly positive and upbeat Jewish man from Poland forced to flee his home in the wake of the Nazi invasion. Alastair Brookshaw plays the role with believability and a clear tenor, in a cast predominantly made of syrupy caricature. Jacobowsky finds himself in Paris where he crosses paths with fellow Pole and anti-Semite Colonel Stjerbinksy (Nic Kyle, who balances the character’s mad jealousy with a sweet vocal) who seeks to deliver important papers to England. An unlikely pairing, they purchase a car, rescue the Colonel’s inevitable love interest (Marianne – the pure and elegant Zoe Doano), and escape war-torn France. All of this unfolds, quite literally, on a clever pop-up book style set from Phil Lindley that highlights the show’s whimsical feel.
It’s a schmaltzy, romanticised plot where the characters get by on clichéd circumstances and are tasked heroically to perform “one extraordinary thing”, with Jacobowsky seemingly holding the fate of his beloved motherland in his hands purely by chance. The threesome are ably assisted by brave circus performers and nuns, are rescued last minute by a secret agent and at one point wind up in a comically depicted Jewish wedding. And that’s not the only piece of Jewish representation that seems offbeat. The key draw of the plot is the burgeoning friendship that crosses religion and class, but the Colonel and Marianne seem to treat Jacobowsky more as a pet plaything to be gawped at rather than an equal.
Mostly, The Grand Tour is lacking a sense of urgency and danger. The Nazi threat is mainly implied, simmering in the background. From time to time, Blair Robertson crops up to thwart proceedings as an SS Captain, but the only thing menacing about him is his uniform. The show’s musical structure doesn’t aid this – the introduction of songs feels forced and halts the plot rather than progressing it. The ending, in particular, is laughable when, on the run, the characters pause for a reprise of three songs when they really should be getting a wiggle on. Thankfully, with some emotive performances from the lead cast, the show closes with a sense of emotional poignancy.
Flaws aside, The Grand Tour is very much a traditional musical, from its score that marries Jewish and music hall styles (even with just piano accompaniment), to its optimistic tone. It might be lacking some grit in its fantastical plot and characterisation, but this production brims with charm due to excellent vocal performances and polished design. It’s an easy show to like.
Watch: The Grand Tour runs at the Finborough Theatre until 21st February.
Photos: Annabel Vere.