Everyone who is interested in dance, or even theatre, knows the name of Fred Astaire. As we are told in this comprehensive portrait of possibly the world’s greatest dancer, Fred left many films and television shows as well as appearing in books and other memorabilia. So what is the value in seeing two young Australians representing Fred Astaire (Joe Meldrum) and his leading ladies (Imogen Moore)? Personable as he is Meldrum does not necessarily look like Astaire… that is, until he starts dancing. This same could be said of Moore, charming as she is. After all, she has the greater challenge: to represent to everyone from Fred Astaire’s earliest partners to the great Ginger Rogers.
I would say that value of this play, A Fine Romance, written by the producer Margaret Fisk, achieves more than the writer hoped for. She sees it as “a tribute” to Fred Astaire– his life, his music and his dance – and also to celebrate many leading ladies that featured alongside him during his massive career. From their first appearance on stage to their exit sporting a top hat and glamorous gown (respectively), the actors bewitched the audience with their charm, their brilliant dancing and their simple joie de vivre. Every song, every routine became a bonus as the audience allowed themselves to be drawn into a world of their past or a world that was new but too attractive to leave.
A cool band was all that was needed to complete the illusion and this we had with the Ben Taylor jazz trio, comprising Ben Taylor on piano, Dave George on drums and percussion and Glen Davidson on double bass. After all, they had the opening notes before a white-suited Meldrum leapt onto the stage with the cool rendition of Blue skies, the first of many favourites, clearly bringing back memories to many in the audience.
“These are the songs of my youth” said one incessantly, in between his numerous “bravos”.
When it is done with confidence, tap is a most attractive form of dance. There is an irrational urge to join in, with an almost unshaken confidence that one could indeed dance like that. What is pleasing about this combination of Meldrum and Moore is simply that – the combination of the two: so relaxed, so fluid, so apparently effortless. Like many others these two leads auditioned for the show, and Fisk assured us afterwards in conversation that they had effectively clicked from the first day. Furthermore their relaxed camaraderie carried beyond the stage and into such everyday things as taxi rides, a blessing given the extensive touring planned for the show.
The two take turns to narrate Fred’s story (because there was no doubt it was his story) and it would be fair to say there was not one instance of upstaging or even that such a thing was contemplated. Together the dazzling duo tapped their way through such favourites as Fascinating rhythm, Lady be good and so on. Astaire’s life certainly had some surprises: in an industry and circumstances where affairs were right and he was fair game, it seems Fred Astaire was in love with only two women in his life … his wives, one an aristocrat, his second a brilliant jockey many years his junior. But attention was paid to his collaboration with Judy Garland, particularly in the film Easter Parade. Our principals recreated the magic with their version of the snappy Let’s call the whole thing off.
There were some surprises, such as finding Astaire was also a jazz aficionado. But although the temptation is to see him as a very superior song-and-dance man tapping his way through song after song, there were moments which seem to touch the essence of Fred Astaire in a way that was new and very touching. Inevitably this happened with songs like The way you look tonight, with Moore in a pretty gown and the two dancing a graceful type of waltz. Even the bite of A fine romance served to the show the romantic figure that Fred Astaire was, with Night and day and Cheek to cheek simply shoring up this impression.
Two of the last songs summed up the spirit of the whole performance. The first was Let’s face the music and dance – as this energetic pair had done all night – and finally the big-ticket number, Putting on the Ritz. In developing the concept for the show and finding two such excellent performers, Margaret Fisk had done just that.
Whether it your first experience of the “Ritz” or simply a joyous trip through your own memories, you could not be anything other than glad to be there and enjoying the sensation of your feet itching to dance and your heart singing.
A cartoon by Bob Thaves, in his “Frank and Ernest” series, from a Los Angeles newspaper showed the two characters gazing at a billboard announcing a Fred Astaire film festival. The caption reads: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backwards and in high heels”.
The appeal of this quote, not just to feminists, has perhaps had the effect of playing down the achievement of Fred Astaire – and yet his were very significant achievements. It is 30 years since his passing, and to celebrate his life, Melbourne independent theatre company JTM Productions is bringing back the old world glamour and charm of the 30s and 40s in an all-singing, all-dancing tribute to the man who went on to become the most famous dancer of all time.
A Fine Romance is a show with a big heart, capturing the story of a dancing legend and an all-round entertainer who was and still is, adored by millions of fans around the world. Fred Astaire had his own quote: a screen test report on Astaire for RKO Radio Pictures, now lost, is reported to have read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” Even so, a memo with the report refers to his “tremendous charm”.
How to capture that “tremendous charm” was the task confronting the team behind this show. Starring Joe Meldrum and Imogen Moore, together with Ben Taylor on piano and a jazz ensemble, A Fine Romance recreates the legendary dance routines of the era and takes the audience from Fred’s humble beginnings on Broadway, all the way to his Hollywood days and on screen romances with his many leading ladies, including Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth and of course Ginger Rogers.
Produced by Margaret Fisk AM, A Fine Romance had its world premiere in Adelaide in 2016 and has since toured extensively across South Australia, Victoria and most recently Queensland, selling out shows, breaking box office records and thrilling audiences wherever it played.
After playing to full houses and dazzling crowds across Australia now it’s Melbourne’s turn to see A Fine Romance: The Magic of Fred Astaire.
“We are extremely excited about this show,” says Fisk. “Not only is the story of Fred Astaire fascinating, we also feature an incredible selection of his songs and of course, the extraordinary dance routines that he was famous for. Audiences everywhere have simply fallen in love with A Fine Romance and with the incredible performances by Joe and Imogen”.
As for those legendary quotes, you may find them in the show … and there’s plenty more besides. With beautiful costumes, plenty of glitz, extraordinary dancing and of course, the timeless music of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the Gershwins, including The Way You Look Tonight, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Cheek to Cheek, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Top Hat, That’s Entertainment and more, this show has proved to be a winner for all who see it.
A Fine Romance: The Magic of Fred Astaire was written by Margaret Fisk AM, directed and choreographed by Jeremy Hinman.
Musical arrangements by Shanon Whitelock with orchestration by Daniele Buatti.
Design and Costumes by Christina Logan-Bell; lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw
Image: Joe Meldrum and Imogen Moore. Photos by Andrew Follows.
Editor’s note: This is a sponsored piece, with core information provided to Classic Melbourne by producer Margaret Fisk. It will be replaced by a review soon after the show opens.