I Can't Sing!: Theater Review

Tristram Kenton
Judgment day for TV's most infamous judge.

Simon Cowell's talent show "The X Factor" is both mocked and celebrated in this surreal stage musical, which has the British media mogul's blessing and backing.

LONDON - The chance to see Simon Cowell lampooned in a stage musical that he has co-produced himself is not the most appetizing pitch to most sane theatergoers, but the irreverent comedy spectacle I Can't Sing! is an unexpected delight. Love or loathe him, it is testament to Cowell's shrewd business sense that he can turn even his cartoonish public image as a sneering, profiteering egotist into a highly entertaining and potentially lucrative stage hit.

Bursting with strong musical numbers, ingenious stage designs and a deep streak of Monty Python-style humor, I Can't Sing! leaves almost no breathing room for an audience to get bored. Loosely based around the story of two young lovers auditioning for the British version of Cowell's small-screen talent show, The X Factor, some of the jokes and cultural references may prove too specific for overseas visitors, and will dampen transatlantic transfer prospects. But even viewers who find the TV show cynical and manipulative, myself included, can enjoy this delirious theatrical spoof.

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The show was written by Harry Hill, a former medical doctor and stand-up comic who has succeeded in bringing a warm-hearted brand of childlike surrealism to prime-time British TV over the last decade as the host of several award-winning entertainment shows. It is directed by Sean Foley, whose strong track record of successful West End productions includes The Ladykillers and the recent PG Wodehouse adaptation, Perfect Nonsense. The composer is Steve Brown, who has worked extensively with Hill and other comedians, notably Steve Coogan.

Hill's signature touch is evident in the show's more bizarre lateral-thinking tableaux, including the horn-helmeted Viking chorus who hail the arrival of the X Factor judges, an Irish boy-band thronged by Riverdancing leprechauns, and an Eminem-style rap number performed by Charlie Baker's fame-hungry hunchback. One of his less successful ideas is a talking puppet dog, voiced and manipulated by the ever-visible human actor Simon Lipkin, which becomes a clumsy and superfluous distraction in a show already packed with goofy visual gags.

When I Can't Sing! was first announced 18 months ago, Cowell was a global media heavyweight with X Factor franchises running on both sides of the Atlantic. Since then his crown has slipped a little, with ratings in decline and Fox cancelling the U.S. show last month. Whether such temporary hiccups in Cowell's world domination plan will dampen potential interest in this musical is a moot point, but the show has already attracted plenty of negative advance publicity. Its preview run was beset with ominous cancelations and technical problems, including a mid-show intermission that lasted almost 50 minutes.

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Sportingly, Hill has now added self-mocking jokes about these setbacks, which were blamed at the time on Es Devlin's complex stage designs. After seeing her full range of dazzling quick-change sets, this explanation makes sense. Incorporating a vast Pop Art mouth with a human-sized fly inside, a ring of dressing rooms that glide smoothly around the stage perimeter, a colossal flower-shaped staircase with a suggestively tumescent stamen, and even a UFO that swoops over the orchestra seats, this show feels at times like a compact remix of Devlin's designs for the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. It is pretty evident where the reported £6 million ($9,972,000) budget has been spent.

The core plot is boy-meets-girl, with impoverished orphan Chenice (Cynthia Erivo) and humble plumber Max (Alan Morrissey) falling in love as they progress together through auditions for the TV talent show. Morrissey is a little too colorless as the earnest Max but Erivo displays real acting and vocal chops, from her Whitney Houston-esque melismatic acrobatics on the show's ironic title song to her belting, booty-shaking, Beyonce-style closing number.

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Around this slender love story, Foley and Hill supply a comic chorus of freaks and oddballs, including thinly veiled caricatures of the judges and presenters on the British version of the X Factor. Particularly strong are Victoria Elliott as the vampish grotesque Jordy, a kind of Absolutely Fabulous version of pop diva Cheryl Cole; and Simon Bailey as Liam O'Deary, an acutely observed parody of the show's U.K. host Dermot O'Leary.

Nigel Harman, a Downton Abbey regular who won an Olivier award for his role in Shrek - The Musical, errs on the soft side of character assassination in his compellingly creepy portrayal of Cowell. In signature center-parting hairstyle and shiny synthetic teeth, the multi-media mogul is depicted as part James Bond villain and part Austin Powers-style playboy. There are running gags about his high-waisted trousers, his lust for money and his messianic arrogance. Harman also shines in one of the wittiest musical numbers, a tap-dancing swing-jazz paean to romantic non-commitment called "Uncomplicated Love."

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But overall, Cowell gets off lightly in I Can't Sing! Given that he is a financial partner in the project, jokes at his expense inevitably feel as toothless as those token critics of Putin's foreign policy on the Kremlin-backed propaganda channel Russia Today. Then again, serious dissenters who resent Cowell's choke-hold on global pop culture were never likely to be the target audience for a largely benign, officially approved musical spoof.

In fairness, only one of the songs, the unmemorable ensemble number "X Factor Fever," feels like an uncritical commercial for the show. And to their credit, Hill and Foley do not allow Cowell to dominate the action, keeping him offstage for most of the first act, just as Steven Spielberg did with the shark in Jaws. However muted its satirical intent, I Can't Sing! is essentially a warm-hearted and generous celebration of human eccentricity, which is not always true of the TV show that inspired it.

Venue: London Palladium (runs through Oct. 25)
Cast: Nigel Harman, Cynthia Erivo, Alan Morrissey, Ashley Knight, Victoria Elliot, Simon Bailey
Director: Sean Foley
Book: Harry Hill
Music: Steve Brown
Lyrics: Steve Brown, Harry Hill
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Leah Archer
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Choreographer: Kate Prince
Musical director: Phil Bateman
Orchestrations: Chris Egan
Presented by Stage Entertainment, Syco Entertainment, Just For Laughs Theatricals, Glass Half Full Productions