'Magic Mike Live': Theater Review

MAGIC MIKE LIVE Still 2 - Publicity - H 2018
Trevor Leighton
Not that naughty, but quite nice.

The variety show created and directed by Channing Tatum, a sort of third chapter after the hit 2012 film and its lesser sequel, transfers from Las Vegas to London featuring nearly-naked male dancers and plenty of blue talk.

Booked at a location that once rang with the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, Dionne Warwick and, of course, the great Engelbert Humperdinck, and now better known as a casino with a theater attached, the revue Magic Mike Live opens this week at London's Hippodrome for a long engagement, taking bookings through next October. It’s an apt setting for a show transferring from Las Vegas, where it was created and directed by Channing Tatum, the inspiration for and star of Steven Soderbergh's 2012 film about dancers at a Florida male strip club.

Sure enough, Vegas is evoked as soon as you enter the building and see, en route through the birth-canal passage of the casino, gaming machines, a well-staffed cocktail bar and a merchandise stand, all standing ready to help punters gush a few more quid in the venue's cash registers before they enter the cozy, womb-like 300-seater auditorium. Inside the latter, fake currency is distributed by waiters before the show starts, and later flutters down from the rafters, ready to be stuffed into the thongs of the male performers offering free lap dances.

It's all part of a tightly managed spectacle that's not in fact a film-to-stage transfer of screenwriter Reid Carolin's plots for Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL as the uninformed theater critic might expect (a more conventional stage musical based on those properties is in development), but rather a variety show-style experience, lightly inspired by the stage acts within the films.

Additions calculated to make the experience feel less seedy and more female friendly — again, in itself a very new Vegas approach to demographic maximization — include interludes featuring circus skills, singing strippers and the wink-wink make-believe of having female "members of the audience" turn out to be part of the show, all the better to coax a sense of identification with the chosen few. Surely, doctoral theses and dissertations will be written for media studies and theater courses about this production, the Magic Mike films themselves, and the fifty shades of female points of view in contemporary soft porn-themed mainstream entertainment.  

But the really interesting 2018 twist is Magic Mike Live's emphasis on consent, expressed through the casting of Sophie Linder-Lee as the show's tittering, Midlands-accented, just-like-one-of-us emcee, giggling out onstage a stream of naughty-but-nice double entendres. Linder-Lee cheerfully emphasizes the role of permission and consent in this safe space, reminding the assembled audience of by-now mostly drunk women, or at least ones enjoying a mass psychogenic contact high, that the permission works both ways, and that they can stop the lap dance just by whispering the safe word “unicorn” at any time.

It is worth noting that your correspondent found that even though she clearly remembers crying "unicorn" with mock-distress and even tried to use her notebook as a shield, the safe word didn't work. That meant having to endure up close and personal gyrations from [checks program to identify dancer] Daniel Ralph for over a minute. Still, I suppose this job still beats, say, waitressing or gig-economy delivery work.

For the most part, like most strip shows — or, for that matter, Las Vegas spectacles — Magic Mike Live consists largely of discreet, highly choreographed dance performances set to a playlist mix of vintage (James Brown's "Like a Sex Machine") and recent (50 Cent's "Candy Shop") pop bangers, with the occasional slower Ed Sheeran ballad thrown in for slush and giggles. These are interleaved with original music written by choreographer turned arranger-composer Jack Rayner, who worked with Tatum on both the Magic Mike films as well as TV talent shows like America’s Got Talent.

Indeed, the ensemble dancing — with its mix of hip-hop moves, breakdancing spins, common-or-garden acrobatics and classical choreography — is highly reminiscent of what semi-amateur dance crews offer up in such TV contests. The invitation is to admire the sheer physical skill of the performers as they do back flips and pirouettes and whatnot, as if this were hardly any different from a regular all-male gymnastics or dance display. It just so happens that sometimes the dancers are topless and do a lot of moves requiring pelvic thrusts. Like, a lot.

There is a very vestigial attempt to create a bit of a narrative here as well, because that’s very much the fashion as well these days in the attraction business where "story" is the special sauce that makes brands distinctive.

At first, a dweeby character played by David Morgan takes the stage as emcee to lead what looks like it will be a more traditional kind of male strip show featuring guys dressed, Village People-style, like a construction worker or cop — "sexist, outdated stereotypes" as Linder-Lee describes them after having been seemingly plucked randomly from the audience to have a fireman ejaculate silly string all over her jumpsuit.

Summoning the unicorn in her head that sounds exactly like an audio recording of Tatum, Linder-Lee takes over ringmaster duties to present what's supposed to be her modern-woman fantasy strip show, one where she still gets to ogle boys, say smutty lines about vaginal moistness and drool over new, not-yet-outdated stereotypes of male sexiness, like a veterinarian with tattoos, "a CEO who pays women as much as men," and a stud muffin who massages your feet.

Throughout, Linder-Lee initiates a young Italian waiter named Michelangelo (Sebastian Melo Taveira), this show's own "Mike," into the mysteries of how to please a woman. Apparently, this involves not only gyrating, but also (judging by Taveira) man-buns and — surely the most important skill, plus where the man-bun comes in handy as a steering wheel — a talent for miming cunnilingus. 

To the show's enormous credit, the patter and the delivery, especially from the endearing Linder-Lee, manages to thread the needle throughout with just the right mix of smuttiness and wokeness to contemporary sexual mores. It's exactly the sort of show game Gen X moms could go to with their millennial daughters, just at they might have done 10 years ago to The Lion King when the daughters were a decade younger, such is the enduring, familial embrace of theater.

The only thing the show is really missing is proper star power. Apart from his token appearance via pre-recording, Tatum didn't actually make the performance I caught, much to the chagrin of a gaggle of women a few seats down who started chanting his name as the house lights came up at the end, as if that might conjure him forth, like repeating Candyman's name into a mirror.

Venue: The Theatre at Hippodrome, London
Cast: Samantha Baines, Jake Brewer, Harry Carter, Hannah Cleeve, Anthony Donadio, Pip Hersee, Sophie Linder-Lee, Jack Manley, Sebastian Melo Taveira, David Morgan, Daniel Ralph, Ross Sands, Josie Scamell, Brian Siregar, Dean Stewart, Maxwell Trengove, Manny Tsakanika, Aaron Witter
Book: Channing Tatum, Rein Carolin
Composer-music supervisor: Jack Rayner
Creator-director: Channing Tatum
Co-director/choreographer: Alison Faulk
Production designer: Rachel O'Toole
Scenic designers: Rob Bissinger, Andrea Weber
Lighting designer: Philip Gladwell

Costume designer: Marina Toybina
Sound designer: Nick Kourtides
Video designer: Luke Halls
Aerial designer and choreographer: Andrea Weber
Presented by Channing Tatum, Steven Soderbergh, Reid Carolin, Greg Jacobs, Peter Kiernan, Nick Wechsler, United Talent Agency, in association with Vincent Marini, Warner Bros., The Hippodrome Casino, Bruce Rober Harris & Jack W. Batman, TSG Entertainment & Ashley Desimone, Richard Winkler, The Creative House