Judge Bill Gibron says this musical features "some of the worst lyrics ever to hit the legitimate theatrical stage," but I'll bet that's because Grease 2 is illegitimate. And not particularly stage-y.
Half an entertaining movie.
Arthur Kipps is an orphan. That means only one thing in turn-of-the-century England: indentured servitude at the hands of an unscrupulous merchant, Mr. Shalford. The mercantile master runs a successful store in London. Before he leaves for his new life as a glorified slave, Kipps vows his undying love to young Ann, his best friend and soulmate. After many years under Mr. Shalford's tutelage, Kipps has become a right regular clerk, familiar with all facets of the business. He and his fellow forced laborers love to go out carousing around the town. One day Kipps runs into Ann, who is also in London working as a maid, and their romance is rekindled. As a token of his devotion, he gives her a memento from their childhood: a piece of a coin they both found as kids.
One day, Kipps runs into Harry Chitterlow, a pompous actor who takes the boy to his first music hall revue. There Kipps learns he has just come into a fortune. He goes from poverty to the posh life overnight and as they say, money changes everything. First Kipps falls for upper-crust debutante Helen Washington. Then he starts to ignore his non-wealthy associates. When he finally turns on Ann, it seems that Kipps will be another snobbish boor destroyed by the root of all evil. But sometimes, paper and iron can only cloud, not completely corrupt, a man's mind. And it takes a series of dramatic setbacks for Kipps to realize that the most important money in life is the divided currency he gave Ann, that symbol of fidelity rendered in Half a Sixpence.
When you shear it of all its pomp and extravagance, when you whittle it down to the very basics of musical comedy plotting, Half a Sixpence should work like a lucky charm. It should razzle, dazzle, and frazzle even the most cynical heart into leaping the rather large disbelief-suspension bridge and entering a world of pure song-and-dance magic. Forged out of the formula for most standard show tune fare, this genial look at a lowly orphan's rise to fame and (mis)fortune is founded in the "veddy British" genre of class-consciousness and social stature sagas. Based rather loosely on H. G. Wells's commentary on economic crassness, Kipps, and turned into one of those over-the-top three-ring theatrical extravaganzas that Monty Python poked fun at in the "Every Sperm is Sacred" number from Meaning of Life, Half a Sixpence has 50% of the battle won. And with a grade-A talent at the forefront, the indomitable Tommy Steele, this farthing fairytale is all set to strike the stratosphere.
Unfortunately, the only reason Half a Sixpence hits any kind of upper air mass is because of all the hot air it's expelling. Probably not since Finian's Rainbow (also featuring the smiling Steele) has there been such an overblown exhibition of unabashed bloat concocted out of the simplest of stories. Some could argue that Finian's desire to delve into race relations made it a tough social satire, but the basic "leprechaun chasing its gold" gambit is not exactly Stephen Sondheim. Half a Sixpence is equally guilty of giving a corny, conventional comedy of manners a haughty heaviness it neither needs nor deserves. And it's not a very good musical, either.
The main problems with this super-sized show come directly from the song elements themselves. Now, Tommy Steele is exceptional, that special symbol of one-of-a-kind talent who announces his greatness just by walking on stage or set. As with Robert Morse's J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or Zero Mostel's Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the role of Kipps seems to be a natural extension of Steele's personal aura, a singing, dancing doppelganger for what Steele is as an individual. Had the movie played solely on his strengths and not reached for an Oliver!-style grandeur or Goodbye Mr. Chips' sense of classicism, maybe a nice little novelty could have been crafted. But Half a Sixpence is dead set on being an opulent, overdone lollapalooza. Director George Sidney—a high profile talent trained in the old-school lavishness of song and dance delirium (Pal Joey, Kiss Me Kate, Bye Bye Birdie, and Viva Las Vegas)—always says "yes" to even the most extreme excess, ruining any intimacy or connection we might make with the characters or the circumstances. Steele is selling a simple, shy persona gifted with the ability to break out into energetic emotional moments of music. But Sidney is there to top things off with so much candy-colored confection and irritating camera trickery (time lapse, stop motion) that the whole rags-to-riches mood is upset.
Two examples really stand out. The music hall number "Money to Burn" is a big, brash production number. For those only vaguely familiar with the genre, it's along the lines of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's "Old Bamboo" or Mary Poppins's "Step in Time"—a big company chorale with lots of instrumental breaks for dancing and rhythmic comic bits. But since the song is actually pretty awful (more on this later) and the number of extras limited (about 10 instead of 50), the majesty is reduced to a minority. This number should be a roof raiser. It can't even manage to survive the key change. But the worst example of cinematic showboating comes when Steele rows for the upper-class crew in the annual regatta. Synchronized to a dreary piece of compositional crap (called "The Old Military Canal") that acts as color commentary to the water race action, the dithering amount of overindulgence—the jagged jump cuts and out-of-place handheld hijinks—sinks what is already a dangerously lopsided sequence. There are times when the bloated ballyhoo works. "Flash, Bang, Wallop!" is a rousing number about the taking of wedding photos that really benefits from Sidney's overbroad canvas. And the title song's carousel backdrop heightens the feeling of foolish emotions in blossom. But more times than not, Sidney shortchanges the hoofers and harmonies with disproportionate chimes and chimera.
Half a Sixpence is also hampered by some of the worst lyrics ever to hit the legitimate theatrical stage. Fourth graders in a Special Ed haiku class could come up with better choruses and verses. The problem with the musical poetry is that it's all about apparent exposition and nothing about internal feelings or mental monologues. When a character in this movie wants to go shopping, they will sing a perky, peppy number with such prosaic complexities as "I need to buy some things at the store / but if I go there, I might buy more." If a character gets hungry, they croon couplets like "I am starving, I must eat / a piece of bread or a hunk of meat." All the intricacy that writers like Oscar Hammerstein and Mr. Sondheim have tried to instill into the once-lame stage libretto is pissed out like one too many pints in David Henecker's plain-speak spunk. It's not that the lyrics lack intelligence; there's just no attempt at moving beyond the bloody obvious. Several times, melody lines and expert vocalization are underserved by the woefully inept pram poems.
The same goes for Paramount's DVD presentation of this title. Any fan of Steele and his Piccadilly palaver will simply scoff at the absolute bare-bones basis for this release. While the notoriously reclusive star of the '50s and '60s is apparently still active (touring in companies of Singin' in the Rain and Scrooge back in Merrie Olde England), it would have been nice to hear him discuss this, one of his few musical movies, on a commentary track. No such luck from the Moviemaking Mountain. Also, the production of Half a Sixpence went through extensive changes during its travails from rehearsals to the West End, to Broadway, to the silver screen. Like the recently released Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Special Edition DVD, it would be nice to know the different variations, the added/cut songs and the reasons for such retooling. None of that is here.
If you are a fan of the film and its soundtrack, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (which showcases cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth's vibrant Technicolor kaleidoscopes) is excellent with only minor fading. The Dolby Digital Stereo sound is limited by the original elements, but it is solid nonetheless. Yet for such an overwhelmingly distended vision to be presented in such a stingy, skimpy style seems unfair, no matter the quality of the film inside. Lovers of traditional theatrical trifles will probably adore this big dumb show. But those who fancy themselves musical sophisticates will feel mired in Half a Sixpence's overdone "feel good" glitter.
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