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It may be easy to forget nowadays, but Liza Minnelli could stun an audience with her loveliness and her incredible dancing and singing. This film is proof of that.

Minnelli is Mavis Turner, a former Broadway dancer, who has moved to New York State and teaches a tap dancing class, made up of a group of very different women (Julie Walters, Jane Krakowski, Sheila McCarthy, Andrea Martin, Carol Woods, Ellen Green, Robyn Stevan) and including one man, Geoffrey (Bill Irwin). Shelley Winters is the stern pianist Mrs Fraser.

The class allows the group to bond and find confidence in themselves and each other, and when they are given a chance to star in a large stage show, they have to pull together to make sure that they put on a terrific performance, despite being convinced that they are not capable of doing it.

Meanwhile, each of them have their own personal problems to deal with and overcome.

I adored this film. Truly adored it. Liza Minnelli was not only lovely as Mavis, but blew me away with her stunning solo dance halfway through the film. The rest of the cast were also wonderful, especially the incredible Bill Irwin, as the shy Geoffrey.

For fans of tap dancing such as myself, this is a real treat, and the finale is a joy to be viewed and viewed again.

Highly, highly recommended.

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Year of release: 1991

Director: Lewis Gilbert

Writer: Richard Harris

Main cast: Liza Minnelli, Julie Walters, Shelley Winters, Bill Irwin, Carol Woods, Jane Krakowski, Sheila McCarthy, Andrea Martin, Robyn Stevan, Ellen Green

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Top Hat is probably the best loved of all the Astaire and Rogers musicals.  In this fabulous production, the story, and the 30s era are brought vividly to life by a terrific cast, in a whirl of lovely songs courtesy of Irving Berlin, some mesmerising dancing, beautiful costumes and lots of laughs.

The story revolves around American Broadway star Jerry Travers (here by played by Alan Burkitt), who comes to England to star in a new show, and falls for society girl Dale Tremont (Charlotte Gooch).  However, in a comedic case of mistaken identity, Dale believes that Jerry is Horace Hardwick, Jerry’s producer and the husband of her friend Madge Hardwich, which causes complications in their budding romance.

I can’t say enough good things about this show.  After a successful run in the West End, it is now on tour and delighting audiences around the country.  The two leads were both excellent.  Alan Burkitt was a sensation as Jerry – his dancing was flawless and a marvel to watch.  His singing also suited the songs wonderfully.  Charlotte Gooch matched him as Dale, looking and sounding gorgeous, and with some amazing dance moves of her own.

The show is packed with familiar songs, such as Puttin’ on the Ritz, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, and Cheek to Cheek.  The supporting cast were all terrific, with special mentions for Clive Hayward and Rebecca Thornhill as Horace and Madge, John Conroy as Horace’s Butler Bates, and Sebastien Torkia as Alberto Beddini, a clothes designer who is also in love with Dale.  As well as the music and dancing, there was also a lot of humour, and the costumes were so glamorous – a real feast for the eyes.

In short, if you like musical theatre, then you absolutely should see this show.  It’s beautifully and imaginatively staged, and each performance was superb.  If I sound like I’m gushing, that’s because I am.  I’d highly recommend this show, and am already determined to buy tickets to see it later on its tour.

(For more information about this production, please click here.)

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Click here for my review of the 1935 film.

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Kiss Me Kate was an MGM musical, adapted from Cole Porter’s Broadway play of the same name.  The plot of the Broadway production was ‘a play within a play’.  Here of course, it is ‘a play within a film’.  Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson play Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, a divorced couple who are reunited on stage at least, as Katherine and Petruchio in Cole Porter’s play ‘Kiss Me Kate’, based on Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming Of The Shrew.  Although they are obviously still drawn to each other, their differing personalities cause them to repeatedly clash, and matters are complicated by Lois Lane(!), played superbly by Ann Miller.  Lois is set to play Bianca, the younger sister of Katherine, in Kiss Me Kate, and flirts constantly with Fred.  Furthermore, Lilli is now engaged to someone else!

Kiss Me Kate was a big success for MGM, and something of a comeback for Cole Porter, whose career had taken a dip prior to this.  Certainly, there are some lovely songs -and dance routines – in the film.  My favourites were It’s Too Darn Hot, Why Can’t You Behave? and Always True You In My Fashion, all sung by Ann Miller (she was accompanied on Always True… by Tommy Rall; and Brush Up Your Shakespeare, sung by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore.  All of these numbers also featured some spectacular dances – Ann Miller was an incredible dancer, and to watch her dancing over the furniture in It’s Too Darn Hot, or skipping across rooftops with Tommy Rall in Why Can’t You Behave? was a treat.  The Brush Up Your Shakespeare dance is also amusing and delightful.  Kathryn Grayson played the part of Lilli very well, and she and Miller not only inhabited their roles in the film, but also their roles in the play within the film very comfortably.  (For my money, Miller was easily the best performer in the film, and credit should also be given to Tommy Rall who partners her in some excellent dancing.)

So with all this going for it, I was surprised that I didn’t enjoy this film more.  There were some great parts, and certainly some real talent involved, but I think Howard Keel didn’t work for me as a leading man.  He did actually have a long and successful career as a leading man, but I didn’t really find him convincing (although he was better when playing Fred than when playing Petruchio).  Of course, it’s all personal taste, and Keel has a very strong following, but I could never really warm up to him in this movie. However, I suspect that it may be the type of film where enjoyment increases with repeated viewing.

Overall, it isn’t one I would rush to watch again, but it’s worth seeing even if only for Ann Miller’s terrific performance.

Year of release: 1953

Director: George Sidney

Writers: Sam Spewack, Bella Spewack, William Shakespeare (play ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’)

Main cast: Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, Tommy Rall

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Another great MGM musical, this one made in 1948.  MGM described it as “the happiest musical ever made.”  (This may have been a valid claim at the time, but then Singin’ In The Rain came along, and I don’t know a happier movie than Singin’.)

Fred Astaire plays Don Hewes (originally Gene Kelly was supposed to star as Don, but injured his ankle and personally requested that Astaire play the part).  Don is part of a song and dance couple, but when his partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) leaves him, he hires Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) as his new partner.  In a story vaguely reminiscent of Garland’s role in For Me and My Gal, in which she starred with Gene Kelly, Hannah falls in love with Don, but still feels threatened by his previous partnership with Nadine.

The storyline of course is really a way to string together some lovely songs and dances. Of particular note are Don’s ‘Drum Crazy’ dance, his ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ dance, and the ‘A Couple of Swells’ number performed by Astaire and Garland.

Hannah sings some lovely songs, and looks gorgeous as well.  Ann Miller plays a rather unlikeable character, but there’s no denying that her tap dance in the number ‘Shakin’ The Blues Away’ is anything less than terrific.

This certainly is a happy movie, and there’s plenty of numbers which will get your toes tapping.  The score by Irving Berlin is lovely, with some instantly recognisable numbers.  Well worth watching.

Year of release: 1948

Director: Charles Walters

Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Sidney Sheldon, Guy Bolton

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Peter Lawford

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