Question: What do the following all have in common: "Top Hat"; "Follow the Fleet"; "Swing Time"; "Royal Wedding"; "Easter Parade"; "Funny Face"?
Answer: They were just a few of the glorious Hollywood musicals starring the terpsichorean, twinkle-toed legend Fred Astaire.
Remember these marvellous films, with the dazzling song and dance routines? No matter how many times we see them, the original dance routines, some dating back to the 1930s, have lost nothing of their initial impact. They are always guaranteed to bring joy to your heart, offer a welcome escape and to make even those of us with two left feet feel as if we could trip the light fantastic. Yes, anything would be possible, if only us ladies had the fleet-footed Mr. Astaire to sweep us off our feet, while the gentlemen among you might be quietly wishing you were as deft on the dance floor with just an ounce of Fred's rhythm and style. Ah, we can but dream...
Well, some dreams do come true, and on Tuesday night I joined a packed audience at Cheltenham Town Hall to watch a fabulous foot-tapping celebration of Mr. Astaire's artistry and exceptional talent. Two of the supremely gifted dancers from the immensely popular BBC series "Strictly Come Dancing", Aljaz Skorjanec and Janette Manrara have created a show, which is currently touring the UK, called “Remembering Fred”. Both admit that this most gentlemanly and unassuming of Hollywood stars is their constant inspiration and this is their tribute to him.
Along with a live band, a cast of singers and dancers, the splendidly syncopated production sparkled with stardust and brought the glamour of Hollywood to "Evergreen" and "This England’s" hometown for one night only. (A very good friend of mine - and fellow "Strictly" devotee - had got the tickets for my birthday and what a perfect gift. Thank you, Mel!) Aljaz and Janette, and their ensemble, performed a stunning sequence of routines, all choreographed to the timeless songs from Fred's famous musicals. Among the classics (see how many you remember) were "Cheek to Cheek", "Puttin' on the Ritz", "Stepping Out with My Baby", "Let's Face the Music and Dance", "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails", "Fascinating Rhythm", and "A Fine Romance". Right from the band's first notes and the dancers' first steps the audience were swept along by the heady Hollywood allure sprinkled with the "Strictly" magic. We were in for a treat as Aljaz, Janette and the supporting cast combined a superb programme of terrific tap routines and dances including the American Smooth, the Argentine Tango, the Cha-Cha and the Quickstep.
As well as the songs and the dances there were recollections of Fred too, which were cleverly interwoven into the show rather like a radio interview. It provided a fascinating insight into the man, his character and his work. We heard anecdotes from famous folk past and present, such as Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Irving Berlin, Don Black, Twiggy and Darcey Bussell. Apparently, Fred's sister, Adele, used to call her brother "Moaning Minnie", because he was constantly worrying and, as his screen legacy testifies, he was a perfectionist not just regarding dance and choreography, but the costumes and everything that audiences saw on the silver screen.
It was a wonderful show that brought the audience to its feet, and shone the spotlight on the genius of Fred Astaire together with the talented dancers who seemed to flow across the stage with effortless elegance, grace and energy. The fluidity and dynamism of Aljaz and Janette's dances were sheer perfection, and as they moved the audience was mesmerised and completely held in their sway. Many of us, as we reluctantly left the Town Hall, were humming those marvellous tunes and, yes, there were a few soft-shoe shuffles and basic steps on display as we emerged into reality and the cold night air. I'm not sure what Fred, Aljaz or Janette would have made of our efforts, but with the stars shining brightly, and after an evening's entertainment like that, we were, as the song says "...in heaven..".
Before I waltz off for this week, there's just time to remind you that the forthcoming summer issue of "Evergreen" (click here for subscriptions) has an excellent feature about another Hollywood legend, the actress Ava Gardner and the years she lived in London, a city she adored. Also, if you've been inspired to listen to some of those memorable songs from Hollywood musicals, then don't forget our "Thanks for the Memory" CD (click here) featuring 28 wonderful melodies from Hollywood's golden age.