Review: Tonight’s the Night (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, March 15)

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Musical theatre legends Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber have recently bemoaned the state of musicals, saying that audiences today only want to go along to shows where they can happily go in humming already familiar music.

Tonight’s the Night, currently on a UK tour which is now playing at Brighton’s Theatre Royal, is a prime example of the so-called juke box musical, featuring hit songs crammed into a weak story – in this case a large selection from the back catalogue of superstar singer and songwriter Rod Stewart.

It is undoubtedly crowd-pleasing, it is certainly extremely well-performed by an exuberant cast, and it definitely provides a good night out for seasoned Stewart fans and will surely satisfy even those who don’t hold a shining torch ever burning to the rock star.

But, as the ladies of Fascinating Aida might ask, “is it art?” Originally produced in the West End in 2003, the show has a story written by Ben Elton, which is so limp you would imagine it to have been produced on a lettuce leaf well past its sell-by date. The Faustian tale of a dull mechanic too afraid to ask the girl he loves out on a date, and instead sells his soul to the devil in exchange for Rod Stewart’s is pure hokum, and fails to engage the interest.

Thankfully director Caroline Jay Ranger ensures the cast puts all its efforts into the musical numbers and with more than 20 attempting to drive the narrative along (a difficult task, as Stewart’s songs are great works of storytelling in their own right) the evening is never going to drag.

Ben Heathcote is tremendous as Stuart, displaying an almost Jekyll and Hyde transformation from nerdy mechanic to cocky superstar, and performing such classics as Lost in You and Stay With Me with vigorous style.

There are five star performances too from Jenna Lee-James (an original cast member of Ben Elton’s other and more successful juke box show We Will Rock You) as the long-suffering would-be girlfriend; Michael McKell hilariously channelling several infamous rock stars as Stoner; a fiery Tiffany Graves as Satan/Baby Jane (yes, we think she’s sexy!); and Andy Rees as Rocky, pretty near bringing the house down with a poignant version of I Don’t Want to Talk About It.

But undoubted acting/singing honours go to a stunning Jade Ewen as Dee Dee, with showstopping performances of What Am I Gonna Do? and The First Cut is the Deepest – which would shoot to the top of the charts if released as a single.

While Mamma Mia uses Abba songs with a cheeky knowing wink, Tonight’s the Night desperately tries to shoehorn Rod Stewart hits including Hot Legs, Maggie May, and Sailing into a narrative and fails every time.

But the striking and top-notch cast can hardly be blamed for the writing deficiencies. Instead, they deliver the familiar songs – scored to fit into a musical setting rather well - splendidly in a way that has audiences tapping feet, singing along and on their feet by the close, helped along by a first rate orchestra under the musical direction of Griff Johnson.

It is very probable that you will come out of this show admitting “I Had Me a Real Good Time!”