Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Pickwick" Pleases Like the Dickens

Cleveland Press July 30, 1965

He's a fat man in white gaiters walking through 19th Century London, his hands tucked behind his back, the tails of his red coat flouncing over them, a short top hat sitting precariously on his head This is actor Harry Secombe looking as though he had just stepped out of the famous illustrations by Phiz in Charles Dickens' "Pickwick Papers."

HEREIN lies the charm and delight of the new musical that opened last night at the Hanna. The work is faithful in both appearance and spirit to the original.

It is not just Secombe alone. All the actors have been chosen carefully and made up and costumed exactingly. The scenes are old prints come to life.

Wolf Mankowitz' book for the show successfully copes with the difficult problem of deriving a story line from Dickens' rambling and plotless work. He uses the breach promise suit brought by Pickwick's landlady as the main event, also picks an attempted elopement, a near duel, the Christmas party and the romantic involvement of the other Pickwickians as lesser events.

THE SHOW has no overture, the curtain opening on London street filled with peddlers. Samuel Pickwick (Secombe) and his servant, Sam Weller (David Jones), arrive at debtors' prison and recall their first meeting thus carrying the musical back to the beginning of the story.

Ingenious sets are moved about by the actors while the action of the play continues and new scenery drops into place.

The show has one song likely to become a hit, "If I Ruled the World," sung by Pickwick. "The Pickwickians" is a clever amusing song in which Pickwick and his three friends describe themselves and their philosophy -- "we're never going to marry, it's too much fuss."

THERE are satiric thrusts at courts, lawyers and injustice in "That's the Law." A tune sung by Jingle (Anton Rodgers) is bright and boastful -- and it also openly borrows a little from Tchaikovsky. "You Never Met a Feller Like Me" is a delightful affair in which Pickwick and Weller sing, dance, boast and joke together.

"That's What I'd Like for Christmas" isn't very Christmasy, and it is over-long. The opening number needs smoothing out. Right now it is more confusion than it is activity. And this is true of several ensemble numbers. The cast is excellent. David Jones, the Artful Dodger of "Oliver," is perfect as the fast-talking Sam Weller. Good also are Charlotte Rae as the landlady, Julian Orchard, John Call and Oscar Quitak as the Pickwickians; Brendan Barry as the pompous Buzfuz, Anton Rodgers as Jingle.

SECOMBE is an accomplished comic skillful actor and fine singer -- a rarity in an era in which performers generally act a lyric rather than sing it.

He grins, guffaws and sputters; at time resembles an English Jackie Leonard. There are moments when Secombe's antics seem quite apart from the show, moments that otherwise might be dull if Secombe were not going it alone.

Compared with "Oliver" (another show based on a Dickens work), this is not nearly so tuneful. The music is good, pleasant and functional. It fits well at the time but isn't likely to exist away from the show. There are times when the production resorts to low comedy, to slapstick, to keep it moving.

But "Pickwick" is a livelier, happier show than "Oliver." It is a pleasant, eye-filling and vastly entertaining production.