CD Review: EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAIME (Original West End Recording)

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by Tony Frankel on November 17, 2018

in CD-DVD,Music


Based on a 2011 BBC documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, this pop musical tells in two acts the story of Jamie New, who dreams of being nothing more than a professional drag queen. Verbally taunted by a bully, but surrounded by a slew of loving classmates and a bestie, Jamie is asked to be more practical by his prep school teacher. At home, Jaime’s supportive mum — now separated from Jaime’s da — gives him a pair of red high-heeled shoes. When Jamie decides to wear a dress for his prom, he wanders into a drag boutique, where owner Hugo — a drag entertainer himself — helps Jamie create a look, and then gets the lad his first gig at a drag show, where Jamie goes on with the uninteresting name of “Mimi Me.” In Act II, Jaime is, as the title implies, the talk of the school the next day. Boy, that kid sure gets a lotta help! In fact, there isn’t a lot of conflict for Jaime in this show except that his blue-collar dad spurns his son, which causes the youth severe anguish.

Its score by lead singer-songwriter of The Feeling, Dan Gillespie Sells, is basically bubbly 90s-style pop with quite a few slick, fizzy, driving earworms. Among some cute rhymes are an alarming amount of repetitive, simplistic lyrics by book-writer Tom MacRae (this is the first foray into theater for both songsmiths). The reason Everybody’s Talking About Jaime is still playing on the West End — and recently had a worldwide screening — isn’t the songs. It’s the sentiment and the dance-party beat. (This isn’t the first time in musical history that a so-so score was in a smash hit show.) Watching a teenager overcome angst is exactly what the younger ticket-buying crowds crave these days, especially now that gender-fluid identities are becoming an “in” thing. And John McCrea’s amazing performance as Jaime (which he’s been doing since 2014!) is a star turn, hitting camp and vulnerability out of the ball park in equal measure. There’s so much buzz, it looks like a major motion picture in the works.

These songs are targeted for Top 40 charts with little regard to the kind of construction that would appeal to everybody — teens, sophisticates, adults, and laymen. Just check out these lyrics from “The Wall in My Head,” when Jaime is hesitant to wear his new shoes outside:

Something he said
Something he said
His words built a wall
A wall inside my head

Just one little thing
Didn’t mean that much to him
But it keeps building and building and building
This wall in my head
This wall in my head

Just one tiny thought
Started out so small
The thought made a brick
The bricks made a wall
And the wall keeps me down
And the wall trips me up

And it keeps building and building and building
This wall in my head
This wall in my head

Additionally, the disco beat sure doesn’t gibe with the sentiment. Still, to quote Baloo in The Jungle Book, “But, man, what a beat!” In the opening number, Jaime tells us he’s gonna be a hit: “And You Don’t Even Know It,” he sings to us about his teacher. With a group of joyful classmates bouncing behind him (including the bully, who really should have gotten a song of his own), bright Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones brass bopping buoyantly, it’s pretty infectious — if you’re into positive messages that sound like grown-up Disney Radio for adolescents. The title song, offered at the top of Act II, is as ebullient as can be. And, except for the gorgeous “It Means Beautiful,” sung resplendently by Lucie Shorthouse as Jaime’s Muslim friend Pritti Pasha, the ballads suffer because they’re too generic to draw us in emotionally. Josie Walker mows through her 11 o’clock number, “He’s My Boy,” with muscular strength and breadth, but the big build doesn’t give us any more insight into the character, so it feels like the B-side to some other hit.

And as usual, the recording engineers ensured that the beat is the same volume as the vocals, which means you better keep your eyes glued to the booklet’s lyrics at all times — lyrics which are as pop-py as the music. It’s as if the boys were trying to be ABBA, but couldn’t replicate that band’s magic.

Red high-heeled shoes? Professional drag queens? Repetitive pop music? Overcoming homophobia? Yeah, it sounds a lot like Kinky Boots, because it is. Sure, it’s fizzy and fluffy, but it’s also manipulative and derivative of the current trend of the teenagers-breaking-out-of-their-shells and drag thing (I think Priscilla and Billy Elliot had a child here). Sure, it’s the hottest thing on the West End (“Fairy tales really do come true” is the tag line), but it doesn’t resonate beyond feel-good.

What sets this apart from other inferior musicals is unfortunately not on the Original West End Cast recording: it’s the dialogue, also written by MacRae, which even with cliche is ferocious, surprising, and manages to be pure musical comedy without sacrificing authenticity. I saw the screening, then heard the CD, which lacks the drama and emotion of the actual stage performance; given the basically banal lyrics, it’s a great beat, which explains why the show is selling like hotcakes. These days, the farther you get from Sondheim, the more selling power a show has. (In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s case, it’s his 80s Power Ballads that bring them in.)

It’s kinda weird actually: Maybe today’s theatergoers are less interested in great scores than they are in musicals that challenge stigma, discrimination and stereotypes — which Jaime does that in spades — but when I buy an Original Cast Recording, I need something more than mere bubble-gum-pop house-cleaning music.

photos by Alastair Muir

Everybody’s Talking About Jaime
Broadway Records
16 tracks | 51:28 | released September 28, 2018
available at Broadway RecordsiTunes, and Amazon

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