Despite breaking box-office records for a West End dance show with Into the Hoods in 2008, choreographer-director Kate Prince did less well with her 2011 follow-up Some Like It Hip Hop, a show I thought was better all round. Part of the problem, I think, is that Prince’s work doesn’t fit established genres.
So is Some Like It Hip Hop really a musical? Well, it sounds like one: a staged story told through song and dance numbers with a legible plot, big-hearted sentiments and sometimes corny comedy. But it’s not a typical musical – and that’s one reason why I adore it.
As a dance lover, I haven’t always been enamoured of stage musicals. Many of them – not all, of course – treat dance as something to be looked through rather than looked at. The singers and songs front the story, the dancing backs it. In Some Like It Hip Hop, it’s the other way round: it’s a dance show, with backing singers.
And what dancing. The cast included such terrific performers as the versatile, ever-watchable Tommy Franzén (face of a baby, body of a boxer); Teneisha Bonner, a punchy powerhouse of a mover; fierce, limber Lizzie Gough; flop-haired little dynamo Natasha Gooden; and broody big man Duwane Taylor, his krump solos as intense and eloquent as soliloquies. The leads are joined by an ensemble of performers who deliver all the rhythmic exactitude and physical fireworks you’d expect from street dance: crazy somersaults, smooth glides and funky footwork, all marshalled into slick solos and tightly synchronised set pieces.
But Some Like It Hip Hop is not a dance showcase, it’s musical theatre. Only with cooler, more danceable music: R&B, funk and gospel-tinged a capella, all written by Prince and regular collaborators DJ Walde and Josh Cohen. The musicians are integrated into the stage action, and they’re fronted by the gutsy, soulful vocals of Sheree Dubois and Elliotte Williams N’Dure. It’s music to put a twitch not only in your heart, but also in your hips.
So that’s the dance and the music; what about the theatre? The story of Some Like It Hip Hop tells of a city in which books have been banned and women are only allowed to do “women’s work”: cooking, cleaning, serving. Kicked out for insubordination, friends Kerri and Jo-Jo disguise themselves as men – and land up in office jobs. They’re aided by other outsiders: Simeon, a nerdy bookworm; sweet-natured loser Sudsy; and Oprah, the long-lost daughter of despotic governor Okeke. The plot, narrated by a beatboxer, is a cross-dressing comedy of mistaken identity and unexpected love in which the big man heals his heart by learning the value of the littlest girl. Aaww!
Is this a feminist, consciousness-raising musical?
“Is this,” said my guest somewhat incredulously, “a feminist, consciousness-raising musical?” Certainly, it presents everyday and institutional sexism as bad for everyone, and knowledge as not just powerful, but crucially, cool. But it doesn’t lecture its audience, and unlike some musicals (Hairspray, I’m looking at you) nor does it hector us into jollity. It lets the fun and the funk do all the work, so by the time of the surprise encore – a standalone set piece, utterly disconnected from the story and parachuted in for pure pleasure – me, my guest and her two kids genuinely wanted to get up, clap our hands, and dance. So we did.