The Osmonds – A New Musical
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton 8e November 2022
Review by David Cradduck
In the middle of a packed house last night at the Mayflower Theater, I felt decidedly outnumbered: I was pointed out at the end of the show that I was only one of the few men in the full auditorium. But at least I was in the right age bracket. Although the performers on stage for ‘The Osmonds – A New Musical’ are very young in comparison, the guys they play are also quite old now. We all grew old together.
So whether you liked The Osmonds – like those sold-out audiences and our editor – or, like me, they kind of passed you by then (I was more into ethereal prog rock stuff like Genesis and Pink Floyd) you can’t help but be impressed by the stats. Although their original golden age lasted just over a decade, the effect this family had on the music industry at the time was enormous: they sold over 100 million records, scoring 13 chart hits in a single year (1973), received thousands of fan letters a week, had their own television shows, including the popular ‘Donny and Marie Show’ and even a series of cartoons on Saturdays, they launched their own television and recording studios, churning out hit after hit and looking unstoppable. And that’s what they thought too, it becomes obvious when you see this “new” musical which is actually a cross between a “bioshow”, a documentary and a tribute party to a talented group of singers / musicians from another era.
Nearing the end of a ten-month, 33-venue tour, Jay Osmond’s musical story must be as exhausting for performers and backing crew as was the grueling and relentless schedule of the original Osmond family. It’s high-energy, action-packed, non-stop dancing and singing entertainment that must surely take its toll on the cast, especially those bright 10-year-olds who play the younger versions of the Osmond brothers, split into three of the teams alternating at shows and presumably cramming in childhood and schoolwork in between.
Alex Lodge as adult Jay, one of the youngest members of the Osmonds, has the lion’s share of the work as he not only acts Jay but enthusiastically and honestly tells the story throughout (it’s his story after all), from the early days of the 1960s, the quartet of Osmond barbers in their little red blazers who took a break from the Andy Williams show, until 2007, when the family got together again for a tour party to mark 50 years in the industry. In between, we see the ups and downs — and they’re certainly very up and down, going from unstoppable stardom to near bankruptcy and back to some normality.
Right off the bat, Jay, plus Alan (the eldest), Merrill, Wayne and Donny (during our performance played impeccably by stunt double Tristan Whincup) remind us of what the 70s pop rock scene was like – those bright smiles from the showbiz, that hair, the obligatory dance routines of the time, the glitzy one-piece Elvis-style costumes with bellows flares, the catchy songs that spawned Osmondmania – the ’70s equivalent of the Beatlemania. The costumes are brilliant, the wigs are…well, hard to ignore, but what else could they do?
Lucy Osborne’s simple yet effective two-level set with moving metal stairs and balconies offers the flexibility to take us through multiple scene changes and the whole effect is economically sparkling. Someone obviously thought about the logistics of transporting a complex set around 33 sites.
The storyline is chronological if a bit processional – “we did this, then we did that” – but what it lacks in originality more than makes up for in honesty and integrity. Let’s face it, the truth is often much more interesting than fiction.
The Osmond boys (and later Marie who was to become a major star in her own right and who accompanied Donny for many years into the limelight) were well trained, even “taught” from an early age by an overbearing, military father . , George. Along with his wife Olive, he instilled strict discipline and their Mormon doctrine in their offspring. They were squeaky clean, ambitious, had a “plan” and they stuck to it religiously, in more ways than one. Children, much like the Von Trapps and the Jackson Five, had their destiny mapped out by their father; they were told unequivocally to become men and to live on, to always aim for perfection, to work hard for the good of all: “it doesn’t matter who is in front, as long as it is an Osmond”.
As the show progresses, and behind the sparkling white-toothed smiles and flawless performances, the long-lasting effect of this “training” takes mental toll on various cast members. One cannot help thinking that their parents must have exploited them without remorse; in their quest for perfection and ambition, they were unaware of, or did not fully understand, the possible consequences of the pressures of fame, fame, and success that their diet could bring to the family over time. But of course, without them, this would never have happened.
Dark moments are interspersed with pure musical entertainment. Plenty of old favorites are here, reproduced and performed authentically so you’d think they were the originals: The hit that catapulted the boys to stardom, ‘One Bad Apple’, took them from old-fashioned style to variety shows from Andy Williams to pop culture. and mainstream music. Interestingly, the song was originally written for the Jacksons, but it was the Osmonds who got the big hit with it. Young Jimmy Osmonds’ “Puppy Love”, “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” (performed brilliantly by Fraser Fowkes during our performance) and a host of other relatively unknown songs are added.
Of course, a finale for a show about the Osmonds wouldn’t be complete without the heavier rock-inspired “Crazy Horses.” By then, our audience was on their feet, and the gentle rocking and arm waving that quietly occurred throughout the performance turned into a standing ovation. You would have thought it was the real deal by the way our audience got into it, rather than a very talented group of actors and performers who make for a very effective cover.
Of course, the final scene, which takes place in 2007, takes some imagination, because at the time the guys were actually in their 50s and 60s, still sporting those dodgy wigs. But then what? And being picky, there is little mention of the Osmonds’ two older brothers, Tom and Virl, both born very deaf at birth but who contributed much to the troupe. Virl, for example, taught the boys to dance. We hear about these two early on when the performances raised money for expensive hearing aids, but otherwise they’re largely forgotten. Again, it doesn’t matter – they were virtually unknown at the time.
Interestingly, radio airplay of the Osmonds’ old hits is also very rare. (Except on Winchester Today, of course… two have already played today! – Ed) You’d think the music would have inspired another generation in the same way the music of the Beatles and the Stones did, but no, it’s just not popular, which is surprising when you’re surrounded by the now older releases. of those screaming fans whose love for the Osmonds has obviously never faded over the decades.
So while it may be a “new” musical, one wonders for how long. The group was a phenomenon of its time, it seems, and it will be interesting to see how it fares in terms of nostalgia in the future. I suspect that in ten or twenty years, a good part of the aging fan base that has been so loyal for so long, will no longer be around to maintain relevance. But kudos, Jay Osmond, for churning out a sold-out show from what is essentially a musical autobiography and a great excuse to get those fans’ hips spinning again.
‘The Osmonds – A New Musical’ runs until Saturday the 12the and ticket availability is limited, so hurry if you want to see it here before it comes to Dartford. More information, as always, from The Mayflower and tour details can be found here.