The idea behind this musical is to show the powerhouse female force that managed the all-male vocal group the Drifters. Faye Treadwell became one of the first prominent African American women to enter music management and led the band to greatness with laser-sharp business acumen and determination.
The music in the show is a triumph – how could it not be with Beverley Knight’s almighty voice? There are four other stupendous voices in band members Adam J Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Maud. Their covers of songs such as Under the Boardwalk, Save the Last Dance for Me and Sweets for My Sweet are reminders of the band’s vocal legacy and timeless appeal.
But this show, directed by Jonathan Church, relies on that catalogue of songs too heavily, which compromises the narrative journey and emotional force. Ed Curtis’s book features bite-sized scenes with neat bland soundbites. We meet Faye when George Treadwell, the group’s manager, offers her a new path. “I don’t answer no phone but my own,” she tells him, refusing to be his secretary. She becomes co-manager, his wife and eventually sole manager after his death in 1967.
Knight blows us away with each number and there is a particularly inventive rendition of Ben E King’s Stand By Me. Her character squares up to a sexist industry that puts her down and pats her bottom, she recreates the band as a brand (“like the Yankees”) and she wins rights over the Drifters’ name in an important court case.
But so much of her personal story – including her life before she meets George – is skipped over. While she intermittently talks about her past to her daughter (Savanna Musoni) this is too obviously a narrative device and it feels oddly as if we never come to know Faye, although she is so present on stage.
The show skips dizzyingly through the band’s formations (unsurprisingly given it had more than 60 members over 60 years). It is a relief when we arrive at the central four members that lead this show but they never feel distinct in themselves. Still, Bernard, Callender, Henry and Wanogho-Maud bring an irresistible charisma to the songs.
A desk is often wheeled on stage with Faye or George behind it, suggesting that this is a production concerned more with business decisions than emotional drama. Racial discrimination is addressed, both in the southern US states and in Britain when Treadwell has to deal with the “No Dogs No Blacks No Irish” era, but these scenes come in brief sketches.
The show looks the part, at least, with its ultra-stylish suits and tailored dresses (Knight’s wardrobe, designed by Fay Fullerton, is to die for). Anthony Ward’s clean set, lit by Ben Cracknell, combines with Andrzej Goulding’s video design to bear the aesthetics of a music video or concert.
For fans of the Drifters, the music in itself may be enough but for those coming to it fresh, this show’s story is neither compelling nor clear enough.
The Drifters Girl is at the Garrick theatre, London, until 26 March