"The Drifters Girl" at Milton Keynes Theatre should have been a production that took audiences on a nostalgic journey through the captivating story of Faye Treadwell, the woman behind the iconic American vocal group, The Drifters. But alas not for me, well not totally. A cast of six, soulful music, and heartfelt storytelling, this musical should have been a must-see for fans of the era and anyone looking for an evening filled with timeless tunes and heartfelt emotions, which they did get. Sort of.
I try and find the best in any production I see, but I was really concerned and this happens a lot when a leading cast member is played by an under-study. This production was no exception. When I saw the show, it was press night and as we arrived we were given a cast replacement slip and I was shocked to see that the leading lady (Carly Mercedes Dyer) was to be played by her understudy (Loren Anderson) who was noted in the programme as the understudy for Faye Treadwell and the girl. And I could see why. She looked like the girl’s sister rather than her mother, this caused confusion as they looked so similar in age.
The show opens with a bang, immersing the audience in the vibrant atmosphere of the 1960s music scene. The set design by Anthony Ward is visually great with moving flats that were lit up and front and back projections which seemed to be the same across the board with regard shows nowadays. We were taken sometimes in a confused manner effortlessly to a point between various locations, from the bustling streets of New York City to the glamorous stages where The Drifters performed. The attention to detail was acceptable and for me sort of captured the essence of the era and added an extra layer every now and then of authenticity to the production.
On the night we saw the show understudy Loren Anderson, portrayed Faye Treadwell. This was one of the issues for me. It was press night, where was Carly Mercedes Dyer? Loren seemed to be nervous and this showed in her performance. Every now and then Loren delivered a powerhouse performance, but it sounded strained in places and sometimes hard on the ears. Her portrayal of Treadwell should have been heartfelt, showcasing the strength and determination of a woman who fought against all odds to protect and promote the group she loved. But it lacked that fire for me. I really couldn’t see how she could have been the Mum of the girl (Jadah Bell-Ricketts) they looked so similar in ages.
Another Understudy (Ethan Davis) was a positive surprise and I really enjoyed his performance as Ben E. King, Dalton Harris played Johnny Moore, Tarik Frimpong as Clyde McPhatter and Miles Anthony Daley were a good casting. Their chemistry on stage was excellent, and their renditions of The Drifters' hits were spot on. The harmonies were tight, the choreography as slick thanks to Karen Bruce, and the energy they brought to each performance was infectious. The orchestra was loud and proud under the direction of Dustin Conrad, with the sound designed by Tom Marshall.
The script, written by Ed Curtis, tried to weave together the personal and professional aspects of Faye Treadwell's life. It delved into the challenges she faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry, the sacrifices she made for The Drifters, and the impact her decisions had on her family. The story is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, but so fast and sometimes confusing in its pace that it lacked empathy in places, for example when George Treadwell died. The short amount of time allocated for grieving to take place before the show moved on left me confused. But I could observe that some of the audience had emotionally invested in Treadwell's journey.
The music, of course, was the true star of the show. From the iconic hits like "Under the Boardwalk" and "Save the Last Dance for Me" to lesser-known gems, the soundtrack was a treasure trove of soulful melodies that had us tapping your feet and singing along with some audience members better than others. The live band, brought the music to life with passion and precision, ensuring that each song was a show-stopping moment. It was such a shame that some of the songs were repeated at the end.
The flaw in the show for me was the pace. At times, the story felt rushed, with certain plot points not given enough time to fully develop. In places it could have been better and therefore would have been a flawless production, but not this time.
Overall, "The Drifters Girl" at Milton Keynes Theatre was a captivating and emotionally resonant musical that paid tribute to the incredible legacy of The Drifters and the woman who made it all possible.
With its small cast of six, soul-stirring music, and heartfelt storytelling, this production is a must-see for fans of the era and anyone looking for a night of Drifters’ entertainment.
3 stars out of 5 (I am sad to say)
Reviewer Mark Bilsby