At the peak of their popularity in 1973, the Osmonds – brothers Alan, Merrill, Jay, Wayne and Donny – made 100 million dollars in that year alone and teenage girls packaged themselves into crates, mailing themselves to hotels where the group was staying. Elvis Presley attempted to get them to “man up” by sending them his karate instructor and replicas of his trademark white jumpsuit when they were teenagers. “Osmondmania” largely bypassed west Africa, but its effect was so all-encompassing that it still managed to beam on to TV screens there – where, as a young child, I distinctly remember watching Jimmy Osmond perform Long Haired Lover from Liverpool.
Their story of tight-knit family values, unadulterated talent, persistence and resilience – they managed to lose their vast fortune but got it back – was ripe for a theatrical treatment. And, of course, it had to be a musical (currently on tour at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley).
Shaun Kerrison and Julian Bigg's wry, witty and whipsmart script deftly – they are “the Mormon Von Trapps”, teenage girls smell of “Clearasil and Charlie perfume” – tracks how the young Osmonds went from growing up on a farm in Utah, via performing as a barbershop quintet on variety shows to the all-singing, all-dancing, all multi-instrument-playing force for pop music they became in the early 70s. It all started in the 60s because the family, under the stern eye of their ex-military father, wanted to earn money to buy hearing aids for two other brothers who were severely hearing-impaired.
The production is cleverly framed as a pop concert. The sound of wild applause and screaming fans bounces around the auditorium before the curtain goes up to reveal the brothers at the height of their fame. The gig effect is pronounced by the live band at the back of the stage who appear intermittently from behind rainbow-coloured gauze. From there, this slick production, directed by Shaun Kerrison with choreography by Billy Deame, cracks on very efficiently, packing so much story into its running time of 2 hours 45 mins (including interval) but doesn’t feel that long.
No word or pirouette feels superfluous as Jay (Alex Lodge) narrates the story directly to the audience between reenactments of key moments via flashbacks to their younger selves and renditions of their most famous songs such as One Bad Apple, which was was originally written for the Jackson Five.
And the audience, made up of older versions of Wendy, a British superfan from Manchester who pops up on stage every so often to read letters to Jay, laps it up singing and swaying along to the songs which are showcased by Lucy Osborne’s very spare set. But it’s the astonishingly good cast that makes this show so vibrant. Special mention has to be given to the child actors who harmonise like pros, and particularly Osian Salter playing young Donny, whose melt-your-heart cuteness and charm almost stole the show.
While this isn’t exactly a warts-and-all portrait, it’s an enjoyably intriguing peek into the dynamics, tensions, conflicts and work ethics of this family that seems to have showbiz written into its DNA and whose motto is “it doesn’t matter who’s out front as long as it’s an Osmond”.
Touring until December. Tickets: theosmondsmusical.co.uk