By Paul Casciato
LONDON (Reuters) - They came, they saw, but sadly Britain's music critics largely failed to enjoy Tuesday night's revival of girl power at the world premiere of the Spice Girls' musical "Viva Forever!"
Reviewers panned a production loosely based on the band's meteoric rise to fame in the 1990s, complaining that its "charmless" script failed even as a basic invention for folding nostalgic pop hits into a West End stage show.
Independent newspaper critic Paul Taylor said the show "only achieves the kind of deliriously silly and joyous lift-off" at its encore and blamed scriptwriter Jennifer Saunders.
"Not only does her script rarely give you that necessary gleeful sense of expectancy about where the songs are going to be shoe-horned in, but it's embarrassingly derivative of 'Mamma Mia!' and looks way past its sell-by date in its utterly surprise-free satiric swipe at X Factor."
"Viva Forever!" was the brainchild of producer Judy Craymer, whose Mamma Mia! musical based on the hits of ABBA has earned nearly $2 billion worldwide and spawned a hit movie starring Meryl Streep.
She teamed up with British comedian Saunders of "Absolutely Fabulous" fame to create a story about the central character, Viva, a sprightly teenager who, along with her friends, gets into the final stages of a TV singing contest closely resembling Britain's "The X Factor".
To boost flagging audience figures - a nod to "The X Factor"s real-life ratings woes in Britain this season - their mentor springs a surprise and throws out three members of the band to leave Viva on her own.
What follows is part morality tale examining what is more important - friends, family or fame - and part satire on reality television, including a callous producer bearing an uncanny resemblance to X-Factor's Simon Cowell.
Both the Mirror and the Daily Mail delivered damning criticism of a production, which the Mirror's Alun Palmer said particularly failed to deliver on the grand message that formed a key part of every Spice Girl's identity: "girl power".
"There is more female empowerment at a Taliban finishing school than in this show," Palmer wrote.
The Spice Girls, Geri Halliwell, Victoria Beckham, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton and Melanie Chisholm, who together stormed the charts in the 1990s and put girl power on the map were all on hand at the Piccadilly Theatre for the London premiere.
British tabloids made a good deal of noise out of the fact that Beckham arrived after her ex-bandmates and sat with her soccer star husband David and three sons, who clapped along to the music during the final medley.
Now all young mothers in their late 30s and early 40s, The Spice Girls are still affectionately known by their nicknames they adopted in the band - Posh (Beckham), Scary (Brown), Baby (Bunton), Sporty (Chisholm) and Ginger (Halliwell).
They were hailed as modern-day feminists by some and dismissed as vacuous pop princesses by others, but their success is beyond doubt. They sold 55 million records, had nine British No. 1 singles and three back-to-back Christmas No. 1s.
Unabashed fan Poppy Cosyns, was one of the few critics to gush enthusiastically about the show in her review for the Sun.
"As a true fan, I was worried that the jukebox musical formula might not work with their songs but Jennifer Saunders has done a great job with the script and the show flows really well," she wrote.
The band broke up around 12 years ago, their bickering eagerly chronicled by Britain's celebrity-obsessed tabloids.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the bust-ups and hissy fits, the group has been united in its backing of the new musical, and underlining the Spice Girls' lasting popularity, they played a major part in the closing ceremony at the London Olympics.
The Guardian's Alexis Petridis compared it favorably only to the "baleful shadow" of Ben Elton's Queen-themed "We Will Rock You" musical.
"It would be nice if, metaphorically speaking, it pinched Prince Charles's bum a few more times," he wrote. "Still, it zips along cheerily enough, and compared with We Will Rock You, it's a work of untrammeled genius."
Despite its flaws, Petridis said the show's success will lie in the hands of the legions of fans who propelled the Spice Girls to the top of the charts in the first place.
"Faint praise perhaps, but never mind: judging by the crowds of thirty-something ladies leaving the theatre singing 'Stop and Say You'll Be There', Viva Forever! is critic-proof."
(Editing by Stephen Addison)