(Lower) East Side Story

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The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,  that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

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The Right Girl

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It’s back, and it’s (even) better. The first time around, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre was simultaneously thrilling, breathtaking, and slightly flawed. Cooke put together a text that is far closer to the 1971 original than the more recent, less-corrosive revised edition that formed the basis for the last three major US revivals, and his cast did a generally excellent job of capturing the odd, febrile tone of James Goldman‘s stylised dialogue. On the minus side, Bill Deamer’s choreography for the show’s biggest production number didn’t quite deliver, and while Imelda Staunton delivered a stunning acting performance, her singing voice was not an entirely happy match for her character’s music.

For this return engagement, Mr. Deamer’s choreography has been tweaked, Ms. Staunton’s role is one of several that have been recast, and Mr. Cooke has made a number of mostly small adjustments to his staging. This isn’t simply a by-the-numbers retread of the 2017 production; it’s a thorough overhaul, and the changes are (almost) all improvements. First time around, this was a splendid revival with a lot of caveats. This time, while there are still elements that Sondheim devotees will be arguing over for years, for my money it’s more or less a complete triumph.

The show is what it always was: a masterpiece, part showbiz extravaganza and part Pirandellean identity play, in which the middle-aged guests at a reunion party for former performers in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque Broadway revue are (literally) confronted by the ghosts of their former selves. It’s a strange cocktail of glitter and rage and regret in which the former showgirls, and particularly the two unhappily-married couples at the centre of the plot, become a lens through which we’re asked to examine the ways in which people deal – or don’t – with the gulf between their youthful aspirations and middle-aged reality, and (because that’s not bleak enough already) the whole thing is an extended theatrical metaphor for America’s postwar decline. And on top of all that, Stephen Sondheim‘s extraordinary score may very well turn out to be the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career. It’s a dazzling blend of 1970-contemporary Broadway and spot-on pastiche, and the show’s climactic sequence of musical numbers, which finds the four protagonists trapped inside a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies production in which they each examine their individual failures via a period-pastiche musical performance, is as brilliant a piece of writing as anything in the American musical theatre canon.

It’s matched, finally, by a revival whose brilliance in this incarnation seems as effortless as it was laboured first time around. Cooke’s first masterstroke – last time too – was to stage the piece to make it clear that the ghosts haven’t arrived at the party – we have entered their space. The show takes place in the rubble of the derelict Weismann Theatre, which is about to be torn down; a ghostly showgirl gives the signal that sets the performance in motion, we see the past before we see the (1971) present, and the ghosts recognise their present-day selves before their present-day selves see them. The ghosts are in James Goldman’s book for the show, of course, but Cooke’s staging always deployed them (even) more than Goldman does, and Cooke deploys them even more here. We’re always aware, even watching minor supporting characters, of the simmering tension between the past and the present, and a (new) tableau in which some of the ghosts watch their present-day selves leaving the party is both moving and visually beautiful.

There’s still a remarkable set of performances in the supporting roles, too. As the aging Viennese soprano Heidi Schiller, Felicity Lott perhaps doesn’t quite have Josephine Barstow’s devastating intensity (Barstow will return to the production later in the run, and played the press night when Lott fell ill), but I doubt One More Kiss has ever been sung more gloriously than it is here, and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi is (still) sublime. Dawn Hope’s ‘Who’s That Woman?’ raises goosebumps, and Deamer has rechoreographed the number so that it’s now the showstopper it should have been first time around. No, it’s not the original Michael Bennett choreography, which was used in the original London production in 1987, and yes, I’d still prefer it if it was, but the version they’re doing now is a huge improvement over Deamer’s first pass at it. Tracie Bennett has found even more colours in her take on I’m Still Here, and – best of all – Claire Moore slams the last sixteen bars of Broadway Baby into the back of the house with the kind of force that could easily level the entire building.

The biggest difference, though, comes in the recasting of two of the four leads – that is, one-half of the two married couples at the centre of the plot (in case you’ve forgotten – and why have you? – Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. At the end of the season, Sally married Buddy Plummer and Phyllis married Ben Stone – but Sally had had a fling with Ben before he got engaged to Phyllis, and when her own marriage proved less than idyllic she spent the next thirty years pining for him, and has arrived at the reunion in the hope of winning him back). Peter Forbes is still a heartbreaking Buddy, a travelling salesman who loves Sally too much to leave her and knows he’d be happier if he did. Janie Dee’s Phyllis has – seemingly impossibly, because she was perfect the first time – grown in stature; she’s an arresting combination of heart and hauteur, ice and fire, sharp edges and raw nerves. Alexander Hanson replaces Philip Quast, and he doesn’t have Quast’s gravitas. Hanson’s Ben is a shallow charmer who has coasted to success on the back of a combination of bravado and a boyish smile, and knows it. This Ben’s descent into self-loathing is more sudden than it was with Quast in the role, and more shocking; there’s a desperation to Ben’s climactic breakdown that was slightly lacking in this production’s first incarnation, and the chaos sequence that takes us out of Ben’s Follies number and back into the final (spoken) scene works better – much better – with Hanson at the centre of it than it did in 2017. Hanson isn’t quite as wonderful a singer as Quast, but he’s more than good enough, and he’s giving a very fine performance.

The biggest difference, though, is Joanna Riding’s Sally. Imelda Staunton is an extraordinary actor whose singing voice was never quite right for this role. Riding, whose casting, I admit, did not particularly excite me, has all the voice she needs for this music, and she sings the role as beautifully as you’d expect (and – thank God – without taking any of the higher notes in her big duet with Hanson’s Ben down an octave). Her acting choices, though, are fascinating, and quite different from Staunton’s. Staunton offered an unhappy woman slowly descending into insanity. Riding’s Sally is a self-absorbed romantic who operates (far) more through her emotions than her intellect, and who seems to see herself as a character in one of the trashy romance novels she says she reads to pass the time – and when her illusions are abruptly shattered, her (quick) emotional collapse is ugly, and mesmerising to watch. Riding’s rendition of Losing My Mind, Sally’s pastiche number in the show’s climactic Follies sequence, is quite breathtaking, although (following Staunton’s lead), it’s a startlingly angry interpretation, and it’s staged as a scene in a period romantic drama rather than simply as a torch song. Like every song in the Loveland sequence, Losing My Mind was conceived as a song in which the singer performs a metaphorical representation of her folly, rather than as a scene in which the actor acts the character’s emotional disintegration. In the 1987 London production, Julia McKenzie gave us the former, and I think I stopped breathing during the four minutes or so it took for her to sing the song. In 2017, Imelda Staunton gave us the latter, and the first time I saw it it didn’t quite work for me, although I warmed to her choices a little more on subsequent viewings. Riding somehow manages both, although not quite in the manner suggested by the script: she sings it powerfully, easily encompassing the big notes in the final verse (those notes severely tested her predecessor in this production), and begins playing it as a scene in a romantic melodrama, sitting at a dressing-table in a glamorous art deco boudoir. As the song continues, Riding’s Sally appears to struggle to maintain the artifice of the performance, gradually sinking into a combination of fury, grief and despair; she pops pills in the final verse, stands trembling as she holds the final note, and on the last beat of the song she removes her wig – a gesture which seems to leave her pitifully naked (albeit fully-clothed). If you know the show, if you know how previous interpretations of this moment have worked, this staging sounds ham-fisted, overdone, and completely wrong-headed – but in Riding’s hands (and voice), it’s absolutely riveting and somehow absolutely right.

As for the rest – there are fine performances from the new quartet of actors playing the younger incarnations of the four principal characters (Harry Hepple, Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, and Gemma Sutton as, respectively, Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Phyllis, and Young Sally). Vicki Mortimer’s derelict theatre set is still stunning, and one still wishes a little more money could have been thrown at the Loveland sets for the climactic recreation of a Follies show, because those sets really need to be a little more opulent than they are here – although it’s clear the National have pushed the boat out as far as they can on this production, and the costumes are (still) magnificent. For Joanna Riding, Sally’s hair and party dress have been tweaked, and the new design is a significant improvement over the costume Imelda Staunton wore. The band is still conducted by Nigel Lilley, and they’re still wonderful, and Paule Constable’s appropriately crepuscular lighting is still pretty much perfect.

There’s still no intermission, which for this show is as it should be, and Cooke directs his new cast to give, if anything, an even more electrifying account of Goldman’s archly theatrical dialogue than their predecessors did. Once again, Vicki Mortimer’s turntable set moves us seamlessly through the various different levels of the derelict Weismann Theatre, and once again – in fact, even more than last time – it’s obvious everybody involved understands this show’s rather unusual tone and rhythm (imagine a mid-century American Restoration drama with script revisions by Edward Albee and songs drawn from every corner of musical theatre’s golden age). There were always many, many good things in this production – but last time, there was a great deal to argue against as well. This time, Cooke and his creative team have given us as good a revival of Follies as I ever expect to see. It’s an intelligent, precise, thrilling presentation of rich, multi-layered material, possibly as good a musical production as the National has ever done and certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there. If you saw it last time, you need to see it again. In almost every way, this incarnation of the production is stronger, smarter, sharper, and deeper than the first. In terms of Sondheim revivals, this is just about as good as it gets.

And yes, that means it’s rather a pity that the first cast, rather than this one, got to preserve their performances via an NT Live presentation and a cast recording. That, I’m afraid, is showbiz.

 

Welcome to the Rock

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On paper, Come From Away looks wince-inducing. A musical set against the backdrop of 9/11 following the story of people stranded in a small town in Newfoundland when their flights were forced to land there after US airspace was closed following the attacks looks like a terrible idea. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I was living in Canada on 9/11 and the story the show tells is part of the narrative I watched unfold as I (like everyone else) spent day after day glued to the news. Given the magnitude of the events behind the events the show portrays, it’s easy to assume a musical covering this territory would have to be essentially reductive, that a tidal wave of sentimentality about Canadian niceness, eh? would somehow wash away the horror everybody felt during that week.

Then I heard the Broadway cast recording, which – while it isn’t complete – includes enough material to challenge that original perception. Based on the album, I bought a ticket to the show’s London production – and, yes, I admit I was absolutely wrong. There are holes you can legitimately pick in Come From Away, but it works. It doesn’t trivialise the horror behind the events it portrays, the writers and director do a very careful job of keeping any sentimentality firmly in check, and the show, to my complete surprise, is a powerful snapshot of a moment in which the ground shook under everybody’s feet. We have some distance from those events now, and we’ve become used to seeing images from the surrounding events that at the time seemed to stretch our understanding of the word ‘unimaginable’. What Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show’s writers (they both wrote all of it, collaborating on book, music and lyrics) achieve is something quite difficult: without showing any imagery at all from any of the attacks, without wallowing in the nightmarish scenes the whole world saw on the news, they manage to evoke how it felt to wake up in a world that had been suddenly and irrevocably changed by a series of grotesque acts of violence. Even more remarkably, they manage to show people finding strength and humanity in the face of that horror without bathing the audience in a vat of treacle – or rather, given that it takes place in Canada, maple syrup.

The show’s great strength is the illusion of simplicity with which Sankoff and Hein (and director Christopher Ashley) tell their stories, all of which are real stories drawn from interviews with residents of Gander, Newfoundland and the passengers and flight crews who found themselves stranded there. There’s a relatively bare stage with furniture brought on and off as required by the cast, and the actors slip seamlessly between characters (and accents, and between narration and dialogue) at the drop of a hat or a jacket or a prop. Everybody in the cast plays several characters; the show’s structure is quite intricate, but the storytelling is absolutely clear all the way through. Among a fine ensemble cast there are standout turns from Clive Carter as (among other things) Gander’s mayor, from Cat Simmons as a New Yorker trying to trace her firefighter son, from Robert Hands and Helen Hobson as two middle-aged people who find a mutual attraction after they are stranded together, and above all from Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, a pilot (in fact, the first female captain employed by American Airlines) whose flight is diverted to Gander. It’s to Tucker’s advantage that Me And the Sky, Beverley Bass’s song in the show, is by far the best thing in the score, and in her hands it’s a tour-de-force.

The rest of the score is… well, the kind word is ‘functional’. It works in context, the musical palette (largely rooted in folk-rock) is appropriate to the setting but not as varied as it could be, and some of the lyrics clunk a bit, and rely slightly too much on predictable rhymes. This is, though, one of those shows where any criticism of the technical aspects of the writing is more or less irrelevant, because the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts: look too closely at the score and you’ll start to pick holes, but – as I said – as a theatrical experience this show just works.

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Fasten your seatbelt…

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Actually, this time the ride could be bumpier. In describing Ivo van Hove‘s fascinating stage adaptation of the classic 1950 backstage drama All About Eve, it’s possibly helpful to start by defining what it isn’t: while it sticks very close to Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s (peerless) screenplay, it’s not precisely a straightforward translation of the film to the stage. That screenplay is packed with endlessly quotable zingers and the film starred Bette Davis, who could deliver a zinger like nobody else, but if you arrive at the Noel Coward Theatre expecting a camp bitch-fest you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be disappointed, too, if you’re expecting a comedy, because van Hove directs his cast to play down the laughs. And the source material should probably make this a given, but if you’re looking for emotional catharsis this isn’t the show for you. It’s utterly gripping, but you won’t be moved.

What you’ll get, in fact, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an adaptation of this particular film by this particular director, and if there’s any criticism it’s that the evening could use a few more surprises. There’s a blank, stylised set and cooly stylish lighting by Jan Versweyveld, the action isn’t located precisely in period, there’s anachronistic electronic music between (and sometimes during) the scenes (the composer is PJ Harvey), and van Hove elicits very fine but impeccably restrained performances from his leading actors. It’s a smart, elegant, ice-cold presentation of the material, a surgically-precise theatrical meditation on the nature of celebrity and the space between the private and public spheres. There’s plenty to think about, and plenty to admire, and for some people that’ll be enough. It was for me. Some, though, will undoubtedly wish there’d been more fireworks, more heat, less to think about and more to feel.

That’s true, too, of the two above-the-title star performances. Yes, this is a star vehicle, and yes, there’s stellar work here from Gillian Anderson as established star Margo Channing and Lily James as the scheming Eve Harrington, who insinuates her way into Margo’s household and then uses her newfound position as a base-camp as she sets out to claw her way to stardom. Anderson is a formidable stage presence, absolutely convincing as an old-fashioned STAR, and manages to offer a completely fresh, consistently fascinating take on the role, which is a more difficult task than you’d think when at least two-thirds of the audience can probably imitate most of Bette Davis’s most famous line-readings from the film on command. She’s simultaneously regal and vulnerable, and a sequence in which she looks in her dressing-room mirror and, via the miracle of Alex Uragallo’s video animation, her face (projected on a screen above the stage) appears to age before our eyes is one of the production’s few genuinely moving moments. James, for her part, knows how to deploy her essential sweetness to lethal effect; her wide-eyed enthusiasm is totally plausible until the mask drops and we see the ruthlessness behind Eve’s ingenue act.

There’s strong work, too, from Monica Dolan as Karen, the playwright’s wife who finds herself caught up in Eve’s schemes against Margo, and from Stanley Townsend as sharp-tongued critic Addison DeWitt. Too many of the supporting cast, unfortunately, fade into a kind of blur against the technical cleverness of van Hove’s staging: as your attention moves between screens and the stage, between the apron and some corner at the back of the set, between public space and private space which we’re shown from an angle via live video, there’s not much room to appreciate whatever nuances there may be in the individual performances. Nobody is bad, but even such reliable presences as Julian Ovenden (as director Bill Sampson) don’t get room to make much of an impression.

What’s left, once you cut through the cleverness of the staging, is the cat-and-mouse between Anderson’s Margo, James’s pretender-to-the-throne, and Monica Dolan as the woman caught between them. They’re worth the cost of the ticket and two hours of your time – but if you know the film, you’d be forgiven for expecting a roller-coaster ride, and that’s not what this is. It’s a fascinating piece of theatre, and you’ll be talking about it for hours afterwards – but if you want a white-knuckle experience, look elsewhere.

 

 

Let It Sing

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Another one crossed off the list. I’ve loved Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley‘s score for Violet since the first recording of it was released in 1999, but somehow I’ve never managed to see a production of the show, which is very rarely produced on this side of the Atlantic (the advance publicity material for this production claimed it was the UK premiere, which it isn’t). When you love a score as much as I love this one, it creates a set of expectations that aren’t always helpful when you finally, after years of listening to the music, walk into the theatre to see it being performed in its proper context.

Fortunately, Shuntaro Fujito’s new staging of Violet at the Charing Cross Theatre – a coproduction with the Umeda Arts Theatre in Osaka, where it will transfer after the London run – mostly lives up to those (consderable) expectations. Based on a short story by Doris Betts called The Ugliest Pilgrim, Violet follows a young woman who was hideously disfigured in a childhood accident (the blade of her father’s axe came free from the handle and struck her in the face) as she journeys across the American south in 1964 to find a televangelist who she believes can remove her scar. It’s a tricky story to adapt for the stage – Violet is from rural Tennessee, relatively uneducated, damaged and defensive, and her belief that a televangelist has the power to restore her looks could very easily come across as laughably credulous. Actually, this is an intelligent, perceptive, often very moving examination of an unhappy, awkward young woman slowly learning to come to terms with herself, and that’s thanks mostly to Tesori and Crawley’s extraordinary score. There’s an unusual emotional intelligence to Tesori’s music here, and to Crawley’s carefully unshowy, conversational lyrics; this is music that grabs you by the heartstrings almost from the very top of the show and doesn’t let go until the last note of the finale. This is a book musical, not an opera-in-everything-but-name like Tesori’s Caroline, or Change (which is coincidentally currently playing right around the corner), so Violet’s score is a collection of standalone songs rather than wall-to-wall music, and several of the songs are extraordinary. Even if you don’t know them going in, you might well come out humming On My Way, the big chorus number that marks the beginning of Violet’s bus journey, and Let It Sing, the inspirational anthem sung by a (black) soldier she meets on her journey, but there are so many memorable songs here that you may be spoiled for choice.

There’s a marvellous cast too, headed by Kaisa Hammarlund, unrecognisable from her turn as the oldest Alison in Tesori’s Fun Home across the river at the Young Vic last year. Hammarlund’s heartbreaking Violet is a study in contradictions: brave and terrified, dignified and ungainly, warm and abrasive. It’s a magnificent performance, and she gives full value to Tesori’s music. She’s surrounded by a fine ensemble cast, with particularly memorable contributions from Jay Marsh (Flick, the black soldier who forms one corner of the love triangle that develops in the second half of the show), from Kieron Crook as Violet’s guilt-ridden father, and  Angelica Allen as a singer in a Memphis music hall. Allen’s scorching performance of the Tina Turner-esque Lonely Stranger is worth the trip on its own.

For this production, the Charing Cross Theatre has (thankfully) been reconfigured, with a bank of seats on what used to be the stage and a traverse stage built over what used to be the front stalls. It might have been helpful for sightlines to raise the stage a couple of feet up from the entrance level – the rake of the seats was designed with a raised stage in mind – but it’s still an improvement over a space where it could often feel as if you were peering down a tunnel at a show taking place in the distance. On Morgan Large’s good-looking but simple set (bare wooden walls below the balconies on either side of the stage, a turntable, a few chairs and trunks, an oversized, all-seeing eye peering down from above), Shuntaro Fujito delivers an exceptionally clear account of Violet’s emotional journey; his direction is unshowy and unobtrusive, which is just what the material needs. It’s fair to say the show sometimes sags momentarily when the actors stop singing and start to speak; it’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with Brian Crawley’s book as that the score is so good that the connecting tissue inevitably pales a little in comparison.

The bottom line: this is GOOD, and it’s worth seeing. It’s also, unfortunately, selling very badly at the moment, and it deserves better: it’s a very strong production of a show with a good book and a stunning score, Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance deserves a much wider audience, and it runs an hour and forty minutes without an interval so you’ll be in plenty of time to make the last train home afterwards. Discounts are available if you know where to look, and this might well turn out to be as good a piece of musical theatre as you’ll see all year.

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People get hurt

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It’s not giving anything away to say that Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat, currently receiving its British premiere at the Donmar Warehouse, basically involves two hours of watching people get crushed. Inspired by interviews Nottage conducted with steelworkers in Reading, PA – one of the poorest cities of its size in the USA – Sweat moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008, using the disintegrating friendship between two blue-collar women as the lens through which to examine the social and economic consequences of the collapse of manufacturing industry in the rust belt.

Sweat, it’s fair to say, is not exactly a laugh-a-line. In 2000, the two friends – Tracey and Cynthia – both apply for the same promotion to management. Tracey is white, Cynthia is black, and when Cynthia gets the promotion it germinates a seed of jealousy in Tracey that manifests itself in the idea that Cynthia was promoted to fulfil a diversity quota. In 2008, we see two young men – again, one white and one black – struggling after their release from prison for an (at that point) unspecified act of violence. It doesn’t take long to join the dots – everything is connected, and for most of the play you’ll be at least twenty minutes ahead of the plot, but that’s (much) less important than you’d think: Sweat is less about the events themselves and more about reactions and connections, and about what happens to people when they’re kicked to the bottom of the economic chain. Nottage cleverly uses a set of character studies to show the creeping growth of the resentments that fed Trump’s campaign in the 2016 Presidential election (and, as a programme note reminds us, the austerity-driven resentments that drove the Brexit vote are hardly dissimilar). It’s a bleak, bleak picture, but it’s also compelling. Tracey and Cynthia, when we meet them, are believable, likeable, hard-working women; we can more or less see what’s going to happen to them a full act before it actually happens, and that isn’t an accident. Rather, it’s part of the play’s method: we all watched the economic firestorm that underpins the events of Sweat play out on the news, and by making us root for people whose lives are about to be blown apart, and then – in some cases – recoil as their previously likeable natures begin to curdle, Nottage drives home the absolute, slow-motion horror of the way so many lives were ruined by the gradual gutting of the US’s manufacturing industries.

And this, in nearly every respect, is an absolutely flawless production. The play benefits from a space like the Donmar where even the cheapest seats (and yes, I was in the very cheapest seats) are extremely close to the stage; even from the back of the circle, you can see the whites of the actors’ eyes. As Tracey and Cynthia, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins are absolutely riveting, and they’re all the more moving because neither they nor Nottage ever asks for the audience’s sympathy. There’s superb work, too, from Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile as their grown-up sons, from Sebastian Viveros as a Colombian-American busboy at the bar where Tracey and Cynthia hang out, and especially from Stuart McQuarrie as a barman (and longtime friend of both protagonists) who sees the economic cataclysm coming and is powerless to stop it.

The one wrinkle is Frankie Bradshaw’s set – a blue-collar bar (where nearly all of the scenes set in 2000 take place) surrounded by iron girders in what seems to be a derelict industrial space. It’s a perfectly appropriate environment for the play, but unfortunately Bradshaw seems to subscribe to the Fuck The Audience school of theatrical design: there’s a floor-to-ceiling girder on one side of the stage, it isn’t a part of the Donmar’s building and it doesn’t appear to be supporting any part of the grid structure suspended above the stage, and it’s a significant visual obstruction for probably a quarter of the audience, depending on precisely where the actors are on the stage at a given moment – and that’s even taking into account that the view from cheaper seats is obviously going to be less optimal than the view from the most expensive ones. The obstruction presented by this girder, in fact, would cut across the view from seats in all four price categories at some point during the performance; it’s not a huge obstruction, but it’s not necessary either, and a less arrogant designer could easily have provided a suitably bleak post-industrial landscape in which a significant chunk of the audience weren’t forced to keep craning their necks to see around an entirely ornamental pillar.

With that one exception, this is an outstanding production: a grim but gripping script, beautifully detailed performances from everybody in the ensemble, chillingly naturalistic fight choreography by Kate Waters, appropriately crepuscular lighting by Oliver Fenwick, and – above all – sure-footed, carefully-paced direction by Lynette Linton, who keeps the play moving forward on a slow-burning, gradually rising line of simmering tension. The explosion, when it comes, is genuinely shocking; despite the (considerable) strength of the writing, that’s in no small part because Linton has orchestrated the two hours leading up to that moment with such careful precision. This is probably as good as contemporary American writing gets; I realise that a bald description makes the play sound like a theatrical dose of cod liver oil, but this is a genuinely thrilling piece of theatre – even if, as I did, you find yourself spending most of the performance trying to peer around a girder because the set designer decided caring about sightlines was beneath her.

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Next stop, Hell

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André de Shields knows the value of silence. At the very beginning of Hadestown, the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera currently playing a pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre, he steps forward and teases the audience by waiting to speak until the expectant hush in the Olivier’s auditorium borders on deafening. It’s a masterful beginning to a masterful performance, and Mr. de Shields is one of the great highlights in a show that is never less than entertaining.

Hadestown, which began life as a 2010 concept album by Ms. Mitchell and arrives in London following productions at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and the Citadel in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017, is essentially a blue-collar rough-theatre retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The action begins and ends in a down-home bar somewhere in the American South – probably New Orleans – in what might be the present, or might be a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and Hell, when we (eventually) get there, has what might best be described as a post-industrial expressionist aesthetic (think along the lines of Metropolis or The Adding Machine). The story is told almost entirely in song – thank God, because the few bits of linking narration, some of which involve actors speaking in (barely-)rhyming couplets, are cringe-inducingly dire. The songs, however, are terrific. Ms. Mitchell’s music is an appealing gumbo of folk, jazz, blues and pop, there’s a superb band, and there are thrilling performances from Mr. de Shields, from Patrick Page as an über-capitalist/industrialist Hades, from Amber Gray as a Persephone who really knows how to have a good time in the months she’s allowed out of Hadestown, and from Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, and Gloria Onitiri as the three slinkily fabulous Fates whose commentary punctuates the action.

The storytelling, on the other hand, is less successful, although it’s clearer in the second act than the first. Hadestown presents us with a simplified version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it still takes far too much of the first half for the plot to swing into gear, and you won’t find a great deal of nuance in the portrayal of Orpheus or Eurydice. That’s partly due to the writing, which unfortunately gives the two central characters the show’s most blandly generic songs, and partly down to the two blandly generic performers cast in those roles. As Orpheus, we have Reeve Carney; he’s good-looking, he has a nice voice, he plays the guitar nicely, and he can’t act at all. Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice is a little more compelling: she’s also good-looking, she has an absolutely stunning voice, and she can act a bit more than Mr. Carney, by which I mean she’s capable of mustering more than one-and-a-half facial expressions. We’re supposed to believe that theirs is one of the great tragic love stories, so it would be nice if they had some chemistry together. Or any chemistry together. Or any stage presence. They sound fantastic, but this is theatre, not a recording studio.

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And that, I’m afraid, sums up the problem with Hadestown: despite inventive direction by Rachel Chavkin (this made me really look forward to seeing her production of The American Clock later this year), a terrific barroom/bandstand set by Rachel Hauck, impeccable lighting by Bradley King, and muscular choreography from David Neumann, Hadestown is ultimately a thrilling musical experience – thrilling enough, certainly, to be worth an evening of your time – rather than a moving piece of theatre. The problem is exemplified by the way the show deploys the ensemble of “workers” – they function as a chorus, sing as a chorus, and are given basically no opportunities to show any individuality. That’s a definite choice, and potentially a strong choice, but it’s a choice that needs to be justified, and the show never does, which means that too often they just seem like backing singers/dancers (also – directors, you DO NOT cast the amazing Seyi Omooba in a show without giving her at least one opportunity to let rip with that incredible voice, even if it’s just for four bars). Everything looks great, sounds great, moves beautifully, but Ms. Mitchell’s lyrics, while often appealingly colloquial, don’t carry the weight of the narrative, and neither do the two performers in the central roles. My God, though, the thrilling moments are thrilling, whether it’s André de Shields showing us a masterclass in how to hold the audience in the palm of your hand in the opening number Road to Hell, or Patrick Page’s Hades leading the chorus in the borderline-fascistic Cheetolini-eque Why We Build The Wall at the close of the first act, or Amber Gray swinging her way through Our Lady of the Underground. There are more than enough thrilling moments for Hadestown to be absolutely worth the cost of a ticket (or the cost of a recording – the cast album, which was made after the NYTW production, is pretty wonderful, and features Patrick Page and Amber Gray), but they’re all – all – about the music rather than the story. Hadestown is often wonderful, but it’s a wonderful concert (albeit a concert presented with a great deal of theatrical flair) as opposed to a wonderful musical.

Then there’s the question of what it’s doing at the National in the first place (answer: filling a gap – a couple of years ago the National announced they were developing a musical version of The Witches to play during the 2018 Christmas season, but nothing has been heard of it beyond the initial announcement; presumably it’s either not ready or has fallen through, leaving the National with a Christmas slot to fill in their largest auditorium, which just happens to a have a similar configuration to the Citadel in Edmonton, where Hadestown played last year) . If the National had commissioned Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin to create a new piece for them, I’d have no argument with it – they’re interesting artists and there’s certainly room for them in the National’s programming.  If the show had been developed by the National in collaboration with NYTW and/or the Citadel (or Canadian Stage, or the American Repertory Theater, or A.C.T., or wherever), again, there’d be no problem; I’d love to see the National engage in more cross-border collaborations, and I have a ticket for Downstate, developed with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, later this year. This, though, is not that kind of collaborative enterprise. This is a show developed by a nonprofit theatre in New York and subsequently produced in a nonprofit theatre in Canada that has been picked up by commercial producers for presentation on Broadway.

It’s great for the show and for Ms. Mitchell that a team of producers think it deserves a commercial run, and there’s nothing about the show in itself that should make it fall outside the National’s remit – except that this appears to be a case of a commercial management using the National’s resources, which are supported by significant public funding paid for out of the tax base, to get their pre-Broadway tryout run at a bargain rate. This isn’t a National Theatre production that’s going to Broadway, it’s a Broadway musical playing a preview run at the National, presumably because to do so is cheaper than a commercial tryout in Boston or Chicago or Seattle or wherever. There isn’t even any mention of the National on the front page of the Broadway production’s website:

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The casting, also, is problematic. All five principals – including the two who don’t make a full personality between them – are imported from the US under the Equity exchange scheme. No problem with that, it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray (and as for Mr. Carney and Ms. Noblezada… it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray), and the traffic runs in both directions. Or the traffic SHOULD run in both directions. We have five American leads who are going to Broadway with the show, and an ensemble of UK-based performers who it’s safe to assume are not (if the same cast was going to be playing London and Broadway, it would have been announced by now). In this show, as I said, the ensemble performers are kept firmly behind the five leads, which is a defendable choice – but in the National Theatre, it leaves a slightly sour taste to see a show in which all the leads are imported from overseas and all the homegrown performers are employed in ensemble roles or as understudies. To say the least, this does not suggest the Broadway production’s producers view working at the National as a collaboration between equals.

It’s not – as I said – that there is any problem with the National bringing in performers from overseas – Bryan Cranston’s performance in Network was quite extraordinary, and I’m looking forward very much to seeing Denis O’Hare in Tartuffe in April. Both of those productions, though, place(d) UK-based performers alongside the star in leading roles, rather than relegating homegrown talent to the chorus, whereas the nature of the casting of Hadestown carries with it a fart-like whiff of exploitation of the local talent pool by Broadway producers looking to save a few bucks (Equity pay rates for actors are way lower in London than on Broadway or the US touring circuit). It is to be hoped that the financial arrangements underpinning this production benefit the National as much as the American co-producers; the programme note from those co-producers thanking the National for supporting the creative team’s vision, as opposed to for collaborating in the show’s development, raises some questions. And that’s being kind.

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As for the show itself, it’s an exciting, distinctive event, and – as I said – a thrilling musical experience. It’s worth experiencing this score live, there’s a superb band, the singing is wonderful, and André de Shields, Patrick Page, and Amber Gray are more than worth the trip. If you’re looking for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on the other hand, go ahead and book a ticket – you’ll get a kick out of seeing the way Ms. Mitchell’s songs riff on top of it – but maybe pick up book ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the way to the theatre and read it on the train home.

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