“I hate that word. It’s a return.”

 

Glenn Close Sunset

 

According to the posters outside the Coliseum, it’s THE THEATRICAL EVENT OF 2016. That might be a little premature given that it’s still only April, but this is certainly one of those productions that sends the West End’s publicity machine into a frenzied overdrive. As you can tell from the poster, the big news here is the STAR: Glenn Close‘s name gets (much) bigger print than the show’s title, and she’s the reason we all paid (through the nose) for tickets to a show that frankly, as writing, is patchy at best.

The reason for this blatant cash-grab revival, though, is not quite what it appears. I doubt the impetus was a sincere desire on the part of the English National Opera to put this particular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical into their repertoire, and most (though not all) of the ladies who played Norma Desmond in the musical the first time around sing the role better than Ms. Close. There has been, though, an undeniable curiosity on this side of the Atlantic about Ms. Close’s Norma, in no small part because of the tabloid slugfest which erupted in London after Close opened in the role in Los Angeles: Close’s reviews were far better than the ones Patti LuPone, the London production’s original star, received at the show’s premiere. Ms. LuPone was contracted to take the show to Broadway, but after weeks of speculation following the Los Angeles opening it was announced that Ms. Close would open it on Broadway in her place. Ms. LuPone, to put it mildly, did not take the news well; the whole sorry saga was all over the papers for weeks, and Ms. Close’s performance, as a result, has achieved something of a mythical status in this country, despite the fact that (until now) she has never played the role here.

More importantly – or rather, more pragmatically – the ENO is in a deep financial hole, thanks to a combination of a significant cut to their Arts Council subsidy, mediocre ticket sales for their regular programming over the past three or four years, and the spiralling costs associated with owning and operating a large, century-old theatre in the middle of the West End. It doesn’t matter that they’d be unlikely, in other circumstances, to programme this material: they need a hit, quick, and there isn’t much in either the opera or the musical theatre repertoire with the potential to sell in London on the level that five weeks of THIS star in THIS role has done. There are still a few seats available, but only a few, which means that over a five-week run they’ll have sold roughly one hundred thousand tickets, with a top ticket price of £150. This isn’t about art, necessarily – it’s about the bottom line, and it’s very clever producing.

And the star, fortunately, delivers. As Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent movie star whose slow descent into madness and mania is the show’s main focus, Close is simply mesmerising. This is a great big old-fashioned star turn of a kind you rarely expect to see in a Lloyd Webber show; Close commands the stage, and you can’t take your eyes off her. Every word, every gesture, every raised eyebrow demands attention, and she plays the audience like a violin. She eerily captures the larger-than-life mannerisms of silent film acting, and she isn’t afraid to go for BIG gestures, but she never crosses the line into camp mugging. In the show’s biggest moments, she is genuinely moving, and she does more than anyone else I’ve seen in the role to compensate for the (several) instances in which the show’s book and lyrics – by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who should know better – are laughably bathetic.

As for her singing, it is what it is. In an interview in the run up to this revival’s opening night, Ms. Close claimed she was singing the role better now than the first time around. She isn’t, at least on the evidence of her cast recording, but there’s very little difference between her singing of the role then and the performance she’s giving now. There’s still a great big yawning chasm between her strong, forceful middle voice and her rather reedy soprano, and she still has to husband her resources in the score’s more demanding passages. If she lacks the powerhouse voice of some of the other ladies who have played the role, though, she more than compensates in other areas, and her delivery of Norma’s two biggest numbers, ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, raises goosebumps. In each case, she is rewarded with the kind of sustained ovation you rarely see in the West End, and she deserves it.

Given that we’re all here to see Ms. Close, the production surrounding her is stronger than it needs to be. Director Lonny Price, who is becoming the go-to hired hand for this kind of semi-staged star-driven extravaganza, turns in a bare-bones (albeit on a huge stage) staging which in a couple of key moments is more effective than the much more complex production Trevor Nunn (over)staged around the corner at the Adelphi in 1993. “Semi-staged”, in this instance, is basically a get-out-of-jail-free card; the production is fully staged and choreographed (by Stephen Mear), there’s a Hollywood soundstage set (by James Noone, with appropriately eerie lighting by Mark Henderson) complete with metal catwalks and staircases, and there’s even a car, borrowed from a production at the Gothenburg Opera a few years ago, for the drive to Paramount Studios, and a drowned-corpse dummy rising on a wire out of the orchestra pit to recreate a version of the film’s famous opening shot. There isn’t an equivalent of the original production’s magnificent floating mansion, but the show, imperfect as it is, works fine without it. In a couple of places, the production’s simplicity is actually an advantage: the car chase sequence, which in Nunn’s too-complicated staging was unintentionally hilarious, is delivered here via the simple but effective means of having actors carry headlights in near-darkness across the catwalks and staircases above the orchestra platform. And in the second act, when Joe and Betty walk out onto a Hollywood backlot, the rear backdrop rises to reveal the full depth (about ninety feet) of the Coliseum’s enormous stage and the theatre’s back wall. That scene is almost the only time the plot moves outside enclosed spaces, and the effect is quite striking.

There’s also a terrific supporting cast. Michael Xavier, as Joe, is better in the second act than the first, but he (of course) sings well throughout, and his forcefully sardonic rendition of the title song almost, nearly manages to make sense of some of Black and Hampton’s more infelicitously misaccented lyrics. Siobhan Dillon is a charming Betty Schaefer, and their ‘Too Much In Love To Care’ is one of the production’s musical highlights. The other is Fred Johanson’s sublimely creepy ‘The Greatest Star of All’; again, the lyrics are terrible, but he makes more sense of them than most of his predecessors in the role did. The song has the single best melody in the show, but in context, because of the lyrics sit so uncomfortably on the music, it often just sits there; in Johanson’s hands, it’s surprisingly touching. The smaller roles are almost all perfectly filled, and the ENO orchestra does a ravishing job of the music. The overture and the orchestral interlude leading into the final scene, in particular, are both quite thrilling. The single misstep is Fenton Gray’s Manfred, a mincing, flaming-queen caricature who makes John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’ look like Heath Ledger in ‘Brokeback Mountain’. He’s saddled with ‘The Lady’s Paying’, which is the worst song in the score, so you can’t blame the actor for pushing too hard, but the number is basically just three minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.

Other quibbles? Not many. Price’s one directorial innovation is to have a Young Norma Desmond shadow Close in some of her key scenes, and this doesn’t really work. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea if you were writing a new adaptation of Billy Wilder’s screenplay from scratch, but there’s simply nothing in this adaptation’s script or score to support it.

Then there’s the programme, which costs £5.00, and is rather special; I think the highlight is an awful synopsis (“Meanwhile the pressures of Norma’s impending project has made her increasingly paranoid”) written by someone who apparently can’t spell the word ‘delusion’, although the breathtakingly defensive article by Michael Coveney, who used to be a good theatre critic, about how “Andrew Lloyd Webber is no less serious an artist than his birth-date fellow composer Stephen Sondheim” – really, that’s the first sentence – runs it a close second. The foreword Michael Grade and Michael Linnit, the production’s commercial co-producers, presumably dictated to an underling while a taxi was waiting outside is almost as amusing; it claims, inaccurately, that this is Ms. Close’s “London debut” – nope – and also informs us that “no great music written for the popular theatre has ever demanded a symphony-sized orchestra to achieve its richest effect quite like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s luscious and filmic score for his smash hit stage version of Sunset Boulevard”. Sometimes it’s better just not to say anything at all. Entertainingly, the programme’s editor, a gentleman named Philip Reed, includes his telephone number next to his credit, so if you’d like to hire someone who can’t be bothered to proofread to put together a programme for your next show,  you know who to call.

In the end, though, with all due credit to the supporting cast, the ensemble, the director and designers, and the orchestra, the show belongs to Glenn Close. Sure, the production itself is a blatant cash-grab and the show, as a piece of writing, is (to be kind) less than a complete triumph, but while the material isn’t always magical, the star certainly is. The production as a whole, given the pressure under which it must have been put together, makes surprisingly few missteps. And it’s heartening, for once, for most of the electricity emanating from the stage to come from the leading lady and the string section.

 

Lights up on Washington Heights…

in the heights kings x
Or, a quick review of the Southwark Playhouse‘s wonderful production of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s first musical, In the Heights, which is currently playing at the King’s Cross Theatre:

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, which is currently playing at the King’s Cross Theatre, is wonderful. Go and see it.

Beyond that – bullet points, because it’s been a long week.

  • If you’ve read anything about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the first word you’ll associate with him is probably ‘rap’. There’s a lot more to his music than that. This is a wonderful, inventive score; there’s a lot of rap in it, but there’s also an abundance of more conventional musical numbers incorporating a wide range of influences from white pop to salsa to Sondheim. The music is often thrilling, and so is the wordplay – this show’s text is dense, clever, funny, touching when it needs to be, and often as dazzling as the music. As a Broadway debut, this score is a staggering achievement.
  • It’s served well here by a spectacular cast led by Sam Mackay as Usnavi, the bodega owner at the centre of the show’s (loose) plot. That’s the role Miranda played himself on Broadway, so he has big shoes to fill, but he’s terrific.
  • The ensemble dance their backsides off – you could work up a sweat just watching them – and sing gloriously; this is a Southwark Playhouse production, which means it was staged on a budget of about £2.50, which means there isn’t much of a set to speak of, but Drew McOnie’s breathtakingly energetic choreography provides more than enough spectacle.
  • Standout supporting performances from Lily Frazer, whose incredible voice threatens to blow the roof off the theatre, as well as Jade Ewen, David Bedella, Josie Benson, and Eve Polycarpou as everybody’s favourite Abuela. Bedella and Benson are particularly fine as a pair of bickering/loving parents whose daughter is on the verge of dropping out of college; Benson’s big second-act number – ‘Enough’ – is probably the evening’s dramatic highlight.
  • Sensational band somewhere backstage, led by Phil Cornwell. Nine musicians – fewer than the show used on Broadway, but I think one or two more than it had in the original off-Broadway run before it transferred – and that’s particularly impressive given that it’s hardly unusual, these days, to see a much bigger show with fewer musicians on the payroll.
  • Unusual to see a musical in a traverse staging – the playing area down the middle of the auditorium, with a bank of seats on either side – but for this show, it works very well. The unusual configuration is used because the theatre’s other occupant, a couple of shows a week (and more in the school holidays), is a stage version of The Railway Children, for which a real, full-sized train is used (the tracks are covered by a temporary deck for In the Heights). Luke Sheppard’s direction makes the most of a difficult space and a limited budget; by West End standards, this is a very inexpensive production, but it doesn’t feel like one, and it delivers just as much in terms of pure entertainment as the original Broadway production (or at least, the iteration of it that I saw in California) did.
  • The show has been compared, here and there, to West Side Story, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly apt comparison, other than that they’re both set in New York and they both include a number of Latino characters.In The Heights is an urban story, but not a particularly gritty one – it’s essentially an amiable, sentimentalised love letter to the neighbourhoods Miranda grew up in and the people he grew up with. Quiara Alegria Hudes’s book is arguably short on incident – it feels a little like a movie-of-the-week in which nothing much happens and the loose ends, such as they are, are all nicely tied up at the end of the final act – but the music and the performances are so vivid that it doesn’t really matter.

 

If nothing else, given the extraordinary success of (and buzz surrounding) Hamilton, Miranda’s second musical, which is enjoying once-a-decade levels of hype and acclaim (and ticket sales) on Broadway right now, it’s fascinating to go back and look at Miranda’s first show – particularly since it’ll be next year at least before Hamilton makes it to the UK. Miranda is a major, distinctive talent; the show’s book may not be entirely without fault, but it’s refreshing to see a musical in which the jolts of electricity come courtesy of the music and lyrics rather than the special effects.

Barbra who?

 

funny girl sheridan smith

 

 

The entire run sold out in a single morning. A transfer into the West End was booked and announced before it even began previews. The (very) few available tickets appear to be commanding vastly inflated sums of money on StubHub. Is Sheridan Smith the ‘greatest star’, as she sings in her first number in this triumphant revival of Funny Girl? Maybe not the greatest ever, but she’s up there. It’s her name that sold all those tickets, and she’s worth it.

As for the show itself, there’s possibly a reason it hasn’t been seen in the West End since 1966 – I mean, other than the supposedly-indelible performance given by a certain Ms. Streisand. Funny Girl tells the story of the rise to fame of comedian/actor/Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, and despite some electrifying music from Jule Styne, the show itself is very much a second-tier Golden Age musical. The problem is partly the subject matter: there’s a great deal about Fanny Brice that is fascinating, but her rise to fame was by all accounts remarkably uneventful, and Isobel Lennart‘s book and Bob Merrill‘s bland lyics barely look beneath the surface. Brice’s marriage to professional gambler Nicky Arnstein is the basis for a great deal of the show’s plot, particularly in the second act, but the account given in the show is more than somewhat fictionalised, and you don’t have to do a great deal of research to find that the truth would probably have been more interesting. There’s little insight on display – simply a somewhat melodramatic retelling of Brice’s rise to fame that wouldn’t look out of place in a TV movie-of-the-week. For this production, Harvey Fierstein has been brought in to sprinkle his own very special brand of magic stardust over the material by rewriting Lennart’s tissue-thin, predictable book, which means the show now has a tissue-thin, predictable book that’s slightly different from the original one. It’s not that most of the changes make the show either better or worse – it’s simply that it gained the reputation it has because of a few thrilling musical numbers, and because the original production launched a thrilling new star. Depth is not the point; with or without rewrites, it’s never going to be Gypsy.

And yet this production is a must-see, and a genuinely exciting, joyous theatrical experience. To say that Sheridan Smith makes the role of Fanny Brice her own is an understatement. Yes, this is a spectacular star turn, but it’s a very different take on the role from Streisand’s iconic performance (we’ve all seen the film, haven’t we?). Smith is a superb actor with remarkable comic timing, but her secret weapon here, as it was in Legally Blonde, is her odd combination of girl-next-door looks, warmth, vulnerability, and charm. Her gift is her ability to bring an audience into her world, to make you feel like you’re watching your best friend, and to make you, as the show puts it, laugh with her, not at her. She isn’t American, or Jewish, and she is (more than) pretty, but it doesn’t matter in the least: she’s a brilliant physical comedian – her rubber-limbed attempts to evade seduction in You Are Woman, I Am Man are hilarious – and her extraordinarily open, malleable face is more than capable of encompassing the thirty-six facial expressions Fanny lays claim to at the top of the show. True, she isn’t a singer in Streisand’s league – who is? – but she delivers fine, feisty renditions of Styne’s two big bon-bons,  Don’t Rain On My Parade and The Music That Makes Me Dance. It’s her quieter moments, though, that are the most surprising. She turns People – a glorious melody tied to a thuddingly banal lyric – into a wrenching soliloquy about Fanny’s inability to connect with anyone other than an audience, and finds all the heartbreak (and then some) in Who Are You Now?, which (apropos of nothing in particular) has always been my favourite song in the score. And actually, in this production, it’s the only revision that improves on the original: the song is reimagined as a duet between Fanny and Nick which then segues into a reprise of People, and the arrangement (by Alan Williams) is truly lovely.

The supporting cast are somewhat hampered by the writing, which tends to reserve what meat there is for the leading role. This production gives slightly more material, in the form of a not-very-good song called Temporary Arrangement that was cut from the original Broadway production, to the actor playing Nick; Darius Campbell sings it (and everything else) very well, but there’s a reason it wasn’t used the first time around. Campbell is tall, handsome, charming, and has an excellent voice – which is good, because that’s just about all the book gives him to play. There’s a warmly funny (and in places surprisingly acrobatic) turn from Joel Montague as Fanny’s childhood friend/would-be suitor Eddie, and an impeccable, moving performance from the always-wonderful Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother. The ensemble are terrific, although they could use a little more space to get the most out of Lynne Page’s clever, funny choreography – the stage at the Menier is tiny – but this is Smith’s show.

Fortunately, while the material is sometimes less than stellar, the production rises to her level. In Michael Mayer’s staging, the show moves fluidly – not always easy to achieve in the Menier, whose stage imposes a long, long list of technical/physical constraints. Michael Pavelka’s set takes us onto the stage of New York’s Winter Garden via a forced-perspective photographic backdrop of the auditorium, and uses a pair of travelators running the width of the stage to help Mayer and Page approximate cinematic dissolves between scenes. It’s an elegant solution – thanks also to Mark Henderson’s lighting and Matthew Wright’s beautiful period costumes, the show looks great, and you never get the sense, as you sometimes do in this venue, that compromises have been made in order to squeeze the production into the space. That said, it has clearly been designed and directed with a transfer to a larger theatre in mind; it should sit very nicely at the Savoy when it moves there in the spring, but there’s an undeniable thrill to seeing Smith’s dazzling performance in close-up. There’s a tight ten-piece band somewhere backstage, and Chris Walker’s new orchestrations sound surprisingly lush given that there are only ten musicians (a small number for this kind of score, but a huge number for this kind of venue). You don’t quite get the brassy blare that characterises the Broadway cast recording or the film soundtrack, but that’s the trade-off you make when you stage a (relatively) big musical in a theatre like the Menier. This material is not, as I said, one of the first-tier Broadway classics; this production, however, makes as good a case for it as you could imagine. It’s tremendous fun, and Smith is magnificent.

In the end, though, perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement here will turn out to be less about her own (superb) performance, and more about the show itself. For a long time, the received wisdom seems to have been that Funny Girl is not viable without a singer of Streisand’s calibre, or that Streisand’s performance is impossible to match. Smith proves, loudly and clearly, that you don’t have to have a one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle singing voice in order to succeed in the role, and in doing so, she also unlocks a door: it isn’t a great show, but it’s certainly a great role, and there’s more than one valid way to approach it. Smith doesn’t eclipse Streisand’s performance, and nor should she – it’s readily available via the DVD of the film, and it’s wonderful – but she does manage to erase it, at least temporarily: watching her, she simply makes you forget anyone else ever played the role. Given how familiar Streisand’s performance has become, that’s an astonishing achievement; if this revival helps bring the show out from under her shadow, it can only be a good thing.

 

Here come the girls…

 

Or, a tale of two musicals. They’re both based on films, they’re both (more or less) true stories, and – guess what? – I saw them both last week.

In another respect, though, they exist at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. Grey Gardens, while it eventually played on Broadway, originated in the nonprofit sector at Playwrights Horizons and was written as a chamber musical; it’s produced here by the Southwark Playhouse on a shoestring budget for a limited run in a (relatively) tiny theatre. The Girls, on the other hand, while it isn’t that big a show, is very obviously a product of the commercial sector – it’s based on a big hit film that has already spawned a big hit (nonmusical) stage version, it has a big-name songwriter attached, and while this was a tryout production, it is obviously aimed squarely at the West End, where it’ll probably run for years.

And surprise, surprise – they’re both wonderful. Grey Gardens, of course, is based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, and it introduces us to two Edies: Mrs. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Miss Edith Bouvier Beale – or rather, Big Edie and Little Edie. Distant relatives of the Kennedys, they are shown in the documentary to be living in some squalor in the crumbling wreck of the Grey Gardens estate; the documentary forms the basis for the musical’s second act, and the first act, set in the 1940s, shows Big Edie carefully sabotaging Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy (an event which may or may not have actually happened). The show charts both their decline from a position of wealth and priviledge into cat- and raccoon-infested poverty, and the strange, codependent, fractious relationship between mother and daughter.

The result, as directed by Thom Southerland, is very definitely an art-house musical (no surprise, since it’s based on an art-house film). Doug Wright’s book and Michael Korie’s lyrics show us two difficult, complicated women; despite a rather disingenuous programme note in which they solemnly tell us that the Maysles advised them, in writing the musical, not to “take sides”, it’s clear that their sympathies are more with Little Edie than her mother, although Big Edie is never presented as a villain. It’s simply that the meat of the show is in the second act, and in the second act Little Edie has the showier, more memorable role.

The fictional first act, though, is somewhat problematic. It’s entertaining enough, and Scott Frankel’s music is often lovely, but it doesn’t quite add up – the broken-engagement story, and the scenes with the young Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, are a bit too movie-of-the-week, and if you’ve seen, for example, High Society, then you’ve seen it all before. It’s not until the second act that the pieces fall into place; the first act (or at least, a first act) is necessary, and it does add to your understanding of the strange dynamic in the dysfunctional/codependent relationship between mother and daughter, but there’s still a sense, watching it, that the writers are somehow marking time, and it’s undeniably the weaker of the show’s two halves. It doesn’t help, either, that save for the beautiful “Will You?”, which closes the first act, the score’s most memorable, distinctive material is also all in the second half. The three major Act Two numbers for Little Edie – ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’, ‘Around the World’, and (especially) ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ – are superb; with the exception of “Will You”, nothing in the first act is quite at the same level.

The performances, however, are impeccable. Jenna Russell finds the pathos in the charming-but-flinty Big Edie of Act One, but her eccentric, vulnerable Little Edie in Act Two is a brilliant creation. It goes without saying that she sings the score beautifully; she nails Little Edie’s odd, nasal speaking voice without descending into caricature, and she’s fierce, funny and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Her ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ is simply mesmerising; it’s a tiny theatre, you can see right into her eyes as she sings the song, and those four minutes are more than worth the cost of the ticket. As Act Two’s Big Edie, Sheila Hancock has less to do, but does it beautifully. She finds the right balance between charmingly-dotty-old-lady and subtle ruthlessness, and when she and Russell’s Little Edie square off, sparks fly. The supporting cast are all perfectly fine, though they have more to do in the first half, which means they don’t get the best of the material, but Hancock and Russell’s double-act in Act Two is what makes the production a must-see. They’re spectacular, and to see work of this calibre up close in a 250-seat theatre is genuinely thrilling.

And for the money, the production values are seriously impressive. Tickets cost £25, which is roughly a third of the top price you’d expect to pay these days for a musical in the West End. Set, costumes and lighting (by, respectively, Tom Rogers, Jonathan Lipman, and Howard Hudson) are all excellent, even given the obvious budgetary constraints, and somewhere backstage there are nine musicians and a conductor giving us the full original orchestrations – which, OK, were conceived for a small theatre, but Playwrights Horizons has considerably more money to play with than the Southwark Playhouse. Not only that, the conductor and the musicians were brought onstage and given a bow at the curtain call. This is a good production of a difficult show, but in an age when bands in musical theatre are routinely getting smaller, it’s genuinely surprising to see a tiny theatre with a shoestring budget find a way to engage and pay for this number of musicians. It’s not as if any of London’s theatre critics would have batted an eyelid – or in most cases, even noticed – if the band had been cut from nine to four or five. In this theatre, clearly, the music is considered to be as important as anything else onstage. In musical theatre, that shouldn’t be unusual, but these days it often is.

Which brings us to The Girls, the new musical adaptation of Calendar Girls by Gary Barlow and the film’s screenwriter Tim Firth. This isn’t, actually, a case of good show/bad show – as I said, I liked it very much. In terms of the way it’s produced, though, it’s the polar opposite of this production of Grey Gardens. It’s a big show, trying out in a big theatre (the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre seats 1750 – that’s seven times as many patrons per performance as will fit in the Southwark Playhouse), and it’s obviously aimed squarely at the West End and the touring circuit, where it’s likely (if the ecstatic audience response at last Wednesday’s matinee is anything to go by) to be a substantial hit.

It’s easy to be cynical about stage musicals based on popular movies (as opposed to musicals like Grey Gardens, whose source film is rather more esoteric) – particularly if you happen to have sat through shows like Legally Blonde or Ghost, in which it’s almost impossible to discern any artistic impulse behind the decision to put the thing up on a stage. Indeed, it’s not as if Gary Barlow himself doesn’t have form when it comes to pointless stage musical adaptations of recent-ish films; on the evidence of the cast recording, his score for Finding Neverland is polished, professional, and more or less completely devoid of human feeling – a solid-but-uninspired by-the-numbers songwriting job by a hired hand, but no more than that (interestingly, the earlier – and in terms of the score, much better – version of the show that played in England in October 2012 had a score by Frankel and Korie, who were replaced because the show’s producer apparently prefers vapid-but-bouncy pop hits to writing with actual depth).

This time, though, Barlow seems to have found a connection with the material that eluded him on his first stage assignment. Of course this is a plot that is always going to push your emotional buttons – we all know people who have been through cancer, we all know people who have died too young, and we’ve all experienced bereavement – but Firth and Barlow, here, have managed to turn the material into a genuine emotional rollercoaster. Firth’s screenplay was full of quiet humour, but it treated the film’s emotional core with almost too much restraint, as if he was (understandably) afraid of treading on the toes of the (very) real people whose story he was writing. The musical, on the other hand, goes for big laughs and big emotions, and succeeds on both levels. It might be manipulative, it might be obvious, but it works. You’ll laugh (a lot), you’ll cry, you’ll walk out of the theatre with Yorkshire (the opening number, reprised at the curtain call) rolling around in your head… and it’ll be lodged between your ears for days. As a songwriter, Barlow is not without faults, and I still think he sings like a potato, but he certainly knows how to write a catchy tune.

And actually, in this case, that’s selling him short. There’s no shortage of catchy tunes in this show – you’ll also probably be humming ‘Dare’ and ‘Who Wants a Silent Night?’ on your way home – but the heart of the show lies in the songs for Annie, the widow whose bereavement sets the plot in motion, and her best friend Chris. Joanna Riding’s Annie is given two lovely, moving ballads, one in each act: ‘Scarborough’, in which Annie contemplates all the little things in her life that will change after her husband dies, and ‘Kilimanjaro’, about the sheer physical effort of coping with grief. Equally good is the radiant ‘Sunflower’, sung by Claire Moore’s Chris – a bright, upbeat song about finding joy in unexpected places, and while it’s upbeat, it packs a surprising emotional punch. Perhaps it’s Firth’s influence – he and Barlow are jointly responsible for the show’s book, music and lyrics – but there’s more feeling in this score than in pretty much everything Barlow has released in at least the past decade, put together.

It helps, too, that Firth (and presumably Barlow) have made (mostly) smart choices in adapting Firth’s original screenplay. The film’s (weak) final act, which mostly took place in Los Angeles, is gone, though a couple of conversations from it show up earlier in act two, and so is most of the section dealing with the British media furore that followed the release of the calendar (we’ve all seen the film fifty thousand times, it’s not like I need to fill in the plot here). Instead, this is simply the story of a woman losing her husband, and how her loss prompts her friends to try to raise money for charity in his memory. The teenage subplot has been significantly rewritten, and is all the better for it, and the photo session for the calendar, in this version, is a brilliant extended set-piece rather than the series of (more or less) sketches we saw in the film. Throw in a superb cast – Riding and Moore, in the leads, are as good as they’ve ever been, and there’s wonderful support from the ensemble, including standout turns from Sara Kestelman, Claire Machin, Vivien Parry and James Gaddas – plus confident direction from Firth and Roger Haines and clever sets and costumes by Robert Jones, and you have all the makings of a bomb-proof, copper-bottomed, big fat smash hit. It’s that comparatively rare thing: a stage musical adapted from a film that is actually better than the film it’s based on.

The realities of commercial theatre in 2016 are a little depressing, though. This show has 20-odd actors onstage. It has a terrific, incredibly inventive set in which higgledy-piggledy stacks of green wooden cabinets are arranged to form the hillsides of the Yorkshire Dales. There’s a van onstage, there are about fifty thousand sunflowers in the finale, there’s gorgeous, evocative lighting by Tim Lutkin and funny, perfectly-in-keeping musical staging by Stephen Mear… and the Southwark Playhouse’s Grey Gardens had more musicians on the payroll than this does. Barlow’s score, true, is at the pop end of the musical theatre canon – but with only eight musicians in the pit, in Richard Beadle’s orchestrations, the band sounds thin. I’m not suggesting it needs an orchestra of thirty, but it does need woodwinds as well as a synthesiser, a brass section with more than one person in it (particularly since it’s set in Yorkshire), and a couple more strings. As it stands, the show doesn’t look cheap, but it sounds it, and this material deserves better. When everything else is so good, it’s a pity to see the show get short-changed by the lack of resources in the pit – but unfortunately these days the band is the first thing that gets cut back, because producers assume audiences don’t know the difference. Sorry, guys – some of us do. And I’m afraid when a fringe production staged on a budget of about £3.99 employs and pays more musicians than a big would-be blockbuster that is more or less certain to be a huge hit once it rolls into London, it’s a sign that commercial producers, in terms of music at least, are no longer interested in quality.

On the bright side, maybe there’ll be additional musicians on the cast recording. The producers will only have to pay them once.

 

 

 

Show Boat

s b p c

 

 

Once upon a time, when the Livent revival of Show Boat was running in various cities in the US and Canada and the Livent brand was still untainted by The Unpleasantness surrounding Darth Grabinsky, I planned a vacation around seeing it – in Chicago, in January, I think 19 years ago this week. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth the trip – if for no other reason that I’ve never, since, seen a commercial production of a musical with 70-odd actors on the stage and 30 musicians in the pit. I wondered at the time how the numbers could add up – the theatre, the night I saw it, was far from full – and Mr. Drabinsky’s complicated legal history since then, and the various arrest warrants against him that are apparently still outstanding in the US, rather suggest that they didn’t.

The thing is, Show Boat, more than nearly any other classic American musical, demands to be done big. It’s an enormous show with a (justly) celebrated score, it has a large cast of central characters, it takes place in multiple locations, the plot spans four decades, and audiences expect to see the Cotton Blossom – the Show Boat of the title – on the stage in front of them. In this show, more than many, there are certain requirements that are very difficult to work around.

Or so you’d think. Daniel Evans’s revival, playing for another week and a half at the Sheffield Crucible, has a cast of 24 and a band of 11 – large for a regional theatre in this country, but tiny in terms of the resources usually thrown at a production of this particular show. In terms of performers/musicians, it’s more or less exactly one-third the size of the production I saw in Chicago. And it’s glorious. It’s based on the text used in a production at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2011 (Show Boat’s production history could form the basis of a doctoral thesis – it’s far too complicated to explore fully here, because it’s one of those shows that seems to undergo some kind of revision with each successive revival), and it sits beautifully in the roughly 1000-seat Crucible.

Much of the show, in fact, is played right in the audience’s laps. The Crucible has a thrust stage; in Les Brotherston’s evocative bleached-wood set, a sunken playing area is surrounded by wooden boardwalks, and the Cotton Blossom, seen front-on, enters from the rear of the stage. Aside from the boat itself, and the Trocadero stage in Act Two, there are few major set-pieces apart from furniture (and, in the second half, evocative projections onto the back wall). It’s an impressive set but not an epic spectacle; the set pushes the scenes and musical numbers halfway down the thrust stage, lending them an immediacy and an intimacy that is the opposite of what you get when the show is staged behind a proscenium arch. This production is far more a character study than a sweeping panorama; you don’t get the spectacle or the string section or the huge chorus, but the gains outweigh the losses, for me at least. The performances are glorious – all of them, with special mentions for Gina Beck’s thrillingly-sung Magnolia and Emmanuel Kojo’s strong, dignified Joe – and the material somehow gains in power from being seen in a relatively intimate setting. The miscegenation scene is always moving, but it isn’t always this moving; Rebecca Trehearn’s Julie is another superb performance, but part of the scene’s added power in this production comes simply from the fact that you can see right into her eyes in the moment she’s forced to admit she’s been passing as white.

In terms of the text, the second act is a little more problematic. Again, it’s beautifully staged and performed here, but the second act of Show Boat was always weaker than the first – it covers a much longer timespan, it’s far more episodic in structure than the first half, a number of key twists in the plot rely on unlikely coincidences, and the ending is abrupt. Evans and his cast finesse it very well, but the ending of the show, in particular, feels rushed. Magnolia and Ravenal’s love story – arguably the show’s biggest plot strand – always feels as if there are at least a couple of scenes missing in the second half of Act Two, and that’s more the case than ever here; Michael Xavier’s Ravenal, in particular, is short-changed by this particular version of the script. There’s no number for Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter Kim in the final scene, and it’s missed; there’s room in this version of the show for a little bit more material in Act Two, and that particular cut is a cut too far. In terms of cuts/additions to the score, other characters fare better. Queenie’s haunting “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun'” – cut against Jerome Kern’s wishes from the original 1927 production but present in a lot of the show’s underscoring and heard prominently in the overture – is a welcome addition, and Sandra Marvin sings it movingly; I’m not sure the second act needs “Hey Feller” and “Ah Still Suits Me”, but Marvin and Kojo are so good that more time with them is welcome. The most famous numbers – “Only Make Believe”, “Old Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Bill” etc – are of course all present and correct, and “Why Do I Love You?”, thank God, is not uncomfortably handed off to the dour Parthy as a solo, as it was in the Livent production. Yes, a bigger orchestra would have been nice – but in a venue this size, that was never going to happen.

As for the thorniest issue regarding Show Boat’s script and score, this production treads a very careful line. In the opening chorus, “coloured folk” work on the Mississippi; the N-word is heard only as a term of abuse from the more bigoted white characters. In 2016, there’s no context for that word that isn’t shocking; here, it’s used sparingly, and for maximum impact.  The choice pays off in this production’s riveting account of the miscegenation scene; in it, the N-word goes off like a bomb, in a way that it possibly wouldn’t if you’d already heard it sung twenty times by the chorus in the opening number.

And while I do have some quibbles with the material this version of the show chooses to include/omit in the second act, they don’t diminish Daniel Evans’s great achievement here: in terms of pure entertainment, this is as fine a Show Boat as you could hope to see, even if it doesn’t have a huge chorus or a big string section. And not only is it a terrific production, the top-price ticket for the matinee I attended was £26 – between half and one-third of what you’d expect to pay these days for a big musical in the West End, and less than the cost of most tickets for musicals at the half-price booth in Leicester Square. It’s running another week and a half, and there are still a few tickets left. It’s still only January, but this is probably as good a musical revival as you’ll see all year.

 

For a friend, with thanks

 

My friend Bill died this morning. We’d never met face-to-face, but that doesn’t matter.

It’s a curious quirk of the modern world that it’s become possible for us “meet” people with similar interests through our computers, even across distances of thousands of miles. Bill and I first encountered each other on Usenet; I’m not precisely sure when, but it was more than fifteen years ago. I’m not precisely sure, either, why we started emailing each other – it possibly had to do with a shared aversion to the vocal stylings of Bernadette Peters – but I’m very glad we did.  He loved all forms of theatre, and particularly musicals, and so do I. We’re from different countries, but shared similar politics. We told each other jokes, shared photographs, made fun of bad grammar, talked about theatre and books and films and television and comedy. I introduced him to British comedian Victoria Wood, and he prodded me to start watching ‘Arrested Development’. I encouraged him to check out the Pet Shop Boys, he convinced me to get hold of a copy of Galt MacDermot’s musicalisation of ‘The Human Comedy’. Via Usenet, then via email, then via Facebook and (less often) Twitter, we began to make each other laugh, and we never really stopped. The fact that we’d never met was irrelevant; gradually, we became good friends.

I’m told he didn’t want a fuss, and he didn’t want people to mourn; since we never met “properly”, there’s a great deal, I’m sure, that we didn’t know about each other. Neither of us was (is) inclined to blurt every detail of our lives online – but still, we shared a great deal. The last few years were not kind to him; when he talked about his health, he did so with unfailing good humour, even though I know a lot of what he had to go through was difficult and painful and very unpleasant. I know, too, that he wasn’t done. There were a lot of things he still wanted to do, with moving back to Michigan, his home state, right at the top of the list, but sometimes life is incredibly unfair.

And, of course, the thing about friends is that we think, or we hope, that they will be around forever, so we don’t always thank them when we have the chance. I know Bill was grateful for his friends, both those he had met and those who, like me, he knew only via correspondance. I’m grateful too – for the depth and breadth of his knowledge, for his keen intelligence, for his kindness, for his incredibly finely-tuned bullshit detector, and above all for his spectacular sense of humour. Bill has made me laugh – consistently and often loudly, between several times a week and several times a day – for at least the last fifteen years. I’m careful, usually, to maintain some distance between my online life and my real life, but Bill was an important part of both, even though we lived thousands of miles apart. I can’t let him leave without saying thank-you.

 

 

 

Bend it like Beckham… or, how the hell are you going to make a musical out of THAT?

 

Bend it

Answer: surprisingly well, as it turns out – even if, like me, you couldn’t be less interested in football.

  • The film is extremely charming; this adaptation – like the film, driven by Gurinder Chadha, who wrote and directed the film and co-writes and directs the musical – stays relatively close to the source material, but finds a way to translate it into something theatrical, rather than simply dumping songs into the screenplay and putting it on a stage.
  • It’s much more a dance show than you might expect. Aletta Collins’s choreography finds a convincing theatrical language for the football sequences, and (in the second act) masterfully intertwines the football with a Sikh wedding dance. The movement is spectacular and often thrilling, although there is very little traditional musical theatre choreography.
  • Howard Goodall’s music is probably his best theatre score since ‘The Hired Man’. Along with his co-orchestrator, Kuljit Bhamra, he does a very clever job of blending English and Indian musical influences into a coherent theatrical language. The score is a beguiling mixture of Britain and Bhangra, and there’s even a 500-year-old traditional Punjabi wedding song thrown in halfway through the second act. It works, and it’s not quite like anything else you’ve heard in a musical.
  • Having said that, the ensemble sequences tend to be better than the solo numbers, a couple of which are, frankly, a bit wet.
  • The opening number – ‘UB2’, the postal area in which most of the show is set – is a real earworm. You’ll be humming it for days after you hear it.
  • Charles Hart’s conversational lyrics generally work well, although occasionally the appropriate language for these characters eludes him (an 18-year-old in 2001 simply would not talk about remembering something for “all my days”). ‘People Like Us’, in which a British-Indian father describes the casual racism he’s encountered throughout his life in the UK, is very moving indeed.
  • As Jess, the 18-year-old Sikh would-be footballer, Natalie Dew is absolutely charming, and she makes you forget Parminda Nagra’s performance in the film.
  • As Jess’s marriage-obsessed sister Pinky (the Archie Panjabi role in the film), Preeya Kalidas is simply brilliant. She’s the best singer in the cast, her comic timing is perfect, and she manages to find the warmth in a role that could very easily turn into a rather sour caricature.
  • Lovely work, too, from Lauren Samuels as Jules, Jess’s friend/rival on the football team, from Sophie-Louise Dann as Jules’s mother Paula (whose quietly sad Act Two song ‘There She Goes’ is the best of the score’s solo numbers), and from Jamal Andréas as Jess’s friend Tony.
  • You can see the ending coming a mile away, even more so than you could in the film, and it doesn’t matter at all.
  • Don’t come expecting a big spectacle along the lines of a ‘Miss Saigon’ or a ‘Phantom’, though. The set is effective, but relatively simple (I think the last time I saw periaktoids was in a regrettable mid-90s UK tour of ‘A Chorus Line’ in which the late Adam Faith was miscast as Zach). Chadha’s staging is admirably fluid, but it isn’t flashy.
  • While it isn’t flashy, though, it is great fun, and you might even have a lump in your throat by the final scene.
  • The souvenir stand in the theatre is asking £16 for a copy of the (terrific) cast recording. That’s just taking the piss.

Overall? It’s worth seeing. Yes, it could probably stand to lose about ten minutes, and yes, the second act is better than the first, but Chadha and her collaborators have taken a film that looked like a very unlikely prospect for adaptation to the musical stage and turned it into an absolutely irresistible stage show. It works beautifully, it’s very entertaining indeed, and it’s not quite like any other musical you’ll have seen.

If you want to see it, though, I wouldn’t hang around. It has a large cast, it’s in a small theatre, and big discounts are available, which means it isn’t selling especially well. It deserves to be a bigger hit, but it isn’t going to be around forever.