Is that a pink envelope down your underpants, or are you just pleased to see me?

 

There are people who’d probably have me shot for saying this: as much as I love the score, actually attending a production of The Threepenny Opera is not always particularly high on any list of things I’d like to do. Possibly that’s a result of having sat through rather too many po-faced classroom dissections of Brecht, or maybe it’s residual trauma from a University of Toronto School of Music production years ago which, while beautifully sung, took the ‘opera’ part of the title a little bit too seriously. It was performed on a set that could have doubled for a revival of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West,   and the director and cast approached the material with such humourless reverence that I think I aged five years during the three hours or so it took to sit through the show. The National Theatre‘s new revival, though, offers a “new adaptation” by Simon Shepherd, a spectacular cast, and the chance to hear the music presented in a way that closely resembles the original 1928 production, and Travelex tickets are very reasonable. And I’d forgotten, when I booked, how back-breakingly uncomfortable the seats in the Olivier can be.

Fortunately it was well worth the lower back pain. Translator/adapter Simon Stephens and director Rufus Norris both, thank God, understand that the material works best when it’s delivered with an underlying sense of fun, rather than as a straight-faced sit-up-and-eat-your-broccoli treatise on the corruption at the heart of so-called “civilised” society. This might be as close as you’ll get to Brecht-as-musical-comedy, but it works: Norris’s production is a gleefully nasty, funny/brutal ride through London’s underworld, and it’s tremendously entertaining.

It is not, though, quite pure, unadulterated Brecht and Weill. Stephens’s “new adaptation” isn’t exactly a top-down rewrite of the original, but it’s more than simply a loose (and very sweary) translation of the script. All the plot points you expect are present and correct; the biggest change is the addition of The Pink Envelope, a dossier of blackmail material on the future king which Macheath keeps in his underpants, which  (spoiler alert) becomes the means by which Polly secures Macheath’s release from prison in the final scene. It certainly works, and makes for a couple of amusing sight gags, and it means the ending, in this production, makes some kind of dramatic sense – but this change also subverts Brecht’s satirical point about the inherent ludicrousness of happy endings in a certain kind of popular entertainment. Purists might scream; I enjoyed it. There’s also, because there weren’t enough great numbers in this score already, the addition of Surabaya-Johnny as an extra number for Jenny Diver. Again, it works; whether it’s necessary is an entirely different question.

It does, though, give Sharon Small a bit more to do, and that’s always welcome. Her broken Glaswegian doll of a Jenny is this production’s beating heart, and she gives Jenny a compelling combination of ferocity and fragility. She doesn’t have the greatest singing voice in the cast (her single other musical credit, at least as listed in this production’s programme, is the Donmar’s revival of The Threepenny Opera twenty-odd years ago, in which she played Polly; I saw it and have the recording, and I’d somehow completely forgotten it was her), but she’s a formidable actress, and her Surabaya-Johnny is surprisingly moving.

If Sharon Small provides the production’s heart, Rosalie Craig’s Polly Peachum is undoubtedly its brain. Craig’s Polly is a seemingly straight-laced, bespectacled school swot with an inner core of pure steel. It goes without saying that her singing is glorious – her face-off with Debbie Kurup’s feisty, funny Lucy Brown in the Jealousy Duet is by far the production’s musical highlight, with her Pirate Jenny running it a very close second – but it’s a fascinating acting performance too; for once, a character who often seems like a cardboard cutout is rendered in three dimensions. This Polly knows she’s the cleverest person in the room; she’s simultaneously warmly engaging and icily dispassionate, and from the moment Craig tears into Pirate Jenny it’s clear we’re watching a truly formidable woman. And to cap it all, she can’t half time a comic belch.

The production’s comedic tone, on the other hand, is set by the wonderful Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as Polly’s lowlife parents. Gwynne’s Mrs. Peachum is an acid-tongued, perpetually hungover riot – all sharp edges and hard angles, like Olive Oyl painted by Otto Dix (her halter-necked long red dress is a direct replica of the dress worn in Dix’s Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber). Holder’s Peachum is even better – an effete, menacing, bisexual thug in Cuban heels, a sharp suit, and a Louise Brooks bob. They’re a splendid double-act – as unpleasant as they need to be, but at the same time truly funny.

There’s superb work, in fact, right across the ensemble. Everyone hits the right tone – sour, brutal, not remotely ingratiating, but with a comic edge – and everybody understands the piece’s Epic Theatre roots, but Norris, thank God, lets his company have fun with the material, and they do. Even the smallest role is perfectly cast, and there are memorable turns from Matt Cross as a perpetually-grinning policeman, George Ikediashi as a memorably velvet-voiced ballad singer (and the messenger in the final scene), and especially from Jamie Beddard as a hilariously foul-mouthed wheelchair-bound member of Macheath’s gang. The band, under the direction of David Shrubsole, offer a tight, tart rendition of Weill’s brilliant score. Norris’s staging, like Stephens’s adaptation of the text, might not be undiluted Epic Theatre, but it knows where the material comes from: this Threepenny Opera is sometimes spectacular but never pretty, and Norris and Imogen Knight, his choreographer, keep the action flowing seamlessly (and blessedly quickly) across Vicki Mortimer’s less-simple-than-it-looks set of frames, paper screens, and scenery-shop staircases.

Which leaves Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, the centre around which the rest of the production revolves. From his first entrance – from the flies aboard a silver crescent moon, ostentatiously dry-humping Rosalie Craig’s Polly – he’s certainly a commanding presence, although he never quite offers the kind of flamboyant star turn other actors have given in the role. Kinnear’s Macheath is a grim-faced, deadpan career killer – thoroughly ruthless, but he derives pride rather than joy from his work. In a production located far closer to the present day than to 1928 – we’re repeatedly told Macheath and Brown served together in Kandahar – that’s an interesting choice; there’s more than a touch of the career politician about him, and he’s as much a villain as a hero. Much has been written of Kinnear’s rediscovery of his long-dormant singing voice, apparently more or less unused since he sang in choirs as a teenager; he’s good, and he more than does the score justice, but he’s still an actor-who-sings, and in a few of the more demanding passages his lack of vocal security is obvious. He’s hardly the first actor-who-sings-a-bit to take on this role, though, and he’s certainly a better singer than Tom Hollander, who did it at the Donmar. Kinnear’s performance is, unusually, somewhat smaller than the bigger-than-life supporting turns surrounding him; it shouldn’t work, but it does, and his quietly chilling performance provides the anchor that stops the production from degenerating into an outsized Brechtian pantomime.

It could still do with losing about ten minutes, and if you need any kind of lower back support you should probably take Ibuprofen with you – really, those seats are painful – but you can’t have everything, and in more or less every other respect Norris’s production is hugely entertaining, even if you think you might be allergic to Brecht (I should admit at this point, since I haven’t already, that while I do love this score, I’m one of those people who prefers Weill’s American period). Messing around with a beloved classic is always a gamble, and usually ill-advised; in this case, Norris and Stephens’s alternative take on the material works triumphantly – though as I said, purists may throw their hands up in horror –  and you’ll go a long way before you hear a more exciting performance of this score.

Now, would it be too bourgeois of me to ask the National to make a cast album?

 

I wish…

itw wyp

 

If only the film had been as good as this. I’ve always loved the score of Into the Woods, but outside of the glorious original London production at the Phoenix, the show as a whole has never quite worked for me. It’s a terrific idea to take a selection of familiar fairy-tales, mix them up, and then spend the second act showing the consequences of everybody getting their wish at the end of Act One, but James Lapine’s book has always been problematic. The problem, simply, is one of tone: unless the second act gets really dark, the stakes do not seem high enough to support the climactic act of violence in the script, and it becomes a show about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a treacly, moralistic anthem as you move in for the kill, which probably isn’t quite the message the show’s authors intended. Unless you feel in the second act that the show’s characters are genuinely facing the apocalypse, the whole thing falls apart – but if you make the second act dark enough for the plot to make sense, the result (as at the Phoenix) is a show that’s too scary and upsetting for smaller children.

That given, director James Brining’s achievement in this dazzling, thrilling new production seems all the more remarkable. Taking his cue from the show’s finale, ‘Children Will Listen’, Brining’s masterstroke is to put children at the centre of his staging. Accordingly, instead of any kind of fairytale wood, this production opens in an infant school classroom (and ends in a post-apocalyptic hellscape), with children filing in to sit at their desks at the sound of the bell. The Narrator is the class teacher; at the end of the prologue, the kids line up, the Narrator hands them each a hi-vis vest, the classroom walls slide away, and the Narrator and the children set off on a field trip through the plot’s thicket of familiar and unfamiliar fairytales. At the end of Act One, with all the various fairytale characters having found whatever they wished for, the children end up back in the classroom, and the (surprisingly moving) final image of Act One is of the children dancing to the strains of ‘Ever After’ as the fairytale characters recede back into the woods.

This means, of course, that at the top of Act Two, the Giantess’s destruction – which, here, looks very much like a major earthquake – is visited upon a realistic classroom full of children as well as on the play’s various adult (or just-about-adult) characters, which considerably raises the stakes. The children are led back into the woods in search of safety along with everyone else, but when the Narrator disappears from the story halfway through the second act (in a coup-de-theatre nicked from/paying homage to Richard Jones’s original London production), they suddenly seem horribly vulnerable – which means the play’s ending makes a great deal more sense, because it’s far easier to rationalise that climactic act of violence when the safety of actual children, rather than just a prop baby, is at stake.

It helps, too, that the Giantess, in this production, isn’t simply an offstage voice; Rachael Canning’s puppet design – an outsized baby head and arms manipulated by three puppeteers – is supremely creepy, and the Giantess’s appearances are genuinely chilling. Throughout the show, Brining’s treatment of the fairytale setting tends towards the macabre, which again is the correct choice (the too-pretty, too-facile original Broadway production, which is available on DVD, is a sterling example of the pitfalls of making this show look too beautiful: it’s visually lovely, and the second act just doesn’t work on any level). At no time, here, are we in a literal wood. Instead, these woods are a strange landscape of swings, found objects, projected trees, and fragments of the school classroom. It’s an unsettling, disorientating environment (designed, along with the one-foot-in-the-real-world costumes, by Colin Richmond) in which anything can happen; by the climax of Act Two, it really does feel as if the characters (and the children) are facing the end of the world, and for the first time (that I’ve seen) since 1990, the show’s ending doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

Brining has also managed to elicit a superb set of performances from his ensemble cast, all of whom are drawn from Opera North’s chorus (the production, a collaboration between Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a side-project for the Leeds-based chorus, who are under-occupied while the company works through the Ring Cycle on tour). The singing is marvellous, of course, and so is the orchestra (somewhere backstage – the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre doesn’t have a pit – under the pitch-perfect direction of Jim Holmes), and Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics come across with admirable clarity; the acting, too, is excellent, to the point where it’s almost unfair to single anyone out for individual praise. That said, Claire Pascoe is a particularly memorable Witch whose ‘Last Midnight’ raises goose-pimples, and Gillene Butterfield (a lovely Julie Jordan in Opera North’s Carousel) is simply perfect as Cinderella. The children are adorable, Nicholas Butterfield makes an endearingly stuffy Narrator, and while the staging certainly gets very dark, everybody finds the laughs in the book and lyrics. It’s as good an Into the Woods as you could hope to see.

In fact, my only real complaint about this production is that I don’t have time to get back to Leeds to see it again. It’s to be hoped that Opera North will revive it at some point in the future, as they did with their Carousel; Brining’s endlessly inventive staging here surpasses even his extraordinary modern(ish)-dress Sweeney Todd three years ago, and it deserves a wider audience.

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes To Sheffield

 

flowers for mrs harris

 

This is something very special. ‘Flowers for Mrs. Harris’ is a new musical by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, based on a novel by Paul Gallico. Gallico’s Mrs. Harris is a widowed cleaning-lady in postwar London who sees a Dior dress hanging in the bedroom of one of her wealthy clients and is so struck by its beauty that she embarks on a quest to buy one for herself, in the process bringing about profound changes both in her own life and in the lives of the people she encounters on her journey to Paris. The novel is slight but charming; in 1992 it was made into a slight but less-than-charming TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, and you’d never guess from either that the property could be transformed into a musical that is as moving as anything I’ve seen in – well, let’s say the last twenty years.

What Taylor and Wagstaff have done is quite simple, although Taylor’s (often very beautiful) music is anything but: between them, they’ve done an extraordinarily good job of making you see the world through their heroine’s eyes, and feel everything she feels. Taylor’s score is through-composed (in the operatic sense; the show has a fair amount of spoken dialogue, though more in the second act than the first), with few extractable songs, and you aren’t going to come out of the theatre humming the show’s big hit – but while the music is certainly complex, it somehow also manages to go straight for the heartstrings. Taylor and Wagstaff find something profoundly moving in this rather odd story about a woman whose life is unexpectedly transformed by an encounter with an expensive dress, and they’ve spun from it a musical of considerable, surprising power.

There’s something almost miraculous, too, about Clare Burt’s performance in the title role. She’s nothing like Angela Lansbury in the film, thank God – much as I love Lansbury, playing working-class characters who are not music-hall caricatures is not her greatest strength, and every note of her performance in the film rings false. Burt, by contrast, is absolutely compelling. Mrs. Harris’s Road to Damascus moment when she first sees the dress ten minutes into Act One (cleverly suggested by Mark Henderson’s endlessly subtle lighting, you don’t see an actual Dior dress until a third of the way into Act Two) could easily seem ridiculous or comical, but in Burt’s performance it’s neither (in the film, that scene doesn’t work at all). It’s a surprisingly moving, surprisingly emotional moment, as is the parade of dresses when Mrs. Harris finally gets to the Dior boutique in Paris. As someone who is usually completely uninterested in clothes (I mean, I wear them, obviously, but I didn’t even pay much attention to fashion when I was a teenager, and I haven’t been a teenager for a very long time now), I would never have expected a fashion show to move me to the brink of tears, but Mrs. Harris is enraptured by the moment, and because she is, so are we. It goes without saying, of course, that Burt’s singing is superb, but this is as remarkable an acting performance as you’re likely to see in a musical this year. It’s not a great big grandstanding star turn along the lines of Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – it’s simply a quietly luminous portrayal of an ordinary woman who is transformed by an encounter with something she finds beautiful. Burt, along with the writers, treads a very careful line – the material is unabashedly sentimental, and in the wrong hands the whole show could easily turn to treacle – and their softly-softly, subtle approach pays huge dividends.

Elsewhere, the cast includes a selection of musical theatre’s best and brightest performers, all working at the top of their game (and all playing more than one role). Mark Meadows is a joy as the late Mr. Harris (act one) and a kindly Marquis who befriends Mrs. Harris in Paris, and then there are glorious turns from Anna-Jane Casey (Mrs. Harris’s friend/neighbour Violet, and a French charlady), Rebecca Caine (the owner of the dress Mrs. Harris sees in London, and the vendeuse in the Dior boutique in Paris), Laura Pitt-Pulford (a self-centred actress in London, and a kind-hearted model in Paris), Nicola Sloane (a countess in London, Dior’s seamstress in Paris), and Louis Maskell (one of Mrs. Harris’s clients in London, Dior’s accountant in Paris). Director Daniel Evans, in his swan-song at the Sheffield Crucible, does a fine job of keeping the plot moving while making sure the show has just the right amount of sweetness, Lez Brotherston’s set makes a great deal out of relatively little – London and Paris backdrops (Battersea Power Station and the Eiffel Tower figure prominently), a staircase, a few pieces of furniture, Mrs. Harris’s tiny kitchen  – and the finale, in which the Crucible’s turntable brings the show’s title to literal, glorious life, is a wonder to behold.

The show is that rare thing: an exquisitely-constructed entertainment that builds on its source material rather than dumbing it down (if you want a dumbed-down version of this story, you can always watch the Lansbury TV movie, which craps all over the novel from a very great height and rips the ending to shreds. Don’t say I didn’t warn you), and the whole, with this cast, is even greater than the sum of the parts. Apart from the remarkably self-absorbed “lady” sitting behind me who seemed unable to keep her mouth shut while the house lights were down – and that, sadly, is becoming par for the course when you go to the theatre these days – this is just about as perfect a theatrical experience as you could ever hope for. The cast, at the curtain call, clearly knew how special this show is. It’s sublime, and there simply aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice.

Whether it would be a hit in the West End is another question. This is, as I said, as good a new British musical as there has been in quite a while – beautiful score, literate book, perfect design and direction, stunning central performance, flawless supporting cast – and the run is just two and a half weeks, finishing tomorrow (and yes, if I had the time, I’d go back and see it again). It deserves to be remounted somewhere else, and it deserves to be recorded, because writing and performances as good as we have here ought to be preserved. In an ideal world, for a show as good as this, people would be storming the box office in a rush to get tickets… but this isn’t an ideal world, and about a third of the seats were empty at the performance I saw, and this isn’t the kind of show where you can rope in the punters by casting a couple of has-been X-Factor runners-up in bit parts. Unfortunately, that’s showbiz.

 

 

Meatballs and glitter

 

Are you excited? I can tell you’re excited. I’m excited… or maybe that’s just the two cups of stronger-than-death coffee I had this afternoon. YES, it’s Eurovision time. Again. Whoopee.

As ever, I am not watching this live, because the only way to get through this experience without slamming my head repeatedly into a lamppost is to reserve the right to resort to the fast-forward button. Also, I didn’t watch the semi-finals because there’s enough suffering in the world already. And finally, while I know this might be considered foolhardy, I am watching this stone-cold sober, although I do have paracetamol on hand and it’s a clear run from where I’m sitting to the bathroom.

While I am not watching this live, though, I have managed to remain completely spoiler-free. I mean, it’s safe to say that there’ll be glitter, fireworks, off-pitch screlting, and an almost transcendent absence of taste, but apart from that I’m in the dark. I haven’t even heard this year’s UK entry all the way through yet. It’s going to be a lovely surprise.

ANYway. So. We’re in Stockholm, because Sweden won last year. I have no memory of anything about last year’s winning entry, beyond that the staging involved the (bland) singer interacting with animated stick figures.The techno-ish music behind the opening procession of flags is loud enough that it almost drowns out Graham Norton. Boo. No actual flags this year – just projections onto a rear screen and a lot of people wearing bizarre paper costumes, accompanied by the kind of light show that makes a nuclear detonation look subtle and restrained.

Actually, the paper costumes are sort of fabulous, in a they-must-have-been-stoned-when-they-thought-of-this kind of way. Also, many, many nude bodysuits. It’s going to be that kind of evening.

And now it’s time to meet the hosts: last year’s winner, Mans Zelmerlow, who I still don’t remember even though I’m looking at him RIGHT NOW, and the faaaaaaaabulous Petra Mede, whose Swedish Smorgasbord interval number the last time Eurovision was hosted in Sweden is the best thing this show has seen since… well, since 1974. And we all know what happened at Eurovision in 1974, don’t we? They’re funny and charming, and you have to have watched a few of these to know how remarkable that is in this context.

Mr. Norton is explaining this year’s new voting process, which is quite complicated. I’d listen, but I don’t actually give a flying crap about the voting – except that the new formula apparently means it’s unlikely anyone will end up with nul points, which is a shame.

As usual, the contest kicks off with the presenters saying “May the best song win!” What the hell, there’s always a first time.

(I mean, since 1974.)

The theme this year is ‘come together’. Does everyone have tissues ready? Good. Let’s begin.

1. Belgium. Laura Tesoro, ‘What’s the Pressure’ (with no question mark. Three lyricists, but no question mark).

It starts off with an intro that sounds like a blatant rip-off of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, and morphs into a slab of aimiably upbeat, slightly old-fashioned pop. I’ve no idea what the lyrics are about, but she’s clearly having a great time, and so are her backing singers. And it looks like silver hot pants are back this year, which is lovely. Good but not great voice, good but not great song, fun performance. She’s very young and very enthusiastic, and this isn’t bombastic enough to win.

2. The Czech Republic, in the Grand Final for the first time ever. Gabriela Guncikova, ‘I Stand’.

Mournful piano ballad, and she’s singing about the monsters in her head as the stage lights up in fuchsia pink underneath her. It’s terribly melodramatic and meaningful – or it might be meaningful if the sound system wasn’t obliterating half the lyrics – and she’s got a great voice. The song, though, is tedious Euro-sludge.

Oh. Now she’s shreiking and they’ve turned on the wind machine. Apparently nobody has ever won performing in the second slot in the running order. This isn’t going to change that statistic.

3. The Netherlands. Douwe Bob, ‘Slow Down’.

Gosh. They’re singing on a giant clock. I can’t imagine what this song is about, can you? Douwe Bob apparently never mastered the fine art of singing with your eyes open, and he has a very large tattoo of something at the base of his neck, with his shirt buttoned up just far enough that we can’t see what it is. The song is pleasant enough hipsterish country-and-western, the band’s grins are all slightly unnatural… and in the middle he stops for ten whole seconds and mouths ‘I love you’ – or maybe ‘please die soon’ – at the camera, which is quite creepy. He’s so confident of his chances, we’re told, that he’s placed a large-ish bet that he’ll win. Say bye-bye to your money, Bob, this is not your year.

4. Azerbaijan (don’t mention human rights). Samra, ‘Miracle’.

Lyrics about burning fire, sequinned nude jump suit, and apparently it’s going to take a miracle for her country’s regime to stop imprisoning people without trial. She can sing, and this is pleasant, inoffensive, unmemorable pop, and I suppose she isn’t responsible for the fact that her country is run by some truly awful people. There are fireworks, of course – if you don’t vote for her, her dancers will come round and barbecue your goolies.

5. Hungary. Freddie, ‘Pioneer’.

Freddie seems to have sandpapered his vocal cords daily since about 1997. He has a Tibetan monk onstage with him, and three Gap-clad male backing singers. Once again, you can’t hear the lyrics at all, although the title suggests he’s singing in English. It’s bonkers, but not bonkers enough. Fast-forward time.

6. Italy. Francesca Michielin, ‘No Degree of Separation’

She’s very pretty, and has a very pretty voice… and the staging has her standing on an island in the middle of a (projected) pool, making lots of overwrought hand gestures as if she was delivering the keynote at a political rally. She’s singing in Italian, despite the title, so I’ve no idea what she’s singing about; given the pool and the big projected tree behind her, it possibly has something to do with nature, or possibly the director was on painkillers. Lots and lots and lots of painkillers.

7. Israel. Hovi Star, ‘Made of Stars’.

Mr. Star looks like the love child of Marc Almond and Alan Cumming. It’s another Terribly Meaningful piano ballad, and two acrobats are circling the stage in a spinning hoop behind him. There’s a full-on power ballad climax worthy of Céline Dion, except he doesn’t have Céline’s voice. It’s all very sincere, and he does hit all the notes dead on, but the song itself, even by Eurovision standards, is Not Very Good.

8. Bulgaria. Poli Genova, ‘If Love Was A Crime’. This performance, we are told, contains flashing images and strobe effects. You have been warned.

She’s wearing all the eye makeup in Bulgaria, plus polystyrene earrings, and it’s another slab of European dance pop – rather a good one, actually. Fun, catchy, completely disposable, and it says a great deal for Ms. Genova that she holds your attention against the ridiculous lighting effects.

Oh. Her shoulder-pads and knees light up on the final chorus.

9. Sweden, our hosts. Frans, ‘If I Were Sorry’.

Also known as the please-don’t-make-us-pay-for-this-next-year entry. He’s bland, his song is bland, his outfit is bland, his voice is lousy, and he has slightly less charisma than a plate of meatballs in the cafeteria at IKEA. I lasted forty seconds. Moving on.

“What can we say?”, asks Petra as the Swedish contestant leaves the stage. How about, “thank Christ that’s over”?

10. Germany.  Jamie-Lee, ‘Ghost’.

Jamie-Lee sounds a bit like Bjork, if Bjork didn’t have a personality and actually sang in tune, and she seems to have come dressed as some nightmare cross between Hello Kitty and the contents of a Cath Kidston shop, complete with tinsel deely boppers. Weirdly Tim Burton-esque projections around her, as if they just decided to make the entire performance look as strange as possible because they knew the song wasn’t very good.  Sadly, while her performance is completely ridiculous, it lacks the great unifying stupidity of the best Eurovision kitsch-fests.

11. France. Amir, J’ai Cherché

Standard-issue Francophone chart pop with a ridiculously catchy hook in the chorus. He grins a lot, the light show is completely loopy, and he’s obviously having the time of his life. It’s fun – for once, for the right reasons.

He’s a dentist, apparently. That might be why he grins a lot. He can use this as an ad clip if his pop career goes down the dumper next week.

12. Poland. Michal Szpak, ‘Color Of Your Life’.

Sorry, anyone using the American spelling of ‘colour’ in Eurovision, in which the US does not participate, should automatically receive nul points and be sent to bed without dessert. His song is very, very anguished, his red tailcoat has more charisma than he does, and Bernadette Peters would like her hair back. Moving swifly on.

Don’t worry, says Petra. We still have fourteen songs to go. Yay.

Mans is in the stadium next door with two past Swedish winners and 10,000 tanked-up fans. Past Swedish Winner #2, Loreen (not Soreen, Loreen), is dressed entirely in black, as if she’s attending a drunken wake for music… which she more or less is.

13. Australia… which is not in Europe.  Dami Im, ‘Sound of Silence’. No, not THAT Sound of Silence.

There are no sequins left in Australia, they’re all on Ms. Im’s dress. She has a hell of a voice, it’s a great big thumping power ballad, and for some reason known only to her and her director she’s sitting four feet above the stage on a big glittery black box. Her song isn’t bad, but it’s not as interesting as her bionic glitter hand. The light show is insane, and probably visible from space.

14. Cyprus. Alter Ego, ‘Minus One’. Again, a (redundant) warning about strobe lights.

Killers-esque stadium rock, with everyone except the lead singer locked up in cages. It’s catchy, although the singer is a bit pitch-approximate, and it’s a welcome relief from the steady stream of power ballads and Eurodisco stompers we’ve heard so far this evening. It’s compentent enough, although the lead singer’s tattoos have more attitude than he does, and it doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning. In the middle of the song he tries howling like a wolf, which is a hell of a lot funnier than he thinks it is. Never mind.

15. Serbia. Zaa Sanja Vucic, ‘Goodbye (Shelter)’

A serious song about domestic abuse and violence, according to Mr. Norton.Stressed-metal voice, black rubber dress with tassels in all kinds of unlikely places, bearded male backing dancer wearing a black skirt and a see-through black T-shirt, and unfortunately the worst song of the evening so far. It isn’t even entertainingly strange. It’s just plain bad. Taxi for Ms. Vucic, please.

16. Lithuania. Donny Montell, ‘I’ve Been Waiting For This Night’. Haven’t we all?

Another song with a drippy verse leading into an overwrought chorus, but it’s not bad, and he can sing. Shame he can’t open his eyes at the same time because he looks constipated, even as he does a somersault off a trampoline in the middle of the song.

17. Croatia. Nina Kraljic, ‘Lighthouse’.

Ms. Kraljic seems to be wearing an architect’s model of the tent-like main terminal at Denver Airport, or perhaps something you’d throw over your car to protect it from bad weather. It’s got helpful grip-handles on each shoulder, hopefully so someone can yank her offstage when her song gets too unbearable, which will be in about fifteen seconds. Oh no, they just removed her top layer of clothing. She’s still there, and now she’s wearing a recycled skyscraper with tassels. Her clothes, unfortunately, are far more interesting than her song or her voice. She seems to have only the most tenuous relationship with whatever note she’s supposed to be singing, and her demeanour rather strongly suggests that she isn’t entirely convinced by her own act. The only way to get away with this kind of full-on batshit-insane Eurovision staging, I’m afraid, is to commit to it completely, and do it with a completely straight face. Adios, Nina, it’s been real.

18. Russia. The favourite, apparently. Sergey Lazarev, ‘You Are The Only One’.

It’d be fun if the gayest international TV event on the planet took place in Russia next year, wouldn’t it, given that Mr. Putin has enacted some of the most repressive anti-gay legislation on the books anywhere outside of Uganda. Like last year’s winner, Mr. Lazarev performs interacting with projected images on a screen. It’s cleverly directed and choreographed, the song is a decent-enough chunk of 6/8 Eurodisco, and the staging in the middle of the song, where he appears to climb up projected images on the screen behind him, is undeniably spectacular, and the best we’ve seen so far, albeit blatantly ripped off from Mans Zelmerlow’s ‘Heroes’ last year. The song isn’t the best we’ve heard so far, but the best song almost never wins. Well, apart from that one time in 1974.

(The wall is apparently set up at a slight angle and covered with rubber, which is how he climbed up it. Now you know.)

19. Spain. Y viva Espana. Barei, ‘Say Yay!’

OK, Barei. Yay.
Barei is wearing a thigh-length chainmail wifebeater, or maybe a minidress, and a lot of bracelets, and we’re back in Eurodisco-land.Better song than the last one, I think, but the staging isn’t anywhere near as inventive. She has a great pop voice, and this is great fun, but this competition – yes, despite the title – isn’t just about the song. The crowd loves it, though.

Petra reminds us that we’re watching Eurovision, and informs us that the CD of this year’s entries is available for us all to take home and treasure forever, along with a Eurovision straitjacket. Your bonus question for this evening: which of this year’s contestants already owns one, but managed to chew through the straps?

20. Latvia. Justs, ‘Heartbeat’.

Justs is apparently intending to open an ‘alternative music school’ at some point in the future, so obviously it’s time to abandon all hope. It starts off sounding like an odd cross between A-ha and mid-80s Depeche Mode. He has a great voice, but the song meanders a bit, and the mean-and-moody posturing seems as calculated as his designer leather jacket and carefully-ripped black drainpipe jeans. He’s certainly throwing himself into it, though, and a team of stagehands have just been sent to scrape his tonsils off the back wall of the arena.

21. Ukraine. Jamala, ‘1944’. No political content there, then.

Sincere, compelling, oddly moving performance of a song that is obviously very deeply personal to her (she wrote it herself). If only the song itself was better. It’s an arresting statement, though, and it does get better when the full orchestra kicks in towards the end. It’s apaprently about Stalin’s deportation of Tartars – including Jamala’s great-grandmother – from the Crimea in 1944. The middle 8 is basically just Jamala keening in 4/4 time. It’s on an entirely different plane to everything else so far, and it gets a surprisingly emotional response from the crowd.

(Eurovision entries are supposed, in theory, to be apolitical, and this one is right on the line. It got by because the lyrics apparently deal exclusively in verifiable historical fact – though of course, given that it’s about Russians driving Ukrainians out of Crimea, it doesn’t take a genius to apply a more contemporary interpretation.)

22. Malta. Ira Losco, ‘Walk on Water’.

She’s pregnant. Aww. First we see her projected face singing out of the stage floor… and that’s the most interesting thing in her performance. Nice sequinned gold dress, nice dancer behind her, nice enough song, nice voice, and nice doesn’t win this competition. Never mind, Ms. Losco, the cruise-ship circuit is beckoning.

23. Georgia. Nika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz, ‘Midnight Gold’. Contains prolonged strobe lighting effects, we are told, so have a cushion ready if you need to take cover. Duly noted.

Are you ready to RAWK? Of course you aren’t, this is Eurovision. Never mind. One of their guitarists obviously really wants to be in Oasis, or he thinks he’s going to a fancy dress party as Liam Gallagher. The lighting effects amount to a declaration of war, the song isn’t very good, and the feeling that it’s a welcome change of pace from the stream of power ballads and disco anthems we’ve been hearing all night only lasts until about halfway through the first verse.

24. Austria. Zoe, ‘Loin d’ici’

She’s very pretty. Her song is very pretty. Her dress is very pretty.Poppies grow on the screen behind her every time she raises her hands, she seems to be singing from the middle of a projected Yellow Brick Road, it’s surprisingly danceable, and it has a catchy chorus. She has a nice voice, too. It’s absolutely charming, and probably better than whatever is going to win, which won’t be this.

25. Royaume-Uni. Joe and Jake, ‘You’re Not Alone’.

Yes, they look a bit like a cross between Jedward and Ant and Dec. In an evening full of songs with catchy hooks, this is one of the catchiest. It’s a great big endearing slice of guitar-led summer pop, and they sing it really well, although there are better voices in the competition this evening. It’s the best thing we’ve entered in about a decade and a half, and one of the few recent UK entries that doesn’t make you want to hide behind the sofa. Joe and Jake – no I don’t know which is which – give it their all, and it gets a good response from the crowd.

26. The last one. Armenia. Iveta Mukuchyan, ‘Lovewave’.

It starts with her muttering into the microphone, and it’s never a great sign when the wind machine has been switched on before the song begins. She’s wearing a few twist ties and a long black cape, and it’s all very overwrought. We’re on planet rock rather than planet disco, and it’s quite a finale. She has a spectacular voice; it’s a shame the song itself isn’t better.

So that’s it. Surprisingly little OMGWTF this year. Mans and Petra are back to introduce a short bonus scene from ITV’s un-hilarious sitcom ‘Vicious’. I hope Mr. Jacobi and Mr. McKellen got paid a LOT of money for this. Again, we’re told about the new voting system; it’s still a relatively recent innovation that the lines don’t open until after all the acts have performed, which should probably tell you everything you need to know about the integrity of the voting process, which I’ll mostly be fast-forwarding through, because really, do I need to spend an hour and a quarter watching that?

The lines are open. Or were, I’m watching on catchup so I don’t need the 26-song recap of all the acts we’ve seen. Fast-forward time.

And now we have a special guest appearance from that well-known European icon, Justin Timberlake, who is here on the comeback trail chasing the show’s enormous global audience in order to flog his latest putrid heap of decaying shit new single.He almost sounds sincere when he says he wanted to perform at Eurovision. Almost. It’s particularly wince-inducing watching him condescend to this evening’s contestants – all of whom, even Mr. Boring from Sweden, sing better than he does – about how well they did. There’s just never a giant anvil hanging precariously from a fraying rope when you need one, is there?

And now buckle up,says Petra, because we’re heading back to 1974 to begin a survey of Swedish pop music since the dawn of time. Hello, Abba. And also Bjorn Skifs, Tommy Korberg, Roxette, and Neneh Cherry, with a whole second and a half of ‘Gold Can Turn To Sand’ from ‘Kristina fran Duvemala’ thrown in for good measure.Fun, though it’s a pity Robyn isn’t represented by ‘Konichiwa Bitches’. Sadly, our tour of unforgettable moments in Swedish musical history did not include Petra Mede’s Swedish Smorgasbord. Swiz.

And heeeeere’s Mr. Timberlake, who I’ve been really looking forward to not watching this evening. I gave him a minute, and that’s generous. It’s like a Superbowl half-time show, only crap.

Another recap. Fast-forward time. And now the winner of last year’s Junior Eurovision – Destiny, from Malta. She’s sweet. And the lines are still open to vote… unless you were too chickenshit to watch this three-and-a-half-hour glittergasm live, like I was.

And now Petra and Mans are trying to find a common thread between all the previous winners. Cue a gloriously over-the-top production number ripping to shreds every single common Eurovision performance trope. It’s smart, sly, funny, and Petra and Mans find just the right not-quite-winking-at-the-audience tone. Of course it’s the best thing we’ve seen all evening. It even includes special appearances from Lordi lookalikes,  a gaggle of Russian-looking grandmas and a man running in a hamster wheel. It ends with all the fireworks in Sweden, and the audience goes wild.

Unfortunately, Sarah Dawn Finer’s Lynda Woodruff isn’t as funny as she thinks she is. Just like last time. Her appearance is mercifully brief. The magnificently deadpan documentary film – Nerd Nation – about Sweden’s obsession with Eurovision is better (guess what the ‘esc’ key on Swedish computers stands for?), but it goes on a little bit too long, presumably in order to give Mans time to make a costume change and get to the main stage.

45 seconds until the votes close and I can start fast-forwarding a lot. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, finito. Buh-bye. Just time for a quick number from Mans before we get into the points. He and his dancers are performing on hoverboards. Well, they don’t actually hover, but that’s what the kids seem to call them. I hope someone checked all the batteries. In THIS show, if something exploded, nobody would notice. Mans, of course, is a better singer than Justin Timberlake (really, who isn’t?). His first number segues into a reprise of his winning entry from last year, ‘Heroes’, and this is better than a lot of what we’ve seen this evening, partly because he’s won already so he can just have fun with it.

And we’re into the results. FINALLY. Good evening Europe, hello Stockholm, blah blah blah. The Austrian lady appears to be wearing something by Clarice Cliff. Why?

Petra gets special regards from the Icelandic representative’s dog. Nice. Iceland gives the Netherlands 12 points, because presumably their antidepressants haven’t kicked in yet.

San Marino’s points are announced by a very, very white rapper. I mean whiter than Justin Timberlake. Whiter than John Major. Whiter than fresh snow before a dog pees on it. He’s so white, he could be the ‘after’ in a toothpaste ad. Yikes.

So far each country is only announcing their 12-point awards, and everything else is being added to the points table automatically. They should have done this years ago.

Malta gives us 12 points. Whoopee. At this point, the voting is all over the place, with no clear winner. Fast forward time.

Cyprus gives 12 points to Russia. I’m sure we’re all shocked.

Quick tip to the green room, because we’re milking it this evening. Australia are in the lead at the moment, because Europe. Ukraine in second place, and she sings the chorus of Mans’s winning song from last year back to him, which is rather sweet. She’s nervous, she’s charming. What would it mean for her to win Eurovision? A giant one-finger salute to Russia, but that’s not the answer she gives (“It would mean Europe understands me.”).

Norway’s points are presented by a Bobbysock. Let it swing. Ooh, 1985 flashback.

And I fast-forwarded to the end of the jury points because the tension was just too much to bear. Or something. Australia is first, followed by Ukraine and France. Public vote still to come, as Petra reminds us. Whoop-de-frigging-doo.

OK. Public vote time. The Czech Republic got nul points from the public – deservedly – and we’re second from the bottom. Someone at the BBC is very, very happy – we don’t have to pay to host the show next year, so that’s another kind of win for us. We’re still going to end up near the bottom of the pile. Meanwhile, there’s an enormous gulf between the jury vote and the popular vote, which means the voting process, for once, is a bit interesting – at least if you fast-forwarded through half the last hour. Austria, for example, scored big with the public but not with the juries. Sweden also did inexplicably well in the public vote. That’s bizarre and slightly scary. And Poland got dick-all from the juries and are in the top four with the public. People obviously really loved his long red tailcoat, or maybe his constipated grimacing just scared them. Unlike the way the votes used to get announced, this is actually fun to watch.

Aaaand the winner is… wow. Russia won the public vote, but not the juries, leaving him in third place. Ukraine wins. Yes, UKRAINE. Jamala is heading back to the stage, armed with three light-up bracelets and a Ukrainian flag. I kraine, you kraine, he kraines, we kraine, you kraine, they kraine… we all kraine. She really wants peace and love for everyone, which is nice. For once, something sincere and heartfelt won. It wasn’t the best song, and I don’t need to hear it again, but it’s interesting. This is not the way this contest usually goes.

So… overall, disappointingly subdued – an odd thing to say about an evening whose light show resembles Armageddon with a larger budget and less restraint, but this is Eurovision – and the absence of any novelty acts in national costume performing with strange props is disappointing. Petra and Mans’s interval act was inspired, Sweden put on a terrific show, and the new method of tabling the results led to a surprisingly tense finish. As for the winner, next year should be quite special. I hear spring in Kiev is lovely, and let’s all pray the 2017 Russian entry doesn’t involve tanks.

Here’s Jamala:

 

 

 

 

“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 noirish 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.