Pay the band, you tightwads!

We’re now less than 100 days from the beginning of the rapture 2012 London Olympics, which of course means that it’s time for our island nation, and LOCOG in particular, to start abandoning any pretence of sanity. This way, we get to give ourselves a gentle warm-up for the opening ceremony, during which we are presumably collectively expected to lose it completely. The official merchandising stand  – which has now appeared nationwide in branches of John Lewis, who usually have more sense – offers ample visual evidence that the 2012 Olympics already got a divorce from any concept of taste or restraint:

Clearly, this divorce was not amicable. That’s Wenlock, the mascot for the summer games, rendered as two different kinds of cuddly toy, both of which look like an unsightly cross between a Dalek, a Cyclops, and some kind of personal stimulation device. It’s lovely to see us choose such dignified imagery as the vehicle via which we sell ourselves to the rest of the world.

It’s not entirely surprising that at this stage, under the surface, some aspects of the event’s organisation are beginning to smell a little. Take, for example, the engagement of musicians for the various park events during the games. There’s a growing suspicion that LOCOG have adopted a policy of not paying professional musicians who are hired to perform during the games. Apparently, the honour of being asked to participate should be payment enough, for musicians at least. Presumably LOCOG are under the boneheaded impression that professional musicians don’t have mortgages, rent, car payments, gas and electricity bills and all the rest of it. The Musicians’ Union is now investigating.

Now, OK, I’m not a professional musician, and nor do I play one on television. But this still strikes me as being a peculiarly obnoxious decision for LOCOG to have taken, particularly in the context of the huge amounts of money that are being lavished on staging the games. Presumably the technicians will be paid – the cameramen, the stagehands, the cleaners and groundsmen and ticket staff and all the rest would not, naturally, be expected to work without pay – and yet the musicians, who are also skilled professionals with bills to pay, are expected to sing for no supper. Sorry, that’s indefensible, particularly given that Heritage Lottery Fund money has already been diverted to the games.

Here’s the thing: despite the hideous logo, the outrageous cost, the problems processing ticket sales and all the rest of it, I want the games to succeed, even though I’m not remotely a sports fan and won’t be attending any of the events myself (or, probably, even watching on television apart from the opening and closing ceremonies). It’s a huge event, and people all over the world will be watching. But it’s because the whole world will be watching that we need to pay attention to how the way the proceedings have been organised will be perceived elsewhere in the world. Leaving aside the fact that professional musicians are as much entitled to be paid for their services as anybody else, adopting a policy of not paying professional musicians to perform at the Olympics just makes us look cheap, particularly given that the amount of money involved is a drop in the ocean in terms of the games’ overall budget. It’s a choice that certainly does not make me proud to be British, or English, or in any way associated via citizenship or geography with the 2012 games; the adoption of this shameful policy does Lord Coe and the rest of LOCOG’s board no credit at all. It’s the nastiest kind of penny-pinching, and it diminishes and demeans the whole event. We’re known, as a nation, to be proud of our artists, their tremendous heritage, and the enormous contribution they make to our society. By refusing to pay professional musicians at Olympic events, LOCOG is simply broadcasting to the world that art, in 2012, is not something that has any value at all to this country’s establishment, and that’s not a message we should be giving the rest of the world as we prepare to host the biggest international event this country has seen in at least half a century.

So, LOCOG – just pay the damn band, OK?

Get hep! Get hep! Get a REALLY big band!

The orchestra pit ate the first five rows of the stalls, and it contains a grand piano, along with eight viola players, five saxophonists, twenty-two violinists, four trumpeters, three trombonists, and a whole crowd of others adding up to a grand total of sixty-seven musicians. In 2012, at a musical comedy, this is not business as usual. And those musicians aren’t just any musicians: this pit band is the Hallé, a Manchester-based symphony orchestra that has been performing since 1858, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.

I repeat: this is the pit band.

The occasion is a rare collaboration between the Hallé and the Royal Exchange Theatre: a fully-staged production of Wonderful Town, directed by Braham Murray, one of the Exchange’s founding artistic directors, with the Hallé – all of them – as the pit band. Because all of those musicians wouldn’t fit in the Exchange’s own theatre (a glass-and-steel theatre-in-the-round, somewhat resembling the Apollo Lunar Module, that’s suspended from the supporting pillars of the former commodities exchange trading floor in the Royal Exchange building in Manchester city centre), the show is being staged in the Lyric Theatre at The Lowry. It’s apparently taken about five years for a window to open up in which all three organisations had a gap in their schedule at the same time.

It’s been worth the wait: this Wonderful Town is, well, wonderful. Last revived in Britain twenty-six years ago (in a production starring the great Maureen Lipman, whose performance in it is one of my happiest teenage theatregoing memories), Wonderful Town is possibly the quintessential golden-era New York musical comedy. Based on My Sister Eileen, a play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov that is itself based on a collection of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney, Wonderful Town’s loose plot follows the adventures of two wide-eyed sisters, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood (lightly fictionalised versions of McKenney and her own sister Eileen), who move from Columbus, Ohio to Greenwich Village, hoping to make it big in New York City. On paper, it looks as if it’s going to be a piece of inconsequential fluff, but the show has a smart, funny book by Chodorov and Fields, and smarter, funnier, lightly satirical lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, topped off with what is possibly Leonard Bernstein‘s fizziest, most beguiling music.

And it’s the music that’s the most important thing here. Under Elder’s direction, the Hallé sound absolutely terrific; they really swing, capturing all of the heat and the sweetness in Bernstein, Comden and Green’s glorious score. This is possibly the most luxurious pit band you’ll ever hear, and it’s an absolute privilege to spend an afternoon in their company (tellingly, the theatre didn’t begin to empty until after they’d finished playing the exit music). Happily, they’re matched nearly every step of the way by Braham Murray’s production, which sets the show in a vibrant, dizzyingly colourful world of forced-perspective skyscrapers and tenement fronts (the evocative sets and costumes are by Simon Higlett; there’s even a model subway train that crosses the stage on a bridge). Murray isn’t Britain’s most experienced director of musicals, but he’s a peerless director of comedy, and he’s rarely done better work than he offers here;  if the transitions between dialogue and song occasionally seem a little forced, that’s probably at least partly the result of the piecemeal way in which the show was written (Bernstein, Comden and Green wrote the score in about four weeks around a book that had already been written, to replace an already-written score by Leroy Anderson and Arthur B. Horwitt, who quit the production five weeks before rehearsals were due to begin). Wonderful Town is not a musical drama like, say, West Side Story; it’s a confection, a slight charm piece, and it depends on perfectly-pitched performances from both the stars and the ensemble, and on a director who can land the frothy, slightly underwritten love story at the centre of the book while maintaining the piece’s comic momentum. While the music and the band are undoubtedly this production’s biggest attraction, Murray’s greatest achievement here is that the spectacular band in the pit does not overwhelm the rest of the show.

It helps, of course, that this Wonderful Town has a wonderful ensemble cast. Every performance is impeccable, and Andrew Wright’s choreography does a brilliant job of building show-stopping production numbers on the personality quirks of a cast that is almost entirely not made up of trained dancers. I could, though, have done without the programme note from Braham Murray in which he claims that the choreography is “so original that it is nothing like what happened before, and people who have seen [the show] before either on Broadway or in London and have seen the routines will say ‘My God, this is completely different and original and very exciting.'” – it’s good, certainly, and it’s exciting, but this is hardly the first time a choreographer has built spectacular dances around personalities rather than moves.

It helps even more that the three leads are superb. Michael Xavier’s Bob Baker, a newspaper editor who falls for one sister but ends up with the other, has an easy charm, an impressive voice, and a lovely, slightly rumpled way with a comic line, and when he finally realises he’s fallen for Ruth rather than Eileen, late in the second act, the moment is sweetly touching. Lucy Van Gasse – a trained opera singer, though she has a few musical theatre credits – is more or less perfect as Eileen, the younger, prettier, blonde sister who wants to be an actress. She has a gorgeous voice, of course – her ‘A Little Bit in Love’ is absolutely luscious – but she also has a wonderfully daffy, charming sense of comic timing, and she’s often very, very funny. The biggest surprise, though, comes from the performer in the biggest role: reality TV winner Connie Fisher as Ruth. Ms. Fisher, of course, was the winner of the BBC’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, and went on to play Maria in The Sound of Music in the West End and on tour. She has, however, been in the wars over the past few years; on tour with The Sound of Music she experienced severe vocal difficulties that ultimately led to surgery for a congenital vocal problem, leaving her without the ringingly clear soprano that won her her big break, and after her surgery she was told by doctors that it was possible she would never sing again. And yet here she is, dancing up a storm, landing every single laugh, singing in a strong, beautifully controlled alto, and exuding a warm charisma that somehow eluded her in The Sound of Music. There, she was a competent leading lady with a lovely voice; here, she’s a star. OK, she’s sporting an accent that seems to have bypassed Ohio entirely and landed somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, but it doesn’t matter. She comes across, more than anything else, as a deeper-voiced Olive Oyl – bright, tart, charming, gangly, funny, and utterly adorable.

The bad news? If you’re reading this, you’ve missed the Hallé, who are only playing for the first two weeks of the Manchester run. For next week’s Manchester performances and the subsequent eleven-week tour, there’ll be a seventeen-piece band in the pit, made up of musicians who have previously played with the Hallé. The cast and production are strong enough that this Wonderful Town would still be worth catching without the spectacular orchestra that played the show this afternoon, and the production’s publicity is admirably clear about which orchestra will be playing at which performance, but the smaller band will inevitably give a less glorious account of the score – which probably accounts for the very nearly sold-out house this afternoon for a show that, in this country, is hardly the best-known export from Broadway. The show, incidentally, is very lightly amplified; even with sixty-seven musicians in the pit, it doesn’t hit you in the ears the way most musicals do these days, and that’s all to the good: this production is many things, but most of all it’s an object lesson in just how crassly overamplified most musicals these days have become. And the more delicate balance of sound between the pit and the stage works entirely to the show’s advantage: this afternoon’s audience sat still and paid attention to a far greater degree than audiences at several other musical revivals I’ve attended recently. This afternoon, every note counted – but so did every word.

There’s a tantalising hint in the programme that there may be more of these collaborative productions on the horizon: in an interview, Sir Mark Elder says that one of his future ambitions is to conduct a production of Frank Loesser‘s The Most Happy Fella. This afternoon’s performance of Wonderful Town was a two-and-a-half-hour trip to musical comedy heaven. The chance to hear this kind of orchestra do this kind of work in the context of a full theatrical production rather than a concert comes around very, very rarely; if and when Elder ever gets to conduct The Most Happy Fella, I will move mountains, fly oceans, cross continents to be there.

Monkee poop

Twenty-three songs, twenty-five scenes, twenty actors, seven musicians, two acts, spies (Russian, American and British), three singing nuns… and maybe half a joke. Yes, folks, I sat through Monkee Business: The Musical, a jukebox musical based on the music of The Monkees which is now lumbering through the third week of a tryout run at the Manchester Opera House. In time, I hope, the memories will fade, the scars will begin to heal, and I’ll stop having nightmares. The show is being presented in Manchester under an initiative called Manchester Gets it First, which was created by the Ambassador Theatre Group in an attempt to position Manchester as the UK’s preeminent tryout city for large commercial theatrical productions.  Presumably something violently unpleasant happened to one of ATG’s executives somewhere in Manchester; on the evidence of this show and the dismal Ghost, which premiered here last year, the setting up of this programme in Manchester can only be construed as an act of bitter revenge.

It’s not, actually, that I think a jukebox musical based (mostly) on the back catalogue of The Monkees is an inherently stupid idea – it’s just that this jukebox musical based (mostly) on the back catalogue of The Monkees is built around an inherently stupid idea. We’re in 1968, at the height of The Monkees’ fame; a concert promoter hires four lookalikes to tour Russia, Japan, Italy, Spain, France and England as The Monkees because the band themselves are too busy to make the trip, and wacky hijinks ensue, involving spies, singing nuns (yes, they sing Dominique) and… oh, who cares? It’s not as if any of it makes sense while you’re watching it either.

It wouldn’t matter at all that the plot doesn’t make sense, of course, if any of it actually made you laugh. At all. The Monkees’ original TV series was entirely built around this kind of outlandishly farcical plot-line, and it was consistently fresh and funny. Monkee Business: The Musical is neither. It’s staler than a two-month-old Danish, and about as funny as a migraine. The show’s book was perpetrated by Peter Benedict, who should know better; I refuse to say he ‘wrote’ it because the mess of a musical that’s currently stillborn on the Opera House’s stage strongly suggests that, rather than write the show, Mr. Benedict simply spat it into a napkin after eating bad shellfish. It’s not just that the jokes don’t land – there are no jokes. There are running un-gags about how improbable future inventions like Starbucks, mobile phones and Twitter seem from the perspective of 1968, and even less funny un-gags in which characters onstage periodically break the fourth wall to comment on the artificiality of theatrical performance (“…and by the miracle of theatrical design, we’re there already!”), contained in scenes which seem to start and stop rather than begin and end and which don’t ever add up to anything you could call a coherent plot, punctuated by miscued songs. Structurally, the show isn’t just a mess. It’s an apocalypse with concert lighting, cheap sets, and a band.

You can’t really blame the actors, who do their best with the horrendous material. The four actors playing the fake Monkees – Ben Evans (Davy Jones), Stephen Kirwan (Mickey Dolenz), Tom Parsons (Mike Nesmith, giving the best performance in the show) and Oliver Savile (Peter Tork) – do their best to sell the awful script, and sometimes nearly succeed, and in their musical numbers, they’re legitimately terrific. When they’re singing, they do manage to capture the original band’s infectious sense of fun, and it’s mostly their performances of the songs that kept me from running screaming from the theatre in search of brain bleach when the interval rolled around.

The supporting cast don’t fare as well, mostly because they don’t get to sing as much. Tony Timberlake struggles manfully with a series of not-very-funny comic cameo roles, and has fun duetting with Kirwan’s Mickey Dolenz on ‘Randy Scouse Git’ in the first act. Michelle Bishop, lumbered with playing a Russian spy named Nikita Smirnoff (I know, and that’s about as funny as the show gets), does a good job of slinking around in leather and singing the Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’ (why?), and it isn’t her fault that there are more laughs in the last ten minutes of Medea than she manages to raise in this. She clearly has excellent comic timing, but she’s given nothing to use it on. Scarlette Douglas plays a traffic warden, and sings ‘My Boy Lollipop’. I hope she knows why, because I don’t. Cassandra Compton, similarly, does a really good job with her big number, ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ (the Monkees were not big on solo songs for women), but despite her best efforts she can’t manage to sell a role that stubbornly refuses to make any kind of sense.  And that’s true, more or less, of the rest of the cast. When they sing, even given that the musical staging is usually uninspiring, the show starts to come to life – but then the song ends, and it dies again, and the cast can’t resuscitate it because there was no life in the script to begin with. Even the usually-reliable Linal Haft is defeated by the role of the promoter. I know he can be funny, I’ve seen him do it before, but all he’s given here is a series of shyster stereotypes and the weakest catchphrase ever written (“You wouldn’t like it!”), and it isn’t enough.

(Fact about Mr. Haft – his wife, also an actor, has the best name in showbiz, bar none: Buster Skeggs. She’s really good, too – once upon a time, she was a hysterically funny Amy in Company at the Oldham Coliseum, and she was also an excellent Carlotta in Follies at the Leicester Haymarket.)

None of the actors are helped by the show’s director, David Taylor, whose work is… rudimentary, meaning that it almost rises to the level of Peter Benedict’s book. This kind of show needs pace and energy, and he gives it neither; it just sort of sits there, which means that there’s no comic momentum whatsoever, which leaves you, unfortunately, with ample time to contemplate the many, many shortcomings in the writing (and the person seated about ten rows in front of me who was texting all the way through Act Two). Again, I know he’s done good work before, even in comedy, because I’ve seen it; presumably, for some reason, he chose not to here. Morgan Large’s costumes – straight out of Austin Powers, a far funnier take on the same milieu – are sometimes witty, and his set, which consists mostly of cutout buildings that look like something from a pop-art pop-up book, demonstrates that at least someone involved in the show had something resembling an idea. What he didn’t get is much of a budget; the set looks cheap, although the costumes don’t. The lighting (by James Whiteside) is appropriately lurid. The band, led by Richard Beadle, are excellent, and so is Clem Rawlins’ sound design – it’s a rock musical, so it’s loud, but you can actually hear all of the lyrics, even in the ensemble numbers, and that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.

And the Monkees’ songs, in fact, do stand up to the jukebox musical treatment, even when they’re surrounded by a show that’s mostly really, really terrible. There are strong, surprisingly durable, thoroughly entertaining pop classics that still sound fresh and fun forty-odd years after they were first released. It’s easy to see the attraction in building a jukebox musical around them, and it’s a great shame that this production’s creative personnel have so thoroughly botched the show they’ve created (I mean, really – at times, I found myself longing for the wit and subtlety of Ben Elton’s book for We Will Rock You, which is possibly the most appallingly crass long-running hit musical London has ever seen). This is the first tryout run, of course, so there’s theoretically time for work to be done, but the odds of this succeeding are not good: the theatre was less than a quarter full, and the show’s third booking (in Sunderland) has been cancelled due to poor ticket sales (the Glasgow performances next week are going ahead, although a glance at the King’s Theatre website suggests that ticket sales there are also pretty dire). Clearly it needs a major overhaul if it’s ever going to reach the West End (or the end of next week); firing Mr. Taylor and Mr. Benedict would be a good place to start, because what this show smacks of, more than anything else, is cynical people who should know better turning in fifth-rate work on a show they intend to palm off on a provincial audience that they condescendingly assume will buy whatever dreck they choose to sell as long as it comes packaged with familiar songs, attractive performers and a flashy light show. The actors and band deserve better, and should run Mr. Taylor and Mr. Benedict out of the theatre, possibly with pitchforks and burning torches, for stranding them in this mess.

But hey, at least Manchester Gets It First. Glasgow, you have been warned.

Shall I tell you what I think of you?

This afternoon, I saw the current UK tour of The King and I at the Liverpool Empire. Unless hell freezes over, or I get forced to at gunpoint, or I suffer some kind of permanent concussion, the likelihood of my ever going to see anything else at the Liverpool Empire is somewhere close to nil.

It wasn’t the show’s fault, although I was less than impressed, going in, to see that this theatre charges £4.00 for a programme, which is a rip-off. I can’t, in all honesty, say that this is an absolutely ideal production of The King and I, simply because the circumstances in which it was produced inevitably mean that it doesn’t use the full original orchestrations,  and this score, of all scores, is never going to sound its best played by an “orchestra” of just nine, even if the reduced orchestration (by Julian Kelly) has been tastefully done. You don’t ever hear anything that sounds like a synthesiser, for which relief much thanks – the band uses ‘real’ musical instruments, just not enough of them.

Aside from the lack of about twenty more people in the orchestra pit, though, this is a confident, stylish, very entertaining staging that makes as good a case as anyone could for a show that, while an acknowledged classic with a gorgeous score, is not quite top-drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein. Everybody knows the story, so I’m not going to recap it here; the show’s examination of people from two different cultures clashing and ultimately learning from each other has dated a little around the edges. Western attitudes towards other cultures have changed a great deal since 1951, mostly for the better, and there is now a slightly uncomfortable whiff of colonialist condescension hanging over the material; that said, given the distant-land-far-away setting and a score that, while beautiful, does not entirely convincingly evoke the far east (particularly when it’s dressed in the reduced orchestrations used here), perhaps the best approach these days is simply to view the show as an exotic fable, despite the piece’s roots in autobiography.

And viewed through that lens, this production certainly delivers. The production originated at Curve, like the revival of Gypsy I gushed over the other week, and the touring production, unusually, is produced by a consortium of receiving houses rather than by a regular producer (which basically means, according to a programme note, that each venue stumped up part of the production cost in return for a greater slice of the profits than they’d get from a conventionally-funded production). That’s something to celebrate; there are certainly ratty, tacky, stripped-down musical revivals out on the road (I remember, with not much pleasure at all, a particularly excruciating Hello Dolly that made the rounds a few years ago whose set looked like it was made mostly out of cornflake packets and sticky-back plastic), but this isn’t one of them. Like most musicals that come out of Curve, it’s directed by Paul Kerryson, who knows his way around a musical revival. The show looks good, with elegant sets and costumes by Sara Perks and evocative lighting by Philip Gladwell. There’s a cast of over twenty – not huge by Broadway standards, but very large for something coming from a subsidised regional theatre – and a team of sixteen children. And there’s effective choreography by David Needham that culminates in an absolutely glorious version of the Act Two ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet.

Most of all, there are lovely performances. The children are charming, the ensemble are terrific, and while there might not be a lush orchestra here, the singing, across the board, is very, very fine, with particularly strong work from Adrian Li Donni and Claire-Marie Hall as Lun Tha and Tuptim. And there’s certainly no faulting Josefina Gabrielle and Ramon Tikaram as Mrs. Anna and the King – they sing beautifully (yes, him too), they have marvellous chemistry, and they’re both absolutely compelling.

So, yes, I liked the production very much, but this afternoon’s experience is still not one I’d ever willingly repeat. What was wrong with the show? The audience. Oh my God, the audience. Sitting in the Liverpool Empire for three hours with those people was so unpleasant that wild horses couldn’t drag me back there.

In Act One, there was a group of about half-a-dozen ladies sitting in the row directly behind me. They talked, and not at a whisper. They rattled crisp packets and sweet wrappers more than you would think humanly possible, even after my last trip to the Palace Theatre in Manchester. If anyone turned around, glared, tried to shut them up, they either gawped or laughed. When Josefina Gabrielle started to sing ‘Getting to Know You’, at least two of them sang along. I wrote, a while back, about the obnoxious people sitting behind me at a performance of Mamma Mia; today’s charmers, I’m afraid, were louder, although they did, to their slight credit, seem to be somewhat less addicted to the F-word. And it wasn’t just them, either – the sound of crinkling, rustling plastic from behind me was more than intrusively loud, but similar sounds were audible from other people much further away, along with conversation, banging doors when people either arrived late or walked out in the middle of the act to go to the loo, and pretty much everything else that falls under the heading of distracting audience behaviour (with one exception: miraculously, as far as I could tell, nobody’s mobile phone went off).

I gritted my teeth until the end of the first act, then at the start of the intermission I went to find a member of the front-of-house staff, and asked to be reseated for the second act because of the obnoxious behaviour that had been going on behind me all through the first. The usher I spoke to went to find the house manager, who went off to the box-office to check the seating chart, and came back and offered me a choice of alternate locations. The lady was pleasant, apologetic, and helpful, and I certainly don’t have any complaint about the way she handled the situation.

The fun really began at the end of the intermission, when I sat down in one of the unoccupied seats the house manager had suggested. My sitting down in this previously unoccupied seat prompted the start of a running commentary from the two astonishingly foul-mouthed ladies sitting in the row behind (do you sense a recurring theme here?) – unbelievably, along the lines of “he’s f***ing taken that seat, it isn’t his, they should f***ing throw him out” (I suspect that the taller of these two classy examples of humanity was annoyed because her coat had been draped over the back of the seat). They’d bought ice creams during the intermission. I bet you think ice cream tubs are a quiet food, don’t you? Not where these ladies were concerned. I think one of them was perhaps trying to dig a tunnel to China through the bottom of the cardboard tub. You wouldn’t imagine it was possible to make that much noise armed only with a cardboard ice cream tub and the tiny wooden spoon that comes with it. Through this bizarre rhapsody of scraping – which obliterated most of ‘I Have Dreamed’ – they kept up a commentary on both me (as if where I was sitting was any of their business) and the show, none of which was conducted at a whisper. The absolute nadir came when the gentleman sitting next to me – whose behaviour was impeccable – decided he’d had enough, and turned around and hissed at them to shut up… at which point one or other of these fine specimens of charm and good breeding (I couldn’t see which) yelled  ‘what did you f***ing say to me?’ and clipped me round the earhole. The last person who did that was my dad, and he’s been dead for nearly a decade… and I don’t think I ever, in twenty-nine years, heard him use that particular word.

There’s nothing I could have done that wouldn’t have somehow resulted in even more disruption, even though there was nobody sitting between me and the end of the row, so I sat there seething. They were a little quieter after this, but only a little, and Act Two, in any case, came with the same background symphony of conversation, crisps and sweet wrappers as Act One, so essentially there wasn’t a single moment of the performance that wasn’t accompanied by some kind of distraction. As I got up to leave at the end of the curtain call, the taller (and louder) of these two ‘ladies’ again loudly announced to the world that ‘they should have f***ing thrown you out’. Nice. Again, there’s nothing much I could have said that wouldn’t have caused the situation to deteriorate into a shouting-match, so I just left as quickly as I could.

I don’t feel particularly good about saying this, because my experience of Liverpool has mostly been of a fun, vibrant, fascinating city full of friendly, genuinely lovely people – but this afternoon’s experience, all of it, was really, really unpleasant, and there’s nothing much that the theatre’s staff could have done that they didn’t do, willingly and promptly, as soon as they were asked. The only step the theatre’s management could possibly have taken to prevent this afternoon’s litany of appalling behaviour would have been to put every single member of the audience in shackles and duct-tape their mouths as they entered the auditorium. It might have been worth it, but human rights groups would probably find those measures a little extreme.

Fortunately for me, the Empire presents more or less nothing that doesn’t also tour to at least one other venue within a similar distance of home.  Going to the theatre shouldn’t involve negotiating an assault-course of distractions, or getting whacked around the ear because someone else asked somebody to shut up. The audience, I’m afraid, completely ruined the production; no part of sitting in the Liverpool Empire this afternoon was pleasant, and the fact that I paid for this Godawful experience is… well, what’s the opposite of icing on the cake? All that being the case, the answer seems to be very simple: I won’t be going back. Hell is (sometimes) other people; seeing a classic musical shouldn’t be.


[Edit – 11/4/12 – the Empire’s management got in touch with me today via Twitter and made a very kind gesture of goodwill because I’d had such an unpleasant experience. While I chose not to take them up on their very generous offer, I do appreciate the gesture very much, and they deserve a lot of credit for monitoring blogs and social networking sites and paying attention to what their customers say about the experience of seeing a show in their venue.]


Celibate nuns out there shaking their buns…

They’re ba-aack! And this week they’re in Leeds. Sister Act: The Musical has hit the road in Britain, billed as being ‘direct from the London Palladium‘. ‘Direct’, in this case, involves a 7,000-mile round trip across the Atlantic and back, since the version of the show that’s now touring Britain is essentially the heavily-revised incarnation of the show that opened on Broadway last year, rather than the ham-fisted, thuddingly obvious, (very) intermittently entertaining show that graced the West End in 2009 (tellingly, the programme lists the show’s first performance as the Broadway opening, not the London one). It’s been heavily revised, so it has to be better this time around, right? Well… sorta kinda. The worst bits suck less (that’s a technical term), the good bits still work, the whole thing is slicker and faster, and the Mother Superior no longer has a cringe-worthy line in which she refers to the bulges in the gangsters’ trouser pockets. All of these things, particularly the last, are cause for celebration… but don’t infer from any of the above that the revised show is good. It’s better than it was, but it’s not there yet.

And, really, it’s had enough time by now for the various people involved to work out the kinks in the book and the score. Based, of course, on the 1992 movie (I’m not going to outline the plot because everyone who might be remotely interested in a review of the stage musical has seen the film already), the stage musical version was first staged in Pasadena in 2006, and that production then moved to Atlanta in 2007. After undergoing some revisions, it opened in London in 2009 to decidedly mixed reviews, and then it underwent a lot more revision (including what amounts to an entire new book) before it arrived on Broadway in 2011. In all incarnations, the show somewhat rethinks its source material: it’s now set in Philadelphia, rather than Reno, in 1977 rather than the present day, and Alan Menken‘s music is best when it pastiches the soul/gospel/disco styles of that era. The musical also takes the brave decision to throw out all of the nuns’ performance numbers from the film and replace them with new music written specifically for the show, and those new numbers, although they’re gaudy and splashy and slightly too on-the-nose (not to mention way overchoreographed and over-designed), work well and are great fun, and that’s an achievement given how successful the movie’s musical numbers were. That’s good news, but it’s also where the good news ends, more or less.

The show’s biggest problem is the book, although ‘book’, in this incarnation, is overstating things – it’s more of a plot delivery device punctuated by weak one-liners. The source film, God knows, isn’t perfect, but it does at least manage to present a set of warm, believable, funny characters, and it’s to the film’s very great credit that it never once, even for a second, presents the nuns as buffoons, even though some of them are certainly eccentric. Because, in the musical, everybody seems to get a song, the book has been filleted down so that most scenes, now, seem to consist of two or three lines of exposition followed by a song cue. Given the clunking horror of a book – credited to Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner, whose list of theatrical credits is not extensive – that was in place when the show opened in London, this is an improvement; the ‘additional book material’ by Douglas Carter Beane (a nice way of saying ‘whole new book by’) is a lot less than completely successful, but at least it contains no lines that are so bad they make you stuff your fist in your mouth and squirm in your seat.

Unfortunately, because there’s so little of it, it also contains no actual characters, only stick figures with a single defining characteristic each. Deloris might as well walk onstage at the top of the show and announce, “Hi, everybody! I’m black and sassy!” – that’s all the actress is given to play until the last ten minutes of the second act. The roles of the gangsters and Eddie the cop have been beefed up at the expense of Sister Mary Patrick (the Kathy Najimy role) and Sister Mary Robert, significant supporting roles in the film that are almost relegated to bit-parts here, even though Mary Robert gets her own song in Act Two. Key plot points don’t happen, they’re announced, which means that the final scene between Deloris and the Mother Superior, which was quietly, sweetly touching in the film, registers precisely no emotional impact here, although the hard-working actors do what they can with the material. The show plays like a first draft, rather than the latest in a series of rewrites that stretches across at least five years.

The show does at least come to life a little when people start to sing, and the book scenes are so brief that a song is almost never more than a couple of minutes away. Deloris’s top-of-Act-One ‘Fabulous, Baby!’ and the nuns’ performance numbers – ‘Take Me to Heaven’, ‘Sunday Morning Fever’, and ‘Spread the Love Around’ – are the best things in the show; during those songs – and only during those songs – we get a glimpse of the vibrant, exciting musical comedy that this could have been but isn’t. The songs for the gangsters and Eddie the cop are fun but strangely irrelevant – they’re entertaining enough, but they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and they stop the show cold in precisely the wrong way. The rest of the score is not exactly top-tier Menken; the title song is pleasant but generic and utterly forgettable, and the Mother Superior’s two songs are almost magnificently dull. Worst of all is Sister Mary Robert’s ‘The Life I Never Led’, a climb-every-molehill howler that, astonishingly, gets a reprise; it ends on a big-ass money note, and before that it consists almost entirely of hot air. The just-about-adequate lyrics are by Glenn Slater, whose worst excesses – contained in a truly witless number for the nuns called ‘How I Got the Calling’ – have, thank God, been removed from this version of the show. The replacement number – ‘It’s Good to be a Nun’ – might not be exactly good, but at least we no longer get to hear Sister Mary Patrick relate the story of how she saw the face of Jesus in a coconut cream pie (I wish I was making that up). All of the musical numbers – good or bad, fast or slow, strident or introspective – are delivered at ear-splitting, headache-inducing, brain-numbing volume, presumably because it’s easier to grab the audience’s attention by turning up the sound system than by writing material that’s actually engaging.

What we do have here, at least, is a mostly very strong cast. Cynthia Erivo is a real find as Deloris – great voice, moves well, charisma to burn, and she’s a RADA-trained actress who manages to supply at least a little of the subtlety that is almost entirely missing from the book and the score. If she can’t quite sell the title song, she does as much with it as anybody could (and certainly is at least as good as Patina Miller, who originated the role in London and on Broadway), and when she rips into ‘Fabulous, Baby!’, she’s absolutely thrilling. Denise Black throws everything she’s got at the role of the Mother Superior, and she’s miraculously funny given the limitations of the script; she’s defeated by her two bad songs, but anyone would be. The cops and gangsters are fine, and Michael Starke is great fun as the Monsignor; given the score, it’s possibly to his advantage that he isn’t lumbered with a song, and he gets (and lands) a fair number of the best lines. Laurie Scarth’s Sister Mary Patrick is badly short-changed by the book and score; she does what she can, but in this incarnation of the show it’s not a role in which anyone is going to make much of an impression. Julie Atherton’s Sister Mary Robert, however, is something else entirely – honest, charming, sweetly funny, and she’s got the closest thing anyone in the show has to an actual character arc. She even – twice – more or less manages to sell the dire ‘The Life I Never Led’. She’s great, and it’s a great shame that her material isn’t nearly as good as she is. The choir of nuns are wonderful when they’re singing, and less wonderful when they’re not, largely because the dialogue they’re given is so perfunctory.

All of which makes the show sound completely awful. It isn’t. Jerry Zaks’ direction is slick and fast-moving, and the show’s pace is such that you never have to dwell too long on material that doesn’t work (it’s certainly an improvement over the work of Peter Schneider, who directed the London production – his greatest achievement was making sure the actors didn’t bump into either each other or the set). Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is energetic, obvious, and best when it parodies period disco moves; watching a choir of nuns shake their booties is fun the first time but subject to the law of diminishing returns unless you take the idea and develop it, and adding gaudy costumes with lots of sequins does not count as developing a choreographic idea, although the writing for the choir numbers is strong enough that those sequences would probably land if the nuns just stood there doing the hand jive. The show is often almost completely soulless, and yet the few really good sequences are legitimately exciting and great fun; they, and the cast, make it worth sitting through the mass of material that doesn’t work as well as it should. Klara Zieglerova’s set and Lez Brotherston’s costumes provide an occasionally witty excursion through 70s kitsch; Natasha Katz’s lighting is unrestrained by base considerations like good taste and subtlety. This show is loud, both to listen to and to look at, and Gareth Owen, the sound designer, should be locked away and made to do some kind of penance until he promises never to do it again. His work here isn’t a sound design, it’s an aural mugging stretched over two hours of stage time.

The great shame of it is that the show should have been so much better than it is. A stage musical based on Sister Act is not an inherently terrible idea, and everyone involved has done better work elsewhere. The cast work hard, and this iteration of the show has, in Ms. Erivo and Ms. Black, two really terrific leading ladies. In the few moments where the show really comes to life, it’s wonderful; unfortunately, those moments are few and far between. What’s truly dispiriting is that the show, even after having been developed through so many previous incarnations, still doesn’t completely work, given that the necessary fixes aren’t all that difficult to spot. Sister Act, unfortunately, is mostly a disappointment, even now – the only consolation is that it’s a disappointment with three or four really good things in it. At these prices, I’m afraid, that’s not enough.

Oh yes – and finally, let’s all give a big shout-out to the lady on the far end of row C in the stalls, house-left, who took flash photographs all the way through the second act. Madam, you’re a credit to your species. Whatever that might be.

The Michael ‘n’ Imelda Show – now with extra blood!

I’m a little suspicious of standing ovations at the theatre, particularly at big, expensive musicals. I’ve sometimes come away with a sneaking suspicion that there has been something a little mechanical about the way an audience has leapt to its feet during the curtain call, that standing to applaud becomes a way of justifying the expenditure on an expensive ticket, even if what you’ve just seen hasn’t been particularly good. It feels a little silly, particularly if just a few clumps of people stand while everyone else remains seated. I am, I’m afraid, one of those people who stays sitting down if I don’t feel that what I’ve just seen is worth any kind of special gesture; to me, a standing ovation is something that’s reserved for when what you’ve just seen is so good, so extraordinary, that ordinary applause isn’t enough. Shows like that, unfortunately, don’t come around very often.

I say this now because I saw Saturday’s matinée of the new revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd  at the Adelphi Theatre, and I haven’t seen a standing ovation like the one that happened at the curtain call in a very, very long time. This wasn’t just a few isolated groups of people half-heartedly standing because that’s just what you do; the entire audience stood, as far as I could see – yes, me too – and not only did they stand and applaud, they cheered, and pretty much everyone was standing and cheering before Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, the production’s above-the-title stars, came out to take their bows. Their applause could have been measured using the Richter scale, and both they and the production deserved it. I’ve already gushed over one musical revival this week, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to gush over another.

There’s a sound you don’t hear very often when you’re in a large theatre watching a big musical: silence.  Audiences these days are often not particularly attentive. They fidget, whisper, rattle sweet wrappers, eat, play around with cellphones. There was none of that here. When everyone in an audience is completely caught up in what’s happening on stage, something magical happens. You can feel it in this production when the music cuts out and there’s a pause – it’s as if the entire audience is collectively holding their breath. Jonathan Kent, this revival’s director, has achieved something remarkable. He’s taken a show that, yes, is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, that any musical theatre geek over the age of thirty will have seen at least half-a-dozen times, whose original Broadway production, in its touring incarnation, was preserved on DVD, and that has been revived in London three times within the past twelve years, and he’s delivered a production that quietly, without grandstanding, makes you see every second of a very, very familiar piece of material as if it were completely fresh.

The first clue that this is not a standard-issue Sweeney Todd is Anthony Ward’s set. Like Harold Prince’s original Broadway (and London) production, the show is set in industrial London, but here we’re in the 1930s rather than the mid-nineteenth century. The show takes place in a vast, run-down, semicircular metal-framed workhouse, with dizzyingly steep staircases that lead to a vertiginous catwalk that circles the top of the stage. The costumes, with a couple of exceptions, are everyday period street clothes, Mark Henderson’s lighting is shadowy and sinister, and aside from a couple of visual flourishes – Pirelli’s market stall is a Piaggio three-wheeler van, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has a neon sign in the second act, and Todd’s shiny new Act Two barber’s chair is upholstered in red leatherette – the look is depression-era drab. There’s a pre-show sequence in which the ensemble are onstage working – scrubbing the floor, moving sacks, doing something you can’t quite see with metal bars behind the upper-level window-frames – which leads to Kent’s first directorial masterstroke: when the show begins, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ is presented as the inmates/workers in this workhouse/factory/whatever it is telling each other the story of Sweeney Todd, for their own amusement. I’ve never seen it staged quite that way before, and it makes rather more dramatic sense than an ensemble of actors somewhat portentously directing the song at the audience. This refocused opening grabs your attention, and Kent and his cast run with it. This Sweeney Todd, more than any other I’ve seen, is a thrilling, chilling roller-coaster ride on which the tension never lets up, even for a moment.

Part of what’s startling about this production’s opening sequence, I have to say, is the presence on stage of a large cast. The original production, by all accounts, was immense, but it’s a show that can be done small, and often is; of the previous productions I’ve seen, I think the largest used 16 actors and the smallest just 11. Here, there are 26, along with a band of 15 in the pit (the very assured musical direction is by Nicholas Skilbeck), which means that none of the actors have to play the trumpet when they’re not in a scene. The ensemble performances are terrific; each member of this cast has clearly done a great deal of detailed character work, the ensemble singing is very, very strong indeed, and they sock ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ across the footlights with a grim, sardonic intensity that catches you slightly by surprise. It’s an opening number that always works, but it doesn’t always work quite as well as it does here.

Good as the opening is, though, it only hints at what to come, because this production’s real thrills begin with the entrance of the two leads. On paper, I have to say, Michael Ball would not have been my first choice for Sweeney Todd. At the start of his career, he was a likeable but rather bland romantic leading man (with, admittedly, a very, very strong voice); he was perfectly OK in The Pirates of Penzance, Aspects of Love, and Sondheim’s Passion, and he sang all three roles very, very well, but he wasn’t particularly exciting or distinctive, and his concert work, frankly, is the musical equivalent of swimming through a bath of melted processed cheese. He was a major surprise in the British production of Hairspray, in which he was cast way against type as Edna Turnblad (he played the role in London and on tour), but it’s a long way from Edna Turnblad to Sweeney Todd. And yet here he is, nearly unrecognisable in a slicked-back brown wig, staring down the audience and delivering a performance that people are going to be talking about for years. It’s not simply that this is the best work of his career so far, although it certainly is: this performance is so far ahead of everything else I’ve ever seen him do – including his Edna Turnblad, which was also spectacularly good – that if I hadn’t seen it for myself I wouldn’t have believed him capable of it. He’s giving as good a leading performance as I’ve ever seen anywhere, in a play or in a musical. He charts Sweeney’s descent into madness deliberately and carefully, so that his ‘Epiphany’ is a genuine explosion; his is a lighter voice than is often cast as Sweeney, and he saves the fireworks for a few key moments, but the power is there, and when he unleashes it, he’s terrifying. There’s far more to this performance than explosive power, though. In some ways, he’s most impressive in his quietest moments. The range of emotions he wrings out of his very low-key delivery of his part of the ‘Johanna’ quartet in Act Two is extraordinary. He’s fierce, brooding, desperately sad, threatening, demented, and a ticking timebomb, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett is equally good, and in some ways equally surprising. She’s dabbled in Sondheim before – she was brilliant as the Baker’s Wife in the first London staging of Into the Woods, but her last musical was Guys and Dolls in 1997, and her achievements since have eclipsed her earlier work in musicals to the point where it’s easy to forget that she can sing. Truthfully, better singers than her have played the role – she has a pleasant voice, but she’s no Julia McKenzie – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone find quite the range of colours in it that she does. She’s one of Britain’s best comic actresses, of course, and she nails all of the laughs in the script, with a few on top for good measure – one of her reactions during the Parlour Songs sequence gets a laugh that stops the show cold for a good twenty seconds – but she’s delivering far more than simple comic relief. Beat by beat, syllable by syllable, she presents Mrs. Lovett in extraordinary detail. Her Mrs. Lovett, yes, is a backstreet pragmatist, but she’s also – at least in the later scenes – possibly a psychopath, and sexually aroused not only by Sweeney himself, but by blood and the possibility of violence. When, relatively early in the show, Sweeney sings ‘My Friends’ to his collection of cut-throat razors, she gives off such palpable sexual heat that you half expect her to have to wring out her knickers at the end of the number, and her shrieks of horror when she discovers Pirelli’s body in the trunk very quickly become almost orgasmic. When she watches Sweeney explode into madness in ‘Epiphany’, she’s simultaneously horrified and absolutely thrilled. She’s the true villain of the piece, but she’s garrulous and charming, and her affection for Tobias is totally genuine – the stricken look on her face during the scene surrounding ‘Not While I’m Around’ when she realises she’s going to have to murder him to stop him from exposing the secret behind her pie shop is perhaps the production’s most thoroughly chilling moment. This, too, is as good a performance as I have ever seen anywhere in pushing thirty years of regular theatregoing.

It’s not just that Ball and Staunton are individually great, either – they play off each other beautifully, and their ‘A Little Priest’ is dazzling even if you know all of the groaners in the lyrics off by heart. And they are matched by a very fine set of supporting performances. Nobody in this cast is less than very good; Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford is magnificent. The last twenty minutes of the show are absolutely electrifying, even though a good proportion of the audience must know exactly what is coming next. I said at the beginning that the audience response was like nothing I’ve seen in a long, long time; it was entirely deserved. This is one of those rare theatrical events where you run the risk of running out of superlatives.

And yes, in case you were wondering, there is blood. Quite a lot of blood, in fact – there’s no faking it by bathing the stage in red light here. When a throat gets slit, the blood spurts. And spurts. It’s impressively gory, particularly towards the end of Act Two when the bodies start to pile up – not as gory as the (misguided and ineffective) film, but it’s about fifty times more chilling. Not to mention orders of magnitude funnier – and, unlike the film, the laughs here are all intentional.

Complaints? Only two. One, the production has yielded a cast recording. If it doesn’t quite convey how marvellous the show is in the theatre, it’s still a very worthwhile, hugely entertaining listen, but unfortunately it’s a single-disc highlights set, and this production is so good that a more complete recording would have been nice. Two, the toilets in the Adelphi are awful, and there aren’t enough of them. The queues for both the ladies and the gents at the interval stretched out of the bathrooms like bread queues in Soviet-era Russia, and the three (just three) urinals in the gents are so close together that you touch shoulders with the person next to you as you attempt to go about your business. In this day and age, the facilities are totally inadequate.

So… yes. This is possibly as good a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever hope to see. It’s playing a limited run of six months, and it can’t extend at the Adelphi because the theatre has another booking in the autumn. The reviews have been so strong that it wouldn’t be too surprising if the production subsequently went on to have another life somewhere else, but don’t count on it: if you love musical theatre, and particularly if you love Sondheim, this is something that’s worth making a considerable effort to see. And since I’ve already seen it, you will at least be spared the unfortunate spectacle of me sitting with my mouth hanging open for two hours and fifty minutes.

Just, when you see it, make sure you use the bathroom somewhere else first. Really. You’ll thank me.