It was the music of something beginning…

ragtime

Or, some brief, belated notes on Thom Southerland‘s now-closed revival of Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre, which I saw during the final week of performances (I know, I know – three weeks ago. It’s Christmas, life is complicated, deal with it).

  • I almost didn’t go. When I learned that the production would be using actor-musicians, it killed any interest I’d had in seeing it (in the past, actor-musician productions have not always been my very favourite thing). Once it opened, a number of friends saw it and they pretty much all thought it was wonderful, so I caved. I’m still not, as a general rule, thrilled at the idea of forking over good money in order to hear actors torturing musical instruments they haven’t touched since they left school, but there’s an exception to every rule: this production, unlike most actor-musician productions I’ve seen, does not short-change the music (although it also doesn’t use, or even try to emulate, William Brohn’s original orchestrations). There’s a professional MD centre-stage, there are no issues with musicians struggling/failing to keep time with each other, and Flaherty and Ahrens’s score, dressed in Mark Aspinall’s Americana/folk-tinged new orchestrations, actually sounds good. That in itself is a startling achievement.
  • This is the third thing I’ve seen this year that Southerland has directed, following Grey Gardens and Allegro at the Southwark Playhouse, and each has been better than the last. This is a fierce, confident revival of a difficult show, accomplished at a fraction of what it would cost to produce this kind of thing in the West End. How good is it? I saw the gargantuan original staging of Ragtime in Los Angeles; this production, obviously, is much smaller, with a cast less than half the size and a simple two-level unit set (co-designed by Tom Rogers and the fabulously-named Toots Butcher), and while it may be less overwhelming than Garth Drabinsky’s cast-of-thousands (well, 59), budget-of-millions extravaganza, it is emphatically not any less moving.
  • This is as good an ensemble performance as you’ll see this year (granted, as I write this, this year – thank God – has less than four hours still to go. Yo, 2016 – don’t let the door hit you on the way out). Fine performances from all of the leads (and possibly a career-best performance from Anita Louise Combe as Mother), terrific choral singing (and that’s not as common as you’d hope in musicals), and great work even from the performers in the smallest roles.
  • And speaking of performers in the smallest roles – as Sarah’s Friend, Seyi Omooba is jaw-droppingly good, and her ferocious gospel vocals in ‘Till We Reach That Day’ pin you to your seat. This is her professional debut, and she’s someone to watch.
  • The show itself is what it is. A number of the reviews this time complained that it’s heavy-handed and preachy; given the nature of the source novel, that’s probably inevitable, and one of the preachiest numbers in the score – ‘He Wanted To Say’ – has been cut from this revival (it isn’t missed). Stephen Flaherty’s music cleverly exploits the blend of black and Eastern European musical ingredients that formed the basis of the era’s popular music in America, and he and Lynn Ahrens give the show a (mostly) very fine score – but the show’s opening number is truly brilliant, and nothing that follows can quite equal it. It doesn’t help, either, that the first act, overall, is markedly better than the second (although the show’s two loveliest songs – ‘Our Children’ and ‘Sarah Brown Eyes’ – are performed almost back-to-back in Act Two), because the music turns notably weaker when Terrence McNally’s book takes a turn towards the violent. The novel is brilliant, complex, and never quite satisfying; that was true of the musical in Frank Galati’s enormous original staging, and it’s true here as well.
  • With prices soaring in the West End – the seat that cost me £50 for Gypsy at the Savoy eighteen months ago is £75 for Dreamgirls, which is one reason I haven’t yet booked a ticket – it’s refreshing to see a commercial venture which charges reasonable prices (between £20 and £40) for tickets and doesn’t try to rip the audience off via unjustifiable booking fees and overpriced programmes. The Charing Cross Theatre, God knows, has disadvantages – from the front, you’re practically looking up the cast’s nostrils, and from the back it’s like watching a show in a tunnel – but it’s a charming venue, the location couldn’t be more convenient, and the continued success of companies like the Southwark Playhouse and the Menier suggests there’s a growing audience out there for this sort of thing. This series of musical productions – the first was a transfer of Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Titanic – is a new venture for the Charing Cross Theatre, and it deserves to be a roaring success.

There’s gotta be something better than this

sweet-charity

Roll up! Roll up! For your Christmas entertainment, come and watch our heroine get repeatedly slut-shamed while singing a stack of fabulous Cy Coleman tunes, and still emerge with a winsomely optimistic smile plastered all over her cute little face! I mean really, what could possibly be more festive than a musical whose central character exists simply to get dumped by a series of inadequate men, the last time specifically because she isn’t a virgin? It’s fun for all the family… at least, if they’re trapped in the squarest, most conservative corner of 1965.

There’s nothing wrong with the production. There’s strong direction by Derek Bond, entertaining Fosse-inspired choreography from Aletta Collins, a clever, stylish set by James Perkins, and a warm, appealing central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund as Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer with a heart of gold (even typing that phrase makes me feel a little ill). There’s a great-sounding band, a superb ensemble, and a bold, brassy Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields score. This should be glorious night in the theatre.

Unfortunately there’s also Neil Simon‘s book, and it’s a great big steaming pile of misogynistic shit. Based (loosely) on the revered Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, which isn’t nearly so unpleasant, Sweet Charity is a leading entry in the woman-as-kleenex school of dramatic storytelling. In the first act, a (married) boyfriend woos the title character (it’s implied over a period of weeks) and then mugs her and steals her savings, then an Italian film star picks her up to make his girlfriend jealous then hides her under the bed (usually in a wardrobe, but this is a theatre-in-the-round; here, wardrobes are difficult) when she unexpectedly returns. In the second act, she falls for decent, kindly Oscar, who (eventually) tells her it doesn’t matter what she does… and then in the penultimate scene dumps her because it does. And then she picks herself up, dries herself off – two of these dumpings involve Charity ending up in the lake in Central Park, presumably because ending a relationship isn’t humiliating enough unless it also involves a near-drowning – and tries to get us to buy that her resilience gives the show an optimistic ending. It doesn’t work, because Simon’s writing is breathtakingly shallow throughout; instead of characters, he presents us with collections of quirks glued together by one-liners, only some of which are funny. Simon’s Charity simply exists to be humiliated; consequently, the evening is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns. It isn’t very funny the first time, and it becomes more and more uncomfortable as we progress through the episodic plot.

The Fellini film, oddly, is far bleaker, but also considerably less unpleasant. Cabiria is a prostitute, not a taxi dancer – Simon’s turd of a book very carefully informs us that Charity doesn’t do any of “that extracurricular stuff” – and while she’s also used and abused by men, the Oscar storyline is quite different. In the film, he’s another crook out to steal her money, and Cabiria makes a proactive choice. Realising he’s setting her up to be robbed, she throws her purse at his feet – she chooses a way out, and gains strength from her choice (Cabiria, unlike Charity, gets shoved headlong into a body of water once rather than twice, which makes more difference than you might think). In Simon’s rewrite of Fellini’s story, on the other hand, Charity simply gets dumped and begs her useless lump of a man not to leave, and then three minutes later the show ends. How unpleasant is it? At the curtain call, the actor playing Oscar (Daniel Crossley) received good-natured boos from a significant section of the audience.

Possibly the show works better if you have a genuine star dancer in the lead as Charity. Shirley MacLaine just about gets away with it in the film, and in the original Broadway production Gwen Verdon must have been sensational on the nights she didn’t phone it in and leave out half her solo numbers. This is a dance-heavy show; MacLaine, in the film, projects strength through her dancing, and she brings a certain kind of star quality to the role. Here, we have Kaisa Hammarlund, and she simply isn’t that kind of performer. She moves well, but she isn’t in Verdon or MacLaine’s league as a dancer. She’s charming, vulnerable, believably real, but she’s a good actor rather than a larger-than-life star, and I suspect this material only really works if you cast a performer whose presence is much bigger than ‘real’. Hammarlund is thoroughly charming, sings well, and she’s funny. She does everything she can to make the final scene work – but the show needs the kind of star performance that can dazzle you into looking past the book’s essential unpleasantness, not a believable, personable actress who makes you feel every beat of Charity’s heartbreak when Oscar dumps her.

There’s pleasure, at least, in the supporting performances. Bob Harms has great fun with the plastic Italian film star’s flamboyantly insincere ‘Too Many Tomorrows’, and there’s a smartly rethought ‘Big Spender’ – the score’s most famous takeaway tune – which here begins in a dressing-room with the dancers preparing for battle before they go out to meet their clients. For the second-act ‘Rhythm of Life’ sequence – a rather condescending satirical take on 60s counterculture – Bond has cast the wonderful Josie Benson as the hippie preacher Daddy Brubeck. Nobody changes any pronouns; in a programme note, Bond explains that “by making Daddy a formidable woman, the song becomes empowering” – and yes, it does, but that’s fatally undercut by the subsequent dialogue scene, which exists mostly to mock Daddy and her church as hypocrites (marijuana, Daddy informs us, is sinful… “and so expensive”). Benson, though, is the most thrilling thing in the show, and she takes a song that usually comes across as slightly naff and turns it into something genuinely exciting; it’s just a shame that the song and the surrounding scene (like, to be fair, the rest of the book) give off such a strong whiff of smug small-c conservative writers looking down their noses at the onset of the permissive age.

In the end, despite everyone’s best efforts, this revival fails to overcome the material’s inherent nastiness. Bond’s staging looks and sounds great: Chris Walker’s new orchestrations for a nine-piece band preserve more of the character of the originals than you’d think possible given the small number of players, Mark Aspinall’s musical direction puts the score across with tremendous verve, and the singing throughout is terrific. Everybody involved is working at the top of their game – but the material, despite Coleman’s dazzling score, is faintly putrid. Hammarlund’s Charity is nothing if not sweet; too bad the show she’s in leaves such a distinctly sour aftertaste.

Will wonders never cease?

slmm

 

I’ll say it up front: I love She Loves Me. I’ve loved She Loves Me since I discovered Barbara Cook (God help me, after seeing a matinee of Carrie at the RSC) at the age of 15. I saw the Roundabout Theatre Company’s first Broadway revival, I saw that production’s subsequent London iteration three times, and over the going-on-thirty years since I discovered the show I doubt I’ve gone more than a fortnight at a time without listening to one or other of the various cast recordings. I more or less know the score by heart, it’s on the short, select list of golden-age musicals I think are just about perfect, and I’d booked for this production within an hour of tickets going on sale.

It’s safe to say, then, that my expectations going in to this revival were relatively high; Matthew White’s tiny jewel of a production, playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March next year, exceeds pretty much all of them. Based on Miklós László’s play ‘Parfumerie’ (other adaptations include the James Stewart film The Shop Around The Corner, and the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks AOL commercial rom-com You’ve Got Mail), She Loves Me centres on two bickering clerks in a Budapest parfumerie who do not realise they are writing to each other via a lonely hearts column. The bold brassiness you’d commonly associate with golden-age American musical comedy is more or less entirely absent here; instead, Joe Masteroff’s beautifully-constructed, literate book and especially Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious score give these characters a surprising emotional depth (all the more surprising when you consider the same source material begat the entirely plastic You’ve Got Mail). White resists the temptation – to which previous revivals have sometimes succumbed – to punch up the comedy, and instead goes right to the show’s heart; the result, save for the tiny eight-piece band (forgivable in a 180-seat theatre), is just about as ideal a production of this material as you could imagine.

It helps that the two unwitting pen-pals are so perfectly cast. Scarlett Strallen’s shyly hesitant Amalia is simply lovely. She finds exactly the right balance between sweetness and sadness, and her singing is glorious. She gets the best of the score’s solo numbers, and gives each of them full value; her “Dear Friend”, in particular, is a masterclass in understatement, and all the more moving for it, and she revels in the coloratura at the end of her radiant “Vanilla Ice Cream” in act two. Opposite her, Mark Umbers is possibly the most Daniel Massey-like Georg since Daniel Massey; quiet, bookish, and thoroughly decent, he and Ms. Strallen are the perfect foils for each other, and their long-awaited embrace at the very end of the show is far more moving than you’d expect given the relative slightness of the plot. He’s also, unlike some of his predecessors in the role (*cough* John Gordon Sinclair *cough*) a superb singer, and his firing-on-all-cylinders rendition of the title song in the second act is thoroughly splendid.

They’re matched by a similarly perfect set of ensemble performances. Bock and Harnick’s score spreads the wealth around, as does Masteroff’s book, and each major supporting character gets at least one (wonderful) song and one big scene. If Katherine Kingsley’s flighty Cockney shopgirl is the most memorable, thanks to her slyly humorous account of “A Trip to the Library”, the score’s funniest song, that’s not to take anything away from anyone else. There’s stellar work from Dominic Tighe (Kingsley’s real-life husband) as the snakeskin-smooth Kodaly, the closest thing the piece has to a villain, from Alastair Brookshaw as the pragmatic clerk Ladislav Sipos, and from Callum Howells as delivery-boy Arpad. They’re all warmly funny, they all sing beautifully, and they play beautifully off each other. Most surprising of all, there’s Les Dennis as the shop owner Mr. Maraczek. Dennis has been a fixture on British television since the 1980s, more often as a comedian and game-show host than as an actor, and his brand of “comedy” usually has me reaching for the remote (and possibly the painkillers). Here, he drops the TV mannerisms completely and reveals himself to be a character actor of some skill (which, to be fair, is evident from his programme credits, which encompass a diverse set of plays including works by Goldoni, Priestley, and David Hare). He gets the show’s most dramatic storyline (it involves a suicide attempt), and plays it with exactly the right light touch, so that he never overshadows the show’s central romance. He doesn’t have much of a singing voice, but his “Days Gone By” is appropriately wistful and quite moving. It’s a very fine performance.

There’s a lovely, clever set too – the best I’ve seen at the Menier – from Paul Farnsworth, who also supplies the perfectly-elegant costumes. The Menier is a tricky space – tiny stage, no flyspace, almost no wingspace, low ceiling – and Farnsworth’s solution involves not one but four small turntables, each of which carries a section of wall that can revolve and unfold to form part of the shop’s interior or exterior. Beautifully lit by Paul Pyant, this is a very handsome production indeed; the venue’s technical constraints are still occasionally evident – Umbers has to sing the first part of the title song from the aisle, in front of the curtain, because the stage is so shallow that there’s no room to do a set-change behind a drop with an actor still on the apron – but the production values are far higher than we’ve any right to expect from such a small theatre. Rebecca Howell’s choreography resists the temptation to turn the two big (in relative terms) production numbers – a pompous headwaiter’s attempt to preserve “A Romantic Atmosphere” for his diners despite the clumsiness of his staff, and the increasingly manic parade of Christmas shoppers in “Twelve Days to Christmas” – into big, overblown comic extravaganzas; her work is perfectly in scale with the rest of the show, and she understands, thank God, that less is sometimes more. And while, to be slightly contradictory, more musicians might be nice, Jason Carr’s new orchestrations get full value from the eight players at his disposal, and you’re never conscious of the unpleasantly metallic synthesised string pad sound that characterises the 1993 and 1994 cast recordings.

For once, then, there is more or less nothing to criticise, apart from the usual issues that go with the Menier itself (claustrophobic lobby, not enough toilets, awkward entrance through the restaurant, hideous view of the Shard as you walk up Southwark Street). The material is sublime, the actors – all of them – are just about perfect, and Matthew White’s production is absolutely beguiling. This is as good as anything the Menier has ever done, and as good a revival as I’ve seen all year. Don’t miss it.

It’s the freakiest show…

lazarus

[Yes, this is another late review. I saw Lazarus at the matinée on November 12th.]

Alienated alien alienates audience. How to describe Lazarus, the sprawling mess of a David Bowie jukebox musical now playing a limited run in a big tent behind King’s Cross station? Musically thrilling, certainly, and visually stunning… but when the actors stop singing and start to speak, frustratingly remote and thuddingly earthbound.

The show’s chief attribute is the stack of David Bowie songs – some old, some among the last new work he produced before his death in January this year – which have been cobbled together to form a score. As you might expect, Life on Mars? Heroes, and Changes are all present and correct – and all receive dazzling performances – but the less familiar material is just as exciting. If, like me, you’ve usually enjoyed Bowie’s music but wouldn’t necessarily consider yourself a fan, the brilliance of the songwriting here might well come as a surprise.

If you’re familiar with Enda Walsh‘s work on the stage adaptation of Once, though, his book for Lazarus might well also come as a surprise – but not a pleasant one. In Lazarus, Walsh offers a sequel to/riff upon the film adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which Bowie played the central character. It’s not that you need to have seen the film in order for Lazarus to make sense; the show’s action, such as it is, is not at all difficult to follow, but Walsh’s book is so self-consciously enigmatic that by halfway through the performance it becomes almost impossible to care about what is happening onstage. Characters enter and leave for no particular reason, the dialogue is studiedly impenetrable (at best; at worst, it is sometimes simply bathetic), and the overwhelming whiff of self-importance emanating from the stage is more than a little off-putting. Of course the show centres on Thomas Newton, the humanlike alien hero of The Man Who Fell To Earth; in Lazarus, he’s living a reclusive, perpetually-drunk existence in a Manhattan penthouse (which apparently only contains a bed, a fridge, and a stack of Bowie albums), visited only by his assistant Elly, his former business partner, a teenage ‘muse’ who is probably a figment of his imagination, and tracked from afar by a violently obsessive man named Valentine. There are other characters floating around on the sidelines, but they don’t appear to be there for any particular reason. The book, in short, is a hot mess.

Fortunately, there’s never too long to wait between songs, and the songs are thrillingly performed by the show’s admirable cast and band. As Newton, Michael C. Hall has to spend the majority of the performance projecting a state of drunken despair; Walsh gives him very few notes to play with, but he somehow always manages to be fascinating, even when the material isn’t, and his singing is unimpeachable. He kicks the show off with an electrifying performance of the title song, and gets better and better from there. Similarly, the rest of the cast have to grapple with underwritten/misconceived/banally symbolic characters, but while they’re singing you (temporarily) forget the deficiencies in Walsh’s misguided book. Amy Lennox – an adorable Doralee in the UK tour of 9 to 5 – does everything she can as the confused/susceptible/lovelorn Elly, a collection of misogynistic clichés that even in her capable hands can’t hope to add up to anything resembling a coherent character; while she doesn’t make sense of the terrible writing (nobody could), her rendition of Changes is almost worth the cost of the ticket in itself. As Michael, Newton’s former business partner, Tom Parsons offers a suitably brooding reading of The Man Who Sold The World; he’s lucky enough to be killed off early on, so he’s spared the production’s worst excesses. Michael Esper brings a jolt of old-fashioned showbiz razzmatazz to his portrayal of the murderous Valentine, and his big number – Valentine’s Day – is another highlight. And Sophia Anne Caruso, who is just fifteen years old, miraculously navigates the worst writing in the show and emerges with her dignity intact, in part thanks to her uncanny ability to deliver even the stupidest dialogue with absolute conviction, but mostly thanks to her sensational, goosebump-inducing take on Life on Mars?, which is the show’s musical peak. This is a stellar cast and a stellar set of songs – it’s just a shame that the material holding them together lets everybody down.

Whether Ivo van Hove‘s coolly distancing direction helps or hurts is open to question. His staging is elegant, stylish, and oddly remote, even from the sixth row. Jan Versweyveld’s chilly, minimalist set and Tal Yarden’s eye-popping video design ensure the show is always diverting to look at. You’ll be more than entertained whenever anyone is singing, and you may even be intrigued – but unless you’re a hardcore Bowie fan, and therefore privy to layers of Meaning that remain inaccessible to us mere mortals, you’re unlikely to be moved.

You may, however, be irritated by the process of getting in to the theatre itself. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes without intermission, and your print-at-home ticket loudly informs you that you must arrive 45 minutes before showtime in order for the front-of-house staff to carry out ID checks and bag searches. In the event, at the performance I attended, neither took place; instead, patrons were herded, 45 minutes before the show, into a dimly-lit lobby area with relatively few seats, in which the only things visible through the murky darkness were the astonishingly overpriced bar and souvenir stand, where you could buy the (superb) New York cast recording for £6 more than it’ll cost you at your local HMV. The only programme available – a glossy souvenir brochure which does, at least, include some nice production photos – costs an eye-watering £8. The request that you arrive early has nothing to do with security; it’s simply about encouraging you to spend more money before the show starts. When tickets are relatively expensive to begin with, that’s unpleasantly cynical.

As for the show itself, it is well worth seeing, despite Walsh’s epic catastrophe of a book. The music, as I said, is thrilling, and so are the performances. Go expecting something resembling a traditional musical, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Treat it as performance art – as a collage of superb songs and interesting visuals, fronted by a spectacular cast and an impeccable band – and you’ll have a great time. Just allow yourself a few extra minutes after the show to locate your eyeballs. During the final scene, which involves Ms. Caruso lying on the floor for several minutes in a large puddle of milk, they may well have rolled so far upwards that you’ll be able to see the underside of your own brain.