Let It Sing

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

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

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

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

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

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People get hurt

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

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

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

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

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

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Next stop, Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Party like it’s 1999

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Another op’nin, another revival of Kiss Me, Kate. The Crucible‘s Christmas musicals are usually worth looking forward to, and this one is no exception. In terms of execution, it’s up there with their (stunning) revivals of My Fair Lady and Show Boat, and that’s very high praise indeed. Rebecca Lock’s thrillingly-sung Lilli Vanessi is a glorious creation, there’s a tight 11-piece band giving an impeccable account of Cole Porter‘s impeccable score, Matt Flint’s choreography is a dazzling, showstopping joy to watch, and director Paul Foster carefully negotiates the minefield that is the show’s book and manages to make the central relationships touching as well as funny. It’s great, it’s running another week and a half, you should go.

You can feel a ‘but’ coming, can’t you? It’s nothing to do with anyone in the cast or the creative team. The reason I hesitated to book a ticket is simply that this production is using the rewritten version of the book created for the 1999 Broadway revival (which played in London a couple of years later and has been released on DVD), and I really don’t love this version of the script. For that revival, Sam and Bella Spewack’s original book (built around The Taming of the Shrew, and if you’re reading this you probably don’t need a synopsis) received an uncredited rewrite by John Guare (and one wonders how Mr. Guare might feel about another playwright providing uncredited rewrites on a revival of The House of Blue Leaves or Six Degrees of Separation after his death but before the work is out of copyright), and it isn’t an improvement. It’s not a disaster on the level of the revised script for the recent London revival of Chess, but it’s broader and coarser and less subtle than the original script, it turns Harrison Howell, Lilli’s fiancé, into (even more of) a caricature (explicitly a caricature of General MacArthur), it misguidedly shoehorns in From This Moment On, which is a perfectly lovely song but one that doesn’t belong in Kiss Me, Kate (yes I know it was in the film, don’t @ me), to give Howell something to sing, and it doesn’t solve the material’s central problem, which was just as big a problem in 1999 as it is now, which is that the world has changed and it’s far more uncomfortable than it was in the late 1940s for us to laugh at a story of a man establishing dominance over a woman by (among other things) spanking her.

The trouble is, the original 1948 book also presents problems these days, and I mean on top of the spanking. As last year’s Opera North revival showed, the original book offers a trip straight back to 1948, and not just in terms of casual sexism. It’s significantly less cartoonish than John Guare’s rewrite – it would have to be – but it’s also, in places, glacially slow, and it would certainly benefit from some judicious trimming. On the other hand, it doesn’t include Guare’s witless rewrite of the Harrison Howell scene, or shoehorn in a Porter standard that wasn’t written for this show and doesn’t work in it. I can see why people choose the 1999 script, but the original, for me, is richer.

And having said all that, this revival really is terrific. The sparks fly between Rebecca Lock’s Lilli and Edward Baker-Duly’s Fred, Amy Ellen Richardson is a fine, funny Lois Lane, Dex Lee is a devilishly charming Bill, Layton Williams burns up the stage in Too Darn Hot, and there are memorable contributions from every member of the company, whether it’s Cindy Belliot’s spectacular high belt in the opening number or Simon Oskarsson’s equally spectacular trumpet playing at the top of the second act. For the first show I’ve seen in 2019 (it wasn’t going to be the first, but news headlines in the weeks before this opened convinced me that perhaps my first show of 2019 should not be a story about a journey to Hell), Paul Foster and his company have set a very high bar for the rest of the year.

And it’s also given me a new item for the top of my theatrical wish-list: can somebody please cast Rebecca Lock as Lily Garland in a revival of On the Twentieth Century? Pretty please? With sugar on?

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