Call it hell, call it heaven…


Or, some collected thoughts on Wednesday’s matinee performance of the pre-West End tour of Chichester Festival Theatre’s (mostly terrific) revival of Guys and Dolls:

First, heaven.

  • Guys and Dolls is one of the very best of the golden-age musical comedies, and it’s on my (very) short list of shows I think, as writing, are just about perfect.
  • This production more than does it justice. There have been bigger, starrier, glossier revivals, but Gordon Greenberg’s staging here has considerable wit and panache, and an almost ridiculous amount of charm. You’ll come out of the theatre with a great big grin all over your face.
  • That doesn’t mean it’s beyond criticism. For a start, a bigger orchestra would be nice. There are sharp, brassy new orchestrations by Larry Blank, and the band really swings, but for this music fourteen players just aren’t enough.
  • Three of the four leads don’t sing particularly well – Sophie Thompson and David Haig (Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit) are actors who can sort of hold a tune, and Siubhan Harrison has a nice-enough voice but is often pitch-approximate. You aren’t going to want a cast recording of this production (not that one has been announced) – but you do want to see them, because they’re all absolutely charming and very, very funny.
  • Jamie Parker’s Sinatra-esque Sky Masterson, though, is brilliantly sung and acted. He’s worth the cost of a ticket on his own.
  • The supporting performances are excellent. Yes, all of them. Gavin Spokes’s Nicely-Nicely Johnson might be first among equals, but there aren’t any weak links.
  • Of course Mr. Spokes stops the show with ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ – and Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright’s choreography is great fun (as it is throughout the show) – and of course he gets an encore. ONE encore, and they don’t milk it beyond that. Thank God. (Yes, I remember Clive Rowe’s shameless, self-indulgent mugging in the 1996 National Theatre revival… and the THREE encores, which made it seem like the song was stubbornly refusing to go away).
  • Neil McCaul’s Arvide Abernathy is absolutely lovely, and his ‘More I Cannot Wish You’ – a song which can sometimes seem like an afterthought – is one of this production’s great highlights.
  • That’s partly because Mr. Greenberg is careful to keep the show grounded in a (reasonably) believable emotional reality. It’s a slight comedy with a silly story, but this is a show about people – as opposed to, for example, the Jerry Zaks revival twenty-odd years ago, which was mostly about actors doing schtick.
  • Really good-looking sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh – a sunburst of period billboards, superbly lit by Tim Mitchell. As I said further up, there have been more opulent productions – but other designers, with this show, have spent more and achieved less. Again, I’m thinking of that Jerry Zaks revival, which was far too cartoonish in terms of the design as well as the performances.
  • This was only this company’s second public performance. There are a few timing/pacing issues that I expect will be tightened up by the time the show hits London, particularly in the first half of the first act, which seemed a little tentative; that’s only to be expected at a second preview, and it was crystal clear all the way through that the production is a labour of love for everyone involved.
  • And the few legitimate quibbles, by the end of the show, seem more or less irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that there’s no string section, or that some of the singing is merely adequate, because in every other respect this is a perfectly-pitched, perfectly-judged staging of an acknowledged classic. It’s fresh, funny, absolutely charming, and it doesn’t muck about with the material.
  • It’s following Chichester’s brilliant revival of Gypsy into the Savoy in the West End for a limited season before going out on tour again. Go.

Aaaaand… the Hell.

  • It’s a while since I’ve done a midweek matinee at the Palace, and the audience, as a whole, were not charming. It’s not the Liverpool Empire – I think some of those people actually bite – but there was plenty of bad behaviour on display, and the house management was ineffectual at best.
  • At the top of the show, before the overture began, the theatre played a selection of ringtones over the PA. They did not, however, make any announcement explicitly asking patrons to turn off their phones. The predictable result was that a lot of phones went off during the performance – in the stalls, at least five in each act that I heard, and possibly more.
  • You know that stereotype about how British people love to queue? This audience didn’t. Is elbowing people in the ribs to shove them out of the way as you rush up the aisle now a thing? In Manchester, apparently, yes it is.
  • There was also a constant – and disruptive – stream (sorry) of people leaving their seats, usually from the middle of the row, to go to the toilet mid-act. I know, I know – midweek matinee, so an elderly house, but the show isn’t that long.
  • When you know you’ve got a relatively elderly audience, it’s usually – take it from a former house manager – a good idea to open the doors a little earlier, because getting them all seated is going to take longer. In this instance, at least some of the shoving in the aisles was simply down to bad crowd management: the doors opened relatively late, so there were too many people who don’t move very quickly all trying to get to their seats at the same time.
  • The Ambassador Theatre Group – an organisation which somewhat resembles the Death Star, only a little less benevolent – imposes a not-trivial “transaction fee” on ticket bookings, even if you pick the ticket up from the box office. Given that ticket prices aren’t cheap to begin with, this demonstrates a certain cheek; worse, at 1pm on Wednesday, an hour and a half before showtime, the queue to collect tickets stretched out of the box office onto the pavement and snaked up Oxford Street for the full length of the theatre’s frontage. Since ATG have already bilked  you out of a fee for the privilege of spending your money with them, that’s inexcusable.
  • And then there’s – again – the preview issue. In the West End and on Broadway, ‘preview’ performances prior to the official opening are clearly labelled as such, and are usually sold at a (slight) discount. There’s a reason for that: in previews, the show is still in rehearsal, because there’s a certain point where the actors need to work in front of an audience. The Manchester run is the show’s first date. These are this production’s first public performances, and while the show is in very good shape, there is clearly still a little work to be done in terms of timing/pacing/picking up cues. In other words, this is not a “finished product”, it’s work-in-progress – and that’s fine, as long as it’s labelled and priced as such. It’s hardly the first time ATG have pulled this scam on Manchester audiences; presumably they think people in the provinces don’t know any better, and they’ve sometimes previewed shows here that were in far worse shape than this one, but it still demonstrates a certain contempt for the local audience. Audiences are very forgiving – if you tell them it’s a preview, and that work is still going on, they’ll understand (and they’ll love it if something goes wrong) – but if you’re not selling them a finished product, they need to be informed. To sell a preview performance at full price without labelling it as such is tantamount to bait-and-switch. It’s dishonest, and we deserve better.

Imelda’s Turn

gypsy savoy

Or, some quick thoughts about the current London revival of Gypsy:

* It’s one of my favourite shows (I wrote about that the last time I saw it), so to me, ANY production is an event.

* Given Imelda Staunton’s reviews, both here and in the production’s initial run in Chichester, this revival is rapidly turning into An Event. Ms. Staunton is giving one of those landmark performances that people will be talking about for years.

* Yes, she can belt. Not that everything in the score has to be belted – the role was created by Ethel Merman, but there’s more than one way to sing this score – and Ms. Staunton brings a great deal of light and shade to her interpretation of the music. The fact that she can unleash a great big belt voice when she needs to seems to surprise some people, though. Perhaps they didn’t see her in Guys and Dolls.

* Ms. Staunton, though, is an actress before she’s a singer, and this is first and foremost an acting performance. Her performance is both funnier and darker than other people I’ve seen in the role have been – she’s an immensely skilled comic actress (I mean, she even managed to be funny in the witless sitcom Is It Legal?), this is a musical comedy, and she finds every laugh you’d expect, along with several you don’t. At the same time, though, she is truly formidable – and it’s also clear from the outset that this Rose, psychologically, is a little out-of-kilter with the rest of the world. She can be charming, but she’s fuelled by rage, and when she explodes – as in the scene in Granziger’s office towards the end of the first act – her anger is disproportionate. This is a woman with very little sense of perspective.

* This serves to make her, oddly, more fragile than some other Roses have been. Her big numbers at the end of each act – Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn – are each, here, genuine breakdowns. Staunton’s Rose’s Turn, in particular, is emotionally wounding in a way nobody else I’ve seen in the role has quite managed. I think the entire theatre stopped breathing until the number was over.

* Actually, I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the second half of the second act. Even if you know the show by heart – which I do, more or less – this is an unusually compelling production.

* Peter Davison’s Herbie and Lara Pulver’s Louise haven’t received enough praise. Davison has always been underrated as a stage actor, and this is some of the best work he’s ever done. Pulver sings beautifully, of course, but her second-act scenes with Rose, again, are more bruising here than they’ve been in other productions. Nothing escapes these actors; this is as good an account of the show’s book as you are likely to see.

* It’s a pity, therefore, that they’re using the slightly cut-down revised version of the book from the 2008 City Center revival (no ‘Small World’ reprise, much shorter version of the hotel scene in the first act in which Rose no longer accuses the hotel manager of attempted rape, a few other nips and tucks). None of the alterations are improvements; I’m not sure the cuts are mandatory, given that they weren’t included in the last British revival, and when everything else here is so good, it’s a shame to find them working from a slightly less effective version of the script. The stuff that’s missing here is not superfluous.

* The strippers – Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe, and Julie Legrand – are hilarious. Their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” brings the house down.

* Director Jonathan Kent’s big achievement here lies in the performances. It’s a solid staging of the show, but not a startling one. He has a superb cast, and he keeps out of their way.

* A string section would have been nice. This production has a trio of central performances that may be as close to definitive as anyone has achieved since the show’s original Broadway cast in 1959; it’s a pity they’re working to a somewhat reduced orchestration, although the reductions are quite skilfully done. It’s not a tiny band, but it’s not the original orchestrations either, and the original orchestrations are glorious.

* It’s a little bit anal of me, I know, but it’s not my very favourite thing when a theatre programme refers to a character by a name that’s never mentioned in the script:

Imelda Momma

* Those are minor quibbles, though. This production is running until November. If you love theatre, musical or not, you need to see it. Staunton is doing the strongest work of her career so far, and everybody else rises to her level. Theatrical experiences as thrilling as this don’t come along often.

Now, God knows, anything goes

…and I sort of wish it didn’t.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the production. In fact, I almost don’t have enough superlatives to describe the production. Under the artistic direction of Daniel Evans, Sheffield’s Crucible has produced an impressive series of musical revivals, many of them directed by Evans himself. His production of My Fair Lady a couple of years ago was impeccable, and this Anything Goes – now on a UK tour after a run in Sheffield at Christmas – is at least as good.

What makes this all the more impressive an achievement is that Anything Goes, despite a stellar score, is not exactly one of the most durable shows in the canon. This is a typical Thirties musical comedy, albeit one whose book has received several spruce-ups over the past eighty years (the version being performed here dates from 1987), which means Cole Porter’s peerless songs are strung around a set of barely-two-dimensional characters and groan-inducing jokes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the show can be glorious, but it does mean it’s rather tricky to get it right. The upbeat songs are brassy, but make them too brassy and the characters singing them can become unpleasantly strident. The romantic numbers are meltingly lovely, but can seem melodramatic next to the comedy material if they aren’t delivered with a light touch. The jokes creak, and you can see half of them coming a mile off, but push the comedy too hard and the show rapidly deflates. It’s a soufflé, and all the ingredients have to be in perfect balance.

Happily, they are. Evans begins his production surprisingly quietly; the opening sequence, which takes place in a Manhattan nightclub, is accompanied only by a solo piano and a (very, very muted) trumpet, and we don’t hear the full band until the action shifts to the cruise ship on which most of the show takes place. What follows is a total delight. We have gorgeous costumes and an elegant forced-perspective Art Deco ocean liner set by Richard Kent, good-humoured but not too on-the-nose choreography by Alistair David, appropriately splashy lighting by Tim Mitchell, and sensitive, swinging musical direction from Tom Brady, leading an impeccably tight nine-piece band. Sure, the plot is outlandishly ridiculous, but when the action is led by Debbie Kurup’s sweet-but-hot evangelist nightclub singer (really!) Reno Sweeney and Matt Rawle’s goofily charming stockbroker Billy Crocker, who cares? They land every single laugh, and so does everybody else, and they find both the wit and the ache in Porter’s effervescent score. There are no stunt-cast X-Factor finalists or has-been pop stars here, and everybody involved clearly loves the material. More than that, everybody involved clearly trusts the material. Evans and his cast don’t try to force or in any way punch up the script’s hoary old groaners; they know the jokes work, ancient as they are, and they give the material room to breathe. Even Simon Baker’s sound design is a cut above what you usually get on the touring circuit – you can actually hear all the lyrics, and the sound system doesn’t assault your eardrums every time the music starts. A larger band might be nice, but this is otherwise about as good as revivals of classic musicals get.

So what’s my beef? Two things. First, cellphones. Yes, AGAIN. I didn’t hear any phones ring, but there were far too many people texting/checking email/whatever when the lights were down. In a darkened theatre, the light from smartphone screens can travel a surprisingly long way. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and it’s also incredibly rude to the actors, who can see those screens from the stage.

And then there are the programme notes. Oh my God, the programme notes. Programmes in this country are not free, like they are on Broadway. You pay for them, and they are relatively expensive – for this show it’s £4.00, and that’s for a programme, not a souvenir brochure. For this you get the usual – cast/creative bios, list of musical numbers, some kind of article about the production, and so on. You do not, in this instance, get bios of the people who actually wrote the show – no bio of Cole Porter, much less of Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, who wrote the version of the show’s book that’s being performed here. That’s bad enough, but it pales next to John Good’s lazy, inaccurate production history of the show, which is the first thing you’re likely to read when you open the (overpriced) programme. Among other things, we are informed that Mr. Crouse and Mr. Weidman wrote a new book for the National Theatre production of the show in 2002 (nope), and Patti LuPone starred in a London revival in 1969 (when she was in college… in New York). Now, OK, most people aren’t as geeky about this stuff as I am, but these are not obscure facts. This is the sort of stuff you can research in ninety seconds by visiting the show’s Wikipedia page, and the fact that this tripe made it into print in a programme we’re expected to pay for reeks of a certain disdain towards the audience – that it’s OK to dash off any old crap for the programme in five minutes without checking it because most people watching won’t know any better, and that it won’t matter if you omit the writers’ bios because they are not, Cole Porter aside, particularly famous in this country (never mind that one of the authors of the show’s original 1930s book is P.G. Wodehouse). When every single thing you see on the stage – every set-piece, every prop, every line, every note of music, every light cue, every dance step, every throwaway aside – is executed with such love of and care for the material, I’m afraid I find that profoundly depressing. It wouldn’t have been very difficult to make the programme as good as the production – or at least not loudly disrespectful towards both the material and the people who wrote it – but the powers-that-be, in this instance, simply couldn’t be bothered. The show’s authors deserve better, and so do we.

One more thing: the theatre (the Opera House in Manchester) was less than half full (granted, it’s one of the largest houses the tour will play). The show is on the road until the early autumn, and it’s well worth seeing. In case I haven’t said this enough, revivals as good as this one don’t come along very often, and this show deserves full houses.

Just maybe skip buying a programme.

Like, total drag.

Or, some reflections on the experience of attending Wednesday’s matinée performance of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Opera House in Manchester:

It’s fun, sometimes relentlessly so. The film was fun too, but it also had a surprising emotional depth. There’s far less of that in evidence here.

This is very definitely a touring production. While it doesn’t lack spectacle, it’s considerably less elaborate than the Sydney, London and Broadway incarnations of the show, at least judging by the production photographs from those cities.

There’s a bus, but it’s more skeletal than it was, and several larger set-pieces have been cut down, or are simply MIA. The costumes, though, are still incredibly elaborate and often very funny, and the smaller, cheaper set does at least come to us with smaller, cheaper ticket prices attached. And the show plays well enough even with some of the candy-wrapping taken out.

It’s a jukebox musical, meaning there’s no original score. Instead, there’s a nearly nonstop parade of every camp disco classic you’ve ever heard, plus Pat Benatar’s ‘We Belong’ and a couple of ballads. And I never, ever, EVER need to hear Pat Benatar’s ‘We Belong’ again.

This show does, though, do a more intelligent job than usual of making the grab-bag of pop and disco hits fit the plot – even, improbably, in most of the more ‘serious’ scenes. Much of the show’s vocal load is carried by a trio of ‘Divas’ who deliver their numbers in elaborate disco outfits, suspended above the stage. Here, they’re Emma Kingston, Laura Mansell, and Ellie Leah, and they are great, both individually and as a group.

‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, though, is a misstep. It’s a great song, but it’s used in the funeral scene near the top of the show, it’s given inappropriately silly choreography, and it reduces Bernadette’s very real grief to the level of camp clowning. It’s as if the show’s creative team are afraid of slowing down and Being Serious less than ten minutes into Act One, and it’s a choice that seriously short-changes both the actor playing Bernadette and the show as a whole.

All the lines you remember from the film are present and correct, but they’re all played more for laughs than they were in the film, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. That’s not to slight the cast, all of whom do as well as they possibly could with what they’ve been given. Richard Grieve does particularly strong work as Bernadette, despite a stage script (co-written by Stephan Elliott, the film’s screenwriter) that stubbornly refuses to let anyone hold on to a serious emotion for longer than about three seconds before the next glittery production number begins. He can’t quite sell the funeral scene, but I doubt anybody could; elsewhere, he’s funny, touching and believable, and he makes it his own. Given Terence Stamp’s indelible performance in the film, that’s quite an achievement.

As Tick, Jason Donovan redeems himself here for the one other time I’ve seen him onstage – a dreadful 1996 revival of ‘Night Must Fall’ (it’s a dreadful play, it was a dreadful production, and he was dreadful in it). His singing voice, these days, is a little worn around the edges, but that works for the character; he’s really good in the role, and – like Grieve – he manages to land the laughs and supply as much depth of feeling as the stage version allows.

Yes, there are ping-pong balls, accomplished via theatrical sleight-of-hand. It’s a clever conjuring trick, and Frances Mayli McCann’s Cynthia is raucously funny.

The film wasn’t afraid to show moments of realism and grit – compare the stage’s happy-shiny-drag-show opening with the very dark first scene in the film – and it was all the better for it. The stage version, too often, plays like a brightly-coloured fairytale. Given that the heart of the show is three queer/transgendered people trying to find some accommodation with a world that usually does not treat them kindly, that’s a problem. Despite the best efforts of everyone in this cast, the overall effect is sunnier and ultimately less moving than the film, and the stakes don’t seem nearly as high. But hey, there are dancing cupcakes in ‘Macarthur Park’, so who cares about depth?

It’s not that it’s a bad show, the funeral scene aside. There’s plenty of spectacle, even in this cut-down touring production, and the production numbers are energetic and imaginative, and it’s packed with funny lines. It’s big, loud, slick and very entertaining – but it could have been much, much more.

And I’m afraid that once again, the behaviour of some of the audience at the Opera House didn’t add to the show at all. In front of me in act one, there were two ladies who talked constantly and loudly, occasionally breaking off to swig from bottles of wine – not miniatures, either – that they’d brought in from the Tesco across the street. Their charming response to being asked to quieten down? “You can’t tell me what to do, shut your face!”. The house management very kindly found me a different seat for Act Two, so I didn’t have to listen to them during the rest of the show – but that, of course, ducks the problem somewhat, in that they didn’t take any effective steps to protect the other audience members in that section who hadn’t complained. These two ladies were disruptive enough that a competent house management would have thrown them out; it is simply not acceptable to expect an audience who have all paid non-trivial sums of money for their tickets (prices for this show are far lower than they were in the West End, but that doesn’t mean they’re cheap) to put up with the performance being disrupted by people who don’t know how to behave in a theatre. Unfortunately, the Opera House is an Ambassador Theatre Group venue, and ATG are not exactly known for their stellar customer service. The house manager I spoke to was pleasant, apologetic, and very helpful to me, but she was clearly unwilling to take any action that would involve  directly asking these people to tone down their appalling behaviour, and that, I’m afraid, just isn’t good enough.

Oh yes, one more thing: the show, in Manchester, is being presented under ATG’s increasingly fatuous Manchester Gets It First promotional banner. That’s first, in this instance, after Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London, Toronto, New York, Sao Paulo,  Minneapolis, Cleveland, and St. Louis. And all of those venues got a more elaborate physical production than we did. Aren’t we lucky? We’re the first to get the cheap version. Big whoop.

Sound and fury, signifying…

Or, a list of things I learned at last Friday’s matinee performance of American Idiot at the Palace Theatre in Manchester:

1.  The show is loud.

2.  I mean, really really loud. I like rock musicals, and rock musicals should be loud, but this one is LOUD.

3.  Although not loud enough to drown out the two women sitting behind me who talked all the way through, but it would probably have taken an apocalypse to shut them up.

4.  This is exciting music, more varied than you expect, and it works well in a theatre…

5.  …particularly when paired with Stephen Hoggett’s restless, jagged choreography, which is the best I’ve seen in a musical in years.

6.  And that’s a good thing, because Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics for the show are mostly shallow, whiny, tedious crap sung by barely-two-dimensional characters, and they do not, in this presentation, add up to anything resembling a play.

7.  The bad lyrics are better than the brief dialogue sections written by Mr. Armstrong and Michael Mayer, the production’s director. Neither Mr. Armstrong nor Mr. Mayer should quit their day jobs.

8.  Michael Mayer’s staging, on the other hand, is so stunningly good that it almost made me forgive him for the horror that was Thoroughly Mechanical Millie. But only almost.

9.  Almost equal credit for this should go to Christine Jones, Andrea Lauer, Kevin Adams, and Darrel Maloney – respectively, the set, costume, lighting and video/projection designers. They’ve created a deceptively simple, sharply witty physical production that provides, particularly in its very clever use of video, a great deal of the bite that’s lacking from Armstrong’s generically disaffected lyrics. This show is a visual knockout in ways you won’t expect.

10. The onstage band is terrific, and so are Tom Kitt’s orchestrations and vocal arrangements. 21 Guns, in particular, is quite stunning.

11. The entirely American cast are entirely superb – sang, danced, acted magnificently well, and their energy was astonishing. They’re young, they’re great, they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves, even though you’ve probably never heard of any of them, and they all deserve every success.

12. The finale, in which the entire cast line up across the stage, playing acoustic guitars, to sing Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), is ridiculously charming, and the show’s musical highlight.

13. These UK tour dates add an intermission to the show (which was a one-act on Broadway), basically to let the punters go to the bar, which should tell you everything you need to know about how committed Work Light Productions and the Ambassador Theatre Group are to maintaining the integrity of the shows they present. Shoehorning in an intermission did not help the show, which would have played better as a 95-minute one-act.

14. Two of the three plot strands don’t really work very well – the drugs plotline has been seen before in about a thousand movies-of-the-week on the True Movies channel, and the idea of an addict having a glamorous alter ego who tempts him to get high is neither particularly original nor particularly interesting, despite an absolutely compelling performance from Trent Saunders as the alter ego in question. Yes, we get it. Doing smack a lot really fucks you up. That’s pretty much all the show has to say on the subject, and it’s not enough.

15. The army subplot is far better executed, thanks at least partly to stunning video projections and choreography. The Extraordinary Girl/Before the Lobotomy sequence, in particular, is jaw-dropping – with no thanks to the lyrics, which (again) are thuddingly bathetic.

16. When it was revealed that the young soldier had had his leg amputated below the knee, one of the mouthy women sitting behind me burst out laughing. Laughing at that particular moment, obviously, more or less has to make her stupid on a level that calls Darwin into question, but the fact that she had that particular response at that particular point in the show suggests that the production had not quite succeeded in providing an emotionally gripping narrative to go with the loud music and thrilling visuals.

17. And that’s an understatement. Mayer et al present the show’s three plot strands with exceptional clarity, but the terrible lyrics and (occasional) terrible dialogue mean that we very rarely feel much emotional engagement with the characters onstage. The show is often exciting, but it’s also never moving.

18. It’s very sweary, too, and not particularly suitable for younger children – something which hadn’t quite filtered through to some parents in the audience, who’d brought children considerably younger than ten to see a show that contains all manner of sex, drug use and violence, both stylised and not. I don’t have a problem with any of this content – but I’m forty, and I would not take a nine-year-old to see this.

19. The flying sequences are superb.

20. In the end, it’s probably best to approach the show as a kind of balletic collage set to the music of Green Day, rather than a rock musical. The show’s visual presentation is frequently extraordinary, and the video projections and choreography, in particular, have a grim wit that’s almost entirely lacking in the lyrics. In some ways, American Idiot is an absolute triumph, but the text, in places, is very, very underpowered indeed, despite some excellent music. You’ll get a dazzling show – more or less literally in a couple of places, depending on where you’re sitting – and it’s certainly well worth seeing, but you won’t get much in the way of emotional engagement. There’s a reason it only lasted a little over a year on Broadway while a number of other rock musicals with lesser music (leaving the lyrics entirely out of the equation) have run longer: thrilling visuals and choreography aren’t enough to make up for trite lyrics and a clichéd plot, even with a winning cast. This is as strong a physical production of a musical as I’ve ever seen – but unfortunately, along the way, Mr. Mayer and Mr. Armstrong forgot to write a show to go with it.

Sex with the light on

“The first few performances are like sex with the light on. They’re fun, but you might see some things you don’t want to.”

I might have paraphrased slightly  – I wasn’t taking notes – but that was Jeff Calhoun, the director and choreographer of the UK tour of the Dolly Parton-scored musical 9 to 5, addressing the audience at the Opera House in Manchester this afternoon during an unscheduled break caused by a scenery malfunction at the show’s second public performance. Apparently they’ve yet to make it all the way through the show without stopping, although this afternoon they got further than they did last night. This afternoon, during the big Act Two production number “Change It”, part of a drop caught on another piece of scenery and threatened to fall down; the stage was cleared, the safety curtain descended, Mr. Calhoun came out to talk to the audience (he was charming, and very funny, and the audience loved him), and the show continued a few minutes later.

It’s live theatre, and it happens. I knew when I bought the ticket that I would be seeing the second public performance of a brand new production, it’s a complicated staging with a lot of moving furniture and drops, and it wasn’t exactly surprising that they had some technical problems. It certainly didn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the show. However… when a show opens in the West End or on Broadway, the first performances (for a big new musical, anything up to the first three or four weeks or performances, in fact) are advertised as previews, which is essentially an admission that you won’t quite be seeing a finished piece of work. When you’re getting a piece of theatre up on its feet – any piece of theatre, but especially a big musical – there is work that cannot be done until there’s an audience present. Previews are when performances get adjusted, the writing is tweaked, and technical problems get resolved. Yes, sure, there are endless tech rehearsals before previews begin, but in a tech rehearsal you can always stop and start a scene again – you don’t have the pressure of having to get through the whole show without a break, which is what you have to aim for as soon as there’s a paying audience watching.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago (meaning within my memory, and I’m not that old), preview performances were sold at a discount. It’s still, I think, the case in the West End and on Broadway that discount codes are more often than not available online for preview performances – at least, if you know where to look. They are, at least, invariably labelled as preview performances in the show’s advertising and on ticketing websites, and instances where they are not have drawn sharp criticism in the press from theatre journalists.

You might have guessed that the Ambassador Theatre Group, which operates the Opera House in Manchester, didn’t bother with any of that. While it is certainly obvious from the tour schedule that the Manchester performances are the production’s first, when I booked the ticket there was no indication anywhere on their booking site that I would be seeing the equivalent of something that, in the West End, would be labelled as a preview, never mind any hint of early performances being sold at any kind of discount. Now, I’ve seen a lot of theatre, I figured it out for myself, and I went ahead and bought the ticket anyway (the Manchester run is not long, later performances here did not work for me, and it’s going to be a good while before the show is playing at any other venue that would be convenient), but it still leaves a faintly nasty taste when something that would, elsewhere, be clearly labelled as work in progress is put on sale at full price as a finished product. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, given that the Ambassador Theatre Group’s commitment to customer service is not exactly outstanding (really – an almost twenty-minute queue to pick up tickets an hour and a half before the show began  this afternoon, no facility to print tickets at home, a somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards dealing with customer complaints), but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the standards that apply in the West End to apply here too, particularly given that a top-price ticket to this afternoon’s performance, with fees, would have cost over £40 (cheaper than the West End, true, but still not cheap). If it’s a preview, call it a preview. Let the audience know what they’re buying. If the show’s only in town for a week and a half, they’ll come anyway.

All that having been said, when they’ve worked out the kinks – there were a couple of other noticeable flubs, a very obvious misplaced prop which the actors covered beautifully (the phone cord that Doralee is supposed to use to tie Hart up was not where it should have been, and Amy Lennox had to go offstage to get it), and reflections in odd places near the top of the set that suggest there’s still work to be done on Ken Billington’s otherwise fine lighting – it’s going to be terrific. It’s already a very, very entertaining show, albeit one with a few significant flaws that, at this point in the show’s slightly chequered history, are not going to go away. Dolly Parton, of course, starred in the movie (along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin); for the musical, she’s supplied a score that’s often great fun. No, this is not one of the great contemporary musical theatre scores, but this is an appealing and effective collection of songs, and the good stuff – particularly an extended opening sequence woven out of the movie’s theme song – is really good. True, nearly all of the music sounds like it comes from a Dolly Parton album – she doesn’t really manage to subsume her own distinctive musical voice and write in character – and some of the lyrics clunk, but unlike other recent musicals-adapted-from-films that have passed this way, this score never sounds like musical wallpaper (I’m looking at YOU, Ghost and Sister Act and Legally Blonde). The show flopped in its initial Broadway outing, and the version that’s being performed here reflects the US touring production, which was somewhat revised; the order of songs in Act One has been slightly tweaked, the three separate revenge fantasies have been conflated into a single extended musical sequence (called, of course, ‘Sexist, Egotistical, Lying, Hypocritical Bigot’, which is possibly the film’s most famous line), and two songs – ‘I Just Might’ and  ‘Always a Woman’ – have been cut. The book – like the source film’s screenplay, by Patricia Resnick – is fast and funny, albeit more cartoonish now than the film was; if the denoument currently seems a little breathless, it’ll probably settle down a bit once the actors have a few more performances under their belt.

And the actors, it has to be said, are this production’s biggest asset. In Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Parton and Dabney Coleman, the film fielded a formidable quartet of leads (in the right role, Parton can be a terrific screen actress); the biggest compliment I can pay their counterparts here is that they made me forget their predecessors. Ben Richards is a strong-voiced, hilariously sleazy Hart, Amy Lennox is an adorable Doralee (and has the hardest job, in that she’s playing the Dolly Parton role, and Parton herself – in the form of projected film – narrates the show’s opening and closing sequences and actually comes right out and says that Doralee is her role), Natalie Casey is pretty much perfect as downtrodden Judy, and Jackie Clune’s sassy, sardonic Violet just about walks away with the show. All four have strong singing voices, great presence, and laser-sharp comic timing; none of them are quite ‘stars’ (in the above-the-title, their-name-sells-tickets sense), but all of them should be.

And then there’s Bonnie Langford as office supervisor Roz. It’s a second-banana role with a few scenes, a mediocre song in Act One, and a reprise of the title-song in Act Two, but she cleans up. She takes ‘Heart to Hart’ – a frumpy-secretary-has-the-hots-for-the-boss number that’s just about the least interesting thing in the score, and effortlessly turns it into the production’s biggest showstopper. It helps that she’s given terrific, funny choreography (by Calhoun and Lisa Stevens), but the energy, killer belt and ingenious comic timing are all her own. She’s great, and somebody needs to write her a big old-fashioned musical comedy to star in, stat.

The rest? The ensemble have tons of energy, the bit-parts are all impeccably filled, Kenneth Foy’s witty set (drops, office furniture on castors, Hart’s bedroom) moves fluidly and affectionately mocks ugly late-70s ‘good taste’ (the bright costumes are great too, but – oddly – nobody owns up to them in the programme), the eight-piece band are impeccably tight (the sound design, though, is often muddy, and in the ensemble numbers the bass is turned up way too high – that, again, is something that tends to get worked out in previews), and Calhoun’s slick staging never lets the pace flag. It’s good now, and it’ll be better a few weeks from now. Everyone onstage is clearly having a wonderful time, and that sense of fun spills across the footlights; the writing isn’t always magical, and this performance was rougher around the edges than you’d expect from something that was not sold as a preview, but the cast’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious, and for once the (more or less obligatory at a big musical at the Opera House) standing ovation did not feel forced.

So yes, it’s well worth going – but if you see it over the next week in Manchester, be aware that they’re still working. It’s great fun, but – as of right now – it isn’t quite finished.