Ready for her close-up

sb ria jones

She’s ba-ack!

From Glenn Close’s understudy to headline attraction in her own right, Ria Jones‘s (very belated) big break is an irresistible showbiz-dream-come-true story. She’s always been wonderful – twenty-five years ago, she was a thrillingly-sung Fantine in the first Manchester run of Les Misérables, twenty-one years ago she was flawless in the two leading roles in the chamber musical Romance/Romance at the Bridewell, and she’s toured all over the place and done concerts with just about everyone – but she’s always been one of those people who should be a Great Big Star, and somehow isn’t.

Until now. This time, thanks to the spectacular word-of-mouth that followed the four performances last year when she stood in for an indisposed Glenn Close in a revival of Sunset Boulevard that had basically been packaged and marketed as The Glenn Close Show, it’s Jones’s name above the title on the posters. This production, too, is being sold around the star – and this year’s star is last year’s understudy (which must feel especially sweet given that Jones, in fact, was the first person ever to sing the role of Norma Desmond in a workshop a few years before the original London production). The show itself is what it always was – some good stuff, a lot of musical wallpaper, some real clunkers among the lyrics, and overall a very imperfect adaptation of a more-or-less-perfect film. While the writing isn’t unimpeachable, though, it’s undeniably a great star vehicle. Jones, STARRING as opposed to playing the lead, is superb as Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent movie star whose entanglement with a young writer ends very, very messily indeed; these cut-price touring productions are often faintly dismal affairs, but the production director Nikolai Foster has built around his star is far better than anyone had any right to expect, and in several respects it’s streets ahead of both Lonny Price‘s concert(ish) staging last year and Trevor Nunn‘s overblown original at the Adelphi.

In terms of her strengths in the role, Jones is just about the polar opposite of Glenn Close, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Close’s power in the role came from her immense charisma: she’s a very good actress, but she’s also the kind of Great Big Movie Star whose effortless presence commands an audience’s attention. Her singing, on the other hand, is not her strongest suit – she got away with it, but that’s just about the best you can give her. Jones, on the other hand, is a good actress and a magnificent singer, but she doesn’t bring that kind of movie-star magnetism to the table. Strangely, that’s a combination that turns out to work very well for this role: some of Jones’s predecessors, including Close, were so loudly FABULOUS! that it was difficult to see why Norma Desmond had been forgotten by the public (it’s not as if the transition from silent to talkies was impossible to negotiate: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard all managed it). Jones avoids the trap (hi, Betty Buckley!) of getting too crazy too quickly, giving us a carefully-mapped descent into madness. She’s absolutely believable as a lonely, lovelorn woman, she sings the living hell out of Norma’s big numbers, and she manages to put her own spin on that monologue in the final scene (and a very smart spin it is too – when her Norma announces that she can’t go on with the scene because she’s too happy, Jones’s Norma genuinely is. She’s completely out to lunch, of course, but she’s happy, not suicidal, because her grip on reality has finally completely snapped). It’s not necessarily the most subtle account of the role you’ll ever see (and I suppose I might mention here that my favourite Norma, as much as I loved Close last year, Jones in this, and Elaine Paige in the original production, is probably Rita Moreno, who delivered an astonishing acting performance and, like Close, just about got away with the demands of the score), but that final scene still raises goosebumps, and I doubt anybody has sung As If We Never Said Goodbye better than Jones sings it in this production.

Opposite her, Danny Mac is a strong Joe Gillis – and for once, in this production, it’s clear that Norma is a character in Joe’s story, rather than the other way around. He sings well, and captures the character’s corrosive self-loathing better than anyone I’ve seen since Kevin Anderson in the original London cast. Molly Lynch is a sweetly girlish Betty Schaefer, Adam Pearce is a just-creepy-enough Max, and there’s nothing to criticise in any of the ensemble performances (some of the casting is a little young, though: whoever plays Hog-Eye, the spotlight operator, needs to look as if he’s been in showbiz for a hell of a lot longer than three decades. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the actor playing the role in this production was a zygote). There’s a superbly evocative Hollywood soundstage set by Colin Richmond (who also supplies the perfectly-apt costumes), enhanced by Douglas O’Connell’s sometimes subtle, sometimes dazzling video projections. The car chase sequences, in particular, work better here than they did in either last year’s revival or the original staging, thanks to cleverly-timed use of rear-projection.

Nikolai Foster’s staging emphasises Hollywood’s artifice: because the whole production takes place on a soundstage, the detritus of moviemaking is always visible somewhere on the stage, even when we’re supposedly in Norma’s mansion. Towers become walls, Norma’s staircase splits into pieces to become other buildings in other locations, there’s usually a camera visible somewhere on the stage, and O’Connell’s projections keep reminding us of the Los Angeles that exists outside Norma’s mansion, which makes the mansion feel all the more claustrophobic. It’s all accomplished on a much smaller budget than the gargantuan, eye-popping original, but it actually makes a better case for the show than Nunn’s production did. The writing is still uneven – the strongest director couldn’t save a number as weak as The Lady’s Paying, though we’re mercifully spared the limp-wristed, lazily-stereotyped camp caricature of a performance that accompanied the song at the Coliseum last year – but the focus here is firmly on the people rather than the set, and the people are worth your attention. Granted, they’re interesting mostly because of Billy Wilder (and Ria Jones and Danny Mac) rather than Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, but in a Lloyd Webber show you take what you can get. It’s a pity there are only sixteen musicians in the pit – this music really needs a big string section, and it doesn’t get one here, which means the instrumental passages sound anaemic – but that’s really the only major criticism. It may not have happened without the publicity generated when Jones stood in for Glenn Close last year, but this, it turns out, is a very, very fine revival indeed.

Oh yes – before I finish, a shout out to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, and particularly to the three of you who spent the last fifteen minutes of Act One during Wednesday’s matinee holding a conversation in the aisle right behind the back row of the dress circle. It’s not like the customer experience in this venue is ever good – but my expectations are very low indeed, and you surpassed them. Well done.

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Stick it to the… oh, never mind.

 

school-of-rock

Yes, this is late. I saw School of Rock at the November 5th matinée, but the rest of this month has passed by in a blur. So, random thoughts:

It’s tremendously entertaining. Like the film it’s based on, it isn’t going to change the world, but it’s great fun. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber at his least serious, and the show is all the better for it.

You’ll probably be two steps ahead of the plot all the way through, even if the film is a dim and distant memory. We’ve all seen the unikely-teacher-helps-kids-find-themselves story a thousand times; Lloyd Webber and his bookwriter and lyricist – Julian Fellowes and Glenn Slater – don’t add anything new to it here, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. The heart of this show – the thing that makes it well worth the cost of the ticket – lies in the closing concert sequence, in which a stageful of brilliantly talented kids more or less blow the roof off the theatre. Yes, they play their instruments themselves, and they are sensational; it’s oddly moving to see the adult band, on a circle-level platform at stage right, grooving along to the music and ostentatiously not playing their instruments.

The adult cast are just as good, with Florence Andrews a particular standout (and far better than her counterpart on the show’s Broadway cast recording) as the prim headteacher who has lost touch with her inner Stevie Nicks. It’s a shame the wonderful Preeya Kalidas’s character has lost her one solo (‘Give Up Your Dreams’, replaced by a reprise of ‘Mount Rock’); it’s a funny song, and she’d have sung the hell out of it, but never mind.

As failed-rock-guitarist-turned-substitute-teacher Dewey Finn – the Jack Black role, of course – we saw Joel Montague, one of the understudies. If I didn’t know (via his Twitter) that this was his first time on in the role, I would never have guessed. There’s a particular thrill to seeing an understudy go out and nail a leading role, especially while a show is still in previews; Montague simply didn’t put a foot wrong. How good was he? It’s difficult to imagine anyone giving a better account of the role. I’m sure David Fynn is wonderful – but if you don’t get to see him, you’ll be in safe hands.

Don’t go expecting much from Lloyd Webber’s co-writers, though. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are professional but predictable, and while Julian Fellowes’s book is stuffed with funny lines, the characters in it are barely two-dimensional. Give them all credit, though – I laughed like a drain at the sharply funny self-referential gag referencing “this theatre” and the big takeaway ballad from Cats.

As for Lloyd Webber’s contribution, the best part – oddly – is the parade of big, full-throated rock songs for Dewey and the kids. They’re just the right side of knowing parody, they’re ridiculously catchy, and they’ll have you walking out of the theatre with a great big grin on your face. The other characters get short-changed; Florence Andrews gives 150% to Ms. Mullins’s ‘Where Did The Rock Go?’, but even she can’t disguise that it’s a second-tier power ballad which fizzles out forty seconds before it actually ends (this is not, thank God, a jukebox musical, but I wish we could have heard her sing more of Stevie Nicks’s ‘Edge of Seventeen’, which she sings a little of in the preceding scene). The non-diegetic songs for the kids and the teachers, too, make little impression: they’re pleasant enough, there’s nothing in the show that’s bad, but there’s a strong sense that the big concert sequences are what interested the writers, and elsewhere they were just phoning it in.

The bottom line? It’s great entertainment. It is not necessarily a great musical. It’s fun, but it isn’t art. I loved it, but I’m not sure I’d have loved it at £95 (booking hint: the seats in the far side blocks in the stalls, in cost terms, are a comparative steal. They’re technically “restricted view”, but you won’t miss much), particularly since the various trailers/clips of the Broadway production available online suggest that here, while Laurence Connor’s staging is essentially the same as it was on Broadway, we’re getting a significantly less elaborate set.

Oh yes – and let us all take a moment to celebrate the hilarious irony of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who last year took time out of his busy schedule to attend the House of Lords in order to vote to cut tax credits to the working poor, putting his name to a show whose score includes a song called “Stick It To The Man”. Breathtaking, isn’t it?

“I hate that word. It’s a return.”

 

Glenn Close Sunset

 

According to the posters outside the Coliseum, it’s THE THEATRICAL EVENT OF 2016. That might be a little premature given that it’s still only April, but this is certainly one of those productions that sends the West End’s publicity machine into a frenzied overdrive. As you can tell from the poster, the big news here is the STAR: Glenn Close‘s name gets (much) bigger print than the show’s title, and she’s the reason we all paid (through the nose) for tickets to a show that frankly, as writing, is patchy at best.

The reason for this blatant cash-grab revival, though, is not quite what it appears. I doubt the impetus was a sincere desire on the part of the English National Opera to put this particular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical into their repertoire, and most (though not all) of the ladies who played Norma Desmond in the musical the first time around sing the role better than Ms. Close. There has been, though, an undeniable curiosity on this side of the Atlantic about Ms. Close’s Norma, in no small part because of the tabloid slugfest which erupted in London after Close opened in the role in Los Angeles: Close’s reviews were far better than the ones Patti LuPone, the London production’s original star, received at the show’s premiere. Ms. LuPone was contracted to take the show to Broadway, but after weeks of speculation following the Los Angeles opening it was announced that Ms. Close would open it on Broadway in her place. Ms. LuPone, to put it mildly, did not take the news well; the whole sorry saga was all over the papers for weeks, and Ms. Close’s performance, as a result, has achieved something of a mythical status in this country, despite the fact that (until now) she has never played the role here.

More importantly – or rather, more pragmatically – the ENO is in a deep financial hole, thanks to a combination of a significant cut to their Arts Council subsidy, mediocre ticket sales for their regular programming over the past three or four years, and the spiralling costs associated with owning and operating a large, century-old theatre in the middle of the West End. It doesn’t matter that they’d be unlikely, in other circumstances, to programme this material: they need a hit, quick, and there isn’t much in either the opera or the musical theatre repertoire with the potential to sell in London on the level that five weeks of THIS star in THIS role has done. There are still a few seats available, but only a few, which means that over a five-week run they’ll have sold roughly one hundred thousand tickets, with a top ticket price of £150. This isn’t about art, necessarily – it’s about the bottom line, and it’s very clever producing.

And the star, fortunately, delivers. As Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent movie star whose slow descent into madness and mania is the show’s main focus, Close is simply mesmerising. This is a great big old-fashioned star turn of a kind you rarely expect to see in a Lloyd Webber show; Close commands the stage, and you can’t take your eyes off her. Every word, every gesture, every raised eyebrow demands attention, and she plays the audience like a violin. She eerily captures the larger-than-life mannerisms of silent film acting, and she isn’t afraid to go for BIG gestures, but she never crosses the line into camp mugging. In the show’s biggest moments, she is genuinely moving, and she does more than anyone else I’ve seen in the role to compensate for the (several) instances in which the show’s book and lyrics – by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who should know better – are laughably bathetic.

As for her singing, it is what it is. In an interview in the run up to this revival’s opening night, Ms. Close claimed she was singing the role better now than the first time around. She isn’t, at least on the evidence of her cast recording, but there’s very little difference between her singing of the role then and the performance she’s giving now. There’s still a great big yawning chasm between her strong, forceful middle voice and her rather reedy soprano, and she still has to husband her resources in the score’s more demanding passages. If she lacks the powerhouse voice of some of the other ladies who have played the role, though, she more than compensates in other areas, and her delivery of Norma’s two biggest numbers, ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, raises goosebumps. In each case, she is rewarded with the kind of sustained ovation you rarely see in the West End, and she deserves it.

Given that we’re all here to see Ms. Close, the production surrounding her is stronger than it needs to be. Director Lonny Price, who is becoming the go-to hired hand for this kind of semi-staged star-driven extravaganza, turns in a bare-bones (albeit on a huge stage) staging which in a couple of key moments is more effective than the much more complex production Trevor Nunn (over)staged around the corner at the Adelphi in 1993. “Semi-staged”, in this instance, is basically a get-out-of-jail-free card; the production is fully staged and choreographed (by Stephen Mear), there’s a Hollywood soundstage set (by James Noone, with appropriately noirish lighting by Mark Henderson) complete with metal catwalks and staircases, and there’s even a car, borrowed from a production at the Gothenburg Opera a few years ago, for the drive to Paramount Studios, and a drowned-corpse dummy rising on a wire out of the orchestra pit to recreate a version of the film’s famous opening shot. There isn’t an equivalent of the original production’s magnificent floating mansion, but the show, imperfect as it is, works fine without it. In a couple of places, the production’s simplicity is actually an advantage: the car chase sequence, which in Nunn’s too-complicated staging was unintentionally hilarious, is delivered here via the simple but effective means of having actors carry headlights in near-darkness across the catwalks and staircases above the orchestra platform. And in the second act, when Joe and Betty walk out onto a Hollywood backlot, the rear backdrop rises to reveal the full depth (about ninety feet) of the Coliseum’s enormous stage and the theatre’s back wall. That scene is almost the only time the plot moves outside enclosed spaces, and the effect is quite striking.

There’s also a terrific supporting cast. Michael Xavier, as Joe, is better in the second act than the first, but he (of course) sings well throughout, and his forcefully sardonic rendition of the title song almost, nearly manages to make sense of some of Black and Hampton’s more infelicitously misaccented lyrics. Siobhan Dillon is a charming Betty Schaefer, and their ‘Too Much In Love To Care’ is one of the production’s musical highlights. The other is Fred Johanson’s sublimely creepy ‘The Greatest Star of All’; again, the lyrics are terrible, but he makes more sense of them than most of his predecessors in the role did. The song has the single best melody in the show, but in context, because of the lyrics sit so uncomfortably on the music, it often just sits there; in Johanson’s hands, it’s surprisingly touching. The smaller roles are almost all perfectly filled, and the ENO orchestra does a ravishing job of the music. The overture and the orchestral interlude leading into the final scene, in particular, are both quite thrilling. The single misstep is Fenton Gray’s Manfred, a mincing, flaming-queen caricature who makes John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’ look like Heath Ledger in ‘Brokeback Mountain’. He’s saddled with ‘The Lady’s Paying’, which is the worst song in the score, so you can’t blame the actor for pushing too hard, but the number is basically just three minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.

Other quibbles? Not many. Price’s one directorial innovation is to have a Young Norma Desmond shadow Close in some of her key scenes, and this doesn’t really work. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea if you were writing a new adaptation of Billy Wilder’s screenplay from scratch, but there’s simply nothing in this adaptation’s script or score to support it.

Then there’s the programme, which costs £5.00, and is rather special; I think the highlight is an awful synopsis (“Meanwhile the pressures of Norma’s impending project has made her increasingly paranoid”) written by someone who apparently can’t spell the word ‘delusion’, although the breathtakingly defensive article by Michael Coveney, who used to be a good theatre critic, about how “Andrew Lloyd Webber is no less serious an artist than his birth-date fellow composer Stephen Sondheim” – really, that’s the first sentence – runs it a close second. The foreword Michael Grade and Michael Linnit, the production’s commercial co-producers, presumably dictated to an underling while a taxi was waiting outside is almost as amusing; it claims, inaccurately, that this is Ms. Close’s “London debut” – nope – and also informs us that “no great music written for the popular theatre has ever demanded a symphony-sized orchestra to achieve its richest effect quite like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s luscious and filmic score for his smash hit stage version of Sunset Boulevard”. Sometimes it’s better just not to say anything at all. Entertainingly, the programme’s editor, a gentleman named Philip Reed, includes his telephone number next to his credit, so if you’d like to hire someone who can’t be bothered to proofread to put together a programme for your next show,  you know who to call.

In the end, though, with all due credit to the supporting cast, the ensemble, the director and designers, and the orchestra, the show belongs to Glenn Close. Sure, the production itself is a blatant cash-grab and the show, as a piece of writing, is (to be kind) less than a complete triumph, but while the material isn’t always magical, the star certainly is. The production as a whole, given the pressure under which it must have been put together, makes surprisingly few missteps. And it’s heartening, for once, for most of the electricity emanating from the stage to come from the leading lady and the string section.