(Lower) East Side Story

rags

The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,¬† that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

hope mill

 

 

Whatever happened to Dainty June?

Or, two reviews in one. There’s a tenuous link between these shows – I mean, other than that I saw them both – and it’s that the central female character in each is named Fran, and that I’ve seen each actress-playing-Fran play June in a revival of Gypsy: Daisy Maywood at Curve, and Gemma Sutton at the Savoy. And in both cases, they’re the best thing about the show they’re in right now. Given the shows they’re in right now, that doesn’t necessarily suggest a very high bar, but they’re both wonderful, even if the shows surrounding them are not.

Strictly Ballroom, to be fair, counts as a near-miss. Baz Lurhmann‘s gaudily kitsch camp-fest of a film is an obvious choice for adaptation as a stage musical, and the show – somewhat retooled after its Australian premiere two years ago – gets a lot of things right. The plot is still completely ludicrous, the camp/bitchy one-liners still come thick and fast, and the costumes are so LOUD you’ll come out of the theatre with day-glo lime-green taffeta permanently etched on the back of your eyeballs. The book, “adapted” by Terry Johnson from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s original(s) (Luhrmann and Pearce have co-written every incarnation of the material so far, from the play that begat the film to the book the musical used in Australia), is fast and funny, Drew McOnie’s choreography in the big production numbers is sensational, and Soutra Gilmore’s revolving multilayered set almost, nearly makes it look as if the production had a lavish budget.

There’s a superb cast, too. As Fran – just Fran – the mousy, bespectacled young woman who has only been dancing for two years and who is yearning to express her inner longings via the paso doble blah blah blah (this is not a show where you’re going to be surprised by anything the plot throws at you, even if you’ve never seen the film), Gemma Sutton is pretty much perfect – she sings gloriously, tugs your heartstrings convincingly, and has whatever quality it is that draws you to someone whenever they’re onstage. Opposite her, as Scott Hastings, the dancer who just wants to dance his own steps but the judges won’t let him blah blah blah, we have Dale White standing in for an indisposed Sam Lips (who incidentally has the best name in showbiz since Buster Skeggs), and he’s perfectly OK. He dances very well indeed (he’s the production’s dance captain as well as an understudy), acts and sings well enough, and doesn’t leave anyone feeling short-changed, although he also doesn’t quite bring the fiery star quality you perhaps need to sell material as silly as this. The wonderful Eve Polycarpou makes something warmly touching out of Just Fran’s ethnic clich√© of an Abuela, Tamsin Carroll’s comic timing as Shirley Hastings, Scott’s insanely ambitious mother, could cut through steel, and the supporting roles are all perfectly, colourfully filled.

So what’s missing? Bluntly, a score. Luhrmann and his colleagues haven’t given the job of writing the show’s score to one single songwriting team. Instead, they seem to have collared anyone who didn’t run away fast enough and persuaded/coerced them into supplying one or two numbers, and then thrown in the songs from the movie soundtrack for good measure. This doesn’t work at all; the new songs are uniformly dismal, the familiarity of the older ones from the movie makes the new songs seem even worse, and the show, which is great fun whenever the actors are speaking or dancing, sags badly whenever anybody opens their mouth and starts to sing. Even Ms. Sutton can’t quite save it, although she comes closer than anyone else to selling the parade of forgettable songs she’s being paid to sing (actually that’s not quite fair: Beautiful Surprise, Scott and Fran’s big duet, is insinuating enough that you probably won’t forget it in a hurry, although it’s so utterly banal that you’ll keep trying). Strictly Ballroom, at least in this incarnation, is certainly a viable musical, so it’s too bad that the music is the element that holes the production below the waterline. Really, the only way the show is going to work is if they throw the whole lot out and start again, preferably using people who have at least a passing acquaintance with the concept of wit.

Promises Promises, at the Southwark Playhouse, has more or less exactly the opposite problem. While it’s rarely revived in this country, it’s a minor 60s classic, and the music – so far, Burt Bacharach‘s single original score for the theatre – is peerless. The material surrounding the score, on the other hand, is less than completely successful, although that’s partly simply because sexual politics are very different now than they were when the show premiered on Broadway in 1968. Based on the Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine film The Apartment, Promises Promises is the sordid-but-wholesome story of Chuck Baxter, a lowly office grunt who lends his apartment to various senior colleagues for them to use as a venue for their extramarital liaisons, then discovers that Fran Kubelik, the woman he’s trying to date, is the frequent houseguest of his boss. Wacky hijinks – including a suicide attempt – ensue, and it all ends happily ever after, three arse-numbing hours after we all first walked into the theatre. The saving grace is the score, and it’s brilliant – a parade of dazzling standards including Half As Big As Life, Knowing When To Leave, Wanting Things, Whoever You Are (I Love You), and the glorious I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. As for the book – if you’d like to see a version of this story that really works, go back to Billy Wilder.

The problem, actually, isn’t that the material is sexist – it’s a period piece, and while attitudes have certainly changed, it hasn’t become uncomfortable in the way that, for example, Sweet Charity (also with a book by Neil Simon) has. It’s simply that Neil Simon’s compulsive, reflexive instinct to go for the gag doesn’t sit very well next to the melodrama of Fran’s suicide attempt in Act Two – we go from three-handkerchief weepie to a wince-inducingly schticky musical number from the (very stereotypically) Jewish doctor who lives downstairs in the space of about three lines. It may be possible to negotiate that transition without making it seem like a great big yawning chasm, but Bronagh Lagan and her cast don’t manage it.

Throughout, unfortunately, the tone is often at least a little off. Lagan tells us in a programme note that she loves The Apartment, film noir, and clowning, but she doesn’t appear to have much idea of how to balance those elements in a production of Promises Promises. Her leading actors – the wonderful Daisy Maywood as Fran Kubelik, and the much, much less wonderful Gabriel Vick as Baxter – are costumed and styled to look, it seems, as similar as possible to Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in the original Wilder film, right down to Fran Kubelik’s rather severe short haircut; since they aren’t Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, this choice does them no favours. There are noirish projections of Manhattan brownstones visible on the upper level of Simon Anthony Wells’s set in some scenes; sometimes they’re effective, and sometimes they work against the comedic content of the scene in front of them. The pacing is sometimes painfully slack. Wells’s set is dominated by a rising garage door which reveals a bar or Chuck Baxter’s apartment, depending on the scene, and you can while away the dead moments by guessing whether or not it’s going to open/close properly the next time it’s used (answer: probably not). When (most) people are singing, the show is a delight – but there’s a lot of space between the songs. It doesn’t help, either, that Gabriel Vick’s Chuck Baxter is barely audible when he sings – and that’s from the third row (of five). He’s charming enough and funny enough in the dialogue scenes, but when he starts to sing he simply disappears. It’s as if he’s interpreted Half As Big As Life, the title of his opening number, as a stage direction; at Saturday’s matinee, his performance of the title song late in the second act was met with stone cold silence from the audience, because nobody could hear him over the backing vocals.

The production is well worth seeing, though, despite the (many) deficiencies in the direction, thanks to Daisy Maywood’s luminously lovely performance as Fran Kubelik and Alex Young’s showstopping, hilarious turn as Marge, the man-eating drunk who picks Chuck up in a bar in the first scene in the second act. It’s not simply that the show comes to life whenever they’re onstage, although it certainly does; they’re both so good that it’s worth sitting through the rest of it to see these two performances. As Marge, Young has two scenes and half a song, and she very nearly walks away with the entire show; Maywood’s Fran, meanwhile, is sincerely played and beautifully sung, and she makes the plot’s happy ending genuinely touching, which is no mean feat in a production in which so little works as it should. This is the text used in the recent Broadway revival, which means two more Bacharach standards – Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home – are uncomfortably shoehorned in as additional solos for Fran; in context, neither song makes much sense, but Maywood sings them beautifully and just about manages to sell them in character. Maywood and Young both, thank God, bring Gabriel Vick’s semi-inert performance somewhat to life when he’s sharing the stage with them; in I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, his big second-act duet with Maywood, he’s even mostly audible.

In the end, though – like Strictly Ballroom, albeit for different reasons – this is a wildly imperfect production. Maywood and Young are great, and it’s lovely to get the opportunity to hear Bacharach and David’s marvellous score in an actual production rather than just via a CD, but Bronagh Lagan consistently fails to capture the show’s tone. Better pacing would help – the production could easily stand to lose at least twenty minutes – but Lagan seems to think she’s directing a film noir, and doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the show and the source material.