It’s the freakiest show…

lazarus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bend it like Beckham… or, how the hell are you going to make a musical out of THAT?

 

Bend it

Answer: surprisingly well, as it turns out – even if, like me, you couldn’t be less interested in football.

  • The film is extremely charming; this adaptation – like the film, driven by Gurinder Chadha, who wrote and directed the film and co-writes and directs the musical – stays relatively close to the source material, but finds a way to translate it into something theatrical, rather than simply dumping songs into the screenplay and putting it on a stage.
  • It’s much more a dance show than you might expect. Aletta Collins’s choreography finds a convincing theatrical language for the football sequences, and (in the second act) masterfully intertwines the football with a Sikh wedding dance. The movement is spectacular and often thrilling, although there is very little traditional musical theatre choreography.
  • Howard Goodall’s music is probably his best theatre score since ‘The Hired Man’. Along with his co-orchestrator, Kuljit Bhamra, he does a very clever job of blending English and Indian musical influences into a coherent theatrical language. The score is a beguiling mixture of Britain and Bhangra, and there’s even a 500-year-old traditional Punjabi wedding song thrown in halfway through the second act. It works, and it’s not quite like anything else you’ve heard in a musical.
  • Having said that, the ensemble sequences tend to be better than the solo numbers, a couple of which are, frankly, a bit wet.
  • The opening number – ‘UB2’, the postal area in which most of the show is set – is a real earworm. You’ll be humming it for days after you hear it.
  • Charles Hart’s conversational lyrics generally work well, although occasionally the appropriate language for these characters eludes him (an 18-year-old in 2001 simply would not talk about remembering something for “all my days”). ‘People Like Us’, in which a British-Indian father describes the casual racism he’s encountered throughout his life in the UK, is very moving indeed.
  • As Jess, the 18-year-old Sikh would-be footballer, Natalie Dew is absolutely charming, and she makes you forget Parminda Nagra’s performance in the film.
  • As Jess’s marriage-obsessed sister Pinky (the Archie Panjabi role in the film), Preeya Kalidas is simply brilliant. She’s the best singer in the cast, her comic timing is perfect, and she manages to find the warmth in a role that could very easily turn into a rather sour caricature.
  • Lovely work, too, from Lauren Samuels as Jules, Jess’s friend/rival on the football team, from Sophie-Louise Dann as Jules’s mother Paula (whose quietly sad Act Two song ‘There She Goes’ is the best of the score’s solo numbers), and from Jamal Andréas as Jess’s friend Tony.
  • You can see the ending coming a mile away, even more so than you could in the film, and it doesn’t matter at all.
  • Don’t come expecting a big spectacle along the lines of a ‘Miss Saigon’ or a ‘Phantom’, though. The set is effective, but relatively simple (I think the last time I saw periaktoids was in a regrettable mid-90s UK tour of ‘A Chorus Line’ in which the late Adam Faith was miscast as Zach). Chadha’s staging is admirably fluid, but it isn’t flashy.
  • While it isn’t flashy, though, it is great fun, and you might even have a lump in your throat by the final scene.
  • The souvenir stand in the theatre is asking £16 for a copy of the (terrific) cast recording. That’s just taking the piss.

Overall? It’s worth seeing. Yes, it could probably stand to lose about ten minutes, and yes, the second act is better than the first, but Chadha and her collaborators have taken a film that looked like a very unlikely prospect for adaptation to the musical stage and turned it into an absolutely irresistible stage show. It works beautifully, it’s very entertaining indeed, and it’s not quite like any other musical you’ll have seen.

If you want to see it, though, I wouldn’t hang around. It has a large cast, it’s in a small theatre, and big discounts are available, which means it isn’t selling especially well. It deserves to be a bigger hit, but it isn’t going to be around forever.

Mmm. Gazpacho.

I saw a resurrection yesterday afternoon.

Four years or so ago, Lincoln Center Theater presented a musical adaptation of the cult-ish Pedro Almodovar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown on Broadway, where it did not thrive. It got mostly lousy reviews, ran a few weeks, and closed before the end of the scheduled “limited run” (which would have very quickly become unlimited if the show had taken off at the box office). That’s usually the end of the story – Broadway is littered with the corpses of dead and mostly-forgotten musicals, and so is the West End – except that this time the show’s creators – composer/lyricist David Yazbek, librettist Jeffrey Lane, and director Barlett Sher – all apparently felt there was something in the show worth saving. The cast recording – a frenetic, slightly cartoonish listen that isn’t helped in the slightest by the fact that everyone in the show’s (admittedly impressive) cast is forced to perform using a ridiculous cod-Thpanish accent, presumably in case we all forget this thing is set in Madrid – partly reveals why: underneath the silly accents and the overcaffeinated performances and orchestrations, there are three or four very distinguished songs, and a few more that are at least distinctive.

This London production, then, represents a second chance for the show, and everyone involved appears to be going to great pains in the pre-opening publicity (it’s still in previews) to make it clear that this is not – repeat, NOT – the Broadway production, although it retains the same director. This, we are told, is a smaller, more focused version of the show, incorporating significant revisions including a number of new songs. They haven’t quite gone to the trouble of having a pop-up box saying “this version of the show has been HEAVILY REVISED” appear when you click the link on their website to book a ticket, but don’t imagine somebody didn’t consider it. From the list of songs on the cast album, ‘Time Stood Still’, ‘The Microphone’, and ‘Shoes From Heaven’ are gone; in their place are a (very effective) solo for Lucia called ‘It’s Me’ and a beautiful new finale called ‘The View From Here’ (the scene which contained ‘The Microphone’ has been eliminated). There are some internal changes within some numbers that have been retained, particularly in the second act, the order of songs is a little different (‘Island’ comes later in the first act, as Pepa makes the gazpacho), and the aim throughout appears to be to keep the central strands of the narrative – Pepa’s pursuit of Ivan, Lucia’s pursuit of Ivan and Pepa, and Candela’s realisation that her boyfriend is a terrorist – firmly in focus.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the work appears to have paid off. The clips of the Broadway production that Lincoln Center Theater put on youtube suggest a sprawling, garish, frenetic staging that could overpower the more delicate elements of the plot (I’m not going to give a synopsis here – the movie has been out for more than 25 years and is an acknowledged classic, so if you don’t know what it’s about, you can go and google it yourself). Sher’s London staging, by contrast, is studiedly simple. Here, the show is staged on a two-tier unit set, with (mostly) minimal props and furniture for any scene taking place outside Pepa’s apartment. There are no projections, no moving scenery, and the taxi is two chairs and a steering-wheel. If you like your musicals big and spectacular, this is not the show for you. The simpler approach works well with the material, though – the production has a fluidity that isn’t always easy to achieve in a piece which incorporates a lot of relatively short scenes, and the quieter emotional beats underpinning the rather outlandish plot are allowed room to breathe. Parts of the show are very funny indeed, but the resolution is surprisingly touching. It’s not perfect – although I saw a preview, and it’s likely some timing/blocking issues will be fixed in the week left before it opens – but this is a stylish, funny production that makes an excellent case for the show as a chamber musical, and reveals Yazbek’s score to be rather better than you’d guess from the Broadway cast recording, even given that it always contained a few very strong musical numbers. Surprisingly, the new orchestrations – yes, for a smaller band – help; in this production, the score has a strong Spanish flavour, whereas the orchestrations on the Broadway cast album (for a band that, even there, is not particularly large) are redolent of nothing so much as a particularly frenetic Wacky Races cartoon that takes place on the Autopista de Circunvalación.

The attempt to put as much distance as possible between this production and the previous one even extends to the casting. The Broadway production was luxury-cast with a parade of New York’s best musical theatre performers (and Patti LuPone, but you can’t have everything). Despite the over-emphatic orchestrations and the silly accents, the New York cast sang the hell out of Yazbek’s score, sometimes (on the album, at least) at the expense of either the comedy (Brian Stokes Mitchell, a matinee-idol baritone who doesn’t locate the humour in the preening Ivan’s numbers) or the emotional truth of the moment (Sherie Rene Scott delivers a very pretty ‘Mother’s Day’, but there’s no feeling behind it at all, and it’s supposed to be the second act’s emotional anchor) or both (the aforementioned Ms. LuPone, who steamrollers her way through ‘Invisible’ as if the song’s lyrics, and the story they tell, are a mere detail that needn’t concern her). The only completely successful performance is from Laura Benanti as the unstable model Candela (not coincidentally, Ms. Benanti is the only performer in the Broadway cast who completely owns her Spanish accent); everyone else in some way misses the mark.

In London, accordingly, Sher has assembled a very different kind of cast. With very few exceptions, these are actors who sing rather than musical theatre perfomers, led by Tamsin Greig, who has never appeared in a musical before. Ms. Greig is one of the very best comic actresses of her generation; as Pepa, the show’s central role, her job (on top of actually playing the role) is to give the show its emotional centre without being overshadowed by a cast of more colourful supporting characters. Ms. Greig knows how to hold a stage; nobody is ever going to queue up to buy, say, an album of her doing Gershwin standards, but she’s clearly worked very hard indeed on her singing. She reveals an appealingly throaty voice with a surprising range, she’s absolutely in control of it, and her singing gives the character a lovely (and very necessary) vulnerability. It goes without saying that Ms. Greig finds all the laughs and then some, but her “Mother’s Day” is very touching indeed; she does an excellent job throughout of negotiating the space between the show’s emotional core and the more outlandishly farcical plot twists. It’s a difficult role, and she nails it.

There are fine performances from the other leads as well. The standouts? Anna Skellern’s Candela, again, can’t sing like Laura Benanti (though to be fair, that’s a very big club), but she’s both hilarious and believably real, whether she’s yelling into a phone, climbing onto a ledge, or passing out after drinking spiked gazpacho. Jérôme Pradon’s Ivan is an overgrown child who loves women but can’t deal with reality or responsibility; Ivan’s character arc makes better sense here that it does in the film, never mind on the Broadway cast album. Ricardo Afonso’s Taxi Driver kicks the show off with a sizzling “Madrid”, then does a spectacular job of “My Crazy Heart” at the top of the second act, hitting a couple of high notes that induce gasps from the audience. And Haydn Gwynne’s Lucia, Ivan’s vengeful wife who has spent the last 19 years in a mental institution, is more or less perfect. She’s crazy, funny, occasionally achingly sad, and when she strikes a balletic pose on the back of a Vespa in the second act’s climactic chase scene she’s a wonder to behold. She also sings beautifully (and unlike her Broadway counterpart, puts the lyrics across with absolute clarity – no mush-mouthed diction here, thank you very much), and finds every ounce of pathos in “Invisible”, her big Act Two solo. And – for this character, possibly the most important skill of all – she can’t half rock a pair of sunglasses.

Whether or not all this work will turn the show into a hit, though, is another question. It’s good, certainly, but it’s a piece which seems to fall between several stools. The film often seems to be perceived as an out-and-out farce, and it isn’t, and this isn’t either; if you come to this show looking for that kind of comedy, you may not be entirely satisfied. The songs are terrific – it’s Yazbek’s best musical score by a mile – but there isn’t necessarily a big take-home tune, apart from perhaps ‘My Crazy Heart’, which in this production is sung in a key almost nobody could emulate. It’s a simple production staged on a unit set, so you won’t find dazzling visuals here. And while I thought Ms. Greig gave a wonderful performance, it’s not impossible that someone familiar with the Broadway album would find her singing disappointing. It’s also anyone’s guess what the reviews will be when it opens a week from now. Still, the mere fact that Sher and company have taken something that manifestly didn’t work in its first incarnation and transformed it into something that does is a rare and surprising achievement. Most flop musicals – and there are far more flops than hits – sink without trace, and second chances are relatively rare. It may well not have worked at all on Broadway, but this is a show that deserves to be seen.

Oh yes, and a quick note to the two “ladies” in the row behind me who slurped from takeout cartons of soup (not gazpacho) throughout the first ten minutes of the show: please do us all a favour, and stay home until you’ve learned how to behave in a theatre. We’d all paid to listen to the cast, not the sound of the pair of you eating like pigs. Thanks.

Mormons!

I do my level best to avoid Mormon missionaries. If I see them coming, I cross the street, and if they try to continue talking to me after the first polite rebuff, I tend to ignore them; to me, there is something quite offensive about the idea of going up to a complete stranger and, essentially, telling them that your belief system is better than theirs – not to mention that if you really want to try to make the world a better place, there are plenty of more constructive ways to do it than hanging around on street corners and at bus stops pestering complete strangers about a myth. The Book of Mormon, a new musical by the co-creators of South Park and one of the writers behind Avenue Q, is thankfully far more entertaining than your average encounter with a pair of Mormon missionaries (not difficult, so are most migraines), and it’s arrived on this side of the Atlantic trailing clouds of hype (and ticket sales) that are hard to dismiss. Everywhere it’s played so far, it’s received ecstatic reviews, and everywhere it’s played so far, it’s been formidably difficult to get a ticket. Ticket sales in London are heading in the same direction – best availability is several months from now, and preview performances were almost sold out within days of going on sale – but does the show itself live up to the publicity?

In a word, yes, which makes a nice change. Unlike the last show that was touted by the Broadway critics as the second coming of musical comedy – The Producers, which was never as successful anywhere else as it was on Broadway, and which suffered in the absence of its two original stars – The Book of Mormon appears to be a durable enough show to succeed without the original Broadway cast. In London we have a pair of leads imported from the States – Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner, neither of whom is the originator of their role – as Elders Price and Cunningham, two Mormon missionaries who are sent to try and convert the people of Uganda, alongside an entirely local ensemble. They’re all great – this cast is giving as smart, sharp, and funny a set of performances as you could ever hope to see – but none of them are stars (although all of them probably should be), and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. When they’re replaced – which they will be, the London production is going to be around for a while – the show will play just as well with whoever is next, provided the resident directors and stage management run a tight ship.

The reason is simple: this show is flat-out funny. It’s also gleefully, lethally rude, taking deadly aim at an extraordinarily broad range of targets from the absurdity of the Book of Mormon itself and religious dogma in general, through Western colonialist attitudes to the developing world (in the second act, Bono gets a well-deserved kicking), to The Lion King, with healthy doses of profanity and gross-out humour along the way (it contains, among other things, a rectal insertion joke that has to be seen to be believed, and which made me laugh so hard that it caused me actual physical discomfort). No stone remains unturned, and no sacred cow goes unmolested – but there’s also a point, and the writers pull off a difficult trick: despite the barrage of satirical/scatological humour, this is at core a surprisingly sweet show that has something quite surprising to say about the power of faith. To say too much more would be to give too much away, and the show is certainly loudly and consistently critical of rigidly dogmatic religious leaders, but it’s a far cleverer piece of writing, in terms of the stance it takes towards its subject-matter, than you might expect. For that matter, it’s also a far cleverer piece of writing than Parker and Stone’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut or Team America: World Police, both of which – while undeniably very, very funny – are firmly rooted in the blunt-instrument school of satire. Here, while nobody is above making scrotum jokes, there is something a bit more thoughtful going on, although there is never (thank God) a “but seriously though, folks” moment anywhere in the script, and the payoff at the end of the show is surprisingly touching.

How good is it? Well, I think the last musical that made me laugh as much was City of Angels, coincidentally at the same theatre, and that was twenty years ago (omigod, I’m getting old) – and that show, unlike this one, backs itself into a plot corner in the second act and relies on a not-very-convincing deus-ex-machina to get out of it. The Book of Mormon isn’t a perfect show either – while the direction (by co-writer Trey Parker and Casey Nicolaw) and choreography (by Nicholaw) are both blissfully sharp, the physical production (sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Ann Roth, lighting by Brian McDevitt) tends towards the functional, despite a few very clever visual-comedy flourishes. And the score, while always tuneful and always entertaining, peaks early, in that the opening number (‘Hello’, a piece of extended counterpoint in which the would-be missionaries practice their spiel) is better than almost anything else – this might be one of the all-time funniest musicals, but it’s not one of the all-time great scores, although the cast recording is enormous fun. The pace flags a bit, too, in the first half of the second act, but I saw a preview, and it could very well be that that will change as performances are adjusted in the run up to the press night.

Those are minor quibbles, though, and I’m picky: the biggest thing wrong with The Book of Mormon is simply that top-price tickets are priced north of £60 and it’s sold out for months, which means it’s going to be a while before I get to see it again. The best musical comedies – and they are few and far between – leave you walking out of the theatre feeling as though you’re floating on air. On that count, The Book of Mormon unquestionably delivers.

Life is an ersatz cabaret, old chum

[Note: there is a little more to this story. For what happened in the couple of days after I posted this, click here. It’s never fun to get a bad review, but some of Will Young’s fans, it turns out, are hilariously childish and petulant, particularly when they start sending email.]

 

Welkuurmen, beenvanoo, wilcam… eem cubaray…

No, my spell-check has not gone insane. Those are just a few of the words in ‘Wilkommen’, the opening number of Cabaret, that Mr. Will Young is apparently unable to pronounce, whatever accent he’s trying to do. You might suspect that it’s not a good sign when a show’s above-the-title star mangles the first three words he sings at the top of the first act, and you’d be right, but on this occasion it’s worth exercising a little patience. Not for Mr. Young or for Ms. Michelle Ryan, his leading lady – they’re both awful – but for just about everyone else. It isn’t simply that this London-bound revisal of Rufus Norris’s 2006 revisal is a mixed bag. It’s both better and worse than that. It’s a bold, intriguing, intelligent, stylish production with a strong ensemble and a couple of truly remarkable supporting performances, but with a pair of inept celebrity stunt castees shoehorned in to the two most prominent roles in order to pull in the punters because it’s only about four years since the show was last in the West End. What are they like? Put it this way: Rufus Norris, the director, might as well have cast Kermit and Miss Piggy. In fact, they’d probably be an improvement. At least they’d be interesting.

What saves the production is the fact that, unlike the film, Cabaret on stage has always been an ensemble piece in which the focus is split between several characters. Despite Michael York’s fine work, the film rests mostly on Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey – or at least, it’s their musical numbers that people remember afterwards. While the stage version has gone through, it seems, as many different permutations as it’s had major metropolitan revivals – really, you’d imagine from the show’s production history that Joe Masteroff, who wrote the book, delivered a piece of unplayable crap that directors have spent the past 46 years trying to fix, when in fact his original version is superior in nearly every respect to more or less all the revised versions that have followed – it’s always retained a far wider focus than Jay Presson Allen’s (overrated) screenplay. That’s especially useful here, because it means that this production’s hellish miscasting of the actors playing the Emcee and Sally Bowles does not take the rest of the show down with them. It’s not that they’re not that bad – they just don’t have as much stage time as you might expect. Thank God.

So what’s good? A terrific set of sliding panels, ladders, cages and translucent flats by Katrina Lindsay – we are not, in this production, aping the Sam Mendes staging in which everything took place in the Kit Kat Klub, even when it didn’t, and for that relief much thanks – and equally terrific atmospheric lighting from Mark Howett. This is as good-looking a production of Cabaret as you could ever expect to find, and it does not, thank God, bathe you in sleaze from the moment the curtain rises. You see plenty of people snort cocaine, but none of the dancers have visible track-marks. After the skank-overload that characterised the Mendes revival, trust me, that’s a blessing.

And the dancers are great. Norris and his choreographer, Javier de Frutos, have found a superb ensemble. The bit-parts in scenes are all expertly played, the singing is excellent, and de Frutos’s choreography is often genuinely revelatory. This is a rather more dance-centric production of Cabaret than previous major stagings – not a surprising route to take if you have a choreographer of de Frutos’s calibre on board – but it works, and works well. De Frutos has managed the difficult trick of reimagining each of the show’s iconic musical numbers without changing their intent or their subtext. For ‘Money, Money’, he presents the Emcee in a grotesque balloon fatsuit that gets pricked and deflated as the recession bites. The first ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – which in this production is the Act One finale – is a truly creepy human puppet-show in which the singer manipulates the chorus line into performing the Nazi salute. We get ‘Mein Herr’ from the film, but there isn’t a wooden chair in sight. The gorilla number uses projections and sleight-of-hand rather than an actor in an actual gorilla costume, and is chillingly effective.

Transitions between scenes are often choreographed, and some numbers – most notably ‘Why Should I Wake Up?’ and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ – are woven around dialogue to create transitional montages (‘Don’t Tell Mama’, indeed, is seen from behind and only half-heard, as the first scene between Cliff and Bobby takes place ‘backstage’ at the Kit Kat Klub while Sally is out front performing the number). ‘Two Ladies’ features way more than two ladies, several men, and a bed with a trick opening through which any number of people and props can enter and exit. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s appropriately raunchy and decadent, but it’s also – I keep saying ‘Thank God’, don’t I? – far subtler than the Mendes production was in either its London or North American incarnations, and far less self-consciously skanky (can you tell I really didn’t like the Mendes production very much?). You don’t see a Swastika until the last thirty seconds of Act One, or a Nazi uniform until midway through Act Two – Norris does a far, far better job than Mendes did of showing us the gradual, insidious growth in the Nazi Party’s influence. There’s a concentration camp tableau at the end, but unlike the one Mendes gave us, it doesn’t feel tacked-on or gimmicky. If you have to present a revised version of Cabaret, this is as good as any and better than most.

And yet, and yet… I liked this version of the show, the cuts and alterations are intelligently chosen, and the show plays briskly (theoretically two hours twenty minutes including an intermission), but there wasn’t anything much wrong with the original book and score, beyond the original book’s uncomfortable presentation of Cliff as unequivocally straight. This is not a show that needs extensive revision, but for some strange reason, it usually gets it – although, of course, these days it’s hardly unusual for a major revival of a post-1940s musical to incorporate significant revisions, and the revisions here are less egregious than some.

What else is good? Henry Luxemburg as Cliff. He’s the understudy, and he’s great. One of this particular production’s huge achievements is that it’s always clear that what we’re watching is primarily Cliff’s story – which it technically is in every other version as well, but Cliff often gets somewhat lost among a parade of more colourful supporting characters. That’s not the case here. Also, the wonderful, always-welcome Harriet Thorpe (you might have seen her in AbFab) is a sharp, brassy Fraulein Kost, and Nicholas Tizzard is a stealthily insinuating Herr Ludwig. They’re impeccable. Even better, there’s Sian Phillips and Linal Haft as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. He’s superb, she’s perfect. Her scenes in the second act, in particular, are so riveting that they’re worth the cost of a ticket in themselves.

Which is a good thing, because you won’t get much value out of Mr. Young or Ms. Ryan. Mr. Young is essentially delivering a Xerox of James Dreyfus’s performance as the Emcee in this production’s earlier incarnation. He’s a far better singer than Mr. Dreyfus – his best, most effective moment comes with the interpolated ‘I Don’t Care Much’, because he doesn’t have to do anything much except stand still and sing the damn song – but he’s no kind of actor at all, although he certainly throws himself into it. He has approximately the charisma of a 15-watt lightbulb, and he gives the impression of having learned every gesture, every line and every vocal tic by rote, with no sense at all of what the intentions behind them might have been. And he’s better than Ms. Ryan, who seems completely at sea. She hits all her marks and has the sort of voice and look that could be convincing as Sally Bowles – you don’t need to be a great singer to score in this role – but she is never believable for even a second. She begins the show with an overdone cut-glass accent that seems about to slip off at any moment, as if it was a dress that was four sizes too big – and that’s an interesting place to start with Sally Bowles, but it’s also more or less what Anna Maxwell-Martin did in this production’s previous incarnation, and Ms. Ryan never takes the idea anywhere. Her every line is stilted; the impression you get is less of a performance in character, and more of a child playing dressup. That, too, is potentially an interesting direction in which to take Sally Bowles, but she doesn’t. There’s simply nothing there at all, apart from an uncanny ability to suck all the energy and life out of everything within fifteen feet of her onstage. At any given moment, whatever she’s doing, saying or singing, Ms. Ryan is invariably almost completely blank.

And yes, that’s cruel, but there’s a serious point: Mr. Young is a very, very good pop star. Ms. Ryan can be quite compelling on television (she was great in her guest shot in Doctor Who). This is not their venue; they’re not here because they’re suitable for their roles, they’re here because producers – I’m looking at you, Bill Kenwright – think that punters will pay to go to the theatre to, essentially, watch them jump through hoops as if they were performing seals. There’s nothing at all wrong with casting stars from other branches of the entertainment industry in order to put bums on seats – as long as those stars are capable of giving a competent account of the roles they’re supposed to be playing. This afternoon, at the curtain call, I did something I haven’t done for a very, very long time: when Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan walked out to take their bows, I stopped clapping. I was not alone. The applause dipped noticeably when they walked out, and the chatter I heard around me as I left the building* rather strongly suggested to me that a significant number of people were significantly underwhelmed with these two performers. Regional theatre audiences are not stupid. We know what is good, and we know what is cynical stunt-casting  – and it was clear what people felt they got this afternoon.

If I sound angry, I am: to put it bluntly, Mr. Young and Ms. Ryan’s performances this afternoon were an insult to my Visa statement, because their work was not of a quality that was worth paying for. Tickets are not cheap, even for touring productions; it costs a fair amount of money even to sit in the nosebleed seats, and we’re entitled to expect, once we’ve plunked down the cash or the plastic, to receive something a little more evolved than an ersatz reproduction of a more interesting performance that someone else gave somewhere else five years ago. As it stands, I’ve no idea at all what Mr. Young might bring to the role of the Emcee – I only know that he can be coached to spend two hours hitting all the same marks James Dreyfus did. That’s not theatre, it’s 3D photocopying, and it’s a waste of time and money.

* Three minutes or so before the second act began, the fire alarm went off in the theatre. The theatre’s front-of-house staff did a very, very impressive job indeed of getting people out quickly and calmly, and it was either a false alarm or something very minor because we were back inside within half an hour, but God, some people are stupid. And selfish. NO, if a fire alarm goes off and a recorded voice tells you to evacuate the building via the nearest exit, it probably ISN’T part of the pre-show for Act Two. No, you probably shouldn’t try to shove your way back to your seat against the tide of people streaming towards the exit. When you leave the building, it’s probably not a good idea to mill around immediately in front of the doors. It’s certainly not a good idea to wait for the lift (for a start, if there’s a fire alarm, the lift probably isn’t going to come) or stand at the top of the staircase complaining about having to go outside. The staff, as I said, did an absolutely brilliant job; a small but significant number of patrons made that job harder by, essentially, being stupid or selfish or both.

The Michael ‘n’ Imelda Show – now with extra blood!

I’m a little suspicious of standing ovations at the theatre, particularly at big, expensive musicals. I’ve sometimes come away with a sneaking suspicion that there has been something a little mechanical about the way an audience has leapt to its feet during the curtain call, that standing to applaud becomes a way of justifying the expenditure on an expensive ticket, even if what you’ve just seen hasn’t been particularly good. It feels a little silly, particularly if just a few clumps of people stand while everyone else remains seated. I am, I’m afraid, one of those people who stays sitting down if I don’t feel that what I’ve just seen is worth any kind of special gesture; to me, a standing ovation is something that’s reserved for when what you’ve just seen is so good, so extraordinary, that ordinary applause isn’t enough. Shows like that, unfortunately, don’t come around very often.

I say this now because I saw Saturday’s matinée of the new revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd  at the Adelphi Theatre, and I haven’t seen a standing ovation like the one that happened at the curtain call in a very, very long time. This wasn’t just a few isolated groups of people half-heartedly standing because that’s just what you do; the entire audience stood, as far as I could see – yes, me too – and not only did they stand and applaud, they cheered, and pretty much everyone was standing and cheering before Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, the production’s above-the-title stars, came out to take their bows. Their applause could have been measured using the Richter scale, and both they and the production deserved it. I’ve already gushed over one musical revival this week, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to gush over another.

There’s a sound you don’t hear very often when you’re in a large theatre watching a big musical: silence.  Audiences these days are often not particularly attentive. They fidget, whisper, rattle sweet wrappers, eat, play around with cellphones. There was none of that here. When everyone in an audience is completely caught up in what’s happening on stage, something magical happens. You can feel it in this production when the music cuts out and there’s a pause – it’s as if the entire audience is collectively holding their breath. Jonathan Kent, this revival’s director, has achieved something remarkable. He’s taken a show that, yes, is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, that any musical theatre geek over the age of thirty will have seen at least half-a-dozen times, whose original Broadway production, in its touring incarnation, was preserved on DVD, and that has been revived in London three times within the past twelve years, and he’s delivered a production that quietly, without grandstanding, makes you see every second of a very, very familiar piece of material as if it were completely fresh.

The first clue that this is not a standard-issue Sweeney Todd is Anthony Ward’s set. Like Harold Prince’s original Broadway (and London) production, the show is set in industrial London, but here we’re in the 1930s rather than the mid-nineteenth century. The show takes place in a vast, run-down, semicircular metal-framed workhouse, with dizzyingly steep staircases that lead to a vertiginous catwalk that circles the top of the stage. The costumes, with a couple of exceptions, are everyday period street clothes, Mark Henderson’s lighting is shadowy and sinister, and aside from a couple of visual flourishes – Pirelli’s market stall is a Piaggio three-wheeler van, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop has a neon sign in the second act, and Todd’s shiny new Act Two barber’s chair is upholstered in red leatherette – the look is depression-era drab. There’s a pre-show sequence in which the ensemble are onstage working – scrubbing the floor, moving sacks, doing something you can’t quite see with metal bars behind the upper-level window-frames – which leads to Kent’s first directorial masterstroke: when the show begins, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ is presented as the inmates/workers in this workhouse/factory/whatever it is telling each other the story of Sweeney Todd, for their own amusement. I’ve never seen it staged quite that way before, and it makes rather more dramatic sense than an ensemble of actors somewhat portentously directing the song at the audience. This refocused opening grabs your attention, and Kent and his cast run with it. This Sweeney Todd, more than any other I’ve seen, is a thrilling, chilling roller-coaster ride on which the tension never lets up, even for a moment.

Part of what’s startling about this production’s opening sequence, I have to say, is the presence on stage of a large cast. The original production, by all accounts, was immense, but it’s a show that can be done small, and often is; of the previous productions I’ve seen, I think the largest used 16 actors and the smallest just 11. Here, there are 26, along with a band of 15 in the pit (the very assured musical direction is by Nicholas Skilbeck), which means that none of the actors have to play the trumpet when they’re not in a scene. The ensemble performances are terrific; each member of this cast has clearly done a great deal of detailed character work, the ensemble singing is very, very strong indeed, and they sock ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ across the footlights with a grim, sardonic intensity that catches you slightly by surprise. It’s an opening number that always works, but it doesn’t always work quite as well as it does here.

Good as the opening is, though, it only hints at what to come, because this production’s real thrills begin with the entrance of the two leads. On paper, I have to say, Michael Ball would not have been my first choice for Sweeney Todd. At the start of his career, he was a likeable but rather bland romantic leading man (with, admittedly, a very, very strong voice); he was perfectly OK in The Pirates of Penzance, Aspects of Love, and Sondheim’s Passion, and he sang all three roles very, very well, but he wasn’t particularly exciting or distinctive, and his concert work, frankly, is the musical equivalent of swimming through a bath of melted processed cheese. He was a major surprise in the British production of Hairspray, in which he was cast way against type as Edna Turnblad (he played the role in London and on tour), but it’s a long way from Edna Turnblad to Sweeney Todd. And yet here he is, nearly unrecognisable in a slicked-back brown wig, staring down the audience and delivering a performance that people are going to be talking about for years. It’s not simply that this is the best work of his career so far, although it certainly is: this performance is so far ahead of everything else I’ve ever seen him do – including his Edna Turnblad, which was also spectacularly good – that if I hadn’t seen it for myself I wouldn’t have believed him capable of it. He’s giving as good a leading performance as I’ve ever seen anywhere, in a play or in a musical. He charts Sweeney’s descent into madness deliberately and carefully, so that his ‘Epiphany’ is a genuine explosion; his is a lighter voice than is often cast as Sweeney, and he saves the fireworks for a few key moments, but the power is there, and when he unleashes it, he’s terrifying. There’s far more to this performance than explosive power, though. In some ways, he’s most impressive in his quietest moments. The range of emotions he wrings out of his very low-key delivery of his part of the ‘Johanna’ quartet in Act Two is extraordinary. He’s fierce, brooding, desperately sad, threatening, demented, and a ticking timebomb, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett is equally good, and in some ways equally surprising. She’s dabbled in Sondheim before – she was brilliant as the Baker’s Wife in the first London staging of Into the Woods, but her last musical was Guys and Dolls in 1997, and her achievements since have eclipsed her earlier work in musicals to the point where it’s easy to forget that she can sing. Truthfully, better singers than her have played the role – she has a pleasant voice, but she’s no Julia McKenzie – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone find quite the range of colours in it that she does. She’s one of Britain’s best comic actresses, of course, and she nails all of the laughs in the script, with a few on top for good measure – one of her reactions during the Parlour Songs sequence gets a laugh that stops the show cold for a good twenty seconds – but she’s delivering far more than simple comic relief. Beat by beat, syllable by syllable, she presents Mrs. Lovett in extraordinary detail. Her Mrs. Lovett, yes, is a backstreet pragmatist, but she’s also – at least in the later scenes – possibly a psychopath, and sexually aroused not only by Sweeney himself, but by blood and the possibility of violence. When, relatively early in the show, Sweeney sings ‘My Friends’ to his collection of cut-throat razors, she gives off such palpable sexual heat that you half expect her to have to wring out her knickers at the end of the number, and her shrieks of horror when she discovers Pirelli’s body in the trunk very quickly become almost orgasmic. When she watches Sweeney explode into madness in ‘Epiphany’, she’s simultaneously horrified and absolutely thrilled. She’s the true villain of the piece, but she’s garrulous and charming, and her affection for Tobias is totally genuine – the stricken look on her face during the scene surrounding ‘Not While I’m Around’ when she realises she’s going to have to murder him to stop him from exposing the secret behind her pie shop is perhaps the production’s most thoroughly chilling moment. This, too, is as good a performance as I have ever seen anywhere in pushing thirty years of regular theatregoing.

It’s not just that Ball and Staunton are individually great, either – they play off each other beautifully, and their ‘A Little Priest’ is dazzling even if you know all of the groaners in the lyrics off by heart. And they are matched by a very fine set of supporting performances. Nobody in this cast is less than very good; Peter Polycarpou as Beadle Bamford is magnificent. The last twenty minutes of the show are absolutely electrifying, even though a good proportion of the audience must know exactly what is coming next. I said at the beginning that the audience response was like nothing I’ve seen in a long, long time; it was entirely deserved. This is one of those rare theatrical events where you run the risk of running out of superlatives.

And yes, in case you were wondering, there is blood. Quite a lot of blood, in fact – there’s no faking it by bathing the stage in red light here. When a throat gets slit, the blood spurts. And spurts. It’s impressively gory, particularly towards the end of Act Two when the bodies start to pile up – not as gory as the (misguided and ineffective) film, but it’s about fifty times more chilling. Not to mention orders of magnitude funnier – and, unlike the film, the laughs here are all intentional.

Complaints? Only two. One, the production has yielded a cast recording. If it doesn’t quite convey how marvellous the show is in the theatre, it’s still a very worthwhile, hugely entertaining listen, but unfortunately it’s a single-disc highlights set, and this production is so good that a more complete recording would have been nice. Two, the toilets in the Adelphi are awful, and there aren’t enough of them. The queues for both the ladies and the gents at the interval stretched out of the bathrooms like bread queues in Soviet-era Russia, and the three (just three) urinals in the gents are so close together that you touch shoulders with the person next to you as you attempt to go about your business. In this day and age, the facilities are totally inadequate.

So… yes. This is possibly as good a production of Sweeney Todd as you’ll ever hope to see. It’s playing a limited run of six months, and it can’t extend at the Adelphi because the theatre has another booking in the autumn. The reviews have been so strong that it wouldn’t be too surprising if the production subsequently went on to have another life somewhere else, but don’t count on it: if you love musical theatre, and particularly if you love Sondheim, this is something that’s worth making a considerable effort to see. And since I’ve already seen it, you will at least be spared the unfortunate spectacle of me sitting with my mouth hanging open for two hours and fifty minutes.

Just, when you see it, make sure you use the bathroom somewhere else first. Really. You’ll thank me.

Spend Spend Spend

No, that’s not a suggestion for how to beat a double-dip recession. Viv Nicholson, the notorious football pools winner who vowed to “spend spend spend” and ended up broke is not, perhaps, the most likely subject for a musical. Spend Spend Spend, though, playing at the Lowry this week in a production directed by the reptilian but talented Craig Revel Horwood, is a triumph. It’s gritty, funny, powerfully moving, and probably the best time I’ve had at a musical this year.

It’s also possibly the best successful British musical that nobody’s ever heard of. It played at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1998, then in the West End two years later (in a production starring Barbara Dickson). It ran for about a year in London, toured briefly, then – aside from occasional productions by ambitious amateur groups – dropped off the face of the earth.

One reason for that, certainly, is the subject matter. It’s a thoroughly downbeat story – rags to riches to rags, with physical abuse, alcoholism and bereavement thrown in along the way to lighten things up a bit. Nicholson had, essentially, one moment of great good fortune in a lifetime spent struggling, and it wasn’t winning the pools, it was meeting her second husband. She and her husband were not psychologically equipped to handle the massive change in their circumstances, the money catapulted them out of the place where they lived but did not in itself grant them social acceptability anywhere else, and there was, in 1961, no counselling or support available to people in her position. Equally, while Nicholson’s is a brutally sad story, it’s very difficult not to judge her on some level, and judge her harshly. Brash, loud, coarse, outrageous and sometimes thoroughly foolish, she was at least partly the architect of her own downfall, and she’s not necessarily the easiest person to find sympathy for, despite her awful upbringing.

And then there’s the cast recording question. Musicals survive, as much as anything else, via their cast recordings. The cast recording isn’t just a document of score and a production, it’s a marketing tool – it’s the primary means via which people who have not seen a particular show will discover the music for themselves, and there appears to be a direct correlation between the easy availability of a cast recording of a musical and a show’s ability to gain subsequent productions once the initial run in London/New York/wherever has been concluded. Spend Spend Spend does, in fact, have a cast recording – it’s just that it’s very nearly impossible to buy it. The recording – of the London production – was not financed by a record company, and no deal was ever made with any record company to distribute it via the usual channels. It was available for sale in the theatre during the latter part of the London run, it was available for sale in the theatres where the first UK tour played (that’s how I got my copy) – but those are the only places it’s ever been for sale over the counter. It’s not on Amazon, it’s not in iTunes, it’s never been in any record shops, and there are no copies for sale at performances of the current production. It sometimes shows up on eBay, where its rarity means that it goes for prices that would preclude anybody buying it out of casual curiosity. The obscurity of this recording, of course, is all the more bizarre given that Barbara Dickson, the above-the-title star of the London production, is a major recording artist who has sold more records over the past 40 years than pretty much anyone else working in musical theatre in Britain (granted, she doesn’t actually work in musical theatre very often). Whatever the reasons why the creators of Spend Spend Spend and the people who financed the recording, whoever they were, failed to make a distribution deal for the album, that failure can only be regarded as a spectacular own goal.

The thing is, the show’s writers – Steve Brown and Justin Greene (Brown wrote the music and they both wrote the book and lyrics) – have done, mostly, a brilliant job. The show puts two Viv Nicholsons on the stage – the present-day Viv, a grandmother who works in a hair salon, and the younger Viv, who is rocketed through a sequence of events that she cannot hope to control. We see the older Viv wince at her younger self’s foolishness, then wince again as she keeps on making the same mistakes. It’s a clever, effective means of gaining sympathy for a potentially unsympathetic character without ever begging for it, sentimentalising her, making fun of her or rewriting history, and the show packs a surprising emotional wallop. The score, too, is very, very strong, and distinctively northern (the mournful sound of brass bands is threaded all the way through), with one musical sequence (you can’t quite call it a song) that’s as good as anything I’ve ever seen. That would be “Scars of Love”, halfway through the first act. Older Viv recounts the story of her first date with the love of her life, Keith Nicholson, the man who became her second husband. We know that Keith Nicholson died in a car accident in the mid-60s; we watch Young Viv and Keith fall in love as Older Viv sings about her memories of their first date and her grief at his loss. The music is soft, folk-tinged and absolutely haunting, and the scene is quietly devastating. There’s no bombast, no big money note, no huge sweeping string section pouring syrup over the moment – just a sad middle-aged woman remembering the happiest night of her life.

In the theatre, the song is a solo, then a trio, then (briefly) sung by the entire ensemble, then a solo again. The only rendition available online is Barbara Dickson’s solo version of the song, seen on a chat show. While it’s gorgeous, it doesn’t convey the way the number works in the theatre. It does, though, give some idea of just how different this is from the love songs you usually hear in musicals:

Oh yes – this production. It originated at the Watermill in Berkshire, which has a tiny, tiny stage, so, yes, it’s another of those shows in which the actors double as musicians (with the exception of the actor playing Young Viv). This is not, generally, my favourite production concept, but it’s done, here, as well as I’ve ever seen it. Most of the actors play at least two instruments plus percussion, parts of the set (like a brass bar-rail) double as percussion instruments, the musical instruments are used by the actors as extensions of their characters, and you actually more or less stop noticing the gimmick five minutes into the show. More than that, the music sounds good (I’ve seen more than one production using actor-musicians where that really wasn’t the case). The ensemble performances, all of them, are very strong, but the two women playing Viv Nicholson herself – Karen Mann as the older Viv and Kirsty Hoiles as Young Viv – are both remarkable. Hoiles shows the way money and then the loss of money hardens the younger Viv without either short-changing the character’s essential foolishness or begging for sympathy; that’s a hard line to tread, and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. Karen Mann plays the older Viv as a walking open wound, simultaneously thrilled and horrified as she recounts the way her younger self lurched from disaster to disaster (at one point, referring to Young Viv, she says, “I could slap her one meself!”). The most moving moment in the play is Mann’s – near the end of the first act, as the radio announces the eight score draws and Viv and Keith begin to realise they’ve won, a look of sheer terror crosses Mann’s face. She knows what’s coming, and so do we, and she can’t stop it.

You can, in fact, see a taste of this production in a trailer posted on the Watermill Theatre’s website:

The tour only has four more dates booked – Leeds, Cheltenham, Richmond and Ipswich. It’s worth travelling a long way to see this, even despite the actor-musicians. It’ll be a long time before you see this show again, Mann and Hoiles are both astonishing, and there’s more genuine emotion in thirty seconds of this than there is in the whole of, say, Wicked (granted, that’s not saying much, since there’s more genuine emotion in your average TV advert for laundry detergent than there is in the whole of Wicked).

I may even have to go to Leeds next week to see it again, and I never do that.