The zoo is up, Madame Tussauds is down

on the town programme

If you live in the UK, it takes a certain optimism to book months in advance for a show in an open-air theatre, even if the performance date is just a couple of days after the longest day of the year. “Summer” here is sometimes more of an abstract concept; if you don’t live in London and can’t book at the last minute, you roll the dice then spend the week before the show nervously looking at the weather forecast.

I caught the tail-end of our “heatwave”, actually – people who live in places where there are genuinely hot summers, stop giggling – so I didn’t get the full Open Air Theatre experience. You know, sitting hunched up in a cheap plastic rain poncho for twenty minutes waiting for a downpour to pass so the show can resume. There was some light drizzle, which began, with impeccable timing, right on the second line of “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” – yes, “the sun is warm…” – but that’s all. Rain ponchos (£3 at the bar, or bring your own) were not necessary. Some people put umbrellas up, but they were quickly admonished by the front-of-house staff (absolutely right, they block the view for people sitting behind). And we had an unscheduled several-minute pause halfway through Act One so that stagehands could mop the deck dry:

on the town mop

It was worth the drizzle (and the hay fever, because our damp parody of a summer doesn’t do anything to ameliorate my allergies). Years ago – so many years ago that it’ll make me feel very old if I do the subtraction – I saw the Barbican concert production that begat the Tyne Daly recording (everybody else in the cast was a better singer than Ms. Daly, and she blew them all off the stage), but I’d never seen a production that had an actual set and costumes. It might be my favourite of Bernstein’s theatre scores – or my favourite might be Wonderful Town!, depending on the day – and seeing a full production has been one of my theatrical holy grails for… well, since I saw that concert at the Barbican. I missed the ENO’s revival a few years ago, and have been kicking myself for it ever since; I wasn’t going to miss this.

The weather, actually, might have been just about the only thing wrong with Drew McOnie’s sensational revival. This is a difficult piece to direct: the slender story about three sailors exploring New York during a 24-hour shore leave requires a very light touch, and it’s difficult to find the correct balance between the book scenes, which are more or less simply a series of linked comic sketches, and the achingly bittersweet ballets. Underpinning the whole thing is the fact that the characters onstage know, as do we, that the lighthearted, what-larks plot isn’t as lighthearted as it seems: it’s 1944, these three sailors are shipping out to war tomorrow morning, and there’s a very good chance some or all of them won’t be coming back. We know, too, about the horrors they’re about to face even if they do make it through the rest of the war (physically) uninjured; if you can get through the second act’s farewell song, “Some Other Time”, without a lump forming in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

Fortunately, McOnie gets it pretty much exactly right. His production never stops moving, the ballets are truly lovely – a reinterpretation of the Act One pas de deux to show a sailor’s brief, secretive dalliance with another man is particularly poignant – and he and his terrific cast find all the jokes without ever pushing the comedy too hard. Danny Mac makes a tremendous Gabey – great dancer, charm to spare, good timing, and just enough voice to land “Lonely Town”, the score’s most beautiful song. He, Jacob Maynard (Chip) and Samuel Edwards (Ozzie) form an appealing trio; they’re effortlessly funny, and in this material that’s not as easy as it seems  – witness the cast recording of the recent Broadway revival, on which every single member of the cast mugs to the point where you wonder if they’re all hooked up to a caffeine drip. As the maneating cab driver Hildy – yes, the role I saw Tyne Daly sing all those years ago- Lizzy Connolly offers a dazzling, showstopping, wonderfully dirty rendition of the innuendo-laden “I Can Cook Too”, a song which – spoiler alert – is not really about cooking. She even – unlike Alysha Umphress, the lady who assaults the role on that most recent recording – sings the song’s melody as written, without jazzing it up or inserting self-indulgent scatting that isn’t in the score (I’d love to know what Ms. Umphress believes qualifies her to rewrite Bernstein; her “improvements” really aren’t). Siena Kelly is a charming Miss Turnstiles (if you don’t know the plot, just go with it – it’s one of those comedies that only really makes sense if you see it), Maggie Steed offers a smashing turn as dipsomaniac music teacher Madam Dilly, who is the closest thing the show has to a villain, and Naoko Mori’s Lucy Schmeeler gets more laughs out of a sneeze than you’d ever think possible. Best of all, there’s Miriam-Teak Lee’s Claire de Loon, the anthropologist who gets “Carried Away” when she spots Chip in the Museum of Natural History. This, unbelievably, is her professional debut; she has a glorious soprano and sensational timing, and her work here is absolutely flawless. And she’s gorgeous too, which doesn’t hurt.

There’s a good-looking, less-simple-than-it-seems scaffolding set from Peter McKintosh – it can unfold to show apartments, nightclubs, a diner, and even a subway train, and it manages the difficult job of evoking 1940s Manhattan amid the trees of Regent’s Park. Economic realities dictate that there’s only a 15-piece band, and this music really needs more than that; we get (most of) the brass, but some strings would have been nice. The playing is impeccable, and finding space to pay for more players in a presumably (very) finite budget was probably not possible, but this music deserves better; it’s easy enough for producers looking to rein in finances to trim the orchestra, on the grounds that audiences can’t tell the difference, but some of us can. A clever orchestrator can make 15 musicians sound like more than 15 musicians, but you can’t pull an entire string section out of thin air when there isn’t the money to pay for one.

That’s a minor complaint, though – or rather, if not a minor complaint, inevitable these days, because seeing golden-age musicals with the original complement of musicians in the pit has become the (rare) exception, rather than the rule. In every other respect, this revival is just about ideal. I’ve been waiting, as I said, for decades to see a fully-staged production of this show; this one, for once, was well worth the wait.

 

 

A chorus in her lonely symphony

wpop

Cross one off my list of regrets. I’ve probably listened to the cast recording of the 2000 Broadway production of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe‘s musical adaptation of Joseph Moncure March‘s narrative poem The Wild Party at least once a week since I bought it, and I bought it the week it came out. It’s a spectacular album – a brilliant, starry cast led by Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt giving a more or less perfect performance of (most of) a brilliant, criminally underrated score – but by the time I heard it, the show had only a couple more weeks to run on Broadway, and while I lived much closer (an overnight bus ride) to New York then than I do now, I wasn’t able to get there to see it before it closed. The show played 36 previews and just 68 performances on Broadway – not a “hit” by any yardstick, but that doesn’t make the score any less spectacular. My interest was further piqued after the publication of Wiley Hausam’s anthology The New American Musical, which I picked up at a conference book fair; it contains the show’s script, and the script is fascinating. I’ve loved the material for a long time, but never had the opportunity to see the show live in a theatre, so when the British premiere production was announced – a mere sixteen years after it closed on Broadway – I’d booked a ticket within an hour of them going on sale.

It’s dangerous, sometimes, to go in to something with high expectations. I deliberately didn’t listen to the cast recording between booking the ticket and seeing the show (an interval of perhaps four months) in order to enable myself to come to the material fresh when I actually saw it – not easy to achieve with music you’ve listened to regularly for a decade and a half, but never mind. This production’s biggest achievement is that it made something very, very familiar to me seem absolutely fresh. That original cast recording features a roster of perfect, distinctive performances; for this production, director Drew McOnie has cast a good proportion of the show’s central roles deliberately against the types embodied by the actors who originated them, and the result is invigorating. The musical, far more than the (long but rather thin) poem it’s based on, is about social facades: what people hide, what people choose to reveal (and to whom), and what happens when the facade begins to crumble.

Seeing the production in the theatre is also a lesson in how cast recordings can be imperfect documents: I knew, but had half-forgotten, that this is a very music-heavy show and that a great deal of the score is not preserved on the album, but it was still a surprise to (re)discover just how much is missing. As I said, March’s poem, in terms of narrative, is somewhat on the thin side – depending how you frame it, it doesn’t necessarily contain enough incident to fill two hours of stage time – but in this adaptation, despite fine lyrics by LaChiusa and a taut book by LaChiusa and Wolfe, it’s the music that drives the show. This is a dazzling score; LaChiusa’s very, very clever musical pastiche draws from a variety of Roaring Twenties song styles, but the score’s structure is entirely contemporary. This is more a continuous musical tapestry than a parade of individual songs (although the score includes a number of very, very fine individual songs), and it often seems as though the show’s musical numbers don’t begin and end so much as collide. The result is sometimes harshly dissonant, sometimes achingly melodic, and always thrillingly theatrical.

Somewhat in the manner of Chicago (but only somewhat) the show is presented as a sequence of (sometimes very extended) vaudeville sketches; possibly a little too much time is devoted, in the first third of the show, to giving each individual guest at the party a musical number outlining his/her backstory, but the music is exciting enough to hold your attention. The plot, such as it is, centres on Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, and her deteriorating relationship with her live-in lover/common-law husband, a violently unpleasant vaudeville clown named Burrs. Burrs suggests hosting a wild party in order to end a fight; the party, though, spirals out of control, with sexual inhibitions and social masks being lowered by a combination of bathtub gin and cocaine, and there are tragic consequences in the final scene. As the party gathers steam, Queenie’s friend Kate arrives trailing an escort named Black, and there’s an immediate attraction between him and Queenie; by the end of the party, Burrs is dead, but Queenie has tentatively begun to step out from behind the various “masks” – make-up, alcohol, co-dependent relationships with unsuitable men – she’s previously hidden behind, and the show’s final image is of her scrubbing off her make-up. There’s a strong sense, at the end, of redemption and even salvation, for her if not for anyone else. She will rise, as the show’s star once memorably sang in another context, and never fall again, and she will be free (I know, I know – but when the door is open, it would be criminal to walk by).

So yes, I like the material – and by ‘like’, I mean this is as good a musical score as anyone on either side of the Atlantic has written in at least the last three decades. The particular triumph of Drew McOnie’s sensational production is that he matches the relentless, propulsive, dazzling score with a staging driven by relentless, propulsive, dazzling movement. Under his direction, the show feels choreographed from end to end, although it isn’t precisely a ‘dance musical’. The closest comparison, in terms of what I’ve seen, would be Tommy Tune’s (brilliantly staged) production of Grand Hotel, only (of course) with fewer chairs. The show begins with an explosive row and keeps building in intensity; this production adds an intermission (on Broadway, the show played in a single act), and it’s necessary: after an hour at this party, you need a few moments to catch your breath. There’s plenty of light and shade, but there’s so much packed into every moment that without a break the production could easily become overwhelming, and the show’s pace very rarely lets up: this wild party is a wild, wild ride.

That’s also down to a collection of exhilarating performances. Frances Ruffelle is the production’s above-the-title star, and she’s sensational, but she’s surrounded by a spectacular supporting cast. John Owen Jones‘s Burrs is a seething, furious train wreck waiting to happen. Jones makes the character magnetically unpleasant, brings real fire to his musical numbers, and does not (thank God) in any way resemble Mandy Patinkin, who created the role in the Broadway production. As faded star Dolores Montoya – the role originated by the late, great Eartha Kitt – Donna McKechnie effortlessly embodies a bloodied-but-unbowed showbiz survivor, and she slams her big not-quite-eleven-o’clock number, When It Ends, into the rafters with riveting precision. Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea are insinuatingly sexy as the Brothers d’Armano, an incestuous song-and-dance act; if you’re as familiar with the Broadway cast recording as I am, it’s a little startling to hear their musical numbers performed by two women, but the casting isn’t simply a stunt, and the point is revealed in the second half when we see one “brother” binding the other’s chest: LaChiusa and Wolfe adapted March’s poem into a story about “the way we use cultural masks to hide or obfuscate our real identities: racial masks, sexual masks, emotional masks” (as LaChiusa puts it in a lengthy programme note), so of course it makes sense to show two women (apparently successfully) passing as men, at least in public. Best of all, there’s Victoria Hamilton-Barritt‘s electrifying star-turn-in-a-supporting-role as Queenie’s frenemy Kate, an effortlessly sexy combination of heat, froideur, and bulletproof timing. Her paean to/putdown of her current lover, Black is a Moocher, is probably the show’s musical peak, and when she duets with Ruffelle, earlier in the show, sparks fly.

As for Ruffelle, she’s a revelation. It goes without saying that her singing is superb (although she isn’t the first voice I’d have thought of for this), but there’s a tremendous emotional depth to her performance, and that’s not the easiest thing to achieve in a production as relentlessly frenetic as this one. She’s funny, steely, vulnerable, sexy, smart and foolish, sometimes all in the same beat, and she fully mines the well of deep sadness behind LaChiusa’s more introspective songs. Her duet with Black, People Like Us – probably my favourite song in the score – is the show’s beating heart. In the middle of the noise and the smoke and the chaos of the surrounding party, Ruffelle and Simon Thomas’s Black show two damaged, lonely people singing about a sense of yearning that they can’t quite put into words. It’s a lovely moment; for me, it was worth the cost of the ticket for just that one song.

The production values, too, are impressive. This is The Other Palace‘s first venture under the artistic directorship of Paul Taylor-Mills; the theatre’s mission, per the cover page on their website, is to “offer a creative hub for all things musical theatre, from providing spaces to develop and workshop new ideas to presenting full-scale productions.” If they can maintain the standard they’ve set with this first production, it’s going to be a venue to watch. This isn’t the West End, and there’s clearly a budgetary ceiling, but the production has an atmospheric multilevel set by Soutra Gilmore (great use is made of a winding tenement staircase that stretches up towards the flies), an eight-piece band on a platform above the stage (the flawless musical direction and new arrangements are by Theo Jamieson, who also plays piano), period-perfect costumes by Chris Cahill, and a range of ticket prices that drop as low as £15 without discounts – if you’re going to make a name for yourself as a laboratory space for new/lesser-known material, tickets need to be affordable enough that people feel able to take a punt on something unfamiliar. When top prices elsewhere in the West End are rising into three-figure territory, keeping a tight hold on the bottom end of the pricing scale is the best way to bring in a new audience, particularly to a venue that’s a little off the beaten path. Better still, those £15 tickets aren’t, as they are in some theatres, behind a pillar in a top balcony. The steeply-raked auditorium has only one tier of seats, and sightlines are admirable.

Really, assuming you respond to the material – as I said, I love it, but it’s certainly the kind of show that polarises audiences – there’s very little to criticise here. Perhaps Richard Howell’s lighting is a little heavy-handed in places – he maybe falls back once or twice too often on shining blinders into the audience, and (assuming it wasn’t a tech malfunction) having the spotlight fade sharply on Queenie on the show’s final beat as she sings the line “this is what it is to live in light” is a thuddingly obvious choice that veers past irony almost into the realm of the bathetic – but in every other way the physical production is ideal. Yes, it’s relentless and exhausting – I’ve some sympathy with Matt Wolf’s description of the production in the New York Times as “Follies on amphetamines” – but it’s also a dazzling, thrilling roller-coaster ride through a truly brilliant musical score. How good is it? I live 200 miles from London, and I’m going again before it closes.

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 cliché 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.