Nobody’s on nobody’s side

chess coliseum 3

There are sixty-seven musicians in the orchestra, and twenty members of the ENO Chorus padding out an already large company. That’s the most important thing about Laurence Connor’s simultaneously gargantuan and undernourished revival of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice‘s cold-war pop opera Chess, now playing a limited run at the Coliseum. If you love this score – and I really love this score – then you should do whatever you can to see this production at some point over the next three weeks. Chess has always had a dazzling score; despite the many imperfections elsewhere in this particular iteration of the show, that score, under the baton of Murray Hipkin (at the performance I saw; the regular conductor is John Rigby), is served spectacularly well, and to hear this music performed by such a superb orchestra and chorus is genuinely thrilling. As long as you go for the music, you’ll have a wonderful time.

If you’re looking for a piece of musical theatre, on the other hand, better manage your expectations. Chess first appeared as a concept album in 1984, and the biggest hit single from it – I Know Him So Well, in which two women spend four minutes lamenting that neither of them can fulfil their (same) man’s needs, because fuck the Bechdel Test – spent four weeks at number one in the UK pop charts. Since then, the show has gone through a dizzying number of incarnations onstage; the original London production was a moderate hit, but was too expensive to replicate elsewhere, the subsequent heavily-rewritten Broadway production was an eight-week flop, and since then it’s become one of those shows that, like Bernstein’s Candide, seems to get revised for each new production. This production – guess what? – represents yet another attempt to rewrite the show, and the result, as theatre, is – I’ll be kind – not successful.

This version of the show goes back to the concept album, and presents the songs on the album in album order, which is not (at all) the order in which they appeared in the original London production. It’s fair to say that the show’s biggest fault has always been that in constructing the plot, Tim Rice’s reach exceeded his grasp – to make the show’s combination of cold-war politics and international chess work completely probably requires a playwright of the calibre of Christopher Hampton and a lyricist with the skill and range of Stephen Sondheim, and while Rice has his moments he is neither of those things – but there is a viable show somewhere in this material. The basic story – an international chess championship in which the Russian contestant beats the American reigning champion and then defects to the west after falling in love with the American’s (female) second/coach – has potential, and the love story at the centre of the show can be quite touching if it’s played well. While some versions of the show have become bogged down in the layers of political intrigue in the second act, this version of the show goes too far in the opposite direction. For this production, somebody has taken the decision to reduce the show, more or less, to a series of Big Numbers with as little distance between them as possible. A great deal of the material that linked the big numbers in the original London production has been cut, to the point where one major supporting character – Walter, a CIA agent – is missing (and missed, particularly in the second act). Instead, the musical numbers are linked by brief snatches of atrociously simplistic dialogue that sounds like it was written on flashcards (at one point, one character actually announces “My heart is breaking!”).  The result is a script that sucks almost all the depth out of a piece that never had quite as much depth as it thought it did to begin with.

There might have been a good reason for that choice if things had worked out the way I suspect the producers – it’s a coproduction between the ENO and a commercial management – had planned. Similar ENO coproductions have had casting lined up before tickets went on sale – Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins in Carousel. Chess didn’t, although it did have the same eye-watering ticket prices (peaking at £150, with a transaction charge on top if you book online) as those three earlier shows. Tickets had been on sale for more than three months before the casting for the leads was announced; Michael Ball, playing the Russian chess champion at the centre of the plot, told the Daily Express in an interview that he approached the producers about the role in January, after tickets had already been on sale for a couple of months. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the producers were pursuing some kind of megastar for one or more of the leads, and that the people they were hoping to sign turned it down. That, in turn, probably explains this version of the script: if the aim was to cast pop stars, which is an understandable aim given that the ENO’s previous three musical coproductions have all relied to some extent on superstar casting, then it makes sense to strip out everything that might expose their limitations as stage actors. If you also strip out most of the (already limited) character development, maybe it doesn’t matter if the leading roles are going to be played by the kind of million-megawatt STARS whose personal charisma can fill in the blanks.

That approach, though, falls apart when your star casting falls through and you have to find a set of leads at the last minute. As Florence, the woman who ping-pongs between the American and Russian champions, Cassidy Janson is perfectly OK. She has a really good voice, she sings the hell out of Nobody’s Side – my favourite song in the score – and she’s a decent actress and she manages to deliver some really, really atrocious dialogue with a straight face. She is not the kind of star who can use sheer force of personality to paper over the cracks in the script, particularly in a space the size of the Coliseum, and it shows. She’s very good, but she’d be far better in a version of the show that gave her more to act, which would be literally every single other version of the show that has ever been staged, rather than one designed to accommodate (and protect) stars with limited stage experience. As the Russian wife, Alexandra Burke – who is a pop star – has the opposite problem: she has a stunning voice, but she’s not quite the right kind of singer for most of her music here. Again, she doesn’t have the kind of superstar presence that might compensate for the (huge) gaps in her (very) underwritten role, but she also doesn’t have the kind of nuanced approach to interpreting song lyrics that would get the most mileage out of the interpolated He is a Man, He is a Child. That song, more than anything else in the score, is an extended dramatic monologue, albeit one with a couple of huge musical peaks; Ms. Burke, unfortunately, can’t act. At all. She makes lovely sounds, but they usually seem unconnected to the words she’s singing.

The men fare better. As the Arbiter, Cedric Neal blows the roof off the Coliseum in his one big number. Tim Howar‘s John McEnroe-esque Freddie, the bratty American champion, is so brilliantly sung that it’s easy to forgive his relative lack of charisma in the (brief) scenes. His biggest number, Pity the Child, is a formidably difficult rock howler, and he pulls it off effortlessly (I could have done without the gratuitous “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO” at the end of the song, though – perhaps it snuck in uninvited from Laurence Connor’s mediocre production of Miss Saigon, in which more than one actor does more or less the same thing, but it should have been shown the door the moment it appeared in rehearsals). And as Anatoly, the Russian challenger in the chess championship, Michael Ball is the only one of the production’s leads who has the combination of voice, acting skill, and charisma necessary to make this streamlined version of the show completely work for him. Somehow, despite a script that provides almost no connective tissue between his big numbers, he manages to create a believable character. It’s very easy to make fun of his cheesy vocal mannerisms – he put at least half the cheese into cheesy listening – but he’s on his best behaviour here and his singing is mostly superb, and the cheese, thank God, is mostly left offstage. His Anthem, the defiantly patriotic/internationalist hymn Anatoly sings at the climax of the first act, is the production’s most thrilling musical moment, and also one of the few moments in the production that works as drama.

chess coliseum 1

As for the production itself, I’m starting to think ‘directed by Laurence Connor’ should be taken as some kind of warning. There’s a spectacular set by Matt Kinley – remarkably spectacular for a five-week run – consisting of grids of square screens which show video projections (designed by Terry Scruby) – sometimes of the actors emoting their way through their big numbers, sometimes of cold-war newsreel footage, and sometimes wince-inducingly naff computerised animation, like the sequence early in the first act when we see Freddie’s private jet descend over Merano then turn (at an improbable angle) and land at the airport. Stephen Mear’s choreography gets the most out of the two big scene-setting dance numbers, and his parade of merchandisers in the opening ceremony sequence is terrific (it’s also the only place where Scruby’s video footage – which in that sequence shows Howar mugging his way through a series of gloriously spot-on ads for chess-themed souvenir merchandise ranging from coffee mugs to toothpaste – manages to be genuinely witty). There’s a lot going on – a lot of people on the stage, a lot of other visual information via the screens, and Connor does manage to marshall it all so nothing collides with anything else, and so that it’s always clear where you should be looking. He’s very good at the big picture, just as he was in Miss Saigon – but again, just like in his production of Miss Saigon, there’s not a great deal of subtlety to any of the performances, his attention to character work seems to stop at big, bland, generic emotions, and he’s prone to letting actors over-emote in places where less would be more. In the Swedish production in which it premiered, the late Josefin Nilsson‘s performance of He is a Man, He is a Child is a masterpiece of restraint – she has big notes, but she deploys them very carefully, and it’s all the more moving for it. Burke, on the other hand, has two volume settings and a tendency to sob, and the result isn’t nearly as moving because there is absolutely no feeling behind it. And Cassidy Janson sings much of the (gorgeous) final duet with tears (and mascara) running down her cheeks; it’s not a good choice, the moment would be more moving if we saw her holding back emotion rather than giving in to it.

But then, this version of the show, as I said at the beginning, probably wasn’t intended to be about acting. In purely musical terms, much of what you’ll hear is superb, and if you go for the music you’ll love it. Several individual numbers received thunderous applause, the show as a whole received a huge standing ovation, and – as a musical experience, as opposed to as a piece of musical theatre – it absolutely deserved it. As a concert with over-the-top visuals, it’s a stunning success. As a piece of theatre, it is lacking. The show might never completely work in any version, but as theatre even Richard Nelson‘s turd of a book from the Broadway production would be an improvement over what’s on offer at the Coliseum. It’ll be a long time before you get to hear these songs played by this kind of orchestra and chorus again, though – at least unless you go to Sweden, where the show is sometimes produced by major opera companies – so if you love the music this is certainly a must-see. Just – as I said – manage your expectations.

Finally, for the Chess geeks among us, the song list:

Act One

Overture (the first half of the overture used on Broadway)
The Story of Chess
Merano
Where I Want to Be (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Opening Ceremony/US vs. USSR/Merchandisers
The Arbiter/Chess Hymn
Chess
Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)
Nobody’s Side (includes the preceding scene from the concept album)
Der Kleine Franz
Mountain Duet
Chess
Florence Quits
Someone Else’s Story (with Svetlana’s lyrics from the Australian production)
Embassy Lament
Anthem

Act Two:

He is a Man, He is a Child
Golden Bangkok
One Night in Bangkok
Heaven Help My Heart
The Soviet Machine
The Interview
Argument
I Know Him So Well
The Deal (mostly as on the concept album but with Svetlana’s reprise of Where I Want to Be at the beginning)
Pity the Child
Endgame
You And I (musically as on the concept album, incorporating a short reprise of The Story of Chess rather than all of it, but using the Broadway lyrics for the main body of the song rather than the [better] ones from the concept album)

Bows – an instrumental mostly based on Nobody’s Side.

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The heat is off in Saigon

miss saigon palace manchester

I’m old. I saw the original London production of Miss Saigon way, way back in 1989 – September 23rd, 1989, in fact – on the first Saturday matinee after it opened. Yes, I saw Jonathan Pryce, and yes, I saw (and slightly winced at) the eye makeup (not to mention at the yellowface elsewhere in the cast, because Pryce wasn’t the only white actor cast as a Vietnamese character) – and yes, I loved it. Even at not-quite-seventeen I could pick all kinds of holes in it, but it blew me away. I loved the music, I loved Nicholas Hytner‘s production, and Lea Salonga gave what is still just about as good a performance as I’ve ever seen.

From there to here is quite a distance, and in more ways than one. I’m older, the show is older, I haven’t seen it “live” since a return visit a few years into the original London run, and the world in general – most of it, anyway – is at least a little bit more woke when it comes to issues of postcolonialism and representation and all the rest of it than it was three decades ago. It still offers a rather uneasy Western view of south-east Asia – far more uneasy, in some ways, than something like The King and I, which is so far removed from reality that it’s probably best taken as a fairytale – and while the show’s point of view is undoubtedly that America’s involvement in Vietnam was disastrous and damaging for everybody involved, the show’s writers begin to develop a thesis about how American complacency contributed to an ongoing tragedy after the war was over and they don’t take it nearly far enough, particularly in the last third of the second act when the melodrama at the centre of the plot kicks into gear.

That plot, though, is the same as it always was: a smarter-than-it-looks rehash of Madam Butterfly in which an American GI meets and very quickly falls for a Vietnamese bar girl in the last days before the fall of Saigon; he fails to get her out with him when he’s forced to evacuate, and when, years later, he finds out she’s survived and has a child, he and his new American wife offer to support the child but refuse to give him a home in America, with tragic consequences. Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., the show’s original librettists, find more light and shade than you’d expect within this scenario (this production credits “additional lyrics”, none of which are an improvement over the originals, to Michael Mahler), although they possibly still don’t find quite enough, and while some of Claude-Michel Schönberg‘s music is bombastic and thuddingly banal, some of it is very lovely indeed. It’s always been to the show’s great credit that despite some gratuitously Hallmark-card lyrics, the Vietnamese heroine, Kim, is portrayed as a woman of immense strength and courage rather than as a lovelorn sap. It’s equally to the show’s credit that Chris, the Pinkerton figure, isn’t simply a colonial shit or a stereotypical Ugly American, and that Ellen, his American wife, is never portrayed as a villain either – Chris suffers as a result of leaving Kim in Vietnam, and Ellen is perfectly willing to help support a child she didn’t know about. That their support – or rather, their western complacency – imposes boundaries may be the engine that drives the melodrama towards the climax of the second act, but the writing isn’t as one-dimensional as it could have been. There are shades of grey here, and an understanding that well-meaning people sometimes do not behave well when confronted with complex moral decisions. In this kind of steamroller of a blockbuster musical, those shades of grey are relatively rare.

Those shades of grey, though, don’t entirely survive intact in the production currently playing in Manchester, which is the touring iteration of the revival that was recently seen in the West End and on Broadway (and on DVD). As directed – mostly in the sense of directing traffic – by Laurence Connor, this is a very efficient reading of the show: the big moments are all present and correct, including the (admittedly still dazzling) helicopter effect in the Fall of Saigon scene, and the actors all emote the hell out of their big numbers, and there is absolutely no depth or complexity in almost all of the performances. It’s loud and crass and sometimes even slightly distasteful in a way the original production never was (yes, even despite the original production’s yellowface): Nicholas Hytner’s original production, even years into the run with the umpteenth replacement cast, told a story about the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war, whereas this production, despite being smaller in scale and budget, takes the tragic aftermath of the Vietnam war and makes a spectacle out of it. There’s a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh, a Saigon bar, various interiors, a dragon dance, twirling ribbons, projected film of orphaned American-Vietnamese children, a Cadillac, a shiny chrome representation of the head of the Statue of Liberty, and a more-or-less life-size (model) helicopter that lands on the stage – but there’s no emotional content at all, just a careful facsimile of it. It’s not that any of the performances are bad, exactly – indeed, this production is, by and large, very, very well-sung. It’s that every last scrap of subtlety appears to have been ironed out of a piece that, while more subtle than it could have been, was never that subtle to begin with. How unsubtle is it? There’s more than one instance in which a character stands/kneels centre stage, face contorted in a careful imitation of anguish, and screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”. That did not happen – and I mean did not happen, not once – in the original production.

As for individual performances, they’re mostly, well… accurate. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, and nearly everybody seems completely devoid of inner life. There are two honourable exceptions: Vinny Coyle’s Chris, who sings the role very well indeed and works strenuously to put back some of the shades of subtlety that have largely been bleached – and I chose that word very carefully – out of this production, and Red Concepción as the Engineer, the Pandarus-like pimp whose bar/whorehouse is the venue for Kim and Chris’s first meeting, and whose machinations get Kim and her child out of Vietnam at the end of the first act. Concepción’s Engineer is gleefully, bracingly nasty, sung with show-stopping fervour, and somehow believably real in a way that eludes nearly everyone else.  Coyle, incidentally, is an understudy, though you’d never have guessed, and his appearance in the role was not announced in the theatre before the performance, which is inexcusable. As Kim, Sooha Kim has a lovely voice, but doesn’t manage to transcend the production’s essential hollowness. And it’s a tiny role, but Acielle Santos’s Gigi – the prostitute who sings The Movie in my Mind, which used to be my favourite song in the score before it was disembowelled by this production’s lyric rewrites – exemplifies the problem with most of the performances here: she has a great voice, and she sings the song very well indeed, but the emotions are all on the surface. She sobs through it, ends the number in tears, and the moment is far more powerful (as, in the theatre, many moments are more powerful) if the performer doesn’t emote the song to death. In the original cast – you can even hear this on the original London cast recording – Isay Alvarez brought a devastating, absolutely haunting dignity to the song; it was very moving indeed, but it was moving because it was performed with restraint. In this production, the actress weeps all the way through the song’s climax – and because she weeps, we don’t.

Elsewhere, Connor repeats Hytner’s one big misstep, and shows a slide-show of real Vietnamese orphans during the act two opener, a (terrible) song called Bui-doi, which is basically a (God help us) raise-the-roof showstopper about mixed-race orphans trapped in a society where they’re largely shunned. In Hytner’s production this was crass, but there was at least a genuine emotional impulse behind the song (and Peter Polycarpou gave a very, very good performance indeed as the ex-solder who sings it); here there isn’t, which means the plight of these poor children merely becomes set-dressing in an expensive western theatrical spectacle, and it’s spectacularly tasteless.

The show itself, though, is solid enough – even given that the writing is far from unimpeachable – that it works on some level even in less than ideal circumstances. In many ways, this touring production is impressive: as I said, it’s sung very well indeed. The orchestrations are reduced, but reduced carefully; fifteen musicians are never going to sound like the original production’s twenty-four, and the lack of a larger string section contributes significantly to the near-complete absence in this production of the fine emotional shading that made the original so powerful. The band never sounds bad, but they never sound as good either; this is a show that really needs a big, lush sound, so it’s inevitably diminished by the smaller orchestra. The special effects are terrific, particularly in a touring production – the helicopter effect is superb (technology can do things now that just were not possible in 1989) – but when this story, the most nakedly human and intimate of all the big 1980s megamusicals, becomes a show dominated by special effects, it’s a problem. The effects were immense in 1989 too, but you walked out of the theatre remembering Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman, not the helicopter and the Ho Chi Minh statue. Now, because the performances are mostly painted with such a broad emotional brush, you barely remember the people at all, and the result is a show that’s impressive to look at but emotionally empty. Everybody works hard, but this Miss Saigon, in the end, is the equivalent of watching a hurriedly-made Saturday morning cartoon version of something that was originally written for grown-ups.

Stick it to the… oh, never mind.

 

school-of-rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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