Déjà vu all over again

GHD OV

 

Good news/bad news. Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin‘s new musical adaptation of Rubin and Harold Ramis‘s Groundhog Day deserves every single one of the five-star reviews it received last week. It’s a dazzling, inventive, richly rewarding reinvention of the source material, it’s brilliantly staged by Matthew Warchus, and Andy Karl is giving one of those once-in-a-lifetime star-is-born performances in the Bill Murray role.

And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself sat next to the people I was sat next to on Saturday afternoon – apparently repeat visitors – you may find yourself wishing you’d smuggled in an electric cattle prod and a big roll of duct tape.

The show itself bucks a recent trend: it’s almost a given these days that a musical adaptation of a recent-ish film will smooth out the film’s rough edges (assuming it had any), and fillet out everything interesting in the screenplay in order to shoehorn in a selection of bland songs, performed by suitably bland actors who don’t challenge the memory of their screen counterparts. Indeed, Groundhog Day’s director, Matthew Warchus, has form here: his production of Ghost was as vacuous a piece of theatre as has been produced on either side of the Atlantic at any point in the last two or three decades, and the leading lady he imported from New York – the un-fabulous Caissie Levy – gave a performance which redefined the word “inert”.

Warchus, though, also collaborated with composer Tim Minchin on the RSC‘s wildly successful musical adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda. That show was good; this one, even at this early stage, is better. Minchin and Rubin haven’t simply inserted songs into the original screenplay. They’ve taken the material apart and put it back together again, and found a slightly different, arguably more rewarding spin on Rubin’s tale of Phil Connors, a grouchy, narcissistic weatherman who finds himself endlessly repeating the same day over and over again. The film is more or less The Bill Murray Show, albeit with a couple of memorable supporting cameos, most notably from Stephen Tobolowsky as an irritating insurance salesman. Without sacrificing any of the source material’s comedy, the musical offers a somewhat bigger picture.  More weight is given to some of the supporting characters, starting with Rita, Phil’s producer – the Andie MacDowell role in the film – and prominent (and very effective) musical numbers are given to that irritating insurance salesman, and to Nancy, the pneumatic blonde Phil repeatedly tries to seduce. There’s nothing superflous; without sacrificing any of the comedy, and without ever offering a bald statement of their theme, Rubin and Minchin deliver a quiet, surprisingly perceptive meditation on the various ways people find themselves trapped in cycles they did not necessarily create themselves. Far more so than the film, the payoff at the end is substantial.

All of which makes the show sound Far More Serious than the film, which it certainly isn’t. Rubin, Minchin, and Warchus have a great time mining the ridiculous kitsch surrounding the Groundhog Day festivities (in which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, an oversized rodent is asked each year to predict whether the winter will be long or short) – one number even puts a man in a groundhog suit centre-stage playing drums. Minchin’s offbeat sense of humour is a perfect fit for this material, and his songs are often very funny indeed. Phil’s opening put-down of small-town USA is bracingly mean (in the first line, on waking up in a chintzy B&B, he sings of his “ugly bed/ugly curtains/pointless erection”, and his disdain snowballs from there). Later in the show, there’s a big laugh when Phil, some time into his time loop, sings of having slept with 90% of Punxsutawney’s women “and one boy, when I was bored”. Midway through the first act, an extended production number gleefully rips various alternative/new-age therapies to shreds (reiki comes in for a particularly harsh kicking, and this might be the first musical to include a choreographed enema). The second-act number depicting Phil’s various suicide attempts is pitch-black and absolutely dazzling – not least because of an intricately clever staging which has Phil “miraculously” popping up in bed in the B&B seconds after apparently offing himself on the other side of the stage. Minchin’s pop-flavoured music is melodic, quirky, and always entertaining; this is a fiercely intelligent show, but it’s also always fun, even as it ventures into surprisingly deep emotional territory towards the end of the second act. And it’s greatly to Minchin and Rubin’s credit that they never, even at the show’s finale, open the doors to the material’s enormous potential for trite moralising. That finale – a song called “Seeing You”, which Minchin premiered in concert a while ago – may be the show’s most soaring melody, but it’s also, in terms of the lyrics, a masterpiece of delicacy and restraint.

It’s also given a masterful performance by American actor Andy Karl, who offers a brilliant, (hopefully) star-making turn as Phil Connors. Bill Murray’s performance in the film is (deservedly) one of the best-loved of his career, but Karl proves to be at least his equal. He’s far more conventionally good-looking than Murray, and while he lacks Murray’s weariness, in the first half of the show he presents a character who is significantly more unpleasant than Phil was in Murray’s performance. That’s partly because he simply isn’t Bill Murray: by the time Murray made Groundhog Day, he’d developed a familiar screen persona and sustained it through several movies, including this one. Murray played the role with a slight but always-visible twinkle – however unpleasant the character became, you were always aware you were watching Bill Murray. Karl doesn’t bring an established persona to the table; accordingly, his Phil is an unpleasant, self-absorbed asshole, at least to begin with, and there’s little sugar-coating. For most of the first act the character is not especially likeable, and he almost never leaves the stage – but Karl has a terrific singing voice, superb timing, and enormous charisma, and he makes Phil’s worst excesses tremendously entertaining. All of which, of course, makes his eventual redemption all the more moving, although Minchin and Rubin resist (thank God) the temptation (which must have been there) to make the ending into a manipulative tearjerker. Karl simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. How good is he? If the show turns out to be a hit on Broadway, it could do for him what the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! did for Hugh Jackman.

Opposite him, as Rita, Carlyss Peer has the advantage of recreating a role originally portrayed by Andie MacDowell. MacDowell’s one-note, wooden performance was the film’s single misfire (has she ever made a film in which she didn’t give a one-note, wooden performance? If she has, I missed it); the musical gives Peer a bit more to work with than the screenplay did, and she’s lovely. Peer’s Rita is the show’s normative figure: the townspeople are all more or less drawn as caricatures, at least initially, so Rita serves as the audience’s way in. She’s bright, funny, charming, and a very strong singer (this is apparently her musical debut); unlike MacDowell, she creates a nuanced, three-dimensional character, and she more than holds her own next to Karl’s firing-on-all-cylinders star turn.

As for the rest – Warchus redeems himself for the horror that was Ghost, delivering a fast-paced, carefully detailed staging packed with warmly funny ensemble performances. There’s witty choreography by Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, an evocatively skewed set from Rob Howell (including an eye-poppingly hideous interior for Phil’s B&B bedroom), and a whole host of clever visual grace notes (one favourite, early in the show: as Phil’s attempt to leave Punxsutawney on the first Groundhog Day is thwarted by a snowstorm, we see an actor in a groundhog suit dump a shovelful of fake snow on a toy van crossing the front of the stage). Unlike Ghost, this isn’t a vast technological spectacle; instead, it’s an intricately-choreographed comedy in which the thrills – and there are several – come via Paul Kieve’s sleight-of-hand theatrical illusions, Minchin’s superb score, and Andy Karl’s sensational star turn. I’m more or less running out of superlatives here: this is a tryout production, the show is (eventually) heading to Broadway, and it’s already in tremendously good shape. I loved it.

I did not, unfortunately, particularly love the audience – or at least, I didn’t love the section of it seated immediately to my right. I saw the show at last Saturday’s matinee (August 20th), from the rear of the upper circle (factor in the cost of a train ticket from where I live to London, and theatre these days is getting too expensive to sit anywhere below the “cheap seats” – which, themselves, are not as cheap as they used to be). I was in seat F6 (terrific view for the money); to my right, in seats F7-11, was a group of five people (younger than me, but not that young) who arrived, carrying drinks, right before the house lights went down. They’d obviously seen the show a few times before – bearing in mind it’s only been playing six weeks or so – because not only did they clap/snap their fingers in time with the music, they sang along – accurately – with several of the numbers in the first half. When they weren’t singing, they were talking, and not in a whisper. Subtle attempts – glares, shushes – to get them to shut up were ignored. I eventually told the woman sitting to my right to shut up, and she did… for about five minutes, then she started up again. One woman a couple of seats down from me kept putting her feet up on the back of the seat in front, each time kicking the gentleman sitting there between the shoulder-blades (because of the steep rake) and forcing him to hunch forward in his seat. The best was saved for a woman in the row in front, the companion of the gentleman who kept getting kicked: halfway through the first half, when she’d understandably had enough of these obnoxious pricks, she turned around and told the person sitting behind her to shut up, and got the remnants of someone’s drink thrown over her.

At the start of the interval, I went and found an usher, and asked to speak to a house manager (so did the woman who had the drink thrown over her, and her partner). I explained what had happened, and that I wasn’t prepared to put up with it in the second half; the house manager very kindly found the three of us alternative seats (no mean feat, the performance was almost sold out), and the second half of the show proceeded without interruption, but with the perpetrators still in their seats, and still presumably disrupting the show for everybody who didn’t complain.

That, I’m afraid, isn’t good enough, although I’m certainly grateful for having been given an alternative seat in the second act. In this country, throwing a drink over someone is technically a chargeable offence, not that anybody was considering going down that road. These louts – whose parents must be so, so proud – disrupted the performance for everyone around them, one of them did something that in the strictest legal terms constitutes common assault, and there didn’t appear to be any consequences for them. Where is the disincentive for behaving disruptively the next time they see the show?

Put simply, once the disruptive behaviour crosses the line – or rather, gulf – between a breach of audience etiquette and an actual offence, however minor, the perpetrators should not be allowed back for the second act. The house management’s job is to ensure the whole audience – not just people who take the trouble to complain – get as ideal an experience of a given performance as possible. Dealing with, and if necessary removing, disruptive patrons is not a pleasant part of the job – I know, I’ve done it, and I didn’t take any pleasure in it – but it is part of the job, and allowing disruptive patrons to return for the second act, in the end, shows enormous disrespect to both the audience and the cast.

If I sound angry, there’s a good reason. Think of this from the point of view of a consumer: in most cases, if I buy something and it turns out to be defective, I have some recourse. If I buy an appliance and it turns out to be faulty, it will be replaced. Even if it’s damaged in transit through no fault of the supplier, I retain certain rights, and I’ll get a replacement or a refund. In this case, I purchased an experience, in the form of admission to a performance. The experience, thanks to the gaggle of selfish dickheads sitting to my right, turned out to be defective – and that’s it. It’s gone. Even though I got reseated for the second half, the experience is damaged. The day, furthermore, cost a great deal more than just the theatre ticket, once you add in train fares, lunch and all the rest of it – and having shelled out all that money and travelled a round-trip of roughly 400 miles, I ended up with less than I paid for. That’s galling.

It’s also troubling to consider what the behaviour of these individuals suggests about the nature of fandom. As I said, they sang along to Minchin’s songs accurately. There’s no cast album, and as far as I know only one song from the show has been performed in public out of context. They’d clearly seen it several times, and they clearly identified as super-fans – and they apparently felt it perfectly appropriate to express their fandom in ways that diminished the experience for everyone sitting around them. Andy Karl has a terrific voice; the lady sitting two seats to my right last Saturday afternoon does not, although she certainly knows how to project. Of course it’s a given that these people are selfish and stupid and absolutely incapable of showing consideration for anything beyond themselves, but somewhere along the way, they appear to have got the idea that being the WORLD’S BIGGEST FAN grants them an absolute licence to do as they like, and screw everyone else, because nothing has happened to disabuse them of it – which actually is probably the most compelling reason why they should not have been allowed back into the auditorium for the second act. By letting them back into the theatre even after three complaints about them, the management are essentially granting them permission to be as unpleasant as they like. Given that even the cheapest seat costs at least three or four times the price of a cinema ticket, I find that unacceptable.

So, yes, Groundhog Day. Go and see it. Go and see it several times. It really is as good as the reviews suggest – but please keep quiet while the house lights are down, keep your feet off the seats in front, and keep your drinks to yourself. And if you must sing along, wait until the album comes out and do it at home, OK?

 

 

 

Is that a pink envelope down your underpants, or are you just pleased to see me?

 

There are people who’d probably have me shot for saying this: as much as I love the score, actually attending a production of The Threepenny Opera is not always particularly high on any list of things I’d like to do. Possibly that’s a result of having sat through rather too many po-faced classroom dissections of Brecht, or maybe it’s residual trauma from a University of Toronto School of Music production years ago which, while beautifully sung, took the ‘opera’ part of the title a little bit too seriously. It was performed on a set that could have doubled for a revival of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West,   and the director and cast approached the material with such humourless reverence that I think I aged five years during the three hours or so it took to sit through the show. The National Theatre‘s new revival, though, offers a “new adaptation” by Simon Shepherd, a spectacular cast, and the chance to hear the music presented in a way that closely resembles the original 1928 production, and Travelex tickets are very reasonable. And I’d forgotten, when I booked, how back-breakingly uncomfortable the seats in the Olivier can be.

Fortunately it was well worth the lower back pain. Translator/adapter Simon Stephens and director Rufus Norris both, thank God, understand that the material works best when it’s delivered with an underlying sense of fun, rather than as a straight-faced sit-up-and-eat-your-broccoli treatise on the corruption at the heart of so-called “civilised” society. This might be as close as you’ll get to Brecht-as-musical-comedy, but it works: Norris’s production is a gleefully nasty, funny/brutal ride through London’s underworld, and it’s tremendously entertaining.

It is not, though, quite pure, unadulterated Brecht and Weill. Stephens’s “new adaptation” isn’t exactly a top-down rewrite of the original, but it’s more than simply a loose (and very sweary) translation of the script. All the plot points you expect are present and correct; the biggest change is the addition of The Pink Envelope, a dossier of blackmail material on the future king which Macheath keeps in his underpants, which  (spoiler alert) becomes the means by which Polly secures Macheath’s release from prison in the final scene. It certainly works, and makes for a couple of amusing sight gags, and it means the ending, in this production, makes some kind of dramatic sense – but this change also subverts Brecht’s satirical point about the inherent ludicrousness of happy endings in a certain kind of popular entertainment. Purists might scream; I enjoyed it. There’s also, because there weren’t enough great numbers in this score already, the addition of Surabaya-Johnny as an extra number for Jenny Diver. Again, it works; whether it’s necessary is an entirely different question.

It does, though, give Sharon Small a bit more to do, and that’s always welcome. Her broken Glaswegian doll of a Jenny is this production’s beating heart, and she gives Jenny a compelling combination of ferocity and fragility. She doesn’t have the greatest singing voice in the cast (her single other musical credit, at least as listed in this production’s programme, is the Donmar’s revival of The Threepenny Opera twenty-odd years ago, in which she played Polly; I saw it and have the recording, and I’d somehow completely forgotten it was her), but she’s a formidable actress, and her Surabaya-Johnny is surprisingly moving.

If Sharon Small provides the production’s heart, Rosalie Craig’s Polly Peachum is undoubtedly its brain. Craig’s Polly is a seemingly straight-laced, bespectacled school swot with an inner core of pure steel. It goes without saying that her singing is glorious – her face-off with Debbie Kurup’s feisty, funny Lucy Brown in the Jealousy Duet is by far the production’s musical highlight, with her Pirate Jenny running it a very close second – but it’s a fascinating acting performance too; for once, a character who often seems like a cardboard cutout is rendered in three dimensions. This Polly knows she’s the cleverest person in the room; she’s simultaneously warmly engaging and icily dispassionate, and from the moment Craig tears into Pirate Jenny it’s clear we’re watching a truly formidable woman. And to cap it all, she can’t half time a comic belch.

The production’s comedic tone, on the other hand, is set by the wonderful Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne as Polly’s lowlife parents. Gwynne’s Mrs. Peachum is an acid-tongued, perpetually hungover riot – all sharp edges and hard angles, like Olive Oyl painted by Otto Dix (her halter-necked long red dress is a direct replica of the dress worn in Dix’s Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber). Holder’s Peachum is even better – an effete, menacing, bisexual thug in Cuban heels, a sharp suit, and a Louise Brooks bob. They’re a splendid double-act – as unpleasant as they need to be, but at the same time truly funny.

There’s superb work, in fact, right across the ensemble. Everyone hits the right tone – sour, brutal, not remotely ingratiating, but with a comic edge – and everybody understands the piece’s Epic Theatre roots, but Norris, thank God, lets his company have fun with the material, and they do. Even the smallest role is perfectly cast, and there are memorable turns from Matt Cross as a perpetually-grinning policeman, George Ikediashi as a memorably velvet-voiced ballad singer (and the messenger in the final scene), and especially from Jamie Beddard as a hilariously foul-mouthed wheelchair-bound member of Macheath’s gang. The band, under the direction of David Shrubsole, offer a tight, tart rendition of Weill’s brilliant score. Norris’s staging, like Stephens’s adaptation of the text, might not be undiluted Epic Theatre, but it knows where the material comes from: this Threepenny Opera is sometimes spectacular but never pretty, and Norris and Imogen Knight, his choreographer, keep the action flowing seamlessly (and blessedly quickly) across Vicki Mortimer’s less-simple-than-it-looks set of frames, paper screens, and scenery-shop staircases.

Which leaves Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, the centre around which the rest of the production revolves. From his first entrance – from the flies aboard a silver crescent moon, ostentatiously dry-humping Rosalie Craig’s Polly – he’s certainly a commanding presence, although he never quite offers the kind of flamboyant star turn other actors have given in the role. Kinnear’s Macheath is a grim-faced, deadpan career killer – thoroughly ruthless, but he derives pride rather than joy from his work. In a production located far closer to the present day than to 1928 – we’re repeatedly told Macheath and Brown served together in Kandahar – that’s an interesting choice; there’s more than a touch of the career politician about him, and he’s as much a villain as a hero. Much has been written of Kinnear’s rediscovery of his long-dormant singing voice, apparently more or less unused since he sang in choirs as a teenager; he’s good, and he more than does the score justice, but he’s still an actor-who-sings, and in a few of the more demanding passages his lack of vocal security is obvious. He’s hardly the first actor-who-sings-a-bit to take on this role, though, and he’s certainly a better singer than Tom Hollander, who did it at the Donmar. Kinnear’s performance is, unusually, somewhat smaller than the bigger-than-life supporting turns surrounding him; it shouldn’t work, but it does, and his quietly chilling performance provides the anchor that stops the production from degenerating into an outsized Brechtian pantomime.

It could still do with losing about ten minutes, and if you need any kind of lower back support you should probably take Ibuprofen with you – really, those seats are painful – but you can’t have everything, and in more or less every other respect Norris’s production is hugely entertaining, even if you think you might be allergic to Brecht (I should admit at this point, since I haven’t already, that while I do love this score, I’m one of those people who prefers Weill’s American period). Messing around with a beloved classic is always a gamble, and usually ill-advised; in this case, Norris and Stephens’s alternative take on the material works triumphantly – though as I said, purists may throw their hands up in horror –  and you’ll go a long way before you hear a more exciting performance of this score.

Now, would it be too bourgeois of me to ask the National to make a cast album?

 

“I hate that word. It’s a return.”

 

Glenn Close Sunset

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Imelda’s Turn

gypsy savoy

Or, some quick thoughts about the current London revival of Gypsy:

* It’s one of my favourite shows (I wrote about that the last time I saw it), so to me, ANY production is an event.

* Given Imelda Staunton’s reviews, both here and in the production’s initial run in Chichester, this revival is rapidly turning into An Event. Ms. Staunton is giving one of those landmark performances that people will be talking about for years.

* Yes, she can belt. Not that everything in the score has to be belted – the role was created by Ethel Merman, but there’s more than one way to sing this score – and Ms. Staunton brings a great deal of light and shade to her interpretation of the music. The fact that she can unleash a great big belt voice when she needs to seems to surprise some people, though. Perhaps they didn’t see her in Guys and Dolls.

* Ms. Staunton, though, is an actress before she’s a singer, and this is first and foremost an acting performance. Her performance is both funnier and darker than other people I’ve seen in the role have been – she’s an immensely skilled comic actress (I mean, she even managed to be funny in the witless sitcom Is It Legal?), this is a musical comedy, and she finds every laugh you’d expect, along with several you don’t. At the same time, though, she is truly formidable – and it’s also clear from the outset that this Rose, psychologically, is a little out-of-kilter with the rest of the world. She can be charming, but she’s fuelled by rage, and when she explodes – as in the scene in Granziger’s office towards the end of the first act – her anger is disproportionate. This is a woman with very little sense of perspective.

* This serves to make her, oddly, more fragile than some other Roses have been. Her big numbers at the end of each act – Everything’s Coming Up Roses and Rose’s Turn – are each, here, genuine breakdowns. Staunton’s Rose’s Turn, in particular, is emotionally wounding in a way nobody else I’ve seen in the role has quite managed. I think the entire theatre stopped breathing until the number was over.

* Actually, I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the second half of the second act. Even if you know the show by heart – which I do, more or less – this is an unusually compelling production.

* Peter Davison’s Herbie and Lara Pulver’s Louise haven’t received enough praise. Davison has always been underrated as a stage actor, and this is some of the best work he’s ever done. Pulver sings beautifully, of course, but her second-act scenes with Rose, again, are more bruising here than they’ve been in other productions. Nothing escapes these actors; this is as good an account of the show’s book as you are likely to see.

* It’s a pity, therefore, that they’re using the slightly cut-down revised version of the book from the 2008 City Center revival (no ‘Small World’ reprise, much shorter version of the hotel scene in the first act in which Rose no longer accuses the hotel manager of attempted rape, a few other nips and tucks). None of the alterations are improvements; I’m not sure the cuts are mandatory, given that they weren’t included in the last British revival, and when everything else here is so good, it’s a shame to find them working from a slightly less effective version of the script. The stuff that’s missing here is not superfluous.

* The strippers – Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe, and Julie Legrand – are hilarious. Their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” brings the house down.

* Director Jonathan Kent’s big achievement here lies in the performances. It’s a solid staging of the show, but not a startling one. He has a superb cast, and he keeps out of their way.

* A string section would have been nice. This production has a trio of central performances that may be as close to definitive as anyone has achieved since the show’s original Broadway cast in 1959; it’s a pity they’re working to a somewhat reduced orchestration, although the reductions are quite skilfully done. It’s not a tiny band, but it’s not the original orchestrations either, and the original orchestrations are glorious.

* It’s a little bit anal of me, I know, but it’s not my very favourite thing when a theatre programme refers to a character by a name that’s never mentioned in the script:

Imelda Momma

* Those are minor quibbles, though. This production is running until November. If you love theatre, musical or not, you need to see it. Staunton is doing the strongest work of her career so far, and everybody else rises to her level. Theatrical experiences as thrilling as this don’t come along often.

And the winner is… nobody

A pair of mediocre American actors warbling showtunes. A wincingly unfunny script. Weird camerawork. Bizarre editing. Inexplicable guest performances. Terrible sound. The complete absence, apparently, of anything resembling a point.

No, I haven’t started watching ‘Glee’ again, and season two of ‘Smash’ doesn’t go out here for a while yet. This was ITV’s seemingly ironically-billed broadcast of the ‘highlights’ from this year’s Olivier Awards ceremony. For lovers of really, really, really awful television, it was a feast to savour. For anyone else, particularly anyone who actually likes theatre, it was a waste of time dressed in a parade of dinner suits and posh frocks. How bad was it? Well, put it this way: last night I watched Showgirls, which I’d never seen before, and found that it was executed with a level of wit and style that this year’s Oliviers broadcast could not hope to match.

It was, in fact, quite difficult to work out what the makers of this programme – allegedly directed by one Stuart McDonald, who seems to have been responsible for, among other things, twenty-six episodes of Strictly Come Dancing – were trying to achieve, given that they seemed determined to shove most of the actual awards as far into the background as possible. In a slot of only ninety minutes on a major network – even at 10pm on a Sunday – I don’t particularly have a problem with showing at least some of the technical/supporting awards via a photo, a caption and a voice-over. Yes, set and lighting and costume designers do brilliant work, often under tremendous pressure, and yes, they deserve to be recognised, but if you have to squish the show down to half its actual length to fit it into a TV programme, something has to give, and the tech awards are not what’s going to keep people watching. Unfortunately, the supporting acting awards were relegated to 10-second clips as well, along with the awards for directing and choreography. Given some of what we were shown, that’s a little harder to defend. At least – credit where it’s due – the major award recipients were not limited to 30 seconds for their acceptance speeches; nobody abused the privilege, and the speeches we saw were generally funny, modest and charming. And as an added bonus: I didn’t notice anybody thanking God, which is an awards-show trope that generally sends my eyebrows shooting up into the stratosphere.

Otherwise, though, the show mostly seemed to either miss the point or shoot itself in the foot. No, that’s not quite fair: sometimes it  managed to do both at the same time. Surely the whole point of putting the Oliviers on television in the first place is to put a celebration of/commercial for the best our theatre has to offer in front of as wide an audience as possible? IF that was the aim – and it should have been – then the show was largely a miserable failure. We saw nothing at all of any of the nominated new plays, even though at least some of them are still running, and nothing at all (on the broadcast, at least) of some of the nominated musicals. We saw nothing at all of any of the winning performances, beyond a photograph of the actor in costume. All of the nominated shows, without exception, will have shot some kind of promo footage (quite a lot of it seems to end up on youtube), but we didn’t see any of it. The broadcast included musical numbers/medleys from ‘Top Hat’ and the current revival of ‘A Chorus Line’ (the latter’s number – ‘One’ – cut to under two minutes), and they both looked pretty good, once you learned to look past the bizarre camerawork and came to terms with the terrible sound. For ‘The Bodyguard’, Heather Headley gave a very, very self-indulgent (and, towards the end, surprisingly pitchy) rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’, in which she managed to stretch the song’s first two lines out for what seemed like half an hour. We were also – oh joy – treated to a reprise of Will Young’s un-performance in ‘Cabaret’, for which he was inexplicably (yes, even in a very lean year) nominated for best actor in a musical. For those of us who had already paid to sit through it, that was just cruel.  Other nominated musicals (both new and revivals) didn’t get a look-in. Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton – two of the biggest names we’ve got – actually won their categories, and didn’t get to perform, presumably because their show closed months ago. There are clips of their (stunning) performances that would have been available, but they weren’t used here.

And, actually, that might have been OK if they’d genuinely been excluded because of time constraints, but they weren’t. Of course co-presenter Sheridan Smith had to have an opening number – she’s warm, funny, absolutely charming, has charisma to burn, and is a genuine, old-fashioned musical comedy star, even though she’s perhaps not the absolute greatest singer or dancer out there. Whatever it is, she’s got tons of it (and she’s also done plenty of TV, which means the people at home know who she is, which isn’t always the case these days with actors with a musical background), and seeing her vamp her way through ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ was fun, even if the song wasn’t improved by the terrible sub-Sunday Night at the London Palladium arrangement or the equally terrible miking. Given the special award for Gillian Lynne, the closing medley from ‘Cats’ was also entirely appropriate, and again, it was very well performed, even if it wasn’t well filmed or miked. Elsewhere in the show, however, there was a lot of filler. The clumsy jumps back and forth to the ‘public’ stage outside in the Covent Garden piazza didn’t work at all, and the material for the presenters went on for too long, and was so badly written that even Smith and Hugh Bonneville couldn’t sell it. These two actors are capable of being very, very funny indeed; they died up there, it wasn’t their fault, and they should probably put a contract out on whoever wrote their links.

Better – worse? – still were the guest performances. Petula Clark looks great, never mind considering she’s 80, but wheeling her out to sing ‘With One Look’ was a mistake – while she looks great, her voice is gone, and she struggled with the song to the point where it was almost embarrassing to watch. And then we had Idina Menzel and Matthew Morrison, both imported from across the Atlantic for no particular reason to deliver lengthy musical solos. Menzel paid tribute to Marvin Hamlisch by wailing and screeching her way through ‘That’s How I Say Goodbye’  as if she was at a karaoke night on a slightly downmarket cruise ship – because, apparently, no British actor has sung a Marvin Hamlisch song onstage, ever.  And Matthew Morrison gave us a blandly-sung, badly-choreographed solo medley from ‘West Side Story’ that climaxed in a gloopy cheesy-listening arrangement of ‘Maria’ with a power-ballad drum-beat underneath. Well, I say ‘climaxed’ – there might have been more, but that’s when I hit the fast forward button.

It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with having random actors sing showtunes on TV. I like showtunes on TV, and have the DVD collection to prove it. Aside from the fact that so much of this broadcast was just plain bad to begin with, though, I do have a problem with half of the most prominent solo performance slots in a broadcast that should be celebrating and promoting the best of British theatre being given over to American performers who have not done any theatre in this country this year, and whose television show is not even available in every household here, at the expense of performers who were actually nominated and shows that are currently running. Come to that, if the point was to plug the theatre industry on national television, then perhaps the casts of ‘Once’ and ‘The Book of Mormon’  and maybe ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, among others, should have been included in the broadcast, rather than a couple of  actors who’ve been on ‘Glee’, even though those productions opened after the cut-off for nominations. As it stands, as a promotional exercise, this was a wasted opportunity.

The thing is, unbelievable as this may seem, it’s about a decade since the Oliviers – this country’s highest-profile theatre award – have been on television at all, other than via webcasts or the red button. The Tony Awards, on the other hand, are telecast every year – on a major network, yet, and far earlier in the evening than this was – and while they parcel up the tech awards in an hour-long pre-show that airs on PBS, they generally do a reasonable job of celebrating each Broadway season and promoting the nominated shows, and the telecasts, while not perfect, tend to be executed with orders of magnitude more conviction than was on display here. They also – and this is important too – manage to stay on the air in a primetime slot (albeit on Sunday night) despite ratings that are usually lukewarm. It’s a positive step to have the Oliviers back on a mainstream network this year, but if it’s going to be worth keeping them there, ITV are going to have to up their game.

Bluntly, this programme was incompetent. It didn’t work as a celebration of the last year of theatre in the West End, and that might not have mattered if it had, instead, worked as a piece of television, but it failed there as well. It was a badly-conceived, badly-made, badly-scripted parade of pointlessness that, taken as a whole, resembled nothing so much as the arse-end of an under-rehearsed Royal Variety Performance in a really bad year. Given that we produce, in this country, a range of theatre that rivals anything you’ll find anywhere in the English-speaking world, I’m afraid, that just isn’t good enough.

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.