God damn it, voilà!

H2S

Or, a few brief thoughts about Wilton’s Music Hall‘s very, very problematic revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, which closed yesterday:

  • It is very nearly impossible to kill this material. Many of this production’s reviews have rather sniffily compared this show to Loesser‘s much better-known Guys and Dolls; it’s true that workplace mores have changed more than a little since the show’s debut in 1962, but to assume any shortcomings are the fault of the material rather than the director is too easy. Done with the right (light) touch, it can play like gangbusters, even today.
  • Saying that upfront may lead you to some assumptions about this production. Those assumptions would be entirely correct.
  • It’s worth saying upfront that everybody involved here clearly respects and loves the material. The production has, for example, paid for a 9-piece band; that’s a huge outlay in a 300-seat venue, and the score – a longtime favourite of mine – sounds terrific. The singing, too, is distinguished throughout. But while everybody involved clearly loves and respects the material, it is unfortunately not absolutely clear whether everybody involved understands it.
  • A note for Benji Sperring, this production’s director: IT. IS. A. SATIRE. And that goes for every character, not just the more obviously caricatured supporting roles.
  • There’s obviously more than one way to play a character, but in this case it’s worth going back to Robert Morse‘s performance in the original (easily enough available on film), although you don’t necessarily have to imitate it. This is a story about ambition – the central character, J. Pierrepont Finch, rises from the mailroom to chairman of a huge corporation in an impossibly short time by following the pithy advice of the self-help book (itself a parody) by Shepherd Mead that gives the show its title – but it is not simply a portrayal of a ruthless young man’s swift corporate ascent, and it’s also not a treatise against the evils of big business. It’s a satire – but a gentle, knowing one.
  • The thing about Morse’s portrayal: he was adorable in the role. However duplicitous the character became, however badly he behaved towards Rosemary, his love-interest, you rooted for him. Watch the film: there’s a sweetness and a guilelessness to Morse’s performance that lets his Finch get away with pretty much anything.
  • Under Sperring’s direction, Mark Pickering plays Finch as a lizard in a suit. And if the acting choices weren’t misguided enough, it doesn’t help at all that Nic Farman, the lighting designer, chooses to illuminate Finch’s many fourth-wall-breaking takes to the audience either by bathing the stage in green light, or by isolating Finch in an ice-blue spotlight. Under those conditions, there’s no opportunity at all for Pickering to communicate anything resembling warmth – and if Finch comes across as cold, if you can’t like him, the show starts to come apart at the seams. This simply is not a story in which a villain/antihero prevails – but that’s what you get here.
  • Given the rest of the production, my inclination would be to blame the director. I’m pretty sure the performance I saw Pickering give is the performance Sperring wanted. Make of that what you will.
  • Hannah Grover’s Rosemary, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. She has the right combination of wide-eyed ingenuousness and steel backbone, she delivers a delightful ‘Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm’ (yes, the show’s sexual politics are firmly rooted in the early 60s), and she’s warmly funny throughout.
  • Andrew C. Wadsworth, luxury-cast as boss JB Biggley, is an absolute delight.
  • So is Lizzii Hills’s delightfully dim Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s smart-dumb bimbo of a mistress. My inner feminist might have cringed, but Hills is so funny that I didn’t care.
  • Maisey Bawden’s Miss Jones is in the Lillias White mode – in ‘Brotherhood of Man’, she lets rip with a stream of fabulous scat-singing, rather than an operatic obbligato. It’s not quite the joke Loesser wrote, but the joke does work (at least, it worked in the 1995 Broadway revival – which, yes, I saw). It doesn’t work here because Bawden simply reads as being at least thirty years too young to portray a starchy, spinsterly senior office manager – and while Loesser didn’t write scat-singing for Miss Jones anyway, in either case the joke is about an older, conservative, straight-laced woman falling under Finch’s “spell” and letting loose at the climax of the song, rather than just a supporting character who hasn’t sung before revealing that she has a voice.
  • The production has clearly been put up on the kind of budget that makes the Southwark Playhouse look like an offshoot of the Las Vegas Strip. Mike Lees’s pop-art corporate HQ backdrop looks perfectly fine, although reports elsewhere suggest the (presumably plywood) elevator doors have been somewhat temperamental. The costumes and wigs, I’m afraid, simply look cheap, to the point where the waist of Rosemary’s dress is cinched with a length of ribbon instead of a belt.
  • Whatever the production’s shortcomings – and the production, in case you hadn’t guessed by now, has many, many shortcomings – it’s a treat to hear this music performed live, and performed well.
  • Lovely as the venue is, it is less than a treat to sit on the Wilton Music Hall’s seats, which resemble something you’d expect to find in a school assembly, for the length of the ninety-minute first act. Yes, that first act is long, and is always long. If it’s done well, it passes in a blink; if it isn’t, it’s a real arse-paralyser, and so are those chairs.

The bottom line: it doesn’t work, and I’m glad I went. The band is great, there are some incredibly talented performers in supporting roles, it’s a wonderful score, and any production of this show, on some level, is going to be worthwhile. But it’s a far more nuanced piece than this director understands, and the misguided choices surrounding the central role torpedo the production right at the top of the show. Pity.

And in future, if you’re going to see anything longer than the briefest one-act in this venue, be warned: take a cushion, or anaesthetise your buttocks before you go in.

Fidgety Feet

dominion american in paris

Bullet points again – here are a few brief thoughts about the new London production of Christopher Wheeldon‘s stage adaptation of An American in Paris:

  • It’s beautiful to look at. Wheeldon’s choreography is glorious, and Bob Crowley’s fluid, evocative designs offer a captivating portrait of postwar Paris.
  • It’s beautifully sung. Yes, the leading lady – the wonderful Leanne Cope – is a ballet dancer rather than a musical theatre actress, but she has a lovely voice and a great deal of presence. The singing from the other leads is unimpeachable (Robert Fairchild was off at the performance I saw; his alternate, Ashley Day, is excellent).
  • Craig Lucas, who wrote the show’s book, has departed a little from the plot of the source film. It’s still the story of three young men – artistically-inclined former American soldiers Jerry Mulligan and Adam Hochberg and their French friend Henri Baurel – on the loose in Paris after the end of World War Two, and (of course) they still all fall for the same girl, but the plot carries a little more weight here than it does in the film.
  • That said, this is still a show in which everything else exists to support the dancing – and the dancers. Lucas’s book is constructed very carefully so that the heavy lifting, in terms of acting requirements, is directed away from the two principal roles, which are cast with ballet dancers rather than actors.
  • This means that while Cope’s on-the-cusp-of-stardom ballerina, Lise Dassin, is given more of a backstory (she’s Jewish, her parents were arrested by the Nazis, and Henri’s family hid her and others during the Occupation, which is why she feels beholden to them), explaining it is mostly left to other characters, which means Lise has long stretches, when she isn’t dancing, of simply being Shy And Enigmatic. This probably does Cope a great disservice; she’s a capable actress, and she’s the lead, but while her role is dazzlingly choreographed, it’s also badly underwritten.
  • The supporting characters are given a little more room here than they are in the film. In particular, Zoë Rainey’s Milo Davenport – a wealthy American patron of the arts who takes an interest in Jerry, and not just for his paintings – gets a significantly more prominent role in the story, financing a ballet in which Lise will star and persuading the ballet company to hire Jerry as designer. Rainey is wonderful – and that’s good, because she gets more to sing than the show’s leading lady, even though Cope’s (admittedly smaller) voice is hardly an embarrassment.
  • The men are all terrific. Ashley Day’s Jerry also suffers a little (though less than Cope) from his role being carefully designed for (let’s put this kindly) an actor of limited skill, which he is not. Day will be taking over from Robert Fairchild, who originated the role in Paris and on Broadway, later in the year, and he’s great.
  • The running gag about whether Haydn Oakley’s Henri Baurel might be gay isn’t very funny, and should have been cut before rehearsals.
  • Oakley has to carry a great deal of the hidden-from-the-Nazis plot strand, and he delivers a performance of enormous subtlety – not easy in a barn like the Dominion, particularly when the book scenes could almost have been written on flashcards.
  • David Seadon-Young’s Adam Hochberg is a charming narrator, a convincing song-and-dance man, and absolutely believable as a lovelorn romantic, but Lucas’s book is simply too thin for us to be moved in any way by his character’s unrequited love for Lise.
  • Jane Asher is luxury-cast as Mme. Baurel, Henri’s overbearing mother. She can do this kind of role in her sleep, but she doesn’t; her timing is sharp as ever, she owns the stage in all of her (brief) appearances, and she finds far more complexity in the character than you’d guess from the writing, which – again – tends towards the simplistic.
  • The film’s brief-ish score is augmented by a handful of classics from elsewhere in the Gershwin catalogue; they’re all beautifully sung (and played, although the 13-piece orchestra could really do with about a dozen more musicians), but they also seem oddly interchangeable. It’s not the songs that matter here, it’s the dancing.
  • The climactic ballet sequence, while shorter than it is in the film, is simply stunning. Day is very good indeed, Cope is sensational, the choreography is breathtaking, and the Mondrian-inspired costumes and projected backdrops are gorgeous.
  • Wheeldon’s choreography throughout is dazzlingly inventive, which is as it should be in a show where the dancing is the star. The opening ballet, to a chunk of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, communicates the beauty and menace of postwar Paris, dance drives most of the plot’s most significant moments, and Bob Crowley’s handsome sets move with the same choreographed precision as the dancers.
  • If you go in expecting a lighter-than-light tap-and-feathers extravaganza along the lines of, say, Crazy For You, you will be disappointed. Wheeldon and his colleagues are attempting something a little more highbrow, and a little more thoughtful. Apart from Henri’s dazzling art deco hat-and-cane fantasy in Stairway to Paradise, that kind of out-and-out production number is not what is on offer here.
  • And if you’re looking for the kind of full-on mascara-down-your-cheeks romance that will leave you sobbing into a tissue at the curtain-call, look elsewhere. This show is beautiful to look at, beautifully sung, thrillingly choreographed and danced, and brilliantly designed, but it’s also not enormously emotionally engaging. It’ll keep you interested, and sometimes dazzled, but you may not be moved.
  • Ticket prices in the West End are on a sharp upward trajectory right now, but the Dominion is a barn and there are some bargains to be had. At the front of the rear half of the circle (the theatre has only two tiers in use), row H has a low barrier in front; these seats are sold as ‘restricted view’, but the bar won’t cause you any trouble at all if you’re taller than about 4’10”, and this is a show where it’s no bad thing to be sitting far enough back that you can see the full stage picture. This was my ‘restricted’ view:
    drv
  • The realities of commercial musical theatre: you could populate a couple of football teams out of the list of producing entities billed above the title on the showcard, and the full list of producers takes up a double-page spread in the (very, very overpriced) programme:
    AP producers
    AP programme

The bottom line? It’s certainly worth seeing. To take these particular ingredients and work them into something that, at times, is transcendently beautiful is not at all an easy achievement – but too often, as brilliantly staged and designed and beautifully performed as it is, the result is just beautiful, and it could have been more. This love story may well thrill you, but you probably won’t fall in love.

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.

…and you don’t even know it!

jamie

I’d tell you to rush straight to Sheffield to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the new musical playing at the Crucible, but it closes tonight. Oops. I saw it last week, but I’ve been busy. Deal with it.

Anyway, it’s not as if you won’t get another chance, although nothing seems to be set in stone yet. It’s (deservedly) had very strong reviews, the final few performances apparently sold out, it has a wonderful score, and it’s going to have a life beyond this first production… not least because a good half-a-dozen songs in the (terrific) score are so maddeningly, infuriatingly catchy that they’ll be rattling around your head for days after you see the show, even if you don’t shell out for the concept album on sale in the lobby (and on iTunes).

Based very loosely on a BBC Three documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, on one level this is simply another show about a kid who wants to succeed in showbusiness – but specifically, in this instance, to be a drag queen. What makes the show so refreshing, apart from Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae‘s wonderful score, is that it offers a thoroughly joyous, celebratory take on its subject. At the start of the show, Jamie is out and proud, with a supportive mother and a network of friends. It’s probably fair to suggest that Tom MacRae’s tight, funny book at least somewhat glosses over the difficulties Jamie has to overcome in order to a) take his first tentative steps towards becoming a professional drag performer and b) attend his school prom in a prom dress rather than a dinner jacket, but to go too deeply into the ripples around Jamie’s rejection by his homophobic father would have resulted in a very different kind of show, and perhaps, right now, celebrating tolerance and diversity is a more interesting dramatic choice than emphasising difference and rejection.

Aside from his walking cliché of an absentee father, actually, the biggest difficulty Jamie has to overcome, at least in the second act, is that he’s a little too consumed by his own (undeniable) fabulousness. The show’s dramatic meat has less to do with Jamie’s absentee father or his clashes with the school bully; instead, it’s about how Jamie learns to negotiate the space between a combative drag-queen persona and his desire to cross-dress as himself. It’s no kind of spoiler at all to reveal that Jamie does, at the end of the show, arrive at the school prom wearing a dress – but the scene is beautifully, delicately written, and surprisingly touching.

And in the title role, John McCrea is, well, absolutely fabulous. This is a genuine star turn, and it deserves to be seen by a (much) larger audience. He captures Jamie’s curious combination of strength and naiveté perfectly, he has a terrific pop tenor singing voice and great comic timing, and he can rock a pair of heels as well as anyone. As Jamie’s mother Margaret, Josie Walker brings down the house with a ballad called ‘He’s My Boy’, a song which is orders of magnitude more interesting than you’d guess from the wince-inducingly trite title, and Mina Anwar is brassily hilarious as Margaret’s best friend. The actors playing Jamie’s classmates are all fine, with Lucie Shorthouse a particular standout as Jamie’s friend Pritti; ‘It Means Beautiful’, a song in which Pritti draws a parallel between Jamie’s questions about his identity and her own choice to wear a hijab, is arguably the most interesting thing in the score, and Ms .Shorthouse’s performance of it is truly lovely.

There’s slick direction, too, from Jonathan Butterell, who keeps the action moving swiftly around Anna Fleischle’s grey-walls-and-school-desks set. If this is, in the end, a show that delights rather than surprises, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and while MacRae’s book may sometimes lack a little depth, he and Sells have given the show a superb set of songs. The opening number, ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, is a real earworm, and so is the title song; it’s rare, these days, to come out of the theatre humming the tunes unless you already knew them going in, but you will here. If you didn’t get a chance to see the show, the concept album – mostly performed by Sells, with guest performances from McCrea and Walker (and, um, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Betty Boo) is worth seeking out. Despite a scattering of good reviews in the national press, shows like this can easily slip under the radar, and Sells and MacRae’s score is simply too good to be produced once and then disappear.

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.

It was the music of something beginning…

ragtime

Or, some brief, belated notes on Thom Southerland‘s now-closed revival of Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre, which I saw during the final week of performances (I know, I know – three weeks ago. It’s Christmas, life is complicated, deal with it).

  • I almost didn’t go. When I learned that the production would be using actor-musicians, it killed any interest I’d had in seeing it (in the past, actor-musician productions have not always been my very favourite thing). Once it opened, a number of friends saw it and they pretty much all thought it was wonderful, so I caved. I’m still not, as a general rule, thrilled at the idea of forking over good money in order to hear actors torturing musical instruments they haven’t touched since they left school, but there’s an exception to every rule: this production, unlike most actor-musician productions I’ve seen, does not short-change the music (although it also doesn’t use, or even try to emulate, William Brohn’s original orchestrations). There’s a professional MD centre-stage, there are no issues with musicians struggling/failing to keep time with each other, and Flaherty and Ahrens’s score, dressed in Mark Aspinall’s Americana/folk-tinged new orchestrations, actually sounds good. That in itself is a startling achievement.
  • This is the third thing I’ve seen this year that Southerland has directed, following Grey Gardens and Allegro at the Southwark Playhouse, and each has been better than the last. This is a fierce, confident revival of a difficult show, accomplished at a fraction of what it would cost to produce this kind of thing in the West End. How good is it? I saw the gargantuan original staging of Ragtime in Los Angeles; this production, obviously, is much smaller, with a cast less than half the size and a simple two-level unit set (co-designed by Tom Rogers and the fabulously-named Toots Butcher), and while it may be less overwhelming than Garth Drabinsky’s cast-of-thousands (well, 59), budget-of-millions extravaganza, it is emphatically not any less moving.
  • This is as good an ensemble performance as you’ll see this year (granted, as I write this, this year – thank God – has less than four hours still to go. Yo, 2016 – don’t let the door hit you on the way out). Fine performances from all of the leads (and possibly a career-best performance from Anita Louise Combe as Mother), terrific choral singing (and that’s not as common as you’d hope in musicals), and great work even from the performers in the smallest roles.
  • And speaking of performers in the smallest roles – as Sarah’s Friend, Seyi Omooba is jaw-droppingly good, and her ferocious gospel vocals in ‘Till We Reach That Day’ pin you to your seat. This is her professional debut, and she’s someone to watch.
  • The show itself is what it is. A number of the reviews this time complained that it’s heavy-handed and preachy; given the nature of the source novel, that’s probably inevitable, and one of the preachiest numbers in the score – ‘He Wanted To Say’ – has been cut from this revival (it isn’t missed). Stephen Flaherty’s music cleverly exploits the blend of black and Eastern European musical ingredients that formed the basis of the era’s popular music in America, and he and Lynn Ahrens give the show a (mostly) very fine score – but the show’s opening number is truly brilliant, and nothing that follows can quite equal it. It doesn’t help, either, that the first act, overall, is markedly better than the second (although the show’s two loveliest songs – ‘Our Children’ and ‘Sarah Brown Eyes’ – are performed almost back-to-back in Act Two), because the music turns notably weaker when Terrence McNally’s book takes a turn towards the violent. The novel is brilliant, complex, and never quite satisfying; that was true of the musical in Frank Galati’s enormous original staging, and it’s true here as well.
  • With prices soaring in the West End – the seat that cost me £50 for Gypsy at the Savoy eighteen months ago is £75 for Dreamgirls, which is one reason I haven’t yet booked a ticket – it’s refreshing to see a commercial venture which charges reasonable prices (between £20 and £40) for tickets and doesn’t try to rip the audience off via unjustifiable booking fees and overpriced programmes. The Charing Cross Theatre, God knows, has disadvantages – from the front, you’re practically looking up the cast’s nostrils, and from the back it’s like watching a show in a tunnel – but it’s a charming venue, the location couldn’t be more convenient, and the continued success of companies like the Southwark Playhouse and the Menier suggests there’s a growing audience out there for this sort of thing. This series of musical productions – the first was a transfer of Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Titanic – is a new venture for the Charing Cross Theatre, and it deserves to be a roaring success.

It’s the freakiest show…

lazarus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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