“…and we need to know our worst sides aren’t ignored!”

It seems almost unbelievable that London has had to wait twenty-seven years for a professional production of Falsettos, the seminal 1992 Broadway musical about a New York family that breaks apart and slowly comes back together again when one parent comes out as gay, but somehow it’s 2019 and this is the show’s UK premiere. Well, sort of. Falsettos is formed from two earlier one-acts – March of the Falsettos, which premiered off-Broadway in 1981, and Falsettoland, which premiered in 1990 – and only the former has already received a professional production in the UK (there’s a third one-act – In Trousers – including some of the same characters; it preceded these two shows, premiering in 1979). It’s easy to forget now how strikingly unusual it was back in 1990 to see a piece of relatively mainstream theatre that placed same-sex couples and the spectre of AIDS in the context of a loving, accepting family, and did so without resorting to limp-wristed flaming-queen caricatures, something which cannot be said for, for example, the musical adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles a few years earlier; Falsettos is one of those landmark pieces of writing that represented a decisive step forwards, and it also – fortunately – happens to be a terrific, idiosyncratic, thoroughly moving piece of theatre with a score that is probably still William Finn’s masterpiece.

It’d be lovely, then, to be able to say this long-awaited London production does the show justice, wouldn’t it? Sorry, you can’t have everything. There were alarm bells in August, when a group of UK-based Jewish artists wrote an open letter to the Stage protesting – justifiably – that there appeared to be no Jewish people represented among the cast or creative team of this very, very New-York-Jewish show (the opening number is called Four Jews In A Room Bitching, five out of seven characters in the show are Jewish, there are Yiddish words sprinkled among the lyrics, the climactic scene in the second act takes place at a Bar Mitzvah). The resulting furore included a lot of people deliberately and disingenuously misunderstanding the complaint – look on theatre-related bulletin boards and you’ll find a plethora of witless straw man “arguments” of the how-dare-they-not-cast-CATS-with-actual-cats variety – and the production company’s statement in response to the letter was rather less conciliatory than it might have been given that it was addressing an entirely valid request from a minority group that they be included in the telling of one of their stories. It’s unfair to judge work that, at that point, hadn’t yet been seen on the basis of what rapidly, on social media, turned into a rather unpleasant debate, but it wasn’t an auspicious start.

And to be fair, the biggest problem with this production – and there are many problems with this production – is emphatically not simply that none of the actors are Jewish, which was how a number of people (cynically) misconstrued the points raised in that letter. The problem here is also emphatically not that this production’s cast are untalented – these are all superb singers and actors, they’ve all got impressive CVs, and they’re all, in theory, more than capable of excelling in these roles.

Something, though, is out of balance somewhere, although maybe it’s not so obvious if you haven’t previously seen a production that worked better than this one does (I saw the touring iteration of the original Broadway production in Washington DC in 1993, and I’ve seen the filmed version of the 2016 Broadway revival). Particularly in the first half, the tone seems more than a little off – the effortlessness of the performances on the two original off-Broadway cast recordings makes it easy to forget that this is very, very tricky material to perform. Both acts are through-sung, and Finn’s dazzling but rather eccentric score includes a number of quick-fire passages which aren’t exactly recitative, but in which dialogue is twisted and compressed into the constraints of the structure of a song. The singing in this production is terrific. The direction, unfortunately, really isn’t.

The first act is more problematic than the second. In the first act – March of the Falsettos – Marvin, the show’s central character, has left his wife (Trina) for a male lover (Whizzer, and let’s take a moment to regret that Finn and James Lapine, his collaborator, didn’t see fit to include the splendidly-titled Whizzer Going Down from In Trousers when they glued March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland together to make Falsettos), Trina gets engaged to Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist, and Marvin and Trina’s ten-year-old son Jason struggles to come to an understanding that his own interpretations of masculinity and sexuality do not necessarily have to reflect his father’s choices. It’s tricky, subtle emotional territory, given a fast-paced, very New York tragicomic spin – the score often suggests an overcaffeinated combination of Sondheim, Woody Allen, and Jules Feiffer, with lines and observations that sometimes seem to have come straight from a BEK cartoon – and while some of the material is very funny, there’s real emotion in there too, not to mention a lot of anger.

As (badly) directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, what we’re served up here is closer in tone to a second-tier episode of a third-rate New York-set sitcom. Until the last five minutes of the first act, almost every single significant moment is somehow botched, mostly because Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson (presumably) directs her cast to push too hard (I have to assume they’re giving the performances they’ve been directed to give; I’ve seen most of them in other things, and they’re all capable of much, much better work than they’re doing here). The result, I’m afraid, is a mess: five abundantly talented actor-singers marooned on PJ McEvoy’s startlingly ugly, too-cartoonish set, mugging to such a ridiculous degree that they kill half the laughs and strangle most of the piece’s emotional content.

Worse, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of the first act’s title song – a surreal dream sequence in which the four male characters perform a soft-shoe number in falsetto, a voice range which falls outside traditional stereotypes associated with masculinity – is simply catastrophically bad: under her direction, it’s little more than two-and-a-half minutes of silliness, and the point – yes, there is one – is completely lost. Throughout the first half, every word, every gesture, every choreographed movement is a little bit too big, a little bit too broad, a little bit too laboured. It’s only in the last five minutes, as Daniel Boys’s Marvin sings a beautiful, quiet song called Father to Son to Jason, that you catch a glimpse of what this half of the show should have been.

If Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson finds herself on surer footing in the second half, that’s partly because Falsettoland has always been the stronger of the show’s two constituent one-acts. in Falsettoland, which takes place in 1981, Marvin gets back together with Whizzer, Marvin and Trina argue over preparations for Jason’s forthcoming Bar Mitzvah, and Whizzer falls ill and is diagnosed with an as-yet-unnamed disease with a terrifyingly bleak prognosis. Even in a less than completely successful production, I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the last twenty minutes of the show; throughout, Finn’s songs for Falsettoland still rank among the very best things he’s ever written (for my money, the best of all is Whizzer’s devastatingly unflinching You Gotta Die Sometime), and in this production they’re all sung beautifully. There’s far less of the first act’s hyperactive mugging in the second half of the show; that’s not because the direction in the second half is any better, because it mostly isn’t, but simply because the plot and tone allow fewer opportunities for it.

Still, though, something isn’t quite right. Since the tone in the second half isn’t quite as hyperactively neurotic, there’s more time to focus on the absence of any chemistry between any of the adult actors, and to note that all three romantic couples we see in the show – Daniel Boys and Oliver Savile as Marvin and Whizzer, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Joel Montague (a late replacement for another performer) as Trina and Mendel, and Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, an underwritten pair of “lesbians from next door” who appear only in the second half – give the impression of having met for the first time backstage at the five-minute call. Again, these actors are all – all – capable of far better work than they’re doing here; it seems reasonable to assume that whatever went wrong, and something clearly did, went wrong during the rehearsal process and probably stems from choices made by the director.

This production, I’m afraid, seems to be terrified of intimacy, and particularly terrified of intimacy within same-sex couples. It’s one thing for the relationship between Trina and Mendel to read as being less than completely passionate, because that’s more or less a plot point, and the relationship between Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia is given relatively little stage time. The staging choices in the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer, on the other hand, seem carefully calculated to – there’s no nice way of putting this – rinse away the gay, as if it’s only OK to tell a story placing male homosexuals in the context of a family with – gasp! – a child if you render them completely sexless. Take, for example, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of What More Can I Say? Marvin’s Act Two love song to Whizzer. The stage directions in the published script suggest something very specific, in terms of the intimacy the moment is supposed to carry:

In Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging, both actors are fully-clothed, and Whizzer has dozed off on a sofa with a book in his lap – the book, of course, strategically positioned over the genital area so that there isn’t even the slightest possibility of any kind of naughty touching going on. I’m the last person, generally, to dictate that directors stick slavishly to stage directions in a published script – but if you’re going to change something, be aware of what you’re changing. If you can’t get a bed onto your (hideous) set – and they could have, in another scene Trina is seen in bed alone – find some alternative that preserves the intimacy suggested in the script, instead of following Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s example here and giving us something that looks more like a badly-thought-out Eddie Bauer advert than a moment of sensual tenderness between two lovers. In this show, of all shows, there is no excuse for approaching a same-sex relationship so timidly. It’s such a disastrous failure of nerve on the part of this director that it’s actually disrespectful to the material.

On the other hand, it’s taken twenty-seven years for this show to land in this country, and it’s anyone’s guess when (or even whether) we’ll see it here again, so if you love musical theatre this is probably something you need to see. After you’ve seen it, though, track down the recordings from the orignal off-Broadway productions; even without visuals, they give a much better sense of what this material can be when it’s done properly, something you’ll unfortunately get very little sense of at The Other Palace.

And one last thing: this production, too, has fallen victim to the Marketing Curse whereby the bar staff are doomed to develop and promote themed cocktails tied into whatever show happens to be playing. Yes, in a show whose plot encompasses a family coming to terms with the implications of the onset of AIDS, you can order yourself a themed cocktail at the interval and contemplate the horror of the AIDS crisis by sipping a delightfully tart combination of pomelo and pink grapefruit gin and grenadine. If you were to try to compile a list of all the reasons our decadent civilisation is doomed, this would certainly be on it.

Small ones are more juicy!

No, this isn’t an orange advert from 1985. Playing catch-up again: three small musicals, in (coincidentally) diminishing order of size, seen over the last month or so.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Yes, the second attempt at a musical based on the great Sue Townsend’s greatest creation. It’s slick, funny, and tuneful, and you’d be hard-pressed not to have a good time – but perhaps it plays up the laughs at the expense of the source material’s underlying pathos a little bit too much, and it certainly sands a lot of the sharpest edges off Townsend’s social satire.

It is, though, absolutely charming, Luke Sheppard directs it with enormous panache, the children are spectacularly good, and Rosemary Ashe is a one-woman riot as Adrian’s hyper-judgmental grandmother. Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s score works beautifully in context, but you won’t necessarily walk out of the theatre humming the tunes… apart from Doreen Slater’s magnificently brassy New Best Friend, which is sung to the hilt by Lara Denning. Is it a problem that a relatively incidental character gets (by far) the best number in the show? Maybe.

Blues In The Night

A revue by Sheldon Epps built around a glorious stack of American jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s – Bessie Smith, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Alberta Hunter et al. It’s a small show, first seen in London over thirty years ago – I am just about old enough to remember watching the original London production on television, it was broadcast on (I think) BBC2 somewhere around 1989 – in which the songs are carefully but rather loosely strung together around four characters (three women, one man) in a hotel in Chicago. You come to this show for the songs rather than the plot.

Having said that, director Susie McKenna has clearly done a lot of detailed work with her cast; the four central actors in the show all clearly have a story, even if it’s clearer to them than to us, and there’s a clear narrative arc here. Given how thin the show’s structure is, that’s an achievement. And these singers – Sharon D. Clarke, Debbie Kurup, Gemma Sutton, and Clive Rowe – are simply magnificent. Sitting in the front row as Sharon D. Clarke tears into Lover Man about four feet away from me might well turn out to be the biggest theatrical thrill I get this year.

Musik

A one-hour cabaret with a script by Jonathan Harvey and songs by Pet Shop Boys, featuring Billie Trix, a character they introduced in their musical Closer To Heaven (no, I didn’t see the recent revival), and performed here by Frances Barber, who originated the role in Closer To Heaven 18 years ago. You don’t need to have seen Closer to Heaven to ‘get it’ – fortunately, since I haven’t – and you also probably don’t need to be a Pet Shop Boys fan, although (all but one of) their songs here are excellent. Harvey’s script packs in more laughs per square inch than you’d think possible, and Frances Barber nails them all.

This is a masterclass, actually, in how to take one joke – really, just one joke – and spin it out for an hour. Billie is a fabulous creation, a grizzled, ageing rock chick in the Nico/Marianne Faithfull mode – but her schtick is that throughout her life, while she’s enjoyed a miraculously Zelig-like ability to land in the right place at the right time, everyone she’s ever encountered has stolen her act. And that’s everyone, from Nico to Warhol to Tracey Emin to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Barber delivers the studiedly outrageous lines – one joke about a K-hole left my neighbour gasping for breath – with an absolutely straight face, and is all the funnier for it, and her singing is, well, unique. Imagine the love-child of Carol Channing and Tom Waits after three bottles of whiskey and an unfeasible quantity of smack and you’ll be in the ballpark. It’s a brilliant star turn, and when she rips into the climax of Friendly Fire – one of the two songs borrowed from Closer to Heaven – the force of her performance pins you to your seat.

Silk purse/sow’s ear

Cast Robert James Waller’s dazzlingly awful 1992 novel out of your mind. While you’re at it, you might as well forget Clint Eastwood’s almost-as-stinky 1995 film adaptation. This is, yes, still the soapy, predictable story of a four-day love affair between an Italian-American housewife and an itinerant photographer in 1960s Iowa, and until the last ten minutes of the show you’ll be (at least) three steps ahead of the plot. Somehow, though, bookwriter Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown have managed to dig behind Waller’s laughably purple prose to uncover a surprisingly effective portrait of two lonely people who find themselves awakened by a chance meeting.

The key – and the element that makes the show a must-see, whatever your opinion of the (dismal) source material – is Brown’s beautiful score. Norman has done an admirable job of stripping away the novel’s (many) excesses so that the story is told simply and clearly, but the songs are the star here. The show was a relatively fast flop on Broadway, but this is among the best theatre scores of the last decade, although it’s not always easy listening. Brown isn’t afraid of dissonance, and he isn’t afraid to experiment with song structure, but this is a lush, lyrical, haunting set of songs that have an astonishing emotional pull. It’s a pleasure, too, to hear Brown’s own orchestrations for a ten-piece band in a space as small as the Menier; under Tom Murray’s musical direction, the band gives a superlative account of this gorgeous but demanding music.

The production, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. There’s no faulting the performances, although neither Jenna Russell nor Edward Baker-Duly have the pristine, lightning-in-a-bottle voices of their Broadway counterparts. They’re both good singers – really good singers – but this music stretches them. That said, the show gains immeasurably from being seen in such a small space, and Russell in particular is quietly heartbreaking, offering a delicate, finely-shaded portrayal that gives Francesca a level of complexity you’d never imagine possible from reading the novel. There’s fine support, too, from Gillian Kirkpatrick as a nosy but caring neighbour, and (in several small roles) from Shanay Holmes, whose rendition of the lovely ‘Another Life’ is the production’s musical highlight.

Less impressive is John Bausor’s overly-complicated set, a combination of turntables and flimsy sliding panels that sometimes threatens to bring this already slow-paced show to a grinding halt. Yes, Tal Rosner’s video projections (a starlit sky, Iowa cornfields, a small-town Main Street) look exquisite against the bleached wood planks of those wooden panels – but at the performance I attended (a very late preview) a truck unit momentarily juddered to a halt before it moved all the way offstage, the two sliding wooden panels wobbled every time they moved in a way that called into question whether they’ll survive the run (I’ll find out, I suppose, I’m going back for the final matinee), the door of Francesca’s fridge kept stubbornly refusing to close, and several ominous crashes were heard from backstage during the (numerous) set-changes. It’s one of those sets that would look great if everything worked, particularly as sensitively lit by Tim Lutkin – and it’s great to see designers trying to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in a venue with so little backstage space, but the show might have been better served by a simpler design.

That said, though, Brown’s score is so lovely, and Jenna Russell’s performance is so exquisite, that any shortcomings in the production surrounding them seem almost irrelevant. I don’t know whether I’d call this a great musical, and I wouldn’t say it was a completely unimpeachable production, but the good elements are so good that it’s more than worth an evening of your time. To draw music this beautiful, and a performance so brimming with yearning, out of a novel as truly, thoroughly, overwhelmingly bad as The Bridges of Madison County is a remarkable achievement. You aren’t going to get very many opportunities to hear a live performance of this score in this country, and Jenna Russell is doing some of the very best work of her career. Don’t miss it.

Shake Your Badonkadonk… but keep away from the toilets and don’t look at the floor.

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If you’d asked me to place a bet, I wouldn’t have put money on William Finn and James Lapine‘s Little Miss Sunshine – yes, an adaptation of the 2006 film – arriving in the UK before their seminal 1992 show Falsettos, which will (finally) be landing at The Other Palace later this year – but here we are. Lucky me, I got to see it at the Arcola last week; it’s touring afterwards, which means you’ll have the opportunity to see it in nineteen other venues, all of which probably have cleaner toilets than the Arcola. That wouldn’t be a very high bar.

William Finn is a distinctive, idiosyncratic musical theatre composer with an instantly-recognisable sound, and it’s easy to see why musicalising the quirky family at the centre of Little Miss Sunshine appealed to him. That said, the show has a troubled history; a 2011 premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California received an unenthusiastic reception from critics, and a heavily-rewritten 2013 production at New York’s Second Stage Theater didn’t generate enough box-office momentum to transfer to a commercial run elsewhere. This is apparently the show’s European premiere, and it’s a lot more fun than some of the New York and San Diego reviews might suggest, although it isn’t perfect; like all of Finn’s shows, though, it contains at least a handful of songs that are so stunningly wonderful that they’re worth the price of a ticket on their own (good thing, since in some respects my ticket for this was staggeringly overpriced… but we’ll come to that later).

Like the film, the musical follows the down-on-their-luck Hoover family on a road trip  in an ancient, knackered Volkswagen Microbus, driving from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA, where eight-year-old Olive is to compete in a beauty pageant. These characters elevate familial dysfunction to the level of an art form: dad Richard is a failed motivational speaker, and his father – Grandpa, along for the ride – has been kicked out of his retirement home for doing heroin. Uncle Frank, also along for the ride, is recovering from a suicide attempt and can’t be left alone, Olive’s older brother Dwayne has taken a vow of silence, and Olive and Dwayne’s mother Sheryl is struggling to cope with holding everything together under a growing pile of unpaid bills. Sheryl gets the best song in the show: a minor-key heartbreaker called Something Better Better Happen, which closes the first act and returns in the second. It’s lovely, and along with Grandpa’s early solo The Happiest Guy in the Van (a paean to the joys of rampant sex, presented as a slab of wildly inappropriate life advice to his teenage grandson Dwayne) and the ridiculously memorable earworm Shake Your Badonkadonk, it offers the clearest indication of why Finn and Lapine thought this film had potential as a musical. If everything else in the show was as memorably wonderful as those three songs, the show would have been a knockout hit in its first two productions. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of space between those three highlights. The rest of the show is always charming and sometimes very funny, but those three songs are on a different level from the rest of the score, which is great fun, but not first-tier Finn.

Director Mehmet Ergen gets terrific performances out of his small cast – Laura Pitt-Pulford gets the show’s most heartbreaking song and breaks your heart with it once in each act, Gary Wilmot (whose TV comedy work usually had me reaching for the off switch) is riotously funny as Grandpa, and Imelda Warren-Green supplies a brilliant comic cameo as a hospital administrator with the world’s worst case of vocal fry. His direction – and David Woodhead’s bright yellow roadmap set – gets the most out of a small budget and a difficult space, although it’s an odd choice to use a truck unit to represent the VW van all the way through the first act but not for most of the second. The show is performed with an interval in this production, although the rights-holder’s website lists it as a one-act; adding an interval, I’m afraid, is not an improvement.

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Overall, though, this production is sweet, funny, more touching than the film, and considerably better than you might expect from the show’s reception in New York and San Diego.

While the show is charming, though, the theatre, I’m afraid, is not. I understand that people working in this kind of venue are usually overworked and underpaid, but there’s no excuse for the level of surliness I encountered when I picked up my ticket at the box office, and there’s really no excuse for the woman on the door, who told me I had to go back out, pushing my way against the tide of people lining up to get it, and go back in through an outside door, which would have been perfectly OK if she’d been in any way polite or pleasant about it, and if she hadn’t then proceeded to let a couple of dozen other people access the block of seats where I was sitting  through the entrance she’d rather rudely told me not to use. My seat, also, didn’t endear the place to me. I see most of the shows I see from cheap seats, I’m very aware of the trade-offs between price and view, and I certainly don’t expect a third-price seat to have the same view as a top-price one. I also, though, do not expect to find that people who paid half what I did have a clearer view of the stage than I do. I sat in seat D1, which – as you’ll see from the picture below – has a lovely side-on view of a big yellow girder. The people in the £10 restricted view seats at the sides of the balcony had a more or less unobstructed view of the whole stage picture, and I did not even though my seat wasn’t sold as restricted view.  That leaves a rather nasty taste, and tells me a great deal about the theatre and the production company’s attitude towards their customers.

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There’s also no excuse for the toilets, although I might have formed a better impression if I’d visited the Gents before someone peed all over the seat and the floor and up the walls and door of the only available cubicle, whose lock had also seen better days. It’s not as if the rest of the venue was notably clean either – there were cigarette ends on the floor of the auditorium near my seat – although everywhere else was, thank God, cleaner than that cubicle in the Gents (it would pretty much have to have been). There’s a bar, and I think they serve food; the general state of cleanliness I saw elsewhere in the venue – the kindest word would be ‘slovenly’ – is such that I’d go elsewhere. And carry hand-sanitiser.

And then there’s the programme, which is the icing on the cake. I saw four productions in London last week; this one has the most expensive programme of the four – it’s £5 – and it’s also the slimmest and shoddiest. There are the usual cast/creative bios – typed by someone who clearly didn’t pay much attention to when to begin and end italics for titles – and some small rehearsal photographs, but the “articles” are the highlight, and they’re very special: a page on the history of the VW van which seems to be drawn largely from Wikipedia and whose anonymous author doesn’t know how to use an apostrophe, and a staggeringly fatuous short piece on musicals inspired by films whose writer, amid a stream of pure waffle, chooses to inform us that Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s musical Nine premiered in 1973, which tells us someone didn’t read past the first sentence of the first paragraph of the show’s Wikipedia entry. If you’re going to charge that amount of money for a programme, the least you can do – the very least you can do – is proof-read and fact-check it. And by “proof-read” and “fact check”, I mean processes involving an actual human being rather than an illiterate chimp.

So… see the show by all means. It’s got some lovely songs in it, the cast are wonderful, and it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time. To get the best out of the experience, though, avoid the lowest-numbered £20 seats in the side block, stay away from the toilets, do your best not to look at the floor, and don’t bother with a programme. Or better yet, pick a venue that isn’t the Arcola, because there are plenty to choose from. You’re welcome.

Going Home

local hero phone box

In the closing moments of the first act of Local Hero, the new musical based on Bill Forsyth‘s 1983 film, Texan oil executive Mac steps outside a pub in the run-down Scottish village of Ferness, looks up, and sees the Aurora Borealis for the first time. If you know the film, as I suspect most of the audience did, you’ll have been expecting this moment. What you might not have been expecting – I wasn’t – is to feel a tear running down your cheek as Mac telephones his boss in Houston (yes, via a red phone box) and breathlessly describes the changing colours in the sky above him. Local Hero is one of those films that seems to be universally beloved, and with good reason, because it’s just about perfect. It’s a charming, quirky, intelligent fish-out-of-water comedy with a terrific screenplay, fine direction and cinematography, and flawless performances, but it has never moved me to tears, and I don’t think it’s designed to draw that kind of response from an audience. It never struck me, either, as a film that cried out to be adapted as a musical. It’s lovely, but Forsyth’s screenplay is notably lacking in obvious song cues, and you don’t – at least, I don’t – get the sense that the characters in it need to sing.

And yet somehow, miraculously, this musical adaptation is an absolute joy. In adapting the screenplay, Forsyth and playwright David Greig have made a series of very smart choices, preserving (most of) the film’s basic plot but carefully refocusing it so that the musical isn’t simply a step-by-step retread of the screenplay with songs – by Mark Knopfler, who supplied the film’s score – shoehorned in at regular intervals. The story still revolves around Mac, an oil executive sent to a remote coastal village in Scotland to buy the land it sits on so that the corporation he works for can build an oil refinery there, and who finds himself slowly falling in love with a place he initially finds utterly alien, but some of the surrounding characters and stories are significantly changed. The plot strand involving (in the film) Peter Capaldi as the oil corporation’s local operative and Jenny Seagrove as a marine research scientist is completely gone, and not much missed, although their scenes in the film are absolutely charming. The role of hotelier/accountant/jack-of-all-trades Gordon’s common-law wife Stella, tiny in the film, has been significantly expanded, to the point where she drives a great deal of the plot in the show’s second act. The musical does a better job than the film, too, in showing the hardships involved in carving out a living somewhere so remote, and much more weight is given to the environmental impact of building an oil refinery in such a relatively unspoiled place. Throughout, the musical is a little less whimsical than the film, but only a little, and Greig and Knopfler tread a careful line, keeping the tone relatively light through most of the first act so that Mac’s epiphany when he sees the Northern Lights feels like a surprise even if you’ve known for the last hour that it’s coming. The musical locates a well of deep yearning that the film only hints at; most musicals would hit you over the head with it, but Greig, Forsyth and Knopfler let it creep up on you instead, and the show is all the better for it.

It’s a gorgeous production, too. Director John Crowley lets the piece’s momentum build slowly, and makes the brave choice not to allow applause after each musical number – applause releases tension, and that emotional moment at the end of the first act happens partly because nothing has been allowed to, well, break the spell. This is in some respects the anti-Brigadoon – Ferness may be fictional, but it’s drawn from and firmly located in the real world and isn’t going to disappear into the mist (and Local Hero is very obviously written by people who know and love Scotland, while Brigadoon’s book and lyrics, equally obviously, are written by a man who had clearly never been within five hundred miles of the part of the world he was writing about in that particular show), but this is still a show about an American outsider who finds himself in a remote Scottish village and slowly falls under the place’s spell, although in Local Hero the village is believably real and there’s none of the hyper-romanticised, cloyingly ersatz bagpipes-and-tartan Visit Scotland bollocks that makes Brigadoon so insufferably twee onstage. Scott Pask’s jetty-and-model-village set is picturesque without being kitsch, and is surrounded by corrugated metal walls of the kind you’d find in an industrial estate – of course, because this is a blue-collar working village, not a place out of a made-up fairytale. The recreation of northern Scotland’s expansive sky – and the Northern Lights – is accomplished via a flown cyclorama, Luke Halls’s projected video, and Paule Constable’s lighting; it could easily have looked ridiculous, but it’s stunning. This isn’t an overblown spectacle – a helicopter features in the plot, but nobody (thank God) drops a helicopter onstage – but the show’s physical production is beautifully evocative, and it’s wonderful for once – hi, Kinky Boots! – to see a musical adaptation of a film in which the creative team didn’t simply set out to dumb down the screenplay and throw a heap of glitter at the stage.

There’s also a set of gorgeous performances, with lovely work from the central trio – Damian Humbley as Mac, Matthew Pidgeon as Gordon, and Katrina Bryan as Stella – and sharply individual character turns from the rest of the company. The musical introduces us to a few more villagers than the film, which tends to use the villagers as a kind of human backdrop, and Mark Knopfler’s score includes a couple of very strong ensemble numbers – notably ‘Filthy Dirty Rich’, in which the villagers give in to unbridled glee at the prospect of a lucrative deal with Knox Oil, and ‘Never Felt Better’, a morning-after-the-night-before number in which they all try to hide their terrible hangovers from each other. Knopfler has supplied a mostly terrific debut musical score; his lyrics are conversational rather than showy, and none the worse for it, and there are some terrific melodies here: yes, of course ‘Going Home’, the principal musical theme from his score for the film, but there’s also a lovely folk song called ‘I Wonder If I Can Go Home Again’, a memorably sly Johnny Cash pastiche, and a moving opening ballad for Mac called ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’. You’ll hear ‘Going Home’ more than once before it finally shows up in full at the end of the show – that’s not a spoiler, it’s inconceivable that a musical adaptation of this property with a score by Mark Knopfler wouldn’t end with ‘Going Home’ – but the rest of the score is at the same level. Sooner or later – pretty please, sooner if possible – it’s going to make a thoroughly enjoyable cast album.

While the musical in places departs significantly from the film, it keeps – again, not really a spoiler, because how could it not? – the film’s iconic final shot of the phone box on the quayside in Ferness. Again, it’s a measure of how well this works that a moment that registers as sweetly touching in the film gains a great deal more depth in the theatre. I didn’t expect – and I knew how the piece was likely to end – to be so moved by the sight/sound of a ringing telephone in a red phone box on a deserted stage, but that’s the last in this musical’s series of small, delightful surprises. This is something very special; fingers crossed the elements that make this show so special won’t be diluted in the move south to the Old Vic next year (yes of course I’ll see it again), and also keep your fingers crossed that they keep Damian Humbley, Matthew Pidgeon and Katrina Bryan, because it’s impossible to overstate how perfect they are.

And in the meantime… did I mention that I want a cast album? I mean, yesterday?

local hero lyceum

(Lower) East Side Story

rags

The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,  that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

hope mill

 

 

The Right Girl

nt f 19 1

It’s back, and it’s (even) better. The first time around, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre was simultaneously thrilling, breathtaking, and slightly flawed. Cooke put together a text that is far closer to the 1971 original than the more recent, less-corrosive revised edition that formed the basis for the last three major US revivals, and his cast did a generally excellent job of capturing the odd, febrile tone of James Goldman‘s stylised dialogue. On the minus side, Bill Deamer’s choreography for the show’s biggest production number didn’t quite deliver, and while Imelda Staunton delivered a stunning acting performance, her singing voice was not an entirely happy match for her character’s music.

For this return engagement, Mr. Deamer’s choreography has been tweaked, Ms. Staunton’s role is one of several that have been recast, and Mr. Cooke has made a number of mostly small adjustments to his staging. This isn’t simply a by-the-numbers retread of the 2017 production; it’s a thorough overhaul, and the changes are (almost) all improvements. First time around, this was a splendid revival with a lot of caveats. This time, while there are still elements that Sondheim devotees will be arguing over for years, for my money it’s more or less a complete triumph.

The show is what it always was: a masterpiece, part showbiz extravaganza and part Pirandellean identity play, in which the middle-aged guests at a reunion party for former performers in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque Broadway revue are (literally) confronted by the ghosts of their former selves. It’s a strange cocktail of glitter and rage and regret in which the former showgirls, and particularly the two unhappily-married couples at the centre of the plot, become a lens through which we’re asked to examine the ways in which people deal – or don’t – with the gulf between their youthful aspirations and middle-aged reality, and (because that’s not bleak enough already) the whole thing is an extended theatrical metaphor for America’s postwar decline. And on top of all that, Stephen Sondheim‘s extraordinary score may very well turn out to be the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career. It’s a dazzling blend of 1970-contemporary Broadway and spot-on pastiche, and the show’s climactic sequence of musical numbers, which finds the four protagonists trapped inside a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies production in which they each examine their individual failures via a period-pastiche musical performance, is as brilliant a piece of writing as anything in the American musical theatre canon.

It’s matched, finally, by a revival whose brilliance in this incarnation seems as effortless as it was laboured first time around. Cooke’s first masterstroke – last time too – was to stage the piece to make it clear that the ghosts haven’t arrived at the party – we have entered their space. The show takes place in the rubble of the derelict Weismann Theatre, which is about to be torn down; a ghostly showgirl gives the signal that sets the performance in motion, we see the past before we see the (1971) present, and the ghosts recognise their present-day selves before their present-day selves see them. The ghosts are in James Goldman’s book for the show, of course, but Cooke’s staging always deployed them (even) more than Goldman does, and Cooke deploys them even more here. We’re always aware, even watching minor supporting characters, of the simmering tension between the past and the present, and a (new) tableau in which some of the ghosts watch their present-day selves leaving the party is both moving and visually beautiful.

There’s still a remarkable set of performances in the supporting roles, too. As the aging Viennese soprano Heidi Schiller, Felicity Lott perhaps doesn’t quite have Josephine Barstow’s devastating intensity (Barstow will return to the production later in the run, and played the press night when Lott fell ill), but I doubt One More Kiss has ever been sung more gloriously than it is here, and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi is (still) sublime. Dawn Hope’s ‘Who’s That Woman?’ raises goosebumps, and Deamer has rechoreographed the number so that it’s now the showstopper it should have been first time around. No, it’s not the original Michael Bennett choreography, which was used in the original London production in 1987, and yes, I’d still prefer it if it was, but the version they’re doing now is a huge improvement over Deamer’s first pass at it. Tracie Bennett has found even more colours in her take on I’m Still Here, and – best of all – Claire Moore slams the last sixteen bars of Broadway Baby into the back of the house with the kind of force that could easily level the entire building.

The biggest difference, though, comes in the recasting of two of the four leads – that is, one-half of the two married couples at the centre of the plot (in case you’ve forgotten – and why have you? – Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. At the end of the season, Sally married Buddy Plummer and Phyllis married Ben Stone – but Sally had had a fling with Ben before he got engaged to Phyllis, and when her own marriage proved less than idyllic she spent the next thirty years pining for him, and has arrived at the reunion in the hope of winning him back). Peter Forbes is still a heartbreaking Buddy, a travelling salesman who loves Sally too much to leave her and knows he’d be happier if he did. Janie Dee’s Phyllis has – seemingly impossibly, because she was perfect the first time – grown in stature; she’s an arresting combination of heart and hauteur, ice and fire, sharp edges and raw nerves. Alexander Hanson replaces Philip Quast, and he doesn’t have Quast’s gravitas. Hanson’s Ben is a shallow charmer who has coasted to success on the back of a combination of bravado and a boyish smile, and knows it. This Ben’s descent into self-loathing is more sudden than it was with Quast in the role, and more shocking; there’s a desperation to Ben’s climactic breakdown that was slightly lacking in this production’s first incarnation, and the chaos sequence that takes us out of Ben’s Follies number and back into the final (spoken) scene works better – much better – with Hanson at the centre of it than it did in 2017. Hanson isn’t quite as wonderful a singer as Quast, but he’s more than good enough, and he’s giving a very fine performance.

The biggest difference, though, is Joanna Riding’s Sally. Imelda Staunton is an extraordinary actor whose singing voice was never quite right for this role. Riding, whose casting, I admit, did not particularly excite me, has all the voice she needs for this music, and she sings the role as beautifully as you’d expect (and – thank God – without taking any of the higher notes in her big duet with Hanson’s Ben down an octave). Her acting choices, though, are fascinating, and quite different from Staunton’s. Staunton offered an unhappy woman slowly descending into insanity. Riding’s Sally is a self-absorbed romantic who operates (far) more through her emotions than her intellect, and who seems to see herself as a character in one of the trashy romance novels she says she reads to pass the time – and when her illusions are abruptly shattered, her (quick) emotional collapse is ugly, and mesmerising to watch. Riding’s rendition of Losing My Mind, Sally’s pastiche number in the show’s climactic Follies sequence, is quite breathtaking, although (following Staunton’s lead), it’s a startlingly angry interpretation, and it’s staged as a scene in a period romantic drama rather than simply as a torch song. Like every song in the Loveland sequence, Losing My Mind was conceived as a song in which the singer performs a metaphorical representation of her folly, rather than as a scene in which the actor acts the character’s emotional disintegration. In the 1987 London production, Julia McKenzie gave us the former, and I think I stopped breathing during the four minutes or so it took for her to sing the song. In 2017, Imelda Staunton gave us the latter, and the first time I saw it it didn’t quite work for me, although I warmed to her choices a little more on subsequent viewings. Riding somehow manages both, although not quite in the manner suggested by the script: she sings it powerfully, easily encompassing the big notes in the final verse (those notes severely tested her predecessor in this production), and begins playing it as a scene in a romantic melodrama, sitting at a dressing-table in a glamorous art deco boudoir. As the song continues, Riding’s Sally appears to struggle to maintain the artifice of the performance, gradually sinking into a combination of fury, grief and despair; she pops pills in the final verse, stands trembling as she holds the final note, and on the last beat of the song she removes her wig – a gesture which seems to leave her pitifully naked (albeit fully-clothed). If you know the show, if you know how previous interpretations of this moment have worked, this staging sounds ham-fisted, overdone, and completely wrong-headed – but in Riding’s hands (and voice), it’s absolutely riveting and somehow absolutely right.

As for the rest – there are fine performances from the new quartet of actors playing the younger incarnations of the four principal characters (Harry Hepple, Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, and Gemma Sutton as, respectively, Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Phyllis, and Young Sally). Vicki Mortimer’s derelict theatre set is still stunning, and one still wishes a little more money could have been thrown at the Loveland sets for the climactic recreation of a Follies show, because those sets really need to be a little more opulent than they are here – although it’s clear the National have pushed the boat out as far as they can on this production, and the costumes are (still) magnificent. For Joanna Riding, Sally’s hair and party dress have been tweaked, and the new design is a significant improvement over the costume Imelda Staunton wore. The band is still conducted by Nigel Lilley, and they’re still wonderful, and Paule Constable’s appropriately crepuscular lighting is still pretty much perfect.

There’s still no intermission, which for this show is as it should be, and Cooke directs his new cast to give, if anything, an even more electrifying account of Goldman’s archly theatrical dialogue than their predecessors did. Once again, Vicki Mortimer’s turntable set moves us seamlessly through the various different levels of the derelict Weismann Theatre, and once again – in fact, even more than last time – it’s obvious everybody involved understands this show’s rather unusual tone and rhythm (imagine a mid-century American Restoration drama with script revisions by Edward Albee and songs drawn from every corner of musical theatre’s golden age). There were always many, many good things in this production – but last time, there was a great deal to argue against as well. This time, Cooke and his creative team have given us as good a revival of Follies as I ever expect to see. It’s an intelligent, precise, thrilling presentation of rich, multi-layered material, possibly as good a musical production as the National has ever done and certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there. If you saw it last time, you need to see it again. In almost every way, this incarnation of the production is stronger, smarter, sharper, and deeper than the first. In terms of Sondheim revivals, this is just about as good as it gets.

And yes, that means it’s rather a pity that the first cast, rather than this one, got to preserve their performances via an NT Live presentation and a cast recording. That, I’m afraid, is showbiz.