Changing my major to Jeanine

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Take tissues and don’t wear mascara. Your tear-ducts are probably not going to survive the last thirty minutes of the Young Vic‘s exquisite production of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s Fun Home. I mean, not that I generally wear mascara myself, but if I had I’d have emerged from the theatre looking like a distressed panda, and that isn’t a good look for anyone who isn’t a panda. Based on Alison Bechdel’s peerless autobiographical graphic novel, Fun Home is sweet, sharp, charming coming-of-age story, but it’s also a coming-out story, and (eventually) a shattering examination of the degrees to which we can ever truly understand our parents.

On top of that, it’s a masterclass in how to distill the essence of a full-length novel into an hour and forty minutes of stage time. Lisa Kron’s admirably clear-eyed book separates Bechdel’s coming-of-age story into three separate timelines: the adult Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund) tries to understand the chain of events that led her father (Zubin Varla) to commit suicide, Medium Alison (Eleanor Kane) leaves home for college and the discovery of her own sexuality is quickly followed by a conversation with her mother Helen (Jenna Russell) which includes a shocking revelation about her father’s, and Small Alison (Harriet Turnbull at the performance I saw) navigates her father’s severe, apparently inexplicable mood swings and experiences her first moment, which she doesn’t quite understand, of identification with a strong, butch woman. On paper it sounds painfully earnest, and it isn’t; it begins as a truthful, funny exploration of family dynamics, and then the show somehow sneaks up on you. Despite the three separate narrative strands, the storytelling is absolutely clear throughout, and Kron and Tesori guide us through Alison’s complicated emotional landscape with remarkable precision.

There are two lynchpins holding the show together. One is Jeanine Tesori’s beautiful score, which functions less as a series of standalone numbers (although there are a few very fine standalone numbers) and more as a kind of continuous texture which moves seamlessly from dialogue to recitative to song and back again. You won’t get the kind of Big Melodies you’ll find in something like Les Misérables, but you might get your heart broken – and you also might well come out of the theatre humming ‘Ring of Keys’, Small Alison’s glorious anthem of self-discovery. And you might very well need those tissues during ‘Days and Days’, Helen Bechdel’s devastating aria about how she’s spent her life burying her feelings for the good of her family. It’s a model of musical and lyrical restraint, probably the best thing in the show, and it’s all the more moving because it’s so carefully buttoned-down. The show’s other lynchpin – surprisingly, given that it’s a relatively small role – is Jenna Russell’s quietly stoical Helen Bechdel, whose sacrifices for her family become clear in the last third of the show. There are few fireworks in Russell’s extraordinary performance, but she somehow, without grandstanding, manages to find every last scrap of subtext in a character who keeps nearly everything buried beneath the surface.

But then, under Sam Gold’s careful direction, the performances across the board are ideal. Kaisa Hammarlund is as right for Alison as she was wrong for Sweet Charity, and she brings both warmth and humour to Alison’s growing understanding that she enjoys a freedom her closeted father never experienced. Eleanor Kane makes Medium Alison’s journey of sexual self-discovery sweet as well as funny, and her (brilliant) musical number charting her sexual awakening with a fellow college student – ‘Changing My Major’ – is the closest this show comes to a bravura showstopper. Zubin Varla is both (appropriately) slightly creepy and exceptionally moving as Alison’s father Bruce, presenting a man who can never quite find the courage to be who he knows he is, and who can’t always stop himself from taking out his frustrations on the people around him. Harriet Turnbull is a perfectly charming Small Alison, and her ‘Ring of Keys’ is lovely. The ensemble performances are flawless, and so is the small band. As I said, Gold’s production is exquisite.

It looks exquisite too, thanks to David Zinn’s less-minimalist-than-it-first-seems set. Judging from production photographs, this does not appear to be an exact recreation of Gold’s two previous proscenium stagings of the show (at the Public Theater in New York, and subsequently for a US tour; the Broadway production played at Circle in the Square, and was therefore staged in the round). The show moves from a carefully fluid scenic concept in which various locations – the Bechdel home, the yard outside, the family funeral home which gives the show its title, the adult Alison’s work desk – are suggested via minimal furnishings on an essentially bare stage, to a carefully-detailed (and gorgeous) recreation of the living-room of the historical house – almost a museum – Bruce has spent his life restoring. You don’t come to this kind of show for the spectacle, but the revelation of the house’s interior is a dazzling visual coup; Ben Stanton’s lighting, meanwhile, does an admirable job of keeping the show’s three timelines distinct in the moments when they all occupy the stage simultaneously.

In fact, there really isn’t anything much here to criticise. This is an impeccable production of impeccable writing; you won’t get the sort of verbal and musical pyrotechnics you’ll find at this year’s other big musical import from Broadway – but stunning as it is, there’s nothing in that show as moving as ‘Days and Days’. I confess, I still think Caroline, or Change is Tesori’s masterpiece – but this is up there in the same league, and it’s certainly as good a new American musical as anyone has written in the last twenty years.

So… now that we’ve seen superlative productions of this and Caroline, or Change in London, can somebody please bring us a full-scale professional revival of Violet?

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At Last the 1948 Show

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There are many, many wonderful things about Opera North‘s revived revival of Kiss Me, Kate, but let’s start with the most surprising: unlike the (abundantly talented, and she should have known better) lady who played the role on the most recent Broadway cast recording, Stephanie Corley’s Lilli Vanessi actually sings I Hate Men instead of mugging and shrieking her way through it as if she’s on a mission to grind every last scrap of humour in the song into a bloody, unrecognisable pulp. Not only does she sing it, she sings it beautifully – and it’s very funny, because the scene is very funny, and because nobody is trying so hard to MAKE IT FUNNY that they kill the joke.

As a show, Kiss Me, Kate absolutely reflects what musical comedy was in 1948 (actually it’s at the more sophisticated end of what musical comedy was in 1948): the score might be Cole Porter‘s masterpiece, and Sam and Bella Spewack‘s book creaks a little around the edges these days. The situation – a show-within-a-show spun off from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which the warring relationship between Kate and Petruchio is reflected in the warring relationship between Fred, the actor-manager directing the show and playing Petruchio, and Lilli, the actress playing Kate, who also happens to be Fred’s ex-wife – is full of comic potential, the lines are funny, the characters are real and believable, and it certainly is still playable, as this revival clearly demonstrates. In terms of structure, it is of its time. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I loved it more or less without reservation – but musicals these days move a little more quickly, and no longer have to be structured so that scenes using the full stage are dogmatically alternated with scenes performed “in one” on a reduced playing area in front of a backdrop to allow stagehands the time and space to change the set. The last Broadway revival of the show used a (crassly) rewritten version of the book (by John Guare) whose purpose was at least partly to make the show move from scene to scene in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in the original production. This revival, on the other hand, is essentially a trip straight back to 1948.

That’s not a bad thing. In Jo Davies’s staging, first seen three years ago and revived here by Ed Goggin, the material is given space to breathe. There’s comic business where appropriate – Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin are blissfully funny as the gangsters – but you never get the sense that this cast are being forced at gunpoint to MAKE THEM LAUGH (really, check out the DVD of the London iteration of the last Broadway revival to see a cast of actors playing comedy as if they’re being held hostage). Quirijn de Lang’s Fred has a gorgeous baritone and marvellous timing, Corley’s Lilli is flawless, Alan Burkitt’s Bill Calhoun can tap-dance like a dream, and Zoe Rainey’s Lois Lane effortlessly wrings every last laugh out of Always True To You In My Fashion. The supporting performances are lovely, the chorus singing is beyond reproach, the sets and costumes (Colin Richmond) and lighting (Ben Cracknell) do the job more than well enough given the limitations of a production designed to play in repertory with two or three other shows on tour. And – best of all – there are more than fifty musicians in the pit under the baton of Jim Holmes, who knows how to draw all the wit out of Porter’s dazzling score, and the production is only very lightly miked, so the experience is probably as close as you’re ever going to get at a big musical these days to natural sound. It isn’t LOUD – most musicals these days are LOUD (believe me, I saw this Kiss Me, Kate in the evening after a return visit to Dreamgirls in the afternoon) – and it takes the audience a few minutes to adjust, but then people listened in a way they somehow usually don’t when there’s a sound system turning the volume up to eleven.

Still, though, the fact that this is basically a three-hour trip back to 1948 means it may not be for everyone. As I said, these days new musicals move more quickly. If you’re not prepared to adjust to the (lack of) volume the show may seem a little remote. And in this particular property, as in the Shakespeare play it’s based on, there’s a certain amount of built-in sexism that audiences are far more sensitive to today than they were seventy years ago. Look in the usual places online and you’ll find comments from people disappointed that this production didn’t push the comedy far enough, that it wasn’t loud enough, that the pace was too slow, that the sets weren’t elaborate enough. Depending on your yardsticks, those are not necessarily unreasonable criticisms – there’s no question that a production conceived directly for the West End would have looked and sounded quite different. For those of us prepared to meet this production on its own terms, though, it’s, well, Wunderbar.

 

All the clichés in a row…

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The title number – an ode to the pleasures of the roller-skating rink delivered by a chorus of six men who somehow manage to tap-dance on the stoppers on their rollerskates – is five minutes of pure joy. As choreographed by Fabian Aloise, it might well turn out to be the year’s most spectacular showstopper, never mind that it’s being staged in a 250-seat converted industrial space on Newington Causeway rather than in the West End. The gleefully exuberant performances are an absolute delight,  and the icing on the cake is the holy-shit-we-got-through-it-without-breaking-anything look on the actors’ faces as they hold their poses during the applause. It’s sensational, thrilling, and delivers ten times more sheer fun than any of the overblown tap sequences in the Duracell ad currently playing at Drury Lane. If you love musical theatre, you need to see those five minutes, and you’ll probably want to see them more than once (I would, if I didn’t live so far from London). It’s that good.

Unfortunately, that production number arrives halfway through the second act of a show with more than its share of problems, most of them attributable to the writing. Or rather, mostly attributable to Terrence McNally‘s turd of a book, because about two-thirds of the show’s score is top-tier Kander and Ebb, and the few (relatively) duff songs in it are still better than anything you’ll find in some shows that were much bigger hits. The Rink is set in the late 1970s in a dilapidated roller rink somewhere on the US’s eastern seaboard, and McNally’s book consists of two hours of bickering between the rink’s (co-) owner, Anna Antonelli, who has just sold up and is planning to retire, and her estranged adult daughter Angel(a), who left home in her late teens (i.e. in the mid-60s) to join the protest movement. Between the rounds of bickering, we see (many) flashbacks in which the gradual disintegration of Anna and Angel’s relationship is set against the gradual decline of the boardwalk. Occasionally, seemingly almost at random, McNally throws in a couple of zingers, some of which – to be fair – are genuinely funny (Anna: “If you ever see anybody parked in a brown Toyota with his seatbelt on, that’s Lenny.”). It’s clear from the show’s (feeble) attempt to examine the various social changes seen in the US over the roughly thirty-year span covered by the show’s flashbacks that McNally is aiming for something along the lines of a slightly more intimate Follies; what we get, unfortunately, is an uneven hybrid which plays like a warmed-over mother-daughter movie-of-the-week punctuated by lines from an insipid, long-cancelled sitcom, served up with a generous topping of Italian-American clichés. The book, in short, is bad. Really bad. It’s so bad that you’d never guess it was by the same writer who gave us Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion! (you might, on the other hand, guess it’s by the same writer who gave us Master Class and Deuce). It’s so bad, it includes a scene in which a father melodramatically announces “I have no son!”. It’s so bad that there is not a single moment anywhere in the show where you won’t a) be three steps ahead of what Mr. McNally must have fondly imagined was the plot, and b) be counting the seconds until everybody stops speaking and starts singing again. If you started to count the clichés in McNally’s dialogue you’d either slash your wrists or run out of numbers. There are a lot of 1980s musicals with really bad books. This is one of the worst, and it’s the reason the show has never been a hit.

The score, fortunately, is better – much better – and if you knew the show at all before this production was announced, chances are the score is what made you buy a ticket. The milieu is perfect for Kander and Ebb, and they deliver in spades: Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, an exultant shout of independence from a woman who has spent decades of her life attending to everybody’s needs except her own; Don’t Ah, Ma Me!, a furiously combative mother-daughter duet; Colored Lights, Angel’s gradual realisation that years on the protest trail have left her unsatisfied and unfulfilled; that glorious title song; the always-darkest-just-before-the-dawn ballad We Can Make It; Marry Me, the most self-effacing marriage proposal number ever written (delivered with exquisite restraint on the original Broadway cast recording by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander); and Wallflower, a sensational dance number for Anna and Angel in a flashback sequence at Angel’s spring prom. It’s unfortunate that All The Children in a Row, Angel’s climactic recollection of her journey through the counterculture movement, includes the worst lyric quatrain Fred Ebb ever wrote (“Why’d you have to take that stuff?/Come on, Danny, that’s enough/We can make it, we’ll survive/Danny, you’re too stoned to drive!”), but that’s four lines out of a mostly stellar whole. The original Broadway cast recording, on which Anna and Angel are played by, respectively, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, is spectacular; both stars are at their peak, and the material is perfect for them (Rivera’s role was written specifically for her) There aren’t many opportunities to hear this music performed live; for some, it’ll be worth gritting your teeth through the awful dialogue for the opportunity to hear this cast tear into these songs.

That’s because the good news is that director Adam Lenson has assembled one hell of a cast for this production. It should probably go without saying that Caroline O’Connor can do no wrong – I mean, the last time I saw her in a show I very nearly founded a religion based on worship of her – but she’s every bit as good an Anna as you’d expect. She dances up a storm, of course, and belts the hell out of Anna’s numbers, but she also miraculously, through sheer force of personality, somehow manages to transcend the dazzling hideousness of McNally’s writing. As Angel, Gemma Sutton doesn’t, but it isn’t her fault: her character is badly short-changed by this version of the script, which is significantly revised from the version seen on Broadway in 1984 (and in Manchester in 1987 and London in 1988). In the original script, the show opens with Angel alone onstage singing Colored Lights, a wistful song about her longing for her childhood home. In this version, the show opens with what was originally the next scene – Anna greeting the wreckers who have come to demolish the rink, announcing her retirement and departure, and singing Chief Cook and Bottle Washer – and Colored Lights doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, where there was originally a short reprise of it. The result, unfortunately, is that Angel enters at the end of what is now the first scene and immediately starts arguing with Anna, and that inevitably means the audience sides against her: this version of the script introduces her as a barrier between Anna and her retirement rather than as a woman looking to rediscover her roots, and that change (which is in the current version of the published script as well) damages the first act quite badly. Ms. Sutton is abundantly talented – she’s a beautifully honest actress and a wonderful singer (she does not, however, deserve the dead polecat masquerading as a wig that she is forced to wear in this production), but this revised version of the script – which incidentally solves almost none of the original script’s problems beyond cutting the cringe-inducing flashback scene between a teenage Angel and her lecherous Uncle Fausto – doesn’t do her any favours. When she finally sings Colored Lights, it’s a gorgeous performance.

The rest of the roles – yes, all of them – are played by the six wreckers Anna hires to demolish the rink: Stewart Clarke, Ross Dawes, Michael Lin, Elander Moore, Ben Redfern, and Jason Winter. They’re all flawless, and their two musical numbers – that fabulous title song in Act Two, and the witheringly sarcastic After All These Years in Act One – are among the production’s great highlights. There’s equally flawless musical direction from Joe Bunker, whose seven-piece band sounds terrific, and Bec Chippendale does as much as anybody could to recreate the faded grandeur of a roller rink on the Jersey shore within the confines of the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium and budget. There’s even a glitterball, and it looks magical under Matt Daw’s lighting. The production, overall, is just about as good as it could possibly be – but it’s a good production of very, very problematic material. You’ll want to see it for O’Connor and the rest of the cast, for that sensational title song, and for the chance to hear this score performed live. It is more than worth the Southwark Playhouse’s standard £25 ticket price. While the musical numbers, though, are genuinely thrilling, don’t be surprised if the show as a whole leaves you unmoved, even given the fiercely committed performances from the two leading actors. Don’t be surprised, either, if you find yourself taking an inner journey during the dialogue scenes. A lot of what you’ll see is very entertaining – but this is, in the end, a superlative production of a show that just doesn’t work.

 

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Nobody’s on nobody’s side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act One

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

Act Two:

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

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

The heat is off in Saigon

miss saigon palace manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEIZE THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION: THE MUSICAL!

the last ship northern stage 1

It’s a homecoming of sorts. After a conspicuously unsuccessful Broadway run, a heavily-rebuilt version of Sting‘s shipbuilders-go-Cervantes musical The Last Ship has docked at Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne, the composer’s hometown, which is where it should have been produced in the first place. The names of the Broadway production’s bookwriters have disappeared from the poster, and the book is by Lorne Campbell, Northern Stage’s artistic director, who also directs the show. The poster image is an actual stained-glass window from Newcastle’s Catholic cathedral. There’s an entirely new cast, including – thank God – no Jimmy Nail, who withdrew from the production at the beginning of the year, a suitably gritty shipyard set and stunning projections from 59 Productions, an impeccable but small (five musicians plus the musical director) folk-rock band tucked behind a corner of the stage, and – inevitably, given the composer – a slightly smug air of shut-up-this-is-good-for-you worthiness hovering over every word.

If Sting sets your teeth on edge – and you’d have good reason – take a deep breath: the impetus behind this project does appear to be thoroughly heartfelt (“sincere” is not an easy word to apply to someone whose public pronouncements are so often so sanctimonious). You may quite justifiably find it (a lot) less than admirable that he, already a millionaire many times over, accepted a seven-digit cheque from a dictator in return for playing a private concert, particularly given that his defence for having done so was singularly unconvincing. You may, also quite justifiably, find the cognitive dissonance inherent in a multimillionaire holding a social-consciousness summit at his Tuscan estate hilarious, at least in a just-threw-up-in-my-mouth-a-little sort of way. You may find it staggering, after the unpleasantness about the whole Uzbekistan thing, that he still chooses to give private audiences to such delightful people, albeit only (again) in exchange for very large amounts of money. I have a (very) short list of people in the arts whose public behaviour is so appalling/unpleasant/hypocritical that I’m reluctant to spend money on their work, and Sting is certainly on it; on the other hand, word from friends in New York who saw the brief Broadway run was quite positive, the reviews were intriguing, and some of the score, on the evidence of the Broadway cast recording, is very strong indeed. And, God help me, as a longstanding, fully-paid-up musical theatre geek, I was curious, so I gritted my teeth and paid up, and made the trek up north to Newcastle with an open mind.

And a lot of it, to be fair, is very, very good indeed. Set in the mid-1980s and pitched by the (very, very sparingly-used) narrator as something between wish-fulfillment and what-might-have-been, the show’s story is an odd but (mostly) effective blend of Karl Marx and Don Quixote set in a declining shipyard which finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy when the multimillion-pound contract of sale for the one order on their books falls through just before the ship is due for completion. Faced with the imminent loss of their jobs, and having been told no help will be forthcoming from the (Thatcher) government, the yard’s workers embark on a quixotic socialist Grand Gesture: they Seize The Means of Production – that is, the shipyard – and erect a barricade, and aim to complete the ship and launch it into the Tyne, partly as a last monument to their dying way of life and partly simply to épate la bourgeoisie by ending the shipyard’s life, and their own careers, in a final blaze of glory.

Yes, in case you were wondering, someone does shout “rage against the dying of the light”; there are also on-the-nose allusions (sometimes slightly too on-the-nose) to Cervantes and Marx and Engels in Campbell’s book, and this is very definitely a show that wears its politics on its sleeve. The decline-of-industrial-Wallsend side of the show’s storyline is more or less a predictable dockyard melodrama, right down to the untimely-death-from-an-industry-related-terminal-disease scene and the subsequent grieving-widow-transcends-her-grief-to-save-the-workers plot twist. Those are spoilers, but you’ll be three steps ahead of the plot all the way through, and while the writing succumbs to nearly every working-class cliché in the book, the actors carry it all off with tremendous conviction. Sting’s score exists largely in a kind of musical hinterland between Kurt Weill and Lindisfarne; that’s a richer seam than you might think, but it’s also absolutely the sound you’d probably expect from an 80s-set determinedly left-wing working-class musical whose book more than nods towards Brecht and agitprop. You won’t be surprised, apart from by the astonishing set-design, but you will probably be moved.

Just as predictable, but also rather less effective, is the love story that – of course – is set against the closing of the shipyard. This concerns Gideon, because of course this show lays the symbolism on with a trowel, who ran away from Wallsend seventeen years ago in search of adventure/new horizons/a better life/a better selection of Docs and knit caps than he could find in any shop in Eldon Square/an escape from his abusive alcoholic father, and who comes back to clear out his (now-)late father’s house to discover that Meg, the girlfriend he left in Wallsend when he skipped town on a merchant ship, now has a sixteen-year-old daughter (Ellen, named after a local political heroine, again presumably because this show lays the symbolism on with a trowel). Gideon wants Meg back, Meg isn’t having any, Ellen wants to run away to London with her socialist rock band to make a record, and you can probably guess right now how this half of the plot is resolved.

The love-story side of the show is never exactly bad; actually, the mother-daughter scenes between Frances McNamee‘s Meg and Katie Moore’s Ellen are among the best things in the show (Moore also doubles, very effectively, as the narrator). Gideon’s big love-song, “What Say You, Meg?”, is meltingly lovely. That the romance never quite catches fire is simply down to the unfortunate fact that Gideon is by far the least interesting character on the stage. Meg, a single parent who clawed her way up from a teen pregancy to build a secure life for herself and her daughter, is simply a far more compelling figure than a man who ran away from home at seventeen, never looked back, and never really articulates why he stayed away for so long when he promised Meg he’d return. As Gideon, Richard Fleeshman – who, thank God, has learned to act since Ghost – is a pleasant enough presence, and he sings very well, although perhaps it isn’t wise to allow him to spend so much of his music imitating the composer’s vaguely transatlantic drawl. The trouble is, he more or less fades into the background next to Frances McNamee’s fiery Meg. That’s largely the fault of the writing – Gideon’s music mostly tends towards lovelorn/wistful ballads of regret, while Meg’s entrance number, a razor-sharp put-down called “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor”, is a furious, rum-fuelled answer to Kurt Weill’s Tango-Ballade, which McNamee slams into the back wall of the theatre with the force of an Atlantic hurricane. Of course Meg is a more compelling presence than Gideon; she’s drawn in a far more colourful musical vocabulary. Despite his very large role in the show’s plot, Gideon’s stature is further diminished in comparison with Joe McGann‘s salt-of-the-earth foreman Jackie White, who – at least until midway through the second act – carries the shipyard side of the plot and who is musicalised via a series of stirring protest anthems. When Fleeshman is given something a bit more dramatic to get his teeth into, he delivers – “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance”, in which he tells his newfound daughter how he learned to dance to woo her mother, is his best moment by far – but he can only do so much with a character who is mostly written in flat greys.

Thankfully, while the romantic half of the plot sometimes threatens to bring the show to a juddering halt, it’s never too long before we’re back in the shipyard. The shipbuilders’ gradual move from anger to stunned acceptance to defiant resistance is movingly drawn, Joe McGann gives a very fine performance indeed as their foreman, and Charlie Hardwick is even better as Jackie’s wife Peggy, whose own act of defiance buys the shipbuilders the time they need to finish and launch the ship. Yes, that’s also a spoiler – but again, you’ll have worked out within ninety seconds of the lights going down where the plot is going to end up. A late-in-Act Two speech from Katie Moore’s narrator which attempts to put the shipbuilders’ quest into a wider social context is certainly didactic and arguably preachy and (yes) a little smug, but it’s also undeniably effective: by name-checking protests ranging from the Jarrow march to the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, Campbell effectively suggests that sometimes Grand Futile Gestures can ultimately carry considerable weight, and this does add an extra dimension to the final scene. There’s a lot of good in this show, but – as I said – few surprises; having said that, those protest songs, Campbell’s staging, the superb performances, and the sometimes breathtaking visual effects are more than enough to hold your attention. The show could easily stand to lose twenty minutes, but that’s a big club these days; there may be (more than) a few moments when your attention will wander, but the finale, when it finally rolls around, is genuinely extremely moving, and includes a visual effect (accomplished via projections) so stunning that my mouth dropped open.

It’s worth, then, swallowing your opinion of the composer and shelling out for a ticket (the run in Newcastle is now over, but the production is touring until July). Not everything in the show works, even after what seems to have been a very thorough overhaul following the Broadway production, but the good far outweighs the bad, the performances are almost all excellent, the set and projections are beautifully evocative, and the last five minutes or so are genuinely thrilling (and yes, what the hell, if someone chooses to record this version of the show I’ll certainly buy it). Frances McNamee, Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick are worth the cost of the ticket, and so are (most of) the songs and that set; the composer, unfortunately, is still – let’s be kind – a bit of a wanker, but this is showbusiness. You can’t have everything.

 

the last ship northern stage 2

Pocket change

cchp

 

For me, this was another Show That Got Away. I didn’t manage to see the original production of Caroline, or Change at the Public Theater in New York, or on Broadway. I was still living overseas when the Broadway production transferred to London for a run at the National. The morning the first iteration of this production – at the Chichester Festival Theatre‘s Minerva last year – went on sale, I was stuck on a train, and by the time I got somewhere with a data signal that didn’t keep dropping out there were no tickets left for any performance I could have attended. I booked for the Hampstead run about ten minutes after tickets went on sale; I’ve regretted missing the original production ever since, and I wasn’t going to miss this.

And having said all that, high expectations aren’t always the best thing to bring with you to the theatre… but this production surpassed them. Set in Lake Charles, Louisiana in late 1963, in the weeks between the Kennedy assassination and Chanukah, Tony Kushner‘s book and lyrics quietly set up a perfect storm: a confrontation between Caroline Thibodeaux, a dour, downtrodden, rigidly proud black maid, and her (Jewish) employer’s lonely, grieving eight-year-old son Noah, whose mother died of cancer the previous year, over money Noah carelessly left in his pockets in the laundry. The clash, when it finally comes two-thirds of the way through the second act, is vicious and wounding on both sides; the show offers a slow-burning, subtle examination of the ways people resist or embrace change, and while it doesn’t offer the kind of easy catharsis you get out of a blatant tearjerker like Miss Saigon, it’s a haunting, engrossing, thoroughly moving piece of writing, and Jeanine Tesori‘s music is often thrilling.

Essentially, the show is an opera (Kushner and Tesori both describe it as such in this production’s programme notes). It’s more or less through-sung with very little spoken dialogue, it’s through-composed with relatively few standalone songs, and while Tesori’s musical palette incorporates influences as diverse as klezmer and Motown, she blends her various ingredients into something distinctively her own, rather than supplying a series of pastiche numbers. Kushner’s libretto is remarkably self-effacing; he’s perfectly capable of using language to dazzle, but here the fireworks are mostly supplied by Tesori’s music, because this is a piece in which several of the central characters are, for various reasons, verbally inarticulate. Caroline, the maid at the heart of the show, doesn’t have the energy or the education to put the sense of deep longing that is all but tearing her apart into words. Instead, Tesori charts Caroline’s emotional state via music – the music she hears as well as the music she sings. Kushner and Tesori take the clever, whimsical step of anthropomorphising various inanimate objects as a means of giving us windows into their closed-up, tightly-wound central character’s emotional landscape. When Caroline does the laundry, the washer and dryer sing to her. She turns on the radio, and a girl-group appears. When she looks at the moon, the moon sings her deepest yearnings back to her. In lesser hands, this could easily seem ridiculous; here, it works beautifully, and adds significant richness to a piece that could easily have been two hours of unhappy people sniping at each other.

Michael Longhurst’s spare, lean production gets the (difficult) tone exactly right, and navigates the material’s difficult emotional landscape with exceptional clarity. There’s a single unit set, of course – this is a 325-seat theatre, not Broadway – but Fly Davis’s geometric-print 60s interior works well enough, and there’s a great deal of wit to her costumes for the appliances and the moon. There’s also a conductor and eleven musicians delivering the original orchestrations, which is not what you expect to see in a such a small theatre at ticket prices pitched significantly below what you’d pay in the West End. Those orchestrations, incidentally, are by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red; inexcusably; they are not credited in the programme.

And in the title role, Sharon D. Clarke may well be giving the performance of her career. So, come to that, might Lauren Ward as Rose Stopnick Gellman, Noah’s fish-out-of-water new stepmother from New York. Clarke doesn’t quite burn through Tesori’s music the way Tonya Pinkins does on the Broadway cast recording, but when she does pull out all the stops, in the astonishing Lot’s Wife at the climax of the second act, she’s electrifying. Ward sings as beautifully as you’d expect, and makes Rose’s isolation almost as moving as Caroline’s. There’s a fine, assured performance from Aaron Gelkoff as the eight-year-old Noah, and the supporting performances are beyond criticism, with especially good work from Alastair Brookshaw as Noah’s still-grieving father, Teddy Kempner as Rose’s Marxist New Yorker father, who wishes the South’s black communities would rise up and reject the notion of nonviolent resistance,  and from Angela Caesar as a gloriously-sung Moon. Abiona Omonua brings real fire to the role of Caroline’s ambitious, proto-activist daughter Emmie, who hates the bus, wants a car of her own, and knows (we discover in the final scene) a lot more than she’s let on about the disappearance of a statue of a Confederate soldier in downtown Lake Charles. This is a show that creeps up on you – it takes a while to get going, but I – ahem – must have had something in my eye for most of the second half of the second act.

The bottom line: the show is a masterpiece. That banner across the poster saying ‘sensational’ doesn’t quite do Michael Longhurst’s production or Sharon D. Clarke’s extraordinary performance justice. It’s transferring into the West End in November following sold-out runs at Chichester and Hampstead. Go and see it. Go and see it more than once. If you’ve already seen it, go and see it again (I will). It’s not the easiest musical, and if you’re expecting a song-and-dance show along the lines of Dreamgirls you’ll be disappointed. It’s worth the effort, though; if you like the kind of musical theatre where you don’t have to switch your brain off when the lights go down, this is about as good as it gets.