Love will tear us apart…

eno porgy bess

Let’s get the gushing out of the way first: the English National Opera‘s gorgeous revival of Porgy and Bess – yes it closed two weeks ago, I’ve been busy and I’m playing catch-up – is very nearly as good a production of the piece as I can imagine. There’s a handsome revolving set of skeletal tenements and piers by Michael Yeargan, superb costumes by Catherine Zuber, appropriately moody lighting by Donald Holder, and a knockout storm scene from video designer Luke Halls. It’s beautiful to look at, and under the baton of John Wilson the score – George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward‘s masterpiece – quite possibly sounds as good as it ever will. There are glorious performances in the title roles by Eric Greene and Nicole Cabell, Nadine Benjamin’s opening Summertime is as lovely an account of the song as you could imagine, and it’s a thrill to hear this music performed by the ENO’s orchestra and chorus. Following the London run, the production is heading to Amsterdam and New York; if you love the material, you’ll need to see it.

BUT… you knew this was coming, didn’t you? This, for me, was a superlative, thrilling musical experience. As a piece of theatrical storytelling, it wasn’t quite as successful. Part of that is simply down to the piece itself: first, that we’re no longer in the cultural moment in which it was written, and attitudes to race/racism/racial stereotyping have shifted significantly over the past eighty years, which inevitably means a libretto in which the central characters were (let’s put it kindly) regressive stereotypes even in 1935 – criminal/pugilist/philanderer/drug-peddlar/beggar/woman of low morals –  is going to read a little uncomfortably in 2018, even when it’s treated as carefully as it is here under James Robinson’s direction. It’s arguably an issue, too, that of the seven major creative roles on this production, only one artist – Dianne McIntyre, the choreographer – isn’t white, which perhaps isn’t the most, let’s say, encompassing approach to a piece which has always been dogged by the perception that it examines black poverty through an inadvertent but nevertheless troubling lens of white/middle-class condescension.

A bigger problem – because the race/class issues are always going to be a problem in this particular piece, and the score is so superlatively wonderful that the piece has earned its place in the repertoire – is that while James Robinson has done a commendable job of navigating a course through the minefield that is the libretto, there’s an element of the process that gets in the way of the storytelling here: the production has an ideal set of leading players and a superb chorus, but too often it seems as if they’ve barely met. They’ll have been rehearsed separately and put together at the last minute, and there are more than a handful of scenes in which the chorus parts like the Red Sea as the principals enter from the rear of the (huge) stage and then stay back while the leading singers do their thing, as if the chorus and leads are separated by some kind of moat. The libretto carefully frames the plot as the story of the community – it’s the story of Catfish Row, not just the story of a woman with a past who falls in love but then is tempted away by drugs and the bright lights of New York (I know, I winced slightly as I typed it), but you can’t help coming away from the Coliseum having formed the impression that the principals and the chorus have taken out restraining orders against each other.

Better, then, to treat it as a musical feast with accompanying visuals. As music, as I said, this is an extraordinary experience. As theatre, it’s worth seeing – but the thrills come from the score, the conductor and the singers, rather than from the librettists and the production team.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I wish…

itw wyp

 

If only the film had been as good as this. I’ve always loved the score of Into the Woods, but outside of the glorious original London production at the Phoenix, the show as a whole has never quite worked for me. It’s a terrific idea to take a selection of familiar fairy-tales, mix them up, and then spend the second act showing the consequences of everybody getting their wish at the end of Act One, but James Lapine’s book has always been problematic. The problem, simply, is one of tone: unless the second act gets really dark, the stakes do not seem high enough to support the climactic act of violence in the script, and it becomes a show about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a treacly, moralistic anthem as you move in for the kill, which probably isn’t quite the message the show’s authors intended. Unless you feel in the second act that the show’s characters are genuinely facing the apocalypse, the whole thing falls apart – but if you make the second act dark enough for the plot to make sense, the result (as at the Phoenix) is a show that’s too scary and upsetting for smaller children.

That given, director James Brining’s achievement in this dazzling, thrilling new production seems all the more remarkable. Taking his cue from the show’s finale, ‘Children Will Listen’, Brining’s masterstroke is to put children at the centre of his staging. Accordingly, instead of any kind of fairytale wood, this production opens in an infant school classroom (and ends in a post-apocalyptic hellscape), with children filing in to sit at their desks at the sound of the bell. The Narrator is the class teacher; at the end of the prologue, the kids line up, the Narrator hands them each a hi-vis vest, the classroom walls slide away, and the Narrator and the children set off on a field trip through the plot’s thicket of familiar and unfamiliar fairytales. At the end of Act One, with all the various fairytale characters having found whatever they wished for, the children end up back in the classroom, and the (surprisingly moving) final image of Act One is of the children dancing to the strains of ‘Ever After’ as the fairytale characters recede back into the woods.

This means, of course, that at the top of Act Two, the Giantess’s destruction – which, here, looks very much like a major earthquake – is visited upon a realistic classroom full of children as well as on the play’s various adult (or just-about-adult) characters, which considerably raises the stakes. The children are led back into the woods in search of safety along with everyone else, but when the Narrator disappears from the story halfway through the second act (in a coup-de-theatre nicked from/paying homage to Richard Jones’s original London production), they suddenly seem horribly vulnerable – which means the play’s ending makes a great deal more sense, because it’s far easier to rationalise that climactic act of violence when the safety of actual children, rather than just a prop baby, is at stake.

It helps, too, that the Giantess, in this production, isn’t simply an offstage voice; Rachael Canning’s puppet design – an outsized baby head and arms manipulated by three puppeteers – is supremely creepy, and the Giantess’s appearances are genuinely chilling. Throughout the show, Brining’s treatment of the fairytale setting tends towards the macabre, which again is the correct choice (the too-pretty, too-facile original Broadway production, which is available on DVD, is a sterling example of the pitfalls of making this show look too beautiful: it’s visually lovely, and the second act just doesn’t work on any level). At no time, here, are we in a literal wood. Instead, these woods are a strange landscape of swings, found objects, projected trees, and fragments of the school classroom. It’s an unsettling, disorientating environment (designed, along with the one-foot-in-the-real-world costumes, by Colin Richmond) in which anything can happen; by the climax of Act Two, it really does feel as if the characters (and the children) are facing the end of the world, and for the first time (that I’ve seen) since 1990, the show’s ending doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

Brining has also managed to elicit a superb set of performances from his ensemble cast, all of whom are drawn from Opera North’s chorus (the production, a collaboration between Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a side-project for the Leeds-based chorus, who are under-occupied while the company works through the Ring Cycle on tour). The singing is marvellous, of course, and so is the orchestra (somewhere backstage – the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre doesn’t have a pit – under the pitch-perfect direction of Jim Holmes), and Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics come across with admirable clarity; the acting, too, is excellent, to the point where it’s almost unfair to single anyone out for individual praise. That said, Claire Pascoe is a particularly memorable Witch whose ‘Last Midnight’ raises goose-pimples, and Gillene Butterfield (a lovely Julie Jordan in Opera North’s Carousel) is simply perfect as Cinderella. The children are adorable, Nicholas Butterfield makes an endearingly stuffy Narrator, and while the staging certainly gets very dark, everybody finds the laughs in the book and lyrics. It’s as good an Into the Woods as you could hope to see.

In fact, my only real complaint about this production is that I don’t have time to get back to Leeds to see it again. It’s to be hoped that Opera North will revive it at some point in the future, as they did with their Carousel; Brining’s endlessly inventive staging here surpasses even his extraordinary modern(ish)-dress Sweeney Todd three years ago, and it deserves a wider audience.

“I hate that word. It’s a return.”

 

Glenn Close Sunset

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here’s a little story that should make you cry…

Follies DVD

Or, a game of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The good:
There is now a production of Follies available on DVD (and that’s all I’m going to say about the show itself, because if you’re reading this you probably shouldn’t need a synopsis.)

The bad:
It’s the Opéra de Toulon production from two years ago.

The ugly:
The actor playing Buddy (Jérôme Pradon) is costumed in a bright red sparkly tuxedo with subtly clashing red trousers, and is forced to perform “Buddy’s Blues” in his underwear.

The good:
Charlotte Page as Sally and Liz Robertson as Phyllis. Two fine performances, and they deserve to be in a better production. Page’s ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’, in particular, is absolutely haunting.

The bad:
The actress playing  Young Sally is a bit pitch-approximate, and for some strange reason is made up to resemble Siobhan Redmond playing Shona Spurtle in ‘The High Life’.

The ugly:
Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
There’s a large orchestra playing the original orchestrations under the baton of David Charles Abell, who is about as good as anyone in the world when it comes to this kind of material.

The bad:
The actors are stuck with the current licensed version of the text, which is significantly weaker than the 1971 original. For this, our thanks must allegedly go to James Goldman’s widow, who refuses to let any other version of the show be performed. Apparently she thinks her late husband’s work is better when it’s been disembowelled.

The ugly:
Really. Did I mention the costumes?

The good:
Charlotte Page’s Sally is probably the standout vocal performance here, but the singing is almost all excellent.

The bad:
You can’t always say the same for the acting, particularly from the people with bit-parts.

The ugly:
The same actor doubles as Roscoe and Max Deems. Max Deems only has about three lines – but for some reason the actor is forced to wear white face-paint, and looks as if he’s auditioning to play Ko-Ko in Jonathan Miller’s production of ‘The Mikado’ at the ENO. It just about works when he’s singing ‘Beautiful Girls’; in the subsequent scene, though, it looks odd.

The good:
Marilyn Hill Smith and Kristy Swift offer an absolutely ravishing ‘One More Kiss’.

The bad:
Solange is played by a man in drag (Denis D’Arcangelo) for no apparent reason; he does his best, but it doesn’t really work.

The ugly:
Marilyn Hill Smith’s lilac hair matches the fluffy hem of her gown.

And so on. It’s an odd, frustrating, sometimes very entertaining experience; the score, of course, is peerless, and it’s well played and often beautifully sung, and the power of the material does shine through here and there. Olivier Bénézech’s production, though, while obviously operating within fairly rigid budget constraints, is pretty much a two-hour parade of OMGWTF with a few good bits thrown in, and it says a great deal for the material, even in this weaker, revised version, that he and his choreographer (Caroline Roëlands)and set designer (Valérie Jung, whose designs for the Loveland sequence are the production’s lowest point) don’t manage to completely kill the show.

Unfortunately between them they very nearly kill ‘Who’s That Woman?’, which is usually one of the show’s great highlights; I can certainly forgive Roëlands for not using the original Michael Bennett choreography, which would perhaps have been too complicated to rehearse in what I imagine was a rather limited rehearsal period, but she simply misses the point of the number. The point of the song is to see the older characters singing and dancing with their younger selves; in what is supposed to be th efirst moment in the show where the past and present characters interact, Roëlands for some reason chooses to keep the ‘ghosts’ offstage until relatively late in the number. Instead we see video footage of the younger dancers projected on the back wall before they actually enter, and when they finally arrive onstage, they function more or less as a chorus line. If you didn’t know who/what they were supposed to represent, you might not guess; it’s not as if her choreography is particularly exciting to begin with, so as a result, the number that should be the show’s biggest showstopper falls flat.

The Loveland sequence, in terms of direction, is possibly worse. Musically, it’s a very respectable account indeed (we’ll draw a polite veil over Young Sally); visually, it’s a lurid day-glo nightmare of ugly projections and misguided costumes.

And speaking of the costumes, Sally enters at the top of the show wearing a green dress, which means that an hour later, in ‘Too Many Mornings’, she has to sing ‘should I have worn green?/I wore green the last time’ instead of ‘I should have worn green/I wore green the last time’. It’s a minor point, I suppose – but really, in the whole of the south of France, could they really only find Charlotte Page a green frock?

I could go on picking holes, but you get the idea – in many ways, this is as far from an ideal production of Follies as you could imagine. On the other hand… it’s a full production of Follies on DVD. It has the complete score, the original orchestrations, and a cast of good singers. The four principals are all in places undercut by the staging, but they all emerge with their dignity intact, and I’d be curious to see them all – particularly Page, who is good here and could be a very fine Sally indeed – in a better production. I even liked Graham Bickley (Ben), for only the second time ever (the first was as Signor Naccarelli in ‘The Light in the Piazza’ at Curve). Bénézech may botch some of the show’s big moments, but he does at least understand the basic rhythm of the scenes, and that they should cross-fade into each other so that the show never stops for a blackout.   Some of the earlier ensemble numbers, like ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’, work very well, Julia Sutton’s ‘Broadway Baby’ is a delight, Nicole Croisille’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is a little eccentric in places but she gets away with it, and – have I mentioned this already? – there are 47 players in the pit, and the score sounds glorious. And above all, there is, thank God, no Bernadette Peters, whose jaw-droppingly awful performance as Sally on the show’s most recent cast album is even more misguided than Ms. Roëlands’s choreography for “Who’s That Woman”.

The bottom line: for the price of a DVD, if you love the material, this is probably worth owning.  If, on the other hand, I had shelled out for the cost of an expensive ticket plus hotel and airfare in order to see this production in the theatre, I imagine my response to it would be considerably less charitable.

Oh yes… and if you aren’t French, there’s a snag. The DVD is region 2 only, which is not an insurmountable problem, and it is not available for sale in English-speaking markets, which means you’re going to have to negotiate Amazon.fr, which only offers service in French.  Bonne chance!

Overheard

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Opera North’s magnificent production of Carousel at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. I love the Grand Theatre – it’s one of the most charming of Britain’s major touring theatres, and the auditorium is truly lovely – and I love the show. I’ve written a separate post praising the production to the skies; it should have been a glorious experience. It wasn’t, quite.

The problem, yet again, was disruptive behaviour from somewhere in the auditorium – in this case, exacerbated by the fact that this production is all but unamplified, which means there’s a far greater potential for what I suppose we must call noise pollution. Most of the audience, once they’d clicked into concentrating on a production that is significantly less loud than your average overamplified big musical, sat and listened very intently. A couple of mobile phones rang – there was no pre-show announcement about switching them off, and there should have been – and there was the occasional sound of crinkling candy wrappers. The biggest source of disruption, though, came from a rather more delicate source.

Somewhere in the part of the theatre where I was sitting (the dress circle, I was in the back row), several seats over to my right and not visible from where I was sitting, there was what sounded like an adult woman with some kind of severe mental disability. I never saw this person, so that’s an assumption. What I do know is that most of the show was accompanied by a stream of noise from this person – low (but not quiet) moaning, brief louder wailing, snatches of singing, and a sound that resembled a cross between throat-clearing and blowing a raspberry. I have no idea where this person was sitting, other than in one of seven rows of seats somewhere to my right; I assume she was not unaccompanied. Particularly in a very nearly unamplified production, this was significantly disruptive, and I was not the only person who remarked on it at the interval. I don’t know if anybody said anything to the front of house staff at the interval; I didn’t, partly because, God knows, I can’t help but feel for both this person and whoever was with her, and partly because I couldn’t narrow down the source of the sound any closer than a block of about 150 seats. The disruption in the first half, though, was severe enough that a competent house management should have noticed it and dealt with it off their own bat; evidently they did not, because these sounds continued all through the second half as well.

As much as I feel for this person, and for the people with her, there’s a huge disrespect for the rest of the paying audience in evidence – not on the part of the woman with the disability (the sounds definitely did not come from a child), but from whoever was with her. If you took a child to that kind of event, and they made the kind of noise that would disrupt the experience for other members of the audience, you’d take them out. If you heard a child making that kind of disruptive noise, it would be easier to talk to front of house about it.

At the back of my head, there was the terrifying notion that to make a complaint about this person would somehow be to suggest that people with disabilities should be locked away, and of course that’s not what I think at all. But I do think that anybody attending a live performance (and in this case, I specifically mean the carer/parent/whatever who accompanied this woman to the theatre) should have enough respect for the rest of the audience that they take quick, decisive steps to minimise any behaviour that might disrupt the show for other patrons, and that a competent front-of-house management should pay attention to what is going on in an auditorium during a performance and, if necessary, take action before being prompted by another ticket-holder. Yesterday afternoon’s experience fell considerably short of that. Since these noises continued unimpeded through more or less the entire performance, it’s impossible not to conclude that whoever was accompanying this individual didn’t have any respect or consideration for the rest of the audience. Given that the front-of-house staff did not appear to notice the problem, much less intervene, I’m afraid it’s also difficult not to conclude that their attitude towards their paying customers is not quite what it should be. Now, true, I didn’t complain – but the level of noise was such that I shouldn’t have had to.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved the production. And, probably, in this instance, I should have been less squeamish about coming forward and notifying front-of-house that there was a problem (me and a few hundred other people), and it’s certainly not as if either noisy audience behaviour or inept front-of-house management are at all unusual in British theatres. But going to the theatre and experiencing a show without encountering any kind of bad behaviour from other audience members is becoming the exception rather than the rule, and that’s not good enough, and I’m afraid the front-of-house management have to shoulder some of the responsibility. Theatre tickets are expensive to the degree that it is simply not acceptable for a front-of-house management to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards disruptive behaviour, whatever the source. I’ve done the job myself, and this is not a pleasant aspect of it, but part of the house management’s job is to ensure that everyone in the auditorium experiences the performance without any disruption from other members of the audience, whether or not anyone makes a complaint. Yesterday afternoon, the front-of-house management in the Grand Theatre in Leeds did not do their job, and their customers deserved better.

Welcome to 1945.

First clue that this is not your standard-issue big musical revival, circa 2012: there’s no sound designer credited in the programme (although there is a sound engineer listed way down in the technical credits at the back). The second clue: the first few rows of seats in the Leeds Grand Theatre’s stalls are missing, swallowed up by the orchestra pit. Yes, there was a similarly-enlarged pit a few weeks ago at Wonderful Town at The Lowry as well, but trust me, it’s unusual.

This time, though, we’re here for Rodgers and Hammerstein, rather than Bernstein: Carousel, as revived by Leeds-based Opera North, which means we get their full orchestra of fifty or so players, a large chorus, and a separate troupe of dancers, and the conductor (Jonathan Gill at yesterday afternoon’s performance) takes a curtain call with the cast. Carousel is probably my favourite of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores, and the opportunity to hear it with this size orchestra and chorus doesn’t come around very often. Here, the very first article in the (rather expensive) programme – before anything at all about either Rodgers and Hammerstein or the show itself – is a two-page piece about Don Walker’s original orchestrations, which were painstakingly recreated by a team from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 2000 (the full set of charts had been missing for decades; the National Theatre revival in 1992 used a new set of orchestrations, based on the originals, by William David Brohn). Clearly, this is not a case of an opera company slumming it at the lighter end of the repertoire. It’s not an absolutely complete presentation of the score because “The Highest Judge of All” is cut (and not particularly missed; it was cut from the National Theatre production as well, and I honestly think that section of the show plays better without it), but it’s obvious that everyone involved here has the utmost respect for this material.

And, it has to be said, this production offers an absolutely glorious account of the music. The orchestra’s playing is impeccable throughout – not stiff and reverential, but gutsy and full of life – and they’re matched by the singers, right down to the last member of the chorus. Carousel is not a pretty show – at core, while it ends with the promise of redemption, it’s a dark, unhappy love story between two people who are each in their way very damaged – and for a full production to work, the material demands a great deal more than an impeccable orchestra and marvellous singers (no, I’m not going to summarise the plot – we’ve all seen it, and if you haven’t, Wikipedia offers a fuller synopsis than I would). There’s a difficult line to tread here – in the National Theatre production, Michael Hayden and Joanna Riding offered devastating acting performances as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, but the music sat very uncomfortably on their voices, and they both strained for the higher notes. Here, we have West End actor Keith Higham as Billy (at matinees only; at evening performances the role is played by American opera singer Eric Greene) playing opposite British soprano Gillene Herbert as Julie. Neither has any difficulty at all with the music – Herbert’s “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” is as good a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard – and they create an utterly convincing portrait of this very, very troubled couple. Their bench scene – the lengthy sequence that includes “If I Loved You” – is simply flawless.

[I could, here, offer a very lengthy aside in which I traced the beginning of the concept of the ‘integrated musical’ to the bench scene in Carousel, rather than to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, to which far too many historians attribute far too much influence – but anybody reading this who knows me and has any kind of interest in musicals has probably heard it before, so I won’t… except to say, baldly, that I think the bench scene in Carousel was a more influential moment in the development American musical than the premiere of Oklahoma!. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, and a 5,000-word essay on the subject would be a little over the top.]

The other leads? There’s absolutely delightful work from Clara Boulter and Joseph Shovelton and Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, a beautifully-danced Louise from Beverley Grant, and a fine, rough Jigger Craigin from Michael Rouse. Towering above them all, there’s Elena Ferrari’s Nettie Fowler. Last year, I saw Ms. Ferrari give a breathtaking performance as the tragic Anna Maurrant in a chamber production of Street Scene. Yesterday, I saw her take “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and sing it simply and directly, as if nobody had ever touched it before, with no hint of grandstanding but with enormous emotional force. Her “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was warm, funny, and absolutely charming; her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was probably definitive. And yes, I cried, even though I know that moment in the play is shamelessly manipulative.

The production is lovely to look at, too. Director Jo Davies has shifted the plot forward in time a little, so that this production begins in 1915; that’s still almost a century ago, but it means the clothes and props are a little closer to items that would be worn/used today, and in a production in which the music is privileged above everything else, it’s a choice that takes away a little of the potential for starchiness. Anthony Ward’s set – fairground lights, a bleached treetrunk, ocean vistas, clapboard walls, wooden piers and houses – is deceptively simple and superbly evocative, as are Bruno Poet’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s (very lightly-used) video design, and between them, at the beginning of the Act Two  ballet, they manage a startling coup-de-théâtre to show Billy’s descent from Heaven back to Earth (if you haven’t seen this production and are going to in the future, I suppose this is a spoiler, so highlight the following couple of lines to read a description. Louise is first seen at the beach, in scratchy silent film projected on a clapboard wall at the back of the set. The square projected image slowly widens to become a panorama of the beach scene, and then the clapboard wall rises to reveal Louise in exactly the same spot she’d been in in the film, on the beach, in front of projected rolling waves). There’s strong, muscular choreography from Kay Shepherd, and it’s to her very, very great credit that in the crowd scenes it’s difficult to see the join between the singing chorus and the dancers. Occasionally, the pacing could be a little tighter, and the staging of the robbery scene (which, to be fair, is not the show’s best-written moment to begin with) needs revisiting before the production moves on to its runs in London and Paris, but this is, overall, an exceptionally strong staging.

Davies and her company also deserve a lot of credit for not ducking or in any way softening the domestic violence at the heart of the plot. We are no longer living in 1945; today, the scene in which Louise asks Julie if it’s possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt at all reads very, very uncomfortably, and our society’s attitude towards violence towards women has moved on to the degree that it’s impossible not to view that moment through a contemporary filter. We see Billy commit a sin that today is more or less unpardonable – more than once – and then, at the end of the show, we see him get a second chance. In the National Theatre production, when Louise asked that question, Michael Hayden’s Billy mouthed ‘no’. That doesn’t happen here, and there’s no acting around the lines; we simply see in Billy’s face that the question makes him realise what he’s done. The scene is sensitively played, and it’s powerful, but when Julie tells her daughter that yes, it is possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt, it isn’t easy to watch, and nor should it be.

What’s really interesting about this production, though, is watching the audience adjust to receiving a production that is all but unamplified (there is amplification, but it’s so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible). At the beginning of each act, there were three or four minutes in which isolated conversations, I’m afraid, could be clearly heard from various points around the area where I was sitting – and then, by and large, people shut up and listened.

It would be nice to say that there was no bad audience behaviour on display during the performance, but that’s a longer story. Still, this is a spectacular production, and I am, as the song says, mighty glad I came, even given… well, as I said, that’s a longer story.