Whatever happened to Dainty June?

Or, two reviews in one. There’s a tenuous link between these shows – I mean, other than that I saw them both – and it’s that the central female character in each is named Fran, and that I’ve seen each actress-playing-Fran play June in a revival of Gypsy: Daisy Maywood at Curve, and Gemma Sutton at the Savoy. And in both cases, they’re the best thing about the show they’re in right now. Given the shows they’re in right now, that doesn’t necessarily suggest a very high bar, but they’re both wonderful, even if the shows surrounding them are not.

Strictly Ballroom, to be fair, counts as a near-miss. Baz Lurhmann‘s gaudily kitsch camp-fest of a film is an obvious choice for adaptation as a stage musical, and the show – somewhat retooled after its Australian premiere two years ago – gets a lot of things right. The plot is still completely ludicrous, the camp/bitchy one-liners still come thick and fast, and the costumes are so LOUD you’ll come out of the theatre with day-glo lime-green taffeta permanently etched on the back of your eyeballs. The book, “adapted” by Terry Johnson from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s original(s) (Luhrmann and Pearce have co-written every incarnation of the material so far, from the play that begat the film to the book the musical used in Australia), is fast and funny, Drew McOnie’s choreography in the big production numbers is sensational, and Soutra Gilmore’s revolving multilayered set almost, nearly makes it look as if the production had a lavish budget.

There’s a superb cast, too. As Fran – just Fran – the mousy, bespectacled young woman who has only been dancing for two years and who is yearning to express her inner longings via the paso doble blah blah blah (this is not a show where you’re going to be surprised by anything the plot throws at you, even if you’ve never seen the film), Gemma Sutton is pretty much perfect – she sings gloriously, tugs your heartstrings convincingly, and has whatever quality it is that draws you to someone whenever they’re onstage. Opposite her, as Scott Hastings, the dancer who just wants to dance his own steps but the judges won’t let him blah blah blah, we have Dale White standing in for an indisposed Sam Lips (who incidentally has the best name in showbiz since Buster Skeggs), and he’s perfectly OK. He dances very well indeed (he’s the production’s dance captain as well as an understudy), acts and sings well enough, and doesn’t leave anyone feeling short-changed, although he also doesn’t quite bring the fiery star quality you perhaps need to sell material as silly as this. The wonderful Eve Polycarpou makes something warmly touching out of Just Fran’s ethnic cliché of an Abuela, Tamsin Carroll’s comic timing as Shirley Hastings, Scott’s insanely ambitious mother, could cut through steel, and the supporting roles are all perfectly, colourfully filled.

So what’s missing? Bluntly, a score. Luhrmann and his colleagues haven’t given the job of writing the show’s score to one single songwriting team. Instead, they seem to have collared anyone who didn’t run away fast enough and persuaded/coerced them into supplying one or two numbers, and then thrown in the songs from the movie soundtrack for good measure. This doesn’t work at all; the new songs are uniformly dismal, the familiarity of the older ones from the movie makes the new songs seem even worse, and the show, which is great fun whenever the actors are speaking or dancing, sags badly whenever anybody opens their mouth and starts to sing. Even Ms. Sutton can’t quite save it, although she comes closer than anyone else to selling the parade of forgettable songs she’s being paid to sing (actually that’s not quite fair: Beautiful Surprise, Scott and Fran’s big duet, is insinuating enough that you probably won’t forget it in a hurry, although it’s so utterly banal that you’ll keep trying). Strictly Ballroom, at least in this incarnation, is certainly a viable musical, so it’s too bad that the music is the element that holes the production below the waterline. Really, the only way the show is going to work is if they throw the whole lot out and start again, preferably using people who have at least a passing acquaintance with the concept of wit.

Promises Promises, at the Southwark Playhouse, has more or less exactly the opposite problem. While it’s rarely revived in this country, it’s a minor 60s classic, and the music – so far, Burt Bacharach‘s single original score for the theatre – is peerless. The material surrounding the score, on the other hand, is less than completely successful, although that’s partly simply because sexual politics are very different now than they were when the show premiered on Broadway in 1968. Based on the Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon/Shirley MacLaine film The Apartment, Promises Promises is the sordid-but-wholesome story of Chuck Baxter, a lowly office grunt who lends his apartment to various senior colleagues for them to use as a venue for their extramarital liaisons, then discovers that Fran Kubelik, the woman he’s trying to date, is the frequent houseguest of his boss. Wacky hijinks – including a suicide attempt – ensue, and it all ends happily ever after, three arse-numbing hours after we all first walked into the theatre. The saving grace is the score, and it’s brilliant – a parade of dazzling standards including Half As Big As Life, Knowing When To Leave, Wanting Things, Whoever You Are (I Love You), and the glorious I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. As for the book – if you’d like to see a version of this story that really works, go back to Billy Wilder.

The problem, actually, isn’t that the material is sexist – it’s a period piece, and while attitudes have certainly changed, it hasn’t become uncomfortable in the way that, for example, Sweet Charity (also with a book by Neil Simon) has. It’s simply that Neil Simon’s compulsive, reflexive instinct to go for the gag doesn’t sit very well next to the melodrama of Fran’s suicide attempt in Act Two – we go from three-handkerchief weepie to a wince-inducingly schticky musical number from the (very stereotypically) Jewish doctor who lives downstairs in the space of about three lines. It may be possible to negotiate that transition without making it seem like a great big yawning chasm, but Bronagh Lagan and her cast don’t manage it.

Throughout, unfortunately, the tone is often at least a little off. Lagan tells us in a programme note that she loves The Apartment, film noir, and clowning, but she doesn’t appear to have much idea of how to balance those elements in a production of Promises Promises. Her leading actors – the wonderful Daisy Maywood as Fran Kubelik, and the much, much less wonderful Gabriel Vick as Baxter – are costumed and styled to look, it seems, as similar as possible to Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in the original Wilder film, right down to Fran Kubelik’s rather severe short haircut; since they aren’t Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, this choice does them no favours. There are noirish projections of Manhattan brownstones visible on the upper level of Simon Anthony Wells’s set in some scenes; sometimes they’re effective, and sometimes they work against the comedic content of the scene in front of them. The pacing is sometimes painfully slack. Wells’s set is dominated by a rising garage door which reveals a bar or Chuck Baxter’s apartment, depending on the scene, and you can while away the dead moments by guessing whether or not it’s going to open/close properly the next time it’s used (answer: probably not). When (most) people are singing, the show is a delight – but there’s a lot of space between the songs. It doesn’t help, either, that Gabriel Vick’s Chuck Baxter is barely audible when he sings – and that’s from the third row (of five). He’s charming enough and funny enough in the dialogue scenes, but when he starts to sing he simply disappears. It’s as if he’s interpreted Half As Big As Life, the title of his opening number, as a stage direction; at Saturday’s matinee, his performance of the title song late in the second act was met with stone cold silence from the audience, because nobody could hear him over the backing vocals.

The production is well worth seeing, though, despite the (many) deficiencies in the direction, thanks to Daisy Maywood’s luminously lovely performance as Fran Kubelik and Alex Young’s showstopping, hilarious turn as Marge, the man-eating drunk who picks Chuck up in a bar in the first scene in the second act. It’s not simply that the show comes to life whenever they’re onstage, although it certainly does; they’re both so good that it’s worth sitting through the rest of it to see these two performances. As Marge, Young has two scenes and half a song, and she very nearly walks away with the entire show; Maywood’s Fran, meanwhile, is sincerely played and beautifully sung, and she makes the plot’s happy ending genuinely touching, which is no mean feat in a production in which so little works as it should. This is the text used in the recent Broadway revival, which means two more Bacharach standards – Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home – are uncomfortably shoehorned in as additional solos for Fran; in context, neither song makes much sense, but Maywood sings them beautifully and just about manages to sell them in character. Maywood and Young both, thank God, bring Gabriel Vick’s semi-inert performance somewhat to life when he’s sharing the stage with them; in I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, his big second-act duet with Maywood, he’s even mostly audible.

In the end, though – like Strictly Ballroom, albeit for different reasons – this is a wildly imperfect production. Maywood and Young are great, and it’s lovely to get the opportunity to hear Bacharach and David’s marvellous score in an actual production rather than just via a CD, but Bronagh Lagan consistently fails to capture the show’s tone. Better pacing would help – the production could easily stand to lose at least twenty minutes – but Lagan seems to think she’s directing a film noir, and doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the show and the source material.

It was the music of something beginning…

ragtime

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

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

There’s gotta be something better than this

sweet-charity

Roll up! Roll up! For your Christmas entertainment, come and watch our heroine get repeatedly slut-shamed while singing a stack of fabulous Cy Coleman tunes, and still emerge with a winsomely optimistic smile plastered all over her cute little face! I mean really, what could possibly be more festive than a musical whose central character exists simply to get dumped by a series of inadequate men, the last time specifically because she isn’t a virgin? It’s fun for all the family… at least, if they’re trapped in the squarest, most conservative corner of 1965.

There’s nothing wrong with the production. There’s strong direction by Derek Bond, entertaining Fosse-inspired choreography from Aletta Collins, a clever, stylish set by James Perkins, and a warm, appealing central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund as Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer with a heart of gold (even typing that phrase makes me feel a little ill). There’s a great-sounding band, a superb ensemble, and a bold, brassy Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields score. This should be glorious night in the theatre.

Unfortunately there’s also Neil Simon‘s book, and it’s a great big steaming pile of misogynistic shit. Based (loosely) on the revered Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, which isn’t nearly so unpleasant, Sweet Charity is a leading entry in the woman-as-kleenex school of dramatic storytelling. In the first act, a (married) boyfriend woos the title character (it’s implied over a period of weeks) and then mugs her and steals her savings, then an Italian film star picks her up to make his girlfriend jealous then hides her under the bed (usually in a wardrobe, but this is a theatre-in-the-round; here, wardrobes are difficult) when she unexpectedly returns. In the second act, she falls for decent, kindly Oscar, who (eventually) tells her it doesn’t matter what she does… and then in the penultimate scene dumps her because it does. And then she picks herself up, dries herself off – two of these dumpings involve Charity ending up in the lake in Central Park, presumably because ending a relationship isn’t humiliating enough unless it also involves a near-drowning – and tries to get us to buy that her resilience gives the show an optimistic ending. It doesn’t work, because Simon’s writing is breathtakingly shallow throughout; instead of characters, he presents us with collections of quirks glued together by one-liners, only some of which are funny. Simon’s Charity simply exists to be humiliated; consequently, the evening is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns. It isn’t very funny the first time, and it becomes more and more uncomfortable as we progress through the episodic plot.

The Fellini film, oddly, is far bleaker, but also considerably less unpleasant. Cabiria is a prostitute, not a taxi dancer – Simon’s turd of a book very carefully informs us that Charity doesn’t do any of “that extracurricular stuff” – and while she’s also used and abused by men, the Oscar storyline is quite different. In the film, he’s another crook out to steal her money, and Cabiria makes a proactive choice. Realising he’s setting her up to be robbed, she throws her purse at his feet – she chooses a way out, and gains strength from her choice (Cabiria, unlike Charity, gets shoved headlong into a body of water once rather than twice, which makes more difference than you might think). In Simon’s rewrite of Fellini’s story, on the other hand, Charity simply gets dumped and begs her useless lump of a man not to leave, and then three minutes later the show ends. How unpleasant is it? At the curtain call, the actor playing Oscar (Daniel Crossley) received good-natured boos from a significant section of the audience.

Possibly the show works better if you have a genuine star dancer in the lead as Charity. Shirley MacLaine just about gets away with it in the film, and in the original Broadway production Gwen Verdon must have been sensational on the nights she didn’t phone it in and leave out half her solo numbers. This is a dance-heavy show; MacLaine, in the film, projects strength through her dancing, and she brings a certain kind of star quality to the role. Here, we have Kaisa Hammarlund, and she simply isn’t that kind of performer. She moves well, but she isn’t in Verdon or MacLaine’s league as a dancer. She’s charming, vulnerable, believably real, but she’s a good actor rather than a larger-than-life star, and I suspect this material only really works if you cast a performer whose presence is much bigger than ‘real’. Hammarlund is thoroughly charming, sings well, and she’s funny. She does everything she can to make the final scene work – but the show needs the kind of star performance that can dazzle you into looking past the book’s essential unpleasantness, not a believable, personable actress who makes you feel every beat of Charity’s heartbreak when Oscar dumps her.

There’s pleasure, at least, in the supporting performances. Bob Harms has great fun with the plastic Italian film star’s flamboyantly insincere ‘Too Many Tomorrows’, and there’s a smartly rethought ‘Big Spender’ – the score’s most famous takeaway tune – which here begins in a dressing-room with the dancers preparing for battle before they go out to meet their clients. For the second-act ‘Rhythm of Life’ sequence – a rather condescending satirical take on 60s counterculture – Bond has cast the wonderful Josie Benson as the hippie preacher Daddy Brubeck. Nobody changes any pronouns; in a programme note, Bond explains that “by making Daddy a formidable woman, the song becomes empowering” – and yes, it does, but that’s fatally undercut by the subsequent dialogue scene, which exists mostly to mock Daddy and her church as hypocrites (marijuana, Daddy informs us, is sinful… “and so expensive”). Benson, though, is the most thrilling thing in the show, and she takes a song that usually comes across as slightly naff and turns it into something genuinely exciting; it’s just a shame that the song and the surrounding scene (like, to be fair, the rest of the book) give off such a strong whiff of smug small-c conservative writers looking down their noses at the onset of the permissive age.

In the end, despite everyone’s best efforts, this revival fails to overcome the material’s inherent nastiness. Bond’s staging looks and sounds great: Chris Walker’s new orchestrations for a nine-piece band preserve more of the character of the originals than you’d think possible given the small number of players, Mark Aspinall’s musical direction puts the score across with tremendous verve, and the singing throughout is terrific. Everybody involved is working at the top of their game – but the material, despite Coleman’s dazzling score, is faintly putrid. Hammarlund’s Charity is nothing if not sweet; too bad the show she’s in leaves such a distinctly sour aftertaste.

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?

 

Show Boat

s b p c

 

 

Once upon a time, when the Livent revival of Show Boat was running in various cities in the US and Canada and the Livent brand was still untainted by The Unpleasantness surrounding Darth Grabinsky, I planned a vacation around seeing it – in Chicago, in January, I think 19 years ago this week. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth the trip – if for no other reason that I’ve never, since, seen a commercial production of a musical with 70-odd actors on the stage and 30 musicians in the pit. I wondered at the time how the numbers could add up – the theatre, the night I saw it, was far from full – and Mr. Drabinsky’s complicated legal history since then, and the various arrest warrants against him that are apparently still outstanding in the US, rather suggest that they didn’t.

The thing is, Show Boat, more than nearly any other classic American musical, demands to be done big. It’s an enormous show with a (justly) celebrated score, it has a large cast of central characters, it takes place in multiple locations, the plot spans four decades, and audiences expect to see the Cotton Blossom – the Show Boat of the title – on the stage in front of them. In this show, more than many, there are certain requirements that are very difficult to work around.

Or so you’d think. Daniel Evans’s revival, playing for another week and a half at the Sheffield Crucible, has a cast of 24 and a band of 11 – large for a regional theatre in this country, but tiny in terms of the resources usually thrown at a production of this particular show. In terms of performers/musicians, it’s more or less exactly one-third the size of the production I saw in Chicago. And it’s glorious. It’s based on the text used in a production at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2011 (Show Boat’s production history could form the basis of a doctoral thesis – it’s far too complicated to explore fully here, because it’s one of those shows that seems to undergo some kind of revision with each successive revival), and it sits beautifully in the roughly 1000-seat Crucible.

Much of the show, in fact, is played right in the audience’s laps. The Crucible has a thrust stage; in Les Brotherston’s evocative bleached-wood set, a sunken playing area is surrounded by wooden boardwalks, and the Cotton Blossom, seen front-on, enters from the rear of the stage. Aside from the boat itself, and the Trocadero stage in Act Two, there are few major set-pieces apart from furniture (and, in the second half, evocative projections onto the back wall). It’s an impressive set but not an epic spectacle; the set pushes the scenes and musical numbers halfway down the thrust stage, lending them an immediacy and an intimacy that is the opposite of what you get when the show is staged behind a proscenium arch. This production is far more a character study than a sweeping panorama; you don’t get the spectacle or the string section or the huge chorus, but the gains outweigh the losses, for me at least. The performances are glorious – all of them, with special mentions for Gina Beck’s thrillingly-sung Magnolia and Emmanuel Kojo’s strong, dignified Joe – and the material somehow gains in power from being seen in a relatively intimate setting. The miscegenation scene is always moving, but it isn’t always this moving; Rebecca Trehearn’s Julie is another superb performance, but part of the scene’s added power in this production comes simply from the fact that you can see right into her eyes in the moment she’s forced to admit she’s been passing as white.

In terms of the text, the second act is a little more problematic. Again, it’s beautifully staged and performed here, but the second act of Show Boat was always weaker than the first – it covers a much longer timespan, it’s far more episodic in structure than the first half, a number of key twists in the plot rely on unlikely coincidences, and the ending is abrupt. Evans and his cast finesse it very well, but the ending of the show, in particular, feels rushed. Magnolia and Ravenal’s love story – arguably the show’s biggest plot strand – always feels as if there are at least a couple of scenes missing in the second half of Act Two, and that’s more the case than ever here; Michael Xavier’s Ravenal, in particular, is short-changed by this particular version of the script. There’s no number for Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter Kim in the final scene, and it’s missed; there’s room in this version of the show for a little bit more material in Act Two, and that particular cut is a cut too far. In terms of cuts/additions to the score, other characters fare better. Queenie’s haunting “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun'” – cut against Jerome Kern’s wishes from the original 1927 production but present in a lot of the show’s underscoring and heard prominently in the overture – is a welcome addition, and Sandra Marvin sings it movingly; I’m not sure the second act needs “Hey Feller” and “Ah Still Suits Me”, but Marvin and Kojo are so good that more time with them is welcome. The most famous numbers – “Only Make Believe”, “Old Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Bill” etc – are of course all present and correct, and “Why Do I Love You?”, thank God, is not uncomfortably handed off to the dour Parthy as a solo, as it was in the Livent production. Yes, a bigger orchestra would have been nice – but in a venue this size, that was never going to happen.

As for the thorniest issue regarding Show Boat’s script and score, this production treads a very careful line. In the opening chorus, “coloured folk” work on the Mississippi; the N-word is heard only as a term of abuse from the more bigoted white characters. In 2016, there’s no context for that word that isn’t shocking; here, it’s used sparingly, and for maximum impact.  The choice pays off in this production’s riveting account of the miscegenation scene; in it, the N-word goes off like a bomb, in a way that it possibly wouldn’t if you’d already heard it sung twenty times by the chorus in the opening number.

And while I do have some quibbles with the material this version of the show chooses to include/omit in the second act, they don’t diminish Daniel Evans’s great achievement here: in terms of pure entertainment, this is as fine a Show Boat as you could hope to see, even if it doesn’t have a huge chorus or a big string section. And not only is it a terrific production, the top-price ticket for the matinee I attended was £26 – between half and one-third of what you’d expect to pay these days for a big musical in the West End, and less than the cost of most tickets for musicals at the half-price booth in Leicester Square. It’s running another week and a half, and there are still a few tickets left. It’s still only January, but this is probably as good a musical revival as you’ll see all year.

 

Come follow the bland…

Or, the tour of the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Barnum, as seen yesterday at the Lowry in Salford. Bullet points again, because if the show’s writers can’t be arsed to write a proper book for their musical, I can’t be arsed to write proper prose for the review.

* Brian Conley is really, really, really, REALLY annoying on television.

* Oddly, the qualities that make him so annoying on TV – the glib insincerity, the cheesy grin – work well here.

* His voice is rougher around the edges than it used to be, but he can still sing. More than that, onstage he has presence. He commands attention, and he delivers the score’s rapid-fire patter songs with considerable aplomb. And most of all, he knows how to work an audience, and that’s vital – whoever plays Barnum needs to be a performer as much as an actor. Mr. Conley, somewhat to my surprise – as I said, I can’t stand him on TV – is absolutely terrific.

* So it’s a pity the writers give him so little to do – which, yes, is an odd thing to say about a role in which the actor almost never leaves the stage, and performs a variety of circus tricks as well as singing, dancing and (in theory) acting.

* Here’s the problem: for all the razzle-dazzle of the presentation, Mark Bramble’s book for the show is thin to the point of being emaciated. It’s little more than a set of flashcards; there’s no point of view, the characters are drawn so sketchily that they aren’t even cardboard, and you end the show knowing very little more about P.T. Barnum than you knew going in. Sure, the show’s authors give us the barest biographical details, but there’s no attempt at all to explore what made the man tick. We don’t see where he comes from, we don’t see how he learns the art of humbug (an unkind person might call it con-artistry), and there’s more or less no attempt to explore whatever contradictions might be inherent in, for example, a man who made a considerable fortune by essentially stretching the truth to breaking-point AND who toured the lecture circuit promoting temperance. He’s a loveable con-artist at the beginning of the show, and a loveable con-artist at the end of it, and that’s pretty much all the show’s writers have to say about him.

* We don’t even get much sense of why Bramble, Coleman and Stewart thought this story was worth telling on the musical stage. I mean, Mr. Bramble provides a lengthy programme note on the subject, which is lovely of him, but the effort of writing it might have been better spent on adding some depth – any depth – to the show’s actual book. As it is, the show’s writers seem to be perversely determined to present their subject in the blandest terms possible. It’s as if they simply expect us to accept that Barnum was a great showman, and then just go along for the ride.

* And of course that’s not enough to hang a show on, even when you throw a dozen or so Cy Coleman songs into the mix. The show’s book might be tissue-thin, but the bouncy, brassy score is (mostly) great fun, even if it isn’t first-tier Cy Coleman.

* And yet, despite the (many) flaws in the writing, the show is never less than entertaining. That’s partly because of the excellent ensemble cast, and partly because the physical production is an absolute knockout. Presented more or less as a succession of sideshow acts, the show famously incorporates all manner of circus tricks, from tightrope-walking and fire-eating (both by the actor playing Barnum himself) to trapeze work, stilt-walking, and acrobatics (other members of the cast). There’s always something to look at, even if there’s almost never anything to think about.

* As Chairy, Barnum’s long-suffering wife, Linzi Hateley is some kind of miracle. Of course her singing is peerless – in terms of the vocal requirements, she’s way overqualified for the role – but she manages to create a warm, touching character out of writing that doesn’t even rise to the level of a succession of clichés. ‘The Colours Of My Life’, as a song, is limper than fortnight-old lettuce, but she turns her half of it  into something lovely, and manages to make you forget that the words she’s singing are absolutely vacuous.

* This production is based on the Chichester Festival revival of two years ago (though Timothy Sheader, that production’s director, didn’t bother to show up to direct it again, and his direction has been recreated by an underling – which might matter if the show’s book had any dramatic content at all, so it’s a good thing it doesn’t), so of course it substitutes the new ‘Barnum’s Lament’ (an aria for Barnum midway through the second act, cobbled together from bits of the show’s other musical numbers) in place of ‘The Prince of Humbug’. It’s not an improvement. The show, up until that point, has been entirely superficial. The song comes an hour and a half of stage time into the show, and it’s the very first time we’ve been asked to take an interest in Barnum’s emotional state. Therefore, of course, it just sits there. It’s jarringly out of step with everything we’ve seen and heard up until that moment; Mr. Conley does his best to sell it, but it simply doesn’t work.

* All of this makes it sound like the show is a disaster. It isn’t. It’s great fun if you simply treat it as a spectacle with songs. Stop and think about what you’re watching, though – at all – and the whole confection quickly begins to deflate. I said earlier that it’s never less than entertaining, and that’s true, but it’s never more than that either, and you always have the sense that there’s a much more interesting story that could have been told about P.T. Barnum’s life.

* One more thing: the biggest laugh came when Barnum announced he’d borrowed the money to finance – God knows, maybe Jenny Lind’s contract, or perhaps a Taco Bell franchise – from “a reputable Scottish bank”. Ouch.

Imelda’s Turn

gypsy savoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imelda Momma

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