Party like it’s 1999

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Another op’nin, another revival of Kiss Me, Kate. The Crucible‘s Christmas musicals are usually worth looking forward to, and this one is no exception. In terms of execution, it’s up there with their (stunning) revivals of My Fair Lady and Show Boat, and that’s very high praise indeed. Rebecca Lock’s thrillingly-sung Lilli Vanessi is a glorious creation, there’s a tight 11-piece band giving an impeccable account of Cole Porter‘s impeccable score, Matt Flint’s choreography is a dazzling, showstopping joy to watch, and director Paul Foster carefully negotiates the minefield that is the show’s book and manages to make the central relationships touching as well as funny. It’s great, it’s running another week and a half, you should go.

You can feel a ‘but’ coming, can’t you? It’s nothing to do with anyone in the cast or the creative team. The reason I hesitated to book a ticket is simply that this production is using the rewritten version of the book created for the 1999 Broadway revival (which played in London a couple of years later and has been released on DVD), and I really don’t love this version of the script. For that revival, Sam and Bella Spewack’s original book (built around The Taming of the Shrew, and if you’re reading this you probably don’t need a synopsis) received an uncredited rewrite by John Guare (and one wonders how Mr. Guare might feel about another playwright providing uncredited rewrites on a revival of The House of Blue Leaves or Six Degrees of Separation after his death but before the work is out of copyright), and it isn’t an improvement. It’s not a disaster on the level of the revised script for the recent London revival of Chess, but it’s broader and coarser and less subtle than the original script, it turns Harrison Howell, Lilli’s fiancé, into (even more of) a caricature (explicitly a caricature of General MacArthur), it misguidedly shoehorns in From This Moment On, which is a perfectly lovely song but one that doesn’t belong in Kiss Me, Kate (yes I know it was in the film, don’t @ me), to give Howell something to sing, and it doesn’t solve the material’s central problem, which was just as big a problem in 1999 as it is now, which is that the world has changed and it’s far more uncomfortable than it was in the late 1940s for us to laugh at a story of a man establishing dominance over a woman by (among other things) spanking her.

The trouble is, the original 1948 book also presents problems these days, and I mean on top of the spanking. As last year’s Opera North revival showed, the original book offers a trip straight back to 1948, and not just in terms of casual sexism. It’s significantly less cartoonish than John Guare’s rewrite – it would have to be – but it’s also, in places, glacially slow, and it would certainly benefit from some judicious trimming. On the other hand, it doesn’t include Guare’s witless rewrite of the Harrison Howell scene, or shoehorn in a Porter standard that wasn’t written for this show and doesn’t work in it. I can see why people choose the 1999 script, but the original, for me, is richer.

And having said all that, this revival really is terrific. The sparks fly between Rebecca Lock’s Lilli and Edward Baker-Duly’s Fred, Amy Ellen Richardson is a fine, funny Lois Lane, Dex Lee is a devilishly charming Bill, Layton Williams burns up the stage in Too Darn Hot, and there are memorable contributions from every member of the company, whether it’s Cindy Belliot’s spectacular high belt in the opening number or Simon Oskarsson’s equally spectacular trumpet playing at the top of the second act. For the first show I’ve seen in 2019 (it wasn’t going to be the first, but news headlines in the weeks before this opened convinced me that perhaps my first show of 2019 should not be a story about a journey to Hell), Paul Foster and his company have set a very high bar for the rest of the year.

And it’s also given me a new item for the top of my theatrical wish-list: can somebody please cast Rebecca Lock as Lily Garland in a revival of On the Twentieth Century? Pretty please? With sugar on?

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Mrs. ‘Arris Goes To Sheffield

 

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This is something very special. ‘Flowers for Mrs. Harris’ is a new musical by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, based on a novel by Paul Gallico. Gallico’s Mrs. Harris is a widowed cleaning-lady in postwar London who sees a Dior dress hanging in the bedroom of one of her wealthy clients and is so struck by its beauty that she embarks on a quest to buy one for herself, in the process bringing about profound changes both in her own life and in the lives of the people she encounters on her journey to Paris. The novel is slight but charming; in 1992 it was made into a slight but less-than-charming TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, and you’d never guess from either that the property could be transformed into a musical that is as moving as anything I’ve seen in – well, let’s say the last twenty years.

What Taylor and Wagstaff have done is quite simple, although Taylor’s (often very beautiful) music is anything but: between them, they’ve done an extraordinarily good job of making you see the world through their heroine’s eyes, and feel everything she feels. Taylor’s score is through-composed (in the operatic sense; the show has a fair amount of spoken dialogue, though more in the second act than the first), with few extractable songs, and you aren’t going to come out of the theatre humming the show’s big hit – but while the music is certainly complex, it somehow also manages to go straight for the heartstrings. Taylor and Wagstaff find something profoundly moving in this rather odd story about a woman whose life is unexpectedly transformed by an encounter with an expensive dress, and they’ve spun from it a musical of considerable, surprising power.

There’s something almost miraculous, too, about Clare Burt’s performance in the title role. She’s nothing like Angela Lansbury in the film, thank God – much as I love Lansbury, playing working-class characters who are not music-hall caricatures is not her greatest strength, and every note of her performance in the film rings false. Burt, by contrast, is absolutely compelling. Mrs. Harris’s Road to Damascus moment when she first sees the dress ten minutes into Act One (cleverly suggested by Mark Henderson’s endlessly subtle lighting, you don’t see an actual Dior dress until a third of the way into Act Two) could easily seem ridiculous or comical, but in Burt’s performance it’s neither (in the film, that scene doesn’t work at all). It’s a surprisingly moving, surprisingly emotional moment, as is the parade of dresses when Mrs. Harris finally gets to the Dior boutique in Paris. As someone who is usually completely uninterested in clothes (I mean, I wear them, obviously, but I didn’t even pay much attention to fashion when I was a teenager, and I haven’t been a teenager for a very long time now), I would never have expected a fashion show to move me to the brink of tears, but Mrs. Harris is enraptured by the moment, and because she is, so are we. It goes without saying, of course, that Burt’s singing is superb, but this is as remarkable an acting performance as you’re likely to see in a musical this year. It’s not a great big grandstanding star turn along the lines of Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – it’s simply a quietly luminous portrayal of an ordinary woman who is transformed by an encounter with something she finds beautiful. Burt, along with the writers, treads a very careful line – the material is unabashedly sentimental, and in the wrong hands the whole show could easily turn to treacle – and their softly-softly, subtle approach pays huge dividends.

Elsewhere, the cast includes a selection of musical theatre’s best and brightest performers, all working at the top of their game (and all playing more than one role). Mark Meadows is a joy as the late Mr. Harris (act one) and a kindly Marquis who befriends Mrs. Harris in Paris, and then there are glorious turns from Anna-Jane Casey (Mrs. Harris’s friend/neighbour Violet, and a French charlady), Rebecca Caine (the owner of the dress Mrs. Harris sees in London, and the vendeuse in the Dior boutique in Paris), Laura Pitt-Pulford (a self-centred actress in London, and a kind-hearted model in Paris), Nicola Sloane (a countess in London, Dior’s seamstress in Paris), and Louis Maskell (one of Mrs. Harris’s clients in London, Dior’s accountant in Paris). Director Daniel Evans, in his swan-song at the Sheffield Crucible, does a fine job of keeping the plot moving while making sure the show has just the right amount of sweetness, Lez Brotherston’s set makes a great deal out of relatively little – London and Paris backdrops (Battersea Power Station and the Eiffel Tower figure prominently), a staircase, a few pieces of furniture, Mrs. Harris’s tiny kitchen  – and the finale, in which the Crucible’s turntable brings the show’s title to literal, glorious life, is a wonder to behold.

The show is that rare thing: an exquisitely-constructed entertainment that builds on its source material rather than dumbing it down (if you want a dumbed-down version of this story, you can always watch the Lansbury TV movie, which craps all over the novel from a very great height and rips the ending to shreds. Don’t say I didn’t warn you), and the whole, with this cast, is even greater than the sum of the parts. Apart from the remarkably self-absorbed “lady” sitting behind me who seemed unable to keep her mouth shut while the house lights were down – and that, sadly, is becoming par for the course when you go to the theatre these days – this is just about as perfect a theatrical experience as you could ever hope for. The cast, at the curtain call, clearly knew how special this show is. It’s sublime, and there simply aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice.

Whether it would be a hit in the West End is another question. This is, as I said, as good a new British musical as there has been in quite a while – beautiful score, literate book, perfect design and direction, stunning central performance, flawless supporting cast – and the run is just two and a half weeks, finishing tomorrow (and yes, if I had the time, I’d go back and see it again). It deserves to be remounted somewhere else, and it deserves to be recorded, because writing and performances as good as we have here ought to be preserved. In an ideal world, for a show as good as this, people would be storming the box office in a rush to get tickets… but this isn’t an ideal world, and about a third of the seats were empty at the performance I saw, and this isn’t the kind of show where you can rope in the punters by casting a couple of has-been X-Factor runners-up in bit parts. Unfortunately, that’s showbiz.

 

 

Show Boat

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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.

 

My Fair Lady

 

No question, it’s one of the greatest musicals ever written, but My Fair Lady has never been one of my favourites. It’s got a glorious score, and an impeccably well-constructed, unusually literate book, but there’s something slightly uncomfortable about the show’s treatment of its working-class heroine (I have the same difficulties with Pygmalion), and about the central assumption that faking upper-class speech and manners will make Eliza a better person than she is at the beginning of the show (we all know the story, I’m not going to write a synposis here). I also, I’m afraid, have a long-standing aversion to chirpy dancing cockney costermongers, to the extent that if someone starts tap-dancing with their thumbs up I’m liable to break out in a rash. I admire the show very much, but I’ve never quite warmed to it.

That is, until yesterday afternoon, when I saw Daniel Evans‘ glorious revival at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. No, he hasn’t cut the chirpy cockneys, and no, he hasn’t changed a word of the script, and the things that make me slightly uncomfortable are certainly still there. He also never directs his actors to act around the material, which is how, for example, the National Theatre solved the problem of the final scene of Lady in the Dark. Instead, he’s done something far more interesting: via clever casting and an unusually intelligent approach to the text, he’s given us a My Fair Lady in which Eliza, by the end of the show, is every bit Higgins’ equal. This is the only version of My Fair Lady I’ve ever seen, on stage or on film, in which a continuing relationship (marriage) between Higgins and Eliza after the end of the show is not only plausible but believable.

A great deal of credit has to go to his two leads. Dominic West is a little younger than Higgins is usually cast, which helps; he’s also a formidable stage actor with a surprisingly durable singing voice which helps him to provide Higgins’ mostly talk-sung songs with some additional (and very welcome) light and shade. More importantly, West’s Higgins is essentially a slightly spoiled, overgrown public schoolboy, an upper-class intellectual geek who has difficulty relating to anyone other than other upper-class intellectual geeks. There’s a childishness to his petulance that makes him surprisingly appealing; when Eliza walks out, he crumbles, and his “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face” is extremely moving. He’s giving a very, very fine performance.

He’s matched – and surpassed – by Carly Bawden’s extraordinary Eliza. Bawden is equally convincing as cockney guttersnipe and princess, negotiates Loewe’s demanding music with magnificent ease – her rapturous “I Could Have Danced All Night” alone is worth the cost of the ticket and train fare to Sheffield – but she, too, finds something more interesting than usual in her role. As Bawden’s Eliza learns, she grows in stature, to the point where by the end of the show she is every bit Higgins’ equal in intellect, if not in book-learning. When she confronts Higgins after the Embassy ball, she brings real fire to the scene, and she follows through with a blazing “Show Me”.  And in the final scene, when Higgins again asks for his slippers, she stands opposite him, not moving, imitating his stance, as if to provoke him into getting up and fetching them himself. This is an Eliza who, from that moment on, is going to give every bit as good as she gets. Bawden is a relative newcomer – though she was also memorably good in Kneehigh’s staging of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg last year – but she’s a name to watch. She has a glorious voice, comic timing that seems to be guided by laser, and enormous presence, and her work here is dazzling. If there’s any justice, this is a star-making performance, and it deserves a far wider audience than a five-week run in Sheffield.

But then, all the performances are terrific, from Anthony Calf’s good-humoured Pickering to Louis Maskell’s gloriously sung Freddy. There’s a cast of twenty-two – huge for a regional production – and they do an impeccably tight job of Alastair Little’s witty choreography. It would have been nice to have more than twelve musicians in the pit, but reduced orchestrations are inevitable in a regional theatre, and these are done tastefully enough. Paul Wills’ deceptively simple set offers only two basic settings – Higgins’ study, and a colonnaded space that can be Covent Garden market, a ballroom, a street, or Mrs. Higgins’ conservatory, depending on how it’s dressed – but the sumptuous costumes and Tim Mitchell’s subtle lighting combine to ensure that this is always a handsome production to look at.

Remarkably, it’s Daniel Evans’ first major musical as director; it won’t be his last, because this is a tremendously assured debut. It’s a difficult show with two formidably difficult central roles, but this My Fair Lady is an absolute triumph.

Phone rings, door chimes, in comes…

A good production of Company, to me, is a really big deal. The first staging of it I saw, at the Oldham Coliseum in 1990, is probably as responsible as anything else for transforming a passing interest in musical theatre into the mile-wide, fathoms-deep geek streak that sometimes threatens to eat my life. Like any other musical theatre geek (I typed ‘Sondheim geek’, then changed it, because as much as I love Sondheim, those people scare me) I can pick holes in it here and there, but it’s a play that had a huge impact on me, and I’ll travel pretty much any distance to see a good production.

Today, I saw a really, really good production. I didn’t even have to travel all that far. In what can be viewed as either an admirably brave or a wilfully perverse piece of programming, the Sheffield Crucible is offering Company as their Christmas musical. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a selling point – I have a fairly limited tolerance for enforced Christmas festivity (apart from on the day itself), and I think I passed my limit about three weeks ago – but they’d more or less certainly be taking more money if they were offering a show that was a little more family-friendly. There was a healthy audience at today’s matinee – probably 75% of capacity, and the Crucible seats 980, which is large for a British regional rep – but it’s December, and with a kid-friendly show they could do even better. Company is anything but kid-friendly. An unmarried man – Robert – either experiences or recalls scenes with five married couples who are his friends, as well as three girlfriends, and questions whether he’s ready to commit himself to marriage. There are episodes but no plot, the songs mostly function as commentary on the dialogue scenes, and the show’s tone is sharply funny and forensically cold. It’s not exactly Guys and Dolls, and your average eight-year-old would be bored shitless.

While it might be an odd choice for the season, though, the Crucible has done a remarkable job of it: this is probably as good a production of Company as you’re ever likely to see. The performances – all of them – are spot-on, with admirably detailed character work from every single member of the cast. Christopher Oram’s set locates the show in a downtown Manhattan loft apartment with a sunken living room  and a glittering view of the Midtown skyline, including the Chrysler Building (in the bed scene with Robert and April in Act Two, Oram gives us a big laugh when Robert presses a button on the wall, and his bed immediately slides from the back to the centre of the stage). Lynne Page’s carefully artless choreography often positions Robert almost as his friends’ prey – they chase him around the four corners of the large thrust stage, pass him from couple to couple like a parcel, block him, and prevent him from leaving the stage. It’s a bold idea, it works beautifully, and her ‘Side by Side by Side’ packs more character information and subtext into seven minutes of musical staging than you would ever think possible.

The director is Jonathan Munby; this is his first musical, and it’s impeccable. He clearly gets that this is a musical that’s as much about a city as a group of people – aside from that glitzy skyline backdrop, the sounds of the city are present all the way through the show, and you’re always aware of New York City as both a fifteenth character and a distinct presence – but his biggest success is in balancing the (many) laughs in the book scenes and the songs with the crippling fear and loneliness that lurk just underneath. This Company is very funny, but also very unsettling: these people keep their insecurities very near the surface, and Munby’s production treads a very, very careful line between urbane  comedy and black despair. The laughs are there – all of them – but some of them are quite uncomfortable.

And then there’s Daniel Evans – the Crucible’s current artistic director – as Robert. Evans, of course, is a Sondheim veteran by now, and he’s giving a spectacular performance here. Robert, in this production, is onstage for pretty much the entire show; he’s centre-stage, and the production revolves around him. The key to Evans’ performance, in fact, lies in the moments between the scenes – there are no blackouts, he’s always visible, but he’s only ever alone in the breaks between scenes, and this allows him to show us a Robert who knows from the beginning that he’s in desperate trouble. Evans’ Robert isn’t a bland cipher. He’s a lonely, charming man who uses the companionship of his friends and girlfriends to distract himself from a mounting sense of depression that stems from his absolute terror of being alone. In the book scenes, he’s bright and cheerful; in the spaces between the scenes, though, the mask slips. It’s an approach that’s certainly supported by the script, although I’ve never seen anyone else play it quite this way before, and it’s an approach that works. More than that, Evans makes more dramatic sense of both the interpolated ‘Marry me a Little’ at the end of Act One and the rather blandly melodramatic ‘Being Alive’ at the end of Act Two than anyone else I’ve ever seen, largely because we’ve seen from almost the beginning of the show that this Robert, in private, is profoundly frightened by the direction his life is taking.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that he sings the hell out of the score. Pretty much everyone sings the hell out of the score. Francesca Annis, playing Joanne, went up on her lines in the middle of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ this afternoon, but that can happen to anyone, she covered it beautifully, and her subsequent scene with Evans was heart-stoppingly good. The highlight, Daniel Evans aside, is probably Damian Humbley’s quietly devastating ‘Sorry-Grateful’ – it’s a subtle, absolutely unshowy reading of the song that has enormous emotional resonance – but there is, as I said, fine work from every single member of this cast. Nobody puts a foot wrong.

I have, of course, a couple of minor quibbles, but then I always have at least one minor quibble. There’s a ten-piece band, and new orchestrations by Simon Hale. These are indeed new orchestrations, rather than the smaller-band Jonathan Tunick orchestration heard on the two 1995 revival cast recordings, and I’m not sure I liked them. I’m not sure I liked them largely because the sound system, from where I was sitting (row B, seat 8 ) was so muddy that I couldn’t hear them in that much detail. They seemed, in the title song, to be a little bit too self-consciously 1970; elsewhere, the sound system’s mix pushed piano, bass and drums so far into the foreground that they sometimes drowned out nearly everything else. And this production uses the revised text from the mid-1990s, which adds ‘Marry me a Little’ (an addition that works here, but usually falls flat) and cuts the Tick Tock ballet, which short-changes both the scene it interrupts and the actress playing Kathy, who is left with nothing at all to do in the second act.

Minor quibble aside, though, this Company is a major achievement. The show, as I said, is a sentimental favourite of mine; I’ve seen a lot of different productions, but none of them – including that first one – has made it seem as fresh as this one does.

Of course, now that he’s set the bar so high, I want to see Jonathan Munby direct Follies. With the original, unedited book. I can dream, can’t I?

 

A star is born. Sort of.

Or, loved her, not crazy about it.

I just saw Peter Quilter‘s Broadway-bound End of the Rainbow, which is approximately the 14,796th script written about the sad decline and premature death of Judy Garland. It would be lovely to be able to say that it’s a tremendously exciting play that offers some kind of valuable insight into Garland’s tortured psyche, but it isn’t. It’s a tired, by-the-numbers rehash of the Cliff Notes  version of everything else that’s been written about Garland’s final few months, held together with a few musical numbers and some campily cheesy one-liners, with an awkwardly-narrated epilogue tacked onto the end.

The play mostly takes place in a suite at the Ritz in London in early 1969, during Garland’s turbulent five-week run at Talk of the Town, six months or so before her death, in the early stages of her engagement to Mickey Deans. We switch back and forth between scenes in the hotel suite in which she attempts to rehearse, argues with Deans and with her music director, begs for alcohol and drugs, and generally gives vent to her inner demons, and onstage scenes at Talk of the Town in which we’re given excerpts from her act. This back-and-forth continues through two acts as we watch Garland’s mental state gradually unravel, and then the actor playing the music director steps out of the play to tell the audience directly about the manner of Garland’s death – like we don’t already know – and then, finally, the actress playing Judy Garland sings  Over the Rainbow, after which there’s a curtain call and everyone goes home. As a piece of writing, it’s… basic. And that’s being kind.

It is, however, a must-see. The play itself may not be particularly good, but the actress playing Judy Garland – Tracie Bennett – is wonderful, extraordinary, amazing, and a great big long list of other superlatives. Ms. Bennett is a comic character actress. Like every other member of British Equity who can do some kind of vaguely passable Lancashire accent, she’s done a stint in Coronation Street, and she’s been regularly seen in second-banana roles in sitcoms and musicals for the past twenty years at least; she’s always been reliably funny, she’s a strong singer, she’s rarely if ever given a sub-par performance (although she’s certainly sometimes been lumbered with lousy material in lousy sitcoms; for that matter, she’s lumbered with a few lousy lines here as well), but she’s never been a star. She’s someone you know you’ve seen before, but she’s not a household name, and she’s not someone you’ve regularly (or, really, ever) seen in leading roles.

That might be about to change, because this is one of those performances that people will be talking about for years. Despite the perfunctory script, Ms. Bennett gets under Garland’s skin in a way that I’ve yet to see anyone else approach. It’s not simply about her mastery of Garland’s idiosyncratic vocal mannerisms, body language, and very individual approach to musical phrasing,  although her mastery of all three is total (you can see in this clip how different Ms. Bennett’s own speaking voice is from the voice she uses as Garland). The uncanny thing, here, is Ms. Bennett’s understanding of what I suppose we can loosely call ‘star quality’, and her apparent ability to either summon it or switch it off at will as the scene demands. The script gives us a needy, self-indulgent woman jonesing after attention, vodka and pills; Ms. Bennett offers a sharp, mercurial Star-with-a-capital-S who is fully aware of – and addicted to – the attention that comes with her persona and her position, but who is slowly being destroyed by the sheer mental effort that goes into summoning that kind of charisma. Not an original idea, particularly – you’ll get something along those lines from any Garland bio – but the sheer force of Ms. Bennett’s performance is astonishing. She’s thrilling, mesmerising, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her whether she’s hurling a fruit-bowl across a bedroom or belting out Just in Time as if her life depended on it, and she deserves every bit of the considerable acclaim she’s receiving for her performance.

Oh yes, there are some other people in it too. Hilton McRae as Garland’s gay pianist/musical director has a nice line in charming sarcasm and makes his character’s genuine, unconditional love for her both clear and touching. Norman Bowman’s Mickey Deans is possibly a little too sympathetic. Robert Maskell does nice work in three bit-parts. The direction and design are competent but uninspiring, and there’s a terrific six-piece band under the supervision of Gareth Valentine. But as much as she may deny it in interviews, this is the Tracie Bennett Show. She’s giving the performance of her career, and her playwright is left trailing in her dust.