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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody’s on nobody’s side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act One

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

Act Two:

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

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

Dreamgirls will never leave you…

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First, a confession: I never liked Glee. I didn’t dislike Amber Riley in it (and I loathed a couple of her co-stars), but when she was announced to star in a (long-overdue) London production of Dreamgirls, I was far more interested in seeing the show than in seeing her in it. I’d have been perfectly happy to go on a Monday night, when Ms. Riley is not scheduled to perform. I wouldn’t have been at all bothered if one of the alternates had been on. Seeing the clip of her singing on the Olivier Awards did not change my mind, and neither did reviewing the production’s cast album. In both cases, I thought her singing was terrific, but there wasn’t anything that convinced me this was one of those drop-everything-and-book-a-ticket must-see performances.

As it turns out, though, I didn’t see the show on a Monday. Ms. Riley was on, and I was completely wrong about her. Two-thirds of the way through And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, I found myself doing something I don’t remember doing in a very long time: applauding a performance in the middle of a song. I knew she had a great voice, but the blazing intensity she brought to that moment is not something I expected from her – and she was even more remarkable in the second act. I found myself applauding in the middle of I Am Changing and Listen as well, and she deserved it. I’m sure her alternates are great, but Ms. Riley is delivering a genuine star performance, and I’m (to my surprise) very glad I got to see it.

I’m glad I finally got to see the show itself, too. Dreamgirls was a reasonably substantial hit on Broadway in 1981, but for some reason it’s taken 35 years for it to be produced in London. The composer’s hilariously awful Siamese twin musical Side Show, which has flopped on Broadway twice (I saw the first version) and which, in a song called I Will Never Leave You, contains possibly the stupidest lyrics ever performed on the musical stage, arrived in London (slightly) before Dreamgirls, albeit in a fringe production rather than in the West End. A London production of Dreamgirls has been an occasional feature of the theatrical rumour mill for as long as I’ve been paying attention, to the point where it’s actually slightly surprising to see that the show is up and running.

And not only is it up and running, it’s up and running in a very strong production indeed. Casey Nicholaw‘s direction and choreography pays careful homage to Michael Bennett‘s original Broadway staging  – no I didn’t see it, but there’s enough footage out there and enough has been written about it that we all know how it worked – without ever directly reproducing it. It’s slick, fast-paced, and (occasionally literally) dazzling; as in Bennett’s staging, the main element of the set consists of four sliding, revolving columns of spotlights, and the show’s action unfolds in constant, fluid motion. There are no blackouts between scenes, and relatively few pauses for applause (which is one reason we all found ourselves applauding Amber Riley two-thirds of the way through her first big number). A couple of big performance set-pieces aside, Tim Hatley’s set includes relatively little scenery – no walls, no rooms, just minimal furniture, with changes in location suggested by those constantly-moving light towers, Gregg Barnes’s spectacular costumes, Hugh Vanstone’s endlessly inventive lighting, and a lot of wigs. Dreamgirls evokes (and is set during) a period in which pop music aspired to glamour rather than grunge; there may be less to the physical production than meets the eye, in terms of the number of elements that make up the set, but the show looks gorgeous.

It sounds gorgeous too, but then it has to. Dreamgirls is the story of a black girl-group called the Dreamettes (later just the Dreams) from Chicago, their ascent to national fame, and the rift that opens up when the group’s original lead singer is fired just as they’re on the cusp of stardom. The parallels with The Supremes are obvious – Effie White, the lead singer who gets fired and has to learn to strike out on her own, is basically Florence Ballard, if Florence Ballard didn’t die halfway through the story’s second act. Deena Jones, the prettier, lighter-voiced, thinner backing singer who is promoted to lead in order to project a more glamorous image, is pretty much Diana Ross, right down to wanting (in the second act) to disband the group so that she can go and star in a film. So far, so obvious, but what makes the show so fascinating is the way Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen‘s brilliant score takes you on a guided tour of black American popular music of the 60s and 70s, along the way carefully showing how musical styles that were originally dismissed as “race music” had to be gradually adjusted/sanded-down/whitened in order to receive mainstream acceptance. On one level, this is simply another gotta-make-it-in-showbiz backstage musical, but there’s considerable subtext in the music, in terms of the way in which it shows how black performers (and by extension black people in general) had (and still have) to conform to the expectations of their white peers in order to “fit in”. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing, and the fact that Krieger and Eyen accomplish this via a parade of electrifying individual songs makes their achievement here all the more remarkable. There’s almost an embarrassment of riches here: Move (You’re Stepping On My Heart), Cadillac Car, Steppin’ to the Bad Side, Heavy, And I Am Telling You…, I Am Changing, Ain’t No Party, One Night Only, Listen, and the title song are all thrilling, distinguished, distinctive musical numbers of a kind that certain more recent “hit musicals” – including some that have played at the Savoy – would kill to match even once. This is one of the great Broadway scores of the late Twentieth century, and the band and cast here more than do it justice.

Amber Riley’s Effie White is, as I already said, a sensational star performance; she manages to nail every one of her bg moments without ever calling to mind Jennifers Holliday and Hudson, the originators of the role on (respectively) stage and film, and she’s more than worth whatever they’re paying her. Don’t dwell too much on the moment in the first act when Liisi LaFontaine’s just-about-perfect Deena Jones says she can’t sing like Effie – she certainly can, and when she and Ms. Riley finally face off in a belt-your-tonsils-out duet late in the second act – Listen, dragged in from the film with new lyrics by Willie Reale – they practically blow the roof off the theatre. As third member of the group Lorrell Robinson (the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, more or less) Asmeret Ghebremichael offers a blazing Ain’t No Party. These women all have incredible, powerhouse voices, but they blend beautifully when they sing as a group as well, and that’s not always as easy to achieve as you’d think. The men, perhaps, are less individually distinctive, but their performances are all impeccable, as is Nick Finlow’s musical direction. It’s hard to imagine a production of the show that sounds better than this one.

Criticisms… really, not many. I’d held off booking a ticket because prices in the West End seem to be on a sharply upward trajectory, to the point where the seat that cost me £49 for Gypsy in the same theatre two years ago is on sale at £72.50 for this, which (to put it nicely) is not a price rise that can be attributed to inflation – but actually, as it turns out, there are some bargains elsewhere in the theatre if you do a bit of research and know where to look, and they aren’t all in the upper circle. The programme is another matter: yes, it’s glossy, contains some nice production photos and three pages of costume sketches, and the articles in it, for once, are not written by a moron, but it costs £8.00, and that’s a blatant cash-grab. Now, granted, I fell for it – I bought one, and I don’t particularly regret it – but £8.00 is just too much money. And while this production is glorious, the cast recording is disappointing for reasons that have nothing to do with the material or the performers. The poster art is a little bit naff, but that’s par for the course in the West End these days.

The show itself, though, really is as good as its reputation, and this production does it proud. From the insistent cowbell at the top of the show to the final note of the reprise of the title song at the very end, this Dreamgirls grabs your attention and never lets go. It’s a real theatrical thrill-ride – and the thrills, for once, come via voices rather than hydraulics. It’s brash and loud, sure, but it’s packed with sensational songs and wonderful performances, and – don’t faint – the show’s book and lyrics never once insult your intelligence, which unfortunately is becoming an increasingly unusual quality in big commercial musicals. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to; this is just about as good as the West End gets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fidgety Feet

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Bullet points again – here are a few brief thoughts about the new London production of Christopher Wheeldon‘s stage adaptation of An American in Paris:

  • It’s beautiful to look at. Wheeldon’s choreography is glorious, and Bob Crowley’s fluid, evocative designs offer a captivating portrait of postwar Paris.
  • It’s beautifully sung. Yes, the leading lady – the wonderful Leanne Cope – is a ballet dancer rather than a musical theatre actress, but she has a lovely voice and a great deal of presence. The singing from the other leads is unimpeachable (Robert Fairchild was off at the performance I saw; his alternate, Ashley Day, is excellent).
  • Craig Lucas, who wrote the show’s book, has departed a little from the plot of the source film. It’s still the story of three young men – artistically-inclined former American soldiers Jerry Mulligan and Adam Hochberg and their French friend Henri Baurel – on the loose in Paris after the end of World War Two, and (of course) they still all fall for the same girl, but the plot carries a little more weight here than it does in the film.
  • That said, this is still a show in which everything else exists to support the dancing – and the dancers. Lucas’s book is constructed very carefully so that the heavy lifting, in terms of acting requirements, is directed away from the two principal roles, which are cast with ballet dancers rather than actors.
  • This means that while Cope’s on-the-cusp-of-stardom ballerina, Lise Dassin, is given more of a backstory (she’s Jewish, her parents were arrested by the Nazis, and Henri’s family hid her and others during the Occupation, which is why she feels beholden to them), explaining it is mostly left to other characters, which means Lise has long stretches, when she isn’t dancing, of simply being Shy And Enigmatic. This probably does Cope a great disservice; she’s a capable actress, and she’s the lead, but while her role is dazzlingly choreographed, it’s also badly underwritten.
  • The supporting characters are given a little more room here than they are in the film. In particular, Zoë Rainey’s Milo Davenport – a wealthy American patron of the arts who takes an interest in Jerry, and not just for his paintings – gets a significantly more prominent role in the story, financing a ballet in which Lise will star and persuading the ballet company to hire Jerry as designer. Rainey is wonderful – and that’s good, because she gets more to sing than the show’s leading lady, even though Cope’s (admittedly smaller) voice is hardly an embarrassment.
  • The men are all terrific. Ashley Day’s Jerry also suffers a little (though less than Cope) from his role being carefully designed for (let’s put this kindly) an actor of limited skill, which he is not. Day will be taking over from Robert Fairchild, who originated the role in Paris and on Broadway, later in the year, and he’s great.
  • The running gag about whether Haydn Oakley’s Henri Baurel might be gay isn’t very funny, and should have been cut before rehearsals.
  • Oakley has to carry a great deal of the hidden-from-the-Nazis plot strand, and he delivers a performance of enormous subtlety – not easy in a barn like the Dominion, particularly when the book scenes could almost have been written on flashcards.
  • David Seadon-Young’s Adam Hochberg is a charming narrator, a convincing song-and-dance man, and absolutely believable as a lovelorn romantic, but Lucas’s book is simply too thin for us to be moved in any way by his character’s unrequited love for Lise.
  • Jane Asher is luxury-cast as Mme. Baurel, Henri’s overbearing mother. She can do this kind of role in her sleep, but she doesn’t; her timing is sharp as ever, she owns the stage in all of her (brief) appearances, and she finds far more complexity in the character than you’d guess from the writing, which – again – tends towards the simplistic. We’ll draw a polite veil, though, over her French accent, which is cheesier than a wheel of Brie.
  • The film’s brief-ish score is augmented by a handful of classics from elsewhere in the Gershwin catalogue; they’re all beautifully sung (and played, although the 13-piece orchestra could really do with about a dozen more musicians), but they also seem oddly interchangeable. It’s not the songs that matter here, it’s the dancing.
  • The climactic ballet sequence, while shorter than it is in the film, is simply stunning. Day is very good indeed, Cope is sensational, the choreography is breathtaking, and the Mondrian-inspired costumes and projected backdrops are gorgeous.
  • Wheeldon’s choreography throughout is dazzlingly inventive, which is as it should be in a show where the dancing is the star. The opening ballet, to a chunk of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, communicates the beauty and menace of postwar Paris, dance drives most of the plot’s most significant moments, and Bob Crowley’s handsome sets move with the same choreographed precision as the dancers.
  • If you go in expecting a lighter-than-light tap-and-feathers extravaganza along the lines of, say, Crazy For You, you will be disappointed. Wheeldon and his colleagues are attempting something a little more highbrow, and a little more thoughtful. Apart from Henri’s dazzling art deco hat-and-cane fantasy in Stairway to Paradise, that kind of out-and-out production number is not what is on offer here.
  • And if you’re looking for the kind of full-on mascara-down-your-cheeks romance that will leave you sobbing into a tissue at the curtain-call, look elsewhere. This show is beautiful to look at, beautifully sung, thrillingly choreographed and danced, and brilliantly designed, but it’s also not enormously emotionally engaging. It’ll keep you interested, and sometimes dazzled, but you may not be moved.
  • Ticket prices in the West End are on a sharp upward trajectory right now, but the Dominion is a barn and there are some bargains to be had. At the front of the rear half of the circle (the theatre has only two tiers in use), row H has a low barrier in front; these seats are sold as ‘restricted view’, but the bar won’t cause you any trouble at all if you’re taller than about 4’10”, and this is a show where it’s no bad thing to be sitting far enough back that you can see the full stage picture. This was my ‘restricted’ view:
    drv
  • The realities of commercial musical theatre: you could populate a couple of football teams out of the list of producing entities billed above the title on the showcard, and the full list of producers takes up a double-page spread in the (very, very overpriced) programme:
    AP producers
    AP programme

The bottom line? It’s certainly worth seeing. To take these particular ingredients and work them into something that, at times, is transcendently beautiful is not at all an easy achievement – but too often, as brilliantly staged and designed and beautifully performed as it is, the result is just beautiful, and it could have been more. This love story may well thrill you, but you probably won’t fall in love.

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.

Stick it to the… oh, never mind.

 

school-of-rock

Yes, this is late. I saw School of Rock at the November 5th matinée, but the rest of this month has passed by in a blur. So, random thoughts:

It’s tremendously entertaining. Like the film it’s based on, it isn’t going to change the world, but it’s great fun. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber at his least serious, and the show is all the better for it.

You’ll probably be two steps ahead of the plot all the way through, even if the film is a dim and distant memory. We’ve all seen the unikely-teacher-helps-kids-find-themselves story a thousand times; Lloyd Webber and his bookwriter and lyricist – Julian Fellowes and Glenn Slater – don’t add anything new to it here, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. The heart of this show – the thing that makes it well worth the cost of the ticket – lies in the closing concert sequence, in which a stageful of brilliantly talented kids more or less blow the roof off the theatre. Yes, they play their instruments themselves, and they are sensational; it’s oddly moving to see the adult band, on a circle-level platform at stage right, grooving along to the music and ostentatiously not playing their instruments.

The adult cast are just as good, with Florence Andrews a particular standout (and far better than her counterpart on the show’s Broadway cast recording) as the prim headteacher who has lost touch with her inner Stevie Nicks. It’s a shame the wonderful Preeya Kalidas’s character has lost her one solo (‘Give Up Your Dreams’, replaced by a reprise of ‘Mount Rock’); it’s a funny song, and she’d have sung the hell out of it, but never mind.

As failed-rock-guitarist-turned-substitute-teacher Dewey Finn – the Jack Black role, of course – we saw Joel Montague, one of the understudies. If I didn’t know (via his Twitter) that this was his first time on in the role, I would never have guessed. There’s a particular thrill to seeing an understudy go out and nail a leading role, especially while a show is still in previews; Montague simply didn’t put a foot wrong. How good was he? It’s difficult to imagine anyone giving a better account of the role. I’m sure David Fynn is wonderful – but if you don’t get to see him, you’ll be in safe hands.

Don’t go expecting much from Lloyd Webber’s co-writers, though. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are professional but predictable, and while Julian Fellowes’s book is stuffed with funny lines, the characters in it are barely two-dimensional. Give them all credit, though – I laughed like a drain at the sharply funny self-referential gag referencing “this theatre” and the big takeaway ballad from Cats.

As for Lloyd Webber’s contribution, the best part – oddly – is the parade of big, full-throated rock songs for Dewey and the kids. They’re just the right side of knowing parody, they’re ridiculously catchy, and they’ll have you walking out of the theatre with a great big grin on your face. The other characters get short-changed; Florence Andrews gives 150% to Ms. Mullins’s ‘Where Did The Rock Go?’, but even she can’t disguise that it’s a second-tier power ballad which fizzles out forty seconds before it actually ends (this is not, thank God, a jukebox musical, but I wish we could have heard her sing more of Stevie Nicks’s ‘Edge of Seventeen’, which she sings a little of in the preceding scene). The non-diegetic songs for the kids and the teachers, too, make little impression: they’re pleasant enough, there’s nothing in the show that’s bad, but there’s a strong sense that the big concert sequences are what interested the writers, and elsewhere they were just phoning it in.

The bottom line? It’s great entertainment. It is not necessarily a great musical. It’s fun, but it isn’t art. I loved it, but I’m not sure I’d have loved it at £95 (booking hint: the seats in the far side blocks in the stalls, in cost terms, are a comparative steal. They’re technically “restricted view”, but you won’t miss much), particularly since the various trailers/clips of the Broadway production available online suggest that here, while Laurence Connor’s staging is essentially the same as it was on Broadway, we’re getting a significantly less elaborate set.

Oh yes – and let us all take a moment to celebrate the hilarious irony of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who last year took time out of his busy schedule to attend the House of Lords in order to vote to cut tax credits to the working poor, putting his name to a show whose score includes a song called “Stick It To The Man”. Breathtaking, isn’t it?

How Glory Goes

f-c

Or, ten things about Jonathan Butterell‘s revival of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau‘s Floyd Collins at Wilton’s Music Hall:

  1. If you’re going to write a show in which the title character spends nearly the entire performance trapped in a single spot, you’d better have something up your sleeve to keep people interested. Floyd Collins, which is based on real events, tells the story of the death of the title character, an American cave explorer in the 1920s whose entrapment underground sparked the first modern media circus as journalists raced to cover his rescue. The show’s secret weapon is Adam Guettel’s astonishing score, which blends a set of musical influences ranging from bluegrass to Bartok into something which turns out to be far more theatrically potent than you might guess from the slightly remote-sounding cast recording from the original off-Broadway production. The music is often dissonant, at least by the standards of contemporary musical theatre (anyone describing it as ‘atonal’ should be taken outside and beaten until they promise never to do so again), but it’s also surprisingly lush given that there are only eight pieces in the band, it’s full of soaring melodies, and the show’s big musical moments carry a tremendous emotional pull. The orchestrations, incidentally, are by Bruce Coughlin, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the programme or on the show’s window card, and should be.
  2. Tina Landau’s book is a model of efficiency, and that’s a compliment. In this show, everything is in service to the music. In most musicals, the book is the backbone; that isn’t the case here.
  3. The lengthy opening sequence in which Floyd explores the caves is a musical tour-de-force, and a masterclass in how to use sound to tell a story. When Floyd finds the Great Sand Cave, he yodels a line of music, and an echo comes back (via the miracle of electronic voice capturing) – and then Guettel brilliantly transforms Floyd’s singing and the subsequent echos into a fugue.It’s a thrilling moment in the theatre, and it must be fiendishly difficult to perform, but it’s also a strikingly unusual piece of theatrical storytelling: you don’t see the cave, you simply hear it, and thanks to Guettel’s dazzling score, that’s more than enough.
  4. Or at least, it was more than enough for me. This is a musical that expects you to listen, and listen carefully. You can’t let it wash over you, the ending is bleak, the music is very demanding, and not everyone is going to enjoy it. And that’s OK. There should be room for things like this as well as for the Phantoms and Wickeds.
  5. Jonathan Butterell’s clearly-focused, unshowy direction puts the material centre-stage and gets out of the way. There’s little choreography, the set is mostly scaffolding, there are relatively few props, and the backdrop is the artfully-distressed bare plaster walls of the theatre itself. Nothing feels superfluous – at any given moment, it’s clear where your attention should be directed.
  6. The central performances are impeccable. Ashley Robinson sings the title role superbly, and makes that difficult opening number seem effortless. He’s an engaging actor, too, and he never puts a foot wrong in a role which must require tremendous concentration (for most of the show, he’s directly facing the audience on a narrow platform above the stage). His careful, restrained delivery of the show’s final number, ‘How Glory Goes’, is very moving indeed.
  7. That final number is as moving as anything written for the musical stage in the past twenty-five years. Guettel brilliantly dramatises Floyd’s death, again, using echoes: in the last sixteen bars of music, as Floyd once again sings against the echoes of his own voice, the band gradually dies away beneath him, and then the echoes slowly die away too. It’s a stunning, powerful ending, even if you know what’s coming.
  8. Lovely work, too, from Sara Ingram as Floyd’s stepmother,  and Samuel Thomas as his brother. Among the ensemble, the singing is flawless; the acting, however, is occasionally a little overcooked, most significantly in a song called ‘Is That Remarkable?’, a slyly sarcastic depiction of the spiralling media circus surrounding the attempts to rescue Floyd from the cave. It’s a clever song with biting lyrics, and the actors attack Guettel’s scalding three-part harmonies with enormous verve – but they also play the subtext on the surface to a degree that threatens to cross the line into cheap mugging, and less would have been considerably more. Not everything needs to be underlined.
  9. If there was any justice – and in showbusiness there often isn’t – Rebecca Trehearn would be well on the way to becoming a huge, huge star. She’s the real deal, and this is the second time this year I’ve seen her give a brilliant performance in a difficult role. As Floyd’s sister Nellie, who we’re told has recently been discharged from an asylum, Trehearn is simply mesmerising. She has tremendous presence, she finds precisely the right balance between adult strength and childlike simplicity, and she sings her (difficult) music beautifully.
  10. Going to the theatre in this country, particularly in London, often leaves you feeling as if someone is trying to extract money from you via every possible orifice. It’s refreshing, then, to arrive at Wilton’s – which is a lovely space to begin with – and find that programmes, which are so often a complete rip-off, cost just £3.00, which in this instance buys you a glossy A4 publication containing several full-colour production photos, along with bios of the writers, creative team, and cast. Ticket prices are more than fair, drinks are reasonable, the staff are friendly, and the toilets are clean. Other theatres, please take note.

One stepladder, other stepladder

allegro

Or, Southwark Playhouse‘s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s rarely-performed musical Allegro, which I saw last Saturday afternoon. Bullet points, because it’s been that kind of week:

  • Way back in 1947, Stephen Sondheim was famously a gofer on the original Broadway production. He obviously paid attention: it’s fascinating to connect the dots between this material and his later work.
  • It really, really, REALLY doesn’t play like a show from 1947. Or rather, in terms of the writing, it’s 1947 vocabulary constructed using syntax that, at the time, must have seemed quite alien in a Broadway musical. The writing throughout is very, very stylised, apart from in the major solos and duets; in particular, the show’s (spoken/intoned) Greek chorus lends the show’s storytelling an almost Brechtian air that would not necessarily have sat comfortably with an audience expecting to see another Carousel.
  • The score is wonderful. The show may not have found much success on Broadway, but it’s difficult to fault the music. The two big takeaway tunes – ‘So Far’ and ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ – are highlights, but they’re the tip of the iceberg. The choral writing, in particular, is often quite beautiful.
  • Hammerstein’s (original, not adapted from another source) story of a smalltown doctor making his way in the big city, on the other hand, is rather slight. We’re clearly supposed to infer that Joseph Taylor, Jr. is an Everyman figure and that the story of his life is supposed to carry some kind of metaphorical weight, but the sweetly charming first act doesn’t provide a firm enough foundation for the ethical dilemma the character faces in the later scenes in Act Two.
  • The Majestic Theatre‘s large, wide stage and proscenium arch also probably didn’t do the show any favours. Thom Southerland’s Southwark Playhouse production gains enormously from the small space: viewing Joseph Taylor, Jr. up close, it’s very easy to become invested in his story, despite the thinness of some scenes in Hammerstein’s book.
  • Southerland’s staging is more or less flawless. Using a traverse stage puts the action right in the audience’s lap, which with this material is an enormous advantage. The budget was obviously minimal – Anthony Lamble’s cleverly simple set consists of a couple of stepladders, a couple of interlocking planks, a moveable scaffold, and an assortment of wooden chairs – but Southerland and his choreographer, Lee Proud, turn simplicity into a virtue, keeping the show’s (almost) ever-present chorus in (almost) constant motion, so that there’s always something new to look at.
  • Never mind the tiny budget – some key moments are executed with considerable flair. The staging of ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is masterful: much of the song is sung from the upper level of a scaffold which chorus members move from one end of the stage to the other, above a line of umbrella-toting customers at (what I assume we’re supposed to infer is) a taxi rank.
  • The performances are impeccable, right down to every last member of the ensemble, and Gary Tushaw is an enormously appealing Everyman. The singing is superb, both from each individual principal player and from the chorus.
  • The production does very well indeed by the score’s two hit songs. Leah West’s ‘So Far’ is shimmeringly lovely, and Katie Bernstein’s sharply rueful ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ is probably the evening’s highlight (or rather, afternoon’s highlight, I saw a matinee) – all the more remarkable given than she sings a good chunk of it while being trundled from one end of the stage to the other on top of a scaffold.
  • Ideal as the performances are, the cast can’t quite paper over the significant second-act cracks in Hammerstein’s book. Taylor’s big epiphany at the show’s climax is a huge dramatic outburst that the rest of the show doesn’t quite support – and because the scene, as written, doesn’t quite work to begin with, the actors, particularly Tushaw, push too hard, so that it feels like the show takes a sudden left turn from A Real Nice Clambake straight into Act Three of King Lear. The show, structurally, is far ahead of its time, and here is where it shows the most: what the moment needs, essentially, is something along the lines of Rose’s Turn, which was never going to be forthcoming from Richard Rodgers – at least, not in 1947.
  • Yes, every note of the big Act Two ballet is included. These performers mostly aren’t dancers, but Lee Proud gets a tremendously entertaining account of the title song from his cast. Again, the tight space probably helps.
  • There’s a band of 8, and I was never aware of the unpleasantly metallic sound of a synthesiser string pad, which is often a feature of reduced orchestrations in this kind of production.Mark Cumberland’s new orchestrations get an impressive range of colours out of this small band, and there’s sensitive music direction from Dean Austin. The chorus singing is impressively tight, the production is only very lightly amplified (you might question the need for any amplification at all in such a small space, but this theatre is housed in a former warehouse and I suspect the auditorium’s natural acoustics are somewhat challenging), and it’s thrilling to get to experience this score up close – at least, for musical theatre geeks like me.
  • It’s a nice feature of Southwark Playhouse productions that they bring the whole band, rather than just the MD, out to take a bow during the curtain call. The musicians are as important as anyone on the stage; in musical theatre, that’s too often forgotten.
  • In terms of bang for your buck, the Southwark Playhouse is a bargain. Tickets are £25, preview tickets are significantly cheaper, programmes are £3, drinks are very reasonable indeed. In this instance, for £25 you got a cast of 16 professional actors and 8 musicians – all of whom got paid – giving a thoroughly lovely account of a beautiful, rarely-heard score, directed by someone who is clearly an expert at getting the absolute most of out every penny spent on each production. Not only that, they do extremely impressive outreach work within their local community, particularly via their Young Company. In more ways than one, they do good work.

Overall? If Southerland and his cast never quite manage to convince you that you’re watching a lost masterpiece, it’s still wonderful to have the opportunity to hear this score in a theatre. It’s never going to be revived on Broadway or in the West End; while the show doesn’t quite work, there’s more than enough good in it to make it worth another look, and the score, as I said, is glorious.

“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 come the girls…

 

Or, a tale of two musicals. They’re both based on films, they’re both (more or less) true stories, and – guess what? – I saw them both last week.

In another respect, though, they exist at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. Grey Gardens, while it eventually played on Broadway, originated in the nonprofit sector at Playwrights Horizons and was written as a chamber musical; it’s produced here by the Southwark Playhouse on a shoestring budget for a limited run in a (relatively) tiny theatre. The Girls, on the other hand, while it isn’t that big a show, is very obviously a product of the commercial sector – it’s based on a big hit film that has already spawned a big hit (nonmusical) stage version, it has a big-name songwriter attached, and while this was a tryout production, it is obviously aimed squarely at the West End, where it’ll probably run for years.

And surprise, surprise – they’re both wonderful. Grey Gardens, of course, is based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, and it introduces us to two Edies: Mrs. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Miss Edith Bouvier Beale – or rather, Big Edie and Little Edie. Distant relatives of the Kennedys, they are shown in the documentary to be living in some squalor in the crumbling wreck of the Grey Gardens estate; the documentary forms the basis for the musical’s second act, and the first act, set in the 1940s, shows Big Edie carefully sabotaging Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy (an event which may or may not have actually happened). The show charts both their decline from a position of wealth and priviledge into cat- and raccoon-infested poverty, and the strange, codependent, fractious relationship between mother and daughter.

The result, as directed by Thom Southerland, is very definitely an art-house musical (no surprise, since it’s based on an art-house film). Doug Wright’s book and Michael Korie’s lyrics show us two difficult, complicated women; despite a rather disingenuous programme note in which they solemnly tell us that the Maysles advised them, in writing the musical, not to “take sides”, it’s clear that their sympathies are more with Little Edie than her mother, although Big Edie is never presented as a villain. It’s simply that the meat of the show is in the second act, and in the second act Little Edie has the showier, more memorable role.

The fictional first act, though, is somewhat problematic. It’s entertaining enough, and Scott Frankel’s music is often lovely, but it doesn’t quite add up – the broken-engagement story, and the scenes with the young Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, are a bit too movie-of-the-week, and if you’ve seen, for example, High Society, then you’ve seen it all before. It’s not until the second act that the pieces fall into place; the first act (or at least, a first act) is necessary, and it does add to your understanding of the strange dynamic in the dysfunctional/codependent relationship between mother and daughter, but there’s still a sense, watching it, that the writers are somehow marking time, and it’s undeniably the weaker of the show’s two halves. It doesn’t help, either, that save for the beautiful “Will You?”, which closes the first act, the score’s most memorable, distinctive material is also all in the second half. The three major Act Two numbers for Little Edie – ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’, ‘Around the World’, and (especially) ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ – are superb; with the exception of “Will You”, nothing in the first act is quite at the same level.

The performances, however, are impeccable. Jenna Russell finds the pathos in the charming-but-flinty Big Edie of Act One, but her eccentric, vulnerable Little Edie in Act Two is a brilliant creation. It goes without saying that she sings the score beautifully; she nails Little Edie’s odd, nasal speaking voice without descending into caricature, and she’s fierce, funny and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Her ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ is simply mesmerising; it’s a tiny theatre, you can see right into her eyes as she sings the song, and those four minutes are more than worth the cost of the ticket. As Act Two’s Big Edie, Sheila Hancock has less to do, but does it beautifully. She finds the right balance between charmingly-dotty-old-lady and subtle ruthlessness, and when she and Russell’s Little Edie square off, sparks fly. The supporting cast are all perfectly fine, though they have more to do in the first half, which means they don’t get the best of the material, but Hancock and Russell’s double-act in Act Two is what makes the production a must-see. They’re spectacular, and to see work of this calibre up close in a 250-seat theatre is genuinely thrilling.

And for the money, the production values are seriously impressive. Tickets cost £25, which is roughly a third of the top price you’d expect to pay these days for a musical in the West End. Set, costumes and lighting (by, respectively, Tom Rogers, Jonathan Lipman, and Howard Hudson) are all excellent, even given the obvious budgetary constraints, and somewhere backstage there are nine musicians and a conductor giving us the full original orchestrations – which, OK, were conceived for a small theatre, but Playwrights Horizons has considerably more money to play with than the Southwark Playhouse. Not only that, the conductor and the musicians were brought onstage and given a bow at the curtain call. This is a good production of a difficult show, but in an age when bands in musical theatre are routinely getting smaller, it’s genuinely surprising to see a tiny theatre with a shoestring budget find a way to engage and pay for this number of musicians. It’s not as if any of London’s theatre critics would have batted an eyelid – or in most cases, even noticed – if the band had been cut from nine to four or five. In this theatre, clearly, the music is considered to be as important as anything else onstage. In musical theatre, that shouldn’t be unusual, but these days it often is.

Which brings us to The Girls, the new musical adaptation of Calendar Girls by Gary Barlow and the film’s screenwriter Tim Firth. This isn’t, actually, a case of good show/bad show – as I said, I liked it very much. In terms of the way it’s produced, though, it’s the polar opposite of this production of Grey Gardens. It’s a big show, trying out in a big theatre (the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre seats 1750 – that’s seven times as many patrons per performance as will fit in the Southwark Playhouse), and it’s obviously aimed squarely at the West End and the touring circuit, where it’s likely (if the ecstatic audience response at last Wednesday’s matinee is anything to go by) to be a substantial hit.

It’s easy to be cynical about stage musicals based on popular movies (as opposed to musicals like Grey Gardens, whose source film is rather more esoteric) – particularly if you happen to have sat through shows like Legally Blonde or Ghost, in which it’s almost impossible to discern any artistic impulse behind the decision to put the thing up on a stage. Indeed, it’s not as if Gary Barlow himself doesn’t have form when it comes to pointless stage musical adaptations of recent-ish films; on the evidence of the cast recording, his score for Finding Neverland is polished, professional, and more or less completely devoid of human feeling – a solid-but-uninspired by-the-numbers songwriting job by a hired hand, but no more than that (interestingly, the earlier – and in terms of the score, much better – version of the show that played in England in October 2012 had a score by Frankel and Korie, who were replaced because the show’s producer apparently prefers vapid-but-bouncy pop hits to writing with actual depth).

This time, though, Barlow seems to have found a connection with the material that eluded him on his first stage assignment. Of course this is a plot that is always going to push your emotional buttons – we all know people who have been through cancer, we all know people who have died too young, and we’ve all experienced bereavement – but Firth and Barlow, here, have managed to turn the material into a genuine emotional rollercoaster. Firth’s screenplay was full of quiet humour, but it treated the film’s emotional core with almost too much restraint, as if he was (understandably) afraid of treading on the toes of the (very) real people whose story he was writing. The musical, on the other hand, goes for big laughs and big emotions, and succeeds on both levels. It might be manipulative, it might be obvious, but it works. You’ll laugh (a lot), you’ll cry, you’ll walk out of the theatre with Yorkshire (the opening number, reprised at the curtain call) rolling around in your head… and it’ll be lodged between your ears for days. As a songwriter, Barlow is not without faults, and I still think he sings like a potato, but he certainly knows how to write a catchy tune.

And actually, in this case, that’s selling him short. There’s no shortage of catchy tunes in this show – you’ll also probably be humming ‘Dare’ and ‘Who Wants a Silent Night?’ on your way home – but the heart of the show lies in the songs for Annie, the widow whose bereavement sets the plot in motion, and her best friend Chris. Joanna Riding’s Annie is given two lovely, moving ballads, one in each act: ‘Scarborough’, in which Annie contemplates all the little things in her life that will change after her husband dies, and ‘Kilimanjaro’, about the sheer physical effort of coping with grief. Equally good is the radiant ‘Sunflower’, sung by Claire Moore’s Chris – a bright, upbeat song about finding joy in unexpected places, and while it’s upbeat, it packs a surprising emotional punch. Perhaps it’s Firth’s influence – he and Barlow are jointly responsible for the show’s book, music and lyrics – but there’s more feeling in this score than in pretty much everything Barlow has released in at least the past decade, put together.

It helps, too, that Firth (and presumably Barlow) have made (mostly) smart choices in adapting Firth’s original screenplay. The film’s (weak) final act, which mostly took place in Los Angeles, is gone, though a couple of conversations from it show up earlier in act two, and so is most of the section dealing with the British media furore that followed the release of the calendar (we’ve all seen the film fifty thousand times, it’s not like I need to fill in the plot here). Instead, this is simply the story of a woman losing her husband, and how her loss prompts her friends to try to raise money for charity in his memory. The teenage subplot has been significantly rewritten, and is all the better for it, and the photo session for the calendar, in this version, is a brilliant extended set-piece rather than the series of (more or less) sketches we saw in the film. Throw in a superb cast – Riding and Moore, in the leads, are as good as they’ve ever been, and there’s wonderful support from the ensemble, including standout turns from Sara Kestelman, Claire Machin, Vivien Parry and James Gaddas – plus confident direction from Firth and Roger Haines and clever sets and costumes by Robert Jones, and you have all the makings of a bomb-proof, copper-bottomed, big fat smash hit. It’s that comparatively rare thing: a stage musical adapted from a film that is actually better than the film it’s based on.

The realities of commercial theatre in 2016 are a little depressing, though. This show has 20-odd actors onstage. It has a terrific, incredibly inventive set in which higgledy-piggledy stacks of green wooden cabinets are arranged to form the hillsides of the Yorkshire Dales. There’s a van onstage, there are about fifty thousand sunflowers in the finale, there’s gorgeous, evocative lighting by Tim Lutkin and funny, perfectly-in-keeping musical staging by Stephen Mear… and the Southwark Playhouse’s Grey Gardens had more musicians on the payroll than this does. Barlow’s score, true, is at the pop end of the musical theatre canon – but with only eight musicians in the pit, in Richard Beadle’s orchestrations, the band sounds thin. I’m not suggesting it needs an orchestra of thirty, but it does need woodwinds as well as a synthesiser, a brass section with more than one person in it (particularly since it’s set in Yorkshire), and a couple more strings. As it stands, the show doesn’t look cheap, but it sounds it, and this material deserves better. When everything else is so good, it’s a pity to see the show get short-changed by the lack of resources in the pit – but unfortunately these days the band is the first thing that gets cut back, because producers assume audiences don’t know the difference. Sorry, guys – some of us do. And I’m afraid when a fringe production staged on a budget of about £3.99 employs and pays more musicians than a big would-be blockbuster that is more or less certain to be a huge hit once it rolls into London, it’s a sign that commercial producers, in terms of music at least, are no longer interested in quality.

On the bright side, maybe there’ll be additional musicians on the cast recording. The producers will only have to pay them once.