Fidgety Feet

dominion american in paris

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.
  • 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.