(Lower) East Side Story

rags

The original Broadway production of Rags in 1986 was a notorious flop, running for just four performances. Despite the short run, it received five Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Original Score, and cast member Judy Kuhn gave a memorably fiery performance of the title song on the Tony Awards telecast the following year; a recording was released in 1991 featuring most of the original Broadway cast, with Julia Migenes standing in for original star Teresa Stratas, and that recording is the reason people keep going back to the show to try and make it work. Rags has book problems – even now, after umpteen rewrites, Rags has book problems – but the score as represented on that recording includes the best music Charles Strouse has written for the theatre (‘Blame It On the Summer Night’ might very well be the single best song he has ever written for anything, and it’s certainly among the best individual songs written for Broadway in the past fifty years), and some of Stephen Schwartz‘s most moving lyrics. This show’s music is a potent blend of Broadway, jazz, klezmer and opera, and it’s often magnificent; the structure surrounding it, unfortunately, has never quite lived up to the power of that score.

The show is essentially a kind of sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, which also has a book by Joseph Stein. The plot follows immigrants as they arrive in New York in 1910(ish) and try to establish themselves as new Americans living in tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In all versions of the show – and there are many different versions of this show – the central figure is Rebecca Hershkowitz, a woman fleeing Russia with her young son David. Reading the Broadway production’s reviews, it’s clear there were too many subplots surrounding her; this rewrite, with a new book by David Thompson (Joseph Stein having died in 2010), premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2017, and it does a reasonably good job of paring back the show’s various plot strands into a reasonably coherent narrative that is driven by Rebecca’s struggle to build a life in New York for herself and her son. Alongside this new book, though, Strouse and Schwartz have taken scissors to their score, and unfortunately the result is not an improvement. A certain amount of this music’s grandeur has been lost – and that’s allowing for the fact that in a chamber production like this one you’re never going to get Michael Starobin‘s magnificent original orchestrations – and some songs have been cut up/split/re-sequenced in ways that don’t completely make musical sense. Granted, this may be less of a problem if you’re less familiar with that 1991 recording than I am; even so, it seems a strange choice to make when the score has always been the piece’s biggest asset.

This production, at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, makes a very strong case for the material, though, and director Bronagh Lagan redeems herself here for her abysmal revival of Promises, Promises at the Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago, which was so bad that her name on the credits almost stopped me from buying a ticket for this. There’s a real sense of community among the cast, Gregor Donnelly’s set somehow makes stacks of suitcases resemble the Lower East Side tenement blocks around which most of the plot takes place, the band (four musicians backstage augmented by four actor-musicians among the ensemble) sounds terrific, and Rebecca Trehearn is giving an absolutely luminous performance as Rebecca. No, she doesn’t have the kind of huge operatic voice you hear in Julia Migenes’s performance on the recording (and that audiences at the original Broadway production must have heard from Theresa Stratas), but she’s a glorious singer and an honest actor, and her rendition of Rebecca’s big anthem ‘Children of the Wind’ at the climax of the second act is very moving indeed.

There’s an excellent ensemble surrounding her, with particularly memorable work from Lydia White as Bella, the young woman Rebecca befriends on the boat to America, from Valda Aviks as a shrewd but charming widow with her eyes on Bella’s father, and from Robert Tripolino as Sal, an Italian union organiser. The choral singing is terrific, particularly in the complex, syncopated ‘Greenhorns’ near the top of the show and the reprise of ‘Children of the Wind’ in the finale. Everybody does their best with the dialogue, and the book – yes, even in this newly-revised version – lets everybody down. Inevitably given the way the show has been chopped and changed so much over the years, we don’t have a cast of characters here so much as a parade of stereotypes. It’s been refashioned from an ensemble piece into what more or less amounts to a vehicle for the actor playing Rebecca, but Thompson doesn’t give her enough to play with. We know she escaped a pogrom, that her husband is dead (that’s a rewrite, and a smart one; her husband was a significant – and obnoxious – character in the original version of the show, and her backstory works better if she’s a widow), that she’s a decent woman and a good mother,  that she can sew, and that arriving in America gives her a push towards a far more independent lifestyle than she’d imagined for herself in Russia… and that’s more or less it, and it’s a story that’s been told many times before, usually more compellingly than it is in Thompson’s book.

Some significant musical material has been cut, too, including a late-in-act-two aria called ‘Dancing With the Fools’; that cut in particular robs Rebecca of a certain amount of depth, although Trehearn somewhat manages to paper over the cracks. Songs are cut up and split apart in ways that are baffling if you know the score from the recording; we hear, for example, the verse of ‘Children of the Wind’ a full act and a half before we hear the (beautiful) refrain. Characters have been cut, new characters have been introduced, and some musical material has been switched between characters, not always to good effect; it makes theatrical sense to turn the title song into the Act One finale, but since this version of the show is Rebecca’s story rather than Bella’s, the song is made into a duet between Rebecca and Bella rather than a solo for Bella. That might not be a problem if the lyrics had been completely rewritten, but they haven’t been, and the song – a howl of rage at having travelled across an ocean to live in poverty in a slum – does not entirely fit the character Trehearn has established by that point in the show, although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her performance of it. The main portion of the song sounds like the kind of outburst that would come from a much younger woman, probably one who isn’t a mother – which of course fits the character it was originally written for. In the original version of the song, Bella’s father tries to talk her down; here, those lines are given to Bella, and arguments written from the perspective of a middle-aged father just sound plain unconvincing coming from a late-teenage girl. The (re)writing in that section of the show significantly undercuts both the performers and the song; it’s still a powerful moment, but – like a lot of the show – it would be so much more powerful if the lyrics consistently sounded as if they were written for the character(s) singing them.

Having said that, it’s worth seeing. This is not a show that’s going to be done often in the UK, and even though this production messes with the score in ways that don’t improve it, the best moments are certainly memorable, and while Bronagh Lagan doesn’t completely solve every problem in the writing, this is a strong production of difficult material, and it’s wonderful to see a regional fringe theatre take this material on and do such a loving job with it.

There are, however, a couple of things Hope Mill could (still) learn about the audience experience. Now, yes, I booked for the first preview, and first previews happen after a rush of activity that is sometimes difficult to complete within the allotted time. The show I saw was in excellent shape and you’d never have guessed it was the first public performance. HOWEVER, the performance ended up beginning thirty minutes late, and I’m afraid that demonstrates a certain disdain for the audience. This is Greater Manchester, not London; the transport system here shuts down earlier than you might expect (and certainly earlier than it should), and that’s even more the case the further you go from the city centre. For me, that thirty-minute delay was the difference between being able to get all the way home by tram/bus and having to use a taxi for the last part of the journey. The cost of the taxi won’t break me, but it’s money that needn’t have been wasted; there was an apology from the director at the top of the show, but it was sufficiently vague that it did nothing to dispel the suspicion that this production’s creative team consider themselves more important than their audience, which is exactly the wrong way around. Stay later the night before, show up earlier on the day, but fix your problems on YOUR time, not mine, and don’t waste my money because you failed to meet a deadline.

And when you advertise that your lobby/cafe/bar will be open from ninety minutes before showtime for drinks/coffee/light meals/whatever, it is unacceptably rude to keep customers who show up at the opening time you’ve advertised on your website and on the tickets waiting outside the door for twenty minutes because the director and her creative team haven’t got their shit together. That, again, suggests an attitude towards customers that is somewhere between disdain and contempt, particularly since at this theatre’s location there is nowhere else to go. Hope Mill, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful facility, and a real asset to Manchester’s cultural scene – but the arrogance with which they treated patrons last Saturday night isn’t a good look for them. The work they present is fascinating; their manners, unfortunately, seem to leave a great deal to be desired.

 

hope mill

 

 

Revolting Children

matilda palace manchester

They aren’t, of course, whatever the song says. The kids in this touring production of the RSC’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda are all perfectly delightful. I’d tell you their names but I left my programme on the tram, so that’s £4.00 I’ll never get back. They’re listed on the website, of course, but there are multiple kids cast for each of the leading roles and the website doesn’t include photos next to their bios. There are currently six kids listed as playing Matilda; the one I saw at the matinee on November 21st (I’ve been busy, deal with it) was great (so were the kids in all the other roles), but I don’t know what she’s called. That’s showbiz, kid.

The show itself is what it is, and this touring iteration of the original Stratford/London production isn’t going to change anybody’s mind. I love it, but there seems, here and there, to be a perception that it’s a show for small children, and it really isn’t. It’s a grown-up musical in which the leading role is played by a child. Miss Trunchbull, in particular, is genuinely scary, and Tim Minchin’s score makes very few concessions to the younger members of the audience. The words come thick and fast, and the moments where Minchin goes for the deeper emotional undercurrents behind the story – as in the glorious When I Grow Up, which has always been the best thing in the show – are likely to go over the heads of the youngest members of the audience, despite the bravura staging.

Matthew Warchus’s production is (still) magnificently inventive, there are lovely performances in all the adult roles – particularly Carly Thoms as an especially sweet Miss Honey and Craige Els as the evil Miss Trunchbull – and it’s nice to see a touring production that isn’t in any way cut down for the provinces, even if tickets are priced at the far edge of what provincial markets will bear (during the Manchester run some prices for midweek performances dropped significantly, and the theatre still wasn’t anywhere near full at the performance I saw). As touring productions go, this is up there with the best – but I can’t help but wince when ticket prices in Manchester are pushing £80 for premium seats, particularly in the context of an economy in which vast swathes of the workforce haven’t seen a meaningful pay increase in a decade. These prices push decent seats beyond the reach of a lot of people; ticket prices, over the last several years, have risen way faster than inflation, and costs, even in the theatre, have not shot up at the same rate. It’s show business, yes, but the number of empty seats suggests that these producers need a different business plan.

Runyonland, uptown

rx gd4

I have a (very) short list of musicals I think, as writing, are just about perfect, and Guys and Dolls is very close to the top of that list. It’s a glorious American classic, one of the shining jewels of Broadway’s golden age, and it works beautifully. It doesn’t need anybody messing with it.

This production – a co-production between Manchester’s Royal Exchange and the Talawa Theatre Company – messes with it. The setting is booted 90-odd blocks uptown from Times Square to Harlem, the score gets a swinging Harlem Renaissance makeover from (re)orchestrator Simon Hale, and A Bushel and a Peck – one of the show’s most famous numbers – is dropped and replaced (as it was in the film) with a lesser (Loesser?)-known song called Pet Me, Poppa. This is the point where the purists start swooning onto their fainting-couches; swoon if you like, but while I wouldn’t want to see most (or really, any) of these changes in a more traditional revival, the result is more or less a complete triumph.

Because of Talawa’s involvement, some kind of reexamination of the piece was inevitable. This isn’t the first production of Guys and Dolls with an all-black cast, but it’s the first in the UK. The (relatively slight) shift in setting (and, let’s be fair, the nine-piece band imposed by a relatively small budget) mean it makes sense to arrange the score for a jazz band, so bye-bye strings. In a nightclub in Harlem, Pet Me, Poppa perhaps makes a little more sense than a quasi-striptease performed by a gaggle of “farmgirls”. And the venue itself imposes a certain performance style; the Royal Exchange is completely in the round, with the audience placed very close to the actors, so the frenzied, (much) larger-than-life comic tone adopted by (to give an example I actually saw) Jerry Zaks’s 1992 Broadway revival isn’t going to do the material any favours here.

rx gd5

That’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned: this is a show that works best when it’s about people rather than schtick. Under Michael Buffong’s tremendously subtle direction (‘tremendously subtle’ is not a description you always get to apply to revivals of this particular show), we’re allowed to see more than just a parade of archetypes – and yes, I know there’s more than just a parade of archetypes on the page, but depending on a director’s choices that’s sometimes all you get in the theatre. Here, the romance between Ashley Zhangazha’s Sky Masterson and Abiona Omuna’s Sarah Brown is as lovely as it’s ever been – he’s genuinely surprised by how hard he falls for her, she’s whip-smart and absolutely sure of herself, and the moment they first melt – in a gently swinging I’ve Never Been In Love Before at the climax of the first act – is very touching indeed. Ray Fearon’s Nathan Detroit is a heavy with a heart of gold, and there’s a wonderful warmth between him and Lucy Vandi’s sweetly rueful Adelaide. Of all the principals, Vandi probably strays furthest from the mould in which her role is usually cast; her Adelaide’s Lament is a bittersweet, humorously reflective character solo rather than a comedic tour-de-force, and it’s an interpretation that you’d think really shouldn’t work – but it does, and she’s wonderful, and her fabulous rendition of Pet Me, Poppa just about blows the roof off the joint.

There are gains and losses, of course – the laughs (and this applies right across the cast) are all there, but they’re maybe not as big as they have been in other revivals of the show – but Buffong and his cast offer a startlingly fresh look at very familiar material; if you’re willing to submit to a reading of the show that isn’t what you’ll have been expecting, there’s a great deal to enjoy here. There’s muscular choreography from Kenrick Sandy (Luck Be a Lady is as big a showstopper here as it’s ever been), riotously colourful costumes from designer Soutra Gilmour, evocative lighting from Johanna Town. The singing is splendid right across the board, the supporting performances are flawless, Ako Mitchell sings the hell out of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat, and Buffong – thank God – lets the song stop the show, but then doesn’t milk it by subjecting the audience to 37,000 encores of the last 16 bars (yes, I still bear the residual scars from the National Theatre revival, in which Clive Rowe flogged the dead horse to a degree that makes the Brexit negotiation process look imprudently brief). This is as good a Christmas show as you’ll see this year, and probably as good a revival of Guys and Dolls as you’ll see anywhere; it’s different, yes, but for this production Buffong’s approach pays dividends. These are clichés, but they’re all true: it’s a joy from beginning to end, it will sweep you away, and you’ll leave the theatre walking on air.

And it’s a crying shame productions from the Royal Exchange don’t generally get cast recordings, because have I mentioned already that Lucy Vandi is fabulous?

 

 

Slave to the rhythm

cotton panic

In the centre of Manchester, there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It looks random, but it isn’t; engraved on the pedestal are excerpts from a letter Lincoln wrote to to the cotton workers of Manchester in 1863 thanking them for their solidarity during the Union blockade in the American Civil War. Manchester, like much of the north, developed very rapidly during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and cotton was the main local industry; when the Union blockaded the Confederate ports, the supply of cotton to Lancashire’s mills dried up, and millworkers whose living conditions were barely adequate to begin with suddenly found themselves living in desperate poverty – and yet at a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1862, cotton workers gave their support to the blockade, and to Lincoln’s drive to end slavery.

That’s a (very) simplified version, obviously, but it’s a chapter of history that has been half-forgotten, and perhaps shouldn’t be. Cotton Panic is Jane Horrocks‘s tribute to those cotton workers, and it’s the kind of production that could probably only exist as part of something like the Manchester International Festival. Presented – because of course it’s the obvious choice – as a music gig rather than a more formal theatrical performance, incorporating some period folk songs, a couple of recognisable minor pop classics, and Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, all glued together by industrial/electronic music from Stephen Mallinder‘s band Wrangler, the show is a breathless, sometimes breathtaking, deeply idiosyncratic theatrical collage. It really shouldn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, but sometimes it’s thrilling.

With anyone other than Horrocks at the centre, the performance might very well collapse. Despite the rich potential of the historical source, in one sense the writing here (shared between Horrocks, her partner Nick Vivian, and the three members of Wrangler) is thin. The most powerful passages are excerpts from period texts – accounts of the horrible conditions endured by the destitute cotton workers during the famine (movingly read by Glenda Jackson, and delivered via three large projection screens), the letter from the Free Trade Hall, the response from Lincoln, a speech by Frederick Douglass (played, again on video, by Fiston Barek, who should be credited for this reading in the programme and isn’t). Some of the linking material is less persuasive, and the idea of writing the opening narration in twee rhyming couplets should really have been dropped in the first draft – although perhaps this is the first draft, because at times it plays like one.

Sit down and analyse the performance, actually, and it becomes very easy indeed to pick holes. A lot of it has the air of the kind of very, very precious devised piece you’d see created by undergraduates as an end-of-term project. It’s politically simplistic – we really don’t need the tacked-on epilogue drawing parallels to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter protests, that’s a link we’re all capable of making for ourselves – and sometimes far too pretentious, as in the sequence where Horrocks, behind a screen, sings Strange Fruit through some kind of synthetic processed effect to an electro/industrial backing. You can see what they’re trying to do, but it might have been more theatrically effective to let the (astonishing, devastating) lyrics speak for themselves. Worse, in that sequence, is the use of the projected faces of black actors – credited only in tiny, difficult-to-read print in the amateurish-looking programme distributed after the performance – as little more than set-dressing. To use a series of images of silent black faces during a sequence in which a white woman sings a song that is powerfully associated with black performers – a song that, moreover, describes and responds to the cruellest, most vicious form of racism – sends a complicated message, and perhaps not precisely the one the show’s creators intended.

But having said all that, the performance is absolutely compelling, and that’s mostly thanks to Horrocks. She’s always been a somewhat eccentric performer, and – unlike some actors – she’s never been afraid of the big gesture, and those two qualities serve her very well indeed here. She performs  – ‘acting’ isn’t always quite the right word – with absolute conviction, whether she’s giving us a tour through the noise and heat of a pre-1860 cotton mill, playing a destitute millworker begging from the audience, intoning Grace Jones’s Slave To The Rhythm with the doomed air of Claudia Brücken circa 1985, or belting out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She’s sometimes joined by dancer Lorena Randi, who offers a kind of Jed Hoile to Horrocks’s Howard Jones, bringing us closer to the tribulations of Lancashire’s millworkers via the interpretive medium of clog-dancing. It’s a combination that teeters right on the edge of the most gruesomely self-indulgent kind of self-parody, but they always stop just short of crossing the line. Despite the perfectly-appropriate almost wall-to-wall music from Wrangler, who stand dourly behind a projection screen at the back of the stage, Horrocks’s voice is the lynchpin holding everything together. It’s an unusually pliable instrument – she can sing just about anything convincingly, she can place her voice anywhere between a pitiful whisper and an exultant roar, and that voice, when she wants it to, lends her an authority which is somewhat at odds with her rather slight physical presence. For all that some elements of this production are misguided, you can’t take your eyes off her.

The result, frustrating as it can sometimes be, is utterly sui generis and surprisingly moving. The historical texts are well-chosen and extremely effective, Chris Turner’s ‘visuals’ – that’s the word they use in the programme, and they mostly mean projections – provide a thoughtful, sometimes spectacular counterpoint to the live performers, and the show more than holds your attention throughout the 70-minute running time. You may find yourself contemplating a more traditional theatrical treatment of the events Horrocks portrays here – it’s a rich seam of material, and this chapter of local history, as I said, has been all but forgotten – but even if parts of it could have been thought through a little more clearly, there’s a lot to admire. Cotton Panic takes big risks, and not all of them pay off, but enough works that it’s a memorable experience. MIF’s productions, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be hit and miss, and sometimes really miss. As off-the-wall, even misguided, as some of this event is, it’s saved and indeed elevated by Horrocks’s blazing sincerity. It’s obvious from the moment she walks onstage that she feels a deep connection to this material, she carries the show, and her performance makes it worth looking past the production’s occasional missteps.  I can’t say the production is an absolute triumph, and parts of it are completely bonkers, but it isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year – and that’s exactly what festivals like MIF are for.

 

 

 

Hit and MIF

fatherland

Or, good news/bad news. Fatherland, one of the major productions at this year’s Manchester International Festival, is beautifully staged and performed and often quite moving. Constructed by Scott Graham, Karl Hyde, and Simon Stephens out of a series of interviews they conducted in their hometowns (respectively, Corby, Kidderminster, and Stockport), Fatherland contains some compelling oral histories, and offers a fascinating (albeit necessarily limited) examination of fatherhood and masculinity in a country that has gone through enormous social changes over the last half-century. Hyde’s musical settings of reported speech are tremendously effective, Eddie Kay’s choreography finds a sometimes strikingly beautiful physicality in the everyday movements of ordinary men, and the performances are impeccable.

And as a piece of theatre, taken as a whole, it simply doesn’t work.

The problem, unfortunately, is the three authors – literally, because instead of letting their interview subjects stand on their own, they insert themselves into the text of their own play, interrogating their own motives in intermittent exchanges with a reluctant interviewee. There’s no nice way to say it: this framing conceit is toe-curlingly self-indulgent. You can tell the way it’s going to go from about a minute into the show, when the actor playing Stephens smiles diffidently when the actor playing the interviewee says he hasn’t seen Curious Incident, Stephens’s biggest hit, and it’s downhill from there. The result is a performance that is roughly sixty percent fascinating-analysis-of-contemporary-masculinity to forty percent tedious-preoccupation-with-the-authors’-own-navels. The good stuff is genuinely wonderful, but you know that in a couple of minutes your eyes will start rolling upwards again.

Possibly it might have helped if I hadn’t seen Working last week. That show, too, is drawn almost entirely from interviews – or rather, from a book of interviews – but the stage adaptation’s (several) authors and composers leave themselves out of the picture, and let their subjects speak for themselves. The result – perhaps predictably – is that you don’t walk out of the theatre feeling like the show’s creators have just spent a big chunk of the last hour-and-a-half (both shows are intermissionless one-acts running around 90 minutes) masturbating all over the stage. Working, for me, succeeded as theatre; Fatherland, unfortunately, did not, even though a lot of it is very good indeed. Working also managed to employ a live band, despite being produced in a much smaller theatre; here, the music is prerecorded – no musicians are credited in the programme – and in live theatre, making actors sing to prerecorded backing tracks is unacceptable.

The absence of live musicians aside, the problem, simply, is that the stories from the interviews in Fatherland are all – all – more interesting than the dreary navel-gazing of the piece’s three very, very smug creators. There’s the devastating story of a man growing up during World War Two whose homelife was so horrific that his escape was to sit on a hill watching Birmingham burn during air raids, an oil worker with a violent past and a hair-trigger temper talking about his instinct to protect his young daughter, stories about men trying to either emulate or transcend their own fathers, quiet expressions of love from men to whom such things do not come easily. All of this is done exceptionally well – but all of it is undercut every time the focus shifts back to the authors themselves.

That, though, is the deal when you book to see shows like this at events like this: festivals like MIF are a place to experiment. Sometimes the results are glorious, as in the late Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang, and sometimes you find yourself watching something that’s an abject failure on almost every level, like 2015’s wonder.land. There’s a sincere impulse behind Fatherland, and that’s to be respected; it’s just a pity that the resulting show is so frustratingly intent on shooting itself in the foot.