Party like it’s 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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Illyria, W11

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Take one Shakespeare comedy. Fillet out most of the poetry, throw in an eclectic set of songs by Shaina Taub, add a brightly-coloured Notting Hill streetscape (by Rob Jones), a thirty-member community chorus, a fabulous set of singing voices from the leading actors, a great big tap number for Malvolio, chicken-and-pepper canapés, confetti guns, and a white van, and you get… this. A triumphant, joyous, thoroughly entertaining show that puts a smile on your face before the lights go down and keeps it there until long after you’ve left the theatre.

I suppose you could justifiably criticise it for being Shakespeare-lite, but it’s so much fun that to do so would be churlish. Slimming the text down to an hour and forty minutes (no interval) and making room for Taub’s wonderful score means you’ll be disappointed if you came to hear Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s not as if you’ll have to wait more than about ten minutes before somebody else does Twelfth Night, so get over it. The plot – I don’t need to run through it here, do I? – is entirely present and correct, but delivered at a run, the better to make room for those songs. There’s a shipwreck, mistaken identity, pranks, parallel love stories and all the rest of it, but not the undercurrent of grief that can underpin less sunny interpretations of the text. Purists might hyperventilate; everybody else will be too busy having a good time.

What’s surprising here is how well Kwame Kwei-Armah and Taub’s adaptation, which premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 2016 (and was produced there again this past summer) in a production that evoked New Orleans, adapts to London, where it arrives as Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first production as artistic director of the Young Vic. Taub’s score, which cleverly blends soul, R&B, pop, and golden-age-of-Broadway pastiche into a kind of theatrical tossed salad, sits very well indeed in present-day Notting Hill, and the area’s colourful streetscapes are beautifully recreated by Rob Jones on the Young Vic’s wide stage. It’s a joy to see the community chorus, whose members range from teenagers to people who – let’s put this delicately – have clearly had their bus pass for some time – kicking up their heels dancing Lizzi Gee’s artfully artless choreography and obviously having the time of their lives, and you can’t see the join between the ensemble and the (Equity) principal cast.

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That’s high praise, because the principal performances are faultless. Gabrielle Brooks is a fine, feisty Viola. Natalie Dew brings a lovely sweetness to Olivia, and her duet with Brooks is splendidly sung. Gerard Carey’s Malvolio is a comic tour-de-force wrapped in yellow lycra. Melissa Allen’s Feste combines a thrilling voice with drop-dead timing. Everybody is funny, the singing is gorgeous, the cast and chorus obviously love both each other and the material, and by the time the various revelations and weddings roll around in the final scene you’ll be experiencing as pure a theatrical high as you’ll get this year.

Simply, this show works. You lose, as I said, a lot of Shakespeare’s poetry, but it’s a fair exchange: this is a glorious, joyful celebration of theatre, of music, of diversity, of London. As an opening production from Kwame Kwei-Armah, it’s quite a calling card. Set against the increasingly nasty divisiveness in this country’s political discourse, particularly surrounding multiculturalism, it’s also a very definite (and very welcome) statement: a celebration of what is great about modern Britain at a time when we see far too many reminders of what isn’t, in which Kwei-Armah and his cast remind us that diversity and inclusiveness are strengths without ever delivering a lecture. The message is there if you look for it, but nobody ever preaches – which is as it should be when the message is something that really should go without saying.

 

 

 

 

 

Phone rings, door chimes, in comes Rosalie…

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It works.

If, like me, you had big doubts about whether a revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth‘s seminal 1970 musical Company set in the present day and with the central character’s gender flipped from male to female was a viable idea, let go of them. To say Marianne Elliott‘s extraordinary production – and bear in mind that this is a show I know backwards, forwards, and inside-out, and I’m picky – succeeds triumphantly might be the understatement of the year. Well, the theatrical understatement of the year, anyway, because “Boris Johnson is a morally and intellectually bankrupt attention whore who is motivated only by his own pathetically naked ambition to be Prime Minister” is a given. It’s not simply that Elliott has done a superlative job of staging the show, or that she’s assembled an unimpeachable cast, although she’s done both. Somehow, with the help of a very light sprinkling of new lyrics from Mr. Sondheim and almost no changes to George Furth’s dialogue, she’s managed to take a show that these days feels like a period piece (and frankly only really works when you set it in 1970), relocate it firmly in the present, and make it seem absolutely up-to-date and absolutely fresh, even to someone (well, me) who is very familiar indeed with the material. And on top of that, it’s probably as funny a production of the show as you’re ever likely to see.

So what has changed? Other than the gender of five characters, not as much as you’d expect. Company is an episodic piece, a musical constructed by Sondheim, Furth, and director Harold Prince around a series of vignettes about marriage written by Furth, in which a 35-year-old single man looks at the lives of his friends and tries to decide whether he’s ready for a committed one-on-one relationship. Structurally, it’s (mostly) a series of self-contained sketches linked by songs, rather than a traditional linear narrative (it is, however, neither “plotless” nor “formless“, as misguided theatre critics have sometimes described it). That makes it easier for Elliott to flip the genders of a few characters, since each scene is relatively self-contained; each vignette shows the central character – Bobbie here, not Robert – interacting with either one couple or one romantic partner – which means that changing one of the couples into a gay couple and Bobby/ie’s three girlfriends into boyfriends has no knock-on effect in the surrounding scenes. Sondheim has rewritten the lyrics for Someone Is Waiting so that Bobbie ticks off the names of the husbands among her married friends rather than the wives, and there are a few small changes in the breathless, breathtaking pre-wedding-jitters patter song Getting Married Today, particularly among the lines for the church soloist. We’re in the present, not 1970, so in Another Hundred People “my service will explain” is now “I’ll text you to explain”. With two of the married couples among Bobbie’s friends – Jenny and David, Peter and Susan – the dialogue has been flipped between the wife and the husband, so that the women take the stronger role in the conversation with Bobbie. A (very) few lines have been tweaked elsewhere; very, very little of Furth’s dialogue has been changed (he’s unavailable for rewrites, having died in 2008), and with the exception of Someone is Waiting and a prominent joke in Barcelona,  that’s also true of the lyrics. There are a few adjustments here and there, but this is not a wholesale rewrite.

We’re starting from the mid-90s revised text, so Joanne doesn’t get to say “everybody else here is just Lois and Larry Loser” in the opening scene; the production keeps Marry Me a Little, which this edition of the script rather awkwardly shoehorns in at the end of the first act, but (mercifully) drops the second-act scene in which one of the husbands makes a gay pass at Robert, which has never worked in any production I’ve seen that included it. There are new orchestrations by David Cullen (for a band of 14, positioned on a bridge high above the stage) which iron the very-early-1970s Bacharach-and-David-with-a-master’s-degree sound of the Jonathan Tunick originals out of the score. That’s a loss; the original orchestrations are terrific, and far more distinctive than Cullen’s work here, but they’d jar in a production set in the present. All things considered, given that the production switches the gender of five characters, there is astonishingly little rewriting. Any number of musical revivals have put an established text through more revision to less effect, even if they haven’t gone as far as changing the gender of any characters; very few of them have matched Elliott’s achievement here, in terms of making us see very familiar material from a completely different perspective.

It’s not just Elliott’s achievement, of course, because she’s pulled a set of magnificent performances out of her cast. The karate scene – or rather, jujitsu in this production –  has probably never been funnier than it is in the hands of Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes; you might be most familiar with Giedroyc from her work as a TV presenter (with or without Sue Perkins), but she’s a formidable comic actor with spectacular timing,  she knows her way around a pratfall, and at one point she manages to make a three-act play out of the word “manicotti”. Spokes is just as funny, and then brings a lovely melancholic ambivalence to Sorry-Grateful at the end of the scene. Can Mel Giedroyc sing? Well, nobody is going to be pestering her to record a Giedroyc Sings Gershwin album, but her character doesn’t have a solo number and she more than holds her own among the ensemble, including in the technically-tricky opening number.

Elsewhere there are standout turns from Daisy Maywood as Susan, who finds happiness in her marriage only after she and her husband divorce, and particularly from Alex Gaumond and Jonathan Bailey, the (now) gay couple who marry (offstage) at the end of the first act. Gaumond is sweet without being cloying, and Bailey’s Jamie elevates neurosis to an art form and delivers a tour-de-force performance of Getting Married Today that brings the show to a juddering halt, mostly so the audience can catch their breath because they’ve been laughing so hard – although while Bailey is great, credit here should also go to Daisy Maywood’s pricelessly-funny, sung-to-the-rafters turn as the church soloist whose soprano commentary links the song’s verses.

Matthew Seadon-Young, George Blagden, and Richard Fleeshman are terrific as the three boyfriends – Theo, PJ, and Andy, taking the place of Kathy, Marta, and April, and their You Could Drive a Person Crazy deservedly brings down the house. Blagden’s PJ is a too-cool-for-school Englishman In New York, and it makes total sense to hear Marta’s lines about Fourteenth Street being the centre (sorry, center) of the universe being delivered by an outsider with all the zeal of the most enthusiastic convert to the religion of New York. Fleeshman’s Andy – a slightly dim, slightly off-beam flight attendant – proves he can be superb when he has good material to play with (Fleeshman was bland in The Last Ship and dreadful in Ghost, and in both cases the writing let him down), and he finds laughs in the butterfly monologue that I’ve never heard before.

And then there are the production’s heavy-hitters: Patti LuPone as Joanne, the acerbic, wealthy, much-married Lady Who Lunches whose proposition pushes Bobbie towards a decision at the show’s climax, and Rosalie Craig as the unmarried woman at the centre of the show. LuPone is a problematic, sometimes too mannered, sometimes very undisciplined performer who can be astonishingly good when she’s on her best behaviour and equally astonishingly self-indulgent when she isn’t; here, she is, and she’s flawless, spitting one-liners with laser-guided accuracy and – for once in her career – singing all the consonants in the lyrics in her numbers instead of steamrollering them into the ground.

Changing Bobbie into a woman also brings a fascinating shift in emphasis to the final section of The Ladies Who Lunch; in other productions, I’ve always felt “here’s to the girls who just watch…” is the point where Joanne moves from picking off targets to self-laceration. Here, that comes a little later, and LuPone’s Joanne is clearly including Bobbie in the “girls who just watch”, which ties neatly in to the later part of the scene where she accuses Bobbie of observing life rather than participating in it. It also slightly changes the emphasis of Being Alive, the Great Big Solo in which Bobby – usually – comes down in favour of a committed relationship. In this interpretation, it’s less about committing to a relationship than about choosing to be open to every possibility instead of watching from the sidelines. The ending of Company, to a greater or lesser extent, always feels like a bit of a cop-out – in most interpretations of the material, Being Alive is a rather more affirmative statement than the character has earned by that point, and the moment of realisation in the previous scene – “but who will I take care of?” – comes out of nowhere. Elliott’s version doesn’t entirely paper over the cracks in that section of the show, but it comes closer than most; seeing Joanne accuse Bobbie of “just watch(ing)” a couple of moments earlier – and seeing Bobbie recognise the accusation – is a minor change, but a valuable one. Another change: this Joanne, perhaps disappointingly, doesn’t make a gay pass at Bobbie, but instead offers to set Bobbie up with her husband (the line is “when are you and Larry gonna make it?”). You might expect the ick factor here to be through the roof, but actually it works: LuPone’s Joanne knows exactly what she’s doing in this scene, and it isn’t trying to set up an affair between her husband and her friend. She’s being deliberately provocative to push Bobbie into making a choice; LuPone is very good indeed on the line “I just did someone a big favour” at the end of the scene. It’s perfectly possible to play Joanne as just a loud, rich broad – plenty of people have – but LuPone (and Elliott) dont’ fall into that trap. LuPone’s Joanne is a lot cleverer than she lets on, even when she’s blind drunk.

Rosalie Craig brings real (and surprising) star presence to the role, makes perfect sense of the revised script’s conception of Bobbie as an independent woman questioning whether she’s ready for commitment, and does a gorgeous job with her songs. She’s great, but she suffers a little from the problem that has plagued nearly every man who has played the role before her: Bobby/ie is the normative figure linking a parade of supporting characters who are all basically colourfully-drawn caricatures and who get most of the show’s best lines. With the single exception of Daniel Evans in a revival at the Crucible a few years ago – a much bleaker take on both the character and the material than this production offers – Craig comes closer than anyone I’ve ever seen to creating a version of the character who doesn’t fade into the background against the supporting cast; that she doesn’t quite get there is attributable more to the writing than to anything she brings to the role. She’s wonderful – but she’s wonderful as a character who sometimes seems to exist as a series of bland feeder-lines, and that’s been a problem in every iteration of Company’s script.

As for Elliott’s staging, it’s full of surprises, and so is Bunny Christie’s set. Neon-edged rooms slide across the stage, recede into the distance, and pop up from the stage floor. People appear seemingly out of nowhere (the clever illusions are by Chris Fisher) and disappear in a split-second when your attention is directed elsewhere (watch out for the church soloist’s second and third appearances in Getting Married Today). Liam Steele’s choreography finds witty substitutions for the iconic moments from the original production – the pat-a-cake “tap-dance” in Side by Side by Side is particularly effective – and the rearranged Tick Tock ballet, a Multiplicity-inspired dream sequence in which multitudes of Bobbies contemplate marriage and motherhood with each of her three potential suitors, works very well indeed, and more than justifies its place in the show (in the original version it’s a solo dance performed by the actress who plays Kathy, and these days it’s often cut). The pace never flags, everybody understands the tone and the rhythm of the show they’re in, and the show – still in previews when I saw it – moves with a confidence that can only come from a director whose grasp of showmanship is as firm as her ability to get to the heart of a scene, or to guide the actors to the biggest laughs. This is a dazzling jewel of a revival, the work of a director, a creative team, and a cast who love the material and know how to get everything they can out of it. There are no caveats here; flipping the gender of the show’s central character was a gamble, but the gamble has more than paid off. Every word, every beat, every second of this production makes the material seem newly-minted, even if – like me – you know the show so well that you remember half the dialogue before the actors do. My only complaint – we’ve established by now that I’m picky, haven’t we? – is that nobody has announced a cast album yet. Or a movie screening. Or a Broadway transfer, because work this good deserves a longer life than twelve weeks in the West End.

And yes, of course I’m going again before it closes. I hadn’t booked a repeat visit before I saw it – as I said, I had doubts – but I have now. If you love this material as much as I do, you’ll need to see this more than once.

One more thing: Patti LuPone provides the taped pre-show announcement about mobile phones and recording devices, and it’s a stroke of genius. It more than winks at her rather combative track record of dealing with interruptions from the audience, and it gets (and deserves) a big laugh. Pay attention… and do as she says, particularly if (like I was) you’re sitting within spitting-range of the stage.

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At Last the 1948 Show

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There are many, many wonderful things about Opera North‘s revived revival of Kiss Me, Kate, but let’s start with the most surprising: unlike the (abundantly talented, and she should have known better) lady who played the role on the most recent Broadway cast recording, Stephanie Corley’s Lilli Vanessi actually sings I Hate Men instead of mugging and shrieking her way through it as if she’s on a mission to grind every last scrap of humour in the song into a bloody, unrecognisable pulp. Not only does she sing it, she sings it beautifully – and it’s very funny, because the scene is very funny, and because nobody is trying so hard to MAKE IT FUNNY that they kill the joke.

As a show, Kiss Me, Kate absolutely reflects what musical comedy was in 1948 (actually it’s at the more sophisticated end of what musical comedy was in 1948): the score might be Cole Porter‘s masterpiece, and Sam and Bella Spewack‘s book creaks a little around the edges these days. The situation – a show-within-a-show spun off from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which the warring relationship between Kate and Petruchio is reflected in the warring relationship between Fred, the actor-manager directing the show and playing Petruchio, and Lilli, the actress playing Kate, who also happens to be Fred’s ex-wife – is full of comic potential, the lines are funny, the characters are real and believable, and it certainly is still playable, as this revival clearly demonstrates. In terms of structure, it is of its time. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I loved it more or less without reservation – but musicals these days move a little more quickly, and no longer have to be structured so that scenes using the full stage are dogmatically alternated with scenes performed “in one” on a reduced playing area in front of a backdrop to allow stagehands the time and space to change the set. The last Broadway revival of the show used a (crassly) rewritten version of the book (by John Guare) whose purpose was at least partly to make the show move from scene to scene in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in the original production. This revival, on the other hand, is essentially a trip straight back to 1948.

That’s not a bad thing. In Jo Davies’s staging, first seen three years ago and revived here by Ed Goggin, the material is given space to breathe. There’s comic business where appropriate – Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin are blissfully funny as the gangsters – but you never get the sense that this cast are being forced at gunpoint to MAKE THEM LAUGH (really, check out the DVD of the London iteration of the last Broadway revival to see a cast of actors playing comedy as if they’re being held hostage). Quirijn de Lang’s Fred has a gorgeous baritone and marvellous timing, Corley’s Lilli is flawless, Alan Burkitt’s Bill Calhoun can tap-dance like a dream, and Zoe Rainey’s Lois Lane effortlessly wrings every last laugh out of Always True To You In My Fashion. The supporting performances are lovely, the chorus singing is beyond reproach, the sets and costumes (Colin Richmond) and lighting (Ben Cracknell) do the job more than well enough given the limitations of a production designed to play in repertory with two or three other shows on tour. And – best of all – there are more than fifty musicians in the pit under the baton of Jim Holmes, who knows how to draw all the wit out of Porter’s dazzling score, and the production is only very lightly miked, so the experience is probably as close as you’re ever going to get at a big musical these days to natural sound. It isn’t LOUD – most musicals these days are LOUD (believe me, I saw this Kiss Me, Kate in the evening after a return visit to Dreamgirls in the afternoon) – and it takes the audience a few minutes to adjust, but then people listened in a way they somehow usually don’t when there’s a sound system turning the volume up to eleven.

Still, though, the fact that this is basically a three-hour trip back to 1948 means it may not be for everyone. As I said, these days new musicals move more quickly. If you’re not prepared to adjust to the (lack of) volume the show may seem a little remote. And in this particular property, as in the Shakespeare play it’s based on, there’s a certain amount of built-in sexism that audiences are far more sensitive to today than they were seventy years ago. Look in the usual places online and you’ll find comments from people disappointed that this production didn’t push the comedy far enough, that it wasn’t loud enough, that the pace was too slow, that the sets weren’t elaborate enough. Depending on your yardsticks, those are not necessarily unreasonable criticisms – there’s no question that a production conceived directly for the West End would have looked and sounded quite different. For those of us prepared to meet this production on its own terms, though, it’s, well, Wunderbar.

 

The zoo is up, Madame Tussauds is down

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If you live in the UK, it takes a certain optimism to book months in advance for a show in an open-air theatre, even if the performance date is just a couple of days after the longest day of the year. “Summer” here is sometimes more of an abstract concept; if you don’t live in London and can’t book at the last minute, you roll the dice then spend the week before the show nervously looking at the weather forecast.

I caught the tail-end of our “heatwave”, actually – people who live in places where there are genuinely hot summers, stop giggling – so I didn’t get the full Open Air Theatre experience. You know, sitting hunched up in a cheap plastic rain poncho for twenty minutes waiting for a downpour to pass so the show can resume. There was some light drizzle, which began, with impeccable timing, right on the second line of “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” – yes, “the sun is warm…” – but that’s all. Rain ponchos (£3 at the bar, or bring your own) were not necessary. Some people put umbrellas up, but they were quickly admonished by the front-of-house staff (absolutely right, they block the view for people sitting behind). And we had an unscheduled several-minute pause halfway through Act One so that stagehands could mop the deck dry:

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It was worth the drizzle (and the hay fever, because our damp parody of a summer doesn’t do anything to ameliorate my allergies). Years ago – so many years ago that it’ll make me feel very old if I do the subtraction – I saw the Barbican concert production that begat the Tyne Daly recording (everybody else in the cast was a better singer than Ms. Daly, and she blew them all off the stage), but I’d never seen a production that had an actual set and costumes. It might be my favourite of Bernstein’s theatre scores – or my favourite might be Wonderful Town!, depending on the day – and seeing a full production has been one of my theatrical holy grails for… well, since I saw that concert at the Barbican. I missed the ENO’s revival a few years ago, and have been kicking myself for it ever since; I wasn’t going to miss this.

The weather, actually, might have been just about the only thing wrong with Drew McOnie’s sensational revival. This is a difficult piece to direct: the slender story about three sailors exploring New York during a 24-hour shore leave requires a very light touch, and it’s difficult to find the correct balance between the book scenes, which are more or less simply a series of linked comic sketches, and the achingly bittersweet ballets. Underpinning the whole thing is the fact that the characters onstage know, as do we, that the lighthearted, what-larks plot isn’t as lighthearted as it seems: it’s 1944, these three sailors are shipping out to war tomorrow morning, and there’s a very good chance some or all of them won’t be coming back. We know, too, about the horrors they’re about to face even if they do make it through the rest of the war (physically) uninjured; if you can get through the second act’s farewell song, “Some Other Time”, without a lump forming in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

Fortunately, McOnie gets it pretty much exactly right. His production never stops moving, the ballets are truly lovely – a reinterpretation of the Act One pas de deux to show a sailor’s brief, secretive dalliance with another man is particularly poignant – and he and his terrific cast find all the jokes without ever pushing the comedy too hard. Danny Mac makes a tremendous Gabey – great dancer, charm to spare, good timing, and just enough voice to land “Lonely Town”, the score’s most beautiful song. He, Jacob Maynard (Chip) and Samuel Edwards (Ozzie) form an appealing trio; they’re effortlessly funny, and in this material that’s not as easy as it seems  – witness the cast recording of the recent Broadway revival, on which every single member of the cast mugs to the point where you wonder if they’re all hooked up to a caffeine drip. As the maneating cab driver Hildy – yes, the role I saw Tyne Daly sing all those years ago- Lizzy Connolly offers a dazzling, showstopping, wonderfully dirty rendition of the innuendo-laden “I Can Cook Too”, a song which – spoiler alert – is not really about cooking. She even – unlike Alysha Umphress, the lady who assaults the role on that most recent recording – sings the song’s melody as written, without jazzing it up or inserting self-indulgent scatting that isn’t in the score (I’d love to know what Ms. Umphress believes qualifies her to rewrite Bernstein; her “improvements” really aren’t). Siena Kelly is a charming Miss Turnstiles (if you don’t know the plot, just go with it – it’s one of those comedies that only really makes sense if you see it), Maggie Steed offers a smashing turn as dipsomaniac music teacher Madam Dilly, who is the closest thing the show has to a villain, and Naoko Mori’s Lucy Schmeeler gets more laughs out of a sneeze than you’d ever think possible. Best of all, there’s Miriam-Teak Lee’s Claire de Loon, the anthropologist who gets “Carried Away” when she spots Chip in the Museum of Natural History. This, unbelievably, is her professional debut; she has a glorious soprano and sensational timing, and her work here is absolutely flawless. And she’s gorgeous too, which doesn’t hurt.

There’s a good-looking, less-simple-than-it-seems scaffolding set from Peter McKintosh – it can unfold to show apartments, nightclubs, a diner, and even a subway train, and it manages the difficult job of evoking 1940s Manhattan amid the trees of Regent’s Park. Economic realities dictate that there’s only a 15-piece band, and this music really needs more than that; we get (most of) the brass, but some strings would have been nice. The playing is impeccable, and finding space to pay for more players in a presumably (very) finite budget was probably not possible, but this music deserves better; it’s easy enough for producers looking to rein in finances to trim the orchestra, on the grounds that audiences can’t tell the difference, but some of us can. A clever orchestrator can make 15 musicians sound like more than 15 musicians, but you can’t pull an entire string section out of thin air when there isn’t the money to pay for one.

That’s a minor complaint, though – or rather, if not a minor complaint, inevitable these days, because seeing golden-age musicals with the original complement of musicians in the pit has become the (rare) exception, rather than the rule. In every other respect, this revival is just about ideal. I’ve been waiting, as I said, for decades to see a fully-staged production of this show; this one, for once, was well worth the wait.

 

 

God damn it, voilà!

H2S

Or, a few brief thoughts about Wilton’s Music Hall‘s very, very problematic revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, which closed yesterday:

  • It is very nearly impossible to kill this material. Many of this production’s reviews have rather sniffily compared this show to Loesser‘s much better-known Guys and Dolls; it’s true that workplace mores have changed more than a little since the show’s debut in 1962, but to assume any shortcomings are the fault of the material rather than the director is too easy. Done with the right (light) touch, it can play like gangbusters, even today.
  • Saying that upfront may lead you to some assumptions about this production. Those assumptions would be entirely correct.
  • It’s worth saying upfront that everybody involved here clearly respects and loves the material. The production has, for example, paid for a 9-piece band; that’s a huge outlay in a 300-seat venue, and the score – a longtime favourite of mine – sounds terrific. The singing, too, is distinguished throughout. But while everybody involved clearly loves and respects the material, it is unfortunately not absolutely clear whether everybody involved understands it.
  • A note for Benji Sperring, this production’s director: IT. IS. A. SATIRE. And that goes for every character, not just the more obviously caricatured supporting roles.
  • There’s obviously more than one way to play a character, but in this case it’s worth going back to Robert Morse‘s performance in the original (easily enough available on film), although you don’t necessarily have to imitate it. This is a story about ambition – the central character, J. Pierrepont Finch, rises from the mailroom to chairman of a huge corporation in an impossibly short time by following the pithy advice of the self-help book (itself a parody) by Shepherd Mead that gives the show its title – but it is not simply a portrayal of a ruthless young man’s swift corporate ascent, and it’s also not a treatise against the evils of big business. It’s a satire – but a gentle, knowing one.
  • The thing about Morse’s portrayal: he was adorable in the role. However duplicitous the character became, however badly he behaved towards Rosemary, his love-interest, you rooted for him. Watch the film: there’s a sweetness and a guilelessness to Morse’s performance that lets his Finch get away with pretty much anything.
  • Under Sperring’s direction, Mark Pickering plays Finch as a lizard in a suit. And if the acting choices weren’t misguided enough, it doesn’t help at all that Nic Farman, the lighting designer, chooses to illuminate Finch’s many fourth-wall-breaking takes to the audience either by bathing the stage in green light, or by isolating Finch in an ice-blue spotlight. Under those conditions, there’s no opportunity at all for Pickering to communicate anything resembling warmth – and if Finch comes across as cold, if you can’t like him, the show starts to come apart at the seams. This simply is not a story in which a villain/antihero prevails – but that’s what you get here.
  • Given the rest of the production, my inclination would be to blame the director. I’m pretty sure the performance I saw Pickering give is the performance Sperring wanted. Make of that what you will.
  • Hannah Grover’s Rosemary, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. She has the right combination of wide-eyed ingenuousness and steel backbone, she delivers a delightful ‘Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm’ (yes, the show’s sexual politics are firmly rooted in the early 60s), and she’s warmly funny throughout.
  • Andrew C. Wadsworth, luxury-cast as boss JB Biggley, is an absolute delight.
  • So is Lizzii Hills’s delightfully dim Hedy LaRue, Biggley’s smart-dumb bimbo of a mistress. My inner feminist might have cringed, but Hills is so funny that I didn’t care.
  • Maisey Bawden’s Miss Jones is in the Lillias White mode – in ‘Brotherhood of Man’, she lets rip with a stream of fabulous scat-singing, rather than an operatic obbligato. It’s not quite the joke Loesser wrote, but the joke does work (at least, it worked in the 1995 Broadway revival – which, yes, I saw). It doesn’t work here because Bawden simply reads as being at least thirty years too young to portray a starchy, spinsterly senior office manager – and while Loesser didn’t write scat-singing for Miss Jones anyway, in either case the joke is about an older, conservative, straight-laced woman falling under Finch’s “spell” and letting loose at the climax of the song, rather than just a supporting character who hasn’t sung before revealing that she has a voice.
  • The production has clearly been put up on the kind of budget that makes the Southwark Playhouse look like an offshoot of the Las Vegas Strip. Mike Lees’s pop-art corporate HQ backdrop looks perfectly fine, although reports elsewhere suggest the (presumably plywood) elevator doors have been somewhat temperamental. The costumes and wigs, I’m afraid, simply look cheap, to the point where the waist of Rosemary’s dress is cinched with a length of ribbon instead of a belt.
  • Whatever the production’s shortcomings – and the production, in case you hadn’t guessed by now, has many, many shortcomings – it’s a treat to hear this music performed live, and performed well.
  • Lovely as the venue is, it is less than a treat to sit on the Wilton Music Hall’s seats, which resemble something you’d expect to find in a school assembly, for the length of the ninety-minute first act. Yes, that first act is long, and is always long. If it’s done well, it passes in a blink; if it isn’t, it’s a real arse-paralyser, and so are those chairs.

The bottom line: it doesn’t work, and I’m glad I went. The band is great, there are some incredibly talented performers in supporting roles, it’s a wonderful score, and any production of this show, on some level, is going to be worthwhile. But it’s a far more nuanced piece than this director understands, and the misguided choices surrounding the central role torpedo the production right at the top of the show. Pity.

And in future, if you’re going to see anything longer than the briefest one-act in this venue, be warned: take a cushion, or anaesthetise your buttocks before you go in.

Whatever happened to Dainty June?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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