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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going Home

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In the closing moments of the first act of Local Hero, the new musical based on Bill Forsyth‘s 1983 film, Texan oil executive Mac steps outside a pub in the run-down Scottish village of Ferness, looks up, and sees the Aurora Borealis for the first time. If you know the film, as I suspect most of the audience did, you’ll have been expecting this moment. What you might not have been expecting – I wasn’t – is to feel a tear running down your cheek as Mac telephones his boss in Houston (yes, via a red phone box) and breathlessly describes the changing colours in the sky above him. Local Hero is one of those films that seems to be universally beloved, and with good reason, because it’s just about perfect. It’s a charming, quirky, intelligent fish-out-of-water comedy with a terrific screenplay, fine direction and cinematography, and flawless performances, but it has never moved me to tears, and I don’t think it’s designed to draw that kind of response from an audience. It never struck me, either, as a film that cried out to be adapted as a musical. It’s lovely, but Forsyth’s screenplay is notably lacking in obvious song cues, and you don’t – at least, I don’t – get the sense that the characters in it need to sing.

And yet somehow, miraculously, this musical adaptation is an absolute joy. In adapting the screenplay, Forsyth and playwright David Greig have made a series of very smart choices, preserving (most of) the film’s basic plot but carefully refocusing it so that the musical isn’t simply a step-by-step retread of the screenplay with songs – by Mark Knopfler, who supplied the film’s score – shoehorned in at regular intervals. The story still revolves around Mac, an oil executive sent to a remote coastal village in Scotland to buy the land it sits on so that the corporation he works for can build an oil refinery there, and who finds himself slowly falling in love with a place he initially finds utterly alien, but some of the surrounding characters and stories are significantly changed. The plot strand involving (in the film) Peter Capaldi as the oil corporation’s local operative and Jenny Seagrove as a marine research scientist is completely gone, and not much missed, although their scenes in the film are absolutely charming. The role of hotelier/accountant/jack-of-all-trades Gordon’s common-law wife Stella, tiny in the film, has been significantly expanded, to the point where she drives a great deal of the plot in the show’s second act. The musical does a better job than the film, too, in showing the hardships involved in carving out a living somewhere so remote, and much more weight is given to the environmental impact of building an oil refinery in such a relatively unspoiled place. Throughout, the musical is a little less whimsical than the film, but only a little, and Greig and Knopfler tread a careful line, keeping the tone relatively light through most of the first act so that Mac’s epiphany when he sees the Northern Lights feels like a surprise even if you’ve known for the last hour that it’s coming. The musical locates a well of deep yearning that the film only hints at; most musicals would hit you over the head with it, but Greig, Forsyth and Knopfler let it creep up on you instead, and the show is all the better for it.

It’s a gorgeous production, too. Director John Crowley lets the piece’s momentum build slowly, and makes the brave choice not to allow applause after each musical number – applause releases tension, and that emotional moment at the end of the first act happens partly because nothing has been allowed to, well, break the spell. This is in some respects the anti-Brigadoon – Ferness may be fictional, but it’s drawn from and firmly located in the real world and isn’t going to disappear into the mist (and Local Hero is very obviously written by people who know and love Scotland, while Brigadoon’s book and lyrics, equally obviously, are written by a man who had clearly never been within five hundred miles of the part of the world he was writing about in that particular show), but this is still a show about an American outsider who finds himself in a remote Scottish village and slowly falls under the place’s spell, although in Local Hero the village is believably real and there’s none of the hyper-romanticised, cloyingly ersatz bagpipes-and-tartan Visit Scotland bollocks that makes Brigadoon so insufferably twee onstage. Scott Pask’s jetty-and-model-village set is picturesque without being kitsch, and is surrounded by corrugated metal walls of the kind you’d find in an industrial estate – of course, because this is a blue-collar working village, not a place out of a made-up fairytale. The recreation of northern Scotland’s expansive sky – and the Northern Lights – is accomplished via a flown cyclorama, Luke Halls’s projected video, and Paule Constable’s lighting; it could easily have looked ridiculous, but it’s stunning. This isn’t an overblown spectacle – a helicopter features in the plot, but nobody (thank God) drops a helicopter onstage – but the show’s physical production is beautifully evocative, and it’s wonderful for once – hi, Kinky Boots! – to see a musical adaptation of a film in which the creative team didn’t simply set out to dumb down the screenplay and throw a heap of glitter at the stage.

There’s also a set of gorgeous performances, with lovely work from the central trio – Damian Humbley as Mac, Matthew Pidgeon as Gordon, and Katrina Bryan as Stella – and sharply individual character turns from the rest of the company. The musical introduces us to a few more villagers than the film, which tends to use the villagers as a kind of human backdrop, and Mark Knopfler’s score includes a couple of very strong ensemble numbers – notably ‘Filthy Dirty Rich’, in which the villagers give in to unbridled glee at the prospect of a lucrative deal with Knox Oil, and ‘Never Felt Better’, a morning-after-the-night-before number in which they all try to hide their terrible hangovers from each other. Knopfler has supplied a mostly terrific debut musical score; his lyrics are conversational rather than showy, and none the worse for it, and there are some terrific melodies here: yes, of course ‘Going Home’, the principal musical theme from his score for the film, but there’s also a lovely folk song called ‘I Wonder If I Can Go Home Again’, a memorably sly Johnny Cash pastiche, and a moving opening ballad for Mac called ‘Houston, We Have a Problem’. You’ll hear ‘Going Home’ more than once before it finally shows up in full at the end of the show – that’s not a spoiler, it’s inconceivable that a musical adaptation of this property with a score by Mark Knopfler wouldn’t end with ‘Going Home’ – but the rest of the score is at the same level. Sooner or later – pretty please, sooner if possible – it’s going to make a thoroughly enjoyable cast album.

While the musical in places departs significantly from the film, it keeps – again, not really a spoiler, because how could it not? – the film’s iconic final shot of the phone box on the quayside in Ferness. Again, it’s a measure of how well this works that a moment that registers as sweetly touching in the film gains a great deal more depth in the theatre. I didn’t expect – and I knew how the piece was likely to end – to be so moved by the sight/sound of a ringing telephone in a red phone box on a deserted stage, but that’s the last in this musical’s series of small, delightful surprises. This is something very special; fingers crossed the elements that make this show so special won’t be diluted in the move south to the Old Vic next year (yes of course I’ll see it again), and also keep your fingers crossed that they keep Damian Humbley, Matthew Pidgeon and Katrina Bryan, because it’s impossible to overstate how perfect they are.

And in the meantime… did I mention that I want a cast album? I mean, yesterday?

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(Lower) East Side Story

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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.

 

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The Right Girl

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It’s back, and it’s (even) better. The first time around, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies at the National Theatre was simultaneously thrilling, breathtaking, and slightly flawed. Cooke put together a text that is far closer to the 1971 original than the more recent, less-corrosive revised edition that formed the basis for the last three major US revivals, and his cast did a generally excellent job of capturing the odd, febrile tone of James Goldman‘s stylised dialogue. On the minus side, Bill Deamer’s choreography for the show’s biggest production number didn’t quite deliver, and while Imelda Staunton delivered a stunning acting performance, her singing voice was not an entirely happy match for her character’s music.

For this return engagement, Mr. Deamer’s choreography has been tweaked, Ms. Staunton’s role is one of several that have been recast, and Mr. Cooke has made a number of mostly small adjustments to his staging. This isn’t simply a by-the-numbers retread of the 2017 production; it’s a thorough overhaul, and the changes are (almost) all improvements. First time around, this was a splendid revival with a lot of caveats. This time, while there are still elements that Sondheim devotees will be arguing over for years, for my money it’s more or less a complete triumph.

The show is what it always was: a masterpiece, part showbiz extravaganza and part Pirandellean identity play, in which the middle-aged guests at a reunion party for former performers in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque Broadway revue are (literally) confronted by the ghosts of their former selves. It’s a strange cocktail of glitter and rage and regret in which the former showgirls, and particularly the two unhappily-married couples at the centre of the plot, become a lens through which we’re asked to examine the ways in which people deal – or don’t – with the gulf between their youthful aspirations and middle-aged reality, and (because that’s not bleak enough already) the whole thing is an extended theatrical metaphor for America’s postwar decline. And on top of all that, Stephen Sondheim‘s extraordinary score may very well turn out to be the crowning achievement of his extraordinary career. It’s a dazzling blend of 1970-contemporary Broadway and spot-on pastiche, and the show’s climactic sequence of musical numbers, which finds the four protagonists trapped inside a metaphorical Ziegfeld Follies production in which they each examine their individual failures via a period-pastiche musical performance, is as brilliant a piece of writing as anything in the American musical theatre canon.

It’s matched, finally, by a revival whose brilliance in this incarnation seems as effortless as it was laboured first time around. Cooke’s first masterstroke – last time too – was to stage the piece to make it clear that the ghosts haven’t arrived at the party – we have entered their space. The show takes place in the rubble of the derelict Weismann Theatre, which is about to be torn down; a ghostly showgirl gives the signal that sets the performance in motion, we see the past before we see the (1971) present, and the ghosts recognise their present-day selves before their present-day selves see them. The ghosts are in James Goldman’s book for the show, of course, but Cooke’s staging always deployed them (even) more than Goldman does, and Cooke deploys them even more here. We’re always aware, even watching minor supporting characters, of the simmering tension between the past and the present, and a (new) tableau in which some of the ghosts watch their present-day selves leaving the party is both moving and visually beautiful.

There’s still a remarkable set of performances in the supporting roles, too. As the aging Viennese soprano Heidi Schiller, Felicity Lott perhaps doesn’t quite have Josephine Barstow’s devastating intensity (Barstow will return to the production later in the run, and played the press night when Lott fell ill), but I doubt One More Kiss has ever been sung more gloriously than it is here, and Alison Langer’s Young Heidi is (still) sublime. Dawn Hope’s ‘Who’s That Woman?’ raises goosebumps, and Deamer has rechoreographed the number so that it’s now the showstopper it should have been first time around. No, it’s not the original Michael Bennett choreography, which was used in the original London production in 1987, and yes, I’d still prefer it if it was, but the version they’re doing now is a huge improvement over Deamer’s first pass at it. Tracie Bennett has found even more colours in her take on I’m Still Here, and – best of all – Claire Moore slams the last sixteen bars of Broadway Baby into the back of the house with the kind of force that could easily level the entire building.

The biggest difference, though, comes in the recasting of two of the four leads – that is, one-half of the two married couples at the centre of the plot (in case you’ve forgotten – and why have you? – Sally Durant and Phyllis Rogers danced together in the final season of the Weismann Follies in 1941, and were roommates. At the end of the season, Sally married Buddy Plummer and Phyllis married Ben Stone – but Sally had had a fling with Ben before he got engaged to Phyllis, and when her own marriage proved less than idyllic she spent the next thirty years pining for him, and has arrived at the reunion in the hope of winning him back). Peter Forbes is still a heartbreaking Buddy, a travelling salesman who loves Sally too much to leave her and knows he’d be happier if he did. Janie Dee’s Phyllis has – seemingly impossibly, because she was perfect the first time – grown in stature; she’s an arresting combination of heart and hauteur, ice and fire, sharp edges and raw nerves. Alexander Hanson replaces Philip Quast, and he doesn’t have Quast’s gravitas. Hanson’s Ben is a shallow charmer who has coasted to success on the back of a combination of bravado and a boyish smile, and knows it. This Ben’s descent into self-loathing is more sudden than it was with Quast in the role, and more shocking; there’s a desperation to Ben’s climactic breakdown that was slightly lacking in this production’s first incarnation, and the chaos sequence that takes us out of Ben’s Follies number and back into the final (spoken) scene works better – much better – with Hanson at the centre of it than it did in 2017. Hanson isn’t quite as wonderful a singer as Quast, but he’s more than good enough, and he’s giving a very fine performance.

The biggest difference, though, is Joanna Riding’s Sally. Imelda Staunton is an extraordinary actor whose singing voice was never quite right for this role. Riding, whose casting, I admit, did not particularly excite me, has all the voice she needs for this music, and she sings the role as beautifully as you’d expect (and – thank God – without taking any of the higher notes in her big duet with Hanson’s Ben down an octave). Her acting choices, though, are fascinating, and quite different from Staunton’s. Staunton offered an unhappy woman slowly descending into insanity. Riding’s Sally is a self-absorbed romantic who operates (far) more through her emotions than her intellect, and who seems to see herself as a character in one of the trashy romance novels she says she reads to pass the time – and when her illusions are abruptly shattered, her (quick) emotional collapse is ugly, and mesmerising to watch. Riding’s rendition of Losing My Mind, Sally’s pastiche number in the show’s climactic Follies sequence, is quite breathtaking, although (following Staunton’s lead), it’s a startlingly angry interpretation, and it’s staged as a scene in a period romantic drama rather than simply as a torch song. Like every song in the Loveland sequence, Losing My Mind was conceived as a song in which the singer performs a metaphorical representation of her folly, rather than as a scene in which the actor acts the character’s emotional disintegration. In the 1987 London production, Julia McKenzie gave us the former, and I think I stopped breathing during the four minutes or so it took for her to sing the song. In 2017, Imelda Staunton gave us the latter, and the first time I saw it it didn’t quite work for me, although I warmed to her choices a little more on subsequent viewings. Riding somehow manages both, although not quite in the manner suggested by the script: she sings it powerfully, easily encompassing the big notes in the final verse (those notes severely tested her predecessor in this production), and begins playing it as a scene in a romantic melodrama, sitting at a dressing-table in a glamorous art deco boudoir. As the song continues, Riding’s Sally appears to struggle to maintain the artifice of the performance, gradually sinking into a combination of fury, grief and despair; she pops pills in the final verse, stands trembling as she holds the final note, and on the last beat of the song she removes her wig – a gesture which seems to leave her pitifully naked (albeit fully-clothed). If you know the show, if you know how previous interpretations of this moment have worked, this staging sounds ham-fisted, overdone, and completely wrong-headed – but in Riding’s hands (and voice), it’s absolutely riveting and somehow absolutely right.

As for the rest – there are fine performances from the new quartet of actors playing the younger incarnations of the four principal characters (Harry Hepple, Ian McIntosh, Christine Tucker, and Gemma Sutton as, respectively, Young Buddy, Young Ben, Young Phyllis, and Young Sally). Vicki Mortimer’s derelict theatre set is still stunning, and one still wishes a little more money could have been thrown at the Loveland sets for the climactic recreation of a Follies show, because those sets really need to be a little more opulent than they are here – although it’s clear the National have pushed the boat out as far as they can on this production, and the costumes are (still) magnificent. For Joanna Riding, Sally’s hair and party dress have been tweaked, and the new design is a significant improvement over the costume Imelda Staunton wore. The band is still conducted by Nigel Lilley, and they’re still wonderful, and Paule Constable’s appropriately crepuscular lighting is still pretty much perfect.

There’s still no intermission, which for this show is as it should be, and Cooke directs his new cast to give, if anything, an even more electrifying account of Goldman’s archly theatrical dialogue than their predecessors did. Once again, Vicki Mortimer’s turntable set moves us seamlessly through the various different levels of the derelict Weismann Theatre, and once again – in fact, even more than last time – it’s obvious everybody involved understands this show’s rather unusual tone and rhythm (imagine a mid-century American Restoration drama with script revisions by Edward Albee and songs drawn from every corner of musical theatre’s golden age). There were always many, many good things in this production – but last time, there was a great deal to argue against as well. This time, Cooke and his creative team have given us as good a revival of Follies as I ever expect to see. It’s an intelligent, precise, thrilling presentation of rich, multi-layered material, possibly as good a musical production as the National has ever done and certainly as good as anything I’ve ever seen there. If you saw it last time, you need to see it again. In almost every way, this incarnation of the production is stronger, smarter, sharper, and deeper than the first. In terms of Sondheim revivals, this is just about as good as it gets.

And yes, that means it’s rather a pity that the first cast, rather than this one, got to preserve their performances via an NT Live presentation and a cast recording. That, I’m afraid, is showbiz.

 

Welcome to the Rock

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On paper, Come From Away looks wince-inducing. A musical set against the backdrop of 9/11 following the story of people stranded in a small town in Newfoundland when their flights were forced to land there after US airspace was closed following the attacks looks like a terrible idea. I thought it was a terrible idea, and I was living in Canada on 9/11 and the story the show tells is part of the narrative I watched unfold as I (like everyone else) spent day after day glued to the news. Given the magnitude of the events behind the events the show portrays, it’s easy to assume a musical covering this territory would have to be essentially reductive, that a tidal wave of sentimentality about Canadian niceness, eh? would somehow wash away the horror everybody felt during that week.

Then I heard the Broadway cast recording, which – while it isn’t complete – includes enough material to challenge that original perception. Based on the album, I bought a ticket to the show’s London production – and, yes, I admit I was absolutely wrong. There are holes you can legitimately pick in Come From Away, but it works. It doesn’t trivialise the horror behind the events it portrays, the writers and director do a very careful job of keeping any sentimentality firmly in check, and the show, to my complete surprise, is a powerful snapshot of a moment in which the ground shook under everybody’s feet. We have some distance from those events now, and we’ve become used to seeing images from the surrounding events that at the time seemed to stretch our understanding of the word ‘unimaginable’. What Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show’s writers (they both wrote all of it, collaborating on book, music and lyrics) achieve is something quite difficult: without showing any imagery at all from any of the attacks, without wallowing in the nightmarish scenes the whole world saw on the news, they manage to evoke how it felt to wake up in a world that had been suddenly and irrevocably changed by a series of grotesque acts of violence. Even more remarkably, they manage to show people finding strength and humanity in the face of that horror without bathing the audience in a vat of treacle – or rather, given that it takes place in Canada, maple syrup.

The show’s great strength is the illusion of simplicity with which Sankoff and Hein (and director Christopher Ashley) tell their stories, all of which are real stories drawn from interviews with residents of Gander, Newfoundland and the passengers and flight crews who found themselves stranded there. There’s a relatively bare stage with furniture brought on and off as required by the cast, and the actors slip seamlessly between characters (and accents, and between narration and dialogue) at the drop of a hat or a jacket or a prop. Everybody in the cast plays several characters; the show’s structure is quite intricate, but the storytelling is absolutely clear all the way through. Among a fine ensemble cast there are standout turns from Clive Carter as (among other things) Gander’s mayor, from Cat Simmons as a New Yorker trying to trace her firefighter son, from Robert Hands and Helen Hobson as two middle-aged people who find a mutual attraction after they are stranded together, and above all from Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, a pilot (in fact, the first female captain employed by American Airlines) whose flight is diverted to Gander. It’s to Tucker’s advantage that Me And the Sky, Beverley Bass’s song in the show, is by far the best thing in the score, and in her hands it’s a tour-de-force.

The rest of the score is… well, the kind word is ‘functional’. It works in context, the musical palette (largely rooted in folk-rock) is appropriate to the setting but not as varied as it could be, and some of the lyrics clunk a bit, and rely slightly too much on predictable rhymes. This is, though, one of those shows where any criticism of the technical aspects of the writing is more or less irrelevant, because the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts: look too closely at the score and you’ll start to pick holes, but – as I said – as a theatrical experience this show just works.

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Let It Sing

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Another one crossed off the list. I’ve loved Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley‘s score for Violet since the first recording of it was released in 1999, but somehow I’ve never managed to see a production of the show, which is very rarely produced on this side of the Atlantic (the advance publicity material for this production claimed it was the UK premiere, which it isn’t). When you love a score as much as I love this one, it creates a set of expectations that aren’t always helpful when you finally, after years of listening to the music, walk into the theatre to see it being performed in its proper context.

Fortunately, Shuntaro Fujito’s new staging of Violet at the Charing Cross Theatre – a coproduction with the Umeda Arts Theatre in Osaka, where it will transfer after the London run – mostly lives up to those (consderable) expectations. Based on a short story by Doris Betts called The Ugliest Pilgrim, Violet follows a young woman who was hideously disfigured in a childhood accident (the blade of her father’s axe came free from the handle and struck her in the face) as she journeys across the American south in 1964 to find a televangelist who she believes can remove her scar. It’s a tricky story to adapt for the stage – Violet is from rural Tennessee, relatively uneducated, damaged and defensive, and her belief that a televangelist has the power to restore her looks could very easily come across as laughably credulous. Actually, this is an intelligent, perceptive, often very moving examination of an unhappy, awkward young woman slowly learning to come to terms with herself, and that’s thanks mostly to Tesori and Crawley’s extraordinary score. There’s an unusual emotional intelligence to Tesori’s music here, and to Crawley’s carefully unshowy, conversational lyrics; this is music that grabs you by the heartstrings almost from the very top of the show and doesn’t let go until the last note of the finale. This is a book musical, not an opera-in-everything-but-name like Tesori’s Caroline, or Change (which is coincidentally currently playing right around the corner), so Violet’s score is a collection of standalone songs rather than wall-to-wall music, and several of the songs are extraordinary. Even if you don’t know them going in, you might well come out humming On My Way, the big chorus number that marks the beginning of Violet’s bus journey, and Let It Sing, the inspirational anthem sung by a (black) soldier she meets on her journey, but there are so many memorable songs here that you may be spoiled for choice.

There’s a marvellous cast too, headed by Kaisa Hammarlund, unrecognisable from her turn as the oldest Alison in Tesori’s Fun Home across the river at the Young Vic last year. Hammarlund’s heartbreaking Violet is a study in contradictions: brave and terrified, dignified and ungainly, warm and abrasive. It’s a magnificent performance, and she gives full value to Tesori’s music. She’s surrounded by a fine ensemble cast, with particularly memorable contributions from Jay Marsh (Flick, the black soldier who forms one corner of the love triangle that develops in the second half of the show), from Kieron Crook as Violet’s guilt-ridden father, and  Angelica Allen as a singer in a Memphis music hall. Allen’s scorching performance of the Tina Turner-esque Lonely Stranger is worth the trip on its own.

For this production, the Charing Cross Theatre has (thankfully) been reconfigured, with a bank of seats on what used to be the stage and a traverse stage built over what used to be the front stalls. It might have been helpful for sightlines to raise the stage a couple of feet up from the entrance level – the rake of the seats was designed with a raised stage in mind – but it’s still an improvement over a space where it could often feel as if you were peering down a tunnel at a show taking place in the distance. On Morgan Large’s good-looking but simple set (bare wooden walls below the balconies on either side of the stage, a turntable, a few chairs and trunks, an oversized, all-seeing eye peering down from above), Shuntaro Fujito delivers an exceptionally clear account of Violet’s emotional journey; his direction is unshowy and unobtrusive, which is just what the material needs. It’s fair to say the show sometimes sags momentarily when the actors stop singing and start to speak; it’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with Brian Crawley’s book as that the score is so good that the connecting tissue inevitably pales a little in comparison.

The bottom line: this is GOOD, and it’s worth seeing. It’s also, unfortunately, selling very badly at the moment, and it deserves better: it’s a very strong production of a show with a good book and a stunning score, Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance deserves a much wider audience, and it runs an hour and forty minutes without an interval so you’ll be in plenty of time to make the last train home afterwards. Discounts are available if you know where to look, and this might well turn out to be as good a piece of musical theatre as you’ll see all year.

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Next stop, Hell

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André de Shields knows the value of silence. At the very beginning of Hadestown, the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera currently playing a pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre, he steps forward and teases the audience by waiting to speak until the expectant hush in the Olivier’s auditorium borders on deafening. It’s a masterful beginning to a masterful performance, and Mr. de Shields is one of the great highlights in a show that is never less than entertaining.

Hadestown, which began life as a 2010 concept album by Ms. Mitchell and arrives in London following productions at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and the Citadel in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017, is essentially a blue-collar rough-theatre retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The action begins and ends in a down-home bar somewhere in the American South – probably New Orleans – in what might be the present, or might be a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and Hell, when we (eventually) get there, has what might best be described as a post-industrial expressionist aesthetic (think along the lines of Metropolis or The Adding Machine). The story is told almost entirely in song – thank God, because the few bits of linking narration, some of which involve actors speaking in (barely-)rhyming couplets, are cringe-inducingly dire. The songs, however, are terrific. Ms. Mitchell’s music is an appealing gumbo of folk, jazz, blues and pop, there’s a superb band, and there are thrilling performances from Mr. de Shields, from Patrick Page as an über-capitalist/industrialist Hades, from Amber Gray as a Persephone who really knows how to have a good time in the months she’s allowed out of Hadestown, and from Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, and Gloria Onitiri as the three slinkily fabulous Fates whose commentary punctuates the action.

The storytelling, on the other hand, is less successful, although it’s clearer in the second act than the first. Hadestown presents us with a simplified version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it still takes far too much of the first half for the plot to swing into gear, and you won’t find a great deal of nuance in the portrayal of Orpheus or Eurydice. That’s partly due to the writing, which unfortunately gives the two central characters the show’s most blandly generic songs, and partly down to the two blandly generic performers cast in those roles. As Orpheus, we have Reeve Carney; he’s good-looking, he has a nice voice, he plays the guitar nicely, and he can’t act at all. Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice is a little more compelling: she’s also good-looking, she has an absolutely stunning voice, and she can act a bit more than Mr. Carney, by which I mean she’s capable of mustering more than one-and-a-half facial expressions. We’re supposed to believe that theirs is one of the great tragic love stories, so it would be nice if they had some chemistry together. Or any chemistry together. Or any stage presence. They sound fantastic, but this is theatre, not a recording studio.

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And that, I’m afraid, sums up the problem with Hadestown: despite inventive direction by Rachel Chavkin (this made me really look forward to seeing her production of The American Clock later this year), a terrific barroom/bandstand set by Rachel Hauck, impeccable lighting by Bradley King, and muscular choreography from David Neumann, Hadestown is ultimately a thrilling musical experience – thrilling enough, certainly, to be worth an evening of your time – rather than a moving piece of theatre. The problem is exemplified by the way the show deploys the ensemble of “workers” – they function as a chorus, sing as a chorus, and are given basically no opportunities to show any individuality. That’s a definite choice, and potentially a strong choice, but it’s a choice that needs to be justified, and the show never does, which means that too often they just seem like backing singers/dancers (also – directors, you DO NOT cast the amazing Seyi Omooba in a show without giving her at least one opportunity to let rip with that incredible voice, even if it’s just for four bars). Everything looks great, sounds great, moves beautifully, but Ms. Mitchell’s lyrics, while often appealingly colloquial, don’t carry the weight of the narrative, and neither do the two performers in the central roles. My God, though, the thrilling moments are thrilling, whether it’s André de Shields showing us a masterclass in how to hold the audience in the palm of your hand in the opening number Road to Hell, or Patrick Page’s Hades leading the chorus in the borderline-fascistic Cheetolini-eque Why We Build The Wall at the close of the first act, or Amber Gray swinging her way through Our Lady of the Underground. There are more than enough thrilling moments for Hadestown to be absolutely worth the cost of a ticket (or the cost of a recording – the cast album, which was made after the NYTW production, is pretty wonderful, and features Patrick Page and Amber Gray), but they’re all – all – about the music rather than the story. Hadestown is often wonderful, but it’s a wonderful concert (albeit a concert presented with a great deal of theatrical flair) as opposed to a wonderful musical.

Then there’s the question of what it’s doing at the National in the first place (answer: filling a gap – a couple of years ago the National announced they were developing a musical version of The Witches to play during the 2018 Christmas season, but nothing has been heard of it beyond the initial announcement; presumably it’s either not ready or has fallen through, leaving the National with a Christmas slot to fill in their largest auditorium, which just happens to a have a similar configuration to the Citadel in Edmonton, where Hadestown played last year) . If the National had commissioned Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin to create a new piece for them, I’d have no argument with it – they’re interesting artists and there’s certainly room for them in the National’s programming.  If the show had been developed by the National in collaboration with NYTW and/or the Citadel (or Canadian Stage, or the American Repertory Theater, or A.C.T., or wherever), again, there’d be no problem; I’d love to see the National engage in more cross-border collaborations, and I have a ticket for Downstate, developed with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, later this year. This, though, is not that kind of collaborative enterprise. This is a show developed by a nonprofit theatre in New York and subsequently produced in a nonprofit theatre in Canada that has been picked up by commercial producers for presentation on Broadway.

It’s great for the show and for Ms. Mitchell that a team of producers think it deserves a commercial run, and there’s nothing about the show in itself that should make it fall outside the National’s remit – except that this appears to be a case of a commercial management using the National’s resources, which are supported by significant public funding paid for out of the tax base, to get their pre-Broadway tryout run at a bargain rate. This isn’t a National Theatre production that’s going to Broadway, it’s a Broadway musical playing a preview run at the National, presumably because to do so is cheaper than a commercial tryout in Boston or Chicago or Seattle or wherever. There isn’t even any mention of the National on the front page of the Broadway production’s website:

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The casting, also, is problematic. All five principals – including the two who don’t make a full personality between them – are imported from the US under the Equity exchange scheme. No problem with that, it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray (and as for Mr. Carney and Ms. Noblezada… it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray), and the traffic runs in both directions. Or the traffic SHOULD run in both directions. We have five American leads who are going to Broadway with the show, and an ensemble of UK-based performers who it’s safe to assume are not (if the same cast was going to be playing London and Broadway, it would have been announced by now). In this show, as I said, the ensemble performers are kept firmly behind the five leads, which is a defendable choice – but in the National Theatre, it leaves a slightly sour taste to see a show in which all the leads are imported from overseas and all the homegrown performers are employed in ensemble roles or as understudies. To say the least, this does not suggest the Broadway production’s producers view working at the National as a collaboration between equals.

It’s not – as I said – that there is any problem with the National bringing in performers from overseas – Bryan Cranston’s performance in Network was quite extraordinary, and I’m looking forward very much to seeing Denis O’Hare in Tartuffe in April. Both of those productions, though, place(d) UK-based performers alongside the star in leading roles, rather than relegating homegrown talent to the chorus, whereas the nature of the casting of Hadestown carries with it a fart-like whiff of exploitation of the local talent pool by Broadway producers looking to save a few bucks (Equity pay rates for actors are way lower in London than on Broadway or the US touring circuit). It is to be hoped that the financial arrangements underpinning this production benefit the National as much as the American co-producers; the programme note from those co-producers thanking the National for supporting the creative team’s vision, as opposed to for collaborating in the show’s development, raises some questions. And that’s being kind.

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As for the show itself, it’s an exciting, distinctive event, and – as I said – a thrilling musical experience. It’s worth experiencing this score live, there’s a superb band, the singing is wonderful, and André de Shields, Patrick Page, and Amber Gray are more than worth the trip. If you’re looking for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on the other hand, go ahead and book a ticket – you’ll get a kick out of seeing the way Ms. Mitchell’s songs riff on top of it – but maybe pick up book ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the way to the theatre and read it on the train home.

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