“Parade”

Donmar Warehouse, London • 27 October 2007 • 2:30pm
Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Book by Alfred Uhry. Co-conceived by Harold Prince.

Director & Choreographer: Rob Ashford. Musical Director: Thomas Murray. With Bertie Carvel (Leo Frank), Lara Pulver (Lucille Frank)…

I missed Parade when it originally opened on Broadway in December of 1998 because it folded after two months for lack of an audience. It was awarded two posthumous Tony Awards (one for Best Book of a Musical and another for Best Score of a Musical… although the Tony for Best Musical strangely went to Fosse). The Donmar Warehouse is giving the show its UK premiere in a production directed by Rob Ashford, who was the original production’s Assistant Choreographer.

As was already evidenced by the CD, Parade is a brilliant and deeply disturbing show. It deals with the Leo Frank case, the story of a Jewish man convicted of murdering a 13 year-old factory girl in Georgia in 1913, who was lynched by a Ku Klux Klan mob when his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after it surfaced that some of the evidence against him had been forged. (To this day, the controversy hasn’t ended, although there is very strong evidence pointing to Frank’s innocence, most notably the late confession of a factory worker in the 1980s.)

Parade combines a hauntingly beautiful score and a strongly built book. From the first song, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” sung magnificently by Stuart Matthew Price and Steven Page, soon joined by the entire company, it is obvious the show is going to be no ordinary experience. Rob Ashford has conceived a staging in which the story unfurls cinematically in the Donmar’s tiny but highly theatrical space. The cast is tremendously good, with glowing performances from Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver as Leo and Lucille Frank. My only complaint is that nobody even tries to use convincing accents.

Parade is contemporary musical at its best. It is also, at times, theatre at its best. The fact that it didn’t manage to attract an audience in New York is a sad sign of the times. It is playing to sold-out houses at the Donmar, but this is only a limited run. Here’s hoping London can give this wonderful show the chance that it deserves.

“Young Frankenstein”

Hilton Theatre, New York • 20 October 2007 • 2pm [preview]
Music & Lyrics by Mel Brooks. Book by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan. Based on the screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks for the eponymous movie.

Direction & Choreography by Susan Stroman. With Matthew LaBanca (Frederick Frankenstein [understudy]), Megan Mullally (Elizabeth), Sutton Foster (Inga), Shuler Hensley (The Monster), Andrea Martin (Frau Blucher), Fred Applegate (Hermit), Christopher Fitzgerald (Igor)…

Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ second Broadway musical. It is sometimes so reminiscent of the first one that it feels like The Producers II: Let’s Take Transylvania. The music is good old Broadway fare, though hardly original. And there are jokes aplenty, the lewder, the better. (Inga to Frederick, as she is resting against him on a hay cart: “Don’t hold that against me.” Him: “I’ll try not to.”)

What will probably make the show a success, on top of being inspired by a cult movie, is its fantastic physical production (sets, costumes, lights) and the great work of director-choreographer Susan Stroman. Although Matthew LaBanca did a very fine job, I was quite disappointed to miss Roger Bart in the title role. There are many outstanding performances in the rest of the cast, most remarkably Andrea Martin’s Frau Blucher (the object of a hilarious recurring joke) and Christopher Fitzgerald’s excellent Igor.

“The Glorious Ones”

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, New York • 19 October 2007 • 8pm [preview]
Book & Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens. Music: Stephen Flaherty. Based on the novel by Francine Prose.

Direction & Choreography by Graciela Daniele. With Marc Kudisch (Flaminio Scala), Natalie Venetia Belcon (Columbina), Jeremy Webb (Francesco Andreini), Erin Davie (Isabelle Andreini), Julyana Soelistyo (Armanda Ragusa), David Patrick Kelly (Pantalone), John Kassir (Dottore).

There’s always something exciting about a Flaherty & Ahrens musical, because these two authors have a knowledge and understanding of the history of musicals that inform their work. That doesn’t mean they try to copy the musicals of the past; it means they know the territory they’re trying to expand.The Glorious Ones tells the touching story of a Commedia dell’Arte troupe in Italy at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. While not completely conventional in form, it remains largely linear. I think it spends too much time introducing the various characters instead of finding a way for them to introduce themselves indirectly in the course of the play.

Graciela Daniele’s staging is a treat: it displays energy, inventiveness and a true sense of theatricality. The setting, of course, is the wooden stage of a travelling troupe. (I kept thinking it looked like the setting for a Schmidt & Jones musical.) The cast, led by the remarkable Marc Kudisch, give a tremendous performance.

The score is delightful but strongly reminiscent of earlier Flaherty & Ahrens musicals, especially Ragtime. There’s even a song that rhymes “silhouette” and “pirouette,” two words that stand prominently in the lyrics of Ragtime.

The Glorious Ones might not be perfect, but it’s an enjoyable and literate effort and an ode to the theatre and to comedy. It won’t open for another couple of weeks, so it’s likely to be even better then.

“Half a Sixpence”

Theatre Royal, Brighton • 6 October 2007 • 2:30pm
Music & Lyrics by David Heneker. Book by Beverley Cross, based on Kipps by H. G. Wells. New version by Warner Brown.

Directed by Bob Tomson. Musical Direction by Tom de Keyser. With Gary Wilmot (Kipps), Claire Marlowe (Ann Pornick), Zara Plessard (Helen Walsingham), James Dinsmore (Young Walsingham), Gaye Brown (Mrs. Walsingham)…

I consider myself lucky to have been able to see a production of this classic British musical, which originally opened in 1963 and was made into a movie four years later.

The title role is forever associated with Tommy Steele who, interestingly enough, is currently touring the UK in Doctor Dolittle. But Gary Wilmot makes the part his own with great finesse and panache. He is a thoroughly likeable actor, capable of conveying a broad range of emotions. His eleven o’clock number (more like five o’clock, under the circumstances), “What Should I Feel?”, was a knockout.

This touring production is far from opulent, of course, but the sets, costumes and lighting look professional and the small orchestra (six musicians) somehow manages to treat David Heneker’s score with some due respect. A score which is in turn joyous, atmospheric or sentimental.

Bob Tomson’s staging keeps the flow moving and Jason Pennycooke’s elegant choreography raises the energy level when necessary. A very enjoyable show altogether.

“Bad Girls, the Musical”

Garrick Theatre, London • 29 September 2007 • 3pm
Music & Lyrics: Kath Gotts. Book: Maureen Chadwick & Ann McManus.

Director: Maggie Norris. With Sally Dexter (Yvonne Atkins), Laura Rogers (Helen Stewart), Caroline Head (Nikki Wade), David Burt (Jim Fenner), Helen Fraser (Sylvia “Bodybag” Hollamby), Nicole Faraday (Shell Dockley), Amanda Posener (Denny Blood), Julie Jupp (Julie Saunders), Rebecca Wheatley (Julie Johnston), Chris Grierson (Justin Mattison), Emily Aston (Rachel Hicks), Camilla Beeput (Crystal Gordon), Maria Charles (Noreen Biggs)…

It isn’t often that I go see a musical that I know absolutely nothing about before entering the theatre. Bad Girls, the Musical is based on a British TV series taking place inside a women’s prison that aired on ITV from 1999 to 2006. The plot of the musical is based primarily on the characters and storylines of the first season and includes a lesbian love story between one of the inmates and the wing governor. The musical originated at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2006 and is now being presented in the West End.

The result is hit-and-miss.

On the one hand, the book cleverly balances drama and comic relief, prison cell grittiness and typical sitcom humour. The characters are strongly delineated and the overall dramatic structure is strong. The score, although derivative, is pleasant. And the clever use of projections makes the staging very effective.

On the other hand, the show frequently fails to meet West End standards. As good as the show becomes when it uses second-degree humour, it can be quite a drag when it is more literal-minded. Several of the individual performances are weak. And the novelty of the situation and characters becomes too thin in the second act to really sustain attention.

The show isn’t bad. It isn’t quite good either.

But it’s a treat to see Maria Charles, who played the part of Dulcie in the original production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend… a few years ago.

“Merrily We Roll Along”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 9 Septembre 2007 • 2pm

Went to have a second look at this attractive production. Since I was closer to the stage, I got a better look at Robert Perdziola’s beautiful costumes, their interesting colour scheme, and the way they evolve (or regress?) between the first and the second acts. The performance was a tad less polished with a few minor flubs here and there, and the absence of amplification was definitely a problem at times (some audience members complained during intermission)… but, again, I was overwhelmed by the sheer strength of the emotional denouement of the show. Well worth a trip.

“Merrily We Roll Along”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 8 September 2007 • 8pm
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography: Karma Camp. Musical Director: Jon Kalbfleisch. With Will Gartshore (Franklin Shepard), Erik Liberman (Charley Kringas), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Mary Flynn), Tory Ross (Gussie Carnegie), Bayla Whitten (Beth), Christopher Bloch (Joe Josephson)…

There is something incredibly powerful about the way Merrily We Roll Along leads us to reflect upon roads not taken and choices that cannot be unmade. It is, unfortunately, not the most frequently performed of Sondheim shows, even though I was lucky to catch the very good production at the Derby Playhouse about four months ago.

The Signature production unfurls on a sleek and chic circular set that could be the interior of Mame’s mansion (huge staircase, grand piano, monumental door), bathed in surprisingly raw colours that seem to imply a voluntary distance from a realistic depiction. It is blessed by countless displays of directorial brilliance that contribute to make the show even more affecting, especially in Act 2. The clever choreography frequently winks at styles of the past, and there are pretty clear references to the “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity a couple of times.

There are uniformly good performances from the cast. Erik Liberman, in particular, handles the tricky part of Charlie competently, even though it is of course difficult to erase the memory of Raúl Esparza at the Sondheim Celebration a few years ago.

The 13-strong orchestra gives a joyous rendition of Sondheim’s jewel of a score. I got the impression that some scenes, especially some musical numbers, lacked pace and could still be made a little bit tighter, but it is relatively early in the run, and they are still presumably working on making the necessary adjustments.

Additionally, this production raises the interesting question of amplification — or lack thereof — in musical theatre. Although an intimate space like the Signature Theatre lends itself naturally to a non-amplified performance, there are two obstacles that are particularly obvious. Firstly, most younger singers haven’t been taught how to project their voices without amplification. There are tremendous differences in the way the various actors handle this, and some numbers like “Now You Know” lose some of their strength because of that. Secondly, Merrily was written at a time when amplification was a given. There are songs where a line sung by a solo voice segues into a choral passage, itself followed in short succession by another solo. In spite of Jon Kalbfleisch’s commendable efforts to avoid drowning the voices, there are instances when the overall impression is one of awkwardness rather than the fluidity one would expect from such a bunch of talented people.