Category Archives: London

“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.

“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.

“The Boy Friend”

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London • 1st September 2007 • 8pm
Book, Music & Lyrics by Sandy Wilson.

Director: Ian Talbot. Co-director & choreographer: Bill Deamer. With Anna Nicholas (Madame Dubonnet), Claire Carrie (Hortense), ? (Percival Browne), Rachel Jerram (Polly Browne), Richard Reynard (Tony), Kate Nelson (Maisie), Chris Ellis-Stanton (Bobby Van Heusen), Ian Talbot (Lord Brockhurst), Margaret Tyzack (Lady Brockhurst)…

I’d already seen this delightful production last year, and the magic worked all over again. There probably couldn’t be a more perfect and more loving tribute to the musicals of the 1920s. Sandy Wilson’s score is a treat from the first to the last bar, and Ian Talbot’s staging wisely avoids too much second or third degree.

The Boy Friend is a recipe for happiness: one can only leave the theatre with a warm heart, light feet, and enough positive energy for a month.

“The Lord of the Rings”

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London • 1st September 2007 • 2pm
Book and Lyrics by Shaun McKenna & Matthew Warchus. Music by A. R. Rahman, Värttinä, with Christopher Nightingale.

Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreographer: Peter Darling. With James Loye (Frodo Baggins), Peter Howe (Sam Gamgee), Malcolm Storry (Gandalf), Michael Therriault (Gollum/Sméagol), Laura Michelle Kelly (Galadriel), Jérôme Pradon (Strider/Aragorn), Steven Miller (Boromir), Jon Tsouras (Legolas [understudy]), Alex Bonnet (Arwen [understudy]), Sévan Stephan (Gimli), Ben Evans (Merry [understudy]), Stuart Neal (Pippin [understudy]), Terence Frisch (Bilbo Baggins), Jennie Dale (Rosie [understudy]), Brian Protheroe (Saruman), Andrew Harvis (Elrond), Michael Hobbs (Treebeard)…

I had missed this show by a few days when I last went to Toronto, so I was sort of curious, especially given what I’d read about it.

First of all, it is a spectacular with music rather than a bona-fide musical. There are few actual songs, like the Hobbits’ song at the very beginning, which is quite good, but most of the score feels like underscoring. The staging of the first act is breathtaking, with several disappearing acts and a finale which made me wonder how they were ever going to top it.

Well, they don’t. The second and third acts are a bit underwhelming. Of course, the ever-moving 17-part turntable is used deftly and imaginatively, but there’s only so much a turntable can achieve, no matter how sophisticated. And the story can get quite dense in the last 90 minutes or so, even if the writers have tried to trim it to the minimum. Having seen the movies definitely helps.

The cast do their best to pretend they feel comfortable sporting medicinal-sounding names like Boromir, Sargenor Aragorn or Legolas. Take a spoonful of Boromir once a day. I quite enjoyed James Loye’s performance as Frodo: I think he made a better job than Elijah Wood at conveying the incongruity of having a Hobbit deal with such a gigantic task.

All in all, the show is pleasurable spectacular… but they shouldn’t have let everything out of their bag of tricks by the end of the first act.

“Take Flight”

Menier Chocolate Factory, London • 26 August 2007 • 3:30pm
Music by David Shire. Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. Book by John Weidman.

Direction: Sam Buntrock. Musical Direction: Caroline Humphris. With Sam Kenyon (Wilbur Wright), Elliot Levey (Orville Wright), Michael Jibson (Charles Lindbergh), Sally Ann Triplett (Amelia Earhart), Ian Bartholomew (George Putnam), Clive Carter (Otto Lillienthal), Christopher Colley, Ian Conningham, John Conroy, Helen French, Edward Gower, Kaisa Hammarlund.

Given the amount of crap we’re subjected to at each and every corner these days, a show with such a high level of craftsmanship is a knock-out, no matter how flawed it is.

Simply put, Take Flight is the Assassins of aviation. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Assassins, actually. It ties together the three stories of the Wright Brothers, of Charles Lindbergh and of Amelia Earhart in a non-linear libretto that also uses a manner of balladeer in the person of Otto Lillienthal, the German inventor of gliding. Their common passion, of course, is flying.

The first act is the less successful of the two, as the quality of the development of the three stories and their level of “integration” is very uneven. But all starts to come together at the end of the first act in a beautiful song called “Before the Dawn”… and the second act is outstanding in its ability to stitch the various threads of narrative together and have everything come full circle. The show ends, with little respect for chronology but a strong sense of dramatic efficiency, on the Wright Brothers’ first successful attempt at flying one of their aircraft.

There is tremendous talent involved, and it feels in many ways miraculous that some people are still so literate in the art of writing a musical. The score is gorgeous, especially when it manages to get past the “Sondheim complex” that it exhibits from time to time. It is highly enhanced by Shire’s own orchestrations for an 8-piece orchestra and by his superb choral writing. The music frequently soars and is especially good at expressing longings and aspirations. There are a few very clever numbers in the second act, most notably a vaudeville-type song for the Wright Brothers called “The Funniest Thing.”

The lyrics are frequently funny, at times a bit a surprising, like when Maltby rhymes “Crusoe” with “do so” or when he writes that “Range means going far” (which is supposed to be comedic in context). And I wonder if any other lyric ever contained the phrase “pi square.” There’s also a line that goes “How can we be wrong? We’re the Wright Brothers!” which I saw coming from miles afar. But I guess they couldn’t help themselves.

Even if all the parts are not written with the same virtuosity, the level of acting is excellent. Particularly outstanding (and blessed with the best-written part) is Sally Ann Triplett. She sings wonderfully and develops her character very nicely. I have slight reservations about the actor who plays Lindbergh, Michael Jibson, last seen in the Sheffield A Chorus Line (playing Bobby). But maybe that’s because his character is a bit more enigmatic. The Wright Brothers are written like a Vaudeville act and they work together nicely, even if one of them, Orville, has slight problems with his singing, which is not always entirely in key.

I was also very impressed by Ian Bartholomew as George Putnam (Eaverhart’s husband). And I hardly recognised Clive Carter, who has aged a lot (and taken some weight) since I last saw him. He provides some excellent comic relief as Otto Lillienthal and he has the best song of the first act, “Pfffft!,” about the many failures of people who have tried to fly aircraft.

Sam Buntrock’s staging makes the most of the reduced space available given the subject matter of the show. The lighting, by David Howe, is particularly enchanting.

It is somewhat fitting that the Menier Chocolate Factory uses the same model of programmes that the late Bridewell used to: they are offering the same sort of classy and skilled productions, probably getting it even more right.

“Carmen Jones”

Royal Festival Hall, London • 4 August 2007 • 7:30pm
Oscar Hammerstein, II (1943). Music by Georges Bizet.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, John Rigby. Director: Jude Kelly. With Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi (Carmen Jones), Divine Harrison (Joe [understudy]), Sherry Boone (Cindy Lou), Rodney Clarke (Husky Miller)…

This was advertised as a “fully staged” production of Carmen Jones, which gave a misleading representation of the show. Since the orchestra is in a shallow pit built in the middle of the stage, there is only limited space around it for the singers to “move” around it, surrounded by some minimal, static scenery.

Bizet’s music is played beautifully by the RPO (which alternates in the pit with the Philharmonia). But that’s about as far as the list of good points goes, except maybe for the very good performance of Sherry Boone as Cindy Lou.

About everything else is underwhelming: appalling acoustics, a cryptic directorial concept, hugely uneven performances… Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi is an acceptable Carmen, but the quality of her voice doesn’t quite compare with her stunning good looks. Unfortunately, Divine Harrison, doesn’t have the sufficient operatic training to tackle the difficult part of Joe. And the staging badly lacks inspiration.

“Lady Be Good”

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London • 4 August 2007 • 2:30pm
Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton & Fred Thompson.

Director: Ian Talbot. Musical Director: Catherine Jayes. With Chris Ellis-Stanton (Dick Trevor), Kate Nelson (Susie Trevor), Norman Bowman (Jack Robinson), Hattie Ladbury (Josephine Vanderwater), Charlotte Warren (Daisy Parke), Giles Taylor (Bertie Bassett), Paul Grunert (Watty Watkins), Rachel Jerram (Shirley Vernon), Thomas Padden (Manuel Estrada), Steve Watts (Rufus Parke)…

The gods of scheduling have been good to me: right after The Drowsy Chaperone, they allowed me to see the very kind of show that Drowsy pays tribute to. The 1924 Lady Be Good boasted a score by George & Ira Gershwin and a cast led by Fred & Adele Astaire. It is the quintessential 1920s musical: fun and light-hearted. The score of Lady Be Good may be an early effort by the Gershwin brothers, but it already contains much of what made their songs so unique.

The setup of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park doesn’t allow for elaborate set changes or for a large orchestra. But the charming score, the energetic cast and a respectful staging which doesn’t resort too much to a defiant second degree combine to make the experience highly enjoyable.

“The Drowsy Chaperone”

Novello Theatre, London • 3 August 2007 • 7:45pm
Music & lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison. Book by Bob Martin & Don McKellar.

Directed & choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. With Steve Pemberton (Man in Chair), Summer Strallen (Janet Van De Graaff), John Partridge (Robert Martin), Elaine Paige (The Drowsy Chaperone), Joseph Alessi (Adolpho), Nick Holder (Feldzeig), Selina Chilton (Kitty), ? (Mrs. Tottendale), Nickolas Grace (Underling), Sean Kingsley (George), Adam Stafford & Cameron Jack (Gangsters), Enyonam Gbesemete (Trix). [Other audience members’ programmes had an insert with the cast list for the performance. Mine didn’t. It was obvious Mrs. Tottendale was not played by Anne Rogers, and there could have been other understudies without my noticing it.]

When I saw The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway with Bob Martin himself, I reflected that the show relied a lot on the ability of Man in Chair to take us with him into that enchanted world where light-hearted shows, albeit no masterpieces, help make life less difficult when one feels blue. Steve Pemberton, who took over from Bob Martin in this London production, does that superbly. His take on Man in Chair makes the show deeply poignant, especially in the end.

Drowsy is about to close close after two-and-a-half months. Maybe it isn’t that surprising that such a self-referential and somewhat specialist show finds it difficult to touch a wide audience, all the more as the score, although a good pastiche of 1920s music, contains few outstanding numbers. Beside, I couldn’t help thinking that this British version is too broad on the comedic front. Too loud, too farcical, too much mugging. The show doesn’t require that. On the contrary, it kills some of its charm.

But, thanks to Pemberton’s deeply-felt performance, I had a wonderful time, probably even more than on Broadway.

“Around the World”

Lilian Baylis Theatre, London • 8 July 2007 • 4pm
Cole Porter (1946). Book by Orson Welles.

“Lost Musicals” series. Directed by Ian Marshall Fisher. Musical Direction & Piano : Steven Edis. With Jack Klaff (Orson Welles, Inspector Fix), Peter Gale (Phileas Fogg), Valerie Cutko (Aouda), Bryan Torfeh (Passepartout), Valda Aviks (Molly Muggins), Michael Roberts, Richard Stemp & Peter Kenworthy (all other roles!)

As usual, the “Lost Musicals” series allows us to see works that have had very little, if any, stage life since they were originally performed. Such is the case of Cole Porter’s Around the World, which ran for 75 performances on Broadway in 1946 and marked Orson Welles’ only foray into writing the book for a musical.

The work, a stage spectacular based on the Jules Verne novel, is little more than a curio today, and it doesn’t boast any unappreciated, underperformed Porter gem. Giving a concert version of a work that requires so many scene changes, 40 minutes of silent film footage and such a large cast (the original cast included many circus artists) is quite a challenge. Ian Marshall Fisher’s troupe, as usual, rises to it with brio. Much of the fun derives from seeing some of the actors change roles every two minutes. It made me wonder if Porter & Welles meant their work as the sort of broad comedy that was shown to us… or if that was only the unavoidable side-effect of the many limitations of the concert staging.

In any case, one can only be grateful for the opportunity to see this rarity of rarities. And for the pleasure of hearing Herbert Kretzmer, the lyricist of Les Misérables, give a delightful introductory speech.

My VIP streak is continuing. Kim Criswell was sitting in front of me.

Sad news: the Leicester Square Starbucks outlet is now closed. The human race is all the poorer for it.

“Sweeney Todd”

Royal Festival Hall, London • 7 July 2007 • 7:30pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler.

Semi-staged concert. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Stephen Barlow. Director: David Freeman. With Bryn Terfel (Sweeney Todd), Maria Friedman (Mrs. Lovett), Daniel Evans (Tobias), Daniel Boys (Anthony), Emma Williams (Johanna), Philip Quast (Judge Turpin), Steve Elias (The Beadle), Rosemary Ashe (The Beggar Woman)…

I had been lucky to see Bryn Terfel’s masterful take on Sweeney Todd at Chicago’s Lyric Theatre in December of 2002… so I had great expectations for this semi-staged presentation, and rightly so because it turned out to be a hugely enjoyable experience.

Terfel brought a rare intensity to the part. Most of the time he sounded like each syllable could have cut through steel. He was outstanding throughout. Maria Friedman was a very good surprise, as her voice was fuller and more powerful than usual. She went 200% for the laughs and didn’t miss one. (She’ll be forgiven for her blank halfway through “A Little Priest” — thank God Terfel knew her lyrics, too — and for offering Tobias his bonbon far too early during “While I’m Around.”)

The rest of the cast was equally excellent, with the always reliable Philip Quast impersonating a fine Judge Turpin and a new face to me, Daniel Boys, as one of the very best Anthony’s I’ve seen.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave a fine rendition of Sondheim’s beguiling score. There were a lot less musicians than at the New York Philharmonic concert a few years ago, but the magic worked perfectly in the fine new acoustics of the hall.

Interesting how they spent over £90 million on renovating the Festival Hall, and it looks exactly the same as before. During the interval, I saw three VIPs within five minutes: Trevor Nunn, Gareth Valentine and Joanna Lumley (who looked stunning and was sitting exactly two rows behind me).

“Kismet”

English National Opera (Coliseum), London • 7 July 2007 • 2:30pm
(1953.) Music & lyrics by Robert Wright & George Forrest from themes of Alexander Borodin. Book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis founded on a play by Edward Knoblock.

Conductor: Richard Hickox. Director: Gary Griffin. With Michael Ball (A Poet), Graeme Danby (The Wazir), Faith Prince (Lalume), Alfie Boe (The Caliph), Sarah Tynan (Marsinah), Rodney Clarke (Chief Policeman)…

Once more, the English National Opera has managed to transform a fantastic show into a mediocre experience, which is exactly what had happened already with On the Town and with The Gondoliers.

And yet, on paper, it was difficult to get it wrong, especially with such a gorgeous score and with such a talented cast (the superb Graeme Danby as the Wazir, the irresistible Faith Prince as the conniving Lalume and the amazing Michael Ball, who carries the show with breathtaking assuredness, charm and charisma).

But the creative team have joined forces to bring the production down on every conceivable level: uninspired musical direction, ugly scenic design, the poorest sound design I’ve heard in any country including France… and a dull, pedestrian staging.

It is a testimony to the quality of the show and cast that the performance still managed to be enjoyable at times. In its way, the much smaller production at the Arcola Theatre in December 2003 was a lot more professional.

“Side By Side By Sondheim”

The Venue, London • 16 June 2007 • 8pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. With additional music by Leonard Bernstein, Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers & Jule Styne. Narration written by Ned Sherrin.

Director: Hannah Chissick. Associate Director and Choreographer: Adam Cooper. Musical Director: Michael Haslam. With Angela Rippon (Narrator), Alasdair Harvey, Josie Walker, Abbie Osmon.

I had never seen this 1976 Sondheim “compilation” show, a predecessor of Putting It Together and Marry Me a Little. I usually find that Sondheim songs do not “live” happily outside of their original habitat, but when the show is as expertly done as this production of Side By Side By Sondheim, the pleasure can be immense.

Beside the obvious cabaret chestnuts like “The Boy From…” and “I Never Do Anything Twice,” the show features a selection of songs mostly taken from shows written before 1976, although a song from Pacific Overtures has been added.
This production demonstrates that you can create memorable shows with two pianos, three singers and virtually no set. The two-piano arrangements (presumably by Musical Director Michael Haslam) are to die for. And the cast never ceases to amaze, in all the diversity of Sondheim’s style.

Director Hannah Chissick’s staging is full of invention and wit and is admirably complemented by Adam Cooper’s choreography. Some of the numbers actually come across better than any other staging I’ve seen.

There are interesting twists when the songs call for three men (“Pretty Lady”) or three women (“You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” “You Gotta Have a Gimmick”). It was also the first time I’d heard a man sing “Could I Leave You?” It certainly does show the song in a different light.

It’s a shame this production is closing early, because it is hugely successful entertainment.

“Into the Woods”

Royal Opera House (Linbury Studio Theatre), London • 16 June 2007 • 2:30pm (preview)
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine.

Conductor: James Holmes. Director: Will Tuckett. With Gary Waldhorn (Narrator), Gillian Kirkpatrick (Cinderella), Peter Caulfield (Jack), Anne Reid (Jack’s Mother), Clive Rowe (Baker), Anna Francolini (Baker’s Wife), Suzanne Toase (Little Red Riding Hood), Beverley Klein (Witch), Byron Watson (Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince [replacement]), Christina Raphaëlle Haldane (Rapunzel), Nic Greenshields (Rapunzel’s Prince)…

It is customary to refrain from commenting on a preview. However, this promises to be a fine production of Into the Woods, with a mostly fine cast and a lot of interesting stage work from director Will Tuckett. Some added underscoring as well as numerous sound and visual effects give the show a lot of unusual spice. The emphasis seems to be more on the comedic side, though, and the last scenes aren’t as moving as in most other productions I’ve seen.

Although I am a fan of Beverley Klein, I have to admit I wouldn’t have thought of her as an obvious choice to play the Witch. Her performance seems to be quite influenced by her recent stint as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, but it works, somehow. It is also a pleasure to see some reliable and regular West End faces, like Anna Francolini and Clive Rowe. (Nice prop: when the Baker (Rowe) and his wife (Francolini) finally have a baby, it is a nice brown colour.)

“Avenue Q”

Noël Coward Theatre, London • 12 March 2007 • 8pm

Music & lyrics by Robert Lopez & Jeff Marx. Book by Jeff Whitty. Directed by Jason Moore. With Julie Atherton (Kate Monster, Lucy the Slut), Jon Robyns (Princeton, Rod), Simon Lipkin (Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bear), Clare Foster (Mrs. T, Bear…), Yanle Zhong (Christmas Eve [understudy]), Siôn Lloyd (Brian), Giles Terera (Gary).

I think Avenue Q is one of the most groundbreaking, intelligent and infectious musicals of recent years, and its London incarnation is as fresh and invigorating as the show was when it opened on Broadway. Its ability to deal with topical issues in a straightforward manner is only matched by its endless inventiveness and the amazing virtuosity of its puppetry. Plus the score isn’t half bad.

Shows like Avenue Q are what the musical theatre needs. ’Tis a pity there aren’t more of them.

“Follies” in Concert

London Palladium • 4 February 2007 • 7:15pm
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Goldman.

Musical Director: Richard Balcombe. Directed and choreographed by Bill Deamer. With Maria Friedman (Sally), Tim Flavin (Buddy), Liz Robertson (Phyllis), Philip Quast (Ben), Kim Criswell (Carlotta), Imelda Staunton (Hattie), Liliane Montevecchi (Solange), Meg Johnson (Stella), Josephine Barstow (Heidi), Bonaventura Bottone (Roscoe)…

The first time I ever attended a performance of Follies was on December 8, 1996 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It was a concert performance taped for later broadcast by BBC Radio. Although the licensed concert version of Follies has a somewhat bastardized libretto (adding a completely unnecessary radio broadcaster, changing the dialogue and adding a reprise of “Waiting For the Girls Upstairs” at the end), I was thrilled by the experience. The atmosphere in the theatre was electric beyond description and the roar that overcame the auditorium when Stephen Sondheim came to bow at the end will always remain in my memory as a spine-tingling moment.

Seeing this performance of Follies in concert almost exactly ten years later at the similarly-sized London Palladium and with a similarly stellar cast was a bit like a trip back in time. And although I had seen six other productions of Follies in the meantime, the show once again struck me as an irresistible masterpiece of contemporary musical theatre.

Although the show started awkwardly with the audience failing to respond to Maria Friedman’s entrance, it then quickly gathered steam and the high points would be too numerous to list.

As soon as she started singing “Don’t Look at Me,” it became ovious Maria Friedman would be a fine Sally from a dramatic point of view. True, her voice is thin, but Friedman wisely uses it as a sign of her character’s frailty. In “In Buddy’s Eyes” and in “Losing My Mind,” she managed to continue treading the fine line her voice allows her. I have to admit there were a couple of times when I wished her voice had been a little more powerful, though.

Tim Flavin looks a bit too young to me to play Buddy, but he managed to give some interesting substance to what I consider to be the least satisfactorily written character of the main quartet.

Nobody could doubt that Liz Robertson would make a suitably dry Phyllis. And she was in good voice, too. Her “Could I Leave You?” was very good… and she did great with my favourite (music-wise) song in the score, “The Story of Lucy And Jessie” — although she left most of the dancing to the ensemble.

Philip Quast is the one I feel like bestowing the most praise upon. Not only has he got a gorgeously silky voice, but he also played his part wonderfully, ending with a blood-curling nervous breakdown. It was a shame he was not 100% comfortable with his songs — he fell behind or ahead of the music several times — because his would have been a definitive performance.

The four young counterparts were excellent. I believe Adam-Jon Fiorentino as Young Ben is the one who impressed me most (plus he’s drop-dead gorgeous, which didn’t spoil anything).

As for the older parts… can you spell “wonderful?” Their only problem was that some of them didn’t quite look old enough, but apart from that, what a riot they were.

Liliane Montevecchi couldn’t help it: she had to do a few high kicks while walking down the stairs! Her ”Ah, Paris!” was a hoot, mainly because she has now become like a caricature of herself… and God does it work!

Imelda Staunton was nothing short of breathtaking in “Broadway Baby.” She may have had the evening’s second most gorgeous voice after Philip Quast’s. It’s a shame she felt she had to make some minor alterations to the music as written — although, to be fair, that was the case for almost everybody else. But it’s a much bigger shame we don’t get to see her doing musicals more often. The world is all the poorer for it.

Meg Johnson was excellent leading the company in “Who’s That Woman?” Again, they left most of the dancing to the young ’uns, who were quite excellent mostly.

Kim Criswell’s “I’m Still Here” was so enthusiastically received I thought the applause would never end. Deservedly so.

After the interval, the performance started with a superb staging of the “Bolero d’Amore” starting with a somewhat young Vincent dancing with a young partner before swapping her for the older Angela Rippon (Vanessa), who danced magnificently with him.

Another wonderful scene took place when operatic legend Josephine Barstow came to sing “One More Kiss” with her younger counterpart.

The only thing that annoyed me was the very un-theatrical ending of this version, with everybody staying on stage singing a reprise of “Waiting For the Girls Upstairs” instead of giving the play a proper denouement. They could have done all the reprises they wanted after that.

But that’s only a minor quibble. The evening was fantastic and I hope there will be yet another one as exciting ten years from now.

“Blondel”

Pleasance Theatre, London • 30 December 2006 • 2:30pm

Music: Stephen Oliver. Book & lyrics: Tim Rice.
Directed by Patrick Wilde. With Chris Gierson (Blondel), Abi Finley (Fiona), Mark Inscoe (King Richard), Matt Harrop (Prince John), Napoleon Ryan (The Assassin)…

I’d have laughed heartily had anybody told me five years ago that I would one day be able to see a full-scale production of Blondel. But there it is: the Pleasance Theatre, a rather large Fringe theatre, has revived what is usually described as “the first show Tim Rice wrote after Lloyd Webber.”

Blondel is mostly considered as a historical curiosity, and its cast album is described as a cult-ish memorandum of a not-too-good show. And yet, I thought the show worked pretty well if you see it for what it is: a freewheeling, unabashed comedy that relies heavily on anachronisms and wordplay to entertain. At that game, it fares infinitely better than, say, Spamalot, a somewhat comparable show which founders under its own silliness.

Stephen Oliver’s music is varied and catchy, feeding itself on numerous influences. And, surprise!, Tim Rice’s lyrics seem a bit more inspired than in his previous works. There is real joy in lines like these from the “Assassin’s Song:”

They were tortured in the orchard.
(It was messy with fruit but I have improved since then.)

Other songs like “No Rhyme for Richard” or “Saladin Days” are pretty clever, too.

The uniformly excellent cast also contributed a lot to making this an enjoyable performance. I particularly liked the villains: Matt Harrop as Prince John and Napoleon Ryan as the Assassin — but villains are usually dream parts, for some reason.

I found that the fun wore off a bit during the second act and I started looking at my watch a bit… but this production of Blondel will remain as an unexpectedly pleasant experience in my memory.

“Porgy and Bess”

Savoy Theatre, London • 25 November 2006 • 7:30pm

“A new musical production by” George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin.
Adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn. Music adapted by Gareth Valentine. Choreography by Jason Pennycooke. With Clarke Peters (Porgy), Nicola Hughes (Bess), Cornell S. John (Crown), O.-T. Fagbenle (Sporting Life),…

It’s amazing that the opera that sometimes was accused to be a musical in disguise is now officially presented as a musical. Trevor Nunn has made the show shorter, has replaced the recitatives by spoken scenes taken either from the original novel, Porgy, by DuBose Heyward or from the non-musical play Heyward co-wrote with his wife Dorothy. Gareth Valentine has reduced the score for 20 musicians. And, of course, there is amplification.

The result, I have to say, is spectacular. The score shines throughout and benefits in places from the “lighter” treatment. Some pieces that never made it into the 1935 score, like a funky prologue, are wonderful discoveries. The staging is magnificent, with superb visuals and great choreography. Good performances from the cast and orchestra.

Another proof that, whether as an opera or as a musical, Porgy and Bess is truly a masterpiece of the musical theatre.

“Little Shop of Horrors”

Menier Chocolate Factory, London • 26 November 2006 • 3:30pm [preview]

Book and lyrics: Howard Ashman. Music: Alan Menken.
Director: Matthew White. Musical Director: Alan Berry. With Sheridan Smith (Audrey), Paul Keating (Seymour), Barry James (Mushnik), Jasper Britton (Orin Scrivello et al.),…

It seems to me that the theatre at the Menier Chocolate Factory cannot do anything wrong. After the remarkable production of Sunday in the Park With George and a very nice staging of The Last Five Years, the Menier goes into a completely different territory with Little Shop of Horrors. Does it get it right? You bet! This is first-class theatre. Once again, the limited space seems to work wonders. David Farley, who already designed Sunday in the Park With George, has provided a wonderfully gritty Skid Row, in many ways more successful than that of the recent Broadway offering.

Director Matthew White, already responsible for The Last Five Years, has assembled a great cast, led by a superb Sheridan Smith as Audrey (nobody can replace Ellen Greene, but Smith comes pretty close) and West End veteran Barry James as Mushnik. Interestingly, James played the part of Seymour in the original London production of Little Shop and hence comes full circle, so to speak. White’s staging is full of imagination and adds quite a lot to the fun of the libretto.

I loved every second of it.

“The Sound of Music”

London Palladium • 25 November 2006 • 2:30pm

Music: Richard Rodgers. Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II. Book: Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
Director: Jeremy Sams. Musical Director: Michael Lloyd. With Connie Fisher (Maria), Alexander Hanson (Captain Von Trapp), Lesley Garrett or Margaret Preece (The Mother Abbess), Sophie Bould (Liesl), Ian Gelder (Max), Neil McDermott (Rolf), Lauren Ward (Baroness Schraeder)…

Apparently it has become a rule that every new stage production of The Sound of Music has to be a bastardized version shifting the songs around and incorporating the two songs that Richard Rodgers wrote for the movie, “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good.” The songlist of this new London production is much closer to that of the 1998 Broadway revival than to that of the original production, even if there are some differences still: Maria and The Mother Abbess sing “My Favorite Things” in Scene 2, and “The Lonely Goatherd” is in the first act.

One of the strongest moments of the show is the very beginning, when the nuns give a mind-blowing rendition of the a cappella “Preludium.” Then the show has ups and downs. Maybe it’s a bit too sugary for the 21st century. Maybe there’s a general lack of charisma in the cast, starting with Connie Fisher, winner of the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” TV competition, who doesn’t have much presence. I have no idea which actress I saw in the part of the Mother Abbess since I couldn’t find the information anywhere.

And yet, the show looks glorious, with some of the best sets (by Robert Jones, of Lautrec fame) I’ve seen in a while. And it does pick up steam pretty nicely in the second act. During the music festival, the auditorium is covered in nazi regalia, a rather effective and blood-curling moment (slightly reminiscent of Jérôme Savary’s staging of Cabaret, when svastikas appeared during “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”).

The ending is quite successful, with a nifty piece of staging allowing the Von Trapps to escape in the mountains while at the same time facing the audience for the final image.