“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.

Advertisements

“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.

“Xanadu”

Helen Hayes Theatre, New York • 21 July 2007 • 2pm
Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Music & Lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farrar. Based on the Universal Pictures Film Screenplay.

Directed by Christopher Ashley. With Kerry Butler (Clio/Kira), Curtis Holbrook (Sonny [understudy]), Tony Roberts (Danny Maguire/Zeus), Mary Testa (Melpomene/Medusa), Jackie Hoffman (Calliope/Aphrodite)…

Some movies, however bad, can hold a special status in our minds… and that, for me, is very much the case with Xanadu, one of the very first movie musicals I saw in the early 1980s. The film is generally considered as a dud, but it marked Gene Kelly’s last appearance on the silver screen and it boasted a glorious soundtrack which quickly became my most-often played LP. Then the soundtrack was released on CD, and I thought life couldn’t possibly smile more on me. Then the movie came out on DVD, and I thought I couldn’t be luckier. Well, as it turns out, I could. Somebody came up with the crazy idea of turning Xanadu into a Broadway musical… and the outcome is a wildly enjoyable show which seems to have gotten just about everything right.

While the score is virtually intact and reproduces the excitement of the movie’s soundtrack, the book has been infused with a lot of second- and third-degree humour. The short, intermissionless, 90-minute show thus becomes a sort of loving spoof of the movie.

Kerry Butler gives a wonderful performance as Clio, the part played in the movie by Olivia Newton-John. Butler’s portrayal comes complete with a mock Australian drawl and some of Newton-John’s trademark postures. There are also two irresistibly funny performances from Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman. And it is always a treat to see Broadway veteran Tony Roberts (recreating, of course, the role originally played by Gene Kelly).

The leading male part of Sonny is officially played by James Carpinello, but he couldn’t open the show due to an injury during rehearsals. In his absence, the part of Sonny is usually played by Broadway heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson, but “due to a prior commitment,”Jackson is out of the show July 17–26, so the two understudies for the role play the part in turn. I caught Curtis Holbrook, who acquitted himself very nicely. I must admit I would have been curious to see the other understudy, André Ward, a black actor who gives one of the most outrageously outlandish performances in a series of roles that include Terpsicore and a Centaur…