Sunday, June 24, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 50: ON YOUR TOES (1936) (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart)

I have been asked many times what my favourite musical is and I do always struggle: having seen so many it's always hard to be so definitive... but let's give it a go, eh?  Anyone compiling a "best of.." list immediately hits a wall, should one be objective or subjective, heart or head?  I have had to be fairly ruthless in dropping shows to a manageable 50 but, of course, some personal feelings for shows will have coloured my objectivity with the remaining titles.

So let's launch into the 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1936, Imperial Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1984, Palace Theatre, London
Productions seen: one

Score: Richard Rodgers / Lorenz Hart
Book: Rodgers / Hart / George Abbott

Plot: Phil Dolan, a former vaudeville performer is now a music teacher and is so impressed with a jazz ballet written by one of his students that he manages to get it performed by a visiting Russian ballet company.  However romantic complications ensue when he is targeted by the imperious Russian prima ballerina Vera Baronova, whose ballet partner/lover is driven to murderous revenge.


A shining example of the best of 1930s musicals with likeable characters, a smooth-running book which links the musical numbers like carriages on a brightly-coloured train and a memorable, tune-packed score.  34 years after seeing this, I still remember the thrill of seeing prima ballerina assoluta Natalia Makarova turn her pure star wattage to musical comedy and in particular, her breathtaking, sinuous sexuality dancing Balanchine's SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE.  It's about time for a revival... 
Click on Al Hirschfeld's great illustration below to watch highlights from a 2013 Broadway Encores! semi-staged concert version...

Friday, June 22, 2018

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON at The Bridge Theatre: from the page to the stage...

...something can get lost along the way.

When it was announced that US stage and screen actress Laura Linney was to make her UK stage debut directed by Richard Eyre I jumped at the chance to go; since she first came to my attention in the late 1990s, Laura Linney has been an actress that I have admired for her crisp and cool performances in both comedy and drama on both big and small screens.  She did not disappoint, she was remarkable on stage... the play however...

It was all the more annoying as Eyre's production is beautifully nuanced and paced throughout it's 90 minute running time, helped by Peter Mumford's subtle lighting and Bob Crowley's elegant set design.  Sadly the play - an adaptation by Rona Munro of a novel by Elizabeth Strout - felt too thin for the energy expended on it by the creative team.

Laura Linney played the titular character Lucy Barton, a successful novelist living in her beloved New York with her husband  and two children, everything the way it should be.  But Lucy is admitted to an up-market hospital with an illness that proves hard to diagnose so her expected short stay drags on for weeks and she feels herself coming adrift from her life despite the trust she puts in her elderly Jewish doctor.  Worried how Lucy is alone most of the time, her husband calls Lucy's estranged mother from the Midwest to come and keep her company in the hospital.

This situation is fraught with problems, especially as mother and daughter have had a distant relationship for some years with little points of contact.  As her mother bombards her with long-forgotten inhabitants of the same town where Lucy grew up, the daughter muses on their relationship and the more painful memories of living with a father who returned from WWII psychologically damaged.

What her childhood did give Lucy was a yearning to read and write and instilled in her the desire to get away from her limited options for success in her small town and escape to NY to become a writer.  A wary relationship develops between mother and daughter again but as soon as Lucy appears to be on the mend, her mother disappears as abruptly as she arrived; it is only later on when Lucy has to re-evaluate her life that she can join the dots between her parents and her own children.

I am sure that people who know the book might get something more out of seeing it dramatized but I found myself enervated by the story which for all it's psychological digging and attempt to write about the current landscape of American lives, I just found to be just a modern take on the big-dreams-in-a-small-city tale which in the past would have served as the engine to many a Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck star vehicle, or a mundane tv-movie of the week. 

Added to that, the rather tentative psychological insights of the play - which takes in such touchstones as the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and September 11th - reminded me of what Virginia Woolf said of the writing of a contemporary female writer "It aims to soar but agrees to perch". Although to be honest, it was in this last part of the play, when Lucy tells us of all that happened after leaving the hospital, that Laura Linney really came into her own and held us all in the palm of her hand.

Her cool, reserved quality was a good way in to the play and Crowley's spare set of a hospital bed, a night-stand and a chair, meant that all attention was focused on her exquisite performance which included a subtle shift in accent when playing the mother which gave that character a distinctive personality.  Linney's humane Lucy Barton held the audience rapt until the final well-deserved ovation.

I am so pleased to have seen this remarkable actress finally on stage in such a nicely calibrated production... it's just a shame I found the play to not be worthy of their talents.  I have now been to The Bridge three times and each time have left vaguely unsatisfied.  Maybe it's the space itself?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

AS YOU LIKE IT and THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN at the Globe - Back to the Bard...

Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer, by this daughter of Terry... well, for now anyway.  Like a Duke in a Shakespeare play I have been in exile from The Globe in Southwark since 2016, after being subjected to the childish Theatre-In-Education-style productions under that victim-card-playing creature Emma Rice, the personification of all that is ghastly with dumbed-down British Director Theatre where all is surface and hollow.  Her leaving was trumpeted as sexism on the part of the Globe Board, when in fact other issues were more pressing... like, where did all the volunteer staff go?

But now we have the fine actress Michelle Terry as the Globe's new Artistic Director and the first two performances have been great fun... yes, they have the now mandatory non-traditional casting but they were both played with such brio that it could be forgiven, unlike Rice's infantile look-at-me look-at-me revisionism.

For me AS YOU LIKE IT is an ironical title as I have never seen a production that I have liked!  Some have been good in parts but none have seized my imagination and proved truly memorable unlike other Shakespeare plays.  Terry has started her season with AS YOU LIKE IT and HAMLET performed by a rep company of 12 and I must say the cast was an area that was problematical for me.

Jack Laskey was a very good Rosalind, playing up the ambiguities when she disguises herself as Ganymede, but her two main onstage partners were a bit of a worry.  They will no doubt say that the gender balance was maintained by Bettrys Jones playing Orlando - but what's the point when she made absolutely no impact in the role?  Something that is unanswered in gender-blind casting is: which would an actress rather play - Rosalind or Orlando?  Why take roles from actresses only to reassign them to male roles that they cannot bring to life? 

Laskey's other stage partner proved more problematical - deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah is playing Celia, and while dramatically it worked to illustrate Celia's own marginalization within her father's court, when one's understanding of any particular scene is compromised by the fact that Celia's lines are rendered silently, what is the point?  I had honestly never realized how many lines Celia had until they were silently spoken.  I am all for Nadarajah being given her chance to work but "The play's the thing" and surely any casting choice that deliberately hinders the understanding of that play should be questioned.  I must admit I have wondered now we are in the tipsy-tarty world of gender and ethnic blind casting, which brave theatre director will choose a white actor for OTHELLO?  Not this tide.

Meanwhile back in the forest of Arden... there were excellent performances from Colin Hurley as a loud and leering Touchstone and, in the performance of the evening, Pearce Quigley brought his louche and whacked-out charm to Jaques, for once his mournful and cynical interjections ringing totally true; there was even a really nice touch when he concluded "The seven ages of man" speech by suddenly bursting into tears.

There are other charming performances lurking in the invisible forest too: Tanika Yearwood made a real impression with some quality singing as Amiens and took to the skies as Hymen,  Helen Schlesinger did some neat slight-of-hand swapping from the kindly exiled Duke to the usurping Duke by simply turning her frock-coat inside out, Shubham Saraf was a memorable Oliver - not often said - and James Garnon, not an actor I usually like - had great fun as a stroppy and sluttish Audrey.  It goes without saying that I liked Michelle Terry's supporting turn as Adam, Orlando's old courtier - as soon as she spoke her lines you knew she was a real Shakespearean.

There are two directors credited for the production but I was vaguely annoyed at how the blocking of the scenes seem to have been worked out in the rehearsal room rather than the stage so The Globe's dodgy acoustics were not addressed and more often than not lines were not heard by them not being addressed to the whole audience: when you are battling noisy crowds outside, incongruous emergency sirens and aircraft noise above you need all the help you can get by simply taking in all the sides of the stage.

But despite my issues with it, I enjoyed it a lot!  The sheer joy of playing to that audience on that stage came through loud and clear and I felt some of the delight that I got from seeing productions at the Globe before the Bitter Rice years.

Four days later we were back to our new-found favourite seating - the back row of the first tier as it has an all-important back to the purgatorial benches - to see my first-ever production of THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, written circa 1613-14 which has the claim of being possibly the last play Shakespeare ever worked on, here in collaboration with John Fletcher, one of three dual plays, the others being HENRY VIII and the now-lost CARDENIO.

It has the distinct cut-and-shunt quality of a play that has been passed back and forth between two writers, each taking their favourite plotline in new directions before the tone shifts again and we are back on another plotline.  Singularly lacking in poetic flight, it gives you an idea of the plays which would have been quickly worked on and put on to feed the need for new plays in the new theatres of Jacobean London.

The rulers of Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta, declare war on the ruler of Thebes and vanquish the tyrant.  Theseus captures two of Thebes' finest fighters, the close friends Arcite and Palamon, and although he admires their courage and skills, he has to imprison them.  The two friends are happy they are together and do not fear imprisonment as long as they are together.  However this sworn devotion is broken when they both fall in love at first sight with the beautiful Athenian princes Emilia.

Arcite is released but is banished from Athens, he returns in disguise and after winning a wrestling match, becomes Emilia's bodyguard.  The jailer's daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and she releases him from his cell; he escapes into the Athenian woods with the lovesick daughter in pursuit but he ignores her which drives her mad.  Her madness however does not stop her joining in an exuberant Morris dance for Theseus and Hippolyta.

Palamon and Arcite meet again and despite the latter providing his friend with food and arms, they fight again. They are interrupted when the court discover them and Theseus demands them both executed.  However after Hippolyta and Emilia plea for mercy, he ordains that the friends fight in a public tournament with the winner marrying Emelia, the loser to be put to death.  Who will win the challenge, and who will ultimately win Emelia?

It has odd echoes of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM with lovers pursuing the unloving into the Athenian woods, a group of Athenian citizens rehearsing in the forest and the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta, while the jailer's daughter lovesick derangement reminds you of Ophelia in HAMLET - it feels like Shakespeare thinking "Oh I'll just chuck in one of my greatest hits..."  It is such a disjointed tale that I would think twice about seeing a straight version of it.

But here we have Barrie Rutter directing it, his first production since standing down from being Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides, the company he set up in 1992, and he gives us a rollicking, colourful, big-hearted version of the play which is totally winning.  He keeps the action moving around the Globe's stage and never lets the pace drop until the inevitable final jig.

He elicits unshowy, committed performances from his band of merrie players: Bryan Dick and Paul Stocker are good as the former friends, Francesca Mills is a delight as the jailer's daughter and there is fine support from Moyo Akandé as a Gorbals Hippolyta, Jude Akiwudike as Theseus and Jos Vantyler as the teacher leading the Morris dancers.  Ex-KINKY BOOTS star Matt Henry plays Theseus' right-hand man Pirithous so slightly that one suspects his MBE for services to theatre might have been bestowed somewhat prematurely, while Elloria Torchia's lightweight Emelia made you wonder what our Two Noble Kinsmen saw in her.

But these two quibbles aside, I thought Barrie Rutter - one of my original GUYS AND DOLLS heroes from the National Theatre in 1982 - triumphed with this production and shows that he has just the right populist touch needed for The Globe.  I hope it's not too long before he is back there.

So two productions in and I am won over to the Globe under Michelle Terry's leadership - we have HAMLET, LOVE'S LABOURS LOST (at the pretty but agonizingly painful-seated Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), and OTHELLO to go so I will keep you updated on the progress through the season.

As Michelle Terry quotes from HAMLET in her introduction to the season "Come, let's go together..."

Monday, June 11, 2018

THE RINK at Southwark Playhouse - rolling back the years...

 When I heard that Southwark Playhouse were going to stage Kander & Ebb's musical THE RINK I was excited tempered with worry... always the way when a favourite show is being revived.

In 1984, THE RINK premiered on Broadway with the killer-diller casting of Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli as estranged mother and daughter Anna and Angel Antonelli, fighting over the imminent demolition of their former home, a roller-skating rink on a now-derelict boardwalk.  Anna is glad to finally be rid of the place as it is filled with memories of her unhappy married life and later struggles as a lone parent, while for Angel it's the only home she has ever known after years of unfulfilled searching in California.  When she discovers Anna forged her signature on the sale contract, Angel declares war...

Despite the star headliners and a score that is classic Kander & Ebb, the critics were unimpressed and it lasted six months with Liza leaving before the end to check into rehab, Stockard Channing replacing her for the last few weeks.  In retrospect, maybe that was the way it should have been all along: Kander and Ebb had wanted it originally as an off-Broadway show with a different book and director, their friend Liza expressed an interest and the investment money poured in, a new director was brought on board and Terence McNally was asked to write a new book.  Although judged a failure it did however win Chita Rivera both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Actress in A Musical.

Jump forward three years and I am on a train up to Manchester to see the British Premiere at Paul Kerryson's northern musical powerhouse The Forum Theatre in Wythenshawe starring the equally magnificent musical talents of Josephine Blake and Diane Langton.  They had whetted my appetite by singing some of the songs in the Kander & Ebb tribute show HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET! that I couldn't let the opportunity pass.... little did I know they were to transfer to London's Cambridge Theatre.  But, as I got in to see them in their shared dressing-room after, I'm glad I did!

But history repeated itself: despite their explosive performances and the energetic performances by the male chorus of six, the show received cool reviews from the critics and the show closed after a month despite the goodwill of all who saw it and a rallying campaign by Jo Blake who told me she suspected double-dealing from the show's management.  It was all very sad but their dynamic production lives on with the cast recording which captures some of their two unique performances.

But to the Southwark playhouse and a new audience... and a new text!  There were a few new lines, an altered finale and the biggest surprise was that the show's opening solo for Angel COLOURED LIGHTS now closes the first act rather than a short reprise; I am not totally sure it worked.  The show now starts with the book rather with one of Kander & Ebb's signature solo numbers to whisk you into the score straightaway.

Director Adam Lenson's production however moved along like the demolition men on their roller-skates - maybe a bit too briskly at times as several of the numbers were cut-off before the end of the song which frustrated the audience - alright, me - in giving the performers their due.

The pairing of Caroline O'Connor and Gemma Sutton worked well, although both oddly seemed to have dodgy moments with demanding numbers in the second act - Anna's MRS A and Angel's ALL THE CHILDREN IN A ROW - and in the first section of the play O'Connor sometimes over-sold her line-readings - she seemed to be channelling Popeye - but she calmed down as the show went on. No such worries with Gemma Sutton whose Angel was nicely poker-faced and combative.

The six supporting actors who play the demolition men also portray all the men - and sometimes women - in Anna and Angel's flashbacks and I particularly liked Ross Dawes for his spectacular spins in the title number and Ben Redfern's Lenny, quietly loving Anna from afar.  The way the auditorium has been configured for this production has cut down on the space for the chaps to do their skating in the title number but Fabian Aloise's choreography managed to still make an impact.

THE RINK is running until June 23rd and if you have never seen it before I urge you to get down to Southwark Playhouse and experience John Kander and Fred Ebb's wonderful Broadway score. My memories of Jo and Di are still intact but it was great to experience it all over again... and congratulate myself on my taste in musicals!

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Dvd/150: TYSTNADEN (The Silence) (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Ingmar Bergman wanted to make a film with no dialogue but capitulated during filming however TYSTNADEN still only contains about 37 lines of text.

It serves the film's study of alienation: sisters Ester and Anna, are travelling home after a journey abroad with Anna's young son Johan,  They are travelling during an oppressive heatwave through a country in the middle of a military coup.

External tensions match the internal... Ester has a consumptive illness and is fading, while Anna is losing patience with her assumed role of carer.  They stop off in an un-named town, staying in a faded grand hotel.

Bored, Anna ventures into the noisy city, wordlessly picking up a waiter.  Her son Johan wanders the gloomy corridors, as lonely as his mother and aunt.  The uneasy sibling relationship shatters that night...

Searing performances from Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom and young Jorgen Lindstrom illuminate the gloom.

Shelf or charity shop?  Not the easiest film to experience but this third in Bergman's loose trilogy on "God's silence" is a keeper...


Friday, June 01, 2018

RED at the Wyndhams Theatre - Molina's masterpiece

Two-handers are tricky plays to pull off.  There is the apocryphal story of two actors slogging through a two-hander when there was an offstage knock at a door which elicited a cry from the audience "Whoever it is... let them IN!"

I must admit there were a few times I felt someone... anyone... would be welcome additions while watching John Logan's play RED which is being revived at the Wyndhams Theatre.  The play premiered in 2009 at the Donmar directed by Michael Grandage while he was the artistic director there; the play transferred to Broadway, bypassing the West End, where it was won 6 Tony Awards including Best Play.  Astonishingly the one award it lost out on was for it's strongest asset, Alfred Molina as the painter Mark Rothko.

It's 1958 and the painter Mark Rothko is preparing for a major commission, the newly completed Seagram Building architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson have asked Rothko to provide murals for the building's exclusive Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko has hired a young studio assistant called Ken to help him mix the paints and stretch the canvasses.  Ken's admiration of the new Pop Art movement incurs Rothko's disdain but when Ken questions Rothko's decision to provide paintings for the Four Seasons' elite diners is when the paint really hits the fan...

My problem with the play - that runs 90 minutes with no interval - was that it very soon became fairly predictable: a series of squabbles where the two protagonists take black/white positions, it's all quite wearing no matter how well it's acted.  Great "themes" are raised but I felt Logan had no particular standpoint on any of them - they were raised just to give the actors something to do.

The thin play however is surrounded by an excellent production: it is well directed by Michael Grandage in his clear, understated style - the non-verbal highlight being where the two actors launch into priming a large blank canvas a dark red colour; working as an aria plays, Molina and Enoch speed paint the canvas, at one point thrillingly in time to the music.

Neil Austin's lighting is up to his usual high standard but the real winner here is Christopher Oram's wonderfully detailed set of Rothko's downtown art studio - during the more mundane stretches of Logan's script it was a pleasure to let my eyes wander over the set to relish the verisimilitude.

The fictional role of Ken was originated by Eddie Redmayne - even winning the Tony for Best Supporting Actor - but here the role goes to Alfred Enoch, late of the Harry Potter film franchise.  I cannot say he ever made any impression on me in them but here he gave a capable enough performance but the character never rang true - he was just an Aunt Sally for Rothko to argue against everything he hates about the current art scene.

As I said the main reason to see the play was Alfred Molina's marvellous portrayal of the conflicted genius Rothko.  Molina made him a real force of nature, a human bull-in-an-arts-supply-shop who knows his own worth but battles with an underlying dread that "one day the black will swallow the red" which of course happened in 1970 when he took his own life, possibly due to growing ill-health.  Molina knew how to colour the emotions though as in his character's crestfallen bitterness when he finally views the Four Seasons and realizes his error in agreeing the commission.

RED is worth seeing for Alfred Molina's larger-than-life Rothko and Michael Grandage's production but the play itself is a little like watching paint dry.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dvd/150: MUJERES AL BORDE DE UN ATAQUE DE NERVIOS (Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown) (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)

30 years on, the film that catapulted Almodóvar to international acclaim still glows with colour, fun and warmth.

Pepa is desperate... she's burned the bed, filled the Gazpacho with tranquilizers and ripped the phone out because her lover Ivan has left her and is not returning her calls....

But she is interrupted by her friend Candela, on the run now the police have arrested her lover as a terrorist, and Carlos and Marisa who arrive to view the flat...   and Carlos is Ivan's estranged son.  Outside, Ivan's wife Lucia, institutionalized for 20 years after he left her, is out for revenge...

Almodóvar allows the farce to develop at it's own unforced pace which allow you to fully appreciate Carmen Maura's magnificent performance as Pepa.

Almodóvar's glorious ensemble includes Julieta Serrano (Lucia), Antonio Banderas (Carlos), Rossy de Palma (Marisa), Maria Barranco (Candela), Fernando Guillén (Ivan) and Kiti Manver as his lover.

Shelf or charity shop?  As long as I have a shelf... this will be on it!