Wednesday, August 31, 2011

One of the most exciting nights in the theatre last year was our trip to Lincoln Center, NY to see Bartlett Sher's wondrous production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, marking it's first Broadway revival in 54 years! Luckily we had a chance to re-visit this production last week in the not-as-far Barbican Centre (and this time with no snowy streets outside!)Well swipe me if we hadn't booked for the opening night! Seeing a red carpet and autograph collectors should have tipped me off but it was only when we saw Rolf Harris, Barbara Windsor and Miranda Hart in the auditorium that the penny dropped! But we were there to see the show not the audience. There was an oo-er moment when Bartlett Sher stepped out on the stage and informed us that although Samantha Womack (née Janus) had broken her toe a day or so earlier she would be going on thanks to Dr. Theatre.

The production has been somewhat curtailed by being squeezed into the smaller stage and although the music still sounds glorious played live, the orchestra sounded slightly less encompassing than at Lincoln Center. However the production still thrills, delights and makes your jaw drop that it's score can contain so many classics that not only work as stand-alone classics but more importantly still manage to move the story forward.One of the production's biggest surprises was how well Samantha Womack coped with such a major musical role. The actress playing Nellie has songs that range from the broad comedy of HONEY BUN and I'M GONNA WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUTTA MY HAIR to the big solos like A COCK-EYED OPTIMIST and I'M IN LOVE WITH A WONDERFUL GUY - oh and she has to go from comedy to drama quite abruptly. Although her voice isn't as strong as our NY Nellie - Laura Osnes - she certainly had a grip on the character and any reservations I had brought with me were soon forgotten.

We also saw finally Paulo Szot who played Emile originally at Lincoln Center and although he stopped the show dead with a stunning THIS NEARLY WAS MINE, I must admit I preferred our NY Emile, David Pittsinger. I am not sure whether it was down to him possibly being over-familiar with the part having played it off and on for such a long time or Pittsinger's more mature ruggedness being a better fit for the character but I was a bit underwhelmed by him. I must also admit that, akin to the recently-seen PYGMALION, a little more chemistry between Womack and Szot wouldn't have gone amiss. Another Walford escapee Alex Fearns plays the spivy Seebee Luther Billis and was quite effective in the role, making a real impression as a character and not just someone who moves the comedy along. The production has a major find in Daniel Koek as Lt. Joe Cable, nicely playing the character's shift from loner to lover and socking over YOUNGER THAN SPRINGTIME and YOU'VE GOT TO BE CAREFULLY TAUGHT with power and conviction.

We were lucky too that Loretta Ables Sayre has travelled with the show to reprise her wonderful performance as Bloody Mary. She is a magnetic performer and perfectly captures not only the character's humour but also her hard-edged survivalist nature - her version of HAPPY TALK turns the song not into just a cute throwaway number but a song sung with a growing desperation and underlying threat.There was good support from Nigel Williams too as the Captain Brackett and the ensemble work is consistently good.

If you want a great night out with a genuine musical triumph get along to the Barbican before October 1st - but also keep in mind the show will be touring after this date.

You'll laugh, you'll cry... I did.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My other belated theatre blog is for the latest production at the Donmar, Eugene O'Neill's 1921 play of redemption and a life on the ocean wave, ANNA CHRISTIE.
It's strange that it has taken this long for the play to appear at the Donmar as it seems a shoe-in for any smallish theatre needing a solid well-made prestige play - it also only has four major roles! It has not been seen in the West End since Natasha Richardson's award-winning performance nineteen years ago at the Young Vic - when she repeated the role the next year in NY opposite Liam Neeson it led to their marriage and her re-locating to live there.
The piece is most well-known for providing the vehicle for Greta Garbo's debut in talking pictures in 1930. Two years elapsed between the release of Al Jolson's THE JAZZ SINGER and the release of ANNA CHRISTIE and during that time Garbo had starred in 6 silent films as M-G-M searched for just the right film to launch their Swedish star onto the now listening public. But Anna's Swedish background gave Garbo the the perfect role and she went on to garner her first Academy Award nomination for her performance. Her opening lines, "Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side... and don't be stingy baby" have entered film history. But what of the Donmar production? The production is directed by Rob Ashford who was responsible for the theatre's 2009 revival of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and both productions share the same downbeat spit-and-sawdust atmosphere - how different to his HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING which we saw earlier this year in New York!

O'Neill's play tells the story of Anna, a young woman who comes east to the docks of New York to find the father who entrusted her to relatives on a farm after the death of her mother while he worked on his coal barge. Old Chris is nervously excited about seeing her after so long, only knowing from her infrequent letters that she worked as a nursemaid in Minnesota. His drink-sozzled mistress Marthy knows better when she spots Anna enter the dockside bar and their wary, cagey conversation reveals that Anna was working in a brothel until arrested and sent to jail. All options shot, she now wants her father to support her. During a storm at sea, Chris and Anna rescue sailors from a shipwreck and the last one saved is Mat Burke, a belligerent Irish stoker whose rollicking Blarney steamrollers Anna into a love affair. When Mat and Chris battle for the right to 'own' Anna, she angrily denounces them both and the long line of men who have used and abused her. Confronted with the truth of Anna's past how forgiving will her father and lover be?

O'Neill certainly powers his plot along in only four scenes and, despite the clunky repetition of Old Chris' simile of "that old devil sea", his rangy and muscular dialogue still keeps you rolling with the punches. He certainly created one of the great female roles of the last century in Anna and it's a shame we have not seen more actresses have the opportunity to play her.
Ruth Wilson played her with Anna's raw nerves fully exposed: from her first appearance staring down the hungry looks of the bar-room men to her last, alone again but stronger than before, she delivered a powerful performance which would have been a great performance if she had found more space for Anna's humanity.

The performance of the evening however was from Jude Law as Mat. Proving to be as much of a force of nature as the storm in which he makes his first appearance, this was the best I have ever seen him on stage. Even if his brogue was tempest tossed from Kerry in Ireland to Kingston in Jamaica, Law gave such a bravura performance that you could not take your eyes off him. For once he gave a performance which justified his star status.
David Hayman wrestled with the potentially deadly role of the salty Sveedish sea dog and eventually managed to overcome the hurdy-gurdy accent and repetitive dialogue to give a well-rounded performance.

Jenny Galloway proved that when it comes to scene-stealing she's the best around. However she really needs to find a play that allows her the chance to do her larceny more than once - here as in CAUSE CELEBRE and AFTER THE DANCE she only appeared in one scene! Although not written by O'Neill it would have been nice if Ashford had interpolated the extra scene included in the 1930 film for Marie Dressler as Marthy when she turns up begging while Anna and Mat are in a Coney Island beer garden. The production was aided immeasurably by Paul Wills' adaptable set, Howard Harrison's evocative moody lighting and Adam Cork's sound design. All in all, another memorable Donmar visit.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It appears I have let a few theatre trips slip by unnoticed although it's certainly not because I disliked them.

A few weeks ago we went to see George Bernard Shaw's most popular play PYGMALION at the Garrick Theatre with the intriguing casting of Rupert Everett as Henry Higgins, Kara Tointon as Eliza Doolittle and Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins.
The production was directed and designed by Philip Prowse who used to be the artistic director of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. Back in the day I saw a few of Prowse's London productions - although none which featured Everett who I have surprisingly never seen on stage before.

Prowse's productions always had a visual swagger but his directorial skills never seemed to come across as being particularly incisive or having much joy in them. Here though he gave us a production which moved with speed and a twinkle in the eye. Prowse's design was also slightly more restrained than usual - the only excess being a very obviously theatrical red swagged curtain.
I enjoyed Rupert Everett's bullish and bullying Professor Higgins, taking great delight in his challenge of turning a gauche cockney flower girl into a polite lady while blithely ignoring the fact that Eliza might have feelings as well as dropped aitches. He had good chemistry with Peter Eyre's humane Col. Pickering and in his scenes with Diana Rigg, as his quietly caustic mother, he showed that here was one woman he couldn't dominate. His handling of the final confrontation scene was expertly done as Higgins shifts from exasperated humour to a sniping combativeness.

Kara Tointon certainly made an impressive West End debut as Eliza but as seems to be the norm for all actresses playing this role, her Cockernee accent was totally over-the-top. I've never seen the text but even if the lines are written all Gawd Blimey it would be nice for a director just once to have the actress play the role in an ordinary London accent. She was very effective in the tea party scene where Eliza test-runs her 'proper' accent to the puzzlement of all present and she certainly held her own in the final argument with Higgins. The one thing lacking was any noticeable chemistry between the two leads. Needless to say Diana Rigg - who was herself an onstage Eliza in the 1970s opposite Alec McCowan - stole her scenes as Mrs. Higgins, quietly exasperated at her son's crassness but capable of cutting him to the quick with a polite put-down. It must be said however that Prowse did her no favours with some awful costumes! Michael Feast also had great fun as Eliza's guttersnipe father Alfred with a fine line in bristling indignation - especially when he is left a legacy that catapults him into the dreaded middle class.

I am not a Shaw lover to be honest - that thumping tone always finding it's way through the prose - but PYGMALION still knows exactly how to lull it's audience into social comedy security before challenging them with the debate about the war of the sexes.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Last week it was time to return to the Menier for the first time in over a year - since the debacle that was PARADISE FOUND in fact. It was to see another musical but this one actually lived up to it's hype, Stephen Sondheim's ROAD SHOW. It took a long time to get here.

In 1999 Sondheim and John Weidman (his book writer on PACIFIC OVERTURES and ASSASSINS) staged a workshop of the show under the title WISE GUYS with Nathan Lane and Victor Garber as the real-life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner which foundered afterwards during a legal dispute with producer Scott Rudin.

But Sondheim, who had become intrigued with the story of the brothers as early as the 1950s, did not give up and in 2003 the show appeared in Chicago then Washington as BOUNCE with Richard Kind and Howard McGillin as the warring brothers with a supporting cast including Jane Powell as their mother, Gavin Creel as Addison's gay lover and Michelle Pawk as Wilson's mistress.Despite being directed by Sondheim's long-time collaborator Hal Prince, the show received middling reviews and never made it to Broadway although the score was recorded.

After the success of his minimalist SWEENEY TODD, director John Doyle was asked to work on the troublesome show with Weidman and the new revised ROAD SHOW opened in 2008 off-Broadway and won both the Obie and Drama Desk Awards for Best Lyrics.

The new production dropped the role of the mistress - and the interval - and concentrated more on the relationship between the brothers and their ever-present mother and father's ghosts. This is the version that has appeared at the Menier.John Doyle's production is staged traverse-style so the audience is fully involved with the action, mostly being pelted with dollar bills that are thrown around by the Mizners regularly, nicely illustrating their approach to money, especially Wilson's - it's only money, there's always some sucker to fleece it from.

The brothers are delightfully played by Michael Jibson as the quiet architect Addison and David Bedella as the devil-may-care Wilson, both in their own way obsessively chasing the road to fame and fortune promised them by their dying father. Again the closeness of the audience to the actors was rewarded by the subtle playing of Jibson in particular, as well as the always fine Gillian Bevan as Mrs. Mizner. Her solo number "Isn't He Something!" was performed beautifully, making the mother's love for her wastrel son fully believable.
Glyn Kerslake was effective as the Mizner's father, dying early but hovering around the action disapproving as his sons fail at his dreams for them and Jon Robyns was charismatic as Hollis the rich boy who is the love of Addison's life.

The ensemble did sterling work, Fiona Dunn in particular was great fun as a Florida snob who engages Addison to build her a dream house.

I wasn't a fan of Doyle's SWEENEY TODD but here his direction keeps the show moving while also illuminating the dynamic of the brother's relationship with small but telling touches.Although I liked the BOUNCE cast recording it never really settled in my mind but here the score struck me as the natural progression from ASSASSINS and PASSION. By turns melodic, funny, tart and insightful, the score also includes one of Sondheim's most lovely songs "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened". Originally sung in BOUNCE by Wilson and his mistress, here the song has been moved to Addison and Hollis and makes much more sense dramatically.

I suspect ROAD SHOW will not get too many outings down the years but it is a worthy addition to Sondheim's body of work and, like it's odd central characters, is proof that there is always another chance when it looks like something has failed.