In an odd reversal for me, this year I have seen more new musicals than revivals. One usually struggles to find decent first run musicals but this year it's the revivals that I am finding thin on the ground. It's not looking any better for the rest of 2013, with only THE SOUND OF MUSIC and MISS SAIGON upcoming. Like, no.
I had such high hopes for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at the Menier. Great reviews bolstered the expectation that this production would be on par with previous productions I had seen - both of which had been hugely enjoyable and profoundly moving: the Guildhall School production from 1983 (my first Sondheim show) and the 2000 Donmar Warehouse production which was revived in concert form in 2010 to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday.
To quote the last act closer: "Now You Know".
We saw it just after it had been announced that the production was transferring to the West End which might explain why they performed in such a self-aggrandising manner. They mugged, they belted where belt was not required and they played the jokes with all the subtlety of the Three Stooges. I really cannot understand what show the reviewers saw if they performed like this.
There was also the problem that the show was directed by Maria Friedman who somehow seems to have got the cast to sing in her style: declamatory with consonants being hit harder than a cow's arse with a banjo. It made for an ugly sound, especially as they were all miked up - the Menier, remember, only has a 180 seat capacity.
Another downer was that they were using the re-written book and score which attempts to 'explain' the main character's Franklin's motivations. Why? It actually does the show a disservice as these additions feel so bolted on. Franklin's motivations are there in the text anyway - the whole show is about how we change through the decades and friends become estranged through tiny betrayals and slights.
Of the central trio of friends, Mark Umbers as Frank and Jenna Russell as Mary gave the best performances, sadly Damian Humbley was just irritating as Charley. The largely irksome supporting cast were regularly shown up by the subtle performances of Glyn Kerslake as the hapless Broadway producer Joe Josephson and Clare Foster as Beth, Franklin's discarded first wife. Her emotional rendition of NOT A DAY GOES BY was a real highlight. Josefina Gabrielle played Gussy, the temperamental Broadway actress with her usual clanging stridency.
This was a real disappointment although it seems to have done well enough in it's transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre. Nope... that doesn't work, it will always be the Comedy Theatre to me.
The big revival in February was A CHORUS LINE at the London Palladium in it's first West End appearance since it's original production at Drury Lane in 1976, winning the first ever Society of West End Theatre/Olivier Award for Best Musical. The show has toured occasionally but it's a mystery why it has taken so long to play a West End theatre.
The production is a recreation of Michael Bennett's original production which always throws a little confusion into the mix. Bob Avian was the original co-choreographer and now he is the director re-creating Bennett's legendary musical, Baayork Lee was the original 'Connie' and now she is restaging Bennett's choreography - so are we applauding his work or theirs?
I saw this archetypal Broadway show there in the early 1990s at the Shubert Theatre where it played for 15 years and have loved the original cast recording for years so I was curious if it would hold it's magic with this production. Of course it did - and the front row of the dress circle also helped!
Here they all were again... the chosen 17 dancers who have survived the strenuous dance auditions to stand on the line and be quizzed relentlessly by the director/choreographer Zach. He can't hire them all, he only needs 4 boys, 4 girls. Although he is only casting for an anonymous chorus line behind the upcoming show's star he wants performers who have real personality and more than that, dancers who *need* to dance.
Who will get through? The testy latina Diana or quiet Paul? The cheeky Chinese Connie or the very gay and Jewish Greg? Brassy Val or mocking Sheila? The married couple Al and Kristine? Don the ex-stripper, cocky Mike or Ritchie who swopped basketball for dancing? And what of Cassie? An ex-love of Zach's who has had success in the past and left him to try her luck as an actress in L.A.?
Played without an interval, we have two hours to get to know them and to guess who Zach will pick, who deserves it more? The news that the production is coming off early was a real surprise. Surely in this culture that loves nothing more than watching performers being eliminated from a race to a showbiz crown A CHORUS LINE should be able to find an audience. It's very sad that this great show is not getting a bigger audience.
The cast certainly give it there all in the dance routines, if I have a criticism it might be that apart from the performers who have slightly higher profiles within the show, the others are a bit anonymous, you tend to remember them by the colour of their dance clothes rather than for any particular performing quality.
But their are some fine performances: John Partridge is an odd choice as Zach, he doesn't really suggest a feared/revered director/choreographer but his anonymous quality does help with the character's sphinx-like watchfulness. Leigh Zimmerman won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Musical Performance and it was richly deserved. As Sheila, the seen-it-all, danced-it-all glamour girl she steals scenes with her great comic timing and stylish dancing. Scarlett Strallen, while not having the real natural charisma that Cassie should unknowingly exude, does a fierce solo on her big number THE MUSIC AND THE MIRROR and in the preceding scene with Zach, is touching in her recounting of her failed career in L.A.
As Diana, the wary latina, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt certainly punches over her two big numbers NOTHING and the score's biggest hit WHAT I DID FOR LOVE. As is usually the case the latter, which has too many supper-club associations when heard outside it's show context, within it makes perfect sense. By the time this 11 o'clock number is sung in the show, we know how much the dancers have had to give up to be where they are.
The interesting thing about the song is that it is in fact the musical coda to what actually is the emotional heart of the show, Paul's speech about his unhappy family life while growing up gay and the redemption he found as a drag artist. It's a wonderfully written speech - the standout moment in James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's book - and Gary Wood gave a pitch-perfect performance. There wasn't a dry eye in my seat.
The design of Robin Wagner still thrills in it's simplicity, Theoni V. Aldredge's dance costumes are still excellently un-theatrical until the glittering finale and Tharon Musser's lighting design still gives expression to the action.
Sadly Robin Wagner is the only one of the original show's creators still alive.
Lyricist Edward Kleban died in 1987, book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante died in 1989 and 1991 respectively, lighting designer Tharon Musser died in 2009, costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge died in 2010 and composer Marvin Hamlisch died in 2012.
But above all the show stands as a living monument to Michael Bennett who died in 1987. It was his particular theatrical genius to take something so basically theatrical and turning it into something universal.
The show is running until 31st August and I cannot recommend it highly enough. After all these years it really is One Singular Sensation.