Archive for September, 2010

Review – Bells Are Ringing – Union Theatre

September 30, 2010

Cross the Union Theatre, South London’s home of the brilliantly-revived-musical-on-a-shoestring-budget, with Jule Styne, creator of Gypsy, Funny Girl and the recent Forgotten Musical Darling of the Day, and what do you get? Bells Are Ringing, the giddy, well-crafted production currently marking itself as the show for fans of Golden Era Broadway song-craft as well as Mad Men-style plot and panache.

The plot is a “madcap caper:” lowly answering service minion Ella Peterson (Anna-Jane Casey, radiant) has made herself into a one-woman fix-it shop for all of the characters using “Suzanserphone” to handle their overflow calls, dishing out home cures, motherly advice, and “talks with Santa” to her clientele. Half-baked Inspector Barnes (Richard Grieve) is certain she’s offering shady services of some sort, and sets his aid Francis (Michael Bryher) to catch her doing whatever “it” is. Ella’s looking suspicious because she’s fallen for playwright Jeff Moss (Gary Milner); meanwhile bookie Sandor (Fenton Gray) is … but enough of the plot, having a few surprises makes it more fun!

What matters far more than plot is what it was like seeing the play. We’re crammed together on a long wall of the theater (go for the 2/3s of the seats away from the band), and a man & four young women show up and start singing in lovely harmony (really loved Aoife Nally’s voice) – and cracking jokes – and dancing! And the room comes alive, and the band is hitting it, for once it’s natural, mike-free voices and oh my God, it’s Man In Chair’s prayer “please let this show be good” ANSWERED! (Well, it does run a bit long as it’s nearly 90 minutes until the interval and 10ish when we left, but that’s forgivable.)

And there’s Anna-Jean Casey, whom I remember from last year’s Hackney panto, and she’s winning and she’s our heroine and she’s quirky and fun and she talks to the audience (“Hi there!”) and her voice is lovely and she dances effortlessly and I am totally caught up in “I wanna see her succeed!” She has 50s musical star charisma down perfectly and she has sold me on the show ten minutes after the lights have gone down.

And of course there’s MORE dancing (the subway scene!), MORE songs (every lyric worth listening to!), a cha-cha scene (inevitable at this time, remember Damn Yankees?), so many plots twists you’d think we were crocheting an afghan, in short WIN WIN WIN. And it’s all in your lap and in your face, a big Broadway musical so close you can touch it, and by golly, suddenly the Union has reminded me why I do this theater thing, ’cause I just went into a darkened room and watched magic happen. Well done all; you’ve restored my faith in the genre and sent me out the door with a song in my heart.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010. It continues through October 23rd. Shows at this tiny house sell out quickly, so if this review caught your eye, I advise you to book NOW.)


Review – Or You Could Kiss Me – Handspring at the National Theatre

September 29, 2010

I admit: I booked Or You Could Kiss Me in ignorance and in girlish fannishness. Fannishness, I say, because I bought it strictly because it came with the Handspring Puppet Company Tag, they of War Horse fame; ignorance because I’ve never actually seen War Horse (too pricey) and, by the time I went, I’d almost completely forgotten what the show was about. It was new, it had puppets, I’d found tickets for £10 (slightly restricted view); done.

So what is this new play with puppets about? It’s about a couple, two gay men at the end of their lives, who are fairly close to death and not handling it very well. That is, one of the men (Mr. B, no relation to the choreographer) is very close to death; yet really, neither he nor his partner (Mr. A, “the little one”) seem to be able to organize either the details of their lives or their relationship with each other in a way that is going to lead to maximizing happiness for both of them. Mr. B really seems to need to sort his memories; both of his life (as his ability to do so degenerates) and of the particulars of his time with Mr A.

As we watch the elderly puppets shuffling and napping, we’re treated to the glittering details of the start of “them,” as glorious puppet-youths, swimming, playing squash, dancing, and dealing with insecurity – of being gay in a less-friendly time, and of wanting to be loved. Somewhere in there is something Mr B really needs to remember correctly; and, it seems, there is something he needs to say to Mr A.

This lovely little play, with its beautifully crafted and manipulated puppets, seems to struggle far more with the tedium of daily life than even Mr B. There are meals, there are phone calls, there is a dog that barks too loudly and pees on the floor, there is just too much that needs to be pared away for this 110 minute, interval-less show to get down to the core I think must be in there underneath it all. Playwright Neil Bartlett and Handspring convinced me that something important needed to be done and said; but I left this play feeling unsatisfied. No matter how well carved and researched Misters A and B were, the play must get back to their story. With luck, the end of previews will trim a bit more away; and a remount, short a good half hour (that I think no one will dare remove lest National audiences complain about not getting their money’s worth), and we may have a very good play at hand, rather than one that is fine but simply too long.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, September 28, 2010. This play officially opens October 5th. It runs through October 30th as near as I can tell but it may extend.)

Review – The Drowsy Chaperone – Upstairs at the Gatehouse

September 28, 2010

I generally speaking like classical musicals. Anyone who reads this will have noted my dislike for Mr. Lloyd Webber (perhaps that’s Sir to you but you’ve got to earn it in my book) and utter failure to see Wicked; Schönberg and Boublil are artisans of dreck in my world. Yet peeking out of the land of desolation that is, to me, the world of musical theater post-Kander and Ebb, is a world of a few twinkling stars, musicals that actually succeed in being entertaining, telling a story, and sending me home with a song in my heart.

High in that constellation of stars is The Drowsy Chaperone, a show that, in its short-lived West End incarnation, proved life-changing for me in some ways (as it convinced me the West End Whingers’ blog was a source of genius tips on what to see, which led to, oh, writing this blog, eventually, and being a part of a “theater blogging community”); but which, most importantly, filled my head full of wonderful memories of sequins, tap dancing, high kicks (Summer Strallen!), and songs I’ve sung to myself ever since. I went twice in two weeks; I bought the soundtrack; I bought the t-shirt (“Oops Girl”); I went online and bought the monkey (probably best you not ask). I was sorry when it closed (prematurely, in my mind) and have spent a lot of time wondering why such a witty, musical show failed to find an audience when it had me crying in my Cosmopolitan; bad publicity, I think, was the cause. Still, it was a brilliant show and I will regularly pop the show disc in when I need a little pick-me-up.

Cue this summer and news that the Upstairs at the Gatehouse pub theater was remounting Drowsy. It seemed odd to me that a show so big and so new would be coming to such a small space (more recently home to Calamity Jane). Could it do it justice? Well, I wasn’t going to be TOO picky; I loved the show, I was desperate to see it again, so I paid my money and headed on down a day or so after opening night hoping for the best.

The show was, in some ways, more engaging than the original version I’d seen; the “man in chair” (Matthew Lloyd Davies), who spends the show explaining to the audience why he is so fond of this “silly 20s musical” The Drowsy Chaperone, really looks at and talks to the audience and even gets them (er, us) to respond. The dance routines (the big ones being the tap-dancing “Cold Feet” and “I Don’t Wanna Show Off No More”) were, if less impressive in their execution, rather exhilirating in being just a few feet away (though the Novello, of course, was able to put in an Underling (Ted Merwood) who could tap dance as well as the two young men who lead “Cold Feet”).

Best of all was, shockingly enough, Adolfo (Michael Howe). He was right in the audience – possibly in some women’s laps at some point and practically with his nose down their shirts – even at the very beginning, to hysterical result. He put me off a bit (well, got a laugh for an accident) when he slipped while leaning on his cane in his first scene – but then completely topped that by falling flat out when he came racing out from a door and his cape was caught behind him. I thought it was just bad luck, but then I realized: they were all pratfalls! It was part of the comedic Adolfo personality. He just pushed the character right on over the top and let him, well, “keep falling” as it were, with great results. Last I saw this show he was a throwaway stereotype; in the Gatehouse version, Adolfo upped the game for everybody else, outshining not just the Chaperone (Siobhan McCarthy in a role I can’t image how to make more interesting – it’s just kind of flat) but even little Miss Showoff herself, Janet Vandergraaf (Amy Diamond).

While Alolfo’s falls could eventually be ascribed to comic genius, other elements seem to speak of a certain cheapness I associate with fringe theater. Janet’s first “Showoff” costume, a tennis outfit, was poorly joined at the back and left half of her black-satin rump exposed – while I realized she needed a quick change outfit, all of the costuming money for the show should really have been blown on her character and having this particular outfit so … halfassed really detracted from the effect of this scene (and I think wouldn’t have cost too much to fix). Ursula Mohan as Mrs Tottendale seemed timid rather than ditzy; during the “spray” scene she merely misted Underling, and during the second act she had … was it toliet paper on her shoe? I couldn’t decide if it were an effect or an accident given the whole Adolfo thing. And finally, while “Trix the Aviatrix” made a wonderful entrance in her tiny airplane in act one, her actual appearence … via a television … at the end of the second act utterly mystified me. Did Sophia Nomvete just not want to waste a whole evening on a ten minute scene, or was the Gatehouse too cheap to pay her to sit around? I mean, it was done well enough (the character stayed on the screen for the entire “freeze” during the power outage), but … it just seemed a little bit off to me somehow. And by “off” I mean cheap.

Still, the overall effect of this show was very good, taking full advantage of an intimate space and a fantastic show to make a good night of theater. I absolutely feel it was worth £16 and consider it a “must see” for this fall’s London theater scene for the musicals fan. Who cares about The Donmar Warehouse: get thee to the Gatehouse for Drowsy Chaperone!

(This review is for a performance that took place Saturday night, September 25th, 2010. The show continues through October 31st, 2010. Please see

Review – Faust – English National Opera

September 26, 2010

I was introduced to the story of Dr. Faustus by Punchdrunk some three or so years ago, and found the idea of a man bargaining away his soul in exchange for youth and love quite attractive. Thus, when English National Opera started advertising its production of the Gounod opera, I was a fairly soft sell. The circusy graphics helped, and then there was the further momentum of the upcoming Young Vic production to boot. To top it off, seats could be found (for early performances at least) at very good prices. I actually organized a group of three to go, and wound up with sweet dress circle seats. Rock me, Charles Gounod!

My overall experience of this show was, unfortunately, reminders of things I don’t like: 19th century opera and ENO’s heavy-handed production style. To be honest, I wasn’t actually turned off by the sappy emotions of this opera (as I am for La Boheme and La Traviata); I found Margarita’s enduring love for Faust sweet, and her ability both to be seduced by the glitter of wealth and then swept away by passion (at the expense of honor) left her a far more rich character at the end than she was at the beginning. But I found the opera too, too long, with its five acts crammed into … well, spread across three and a half hours (and to think they cut out most of the ballet!). I also didn’t really care for the music, although (detecting a theme here?) I enjoyed Margarita’s big solos rather a lot – I’m not sure if it was just Melody Moore’s pleasant singing or not, but I found Faust’s (Toby Spence) and Mephistopheles’ (Iain Paterson) music forgettable (and I had no qualm about their voices).

However, once again I hated the production. ENO seems to consistently either hire directors with no faith in the audience, or to instruct said directors to MAKE IT OBVIOUS. So at the beginning we get a face appearing in the clouds (in a projected animation appearing through actual fog) … but rather than having it be just in the corner of our eyes, Des McAnuff has the clouds clear away then LEAVES THE FACE THERE for ages. Then he does it again and again. FAUST IS OBSESSED WITH THIS WOMAN OKAY I GET IT. Similarly, we see a laboratory setting at the beginning that seems to be related to the development of the atomic bomb – but later we have LITTLE BOY AND FAT MAN HANGING FROM THE RAFTERS. Oh, wow, I would have MISSED THE POINT otherwise. And, really, all of this nuclear memorabilia pissed me off, because there was NO WAY Faust could have been in some 1860s war milieu (which was when the scenes with the soldiers & Margarita appeared to be set) and then lived all the way to the Second World War. It just didn’t make sense – we flipped back from modern people in lab coats to a quasi-Victorian era town (with a moral code that was positively medieval) in an utterly incoherent fashion. Gah.

In short, I am sure now that I will never again see this opera, unless it can be cut by at least a full act. I personally vote for all the scenes with the army going – and, frankly, I’m perfectly willing to get rid of Margarita’s brother, too, as I don’t think he added all that much to the story – she would have despaired to death just with the horrible townspeople egging her on. However, I’m not giving up on Dr. Faustus – I’m going to go back to the Young Vic next month and try again. This is a great story and I’m not going to let some heavy-handed opera company wreck it for me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010. Faust continues at ENO until Saturday, October 16th.)

Review – Will Tucket’s “Pleasure’s Progress” – Linbury Studio

September 22, 2010

I went to Pinocchio, I went to Fairies, and yet still I came marching back to the Linbury for Will Tuckett’s latest, “Pleasure’s Progress.” I was tempted by 1) new work 2) salacious topic 3) short running time. At worst, by the time I hated it, it would all be over, and then I’d probably have something raunchy to distract me, right?

Gah I was wrong in so many ways. First, the running time (90 minutes), was longer than I thought, though it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been enjoying myself rather than staring longingly at the people who snuck out early; instead, I was wondering just how long they could drag this damned thing out. Second, rather than being raunchy, this was just crude, with a masturbating monkey, people constantly feeling themselves up, puerile jokes a la people running together sales pitches for candy and almonds so they could say,”Lick!” “My nuts!” (and “finger” “my muff,” don’t ask), and so on. There was an extended story about a whore, starting from her arrival in London to her death of pox at 23, but it failed to be juicy … just sad. (A series of extended jokes about an impotent man did at least hit the comedy note.)

And oh the choreography. Tuckett’s movement, again and again, just looked like an accident, like the people on stage were about to bump into each other and tried to make it look good. Every now and again I noticed some fairly complex grouping that showed the maker’s hand; but none of these things felt like dance. I do not understand why the Royal Opera House keeps giving this man choreographic commissions; it seems driven out of a sense of pity, or perhaps a need to fulfill contractual obligations.

Not all was a loss. The costuming was good, the woman playing the nymphomaniac had a truly pleasant voice I was sad to have miked, and I had a chuckle or two during the song “You’ve Got the Clap.” The song “Drunk for a Penny” (about gin, of course) and the scene surrounding it was genuinely touching; but the rest of the evening I would have chucked as carelessly as the pissed bawd did her baby. All of the singing, costumes, and references to high culture (Hogarth) in the world couldn’t give this show coherence; it is a complete failure and I sincerely hope that after its short run it never again sees the light of day.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010. It runs at the Linbury until Sunday, September 26th. Per the web site it’s almost a year until this show is actually formally opened; best of luck fixing it in the meantime.)

Review – Fantastic Mr Fox – Little Angel Theatre

September 22, 2010

Regular readers of my blog (both of you) will know that I’m a puppet theater fan. My enthusiasm started when I was in Seattle and went to the Northwest Puppet Theater regularly; they launched a series of Baroque puppet operas while I was there, which I adored and now miss horribly. I also like Japanese bunraku and kuruma ningyo style puppetry, and my trips to Sicily have been greatly enlivened by the Catanian/Syracusan and Palmiterian “teatro de pupi.”

At any rate, puppets. I love ’em. And I was pleased to have an opportunity to review the Little Angel Theater’s Fantastic Mr. Fox last Sunday – Little Angel is the only puppet theater I know of in London, and they have a solid season packed with lots of new works. I’d only been there once before, but … Roald Dahl, told with puppets? I didn’t know the story, but I wanted to go anyway, and I was able to convince a friend of mine to lend me her six year old daughter, Holly, so I could get the real skinny from the target audience.

WELL this all went very interestingly as my guest did not understand some basic rules of theater going, such as “do not touch the actors,” “do not play on the set, even if it’s the interval,” and “do not run down the aisle when the show is in progress” (which is especially important as the puppets do scenes from within the aisles, thus meaning they must be kept clear for even more than just fire code reasons). But the staff handled it with aplomb, especially the actor manipulating Mrs Fox, who nodded at and interacted with my companion in a way that shot her to the moon.

My thoughts were that the dialogue for the first half of the show was particularly hard to understand; the three farmers just didn’t project well. And the story … well, it was very odd! I guess (as another friend of mine pointed out) adapting a tale so based on digging was a bit of a challenge; I think the way the set morphed to show the changes to the foxes’ dwelling (as they dug and were dug at) was very innovative. I was also quite amused by the ending (as I didn’t know the story), in which Mr Fox appeared to set up a socialist utopia for the animals; perhaps he will only reappear when the final ghost of Maggie Thatcher leaves this earth (no chance under this administration then).

I was sorry, though, that except for my interpretation of the final message, this play didn’t really go for the sly insertion of adult-level improvised jokes that really enlivened the Northwest Puppet Theater’s works; this play was very straight and (in my eyes) very much aimed straight at its elementary school audience and less so at their parents (though I did enjoy the artistry of the puppets themselves). With that in mind, let’s see Holly’s review of the show: “I watched Fantastic Mr Fox and it was great. It was so fun! There were so many puppets. There was badgers, rabbits, weasels, moles and foxes. So I want to go there again soon!”

That’s it then: the jokes that sail over the heads of six year olds were not missed and those who the show was meant for found it, dare I say, “Fantastic” (though I have my doubts about the wisdom of having an interval when out with those of a limited attention span). And there’s no doubt I’ll be back again in November for Alice in Wonderland; Little Angel is a real treasure and we’re lucky to have them here.

(This review is for the 2:30 performance that took place on Sunday, September 19th, 2010. The show continues through November 7th; see web site for show times, and note that it is not recommended for those four years old or younger.)

Cheap world class opera: see Royal Opera’s “Niobe, Queen of Thebes” from the stalls for £40

September 22, 2010

A great deal came through from Travelzoo today: stalls tickets for “Niobe, Queen of Thebes” at the Royal Opera House for £40. It’s by “Italian composer Steffani (1654–1728)” (saith the Royal Opera House website) and is receiving a rather late debut in London.
Here’s the scoop from their website:

Amphitheatre seats are now available for £18 (usually £28 and £22.50), while top-price Orchestra stalls seats are now £40 (usually £115, £107, £102 or £95 each).

There are no booking fees and no credit card charges. This offer is available for performances on 27, 29 September at 6.30pm and 3 October at 3pm. Call and quote promo code TZOO Niobe Offer (click through link above to do online booking).

Mini-review – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – 2010 visit to Sadler’s Wells

September 19, 2010

Originally I had no intention of going to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at Sadler’s Wells – I’d seen them back in Seattle and both programs featured a repeat of a major (and very old work) they did then. (I also saw them in London in 2007, for the record.) But then I was clued into a live broadcast at the White House of a dance program honoring Judith Jamison. I flicked over in time to see Ashley Bouder finish a Balanchine dance (the reason why the whole clip has now been pulled off YouTube, shame on you, Balanchine Trust Members, for being so selfish), then a truly tremendous bit with the Alvin Ailey troupe performing a bit of “Revelations.” I got so excited about my President actually doing something live, on the internets, that represented me and my interests and my country (for once not embarassing me) that I got all excited and went and bought tickets for BOTH programs the next day. And a big thanks to Sadler’s Wells and their policy of making all of their performances affordable; without 15 quid seats, I would not have been able to do it.

Anyway. So what is there to say about a group of dancers that I feel represent me, as an American? They have a wide variety of figures and colors and a richer racial composition than you might expect; they dance, to me, as individuals, with choreography that lets them say who they are rather than trying to entirely disappear in some unachievable perfect unison. Yet, dancing together, each of them letting themselves be the unique dancer he or she is, I found they worked very much as a team, not at all like Russian dancers who, when dancing together, attempts to show off and be “the star;” to me, the Alvin Ailey dancers did not seem so much striving to be better than every one else on stage, but each of them aimed to be excellent while being part of the group. I was reminded of the superiority of home-made cookies; the host of irregularities work together to make a superior flavor and texture to beaten-into-uniformity store bought goods.

As to the programs, well, both have Revelations, and I found it nearly as exciting and pulse-raising today as I did two days earlier; the music is fantastic and the dance is so illustrative of the music and its message that it, well, it is a classic of 20th century American dance like The Great Gatsby is a classic of 20th century American literature; it is iconic and its no wonder that by ending on it, the audience has been delivering a standing ovation every night. It thrills me to have this representing me. This is American dance. These are American people. It’s fantastic.

Still, the question is … where is the group going? Is it moving forward? And, well, I’m a little bit worried after seeing the range of new works presented in the two programs. Specifically, “Hymn” and “Anointed,” the two pieces that round out the second program, are inward looking works of hagiography, worshiping the company’s founder in a way I found … well, it created bad dance. I blame Anna Deavere Smith, who bears full responsibility for the text spoken over the dancing, for having a complete lack of self-awareness as to when she’d crossed the line into being just too damned wordy. “Anointed” was much more of a celebration of the dancers, but it was weighted down by the preceding piece.

Program one, though, had a work of outstanding merit, one of the most exciting things I’ve seen on the Sadler’s Wells stage this year: “The Hunt,” a work for six men dressed in black skirts with red linings that flashed as the swirled and leapt and raced across the stage. Its ultramasculinity and feeling of threat between the dancers made it far more effective than the limp, overdone work Hofesh Schecter trotted across the same stage just this summer: instead of a bunch of claptrap accompanied by painfully loud music, choreographer Robert Battle gave us dance without distractions, and the company gave it a production that showed how amazing and talented they are. I want to go think the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey for making the investment in the creation of this new work (2010!): we have all benefited from their generosity.

As this piece followed the classic (1971) “Suite Otis,” a pink-on-pink tribute to Otis Redding, it’s clear that the first program is the one not to miss. I was a little too relaxed to be moved by the quiet “Dancing Spirit,” but the delicious solo “In/Side,” a male solo by Battle danced powerfully by Kirven James Boyd to Nina Simone’s heartbreaking “Wild Is the Wind,” was a lesson in how to own a stage all by your lonesome. And the two pieces together made it clear that, while still very much wrapped up in its history, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a group of dancers unlike any other. Here’s hoping more people come forward to fund the expansion of their repertoire; ultimately, it’s a gift that benefits everyone who loves dance.

NOTE: After I published this, I discovered that Robert Battle is taking over the reins of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from Judith Jamison. Based on the quality of the work he presented at Sadler’s Wells, I am very enthused about the company’s future prospects. See you next time!

(This review is for a performance of the second rep that took place on Friday, September 17th, and of the first rep that took place on Sunday, September 19th. The company continues on at Sadler’s Wells through Saturday, September 25th, 2010. For a more lucid review of “Annointed,” see Roslyn Sulcas’s take in The New York Times.)

Review – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo 2010 – Peacock Theatre

September 15, 2010

Of all the shows in the Sadler’s Wells fall calendar, the one that jumped out at me was the return of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. I recently read an Arlene Croce review of their early performances way back in the 70s, and it made me want to go back and re-evaluate the company, far from my position when I saw them over ten years ago, when I’d never seen a Swan Lake and hadn’t a clue to either “The Dying Swan” or La Sylphide. Croce said the Trocks really got very well the whole concept of what it was that made a ballerina, and that their dancing wasn’t about making fun of the ego that frequently runs behind the makeup – but rather of celebrating “ballerinaness.” (It was a great essay: I may reproduce some of it here.) My recollection of them was very much of being clowns on stage, and my getting kind of bored with the shenanigans – but then, later, I realized both that they’d danced much better than I’d realized, and also that they were teasing ballet at a higher level than I could appreciate (I think that first performance ended with a sort of “Stars and Stripes Forever” thing a la Balanchine, which sailed right over my head). So I’m a much better educated ballet fan now than I was then; how, then, are the Trocks?

I picked the more challenging of the two programs, figuring (as I am wont) that I wanted to see more new work and less of the old standards (Program 2 has “Swan Lake” in it, which I wasn’t too compelled to revisit). This means that last night I got “ChopEniana,” a sort of hybrid of all of the Romantic-era white ballets; “The Dying Swan” (not on the program but a nice bonus especially now that I’ve seen it fried six different ways); “Patterns in Space” (a la Merce Cunningham); “La Vivandiere” (the program describes it as being an 1844 ballet about a camp follower and an inn-keepers son, and it’s apparently not made up though the fact the original lead was named “Fanny” had raised suspicions); and “Raymonda’s Wedding.” Now, I would have ALSO thought “Raymonda” was made up, but the BalletBag twitter feed did a series of “Raymondas” a few weeks back, so to my horror I have to say … all the ballet was based (mostly) on actual shows!

On to the show. We started with a ballet that was generally “romantic,” with some eight ballerinas and one man in an impossibly large wig. It featured typical Trocks clowning – ballerinas pushing each other out of the way, fluffing their dresses, hamming it up shamelessly, taking up the wrong position on stage, missing their cues, etc. Despite the title, I seem to recall an entire lack of Chopin. In fact, my focus really came back on stage when a dancer wandered on to the music of Giselle – my God, I thought, have I been listenign to this music all along and not recognized it? Is it a joke that she just walked on from some other ballet? But no, I’m pretty sure the music was mostly other songs of that era and not at all Chopin, adn the Gieselle was obviously intentional, though the dancers onstage were meant to be fairies and not Wilis. (At one point the male dancer, as hideously made up as the women, inadverntently plucked the wings off his partner’s back … then stuck it under his nose like a mustache.) For this one there wasn’t a lot of dance to be thinking about – it was mostly comedy.

This was followed by “La Vivandiere” (I think!), a romp in which much was made of the very small male dancer and his positively gigantic partner, who completely blocked his view from stage and was unable to dance under his arms. In fact, all of the dancers were mocking the lead ballerina’s gigantic size –

Then … I’m thinking back and remembering … yet another thing thrown in the mix? There was, and I can’t entirely remember if it was right after the first performance or not. A pas de deux was announced at the beginning, much as the “Dying Swan” was, but I couldn’t hear its title through the thick accent of the announcer. I think I thought it was the actual “Raymonda” … the dancer, was the least made up of the troupe in the first piece and had a smallish build – but damn, could she work it on pointe! What is sad, actually, is her partner, in his leaps across stage, had his following leg at such an odd angle that it made him look like he was still trying to clown – or, worse yet, that he wasn’t able to keep up with his partner. I wasn’t sure what was sure, or if perhaps the Trocks put their weaker members into the male roles, but what could have been some very good dance was really spoiled by the unevenness of the two performances.

The second act was opened with “Patterns in Space,” in which three dancers in leotards moved around the stage in mock-Cunningham style. They were accompanied by two musicians, one in a white, Andy Warhol-style fright wig; the other all in black and looking for the world like one of those art students who has no ability to laugh at themselves. This was even richer because the “instruments” they played included the kazoo, the bowl-and-mixer, the “paper bag,” and (my favorite) bubble wrap. They carried on with utterly straight faces throughout the leaps and twirls of the dancers; to me, it utterly skewered the entire Cunningham approach – random music, random movement, at what point does anyone ever say, “Hey, maybe not everything we’ve made here was not all that great, given its lack of intentionality?” The faces on the performers said it all: Merce is High Art and anyone who does not appreciate, or even questions the sacredness of the canon is to be roasted as An Ignorant Yob. But you know what? I also enjoyed the movement. Yay Trocks!

Now I may be confused about the show order but I do believe it was at the end of the second act that we had our Dying Swan, a large-beaked creature who shed flowers as she faded. Ahhhh after all of the arm waving and piteousness of the various swans I’ve seen expire at the last three galas I’ve been to, it was nice to see a performance that admitted openly the performer was doing it for the attention. And oh, her bony legs … it was like Charlie Chaplin in a tutu.

Our last act’s big production was “Raymonda’s Wedding,” which was back to clowning, with girls sliding out of their positions on stage, a silly white-robed, pointy-hatted priestess sort, and ballerinas jockeying for position. There was a bit of solid dance in the middle, but I liked it most for the curtain call, when the group returned to stage in sombreros and serapes and did a little Mexican hat dance in honor of Mexican Independence day.

Overall, this was a fun night out, but a little odd for me; I think I’d prefer straight ballet dancing, mostly, but it’s good to have the pipes cleaned out now and then.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on September 14th, 2010. The Trocks will continue on at the Peacock through Saturday the 25th.)

Review – Darling of the Day – Lost Musicals at the Ondaatje Wing Theatre, National Portrait Gallery

September 13, 2010

Discovery of the year for me has to be the Lost Musicals series at Sadler’s Wells. I was thrilled to see the genius of Cole Porter back on stage in a production I hadn’t only never seen but not even heard of before (Paris); I raced back two months later for the next offering (The Day Before Spring). Both were perfect Drowsy Chaperone-style plays with brilliant lyrics and completely comic plots, a far cry from the flabby shows of today.

This brings us to the year’s final production, The Darling of the Day. Darling is a far more modern show, from the 60s, and yet (to my joy) it was completely unpolluted by the forces of change sweeping across America at the time.The plot was as ridiculous as the others: an artist (Priam Farll, played by Nicholas Jones) returns to England, becomes promptly nauseated by the artificiality of the art scene, then takes the opportunity to switch identities with a valet (Henry Leek, one of many characters played by Paul Stewart). He also inadvertently takes over his arranged marriage to a working-class widow (Alice Chalice, Louise Gold). Much of the comedy is in Farll failing to fit into his new surroundings, amongst Alice’s lowbrow Putney pals; but there is also a great deal of charm in his very genuine affection for his utterly unpretentious wife. In fact, one of the highlights is the song “Let’s see What Happens,” which brilliantly solves the question of how two so different people could care for each other.

While both Jones and Gold seemed to be struggling with their vocal duties, I thought the duo of composer Jule Styne and lyricist E. Y. Harburg did a great job making music I wanted to hear; and I found the increasingly outrageous plot (which hit Gilbert and Sullivan-esque heights of absurdity before the end) a great ride. However, I could easily see where a more unforgiving audience might have found this all too much. It only ran for 32 performances on Broadway, and it’s only getting a total of five shows here, but I think it’s a fine show and I’m glad I was able to see it performed live.

(This is for a review that took place on September 12th, 2010. There will be one more performance on September 19th.)