Archive for October, 2010

Review – Me and Juliet – Finborough Theatre

October 31, 2010

I am depressed by the quality of new musicals. Jukebox musicals don’t express personality or plot, and all of the glorious costumes in Priscilla couldn’t compensate for tunes that were merely glued on; current popular musical stylings result in songs I can’t stand (Les Mis, Wicked) or, more insultingly, can’t remember. And then of course there was Paradise Found. It’s a desert out there, I tell you, with tiny little dandelions (Avenue Q, Drowsy Chaperone) just occasionally poking their heads up from the gravel. This has driven me further into the Church of the Classic Musical, where I can, at least, hear words that make my brain engage and tunes I can whistle as I walk out of the theater. Thus “Lost Musicals” has become such a thrill for me, and so has finding less-popular works by the great songwriting teams. Thus Finborough Theater’s production of Me and Juliet, a Rogers and Hammerstein show from 1953, went BING BING BING when I saw it bubble up in “what’s happening” lists for this fall … though perhaps I ought to have been a bit suspicious given my disappointment in State Fair. After all, if “Blink: and you missed it” taught any lesson, it was that any genius could still crank out a lemon. Still, lemons from this era are hot fudge sundaes compared to what’s on offer from modern composers: so off I went for the European premiere production of Me and Juliet.

The story (as you will not have seen the movie or otherwise been exposed to it, I feel it’s best to add a bit of context) is the kind I think appeals to theater geeks: it’s the back stage antics of a group of people involved in putting on a show (called “Me and Juliet”) in a Broadway theater in 1953. Jeanie (Laura Main, whom I remember from State Fair) is in love with Bob (John Addison), an electrician/lighting guy who seems determined to keep her at arm’s length. Jeanie is a bright-eyed, optimistic girl who is only working as a chorus girl “for the money” – really different from the usual “I’m going to claw my way to the top” character, but more of a “I’m just waiting to fall in love and be a wife” type. Bob reminded me of Billy from Carousel – short tempered, an easy liar, somewhat violent – not the kind of guy you’d pick as a sympathetic male lead for a musical. Much more appealing is Larry (Robert Hands), the assistant stage manager, who apparently has a crush on Jeanie and is trying to help her develop the talent he sees in her. Where will this all lead? (I’ll leave that question hanging so as to not spoil the fun. How often do you get to see a 60 year old musical about which you know so little?)

Most of the fun is actually provided by the interaction of the cast members – the stage manager who is a bully but gets his when an old flame gets in the cast; the fun Jeanie and new star of the show, Betty (Jodie Jacobs) have with each other, clowning around backstage; the debate the front of house crew and audience members have (via the song “Intermission Talk”) about whether or not theater is dead, which was the high point of the show for me. I loved that I cared about every word of the songs that were sung; the cast members generally sang well and the dancing done on the very small stage was both quite respectable and a good use of the space. In fact, I’ve never seen the Finborough looking so good (though it’s only my third visit). The costumes didn’t hold up to my standards (I’m very picky about 1940s/1950s looks and am convinced I could do better on whatever budget they had to work with, though of course I’d just pull it all from my closet) but were tolerable and even fun; and hey, there was a tap dancing routine!

Though the play itself occasionally was slow and the story not … I don’t know, iconic, I’ve got to mention one point that really raised the adrenaline in the room: the cha-cha/”south of the border” number. This seems to have been a requirement in nearly every musical created in the 1950s, though I don’t understand just what was going on culturally to make this happen. Think Desi Arnaz in “I Love Lucy” and of course “Who’s Got the Pain” from Damn Yankees: if you’re having fun, you’ve got to have some cha-cha/samba/Cuban fever happening. It’s bizarre: still, there were the actors coming out on stage with maracas, getting ready to experience some Latin rhythms. They all got into a circle for the big production number … and suddenly a maraca shot out of nowhere, heading straight for my head! It grazed my hair and disappeared, leaving me feeling like the angel of death had just passed by: back on stage, the man who’d been holding it carried gamely on shaking his empty hand, with that “deer in the headlight” look that heralded the near arrival of catastrophic on stage corpsing. How he held it together I do not know, but he got through the scene, ran away like his tail was on fire, and presumably found his composure somewhere backstage. As for the missing maraca, I dug and dug for it after the show but wasn’t able to figure out where it had gone. Still, it was a real moment of backstage (and on stage) high spirits, and gave me a good laugh. I’m pleased to say this wasn’t the high point of the night – but overall, this was a very enjoyable evening, worth the hike to Earl’s Court and well worth the cost of the ticket.

(This review is for a performance that took place the evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 2010. The last performance was Saturday, October 30th. My apologies if you missed it!)

Review – Contractions – TheatreDelicatessen at an office near Bond Street

October 28, 2010

Mike Bartlett is still riding high in my book after last year’s Cock, so I didn’t hesitate when I saw many and various tweets about the production of Contractions Chris Adams was directing. Bartlett is a master of modern speech and has a deeply penetrating understanding of the quirky underpinnings of human interaction in this day and age. I was more excited to see that it was going to be done in a Real Life Office (or an office building, anyway), but the schedule was a bitch: one week only, and I was out of town for two of those days …. and had shows booked for the rest. Shit! What to do?

An answer suggested itself in the form of something that turned out to be frighteningly in keeping with the play itself: take a very long lunch and go to the matinee. After all, it was in central London: it should be doable. And it was at 1PM. And, er, a friend was going. So I decided to be daring and booked myself for a lunchtime viewing. Ooh! It felt so naughty!

I arrived at the location and found a fortunately clearly signed building (not being clever like Accomplice and pretending to actually be a business but with nice “Theatre Delicatessen” signs plastered outside). Upon arrival, I was given an envelope telling me that my presence was required at a personnel meeting regarding an urgent matter … clearly NOT on my company’s stationery. I was then escorted into a open room with about forty other people in it that had every bit of the feeling of a typical staffing cattle call. What with the nerves caused by skiving, I got quite the nice frisson by the atmosphere (and an even better one from seeing my friend Ian saving me a chair – always better to face the music together!).

We were then escorted upstairs and into a long room with a desk and a single chair in the middle, and four rows of low-quality office type chairs (mine was blue plastic) on both sides, elevated a bit to enable views of the stages (such as it was). The blueish lights shone from over head; the sunlight and noises of London business life came in from the windows. We were at work, as if behind observation glass, and Emma (Holly Beth Morgan), a new employee, walked in the door to sit down in front of her manager (Abigail Rokison) to discuss how her job was going.

Things seemed to be going fine; Emma seemed a cheerful, high-performing employee, who cheerfully bantered about the various details of her first short weeks on the job. But somehow her manager didn’t seem satisfied; she asked leading questions about her behaviour, cut her short with glares and tight smiles, and generally gave the impression that something was not quite right, without saying exactly what.

Over the course of the next forty or so minutes, Emma returned again and again for meetings with her (never named) manager, discussing and justifying her behavior, being torn to bits for nothing, making more and more outrageous attempts to please her manager and the company behemoth that stood behind her, in a world that slowly came to seem like the most perfect example of an uncaring office dystopia I’ve ever seen on stage – certainly right up there with Brazil and Gattaca, only with a much more familiar whiff of this could be just a few years away. The pressure starts to get to Emma after a while, and, well, it just went places I never imagined.

All of this was, of course, done in the thoroughly realistic and psychologically note-perfect words of Bartlett, who handled the interplay between the two women like a sushi chef battling fatty tuna. Morgan really managed to keep Emma’s evolution on track; Rokison, with the more difficult and less sympathetic role, kept the pressure on and handled every word and action with the unflinching falseness of someone being paid to pretend they care about a worker as a human being when truly they are “headcount.”

It was an intense, fast trip and, when the lights came down after Emma’s last exit, I have to say I was a bit relieved. It had all hit very close to home; after all, it’s not the Scissor-Man that keeps most of us up with stomach cramps and high blood pressure; it’s those close to us: parents, partners … our bosses – the people that can really make our daily lives a horror. And this was a tale of horror right up there with anything Poe or Lovecraft would crank out, a horror story of modern working life. I was happy to burst back into the sunshine, but unable to escape my nagging sense of guilt to rush back to my desk and return to being a perfect little worker bee. After all, you never know who is watching.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 27th. Contractions continues through October 30th, 2010 and may already be sold out. Good luck getting a ticket! For an alternate take, please see Ian Foster’s review.)

Great deal – two for one tickets for La Soiree (updated La Clique)

October 26, 2010

Two years ago I went to and loved La Clique – so I’m really pleased to see that the team is mostly back with a new show called La Soiree, taking place at the South Bank in a tent instead of in the rather stale confines of the Hippodrome. Fortunately Metro has a two for one deal on Ringside seats (normally £40 each), which can be had by calling 0843 221 0999 and quoting “Metro.” It’s not good for the early shows on Friay and Saturday and only valid through November 14th, so make your reservations now – early reviews have been very positive.

Mini-review – Royal Ballet – Mixed Rep: La Valse / Invitus Invitam / Winter Dreams / Theme and Variations

October 25, 2010

To my delight, my season at the Royal Ballet opened with not a triple bill, but a previously not-experience “quadruple bill,” with the ever-mysterious “new work” forming the star at the apex of the crown. Ooh ooh! What ever would we get to see? In this case it was a new Brandstrup, which I had hopes for, and a Balanchine, woo hoo! Then there was … duh duh DUUUUUUHM! … a long MacMillan. Damn. I had just swore him off forever after seeing Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, but I had to stick through it to get to the Balanchine. Damn, damn and damn.

Fortunately the night got off to a sparkling start with Ashton’s La Valse. I was fascinated by the music – not some cheesy Strauss stuff (I’ve had a lifetime’s worth courtesy of Paradise Found) but Ravel, pulling us into the music with a bunch of dissonant noise, as if all was not right with the world. The dancers, men in formal wear and women in fluffy, mid-calf dresses in varying pastels, looked straight out of a 1950s girl’s bedroom (my companion described it as “looking like a perfume ad”). The dancing didn’t knock my socks off, but the coordinated movement was lovely to watch, though … truth be told … the coordination was a bit off. I got a sudden whiff of “oh, so this is the Royal Ballet B cast,” but, still, I got a guilty pleasure out of it. It even wound up to a sort of “Masque of the Red Death” like fury at the end as the music got all dissonant again, and I felt RAH yes, good start to the night.

Then we moved into “Invitus Invitam,” the new work by Kim Brandstrup. This has got to go down as the best use of projections I’ve ever seen on stage: they were used to change a flat wall into a brick one, show the movement of the dancers as planned out on a computer program (I think), give us titles to the various movements, and (in the one naff bit) show the shadow of someone running offstage. We were led into it very gently, with the lights still up and people guiding set pieces onto the stage while the orchestra tootled a bit … then the two people directing the set pieces started acting like dancers trying to figure out a bit of movement … then the lights went down and we were suddenly sure that yes, this was the ballet happening. Then suddenly we had dressed up dancers, a man and a woman (Christina Arestis and Bennet Gartside, I believe – though the man did look like Ed Watson so maybe it was Leanne Benjamin) in court dress, moving around in ways I found … well, not emotionally engaging. He appeared to be trying to entice or seduce her, she appeared to be holding out – and then the man would run away, and the woman would look bereft. Then the lights would change dramatically, and the stage manager looking couple would come back on. In the final movement, it was the man who was left alone and the woman who ran away … and though it was an intelligent piece and pretty to watch, I’m afraid it just left me a bit dry. Still, my enthusiasm for the evening had not waned.

But … next up was the medicine to accompany the sugar: a 53 minute long MACMILLAN piece based on … wait for it … CHEKHOV. His play Three Sisters was the first Russian play I ever saw, and the theme of whinging people doing nothing to fix their lives, of the pathetic passivity of the bourgeoisie, left me dead inside. I had some hopes that the “music by Tchaikovsky” bit would rescue it … but no. It dragged. And dragged. The audience coughed, they dropped things, the man next to me checked the time on his phone FIVE TIMES, time stopped. The men were generally dancing quite well in a way I do see as typical of MacMillan, but … well, there was one beautiful bit: a duet between Vershinin (Thiago Soares) and Masha (Sarah Lamb) as he decides to leave her. It had the power of the little excerpts you often see in galas, of all of the heart and passion of the entire thing wrapped up in one little perfect bit of dance; and I hope some day I will see this in a gala. Shortly thereafter, two soldiers met for a duel. One of them was shot and died. My thought: “The lucky bastard. I have to wait until this is over before I get to leave.”

Still, I was more than eager to come back for the last bit, “Theme and Variations,” and what a lovely little meringue it was. To be honest, I think the corps dancers were continuing to be sloppy, but I was unwilling to let that detract from my overall enjoyment. It’s kind of embarassing, really, that I was just reveling in all of the shiny tutus and glittering tiaras and all of the utterly most shallow stuff about ballet, and enjoying the movement and just kind of letting myself go. I hadn’t brought my notebook because I really just wanted to be in the moment, and I was, and while Ibi and I both agreed the dancing was not as good as it should have been, still, we left the evening happy and satisfied and looking forward very much to our next ballet excursion, when, with luck, we will finally pick the A cast and get what we are really hoping for: perfection, without any gloomy, bum-numbing MacMillan to take the fun away.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 22nd, 2010. The final performances are October 28th and 30th, and I highly recommend you book for this really solid night of dance. Even Clement Crisp loved it, it had to be good!)

Two tickets for Sondheim’s “Passion” at the Donmar

October 24, 2010

Well, I inadvertently got tickets to see this very early in the run, so I’m looking to sell the tickets I bought for myself. One pair for Sondheim’s Passion at the Donmar on November 10th, side circle (close to the middle circle so good view), 100 quid or best offer. It’s sold out so if you don’t feel like standing through it, these tickets might be your best chance to see the show. If you want them, comment on this post with your email address and I’ll contact you. I have the tickets in hand so will meet you somewhere in Covent Garden to hand them off.

Review – Men Should Weep – National Theatre

October 21, 2010

Once again, the National has failed to touch me with an incredibly produced and likely well-acted show. Men Should Weep is a sort of “heart warming tale” of “family togetherness” in a Depression-era Glasgow tenement. John (Robert Cavanah), the patriarch of the Morrison family, tries and fails to work with a hang-dog persistence that requires us to admire him while we can’t fail but notice that perhaps he’s not really trying that hard; he’s got his wife Maggie (Sharon Small) to carry the weight of taking care of the seven children he’s saddled her with while he expects her to serve him when he comes back from a hard day of standing on a street corner. Maggie is caught up in living for the moment, leaving little things like taking her son into the doctor to have his chronic cough treated for later because she doesn’t like to focus on the bad things. Meanwhile, the neighbors are dealing with head lice and beating each other up; somehow the Morissons come off like a bundle of love, even as the eldest son (Pierce Reed) gambles and drinks, the eldest daughter (Sarah MacRae) runs off to be a kept woman, and Granny (Anne Downie) is practically auctioned off to another family member for her pension money. It’s basically the UK as the ConDems are hoping to remake it over the course of the next few years, as everyone sells whatever they have for money but empty-pockets dad rules the roost.

Unfortunately, any ability I might have had to get interested in these characters and their lives was horribly wrecked by the thick Glaswegian dialect. I eventually got that “wains” meant children and “deed” meant dead, but for the first half hour at least the only words I caught were “Alec” and “Lily.” Even after the interval, during a key argument, I totally missed just who it was that went to jail for defrauding the policemen’s benevolent fund. I considered leaving and skipping the second act because I’d just completely failed to connect to anyone or their problems (although I was in love with Granny just a bit); instead I trudged on through the full three hours and was not rewarded for my investment of time.

I can’t fault the cast in general. Small was fabulous as the “heart of gold” mom; Sarah MacRae gave her all to her key speech that I felt certain had served many an actress attempting to prove mastery of the accent (though I found her unconvincing overall). But I just didn’t care, and not even the great supporting work from neighbors Karen Dunbar and Lindy Whiteford can change my mind. (A real thank you goes to understudy Louise Montgomery, who was not only good as Maggie’s sister Lily but also the only person in the cast I could consistently understand.) I checked: the English people surrounding me weren’t able to follow along either. The set was perfect, the accents were no doubt spot on, but these alone could not rescue the night.

I am not going to discount my dislike as due to missing at least half of the dialogue in this show. This was just not an interesting play. It has a lot of good character studies in it but that just wasn’t enough; I felt it was a lesser work overall and probably not worth the trouble of reviving so glamorously. There was no dramatic tension and I didn’t feel any evolution in any of the characters. It certainly looked poverty square in the face (or perhaps a bit rosily in the face), but … insofar as I like plays to illuminate the human condition, it just didn’t cut it. No doubt people will sing its praises, but if you find yourself yawning after the first hour, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(This preview performance took place on Tuesday, October 19th. It continues through Sunday, January 9th, 2011. For the completely opposite take, please see Ian Foster’s review. It’s a fact that we almost always see things exactly the same way: when we finally both agree, expect the universe to implode.)

Metro discount – 50% off Bale de Rua Brazilian dance troupe

October 19, 2010

Today’s Metro has a great deal: 50% off top price seats (normally £35 and £40) for Bale de Rua, a Brazilian dance troupe, at the Peacock Theater. The discount is only good through November 10th & not valid on Saturdays, but this gives you a good slice of their run (they’ll be performing until November 20th) to see at a bargain price.

To get this offer, either use promo code “pcdcelebrate” when booking online, or call 0844 412 4322 and quote “celebrate the city offer.” I don’t know anything about the performance other than what they say about it online but but samba, favela and Brazilian music sound like a winning combo to me.

Review – Time Stands Still – Cort Theater (NYC)

October 17, 2010

New York is so clearly a city where theater production is based on profit rather than devotion to art. I wanted to see a new play by a legendary writer, or a performance by a legendary actress I might never have the chance to see again: but instead, I chose my last show of my trip based on what I could afford. I thank the Playbill club for making a small dent in creating affordable nights out in New York; their tickets for Scottsboro Boys were $30 less than the going rate at TKTS, and their offer for $25 balcony seats for Time Stands Still made it doable. I knew jack about the play other than it was a newish (from January of this year) and that it starred Laura Linney, one of my very favorite American movie actresses – one whom I thought had the chops to do a play. So, fine, I was heading into broke (like “do I have enough money to go to the airport tomorrow”), so Time Stands Still it was.

The show suffers from being very flatly realistic, in a stiff way I remember all too well from director Daniel Sullivan’s time in Seattle. It’s not inventive, it’s not pushing you as an audience member, it’s just telling what seems to be a very thin story about two war reporters – one photographer (Laura Linney as Sarah Goodwin), one writer (Brian D’Arcy James as James Dodd) – who have maybe spent too much time on the front lines. The story itself seems to take a while to unspin: is it about Goodwin’s addiction to the high of seeing people struggle? Is it about her lack of feeling toward pain, her lack of (feminine) feeling (as highlighted by her encounters with her boss’ new girlfriend Mandy)? Does James Dodd really have anything to add to this other than being the one who brought her back to their flat in Brooklyn?

Mandy’s nauseating empty-headedness (a bit overdone by Christina Ricci) seems a set up for criticizing Goodwin in some way, but Mandy winds up making Goodwin look intelligent and sympathetic by comparison. As we head into the end of act one, the true story (really masked by an excess of Mandy) comes out: Dodd and Goodwin’s relationship is in trouble, not just because of the horrible accident Goodwin was is and Dodd’s sense of guilt, not just because of the stress caused by the careers they have, but for so much more. I don’t want to spoil it but in act two we headed into positively Strindbergian levels of couple fucked-uppedness that really got me down. While I was aggravated a lot by this play in the first act, Donald Margulies really got right to the core of what holds people together, what tears them apart, and just how the intimacy of intimacy lets you go right for the jugular. Damn and ow.

In some ways, Goodwin’s boss, Richard (Eric Bogosian) and his girlfriend seemed not so much about “causing situations” and “providing contrast” as about giving the play some filler while the much more real events between the main couple were happening. The play would have probably been able to get by without them just fine (though Bogosian was flawless in his role). Still, I’m impressed by the levels of realness Margulies achieved, and by his ability to avoid easy criticisms of Goodwin and her career choices. My seats in the very back row may have been fairly crap (listening to the toliet flush when the ushers hit the john was particularly irritating), but I do think this was, in the end, a good show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday October 9th, 2010, at 8 PM. The show continues through January 23rd, 2011.)

Review – Romeo and Juliet – Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

October 13, 2010

As the first ballet I’ve been able to see in London since the Bolshoi departed for pastures snowy in August, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet was very high on the excitement level. I consider this company very accomplished and had high expectations for their performance of a ballet I love, with its striking Prokofiev score and deeply emotional story.

Unfortunately, BRB failed to deliver, a problem which I’ll attribute greatly to the Kenneth Macmillan choreography, which I had not seen before*. It was full of over-dramatic movement: arms held high in grief a la Laurencia; women standing in heavily curved positions meant to look like Renaissance painting; the maneki-neko hands of the Capulet court ladies I found the gestures and posturing grating, unnatural, off-putting, and occasionally comic. The simplistic sword fighting was at least fun and active; but the mannerized, stiff choreography that filled most of the night left me flat and seemed an incredible waste of a great score. The “Dance of the Capulets” was forgettable – an outrage! – and while Romeo (Iain Mackay) and Tybalt (Robert Parker)’s power struggle during the second iteration of this bit of music was interesting, the dances themselves were … overly complex and indigestible.

On the positive side, our lead characters (Jenna Roberts as Juliet) had great chemistry, stage presence, and acting skills. Juliet was fluid and charming; her Romeo was utterly devoted and star-struck. However, Iain Mackay once again displayed a painful inability to manage overhead lifts, even in scene one, when he should have been at his strongest; he needs to be sent for remedial weight training stat.

My complaints end with a sort of sadness about the lack of emotional impact this ballet had on me. I remember seeing the bedroom scene – as done by Kent Stowell of Pacific Northwest Ballet, of all people – leaving me damp-eyed and reminding myself “These are dancers playing fictional characters! There is nothing to be sad about here!” but this Romeo and Juliet left me with none of that. Instead, I grew impatient for this very long ballet to simply end, hoping (at around 10 PM) that Romeo would make his appearance and get on with offing himself. Admittedly, Roberts was the floppiest dead “star-cross’d lover” I’d ever seen – but I felt no pain for her or Romeo in the final scene. And I really want that, a chance for a good weep, not just an opportunity to ooh-aah over lovely costumes; and, unfortunately, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production denied me this pleasure. Bah. On to “Pointes of View” on Friday, which I’m sure I will find far more satisfying.

*Seriously, why the hookers? It’s not in the original and it adds an unnecessary layer of smarm to the ballet. Prostitutes dancing with Montagues is one of the least attractive additions to a known story ballet I’ve ever seen.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 12, 2010. The show continues through Thursday, October 14th. For a different point of view, see Graham Watt’s review on LondonDance.com.)

Good deals – Traces at the Peacock for £15 and Radamisto at ENO for £10

October 12, 2010

Yesterday’s Metro had two great deals back to back: discounts for Traces, the Canadian circus group (whom I enjoyed last year), and Radamisto, the Handel opera now on at English National Opera.

For Traces, the deal is 50% off the top two ticket prices (normally £38 and £29, so two could go for £15 each) for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday shows through October 21st. Book either by calling 0844 412 4322 and quoting “Celebrate the City” offer or go to the Sadler’s Wells website and use the code pcdcelebrate.

For Radamisto, the discount is good for £10 balcony or £20 upper circle seats (“selected areas,” whatever that means). This appears to be good for all dates (it ends November 4th). To book, either call ENO at0871 472 0800 and quote “Metro Radamisto Offer” or book online at this address (possibly using the same offer code, the ad is not clear).