Archive for August, 2011

Review – Crazy for You – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

August 23, 2011

So … take a handful of familiar Hollywood musical tropes (the “We’ve got a barn, let’s have a show!” one, plus “He’s in love with a girl who hates him,” “I can dance and I want to be a star,” and several others), deal in a stack of unrelated songs from one of best songwriting duos (George & Ira Gershwin) of America’s golden age, shuffle in a delicious yet unfashionable series of tap dancing numbers, dress it all in glitter and sequins, and what do you have? Crazy for You at Regent’s Park Open Air Theater, which sounds like it should be a giant mess, but in fact, just totally, totally works.

Structurally speaking, the pastiche element of this show, in which various songs from the Gershwin catalogue are used to illustrate the plot, is the worst thing about it. The best musicals have songs that are inseparably woven with story and character so that in listening to them, you are further illuminated about the singer or the themes of the show (or both) or the plot. But while I regretted this missing element, I couldn’t deny the songwriting genius that raised these pop drops far above most modern musicals’ attempts to add their shot to the canon. They were a treat to listen to and they were delivered with winning style.

As for the story, well, it’s about a young New York banker (Sean Palmer) who dreams of being a star on the Great White Way but instead finds himself trying to save a failing theater in Deadrock, Nevada, to win the love of its owner’s daughter, Polly (Clare Foster). I, however, was won over pretty much from the moment Bobby’s mom starts yelling at him over the phone, delivering the unforgettable line, “What’s that noise I hear? It’s not … tap dancing?!?” Yes, it was tap dancing, from Ziegfield folly-esque girls in figure-hugging, tinsel-trimmed dresses, returning minutes later as Busby Berkeley chorines with long blue gloves, fluffy chiffon on their butts, and shoes that were ready to move.

Oh my, the dancing. And the dancing! And the singing! And the entirely historically inaccurate cowboys, and the Maxfield Parrish sky behind the trees, and the number with the bass fiddle, and the one with the teacups, and why were there velvet majorette outfits EVER in Nevada in the summer, but OH the dancing! And then the dialogue was just damned funny and shoot me if the costumes weren’t gorgeous to distraction and the sets amazingly effective. And dancing!

I’m trying so hard to be critical, but I’m failing. In the very last scene, as Polly and Bobby dance their love away to the audience and the final showgirl comes on stage and raises her arms to make a silver circle spread out behind and around her while giant stars played across the stage, by God I got teared up, it was all just so perfect. The evening was sheer, unadultered joy and my jaded little heart was broken by its loveliness. This is gonna be the one show of the year I want to go back and see again and again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 22nd, 2011. Last performance is September 10th.)

Review – Tennant/Tate “Much Ado About Nothing” – Wyndham’s Theatre

August 19, 2011

You know there’s something going on when a friend who normally only pings you to talk about books suddenly sends you a text saying OMG DR WHO IN SHAKESPEARE WHR CN I BUY TX THXPLZSOS! Doctor Who? Shakespeare? What? Was there a celebrity casting event happening? Was someone just rumor-mongering on a fan bulletin board? It took me a few hours but I figured it out: David Tennant was going to be appearing in Much Ado About Nothing, though it wasn’t going to be with the RSC or at the Globe; instead, he would be at the Wyndham’s, which did quite well for itself with the Jude Law Hamlet and probably thought that putting another celeb in a copyright free show couldn’t help but make for a juicy summer at the box office. What better for “two great tastes” than Shakespeare … with a Dr Who star in it? As an added bonus, they threw in Catherine Tate. Result? A critic-proof show that’s sold out week after week – despite there being nothing available below £50 in the stalls and Royal Circle.

However, there’s really nothing about “Dr Who/Comedy star” to catch my attention, as with Shakespeare there’s just so damn much of it on that I try to only hit artistic highs (this year, Propeller) and limit myself to three a year. So I missed all of the excitement of the early days this how was on (it opened in May) and just finally got around to seeing it this month, four months on and only a few weeks before it is to close. Ah well: no excuses about the performance I saw only being a preview this time, eh?

As it turns out, I’d never seen this play before at all, which added a certain frisson of anticipation to the evening’s events; yet much of the pure joy I might have experienced was hindered by Catherin Tate’s incredibly heavy-handed performances. The woman’s got an easy career to come in panto, I’ll say that. And David Tennant, well, to be honest he executed well in Shakespeare, and his skinny, very tall figure worked convincingly as a character billed as a bit of a clown and an outcast. Still, I felt that even his jokes were cranked up to 11, and while most of the audience was roaring hysterically, I was wondering how I’d wound up back in One Man Two Guvnors. All we needed was two men in a horse suit and a singalonga. I mean, was the director afraid we wouldn’t understand that it was a comedy?

Overall, I found it was a competent production, but I wasn’t feeling the love. And it hardly matters: everyone else, including the people I’d treated to the show (giving experiences not stuff, don’t you know) loved it, and it is a hit. I’ll just sit in my Grumpy Critic’s Corner all by myself and wish I’d instead made it to see Propellor’s Comedy of Errors when it was in town. Hmm: I see they’re bringing a pocket version of it to the Hampstead at the end of September. I think I’ll book for it and call it my consolation prize, nicely rounding out my Shakespeare for the year with two great productions and one … new one.

(This review is for a performance that took lace on Thursday, August 18th, 2011. Much Ado continues at Wyndhams until September 3rd.)

Mini-review – Betrayal – Comedy Theater

August 19, 2011

There is something so perfect about seeing Pinter at the Comedy Theater, where, per the posters, nearly every play he’s written has been produced, or so it seems. Unfortunately the current revival of Betrayal is suffering from the pricing associated with celebrity casting (Kristin Scott Thomas), so I’ve put off seeing this show for months waiting for seats I could afford. £25.00 in the way way way up there balcony? Forget it. However, Lastminute.com saved my bacon with some £15 restricted view seats that were at least actually seats rather than standing (albeit designed for ladies shorter and slimmer than myself: I spent the whole show sitting sideways), so a few days before this production ends I was finally able to see it.

The production got off to a stilted start as Thomas sits with Douglas Henshall, the boyfriend to her character Emma, having drinks at a table and failing to discuss whatever it is they’ve come to discuss. While I thought they might try to play up the Pinterian “silences,” in fact the clunkiness came from the rather mechanical way they were and then weren’t looking at each other. Sentence end: she up, he down. Pause: he at her, she sideways. I imagined them being drilled in it mercilessly until Ian Rickson was positive they knew exactly, at every phrase, where Emma and Jerry are looking. I quailed as we were dragged through the painful scene. Was this going to be a terrible evening? Just minutes later (though going backwards in time), Emma throws the keys across the stage in what was supposed to be a furious, despairing moment, but which had the sponenaiety of a birthday party for Kim Jong Il.

And then … God, when did the magic happen? Was it when snippy, somewhat evil Robert (Ben Miles) came on stage and we started to see the proof of the first of what began to seem like an endless series of lies? Watching Robert prowl around and bluster, I couldn’t help but think of the playwright’s own lies in telling this play, as he retold his own story in a way that suited his needs. Who really was the baddie? Was the boyfriend portrayed as a bit of a simpleton in part to wreak revenge for the wife’s infidelity, or was the husband a bully because it made him less sympathetic? I wasn’t sure of the details of the real life incidents but, man, I got sucked in fast. Scene after scene of unspun and newly minted untruths, the simple hard facts of how manipulative people are to each other, the strange mystery of how passion plays into the equation, the sense of ownership that comes into relationships, the pathetic reality of how completely unable to entangle ourselves from each other we are … I was almost breathless waiting for each scene to happen. I lost track of time. I lost track of the play. I forgot about the actors (although I did wonder about some clothes and set furnishings). And suddenly it was over and, oh man, Pinter had taken me for quite a ride. I realize it was only 90 minutes long but it was the most engaged period of time I’d spent in a theater in ages.

Anyway, it’s a few days later, and the play is closing this weekend, but man, if you’re trying to figure out what to do and you want one of those peak experiences, I’d highly recommend seeing Betrayal. I was immensely pleased at what I got for £15 (despite the near bruises on my shins) and expect you will be, too.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 15th, 2011. It’s final perfomance is Saturday at 7:30 PM.)

Good deal – Double Feature #2 for £15 – National Theatre

August 18, 2011

The National Theater have a deal in today’s Metro to get a ticket to their second set of plays (“Nightwatchman” and “There is a War”) for only £15. Call 020 7452 3000 and quote “Metro” or enter promo code “4117” in the website BEFORE selecting your seats. Good for performances until August 30th 2011. While this set of plays isn’t as genius as the other double feature, it’s still been getting good reviews and it’s always a nice idea to support new writing. And at £7.50 a play, how can you go wrong?

Review – Betwixt! – Trafalgar Studios

August 13, 2011

This is a sad week for me as my cohort in musical theater mayhem, Exedore, is departing the UK and won’t be back any time soon. We had one last night to go out and paint the town red in our usual way (“Let’s see a show!” “Okay!”), and I let him make the pick. Imagine my dismay when he said he wanted to go back a second time to Betwixt!, a show I had already dismissed based on the description on the King’s Head website: “Take … a pair of unlikely heroes, mix with a teaspoon of princess … blend with musical comedy …” Bleah! I was already sapped out and completely unwilling to buy their claims that the score was “masterful.” I mean, who doesn’t crank up the hyperbole? I was actually quite surprised to see that it had apparently transferred to Trafalgar Studios, given that it sounded like such pap (I mean, princesses, BLEAH). But then, it’s summer, theaters are desperate to get fresh things in as we all become bored of the same-old, same-old, so maybe a second rate show could find a home in the basement of Trafalgar Studios -it’s a tiny house, even smaller than the King’s Head (if I’m remembering right). And it’s what Exedore wanted to see. Surely a bitsy two hour show couldn’t hurt me, right?

The show opened with a red haired man (Bailey, Benedict Salter) singing, in a very “musical moderne” style, about his struggles writing. Oh NO. I had sudden flashbacks to Bright Lights, Big City – not just my least favorite style of music, but a trope I hate, the tortured artist. At least he wasn’t an architect. I settled down in a huff, determined to somehow make it to the interval before begging off for the night.

And then blond and very gay Cooper (Steven Webb) shows up, and the whole “let’s spend two hours talking about writers’ block” thing goes out the window (instead becoming “let’s talk about how fabulous I am,” a much better place for me), and the show becomes much snappier, with the first of many jokes making fun of the theatrical conventions we (as audience members) observes enlivening the evening by tickling my brain. I was still worried when we moved into the fairyland scenes – the costumes area really off the rack and the volume issues (i.e. “What did he say?”) began to manifest, but the moment Cooper was greeted as the “great queen of legend,” I put my skepticism away and just went along for the ride.

I’m glad I did, too, for while the lyrics were occasionally hard to pick out (shocking in such a small space, though of course Ellen Green in a triple role of princess/witch/siren showed the young ‘uns how its done), they and the dialogue were very funny. We got a numb-skull soap star, an egotistical actor, and, in a gag of genius, a head in a box, plus comic seduction scenes, not very magical transformations (with hysterical commentary), and JOY OF JOYS a fantastic tap dancing scene during my favorite song, “The Paparazzi Rag.” I was laughing out loud throughout and REALLY enjoyed myself – it was just so clever and fun and SUCH a good time.

Sometimes I feel like I go see so many shows that I’ve become a horrible burnout and I’m hardly capable of enjoying a night at the theater any more. But it’s not true: I’ve just been waiting for the right gem to come along. And Betwixt! is the musical I’ve been hoping for all year – a real “forget about your troubles, c’mon get happy” good time. It’s a real deal at Trafalgar, too, with tickets in the $20-$25 zone. My advice: don’t miss out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 9th, and which we went to see despite the fear of riots in the streets. It was glorious to be completely swept away for the two hours we were in the theater. Anyway, it’s booking through September 10th, and I highly advice you get off of your tookus and go see it.)

Review – Dames at Sea – Union Theatre (Southwark)

August 10, 2011

Union Theater’s string of all-male Gilbert and Sullivan has been broken this summer with a “straight” musical, the very-1930s Dames at Sea (created as a parody of the style in 1966). Set in a failing Broadway venue during the World War II, it’s yet another show in which songs are only loosely linked together by plot, in this case “small town girl (Gemma Sutton) comes to Broadway with dreams of making it big” (but with the complication of “star (Rosemary Ashe) stands in her way,” and not just in terms of having the role she wants but for stealing her boyfriend (Daniel Bartlett)).

Unfortunately, while this show is a parody, I wasn’t really able to get my head around the joke, as the production had all of the flash and dazzle of a real 1930s show (as done by a tiny cast and two pianos) but not enough zinging music to make it memorable. It did have some enjoyable tap dancing (hard to see in the 3rd row), and I loved the “Singapore Sue” number despite its tinge of racism – it was acting out a story that seemed reasonable enough for a sailor to have – and the performances were spot-on Busby Berkeley over the top hamminess – and Rosemary Ashe was four times the voice the Union could hold. But … while it was fine entertainment for £15, it wasn’t genre-changing and sadly the songs were not up to the musial chops of Irving Berlin or Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s fine entertainment … but I was hoping for more. Sad, actually, that the Union has set my expectations so high that merely “good” isn’t good enough!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, August 3rd. Performances continue through August 20th.)

Review – Don Quixote – Mariinsky Ballet at Royal Opera House

August 3, 2011

I have seen “Don Quixote” – the ballet – twice before, once in Prague (where the dancers seemed weak, as if all the good ones had gone to the West) and one with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, where Kaori Nakamura was a great Kitri but the ballet just seemed so incoherent I wasn’t able to get into it. However, last year people raved endlessly about the Osipova/Vasiliev Bolshoi performance, and I kicked myself for not seeing them. What is it about this ballet that people like so much? What was I missing out on? I decided to buy tickets for the Mariinsky production and figure it out.

I think I’ve got it out now: Don Quixote is basically a plotless ballet (with a wedding scene at the end) that’s set up to enable a variety of exciting dances that allow a company to display the virtuosity of a wide number of its dancers. The theme is “We’re in Spain!” so you get colorful costumes (nearly no tutus), fake Flamenco dances, and all of the fans and swirling toreador capes you could ever hope for. I have a soft spot for Spain and Spanish dancing, so I was willing to accept this poetical vision, with the exception of the Eastern Dance in act 3 (Maria Shiviakova showing her wonderful arms but basically failing to do any dancing – and really, why was it there?) and the big dream sequence in Act II’s land of the Dryads, which looked like it had been rolled out of a dusty closet populated by an Edwardian Am-Dram club’s Iolanthe.

So what kind of fun dancing do you get (since there’s no point in us worrying about the plot – it’s basically La Fille Mal Gardee served with sangria)? There’s the fabulous role of Kitri (Anastasia Matvienko) and her lover Basil (Denis Matvienko) – she stamps beats on her toes and bends like a willow, while he leaps and does one-handed girl-overhead lifts (which I think would be far more challenging with me than Matvienko). The village people clap, slap their fans, play tambourines, and have mock knife-fights. There are more toreadors than could possibly be reasonable in a town of 300, all swinging their capes in time: star among them (and a rockin’ dancer) is Espada (Alexander Serveev), who gets to show off even more than Basil because he’s sprinting rather than marathoning. He is accompanied by the “street dancer” (Ekaterina Kondaurova), dressed in purple and SO elegant. But Kitri comes in and leaps through the air with her feet flying up to her head, so fast and strong it was truly electrifying. How can a human being even do that? There was also a great pas de trois with Basil and two girls (I assume the flower sellers, credited as Yana Selina and Viktoria Krasnokutskaya) that also cranked the volume up to eleven. How could they go up from this?

Act two means it’s gypsy time, so we go from knives to slapping whips and from walls of capes to men on all fours going from one diagonal hand-foot pair to the other in an amazing athletic display. It’s all a bit too Carmenesque – I expected fortune tellers any minute – but energetic and fun. This makes the slow dream sequence that follows even more irritating, because it breaks the mood, and we’d been promised giant spiders (in the synopsis) which never appeared – but since this whole show was about jumping the shark, I figured, why not? I want thirty foot tall eight legged creepy-crawlies! Gimmee!

By the end of Act 2, I had run out of energy, but had to wait through another half hour interval until act III started at 9:30. Aargh, fifty minutes to go and me worn out! For act 3 we had the most corny, comic death scene ever, a few “these people just come through the middle of town and dance any old time” performances, and then a fun crowd scene with tossing flowers – all a big build-up to the rather dry wedding scene, which had Kitri and Basil back in black and white formal ballet wear. Matvienko did such amazing turns in the air I thought he must be part gyroscope to have kept his balance – even hitting the scenery didn’t stop him. Still, I was done by this time, and I wish the whole thing could have been cut down a bit so that I could have maintained my enthusiasm. That said, despite this being the biggest pile of cheese I’ve seen on stage in ages, and clearly as old as the hills, it was a great ride to take and I can highly recommend it.

(This review is for a performance tht took plce on August 2nd 2011. It has one final performance tonight.)