Archive for September 2nd, 2011

Review – Top Hat (the musical, not the movie) – Milton Keynes (transferred to the Aldwych – was Birmingham Hippodrome, Southampton Mayflower, Plymouth Theatre Royal, Leeds Grand etc.)

September 2, 2011

UPDATE: Top Hat has now transferred to the Aldwych Theater, but according to The West End Whingers, my review seems pretty sound still – though you may prefer to read theirs. (The following review is from August, 2011.)

There’s been only one musical on my mind this summer – Top Hat, a brand new staging of a musical that’s previously only existed on the silver screen. For me, it was the chance to see my idol Summer Strallen in a part that actually took advantage of her triple-threat talents that I’d last seen put to their full use in Drowsy Chaperone. A dancing role previously held down by Ginger Rogers? Sign me up! Summer seemed like the perfect person for the role. Even better, there was a whole plate full of Irving Berlin songs fleshing out the original five. Sadly, though there wasn’t a London date in sight, so I was stuck going to Milton Keynes to get my fix – but, hey, nothing like seeing a show early in its run to put you ahead of the blogging pack, right? Plus, truth be told, I just couldn’t wait. Woo hoo tap dancing on the big stage SIGN ME UP!

Now, as it turns out Milton Keynes was actually way more of a hike than I’d expected – a full hour out of London (and I live an hour south of Euston so my trip back was a real marathon) and expensive as it’s on one of those weaselly train lines that charges peak fares in the evenings as well as the mornings. But, well, the running time was short enough (just about 2:30) that I could be ensured of getting back before last train, so all is well.

I’m not familiar with the story of Top Hat, as I must have seen it well over twenty years ago, so I was pretty empty of expectations. The show starts with a lively musical number that introduces us to our lead, Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers), an American dance man whose been invited to come perform in London – the London of 1930s American musicals, which is all Cockneys and Art Deco and men in top hats, with bizarre rules about politeness and an obsession with scandal (very plus ca change in my eyes). There he winds up at a posh hotel where he just starts randomly dancing away in his room in my very favorite scene from the entire play, perfectly Fred Astaire as he danced with a hat rack, and perfectly zany as the maid and service staff joined in. It was beautifully choreographed and a real joy.

In the story arc, this dance is what provokes the meeting between Jerry and Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen) – he’s tap dancing on her ceiling, and when she comes up to complain, Jerry is instantly smitten. This leads to the rest of the silliness as former permanent bachelor Jerry chases Dale around London (most wonderfully in Hyde Park, with the number “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” and the comedy in a hansom cab) and eventually in Venice, with Dale fighting her attraction to Jerry due to a mistaken identity (she thinks he’s Horace Hardwick, the man who rented the original hotel room). Of course they wind up together in the end, and there are several more wonderful dances along the way, including the amazing one with around 16 male tap dancers, who are joined by a bunch of tuxedoed women. Wow!

Sadly, the thing that kept me from really buying this show was the lack of electricity between Jerry and Dale, which kept me from really being able to get into the rest of the show – crazy that what I came for was the dancing, but then it was the acting that frustrated me! As near as I can tell, this was probably due to a very short rehearsal time – it seemed like the background dancers had probably been working on it for ages, but the leads only got pulled in about a week before the show started. (And I saw this show AFTER press night, so no grousing about my seeing a preview, please.) I was also displeased with the costuming – while some of the outfits were great, there was a general cheapness to many of them – including the what should have been fabulous feathered dress Dale wears toward the end of act two – that made the dancers look dumpy when they should have been svelte.

Overall, this was a pleasant night, but it wasn’t the blockbuster I was hoping for. In retrospect, I much preferred Crazy for You, which had wittier dialogue and a much less wooden male lead (which I suspect was Chambers’ attempt to channel Astaire). Given a few more months on the road, I am guessing a lot of my complaints will have been taken care of, and there’s no doubt that the Milton Keynes audience ate it up – almost uniformly giving it a standing ovation. This wasn’t the American tourists screwing it up, it was English people expressing their appreciation for a show they really enjoyed. I anticipate a successful tour and I do hope that it makes a London transfer after it’s had several months to bake.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 25th, 2011. Top Hat will be touring the UK through December 10th, 2011.)

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Review – The Mercy Seat – Glowbox at the Pleasance Theater

September 2, 2011

What if something happened that could change your life forever?

What if, instead of it being something good (like winning the lottery), it was a disaster?

What if it meant you could walk away from your life?

Would you do it?

This is one of the key questions that is asked during the play The Mercy Seat. Billed as Neil LaBute’s 9/11 play, in fact it’s only peripherally about 9/11 – its situation is as easily transposed to a tsunami or an earthquake. I’m grateful for this as I didn’t want to see a show that had me reliving the devastation of that day. And it was supposed to be incredibly controversial, I’m guessing because it has some explicit discussions of sex. But it wasn’t wallowing in the disaster and it wasn’t in anyway pornographic.

Instead … well … Okay, I have to tell you, I’m going to put in enough spoilers that you should stop reading here if you don’t want some important plot points discussed. Summary: very good, do go. And stop reading here if you want it your experience to be almost entirely a surprise.

Back to the review. Instead of being about people screwing their way through the devastation (which I was kind of expecting), it’s a cold and painful look at the way people lie to themselves and others about what they want and why. Two lovers, Ben (Sean O’Neill) and Abby (Janine Ulfane), are holed up in her apartment the day after the blast. At first, it seems like Abby is being a complete hardass with Ben, hassling him for lying on the couch in a completely believable state of shock while she’s out trying to get them some food when she thinks he should be helping with the rescue efforts. But as the story unfolds, Abby starts delving more explicitly into what is going wrong with the two of them and why Ben’s wild plans seem utterly senseless. Her dissection of their relationship – while he loudly insists that if the sex is good, then what is there to be wrong, and he knows it’s good – captures perfectly not just their own strange mental states but the insecurities and lies they’ve been telling themselves and each other to keep things going for the last three years.

What blew me away about this play was Neil LaBute’s effortless creation of naturalistic dialogue and characters. I spent an hour and forty minutes watching Ben and Ellie bicker, tease, berate, kiss, push, and question each other, and not once did I feel like I was listening to something written. The actors have to take credit, too – Janine Ulfane and Sean O’Neill were on stage for the entire time and they didn’t let up. In fact, they kept the pressure on so tightly I felt like just anything, just anything, might happen between the two of them in this lawless space where death was at the front and all the known rules of the universe were suspended.

I was worn out at the end of this show but excited about what I’d just seen. This is a timeless play despite having a very specific setting, and very much worth reviving. I’m really pleased I got to see it for free as a guest of Glowbox, but at £12 it’s a screaming deal despite the occasional bad sightlines and sound quality in the Pleasance and at 1:40 it still gets you home at a good time. In short: go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, September 1st, 2011. It continues through September 18th.)