Archive for January, 2014

Mini-review – The World Goes Round – Union Theater

January 23, 2014

Now, this is embarrassing. Faced with the difficulties of writing a review of a musical that’s, well, actually just a musical revue – a bunch of songs from other shows pulled together to make an evening – I bit the bullet and actually bought a program. Hey, I’ve got a job now, I can afford two quid.

And yet, here I am, 24 hours later, and it’s nowhere to be found. Did I leave it in the cafe? Was it under my chair? Arrgh! The Union’s website doesn’t even credit half of the cast! Right, better get the review written as quickly as possible – and my apologies in advance to the five (I think!) dancers, whom I can’t give even the slightest credit to.

The World Goes Round is, quite simply, an evening of songs by Kander and Ebb. No time to see all of their shows? I admit, it’s hard, given they have some twenty musicals to their credit. I’ve only managed eight. And yet, for me, this evening was full of incredible songwriting, a great combination of the familiar (songs from Cabaret and Chicago) and the obscure. Many of them were done as miniature plays in a song, almost in the music video format. I loved hearing so many fresh, well-written numbers given a chance to shine without all of the dross of a full evening’s story to support them. (I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to see 70 Girls 70 or Woman of the Year but it costs a lot of money to make even the smallest musical happen and I’m very happy just to hear the songs.)

This meant, for the first time ever, I got to get the giggles at “Sara Lee,” a paen to an imaginary chef (a la Mr Kipling), and I was able to clap and laugh at the perfection of “Ring Them Bells” (a real star turn for Emma Francis). And “Arthur in the Afternoon” – a song celebrating the psychological benefits of married woman having a bit on the side – was just hysterical, showing off Lisa Stokke (and her legs, and the smooth moves of the dancer taking the role of Arthur) to a T.

But … there was the incongruity of people dressed in evening wear singing the “Money” song. And the grating experience of “Cabaret” being done as if by a barbershop quartet, all of the content stripped in favor of some pretty harmonies. Kander and Ebb’s songs are about real human feelings, about how people don’t do what they’re “supposed” to do, about hurting, but, to me, always with a gritty, real core … not just pretty. Not people in sharp clothes talking about not having money as if they knew what it meant to be poor (although as London actors I’m sure they’ve all had the experience more than once).

And, also, not less that top drawer talent pulling off this song. Emma Francis was consistently on, but both of the men were just a bit too soft (and the bearded one seemed off key) to really punch the hard songs. And while I never thought I would say this, Susan Fay was too old to be singing so many songs about love and sex and disappointment. Despite her chestnut hair and good figure, there was something about her face that, at such quarters, looked very mid-sixties. It wasn’t working with this repetoire (and I’m almost ashamed to say it but it was distracting to me). Given the way the cast delivered professionalism but not really edginess, I got the feeling this show might have really punched it higher if the casting director had gone for a group of younger unknowns, people more hungry for success. That’s a feeling that pushes these songs forward really well.

While this show is based on where Kander and Ebb were in ’91, it means that several songs from their later ouvre were overlooked, including the many great numbers from Curtains and the fabulous tunes of The Scottsboro Boys (which admittedly would have been hard to perform with this all-white cast). Overall, the feeling was of a night which set out to basically be pleasant and entertaining … and rather sadly didn’t achieve much more. It still deserved better than the less-than-half-full house it had the night I went, though: hardly a musical in town can boast two tunes as good as any of the ones in The World Goes Round.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 22nd, 2014. It continues through February 8th.)


Mini-review – Jeeves and Wooster – Duke of York’s Playhouse

January 23, 2014

I realize there’s not much of a point in reviewing Jeeves and Wooster. It opened in November, and based on the lack of discounting of the last two months, it’s clearly found an appreciative audience. With two television actors (Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen) and the promise of light comedy, well, it must have been a producer’s fantasy booking. Given that it’s extended until September (no idea who’s in the lead roles after April), it’s really pushing the right buttons – to call the audience “appreciative” would be understating their enthusiasm.

Anyway, I didn’t go because of the TV actors, I went because the person who’d introduced me to P.G. Wodehouse invited me. This meant tickets bought at his price range (60 quid, ouch!) and preferred location (in the stalls but on the side). This was all fairly painful for me, but, well, having anybody outside of my group of hardcore theater people inviting me out is pretty rare, so I wanted to take advantage of this. And I was genuinely curious about how these funny books could be turned into an equally funny play; so much of the laughs come from snickering at the narrator (Wooster), who doesn’t seem to realize how pompous and stupid he is – but also admiring how clever the “lesser” of the two, Jeeves (the butler), is. It sounded like a set up that would be fraught – I mean, it could just so easily become plain old mean. And, really, the tone of the novels is not in any way mean – they are kind and jolly and friendly (Wooster coming through).

The approach this show went for, as it turns out, was to not have Wooster be a character in a play, but to have him be (as it were) a real person … someone addressing the audience and telling them (er, us) things. This breaking down of the fourth was was very effective in increasing Wooster’s believability as an actual person, and thus made him much less of an object of mockery than might have been. The curtain goes up, and there’s Bertie Wooster, quite surprised to see us. Then he starts rambling about how he has such interesting things happen to him that a friend of his has suggested that he do it as a play – so here he is! However, he doesn’t seem to have much prepared, certainly not any scenery, and hardly any actors, well, except for his butler, good old Jeeves, who dutifully comes on stage when called. As Bertie continues to ramble on about his great idea of being in a show, Wooster slowly brings out one bit of set after another, a gag that runs throughout the play but one which nicely illustrates the core elements of the Jeeves and Wooster relationship – Wooster is stupid, Jeeves gets things done and doesn’t make a fuss. Rightfully, with all of Jeeves’ stagehanding shenanigans, the climax probably should have been a helicopter descending from the ceiling a la Miss Saigon (with Jeeves flying it), but the show doesn’t take it that far – although nearly.

As it stands, the entirely of the show is done with three actors – including a second butler – and every joke gets built up and redone over and over again until it builds up a comic hysteria. The audience was lapping it up, too, which puzzled me a bit as while some of the things were clever, they weren’t particularly “wow” to me. But it was what they wanted, and they laughed and laughed.

Me, I giggled a bit. I liked the cow creamer. I thought Wodehouse did it better. It was, I’ll concede amusing, but there is no way on God’s green earth this play was worth what we payed for it. Oh well, I suppose if you only go out once or twice a year, perhaps a few giggles and a chance to feel modestly literary is all that it takes.

(This review is for a performance of Jeeves and Wooster that took place on Friday, January 17, 2014. It is booking until September although casting will change some time around April.)

Review – Silk Road – China Gansu Dance Company at Peacock Theater

January 14, 2014

There is almost no way in which Silk Road met its description as “a touching story of friendship and peace between Chinese people and foreign merchants during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).” It is a dance spectacular designed to promote a modern Chinese image of its restive Western provinces – but it seems to have no grounding whatsoever in actual history (as the area was controlled by Tibetans for part of this time) much less the basics of modern choreography.

The story is constructed around a single image from the Mogao Grotto Buddhist Cave paintings – that of an Apsara (female sky deity) playing a pipa (Chinese guitar) on her back. Silk Road posits that this painting was inspired by the daughter of the cave painters, but constructs an elaborate tale of how she (Yingniang – alternately played by Li Li and Chen Chen) and her father (Shenbi Zhang – An Ning) saved the life of a Persian Trader (Yunus – Suo JingXing), which led to him marrying Yingniang. When she returns from Persia with a tribute gift to China, she is waylaid by the bandit Dou Hu (Song Yulong), who steals the gift so it can be presented by a corrupt official (Wang Jianfei) as his own. At the great presentation of gifts (cue dance routine), Yingniang reveals that she was the one who brought the pipa, and the Military Governor has Dou Hu and the official executed.

This piece achieves moments of beauty during a few key scenes, both of which bring to life the Dunhaung/Mogao Grotto paintings. At the beginning, a crowd of about twenty female dancers recreate the hand gestures of the thousand-armed Buddha. As done in a shimmering golden light, with their metal-tipped fingernails glittering in the light, it was beautiful – though the effect was ruined by sitting in the far right of the house. Another lovely scene has Yingniang doing a ribbon dance, gloriously illustrating the fabric movements captured statically by the ancient painters.

Alas, so much of this was undone by the overall choreography, which was juvenile to the point of absurdity. There was a great emphasis on prettiness and group movement, but there was almost nothing else to admire besides occasional gymnastics and a few Beijing Opera style gestures – it was as if the 20th century had never happened. Making it even more teeth-grinding was the over the top miming, which made the villains come off like Snidely Whiplash with Yingniang as Trixie Trueblood. Moderation in acting seemed a foreign concept, with Shenbi Zhang’s death scene so elongated it turned into parody.

Granted, this show is meant to be understood with no words at all, but if they were really simplifying it for that reason, wouldn’t it have been better if the visible printed text (seen on two occasions) had not been in Chinese? And the final dance sequence in the palace was such a comic departure from history I actually got angry at the pure laziness and historical ignorance we were supposed to swallow. Korean, Thai, Japanese and Persian diplomats coming to kowtow to the Tang military official in Dunhuang – it was such an obvious political statement I burst out laughing. (There has been significant anti-Chinese unrest in the Muslim west, but this wasn’t a reality the choreographers dare acknowledge – better to pretend it has always been Han Chinese.)

I was willing to accept having a heroine who dressed in hot pink flares, but to have a single Japanese woman – in 19th century dress – at the Chinese court – in Tang dynasty (appx 700AD) Dunhaung – beggared the imagination. Yes, there was a giant wall of glitter falling from the sky at the end, but it couldn’t take the taste of sloppy dramaturgy, careless costuming, and panto camels away from the show. Most of the audience clearly wasn’t bothered, as they continued to seat themselves even twenty minutes after the start of the show and talked and took photos throughout, but I found this show two painful hours. The only thing missing at the end? A group of Fa Lun Gung supporters handing out flyers outside of the event, but I could only imagine that in the face of official Chinese historical suppression (and revision), they were keeping themselves safe from the goons.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 11th, 2014. It closed in London on January 12th.)


Review – The Snow Spider – Tristan Bates Theater

January 13, 2014

A children’s play about a magical spider that helps a young boy on a dangerous adventure? After a month of poufy pantos, limp Nutcrackers, and disappointing Dickens, this seemed to me like a great change of pace, even if it was billing itself as a “timeless Christmas show” and all the trees had just been taken away by the binmen two days ago. And the story sounded interesting – a mix of Charlotte’s Web and a quest-driven fairy tale. As a bonus, it promised Welsh mythology/folklore and music, which I know next to nothing about.

To summarize the story: 9 year old Gwyn is living in an unhappy home, thanks to his sister’s disappearance four years ago. His parents seem unwilling to move forward with their lives, and his father blames Gywn directly for the accident. But his grandmother sees him as the potential heir to a legacy of wizardry, and as a birthday gift gives him five items that might help unlock his powers. Gwyn embraces this heritage, but his own quirkiness combined with a propensity for oversharing leave him more alone than ever. He’s been promised that a wizard gets whatever he wants, but having his family get back to the state they once were seems fairly impossible, and watching him try to make this come true is the main thrust of this play (which has serious shades of Escape from Witch Mountain).

The Snow Spider touches on many important themes of childhood – the support of your parents, the desire for close friendships, bullying – but makes them magical with a heavy dusting of Welsh culture (music, fairy tales, and even some spoken language). This magic is somewhat counteracted by the setting – modern, rural Wales, which does not seem like a place where wonderful things happen. I found the family situation a bit clunky and c confusing, but Gwyn’s relationship with his friends – and the hints of his closeness with his sister – all seem quite realistic. The magical bits are handled nicely – without spider spoilers, it’s safe to say that the cast (which occasionally acts as a chorus of chickens) nicely brings to life Gwyn’s grandmother’s enchanted cottage as well as “an evil spirit” I will leave unnamed.

Overall, this show has a bit too much crammed into its approximately two hour running time. The actors are so multiply cast that it becomes hard to keep clear who is whom; a bit of paring down of the story might have helped here. And while the music adds atmosphere, there were times when the playing was too off-beat and out of tune to not be grating. That said, The Snow Spider does have some good storytelling; just possibly not arranged in a way that would keep a child entertained for two hours.

A version of this review was originally published inthepublicreview_hor_print

Review – Chicago – Leicester Curve

January 4, 2014

Most of my reviews are done for people who may not know a lot about a particular show. They just want to know if a show is good or not, and if it’s going to give them good value on the money. I’m warning you in advance, though, this review, for Chicago as done at the Leicester Curve, is not that kind of review. I’m kind of obsessed with Chicago. If you’re not, just read the first paragraph or two (spoiler alert: YES, it’s worth the money, but don’t take a seven year old, please, as the many vigorous scenes of people humping and being murdered are not really kiddie friendly). But what I want to do here is dissect what’s good and what’s not about this show, to place it in the pantheon of Chicago productions.

As a unit, as a show, this fresh new production is a lovely change on the very dated revival (1996) that was on the West End until September 2012. Transparent stocking material body suits with bras and undies on display and an emphasis on red-hot bodies in the cast – it was as stuck in its time as a Nagel print. Fortunately, the sexiness is still fully intact, but the cast is clad in champagne and gold … though they still seem to be frequently wearing very little (that said, with a bum like Zizi Strallen, granny pants are a sin).

Now, one of the biggest complaints I’ve had about the ever-changing cast of the revival is that they used the excuse of the stars being a 1) washed up cabaret singer 2) a failed chorine 3) a guy with two easy to sing numbers (“All I Care About” and “Razzle Dazzle”) to put a bunch of second rate celebrities in the show in a desperate attempt to lure in punters. Ooh ooh, Brooke Shields on stage, but SERIOUSLY, Roxie, Velma, and Billy are GREAT parts that flourish with GREAT actors in the roles. And finally, in this show, I got to see a performance in which excellence was the criterion by which performers were picked: long legged and pouty Verity Rushworth as Velma; short, sassy, and “voice of champions” Gemma Sutton as Roxie; seamless strutter David Leonard as greasy charmer Billy Flynn. I don’t need to make excuses about getting asses in seats when explaining the shortcomings of the Curve’s cast; they didn’t have them, really. Yeah, Velma’s wig was dowdy (and Roxie’s was just not right for the era at all), absolutely nobody could pronounce Amos correctly (it’s not “a moss,” people), and … um …

IT WAS JUST AWESOME PEOPLE LOOK HERE I AM DIGGING FOR THINGS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT. And instead I got a production that, unlike the movie, included the cut songs: “Me and My Baby,” “Class,” “I Am My Own Best Friend” (which, performed as a window into the selfish hearts of Velma and Roxie, was just great). “Me and My Baby” had guys dancing around in diapers on stage – hysterical – and listening to Mama and Velma complain about people’s lack of class while they drank hootch out of a bottle, hung out of their tops and swore like sailors was just MMMM tasty. (I have to praise Sandra Marvin’s performance of “When You’re Good To Mama” – although I found her corset a bit precarious, she took on the song and added flourishes to it that had to have the whole audience going, “Wow, we have got some bad-assed singing talent on stage.” )

But WOW the big scenes – the opening number (“Chicago”) with the big backing cast swirling around in kind of torn pinky-tan outfits (I thought maybe they were just going to rip off the style of the other produvction’s costumes but this turned out not to be the case), miming fornication and showing off their great bodies while Roxie shot, er, whazzisface, had JOLTS of energy and firmly set the production in an era when moral codes have been shattered. Then the final number, Roxie and Velma singing together (thanking Chicago for making them what they are – famous and employed simply for the virtue of being celebrities – very appropriate still in this celebrity-obsessed culture) in beaded champagne dresses, showing their lack of skill or friendship (while we know both Sutton and Rushworth are great – we’ve been watching them all night!), finally surrounded by dancers in shimmering, giant gold sequins that fluttered like coins waving in the air – a paean to money and sex.

But my favorite was the delicious “Razzle Dazzle” scene, in which the dancers come on stage as circus performers, in outfits made of crazy straps and shiny things, doing fun stunts with ropes and acrobatics while slowly driving home the point that the trial is a show, not a cold analysis of the facts. The dancers stay on stage for Roxie and Amos’ interrogations, keeping the whole thing unreal and electric.

In short: it was worth the cost of my train ticket AND my second row seat. It was great. If you love Kander and Ebb, Chicago, or excellent musicals given the attention they deserve and served up at a reasonable price, I highly advise you to make the trip to Leicester.

(This review is for the matinee performance of December 31st, 2013. It continues through January 18th. If anyone can get me recordings of the original Broadway performance – not the music but the visuals – I’d really appreciate it as what I’ve heard about it makes it sound amazing.)

Mini-review – Sleeping Beauty – Empire Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness

January 1, 2014

For those of you who know anything about my personal life, it’s no surprise that I went to Inverness over Christmas. Given the season, I was interested in seeing what was on at the Eden Court. To my pleasure, it was Sleeping Beauty, a panto I had never seen before. Hurray! Two tickets were secured for the Christmas Eve matinee (for under 15 quid each), and we were in!

Of all of the pantos I’ve seen this year, none of them compared to the glamor and glitz of the Eden Court’s show. The good fairy seemed sequined from head to toe in silk chiffon, the dame (Nanny Knot) must have had eight costume changes, all of which were fully developed and quite funny (the first one tartan with poofy sleeves shaped like bagpipes – hysterical!), and the sets may have had bright colors but they were very professionally done. My understanding is that Scotland goes for a lot more social and cultural investment than England does, and in this production you could see the money.

I didn’t have a feeling of the history of this show, like I do for Hackney Empire and for Greenwich, for the evolution of recurring cast members (and dancers growing up in the show) and the expectations of the audience, so my expectations may not have been set properly. But I was shocked at how unresponsive the audience was, at how hard it was to get them do callbacks, and how hard the cast was having to work to get barely a peep out of them. Now, mind, the (Inverness) Empire theater is a barn, and the first five rows of the stalls seemed to be exclusively filled with people of the silver haired persuation, but, come on, boys and girls, let’s make an effort!

As we are familiar with Cinderella, I’ll give you the panto add-ons: a goofy father who needs to hire a nanny to help him raise his daughter, Belle; an extraordinarily good looking Prince Valiant (a booted Leading Boy whose ponytail far outshone Belle’s hair and whose tunic was shorter than every other male member of the court); and a jester, Muddles, who is building a time machine that has a curious resemblance to a certain familiar telephone box. Extra special fun was brought by the inclusion of very young dancing girl fairies (for the “gift” scene), including one who looked to be about six and yet stole the show when she gave Belle her curse-breaking blessing; and the completely unnecessary scene in which Muddles, Valiant, and Nanny Box time travel to the swinging sixties in an attempt to wind up at the palace just when Belle needs to be kissed or die. (It was a great excuse to throw in a song from Hairspray.)

I have to say, though, I was feeling a bit panto-ed out the day I went. I adored the lead fairy’s melodious Scottish accent, the references to local business and Scottish politics, and I may be scarred for life by the cream pie scene that featured “sausages standing up” (Nanny: “You’re making your own jokes to this, aren’t you?”). There was a great transformation scene in which the scenery turned into a dragon (which the prince had to fight). But with the dead audience, no costumes in the world could plug the gap. This panto had all of the ingredients it needed to be a good time, but it just didn’t seem to be very appreciated, and that took away the fun for me. I hope maybe the day I went just represented a certain matinee group and not the general levels of enthusiasm, because if this is really how Inverness feels about panto, I’d pack it in and give them A Christmas Carol next year instead. Bah, humbug, indeed!

(This review is for the 1PM performance that took place December 24th, 2013. It continues through January 5th. Props to the guy who got on stage for the “Dad dancing” sequence – if only the rest of the audience had been that fun!)