Archive for April, 2014

Review – La Calisto – Hampstead Garden Opera at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

April 30, 2014

It was a great surprise to me to find that a composer I’d never heard of a year ago suddenly had not one, but two of his operas being performed within the space of months. It’s odd, too, that after a decade of seeing Baroque operas at least twice annually, not once had I heard of Francesco Cavalli. I got an initial taste with Ormindo as presented at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: it was fluffy but with lots of beautiful singing, exciting dramatic moments, and all sorts of counter-tenor action. Still, I wound up leaving before the third act. Would Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of his La Calisto suffer similarly?

As it turns out, La Calisto was one of the liveliest baroque operas I’ve ever seen, with short, fast moving acts that reminded me of an upscale Xena episode scored for the harpsichord. The characters and scenes were all familiar ones from mythology 101; lecherous Jove, gullible Callisto, angry Juno – but we had the addition of a guilt-ridden Diana and a genuinely noble shepherd. I enjoyed the interplay of the familiar and the modified – it made me more invested in the story. Theresa Pells was terribly charismatic as Callisto, with her rangy build and gorgeous red hair; very Hunger Games meets The Bacchae. But still, you couldn’t help but cheer for straight-from-the-playbook Juno (Philippa Boyle) as she came in in her glorious spangled black dress with a cape of irridescent feathers – what slip of a girl, no matter how dedicated to her path, could stand against her? I found it all very exciting.

However, it’s not just about looks when you’re at the opera – though for me, capturing my imagination is key to getting me to sit back and enjoy the music. The lightly designed set was ideal for this – it was a desert, it was a cave, it was a love bower – I loved the choice to let less say more. The opposite approach was taken for the orchestra, with which about 10 musicians was positively crammed into the minute space they occupied. Unfortunately, they suffered a bit in comparison to the ones I heard at my recent trip to the Sam Wanamaker – but it’s a bit unfair to compare an orchestra picked to accompany a Royal Opera production with this group of much younger performers. Still, the tempi was occasionally off, and I heard a few more sour notes than I expected (period instruments can be very temperamental – I swear the intervals would be called for just to do retuning if nothing else).

Amongst the singers, the standout to me was was Peter Brooke as Jove, whose creamy bass voice seemed to call for a fork and perhaps a few strawberries. He showed a real comic talent, nicely breaking into a falsetto when playing Diana, and later looking quite contrite when wooed in mistake by Diana’s (male) paramour. He did it all with a great sense of timing and self-awareness – this opera is meant to be funny and Jove’s behavior is worth giggling at, but if it were taken too far it would have been distracting. Pells was unfortunately not as strong in her role, and struggled a bit with the vocal ornamentation in some of the more throwaway bit of the music. Still, these moments were neither off-key or in any other way grating, and during the moments when her character’s singing was at the front, she was a pleasure to listen to. My thought is that with more work in this musical specialism she’ll likely improve, but that she was so generally outstanding (especially as a dramatic performer) that mine is just a quibble. Overall, my first outing to the Hampstead Garden Opera was a real success, and, which I never expected to be sitting listening to a theorbo in the same place where I’d seen Guys and Dolls, the venue itself proved to be exactly the intimate sort in which Baroque music thrives best.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Sunday, April 27th, 2014. It continues through May 4th.)


Review – The Silver Tassie – National Theater

April 15, 2014

(Based on a conversation with my husband)

99 puce balloons/dragging on the Lyttelton stage
Great war sells/Its red alert
The second scene from somewhere else
It brought the pyrotechs to life
Making us all squint our eyes
Waiting for the songs to die as 99 bad ideas go by

99 scripts they must read
98 the bin will meet
This one they’ll make all a flurry
Add some Tommies in a hurry
People speak and then they’re gone
What’s the audience waiting for?
Any play that features war?
Hynter’s job ain’t on the line
Was this the best play that they could find?

99 plays I have seen
Only one with puce balloons
It’s all over, I’m feeling shitty
Was this limp show supposedly gritty?
Not one character made me care
And this play’s seen lots of wear
The joyous bits went flopping by,
I think of home, and then I go.

(This review is for the first preview of The Silver Tassie, which took place on April 15th. While some of the performances will improve over time, nothing can be done to rescue this deeply flawed script. I imagine the person who revived it getting the V.C., which if you’ve seen the play you will understand is a joke meaning they should have just let it die.)

Review – Once We Lived Here – TheatreUpClose at the Kings Head Theater

April 13, 2014

Surely if I asked you to think of an Australian musical, you’d come up with something silly – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or maybe a localized version of Mamma Mia – something involving brews, beaches, and barbeques. I was surprised, then, to find that Once We Lived Here, winner of the “Best New Australian Musical” (and currently receiving its European premiere at the King’s Head) was set on a failing farm in the middle of the Outback. It’s got every trapping of a tragedy – Mom’s dying (we get this in the first scene so I’m not spoilering it), the kids are gathering together to say their goodbyes – but it’s still incapable of being grim. It wants to be hopeful and plucky and practical, and to have a sense of humor, and to make some jokes about sex. And it wants to tap into that grand pioneer spirit, that sort of nobility of people who try to wrest a living from the land are assumed to have by city folk, and do it all with some modern-poppy-esque tunes to drive it.

I admit to getting sucked into the story pretty quickly – Claire, the cancer-ridden mom (Simone Craddock) is intensely likeable, and I couldn’t help but wonder how her various kids – smart but shallow city-girl Lacy (Belinda Wollaston), dreamy but damaged Shaun (Iestyn Arwel) and grumpy, “take care of everyone” Amy (Melie Stewart) – were going to clash/fall apart in the light of the impending family tragedy. Unsurprisingly, when you put three adult children together, all of their past issues come right back to the surface again in spite of what bigger problems they ought to be looking at. The show adorably switches them all back to their teen and pre-teen selves so that they can show family history (a feat nicely accomplished with some minor hair and costume changes), giving us the opportunity to discover that they have actually dealt with – or, rather, failed to deal with – a lot of tragedy already. And then there’s the hired hand, Burke (Shaun Rennie). Just what kind of a relationship did he have with the various members of the family?

While the problems this show looks at – lies, repression, sexuality, what it means to give up your dreams, depression (and so on) – are really meaty fodder, it seems almost incapable of getting to the kinds of depths it needs to go to to do the material justice. Sexual competition between sisters, facing death directly, using people to your own advantage – somehow Once We Lived Here doesn’t manage to plumb any of these depths. Instead, it skates around successfully when dealing with fairly light topics (city versus country life, not succeeding as an artist, having a crush on someone who doesn’t like you back) and just uses the “hard stuff” to add the illusion of depth – kind of like the way Canaletto would sketch in windows with two lines and let your eye do the rest. It seems like Once We Lived Here is going to be about the painful hard stuff of life, but it’s really not: in fact, the high point of the show is when it just completely gives up on being serious and the cast does a musical number that’s supposed to be from a talent show the kids performed in when they were little (“[Things Are Fucked And] We Like It That Way”).

Still, I found this show very enjoyable. Farmers’ problems are standard around the world, but the situation of a farm where the daughter has decided she’s going to run it to carry on her dad’s legacy (and the family heritage) was one that was unique while appealing to a universal sentiment. Squabbling siblings are also good show fodder; the personalities were drawn very sharply and I thought had a very modern feel to them. And the songs were just … well, good harmonies, no strange modern atonal crap, moving forward the story and the characters.

I’d say you couldn’t ask for more, but I will: I wanted Amy to be more richly drawn, and I wanted to see more of the backstory of Claire and what her life was like with her emotionally distant husband. The bookwriter (Dean Bryant) took the easy road, I think, and I would have rather had two plays, maybe one a bit of a comedy (this one) and one a pretty damned hard story (Clair’s story), with more time for Amy to get rounded out. This story was tied up pretty neatly in about two hours thirty, but too many threads were developed and left fallow (and the ending was too pat). There’s more story here; why not get out there and write the prequel? Your audience is waiting!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, April 10, 2014. It continues through April 26th.)

Mini-review – Ormindo – Royal Opera at Shakespeare’s Globe – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

April 11, 2014

Less than a month after my unfortunate visit to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see The Knight of the Burning Pestle, I was back in the side balcony for a stab at what I thought might be a more successful evening – a production of 17th century opera L’Ormindo (by Cavalli). Afterall, what I’d enjoyed the most about the last production had been the music (authentic Jacobean! this with singing by the Royal Opera!) and the playhouse itself (smells like beeswax!), so why not focus on the positives and see if a better evening resulted?

I’m pleased to say that even with a candy-floss plot, Ormindo was a charming evening, enhanced greatly by the decision to have the singers performing in English. (When I realized I might be heading for an evening of supertitles in a theater where half of the seats can’t see various areas of the stage, I got a bit worried.) I got to stretch my brain to try to follow along with the lyrics as sung – a big of a new experience for me – and I did well without a single crib note.

The performance was done tongue-in-cheek from the start, with “MUSIC” (you could tell because it was spray-painted on her robe) descending from overhead and giving us all a lecture on what a wonderful temple we were about to worship her in; it was clear that we didn’t need to get TOO serious about our high art. Our “hero,” Ormindo (Samuel Boden), competes with Amidas (Ed Lyon) for the love of Erisbe (Susanna Hurrell); the boys have a pectoral contest and even go for “my tattoo is bigger than yours” one upsmanship. Side characters complain about the local morals and are groped from the trap door; Erisbe appears on stage wearing a bed.

But the tomfoolery in no way indicated shortcuts artistically; the singing and musicianship were wonderful. I loved the (counter?)tenor duets of Boden and Lyon, and the harpsichord-led orchestra (in period costume) well-satisfied my Early Music ear.

And yet, still, after two hours, I took advantage of the second interval and made a break for it. It’s not that it wasn’t enjoyable, and the Farinelli-like presence of Princess Sicle’s nurse Eryka (Harry Nicoll) was a wonder to behold and to hear sing; but in some ways it had gotten a bit samey-samey. My bum had gone numb on the thinly padded benches, and since I’d just blown my sleep budget on a three hour long show the night before at the National, it seemed that going home would be the best thing. Still: I felt I’d got £40 out of what I did see; and when I got back to work I booked for two more shows there. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has taken a place in my short list of the most beautiful buildings in the world, next to the Pantheon, the Asamkirch in Munich, and the lunchrooms at the V&A; I plan to go regularly – but perhaps less on schoolnights.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, April 8th, 2014. The run ends on April 12th.)

Mini-review and musings – A Taste of Honey – National Theatre

April 9, 2014

I was actually quite discouraged between the time I bought my tickets for A Taste of Honey at the National and the time I went to see it: the comments I saw on Twitter had been along the lines of “boring” and “stuck through the whole three hours but why.” But I’d made plans to go with a friend (who just wanted to see Lesley Sharp), so I felt stuck. How good could a play by a one-hit wonder be?

A few days after seeing it, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed myself. It’s always easier to enjoy a show when your expectations are set low, but I had no problem making it through to the end: but I think this is a bit because of its relevance to me, and my cultural experience – but also, oddly, because of having just come from seeing Pests two nights before. How poor women interact with each other and live their lives was on my mind. So, instead of doing a review here, I’m going to talk rather more about why this play was interesting to me, and how it was similar (and different) to Pests.

The concept of a glamorous, poor, and self-centered mother is one that’s sadly familiar to me. Helen (Sharp) is a bit of an extreme, so gorgeous and well dressed she’s hard to believe; but a woman who puts making herself happy over looking after her children is not unfamiliar to me. Her daughter, Josephine (Kate O’Flynn), doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as a character; she’s just not really as rooted as you tend to be when money and looking after yourself are your top two musts in life. But, sadly, it was easy for me to accept that Helen would be pushing her young daughter out the door so that she could have better times with the men in her life; that’s just how things are for some people. And yet … I just didn’t feel sympathetic for Jo. She doesn’t treat the people in her life with affection – she doesn’t even seem to have feelings at all – and she whines constantly; she is grossly immature and so blocked into short-term thinking that you want to give her a slap.

But then … well, there were lines in the play I knew best from songs by the Smiths: “I dreamt about you last night/And I fell out of bed twice” (from “Reel Around the Fountain”) and “The dream is gone but the baby is real” (from “This night has opened my eyes”), and remembering those and the turbulent emotions of my teens, I was able to remember a lot of feelings Jo was probably having: experiencing (what you think is) love only through the hands of someone who wants to use you for sex; the horrible deadness caused by constantly having your dreams and aspirations shat on; realizing you’re really never going to get more than just the most damaging forms of happiness and going for it even though the consequences are likely to be a disaster for your life. Man, what a rollercoaster. I’m not sure why Morrisey picked on this play so strongly for influencing his own writing, but he and Sheelagh Delaney really captured that dead end miserabilism perfectly.

Side by side to this play about two women who sell each other out for sex (which I think is the “taste of honey”), I had a play about two sisters who actually do love each other to bits but who still utterly fail in the common sense department. Yes, I’m talking about Pink and Rolly, the two leavings at the bottoms of the garbage can of society who make up Pests. Pink is positively disgusting, crude, stupid, desperate to prove how much smarter she is than her little sister, and, as it turns out, nursing a deep and long held resentment against the things Rolly had as a child that she didn’t. Pink could easily be a modern Jo. But she looks out after her sister and genuinely cares for her; the ways she actively seeks to damage her sister’s life are, to her, only an attempt to not lose her. I couldn’t help but feel for Pink; she really does have nothing. The fact that she wants to make sure her sister has nothing, too, is awful; but Pink really seems to have convinced herself that she experiences happiness and there’s really nothing out there. And, even despite realizing the extent to which Pink has screwed her over, Rolly still loves and wants to look after her sister. It’s just heartbreaking. There’s no way you can’t see that these people have fallen even further down than the women of Taste of Honey: but it was Pests where I saw that real family love come out.

All in all, I think both of these shows were well worth my time; but I also recommend seeing them both together, and having a think about what it is that makes people tick. Kudos both to Delaney and Vivienne Franzman for making characters and situations that I could care about this much.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 7, 2014. A Taste of Honey continues through May 11th and it really is a modern classic.)

Mini-review – Pests – Royal Court Theatre

April 7, 2014

You’d think as an American that I’d like my theater to be all Hollywood, happy endings and mindless entertainment. But it’s not so. Although I don’t like blood and violence, I do like plays that are hard, that don’t have happy endings, that may deal with, shall we say, uncomfortable subjects. And Pests, at the Royal Court, is exactly that kind of play. The one liner I had (spoiler free, I think), was that it was about two sisters in a dysfunctional relationship, and that it was really good. It was hard, hard work as an audience member, and it left us with more questions than answers. But it was decidedly excellent, not just for plot and acting but frankly amazing language use. I say this as a warning that I shall now spoiler the rest of the play so I can have some fun talking about said questions.


Part of the reason I was so impressed by this play was its head on, authentic depiction of heroin addiction. Pink (Sinead Matthews), the older sister, is delusional, occasionally violent, and extremely driven … to do the wrong things. And her brain now has fucked wiring, whether caused by junk or other things isn’t certain, but it makes her behavior even more erratic. We’re handily clued into this by a creeping flickering that is projected on the stage as her sanity wavers. I could see in her highs (manic and sleepy happy junk induced) and lows (oddly never questioning her life) the same brain patterns I once saw in the junkies I knew in the arts scene in Phoenix. In a play, this knocked me flat. (Now, mind you, even with fake bruises and scabs, Sinead Matthews was too clean and healthy looking to be a real junkie living in the kind of situation depicted, but no reason to be too, too accurate.)

But what I loved even more about this play was the amazing relationship between the two sisters. When Pink and Rolly (Ellie Kendrick) first see each other, there’s a burst of kinetic energy that reads as aggression, full of swearing and tussling as it is. But the dynamic proves to be loving despite the fake scuffles. Or is it? Watching the two of them over the course of the play, it begins to seem that if anyone suffers from their toxic existence – and Pink goes for robbery and GBH as well as her stock in trade prostitution – it’s the sisters themselves, ruining their own lives and each other’s. At the end of the play, I expected to see sororicide …and my partner was sure it had happened.

As ever, I find seeing plays where the lives of the characters seem to exist before and after the moments where I am actually watching them exhilarating, and the mark of truly fine writing. Pests is such a play, and at the affordable Royal Court, it is a must-see.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, April 5th, 2014. It continues through May 3rd.)

Review – Merchant of Venice – Malachite Theatre at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch

April 7, 2014

I’ve made a vow to not see any plays I’ve seen before, but I decided that, since I’d last seen Merchant of Venice in the early 80s, I could safely say I couldn’t remember a bit of it and so it would practically be new. Besides, I was going to review it, and I couldn’t let a desire to avoid rehashes of overdone shows keep me from seeing something possibly excellent. Malachite Theater‘s Titus was so good I actually saw it twice: could they repeat this great success?

In retrospect, it was probably a bit much to expect a piece that would shake me to the bones like Titus; but I think making Merchant watchable was a real accomplishment. Benjamin Blyth’s approach was to take it as a comedy, and I realized, in retrospect, that it IS one, despite being so incredibly depressing: a play with marriages, gender-switching, and no characters dead at the end is Shakespeare being funny. And, for Shakespeare, making fun of a Jewish person for being grasping was comic; and for a miser’s daughter runs away (to marry) and for Shylock to be forced to renounce his religion was, by the standards of the time, a happy ending for everyone.

This play isn’t really about Shylock (Stephen Connery-Brown), though: it’s about Bassanio (Charlie Woollhead)’s attempt to win the hand of Portia (Lucy Kilpatrick) with the help of his friend Antonio (Simon Chappell); Portia’s attempt to deal with the comic results of her father’s will; and, to some extent,
Jessica (Claire-Monique Martin)’s attempts to forge a life for herself. While I was able to whole-heartedly laugh at Portia and Nerissa (Danielle Larose)’s careful management of Portia’s suitors, I found myself cringing at the callous anti-semitism both of the anti-Shylock contingent (nearly everyone) and even that of Jessica’s boyfriend’s circle. On the other hand I found this language mirrored in what I’ve heard people say about Muslims these days: the same kind of broad generalization, suspicions, and mean-spiritedness. Perhaps humans just feel the need to have an “other” against whom they can rally, whether it’s people of a different religion, from a different continent, or just welfare recipients.

While I found the language enjoyable, I struggled to hear it too much; St Leonard’s seemed to be working hard against the cast, and any time a person spoke with his back to the me (I sat in a corner of the front row), I completely lost what they were saying. I realize it might make things clunky if this space was treated simply as a proscenium, but it might do the audience a favor in terms of comprehensibility. And the pacing was good – just about two hours, which is about all I want to do these days. So while I enjoyed the performances, I can’t say that I care for this play, but I’ll still be eager to see what the Malachites do next.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 2nd 2014. It continues through April 19th: tickets are available on SeeTickets and reasonably priced at £12.)

Review – Orton – a new musical at Above the Stag

April 6, 2014

I hadn’t really heard about Joe Orton before moving to the UK, although I had seen Prick Up Your Ears when it was released (for me, had a surprise ending – I knew that little). It was the incredible production of Entertaining Mr Sloan I saw at Trafalgar Studios (with Imelda Staunton hysterically unforgettable in the negligee scene) that really raised Orton’s profile in my mind; but What the Butler Saw cemented it, because it had the same completely-pushing-the-boundaries humor matched with an incredible tension. I’ve read a bit about him since I saw Sloane but still not much, so I was in a good place to see a musical about the life of Joe Orton without having a lot of preconceived notions. I also now have a much better idea of what England was like during the period he lived. I am also a fan of new theater, especially new musicals, and I thought it was great that the Above the Stag theater was not just hosting its premiere, but involved in producing it. It seemed the perfect venue for this show, and the packed house seemed very excited to be there.

While I can’t be sure of the “truthiness” of Orton‘s narrative, I found the emotional narrative believable and made for compelling theater. (I was sitting outside at the interval excited about going back in.) You sensed the squirreliness and isolation of Halliwell (Andrew Rowney) at the very beginning, his anxiousness to have a sexy young thing like Orton as his partner and his strong discomfort at his position as a social outsider. Meanwhile Orton (Richard Dawes) moved convincingly from “fresh out of Leicester” closet case to picking up guys everywhere he could city boy. I was never entirely sure of what he saw in Halliwell, but throughout, as Orton continued to be more successful with his sex life as well as his art, I felt entirely reassured by his connection to Halliwell, who came off not as a muse but as a kind of co-conspirator in art.

Swinging Sixties London was nicely evoked by the songs and the musical numbers, from I Don’t Think I Know One (about people willing to be amused at the characters in Orton’s plays while claiming not to know people like that – not surprising as they probably were keeping their behavior very private) to the sexual revolution captured with real belly laughs in Sex in the Suburbs. Sex was, appropriately enough, front and center for a lot of the musical number – and man, they were pretty damned hot. Richard Silver and Sean J Hume even managed to make the gay sex scenes witty (in Form an Orderly Line) – I can’t help but think Orton would have approved!

While the songwriting wasn’t Kander and Ebb, still, I think this was one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in a few years – tuneful songs, a cast with pipes (Valerie Cutko showing the pups how it’s done), and an emotional arc that pulled you right in. I felt lucky to have a chance to see it in an intimate house like the Stag – it could easily be moving to bigger venues soon.

(This review is for a permiere performance that took place on Friday, April 4th, 2014. It continues through May 4th.)

Review – Banksy: The Room in the Elephant – Arcola Theatre

April 6, 2014

This play, which you might think is about the UK graffiti artist, is nothing of the sort: it’s a play about an American homeless man … and many, many other things. I’m American, and I have lived much of my life in contact with the long term homeless, apparently in part because in my childhood, the laws about keeping people in insane asylums changed, and a lot of people who weren’t entirely capable of taking care of themselves were thrown onto the streets. I thought it would be interesting to hear the story of one homeless person, told, more or less, from his point of view; Tachowa Covington had taken a water tank and made himself a home, but his sixty seconds of fame cost him the little island of sanity he’d carved out of society’s leftovers.

Or did it? Played side by side with a documentary film on Tachowa Covington, this play is about truth and lies, homelessness, making meaning out of your life, the exploitation of the truly poor by artists, the practice and ethics of changing source material to make compelling art, random impacts, what makes art, and survival. The narrative of Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is that the semi-random act of a publicity-obsessed artist cost a vulnerable man his shelter; but even within the play we have the Tachowa character pointing out the ludicrousness of a story arc, and the inevitability of there being no happy ending, or even a clear ending. Tachowa doesn’t know or care about Banksy, as most Americans don’t know or care about him (note: Americans also don’t call redheads “gingers”); his “brush with fame” in some way is just the random hand of fate drawing attention to a person who represents one of thousands.

Gary Beadle is compelling (and well-accented) as the slightly too-clean Tachowa; he takes us on a ride of highs and lows and raw emotion that capture poignantly the experience of being homeless in America. Yeah, that water tower would have been really hot in the summer, but it was dry and safe, and losing it was a tragedy; the real Tachowa (as shown in the movie) is now living in a tent.

The character Tachowa is right: people will only come see this play because they’ve heard of the artist mentioned in the title. But there’s a life – and a culture – that this play brings to life that we would have never had the opportunity to have learned about otherwise. The crushing thing I walked away from, at the very end, was that for however much Banksy fights to avoid fame, the very person he unexpectedly shone a spotlight on has had absolutely no benefit whatsoever from the attention he’s received. This show felt very real and left me feeling very sad, both for Tachowa’s losses and for the brokenness of a society that feels they have to keep hounding people like him from one place to another, without the benefit of even having a place to shave or the humanizing experience of eating with cutlery. I walked out of the show with a lot of questions. I sure hope at some point Tachowa gets some benefit from the entertainment that has been created from his suffering; but I also hope someday I can see him rollerblading down the Venice beach with mirrors glittering from every square inch of the clothes he’s carefully remade from other people’s trash.

(This review is from a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, April 1st, 2014. It continues through April 26th.)

Review – Damned Yankees – Imperial Productions at the Jack Studio Theater, Brockley

April 6, 2014

I’m a big fan of golden and silver age Broadway musicals, and a chance to finally see the Gwen Verdon extravaganza Damned Yankees performed live was more than enough to entice me to a pub theater in the far southern reaches of London town. With songs like, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo,” and “A Little Brains, A Little Talent,” I was promised an evening of musical happy times if nothing else. I mean, you can’t really expect Bob Fosse choreography and Gwen Verdon va va voom ever again, but set your expectations correctly and you should have a good evening ahead. Furthermore, it was a UK premiere (or so I was told – hard to believe!) and after seven odd years here, the idea of seeing a musical about baseball made me feel kind of nostalgic.

As it turns out, the Brockley Jack’s pub theater did a solid job, despite only having a three piece band and a male cast that made me think of “Three Brides for Three Brothers” (baseball teams need to have 9 men; this one only had four – no wonder the Washington Senators kept losing to the New York Yankees!). But we had a nicely turned out set – the whole thing was painted to look like a baseball field – and respectable costuming – period feel dresses for the women and very good approximations of baseball uniforms – so I was content to see how the performances themselves held up.

The show got off to a bit of a stumbling start, as our hero, Joe Hardy (Liam Christopher Lloyd), is supposed to be a late middle aged man and instead was a very square jawed young man with a lot of va va voom of his own. He started singing “Goodbye Old Girl” with a bit of a rusty sounding voice, and I was worried: had they hired someone who couldn’t sing? But then the devil (Paul Tate) “transforms” him into Shoeless Joe (he changes out of his sweater), and Joe’s voice suddenly cleared up. Ah – this was him attempting to be an older man! Pity they couldn’t have done a bit more with facial prosthetics or something to make Lloyd clearly older in the first scene; it was confusing and I felt I only followed along because I already knew the script.

Tate was effortlessly scheming and evil in his role as Joe’s “manager,” but the surprising standout from the cast for me was, not Lola (Charlotte Donald), but Rachel Lea Gray as Gloria, the meddling reporter who wants to figure out what Joe’s secret is. While she wasn’t appropriately costumed for a working woman (bare midriff? I think not), she had a voice that really filled the space, charisma galore, and great dance moves. Donald, by comparison, was too light in her role and didn’t actually have a strong of a voice as she needed to sell her character’s songs. On the other hand the choreographer had to take some blame for the floppy execution of “Whatever Lola Wants,” truly one of the standout songs of the show; but since so many of the other group dance numbers were fun, it’s hard to say Becky East was much to blame. She certainly handled the two bizarre salsa/cha-cha numbers well enough.

Overall, I’m glad I made it out to this theater to see this lively show; I even cheered along with the baseball warmup chants, but I was sorry there wasn’t popcorn and fresh roasted peanuts for sale in the lobby (an opportunity missed – I would have had people selling things in the stands before the show to increase the atmosphere). But fifteen years and three versions of Faust later, I’m finding even more to like in Damned Yankees than I did the first time I saw it, including the convincing heart break of Meg (Jenny Delisle), Joe’s faithful, loyal, lonely wife. It really is a classic and I think the story translates fine to the UK as a sports-obsessed man is as easily imagined here as back home. Perhaps Bollocks Beckham beckons as a new adaptation?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, April 3rd. It continues through April 12th.)