Archive for April 6th, 2014

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.)