Posts Tagged ‘Company’

Best London theater, 2009

December 19, 2009

While I’ve still got three more shows before the season’s entirely over, I feel confident that I can now get the “what was the best” posts out of the way (complete list of shows here, grand total estimated to be 116). Best dance, best musical/drama are my categories, as well as a few special celebrations and a shaming here and there. Read on …

Discovery of the year: the Southwark Playhouse. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at this small and atmospheric venue blew me away; the shows I’ve seen since have been of mixed quality (the recent and continuing Christmas Carol was a treat to be sure) but never made me feel financially cheated. Generally worth going to “just for the heck of it.” Now, mind you, Royal Court has been crowned “The New Donmar” (affordable prices, adventurous programming) and I’m planning on buying something akin to the entire spring season there, but it was hardly a discovery; it just became noticeable for its greatness this year.

Overdone gimmick of the year: “event” theater with movie or TV celebrities. Please, let’s have less of the classics being butchered by people who can’t act at extravagant prices. I realize this is probably singlehandedly responsible for the fantastic income London theater is experiencing this year, but good theater is not just about filling seats. I feel like seeing Jude Law/David Tennant/Keira Knightly on stage gets people to go just so they can say “ooh ah I was in the same room as INSERT NAME HERE” and does little to encourage the creation of good shows. The Donmar deserves an especial drubbing for going so mad for celebrity casting in their West End season – and what a horrible mistake to waste Judi Dench in that Mishima dog they put on.

Dance performance of the year: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “E=MC2” (full discussion here) I saw the Royal Ballet many times this year and they just weren’t doing anything this exciting – not really helping the cause of getting ballet into the 21st century and recruiting new audiences so much as sticking with tried and tried and tried and true (“Mayerling” twice in two years, please!). I also give BRB points for “best new story ballet of the year” even though I don’t think Cyrano was new and I don’t think I saw any other new story ballet this year (even though I do try to go see them when I can – well, okay, there was the Wuthering Heights ballet but it seemed more like a thought than a story).

Painful lesson of the year: modern opera, I really shouldn’t bother. Die Tote Stadt, Into the Little Hill, Grand Macabre; I really want to support new opera but unfortunately I think it’s almost entirely unmusical, like it’s designed by academics to adhere to certain structures and generally not to be musical in any way.

Musical of the year: the nominees were: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical*; Company; Forbidden Broadway; (the all male) Pirates of Penzance; Silence the Musical. After tossing and turning, debating the hysterical brilliance of Silence (full of hummable, if utterly rude, tunes) and the extravagant, seedy intensity of Pirates, I’ve decided the award goes to … Pirates, which made an arthritic script come to life in a way I truly did not think possible. Rumor has it it’s going to be reprised at Wilton’s Music Hall this spring, though unfortunately I can’t find any information about it on their calendar. That said, Silence: the Musical is going to be done again at the Above the Stag theater – don’t miss out as there’s really little reason for it to be staged again so soon and it really is a hoot.

Best theater blog: I’m not going to list the ones I read (mostly because it’s a short list), but once again the West End Whingers have proven to have the blog that gets me the right hot tips on what shows to see. Sometimes it was a show I’d unimaginatively rejected; sometimes it’s a show I never heard of; almost always it was a show that was on the verge of becoming unattainable. It’s even better now that they have a Twitter feed: getting a line from them to “buy your tickets for Jerusalem now” will send me immediately to my computer. Every now and then we utterly disagree on a show; but mostly they are like having my own private theatrical pimp. I like that.

Show of the year: the nominees were: Entertaining Mr Sloane; Kursk; The Mountaintop; Enron; Cock. (Note absolutely nothing from the Donmar this year, for shame). In a year in which great shows were thin on the ground in comparison to the volume of productions being cranked out, this wasn’t nearly as competitive as I was hoping it would be. Still, I’ve weighed the best of the year (that I saw), and it’s clear: not only as best production but also as best script, Mike Bartlett’s Cock blew me away. Each performance was perfect; the close confines made it all that more intense; the words were exactly what they should be. It’s a damned shame it sold out so fast, but such good theater should never experience a single unoccupied seat for even one night. I can’t imagine it being remounted elsewhere without watering down the impact of seeing this in the round in a tiny (80 person?) house, but this was really just a tiny drop of perfection in a year that was otherwise a bit of a desert.

Right, that’s it for me: 116 shows in one year was probably about thirty more than I should have seen. I don’t even think I’m capable of remembering who the best actor and actress even were anymore. Next year, I’m hanging up my hat and taking it easy; I want 2010 to be a year when I see less shows and more that I like. This will require waiting until the reviews come in so I can more easily identify the productions that will suit me, and might mean that I miss a few that sharper people snapped up sooner – but I think it’s probably the way to go. Even sticking to a budget like I try to do, this year was taxing on my wallet as well as my sleep schedule. See you in the second balcony …

*Actually, Priscilla was never a contender for me. I just put it in there because it seemed like it should have been, especially given how expensive it was.

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Review – Sondheim’s “Company” – Union Theatre

May 26, 2009

On Sunday, J and W and I headed to Southwark for the current musical at the Union Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Ever since Annie Get Your Gun I’ve been hoping to catch another red-hot musical there, but the Mikado sold out before I could go and an anti-Sweeney guest kept me from making it to see the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This time I was quick out of the gate, though, as Company had been open for all of four days when I saw it, which meant the cast was nice and fresh – and yet the audience was still on top of things, as there was only one seat open in the house!

I hadn’t heard of Company before, despite having heard of a song from it (“Side by Side,” as in Side by Side by Sondheim). I’m a little late to the Sondheim game, anyway, since I have long disliked Into the Woods and took it as being representative of his style and thus a good warning to stay away. Rambling weird non-singing and non-music? Not really my bag – I want hummable tunes and the occasional anthem a la Anything Goes and Drowsy Chaperone. But, who knows, I’ve got this theory that Sondheim may be something that grows on you as you age – like a taste for red wine and truffles – since I enjoyed A Little Night Music when I saw it at the Menier this fall. The songs aren’t really any more tuneful than they ever were, but something about the crap people have been churning out (modern musicals, I mean, think “Wicked”) has made brilliant lyrics that much more important to me, and I found myself paying attention 100% to what people were saying on stage during that show … and looking forward to this one, even though I knew little about it.

What I did know went kind of like this: Bobby (Lincoln Stone) is a single guy in his mid-30s. He has 5 couples as friends (his “company,” who value his company) – who all want to see him coupled up. While spending time with them, we get to see vignettes of each couple’s dynamic, which kind of throws the whole “OMG you must get married it’s THE BEST” attitude into a state of comic irony … while also setting us up for some very deep thoughts on what couplehood actually means. It’s one thing to crack a joke about the ball and chain (and it’s an easy laugh), but couple dynamics actually allow for some really messed up relationships to develop (ie Strindberg’s The Creditors), in addition to the positive ones. And in this examination of complexity, Sondheim’s own intelligence, his skill as a lyricist, really comes through. It’s occasionally a comic play, but at its core it’s a rather bleak examination of marriage as a commodity, of coupledom as a destructor of self, of a society that ignores the failings of this institution in favor of pushing conformity. Really, it practically begs for a few humorous moments to make its underlying themes digestible.

As usual, the Union folks made good work out of the shoestring budget they had – no stinting on talent (fourteen actors and a five piece band), but an ultra-bare set (a column and a table-sized light box) and light costuming. Actually, the costumes looked a little better than they’re usually able to afford, a nice palette of tans and browns that was evocative of the 70s without being a slave to it (witness completely inaccurate Juicy Couture tracksuits with thong underwear peeking above the waistline – absolutely not of the era), jazzed up with splashes of red for Bobby’s various love interests. The cast was also managing to pretend to be American well enough, though gorgeous Jenny Layton’s Southern Susan sounded like she fell out of a can of corn pone (Steven Craven as her husband Peter having more of the Dennison’s Chile sound, say via Montana). Unfortunately the show started with Samantha Seager (Sarah) just completely losing her accent in the middle of her scene, while her character’s husband Harry (Tom Hyatt) seemed confused about the name of the offense for driving under the influence – “drunk driving” in America, not “drink driving” (that would imply the bottle itself was behind the wheel). You’d think with English actors’ general ability to do 40 different accents at the drop of the hat they’d work a bit on throwing a few American options into the mix, but maybe theater schools here don’t find it a worthy thing to study. (New Jersey accents would have been perfect for Sarah and Harry.)

Notably radiating star power was Lucy Williamson as the bitter, three times married Joanne, “a wildy conceited broad with no self esteem.” She only really starred in one scene, but in each of the company ensembles she pretty well owned the stage, and her accent never dropped for a second. In fact, she was the very incarnation of a tough-as-nails New Yorker friend of mine. That said, she got a bit too angry during her big moment with our protagonist, popping me suddenly into “oh yeah, I’m really just watching a show with people acting” mode. I wouldn’t normally push people toning it down, but Ms. Williamson burned so brightly she didn’t actually need to flame out during this scene.

That said, my favorite moment in the show was Amy (Marisa Leigh Boynton) and Paul (Paul Callen)’s scene, in which they are about to go to the church and get married but Amy is getting cold feet – and more than a touch mental. She managed to be completely nuts – even having bizarre fantasies in which a ballerina (Lucy Evans, also hysterical and freakshowish as Bobby’s flight attendant girlfriend April) walks through a church wielding a butcher knife – racist, and ultimately sympathetic. Of all of the couple vignettes, this one showed more than the others how support is part of the equation as well as obligation and every other thing that binds two people together.

Now Lincoln Stone – he’s fine, but in some ways it seems like his character, despite all of the singing, is more of a thread to tie the other couples together rather than an entity with an exciting story of his own to move through. He’s fine (and looks nice in his shirtless scene with April), but … this show really needs more than him. It’s about the company, after all, and fortunately Michael Strassen didn’t pick a bunch of wallpaper for the rest of the show. And they’re there, in your face, in the tiny theater, singing without microphones, and really making it happen. And all this is only £15. Amazing, I tell you. This is a really good show, and you’d be a fool to miss it.

(Company continues at the Union Theatre through Saturday June 13th, 2009. Book now or forever regret you missed this. See Feigned Mischief for an alternate review.)

FYI: Union Theatre is trying to gather enough donations to buy a baby grand piano – checks for £25 per key being accepted. Make ’em out to “The Union Theatre” and send ’em off to 204 Union Street, SE10LX. I feel like I owe them for the good entertainment they’ve provided me and am encouraging anyone else that enjoys what they’ve been doing to pony up.