Posts Tagged ‘I fly Air Menier’

Review – Merrily We Roll Along – Menier Chocolate Factory

January 28, 2013

It’s hard to figure out what to review when I’m writing up a show – the individual components (acting, set design, et cetera), or the impact of the prduction on me. I tend to stick to the second, but my experience is greatly influenced by whether or not I’ve seen the show before. I like to have shows be surprising for me, and part of the surpise is how the story unfolds. So this review, of a musical I’ve never seen before (Merrily We Roll Along), is going to be just as much a review of what was put on paper as it was how the actors, director, musicians, and so forth came together to make it all happen. And I realize this review is a bit late – the show opened in November – but shows at the Menier Chocolate Factory tend to be at the top end of my budget, and I decided to hold off going until the reviews came in. Once they did, though, it was a scramble to get tickets at any price, and I’ll warn you in advance if you want to see it that your best chance is to just check the website a few times a day to see if returns come in, because it is now VERY sold out (though talking of a transfer).

So! There’s a musical on at the Menier, by a composer I frequently have found irritating because of the tuneless nature of his show tunes. However, as I’ve been getting older, I’ve been finding myself enjoying his stuff more, because of the complicated textures of his … this is embarrassing … lyrics. OKAY! I’VE ADMITTED IT! Yes, I got to musicals and listen to THE WORDS. This is why I think Cole Porter is the best musicals writer ever, because his lyrics are so intelligent (and the music so singable). And, well, in an age in which lyrics seem to be getting stupider by the decade, tuning into a Sondheim musical at least proves intellectually satisfying. So when I heard that Merrily We Roll Along was not just supposed to be a good production, but had a story that I could get into (it’s about writing musicals, not very original but still the kind of thing I like on stage), I done went and ponied up and hoped against hope that maybe this time I’d walk out the door whistling a tune.

Okay, that last sentence was pretty much a lie. What I wanted was a show that pulled me into the story and made my brain fizz when people were singing, and even if it wasn’t the buzz I get from Irving Berlin, I thought this show would deliver. And so it did: starting with a scene of seventies success and excess, in a Malibu mansion, where producer Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers) is having a big party to celebrate how awesome he is. He keeps feeling up a young starlet who’s there; before the evening is over, his wife and a mysterious fat broad from New York (Mary Flynn, Jenna Russell) have both told him off and walked out. What is this all about? Why are they so angry? Why was the New Yorker there at all? And there was a … songwriting partner?

From this point, the show starts rolling backwards, connected by a series of lovely announced date changes, telling the story of how Shepard got to where he was at the beginning of the play, how he made friends and lost them, how he had a family, how he had dreams, how he evolved from a man in love with music and the stars in the night sky to a man in love with fame, attention, and money. And because it’s told going backwards, because you know who his second wife at the start, you know there is a first: and when first wife (the lovely Clare Foster) is there congratulating Shepard and Gussie (Josefina Gabrielle) at the opening of Shepard’s first big success, your heart breaks that she won’t listen to Mary Flynn’s warning to keep an eye on her. In some ways, it’s wonderful to finally see when Shepard is friends with Charlie Kringas (Damian Humbley), in part because of the way it opens up opportunities for great duets and trios, but the hope and joy the characters show on stage can never be felt by the audience.

Let me be clear – there are a lot of really fun scenes and songs in this show – my favorites being the “composition” song (complete with the sound of typewriters, sung) and the Andy Warhol/Factory-esque dance party in black and white – but what really stuck was the feeling of infinite melancholy brought on by knowing where each scene, told going forward, would end up in the future. Thus a song like “Not a Day Goes By” hits you in the teeth on its reprise, because it’s not a song about how you can’t forget someone you hate … it’s about how your life is inevitably marked my someone you love. And then it changes. My God, what a show. I can see how I wouldn’t have enjoyed Sondheim so much in my twenties; shows like this, like Strindberg, really require a person to have had a lot more suffering and loss in their lives before they can really resonate. It was, really and truly, a great show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 19th, 2013. It continues through March 9th and may have a West End transfer – God knows the talent was blasting off the stage like they were powered with rocket fuel. Unmissable in the Menier, I tell you.)

Review – Sweet Charity – Menier Chocolate Factory

November 23, 2009

Part of the reason “last minute” for me means anything with less than two weeks of advance notice is because long, long ago, in a galaxy months and months away, in which I can barely IMAGINE the seasons will have changed and the clocks will have rolled back (or forward, I always forget) by the time the event in question comes to pass, I received an invitation from the West End Whingers to join them at the Menier Chocolate Factory for Sweet Charity, and I said yes. Now, this wasn’t a full invite with the gang, it was a “get it yourself” deal, so I haven’t quite made it into the upper echelons of Bloggerdom yet, but, hey, at least I got the email. (I can thoroughly piss off people that produce fringe shows and the occasional rabid Jesse Buckley fan, but mostly I’m a big nobody with time on her hands who really, really enjoys seeing shows with people who love the theater. And writing run on sentences. And sentence fragments. Sometimes.)

ANYWAY so as I was saying, I bought tickets to see Sweet Charity months and months ago, for basically two reasons: 1) the Whingers were going and 2) it was at the Menier, where old musicals come back to life, done full-sized and right in your lap. Now, sometimes the musicals bite and all you can thing about is how small and close the chairs are; but the number of winners (like the lovely A Little Night Music and the hysterical Forbidden Broadway) outweigh the losers, so hey, I figured, I’ll fly Air Menier again – much like EasyJet, you’re more often a winner than a loser (especially at 25 quid a ticket). And I do REALLY like musicals, even though Sweet Charity is not in my book of big love – but I’ve only ever seen the movie version, and who knows what wonders a live performance might have?

Well, the first wonder I would say has got to be the leading lady, Tamzin Outhwaite, who actually sold me on the role of Charity in a way that world-weary, wise old Shirley Maclaine just couldn’t manage. She was both fresh and happy and believable in her own self-deception and neverending surprise at just how very crappy and also wonderful life can be. Her key philosophy – “Without love, life would have no purpose” – actually did not sound sappy coming from her. I also found her extremely charismatic – I tracked her constantly on stage – and a real comedienne (especially hysterical in the closet scene at Vittorio’s place). I got a real kick out of her “tribute to Fosse” dance in the same scene and, well, mostly found it amazing that she could make me buy into a character I’d just written off as as ridiculous as Desdemona. Instead, I was seeing traces of a young Blanche DuBois – the innocent before everything goes south. She’s really got what it takes to make this production live.

Was the next wonder the band or some other member of the cast? Well … the band actually was leaving me (in my princely row D seats) somewhat deaf. All of the brass REALLY put the sound across, but my right ear was ringing after the show. That said, they made the score come to life in a sassy way that did a lot to make this aged music sound bright, like a vintage automobile that’s been fully restored to shiny penny glory. And the backing cast, well, they were dead in the eyes for “Hey, Big Spender” – but great singers and a perfect look for their roles, a real variety of faces and body types that really had the “normal girls doing an unusual job” feel to them – but, gotta say, great legs on the lot of them. And yet … there was something just a little bit too tatty about their costumes for me (as a connoisseur of 60s fashion). The era still had a lot more tailoring, and a few more darts and finishing would go a long ways to make the women look more “of the era” and less “we whipped these up in about two hours flat, isn’t the fabric divine?” (I especially wish Charity could get a workover of her red fringed dress – the neckline just wasn’t right, and she’s so perfect in every other dress, I figure, forget the fact that her character’s not got the money to look nice and invest in a really gorgeous outfit so we can all sit there and ooh-ahh like she deserves.)

Though there are many things to praise … well, this show was written by Neil Simon, and I famously don’t care for his plays and their shallow wit. The comedy scenes were really good (my favorite being the one at the diner where both Charity and her boyfriend sit back to back at adjoining booths), but the drama … just wasn’t dark enough. And for the show itself, well, it was enjoyable, but it didn’t really move me the way I wanted to be. This time I couldn’t blame it on Charity. I think maybe this is just not one of the musicals that resonates for me – the story didn’t blow me out of the water like Cabaret, the songs don’t slay me like Anything Goes. It’s a classic, but … not my favorite musical. However, I think this is going to be a very successful run, and if you like it, you should probably book before it sells out.

Even though I didn’t love it, the fact of the matter is, I still walked out (slightly sloshed and a good hour after it ended) singing the songs I’d just heard. That hasn’t happened to me … well, excluding “Silence: The Musical,” it was the first time all year, and by those standards, I’d say that this was a damned fine way to spend a dark, miserable, wintery London afternoon – in a theater surrounded by cheerful trumpets and singing strumpets.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Sunday, November 23rd, 2009. Sweet Charity continues through March 7th, 2010. The Whingers’ review is here. Book now if you want to go.)

Review – “They’re Playing Our Song” – Menier Chocolate Factory

July 27, 2008

I was quite intrigued by what I would find on my first visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory. Facility-wise, I’d heard them trashed many times by the West End Whingers (and since I don’t actually have other friends who go to see theater as much as I do, this was the only view I had to go on) … but show-wise, I’d noticed that the Menier seems to have a record for picking hot shows that go on to bigger and better places (and longer runs, i.e. Dealer’s Choice) … and win big fat prizes (Sunday in the Park with George,” Oliviers and more). So I was excited to finally check out the space, but also to see the venue strutting its stuff as the place where musicals, new or neglected, take their baby-steps before going on to bigger things. They’re Playing Our Song did not constitute a debut, but rather was marking its first London revival since it opened (thanks to ColouredLights for the hot tip). I mean, God, 1982, that’s a long time for a show to not be on stage in a theater town like this.

Then again … some times shows don’t get revived for good reasons. My big advance warning was – well, it’s embarasing, but _ it was the name Neil Simon on the credits (as script author). WHAT WAS I THINKING? I have read many of his shows, and I’ve got to say, I just can’t stand his writing style. Wooden, clunky, predictable – he writes like he’s creating sitcoms. Everything is right there in your face, the characters have whimsical flaws, there are some jokes thrown in (my favorite being the one about the dress from Pippin), there’s a happy ending, bleh. For me, it’s like eating lunch from McDonalds: sure, it’s food, but are you going to sit around afterwards thinking about what you just ate? Hardly. (I think the English equivalent is Alan Aykborn, who seems to have crapped out as many shows as Mr. Simon has. I mean, really, you see Pinter and start thinking all of the writers here are blazing geniuses, but it’s just not true. I guess someone’s got to write dull old stuff that works for people who have to be talked out of spending a night in front of the television, but me, I want something that makes me excited about being in a theater and willing to spend an hour or two talking about it afterwards. No luck with this.) I felt pain for the actors watching them mouth out this dreck. Were they feeling it any more than I was? I was not convinced.

My experience of actually watching the show was fairly pleasant, though (something which I’m finding a bit embarrassing in retrospect). The leads (Connie Fisher, who’s name I found familiar for some reason, possibly the same as Phillip Whinger although perhaps I was thinking Connie Frances) and Alistair McGowan (no bells ringing there – sorry, guy) had some pretty good chemistry, despite their cheesy 70s hairstyles and clothes and, er, less than convincing command of New Yawk American English. (Connie’s accent was just gratingly heavy and off throughout, though rather like a typical American actor’s failed New Yawk-ese; McGowan’s was smooth enough but when he got out of bed and said “Good mo’ning” or something along those lines, it was just as painful as if he’d pronounced the H in herb). There was a lot of production fun-ness, like the disco dancers in the restaurant scene, the drivable piano, and the silly outfits Fischer wore (McGowan’s were hideous but not as over the top as hers), and, really, I did enjoy watching their relationship progress and got a little emotionally invested in their success (career-wise and as a couple).

But … the songs. While they fit with the show (no surprise), I got absolutely no hint that this was a musical about two people who were pop rock geniuses (or “genii,” if you prefer). The lyrics weren’t memorable, and the tunes weren’t hummable. There was an utter lack of pop magic! What a contrast with Annie Get Your Gun, with its embarassment of riches (seriously, just WHEN do you walk into a musical and find you already know all of the songs?). I actually found myself sitting in the theatre, kneecaps jammed into my femur, thinking not of the permanent loss of mobility I expected as a tragic result of watching this show from the second to last row (perfect view of the stage, but only ten inches clearance between the edge of the seat and the back of the bench in front of me – picture of injuries sustained upon exit here), but rather pining away for Avenue Q and its endless series of wonderful musical nuggets (“Schadenfreude,” “It Sucks to be Me,” “The Internet is for Porn” – when was the last time I went to a show and could name so many songs that I had, in fact, only heard for the first time?) As I sit here writing this, I can’t remember one song from this show (other than maybe a hint of the title tune, which is thankfully fading fast), and I’m the kind of person who sits singing showtunes in my house when I’m in a happy mood, so I consider this a major failure in a musical.

So They’re Playing Our Song was a mixed bag for me – boring dialogue, forgettable songs, but decent performances and entertaining enough while I was sitting there with a friend who loves musicals. (Do bring water if it’s over 20 C outside as you will be melting, and forget eating in the restaurant beforehand – it’s a sauna!) But, really, if you haven’t seen Avenue Q yet and you’re a musical theater fan, go see it instead. When it comes to adding to your lifetime treasury of wonderful shows, They’re Playing Our Song isn’t going to put a penny in your account, and since there’s shows out there that will, I highly advise going to see them instead. Me, I will happily fly Air Menier again, as it’s a great space for shows (aside from our row, which I noticed the other six people abandoned after the interval), but I’m hoping next time I find a bit more gold while I’m sifting through the sand.

(This review is for a matinee preview performance that took place Saturday, July 27th.)


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