Posts Tagged ‘Lucy Williamson’

Mini-review – Call Me Madam – Union Theater

October 19, 2012

I feel like I’ve been living in a bubble for years. I choose to be in one where I don’t hear about the latest TV shows (my cut off being about 1984); but because I grew up in places that were relatively backward compared to London, I had few opportunities (and less money) to see live musicals before I moved across the pond. I realize that lots of people (let’s imagine Man In Chair) managed to catch up with all of the old musicals via their LPs and video tapes; but this has never been me. Old films of musicals didn’t enchant me … I found the larger than life performance styles and bizarre technicolor and lighting made them … unpalatable. Me, really, I am the kind of person who is sold on a musical by actually seeing it. And what with living in Phoenix, Arizona until the mid-nineties and following that up with Seattle, Washington (which has a great fringe theater scene but just a trickle of musicals coming through on tour) … well, you’ll just have to forgive me for the fact that, as of Sunday, October 16th, 2012, I had not only never seen Call Me Madam, I didn’t know a thing about it, not a single song, and not even as much as that it was the work of Mr. Irving Berlin, one of my favorite musicals composers. So cue up a cards party at the home of Mr Andrew Whinger, where suddenly it was hot tip time and yes, I’ll go get myself a ticket immediately to see the production at the Union Theater (which proved a bit of an effort given how many performances had already sold out!).

After all of the hassle to finally go, how did it turn out? The plot was actually paper-thin, in some ways very typical of late-40’s/early 50’s musical product … an American oil heiress, Sally Adams (Lucy Williamson) is given a job as ambassadress to a smallish, imaginary, impoverished European country (“Lichtenburg”), apparently on the basis of her ability to throw great parties. Cue lots of songs about having great parties, and a plot involving two romances, one for Sally and one for her nerdy assistant Kenneth (Leo Miles). The play is as blithely unconcerned about the realities of American foreign policy as Sally herself is, though it does have a BRILLIANT song about American presidential politics (“They Like Ike”) that perfectly captures the horse-race tendencies and what it is that Americans go for when they vote, SO topical this week!

With me being six years out of America, I found this musical both nostalgic for the ignorance of the 50s and rather accurate in its depiction of Americans being all about money and being nice. It was all just a bit too light and fluffy for me, and I wasn’t really distracted enough by the dancing or entertained enough by the songs in act one to consider it something really worth the effort of restaging. But that all changed in act two, when the emotional tension was ratcheted up and Berlin started cranking out amazing songs (I was initially hacked off that the woman behind me was singing along but after being earwormed for three days with “You’re Just in Love” I’m starting to think she may have just been permanently damaged by its catchiness). And, let’s be honest, jammed in the Union-budget party dresses, Lucy Williamson was actually pretty darned amazing, one hundred percent behind her role, unconcerned about acting like a woman of a certain historicity in favor of being a STAR … which was exactly what this show needs. She’s on stage nearly every minute, and she has to have personality in spades … and she delivers. My God, she even tap dances. So while over all, I’d say Call Me Madam isn’t one of the higher stars in the musical pantheon, it is enjoyable, and a good vehicle for an actress with Williamson’s charisma. And at £18 a pop with her practically singing in your lap … well, I can see why the run is selling out. And damned, but aren’t those Berlin songs catchy.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 17th, 2012. It continues through Saturday, October 27th.)

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.