Posts Tagged ‘Phil Willmott’

Review – Princess Ida – The Steam Industry and Szpiezak Productions at Finborough Theater

March 31, 2015

Living in the UK has transformed how I’ve seen Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. From fusty and dusty it’s gone all topsy-turvy, thanks to the graceful restoration work performed under Sasha Regan’s fine eye at the Union Theater and now the rambunctious re-engagement of Charles Court Opera. As a mainstay of US Am Dram groups, it was turgid and nap-inducing: with all-male casts (like Regan’s Pirates of Penzance) and clever restagings a la much of Shakespeare’s canon (in the case of Charles Court – the goffick Patience was an excellent example), we have been allowed to re-engage with the work from a narrative and a musical standpoint. The bones of Gilbert and Sullivan, like the oak supports of an old house, are amazing: strip off the wallpaper and the adversion to discussion anything sexual and suddenly you have singable, witty musicals populated by eminently memorable characters all being very funny.

Yet bubbling beneath the surface like a sulfuric spring in the Med is the possibility that even G&S may have had a few clunkers. Look, for example, at Princess Ida. I asked a friend about this production, and his response was that it was Gilbert “punching down,” as offensive as Taming of the Shrew but “with less excuse.” I was shocked: this is the biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fan that I know! But I was also a bit put off when I saw that it hadn’t been performed professionally in London “for over 20 years” (per the website). And then I discovered that it was written in iambic verse. Oh man! Obviously it didn’t get produced for two decades because it’s a total dog! Arrgh! But I had already booked tickets for Saturday’s show and I decided to just tough it out.

As it turns out, both the warnings I’d received and the fears I’d conceived were unfounded. Yes, this play pokes fun at women’s education, making the point that members of the “gentle sex” are generally incapable of intellectual rigor due to their sensibilities; but there was no doubt in my mind that the men of this piece were also presented as fairly brainless and driven by their hormones. So my worries about it being mean and intolerable were allayed; in fact, one of the highlights of the evening was a song called “Must” (in the original by Lady Blanche, but I believe sung by Lady Meg – Victoria Quigley – in this production). It ends in a call for women to get the vote, and I found it very touching – but, as it turns, this creation, both in verse and sentiment, is almost entirely the work of Phil Wilmott, who looked back on this musical moment through the lens of history and decided to expand it. There was also a rather revised ending that proposes a much happier future for some than the hopelessly heterocentric original could have ever conceived; it was obviously not G&S but it was funny and I think it felt fresh and appropriate.

From the production side, there’s no denying it was done on a budget – two electric pianos (not that you could fit much more in the Finborough and as it was, one of them nearly wound up in the audience); a set that barely manages two different looks; and costumes that aim for Alma Tadema but manage with their unusual seaming to hit Hubba Hubba Honey (for both Ida and Prince Cyril – Ida’s should be less bum hugging and Cyril ought not to be so short as to have us thinking of Scotsman and their underkilt attire). But, still, the goal isn’t to recreate the original, but to give us a change to experience the music (written, all agree, when G&S were at their creative heights) and (most of) the plot. Wisely, there is no stinting with the quality of the performers. Bridget Costello is effortlessly winning as Princess Ida, with her warm voice and sparkling blue eyes: of course all of the princes of the kingdoms would come to win her hand! And to cast Simon Butteriss (perhaps you remember him from Topsy-Turvy?) as Lord Gama, Ida’s uptight yet lecherous guardian, is just stonking good luck for us in the audience – he’s supercilious and unctuous, a horrible combination of Grand Moff Tarkin and Benny Hill – but most importantly, a damned fine singer with a sharp sense of comic timing. In fact, down to the maids/maidens and the lesser princes, the whole cast emanates personality and tunefulness, so that all we need to be transported is small hints in the forms of props and carefully draped statues. It’s an incredibly enjoyable event.

Is it, though, a textbook example of theater of the Victorian age and the sentiments that the Victorians held? No, it is modern, both in its approach and its reconstruction of the dialogue and lyrics to meet modern views while still keeping to the arc of the story. This allows us to hear wonderful songs that we would otherwise have missed out on while being extravagantly amused. I highly enjoyed my night out and, based on ticket sales, you had better jump on those tickets or you may have to wait another 20 years to get your chance.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 28, 2015. It continues through April 18th.)

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Review – Finian’s Rainbow – Phil Willmott at Union Theater

February 26, 2014

When I hear people complain about musicals – and by people, I mean people who just don’t like musicals – the theme tends to be that they just don’t make sense. People suddenly burst into song – this is seen as unusual by people who haven’t sat near me at 4:50 on a Friday afternoon – and the plots are frothy.

Now, I’ll agree that if you watch Hollywood musicals of the 30s or stage musicals of the 20s and 30s, the plots are at times little more than excuses to string together some songs, much in the same way pasties and g-strings work for strippers. The plot is not the point. And for some shows, there isn’t even a plot: it really is just songs and skits, what I consider a musical revue.

There is certainly plenty of room for acting in musicals, and I for one do like to have a plot of at least the gauzy dress variety. But I give up a certain adherence to logic when I go to musicals, because what I’m frequently hoping for is to be transported – to be wrapped in an experience of singing, music, and dance that causes my more critical faculties to be poofed away like the fuzz on the head of a dandelion. It’s a cruel world out there, and I swear on a stack of bibles that a good tap dance routine does a lot to sweeten the burden that is life. It does for me, anyway.

Finian’s Rainbow is exactly the kind of sweet, goofy show you want to go to when you need a little something to chase the blues away, when a love story with a happy ending that sends you out the door whistling a jaunty tune is just what the doctor ordered. The plot, about Irish immigrants who bring a leprechaun with them to Depression-era rural Tennessee, wins all of the points for imagination, with no pretense at believability. We’ve got a pot of gold, we’ve got a girl who talks with her feet, we’ve got wishes being granted right and left. God knows mine were, because the songs of Finian’s Rainbow are no fairy gold – they’re true-blue, best of the songbook standards of a quality you’d could spend a year watching new musicals without seeing once. “Old Devil Moon,” “How are Things in Glocca Morra?” I had never heard these songs in context before but I couldn’t believe how lush they were.

Of course, it helped tremendously that the leads had very strong pipes. Christina Bennington is especially magnetic as Sharon; not only does she have a sweet, true voice, but even when she was just listening to other people speak, her charisma held the stage. Joesph Peters is a nice dueter as Woody Mahoney, but his character slides a bit too far to caricature to be compelling. Sadly, a trick was missed with Raymond Walsh’s Og; his big solo could have been a real show-stopper but was instead pleasant but low on calories. Ah well, Laura Bella Griffin’s silent Susan Mahoney managed to say it with her feet; in fact, the dancing in general knocked the walls back. How did they get so much movement in such a small space? As ever, the effect of all of this in the Union is just overwhelming, a kind of theatrical high – some 22 actors all singing in harmony, and dancing, from two feet away and on all sides? It’s the kind of experience you’ll get nowhere else in London, like one of those sound experiments when you have a speaker on each side of you and you feel like you’re actually there. Only, in this case, you are, and it’s really heady fun.

In a time when the government is working on kicking the poor out of every place they live and build their communities, whether through a bedroom tax or simply shipping subsidized housing (and the people that live in it) away from jobs and off to the hinterlands, the “message” of Finian’s Rainbow is actually still quite relevant, although the community it depicts, with people of all races living together peacefully, still seems a bit of a dream. But it’s a dream I enjoyed watching playing out in front of me (I can’t tell you how happy I was to see a black character in a play from the 40s talking about going to Tuskegee University!). Even if this play is a little slice of fantasy, it was the flavor I gobbled up hungrily. And if the musical equivalent of dessert is what’s on your menu tonight, you could hardly do better than Finian’s Rainbow.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 22nd, 2014. It continues through March 15th.)

Review – Phil Willmott’s musical “A Christmas Carol” – King’s Head Theatre

December 17, 2008

PLEASED TO SAY THIS REVIEW IS GENERATING PERSONAL ATTACKS ON ME! And thanks for visiting the review of last year’s production of A Christmas Carol. Here’s what I had to say in 2008:

Friday night I went to the official opening of the musical “Christmas Carol” that’s taking place through January 4th at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. A friend was involved in it and thus I had a bit more awareness than usual about this show – I’d had a peek at the script a few weeks earlier and was almost talked out of going by the use of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” as a sung bit. Still, I had a friend visiting me that night, and she was up for seeing the show with me (and supporting said mutual friend), so off we went.

I’d never seen a show in a pub before, even though I know it’s a fairly common thing in London. The theater, all the way behind the bar (on the main floor), was really small (eighty or so seats) with rather low ceilings. It was also completely jammed with performers – at least twenty were on the stage, in the aisles, or standing off to the sides, chatting and playing musical instruments. It was amazing how full of humanity the little theater was. Still, sightlines in the middle section were good, and I figured with my glass of mulled wine I was sure to be good through an hour and a half no matter what they threw at me.

The trope for this show is that Charles Dickens is trying to sell his publisher on this new book idea of his that he thinks will be incredibly popular (and make money), and he starts telling him the story that is “A Christmas Carol” in a pub in Victorian England, with the idea that if he can capture this audience, his story will surely sell well. This is all good and fine, except … well, I don’t give a rat’s ass about Charles Dickens as a person. Furthermore, I’d just been to the Dickens museum, and the false historical references (his previous novels being a failure and him being any way in financial straights when he wrote “A Christmas Carol”) really irritated me. Please! He was an established, well-to-do writer when he cranked out “Christmas Carol!” My friend was also going nuts because the costumes were a complete hodge-podge of pseudo-Victoriana (and she used to be a costume designer – how was I to know?). The bigger problem for me was that this story doesn’t NEED a framing device – it’s fine all on its own – and the time spent with Dickens took away from the story itself. (Note: Charlie Anson was totally hot, but that’s not the point. If I wanted to ogle him, I’d see him in … hmm … Equus … well, okay, a different show. What plays feature male actors taking it all off besides Equus? I must not be getting out enough to not be able to answer that question quickly. Anyway …)

Historical accuracy having been set aside, would the story at least be followed somewhat faithfully? Well … in my mind, no. I’ve seen a version of “A Christmas Carol” pretty much annually since I saw the Annex Theater version in Seattle some years ago (the one with the positively evil Tiny Tim), and the story isn’t as flexible as this production imagined it might be. To start, Scrooge (a delightfully curmudgeonly Mark Starr) gives no speech about the poor needing to make more of an effort to die, thus “decreasing the surplus population” – a sentiment which I’ve heard expressed nearly verbatim by a friend of mine this very year and one which I think bears regular repeating and thinking about. (It’s ludicrous to say that poor people simply shouldn’t exist and thus aren’t our concern.) Yet despite this, Cratchit (a good looking James Hayward) was out of the house and off for Christmas eve, leaving Scrooge to his lonely apartment, in about five minutes flat.

This gave us plenty of time to have fun with the haunting of Scrooge, but I found the spooky masked singing spooks just … a little too heavy handed, to be honest. This is actually a spooky and fun scene in the book, but I found its subtlety, and Marley’s message, got lost along the way.

And then the ghost of Christmas Past came along … and she was a girl, in a white dress, basically looking to me like a tarted up Miss Havisham. Where were my candles? When in the world did it get decided that she was “Cinderella, that you left behind when you left behind your books” (not a quote)? What a bunch of claptrap! Christmas Past as Cinderella! Yeah, sure, it was cool when they were “flown” over London (really awesome special effect involving not too much effort), but … CINDERELLA. You might as well have made … Tiny Tim the Ghost of Christmas Future. Oh wait, they DID! Forget the traditional image, this show came up with something so entirely ludicrous I found myself sighing and wishing for the finer points of the Stone Soup Theater’s Black Light Christmas Carol of some years past.

Good points: the singing of the cast was really enjoyable, Scrooge’s old girlfriend Belle (Poppy Roe) was really excellent in her scene (actually I enjoyed the whole Fezziwig scene rather a lot, though I thought the “On the First Day of Christmas” at the end was clunky), the tech crew/director did a great job handling some really challenging stuff in a tiny space (I liked the puppetry, and the lighthouse in the “Christmas by the Sea” scene was a treat), and the acting was far better than I would have expected from a space like this.

Overall this wasn’t a horrible show, but … I just think this script isn’t worthy of being produced. It’s not a bad Christmas Carol, and the price is low, so if you’re less particular about things like historical accuracy and fidelity to the text, you may enjoy it. Me, well, I can’t help but think fondly of the amazing South African “Christmas Carol” I saw last year, that captured all of the message of the story and fully bent and played with the structure while still feeling one hundred percent right. Oh well.

(This review is for a performance on Friday, December 12, 2008.)