Posts Tagged ‘please shut up we’re in the theater’

Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical – Palace Theatre

April 1, 2009

Monday night J and I went to the Palace Theatre to see the much hoo-hahed “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert the musical. I was quite chary of seeing this show for many reasons, the first being that with as much money behind it as it has, I figured it would be the kind of wide-appeal, commercial clap-trap I usually avoid like the plague; the second being that it was at The Palace, home of the worst seats I’ve ever experienced in London. But then I saw the West End Whingers’ drooling review. My God, I thought, I may be mistaken! In fact, their review filled me with an incredible desire to drop everything and see the show. However, I was further discouraged when I read that premium seats were going for £95. I mean, Jesus Christ, what do these people think they’re selling? The only 20 seats with an unobstructed view in the entire theater? And for me, these last two months have been ones of theatrical penury as I penny-pinched in a somewhat backwards-looking attempt to cover the cost of my recent move.

Fortunately, LastMinute.com came through with a sweet little £40 sale that was *erk* a bit out of budget but doable with an extra-added dedication to home cooking and staying out of pubs. And I read somewhere (sorry I can’t quote it!) that the costumes are fantastic but likely to start wearing down quickly with heavy use and that it might be a good plan to see the show early in the run while they are still fresh. So rather than waiting for affordable tickets to pop up in another eight months or so, I was able to see the show only a week after opening night! I even got main floor tickets, though Row F seats 28 and 29 meant we were a bit far to the edge, yet not sitting under the overhang like poor 30 and 31 (though 31 got to go on stage and dance with the cast, so there ARE advantages)! However, I was able to see all of the stage clearly – even though a tiny bit of the curtain waaay up in the left corner that said “you are here” (next to a map of Australia, in the center). So, overall, I was happy with my seats.

And the crowd was good, too – the house seemed packed and everyone was very “up” – and of course there were lots of gay men there and people of both genders with bottom-lit cocktails in their hand acting like they were ready to have a good time. Unfortunately some of them appear to have not been taught their “company manners,” as the woman sitting beside me insisted on TALKING OVER THE SONG that opened the second act. Jesus Christ woman, if you can’t shut your yap, maybe you oughta stay home, huh? There are LIVE PEOPLE ON STAGE SINGING and I am PAYING TO HEAR THEM, not you. However, people were generally so cheery -laughing and radiating energy – that for once I did not turn around and give her the shit-eye because I didn’t want to ruin the mood.

But, I digress.

I have still not seen this movie despite being in many ways part of its target audience, so I was unfamiliar with the story behind it, which appears to be as follows: A mediocre drag queen (Tick, played by Jason Donovan, whom I also had not heard of, but please remember that before I moved to the UK I had also never heard of this Kylie girl), decides to drive from Melbourne to Alice Springs to meet his 6 year old son, and convinces his old friend Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), a retired transsexual of the old-school drag regime, and Adam/Felicia (Oliver Thornton), a white-hot newcomer, to join him with the promise that they will have a gig at a casino. But first, they need to cross the Outback in a giant silver bus (Priscilla), going through one after another hick town on their way to the middle of nowhere. Hilarity ensues.

I mean, seriously, that was pretty much the plot. Character development? An increase in self-knowledge? Nope, none of that here, and certainly no political statements of any sort (other than a bit of “why do these people hate us,” but even that was thin and only came up once), which was actually a bit of a relief. No, this show was all about big silly costumes, sight gags, and fun disco tunes, as performed by the leads and a cracking cast that were truly diverse. Actually, I wanna do a shout-out to Wezley Sebastian (Miss Understanding) and the other tall drag-queen looking person who were in so many of the ensemble scenes, because even at the very end these workhorses were performing every scene like they were the stars and they expected people to be watching them. It was really quite impressive!

But … really … it still wasn’t … it just wasn’t as good as Anything Goes. I mean, I realize I have different standards for musicals than other people, but I found the songs didn’t compensate for plot. I mean, it would have all been fine in a disco, but I can’t get excited about a night of watching people lipsynch to songs that have mediocre lyrics at best (though I appreciated that they had the lovely divas overhead actually singing). The opportunity to hear songs that brilliantly illustrate a story is actually a major reason I enjoy musicals, and this just wasn’t happening for Priscilla. Also, the voice of the women singers was positively tinny. I think this is just a problem with the whole “people singing through microphones” phenomenon – I mean, basically, if they’re not trained to sing to the back of the stage, they’re going to sing with this weak little head-voice that just has no power to it. This is not the kind of voice that would inspire today’s drag queens – and it sure as hell didn’t inspire me.

There was a fair bit to laugh about (such as the completely crude scene with the mail-order bride and the ping-pong balls and a hysterical pair of sagging falsies) and truly amazing costumes (the dancing cupcakes about made me cry, but basically anything that Oliver Thornton put on suddenly looked much better than it had any right to), but I just wasn’t caught up in it like I was hoping to! I’ll blame a bit of this on Mr. Donovan, whom I thought was just flat out dry and not really either an exciting performer or even a slightly gifted singer. Tony Sheldon was quite good, a perfect incarnation of the role (and an actor I’ll be watching out for in future productions) and talented as all get-out, and Oliver Thornton was just a brilliant shining star who shone across the stage with super-nova intensity, but with so much of the action focused on Tick … eh, well, I guess that’s why there were so many dance numbers. At any rate, if you’re looking for a good night out with the boys or a great hen party activity, this would probably be a great show for you to catch, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. I probably just ought to go see that bare-bones Cole Porter show they’re doing at Sadler’s Wells so I can get what I need out of a night of musical theater.

(The reviewed performance took place Monday, March 30th, 2009. The bus did break down at one point and they had to entertain us while they fixed it. Remember, if you have an aisle seat toward the front of the stalls, you may get to dance on stage. Pity I missed my chance for my big West End debut!)

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Review – Merce Cunningham Dance Company – CRISES, XOVER and BIPED – Barbican Centre

October 2, 2008

Last night my husband and I went to see Merce Cunningham’s dance company perform at the Barbican. I’m a big fan of Merce: I consider him to be the premiere American modern dance choreographer, and I see him every chance I can since the first time I saw them, in Seattle, when they performed “Beach Birds” at Meany Hall. It blew me away with its effortlessness, and I was really impressed by his commitment to making dance a “gesamtkunstwerk” (hoping I’ve spelled that right), with artists contributing sets and costumes and new music being created just for the dance. Too often dance winds up cutting corners (i.e. any art that’s not movement related) to save money, but Merce doesn’t seem to be touched by this budgetary frame of mind. And in keeping with this, his new piece “Xover” (perhaps pronounced “Cross-over,” though I called it /zover/) had a drop by Robert Rauschenberg and a live performance of John Cage’s “Aria and Fontana Mix,” which I hadn’t heard before, but hey, more John Cage! On the other hand, the last time I saw a Cage/Cunningham production, the person I took with me fairly well actively resented me. Our conversation went like this (after about 75 minutes of weird piano stuff and abstract movement):
“So, were you expecting it was going to be like that?”
“Yes.”
“And yet you still bought tickets?”

This time, however, I had someone with me who is familiar with the vocabulary of modern dance and doesn’t shy away at non-standard musical compositions, so I expected to not get a bunch of anger thrown my way after we headed out the door. And we had the good luck of finally finding a good restaurant to eat near the Barbican, in this case the Pho Cafe, which had the tastiest Vietnamese food I’ve yet found in London.

However, what I didn’t expect was to have a gaggle of giggling, uncomfortable teenagers throwing their attitude during the show. The first piece (“Crises”), had easily hatable “fixed” piano music (a recording) and dancers in rather tacky full body leotards in primary colors (red and yellow, one salmon) doing very abstract movements that the kids seemed to find extremely funny. I was really irritated because I found myself unable to concentrate on the show – what I wanted to do is walk over and give a lecture about not talking through the music and perhaps using the “whisper” as we were NOT sitting in front of the television.

For me, I wasn’t really sucked into the dance – I saw it as more of a museum piece, a chance to watch something which helped illustrate how Merce’s dance evolved to where it is today. It was far more lively than similar pieces I saw performed by the Martha Graham dance troupe – I think there’s something about having the choreographer still alive that keeps the dance fresh. And I wondered (I really wanted to ask!) if the dance was actually performed differently now than it was almost 50 years ago, because I do think dance technique has changed and that dancers are more athletic now than they were in the 50s and 60s. But still, I wasn’t emotionally hit by this piece – it was just absorbed and put into my memory as a reference point for understanding this choreographer’s evolution.

The second piece was “Xover,” and, Terpsichore be praised, the pestilence to our left decided to spend the time in the bar. The rest of the audience compensated for their ill manners, however, because they were overwhelmed with laughter by the score. I have to admit, a squeaky balloon and a woman growling and clucking are rather inherently amusing, but the laughter was so loud I was really worried the dancers’ concentration would break. After Crises’ canned music and musty costumes, it was a pleasure to see the dancers in plain white leotards – they were well set off in front of the garish Rauschenberg drop. The drop fit the music, oddly enough – it was sort of a car crash of images, and the music was bunches of random noises (occasionally freaking me out – a couple of the sounds made me think the theater was collapsing). And maybe there is something funny about how serious dance takes itself, to have dancers doing these seemingly unconnected movements while these unconnected noises bounced around the auditorium, but I enjoyed watching what was happening and didn’t want to be distracted by giggles. Grrr.

Finally came “Biped,” the highlight of the evening for me. Oddly enough, as a piece with light projections (which I normally hate), I actually found it working. Maybe it was because they were done on a scrim in front of the stage – the lights defining and redefining the space where the dancers were performing, creating walls and then dissolving them – and I was entranced by how the stage seemed to be shrinking and growing in front of my eyes. At times I felt like the images were actually appearing in between the dancers, and while the scaled drawings of dancers – projected on the scrim so they looked like they were moving to the front of the stage and then back again – were clearly a product of 1990s technology, I still found it enchanting.

This, I felt, was Merce performing at speed, producing a work that fully integrated the resources available to him – wonderful music (live Gavin Bryars as done by Gavin Bryars, kiss me for my luck in living in London!), costumes that enhanced the atmosphere, and great lighting. I think it was maybe five or ten minutes too long, but it was the only piece of the night where I fully checked out from the cares of the world and lost myself in what was going on stage – until the freaking obnoxious highschoolers lost it again when the male dancers came in and put jackets on the women. Oh God, a costume change, how droll. Could someone make sure these kids don’t come back?

At any rate, a decent evening, and I would see Biped again in a heartbeat. In fact, I wish I could go back and see the second set of performances, but given that my sister is in town (as of today), I think I’d be pushing familial relations rather much if I tried to dip her into the waters of modern dance by doing Merce first.

(This review is for a performance seen on October 2nd, 2008. Alternate view posted by The Teenaged Theater Critic here.)