Posts Tagged ‘Sondheim’

Review – Follies – National Theater

September 3, 2017

Imagine going into an attic, and finding a dusty Faberge egg. You open it, and inside is a music box, two keys broken. You wind it up and it starts playing pretty music while little jeweled characters whirl around in the semi-darkness. This is Follies. The story concerns a reunion of old showgirls in a crumbling Broadway theater; they reminisce about the old times, do some numbers in the guise of reliving memories, and perform a few things together as their current selves while the shadow of their past mirror them in the wings and disintegrating dressing rooms. Eventually the story focuses on two couples, Sally and Buddy Plummer (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes) and Phyllis and Benjamin Stone (Janie Dee and Philip Quast), whose lives have not quite matched the hopes they had back when the girls were on stage and the boys were wooing them. This leads to an entire suite of “The Follies” of these four people … which has a total “jumped the shark” feel to it, but hey, it’s a musical, when do these things make sense? If Sondheim was tired of writing songs in the style of old vaudeville numbers and wanted to do more emotional reveals, that suited me fine. And the dance numbers from this section were just completely nuts – probably closer to what an actual review would have been like back in the day but something I’d really never seen on stage – only in the movies.
faberge-egg
Are you reading this to decide whether or not to go? Then open a new tab and just get yourself some tickets now, because if you love musicals of the Sondheim variety, then you probably already knew you had to go and just wanted confirmation. I’m doing that. You’re confirmed. And remember the National releases rush seats every Friday for the next week’s show for 20 quid – so if it’s sold out by the time you read this, it’s not in fact too late – you just need to jump on the ticket buying next Friday. (And please remember it’s 2:10 no interval so save your wine for after the show.)

To me, the genius of this production is doing this show in London, where assembling some ten or so top shelf actresses who are out of the ingenue era is as easy as grabbing a handful of sweeties out of a candy barrel, and we, the audience, come out winners (while the actresses get some damned fine material to work with). Our cornucopia of theatrical riches spills out on stage, greatly enhanced by the National’s shameless expediture on brilliant costumes for the “young” versions of the various actresses – Miss 1930, Miss 1925, et cetera – which we get to sit and enjoy as they glimmer and shimmy behind or alongside their modern (1971) counterparts.

The various conceits – of having musical numbers done from this classic era of stage, of shifting the story between the “girls” and the two couples, of having all of the characters represented by both their modern and their much younger selves – does so much to structure this show that it feels like it teeters of the edge of having just gone too far but ends up feeling masterful. We are just as much in the hands of a person who is on top of their game as I was earlier this year at The Ferryman. And the four leads were … well, actually, I do have a bit of a beef, because although I came to see Imelda Staunton, I felt that as Sally Plummer she was too one note. Sure, the character is a bit unhinged, and yeah Ms Staunton can dance and sing, but … I thought there were more depths to be found, somewhere, especially by such a skilled actress as Staunton. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Sally was just written that way. But as consolation we have the magnificent “Losing My Mind” … and Janie Dee’s “Could I Leave You” … and, my God, just SO MANY GOOD SONGS.

I know. I’m just a blogger. I’ve let you down. There are better words I could use to describe this show. But mind this: I have already bought a ticket to go back. And when I sat there watching it, goosebumps raced over my skin, and I thought, “My God, this is it, an honest to God five star show, perfection incarnate, and I am here seeing it at the National and people will be talking about this show for years.” I know I will.

(This review is of a preview performance that too place on August 30th, 2017. Follies is running through January 3rd, 2018.)

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Two tickets for Sondheim’s “Passion” at the Donmar

October 24, 2010

Well, I inadvertently got tickets to see this very early in the run, so I’m looking to sell the tickets I bought for myself. One pair for Sondheim’s Passion at the Donmar on November 10th, side circle (close to the middle circle so good view), 100 quid or best offer. It’s sold out so if you don’t feel like standing through it, these tickets might be your best chance to see the show. If you want them, comment on this post with your email address and I’ll contact you. I have the tickets in hand so will meet you somewhere in Covent Garden to hand them off.

Review – Passion – Donmar Warehouse

September 12, 2010

Let’s start out by saying I’m no Sondheim fanatic. In fact, until two years ago, I did not care for him at all based on the two versions of Into the Woods I’d seen. However, A Little Night Music (at the Menier) gave me an inkling that there might be more to him that first met the ear, and Company convinced me there was. And, well, apparently everyone likes him, so perhaps this was a late arrival for me. I thus jumped on the chance to see an early performance of Passion at the Donmar Warehouse. As usual, I did nothing to inform myself before the show so I could take it in raw: I only knew that it would be one hour and forty minutes with no interval (and thus, to me, a perfect post-work show).

Passion is a decidedly weird show. At first I thought it was about frustrated lovers, and thought there might be an early suicide (in the traditional “passion is bad” style of the era it was set in, seemingly any time from 1810-1890); then I thought we might have a true love tale; then I thought it was all going to go very, I don’t know, stalkery, kinda The Woman in Black meets Fatal Attraction, but it managed to completely elude all of my guesses and become none of these things whatsoever. There was a soldier (Giorgio, David Thaxton), and a girl (Clara, a very nubile Scarlett Strallen in fluffy wigs), then a bunch of soldiers and (to spice it up) another girl (Fosca, Elena Roger), a sickly one who starts the play off screaming from her distant room like the wife in Jane Eyre. As we’re feeling sorry for the soldier separated from his girlfriend and hostile to the clingy, freaky sick girl, suddenly it comes out that Clara is actually a married woman, and suddenly Giorgio’s relationship with her seems a little … bizarre. What was it built on, really?

I could go on about the plot, which made no sense to me, but I’d rather get to the point and say I did not care for this show. There was singing, but there was little in the way of memorable music of any sort. Despite her intense and hair-raising performance, I was disturbed by Elena Roger’s intense Piaf-isms; I kept expecting her to launch into “La Vie en Rose” (and I had never seen Piaf so I was going purely based on her voice and not the memory of what she’d done before, but the sound is, to me, that of a particular person, and NOT the sound of a character in a Sondheim show). Strallen and Thaxton executed nicely, but their performances could not paste over holes in the plot so wide a ski jump could not have helped them bridge the gap.

But you know what could have? A really excellent song or two. And today I saw another musical, of an older vintage (1968 vs 1994), which convinced me in a song about making a cup of tea that a society artist had fallen in love with an ignorant widow. It doesn’t matter that I saw a preview (and spent 20 minutes wondering if the actors were going to slip on spaghetti or 10 minutes earlier wondering if anyone was ever going to shut that damned door upstage); I just don’t think Passion is all that good. I’m sure the run will be sold out all the way through and people will convince themselves that they saw a great show; meanwhile, I’ll be looking eagerly forward to the Union Theatre’s revival of Bells Are Ringing at the end of the month.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, September 10th. The show runs through November 27th and is already sold out. I’ve got a ticket for a show November 10th: if you’re really dying to see it, make me an offer. Meanwhile Paul In London’s review is so opposed to mine I feel it worth pointing out in a point/counterpoint kind of way. Truth be told, Elena Roger did really own the role of Fosca, but I still hated the show.)

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.