Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Sondheim’

Mini-review – Road Show – Phil Willmott at the Union Theater

February 23, 2016

It seems odd that the most recent musical by Sondheim (well, hardly recent: it’s been bouncing around since 2003) is making its second UK outing at a tiny venue like The Union Theater. But Road Show seems to be a troubled show with a troubled life. It’s been renamed twice, and it’s never really had a West End run.

What’s the deal, then? In fact, the musical is a bit of a mess. I mean, we start of the night with the jolt of a character coming on stage and singing, “I’m the one you fucked.” Is this all that was left, for Sondheim to choose to shock? The music, you can hear the Sondheim all the way through it, but the story … oh, the story. It’s kind of “backstage at Funny Girl,” the true story of the “lovable scoundrel” Fanny Brice married … though this is the story of two brothers of that era, one of whom gambled and swindled (and was popular – Wilson Mizner), the other of whom (Addison Mizner) was a bit of a wallflower and a failure until he takes up being an architect. The musical follows along their adventures, as well as covering their relationships with each other and their mother … and, eventually, with Addison’s lover, Hollis Bessemer. We cover a large swath of American history over the course of the evening, from the Alaskan Gold Rush to gilded age New York to land speculation in Florida …

… but it all seems to add up to nothing. The characters didn’t enchant me, the songs slipped away, the story felt as cobbled and mish-mashed as a four hundred year old English farm house. I imagined Sondheim wanted to keep some of the songs, but then let the plot get worked and reworked until there was almost nothing left, and this nothing is what we got to see. It was well sung, and the production did a lot to make the space come alive … but it all felt hollow, like Wilson Mizner’s promised investment opportunities. This show will sell out, I’m sure – it’s a must for Sondheim completists – but in its current form it simply isn’t suitable for a grander outing.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 18th, 2016. It continues through March 5th.)

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Review – Assassins – Menier Chocolate Factory

November 22, 2014

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to the Marvellous Mighty Menier for this grand revival of the unloved, the unkind …. Assassins! Walk through the terrifying fanged clown mouth and into the hall of frights … the cream skimmed from America’s murderous society, the land where the gun is king and the conspiracies run rich and thick. See the freakshow of death dealers! Witness the logic of a culture where people who think a death will improve the world inexorably become part of a chain of never ending violence! See the Master oF Ceremonies bravely supply himself for target practice, then join in the fun as the killers train their guns on you! You’ll clap from the sidelines as Squeaky Fromme (Carly Bawden) explains her devotion to Charlie Manson, then gets in a fight with John Hinkley (Harry Morrison) over who has a better relationship with their idol. You’ll flinch away from the gun John Wilkes Booth pulls on a friend, then cheer as he comes back to life – like the rest of the nutjobs populating this room. Failed crashed airplanes? Wanna be French ambassadors? The level of delusion is sky high, creating a magic that’s only broken by the hashed together po-Southern accent of Sara Jane Moore (Catherine Tate). It’s all just a warm up for … the grandest killer of all, the one who changed the course of American history, Mr Lee Harvey Oswald (Jamie Parker), whose sudden appearance in the final minutes of the show is the Last Great Reveal, the man about whom so much has been written but whose logic is still a mystery.

But wait! Don’t turn away! Don’t say no to the joyous dark sideshow just because it trivializes (or even laughs at) the deaths these people dealt to their victims! It’s such a very pretty circus, from the fine singing to the giant clown’s head and bumper car littering the stage and even to the shiny costumes. You’re looking at reality, folks, and you know damn well that you wanted to see ugly and you wanted to be a little scared. So now you’re complaining at me because it was actually offensive and maybe you were actually frightened? Well, all I can say people, is look in the mirror, ’cause there ain’t no sideshow less’n there are ticket buying folks saying they are willing to hand over their hard earned cash to see it. And you got in line, you bought your popcorn, you wanted to be there, so maybe if you’re feeling a little bit upset it’s actually because you just found out something about yourself, something about what you like, and maybe it’s a little bit nasty. But don’t try to get all high and mighty with me. I say you know what you came for and you damn well got your money’s worth. As for me, well, when I looked around and saw all of your pale and tremulous faces looking up a barrel at impending annihilation, I know I got mine.

(This review is for the first performance of this production, which took place on Friday, November 21st, 2014.)

Mini-Review – Pacific Overtures – Union Theater

July 30, 2014

It’s hardly a secret that if you enjoy excellence, tickets to see musicals at the Union Theater are money well spent. This means that they’re often sold out nearly before they start, and thanks to a lack of attention on my part, I nearly missed seeing Pacific Overtures as it was fully booked by the time I looked for ticket (a few days after it opened). I took the calculated risk that a rare outbreak of London sun might equal people who’ve suddenly decided they can’t leave the pub for an evening indoors and, behold, a weeknight ticket to this show was mine.

The cast is huge, as crammed into this, what, sixty seat space – around 20 men singing it out and doing imaginative choreography that created ships, oceans, islands and entire worlds out of fluttering fabric and a few poles. It was just so much more than you’d really expect from a low budget, low rent production, and yet, as ever, working in the Union’s restrictions resulted in a glorious Empty Space effect, in which your imagination is fully engaged by the subtle triggers on stage.

I found myself struggling with the lyrics early on – not understanding them but rather wondering if “Japan is about rice, flowers, and origami” (a summary of the lyrics for “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”) was really capturing the mindset of mid-seventies Americans toward this country as it’s clearly a ridiculous way to encapsulate Japan. Someone else argued that the show depicted Americans in a similarly racist tone, but I felt that showing us as bullying, swaggering, hairy brutes with bad manners wasn’t particularly out of line, especially when dealing with sailors and America’s expansionist colonial attitudes of the 19th century. However, I decided to put my meta-critical faculties on hold and see what the music and the story would bring – and I’m pleased to say that at the end the show emphasized Japan’s amazing techological accomplishments, taking the initial bad flavor away.

The story becomes more coherent as it focuses down on the low level samurai who is sent to do the impossible task of convincing the foreigners to go away. Kayama (no cast list on the Union site so can’t credit) becomes our guide to the evolution of Japan from feudal backwater to distinctive member of the modern world of nations; he starts out supporting the shogunate but ends up loving his bowler hats.

Although the story of the birth of modern Japan is interesting (though a bit tricky to simplify), what I particularly enjoyed about this show was its attempts to embrace Japanse theatrical tropes, from the all-male cast to the implied masks in the costuming and the use of bunraku-like puppets. In some ways this was all flavor, though, because there wasn’t a bit of the music or lyrics that seemed in any way Japanese – but why, really, should Sondheim not try to sound like Sondheim? Oddly, to me the “flavor” elements also seemed just very Union, the old “doing more with less” approach they usually do with such success. It made for a very good show, whatever the impetus.

In the end, I’m not sure how great a musical Pacific Overtures is, but I found it a night of wonderful, thoughtful music presented beautifully that was well worth the risk of not seeing it in order to actually see it. Now with hindsight as my guide, it’s time to look at the NEXT musical on at the Union and just buy my tickets now.

(This reviw is for a performance that took place on July 17, 2014. It continues through August 2nd.)

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 Preview: Sondheim’s “Company” at Union Theatre Southwark awesome

May 24, 2009

Review now available

I went to see Sondheim’s Company today at the Union Theatre in Southwark (they have Sunday matinees!), and while I’m too tired to write up a review right now, I will tell you to GET YOUR GODDAMN BOOTIES IN GEAR and get some tickets while you can. This is going to be a sell out. I mean, insofar as people go to the Menier to see the next big West End hit while they can in a small space, THIS theater is like where you would go to see something before it hits the Menier – only it’s better because it’s actually people singing WITHOUT MICROPHONES and practically in your lap. I promise to give you fuller details in the next day or so, but at $15 a ticket, why are you not already picking up the phone?

Company continues at the Union Theatre through Saturday June 13th, 2009. Don’t hesitate, make reservations before it’s all sold out!

Review – A Little Night Music – Menier Chocolate Factory

December 3, 2008

Last night I headed off with my uncle, J and Sue to see A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Now, I approached this whole show with some considerable misgivings, chief among them that, though I am a big fan of musicals, I do not care for Sondheim. I base this on seeing two of his works and finding them not very good (“Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”) and the fact that I generally find his music “tweedley” and just generally not very hummable. Me, I want to walk out of a show singing something, like I did for “Drowsy Chaperone” and “Anything Goes,” but Sondheim doesn’t really leave me with a single memorable musical moment … it’s just kind of noise, like modern operas, though not to the extent that I want to stick an icepick in my ears like I did for “Pierrot Lunaire.”

My second major misgiving was that this whole thing was directed by Trevor Nunn. Now, chances are that if you know anything about musical theater, you’ve probably heard his name before. Unfortunately for me he is forever linked with “Les Mis,” which is stuck in my memory as the very first time I realized a musical could be complete crap. Nowadays I realize that pretty much anything can get hyped beyond all realms of belief and yet still be a steaming pile of poo, but twenty or so years ago this came to me as a tremendous shock. So I figured that once again I was likely to be signing myself up for something that was overdesigned beyond all belief and also hollow at the core.

Well, okay, there was one reason that I did not absolutely believe that this would be the case, and thus bought the tickets in the first place, and this was because this show was being produced at the Menier. Now, my first visit to the Menier was a bit of a disaster; the show (“Playing Our Song”) was a turkey and I left the theater with huge scrapes on my knees from the overly close seating arrangement. However, I loved the space; intimate as all get out (a bit much so in regards to the other audience members) and a really amazing place to watch people singing big songs to you from ten feet away. I’ve also been pretty impressed by the Menier’s record at getting its shows transferred elsewhere; while I can’t imagine why I’d ever bother with “Sunday in the Park with George” (as transferred to Broadway) its “La Cage,” now on the West End, is apparently quite the thing, and I thought that chances were better than not that this would be a good show and I’d be pleased to say “I saw it when” etc.

But then of course there was the Sondheim angle. Bit of a roll of the dice, eh, but the tickets were bought, and, if nothing else, my uncle was quite pleased to be going to see this show while he was visiting, and, well, the company would be good, so my fingers were crossed.

New to this trip was an Assigned Seating System (woo!) which ensured we could actually relax with our dinner and glasses of port at the Boot and Flogger prior to the show, all the while knowing we’d not have to sit in the row with the four inch wide aisle because we had seats waiting for us. Hurray! Unfortunately, “front row” meant “in the seats designed for people who are under five feet tall,” as we were ridiculously low to the ground and spent the whole time watching the show from over the top of our knees. Oh well, at least we had leg room – though we were a bit worry we might trip up the performers.

The show itself was actually a quite interesting little frippery (based on a Bergman movie – one of the happy ones, apparently) about a middle aged man wedded to an 18 year old girl (Anne Egerman, played by Jessie Buckley), who have an unconsummated marriage; he is attracted to a lush actress (named Desiree, my!) with whom he had a liason some years back, while his religious son is in love with the wife (who’s much closer to his age) and hating himself for it. All of this contained sexual energy goes wild when the unhappy family is invited to the actress’ country house for the weekend, at which point the play suddenly turns into one of those Shakespearean comedies of errors in which all true lovers are united at the end and we are sent home with smiles on our faces.

So there I was, hunched in my front row seat, watching these people sing and dance close enough to me that I could see the wrinkles on their faces (except for the 18 year old, whom appears to be actually … well, 19), listening very closely to the music and laughing at the clever libretto (who’d ever think to use “Titian” as a rhyme with “Venetian?”), and I realized … I was actually enjoying myself. Sure, I couldn’t stand Desiree Armfeldt’s (Hannah Waddingham’s) hairdo, which was too “1960s sex goddess,” and the miked voices made me want to tear my OWN hair out, and the actress’ aged 10 or so daughter was just verging on nauseatingly cute and precocious (though I did admire her for singing with so much hair in her mouth – was it all about the hair for me?), and my uncle was gagging a bit on the cigar smoke in Act Two – but wasn’t it all just rather lovely, with the simple, yet effective sets, the 100% professional cast practically sitting in my lap, the very interesting and believable characters? I mean, wasn’t it pretty much the whole package other than some niggling bits?

Anyway, by the intermission I’d perked up quite a bit, and by the end of the show I was thinking, well, who knows, maybe this Sondheim guy isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the fact it was a community college cast I saw performing “Into the Woods” affected how I feel about it. Maybe … maybe Sondheim is a taste best appreciated with age. When I found myself comparing the libretto to Cole Porter’s work, it did make me think I’d turned a corner. At any rate, it was a good evening out, and I do very much encourage people to take themselves down to Southwark and catch this show – it’s on for three months so you should have a bit more luck than you would at the typical Donmar production.

(This review is for a performance on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008. For a far more thorough review, please read the West End Whingers, who got a lot of benefit out of buying a program. Too bad I could find so little information about the cast on the Menier’s site – perhaps they’re shy.)