Posts Tagged ‘Union Theater’

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.)

Review – Our House – Union Theater

August 27, 2015

I’m not the world’s biggest Madness fan – there were only a few songs of theirs that were played in America, mostly on MTV, and mostly on “120 Minutes” – so perhaps I wasn’t the perfect audience for seeing the Union Theater’s production of Our House, but, really, I was more than ready for a musical that addressed MY generation after seeing the flaccid Tommy at the Greenwich Playhouse and a seriously not-my-generation Sunny Afternoon back in June. The question was: would it be a jukebox musical or a story-driven show with bonus Madness songs? I was hoping for the second, but, well, what I got was mostly the first.

Now, Our House certainly has a plot, about a young man fighting to keep his family home from being bought up by a property developer (and trying to make something of his life), and while both of these strands were engaging, the playwright unfortunately chose as a framing device that the protagonist was examining the two different paths his life could take. I’m not sure how we were supposed to understand this is what happened (his dead dad comes back and talks to him a lot), but I suddenly realized that he wasn’t simultaneously working in real estate and working at a car wash. That said, I didn’t know what was real, and the cues we were being given as which thread we were following weren’t clear enough for me. His mom seemed the same in both of them, but the host of friends and his girlfriend sort of wobbled between both paths. I ended the night not entirely sure if he’d gone to prison or when, and my confusion about all of this is my primary complaint about this show. It felt all muddled, and my thinking time detracted from my enjoyment time.

That said, the cast is incredibly lively and delivers performance full of energy and brio, very nicely capturing an early eighties London feel. The dancing is silly, sexy, fun and exuberant; it’s hard not to want to leap out of your chair and join in, especially given the pure dance pros brought in to take things up a level. The effect was added to by the great performances taking place in the mostly hidden orchestra room: great job band people!

That said, the integration of songs and story didn’t quote work for me – I didn’t feel like the songs were moving the story along enough, and I wanted that kind of pure musical effect instead of just having opportunities to hear warmly remembered tunes in a friendly environment. Ah well, it was a good enough night, but I had been hoping for brilliant.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 20th, 2015. It continues through September 12th.)

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 – All Male H.M.S. Pinafore – Union Theater

November 10, 2013

It’s hard for me not to think of Gilbert and Sullivan and not immediately cringe. Their operettas choke on their own treacle – always a happy ending, inoffensive, prudish. No wonder am dram societies love them.

This received knowledge has been turned on its head by Sasha Regan’s witty all-male stagings. Starting with Pirates of Penzance in 2007, she’s pared away the accumulations of decades to reveal the tuneful songs, pointed jokes, and confused relations (between sexes and classes) that have, apparently, always been there. And she’s made them beautiful to watch … and sexy.

Gilbert and Sullivan sexy? Oh yes, and especially the Union’s H.M.S. Pinafore. The extreme manliness of a ship full of sailors – tussling in their bunks, working out in their smalls, stuffed four by four into the tiny thrust stage – was, um, disturbing, but in a good way. For me. A WWII aircraft carrier bunk room provides the trope for the production – they’re on ship, they’re bored, they’re going to play a pipe, dance a bit, and sing to each other. Watching them horse around during the overture helped pull me out of the present and into the show. The handling of the prologue is one of the cleverest elements of the Union’s G & S productions: by making the performers a group of friends doing something for themselves (for example, in Iolanthe, they were kids at a boarding school), the audience is provided a context for both why the cast is male and why they might suddenly decide to do a show together. Of course they’re doing Gilbert and Sullivan, everyone knows their music! It makes the casting feel completely sensible and not gimmicky, neither “being done to make a point” nor “a marketing ploy.” The show flows completely naturally from its beginning. It’s not a “gay” Pinafore: it’s just Pinafore, but the audience must now see it with modern eyes, without bustles and wigs in the way. And on such a small stage, the words and music are inescapable, leading to the shocking discovery that, actually, it’s damned funny. Who would have known?

The plot of Pinafore is fairly simple: a young sailor (Ralph – Tom Senior) is in love with his captain’s daughter (Josephine – Bex Roberts), who has been promised to “Sir Joseph,” the First Lord of the Admiralty (David McKechnie). There has to be a happy ending, but how will they get there? Meanwhile: who is Buttercup (Ciaran O’Driscoll), the “bum boat” woman,” and just how evil is hunchback Dick Deadeye (Lee Van Geleen)? The plot is moved ahead by songs that seem impossible to accept without strong doses of irony: “We Sail the Ocean Blue,” “A British Tar:” they seem ridiculous! But then, it seems more likely that they should be taken tongue in cheek when played against the captain’s “My Gallant Crew, Good Morning” (in which he reveals that he’s not very brave at all) and Sir Joseph’s “When I Was a Lad” (a complete satire of how to get ahead in the government – or, perhaps, the rude reality, be friends with the powerful, then as now!). Choreographer Lizzy Gee adds lots of fun to it all, putting the sailors to work doing semaphore-style dance moves and inserting an entire Olympic program that manages to mock Chariots of Fire as well as Darwin’s Ascent of Man. It’s all just heaps of fun and as a bonus, well, yummy sailors ahoy!

One of the biggest struggles for this series has been the difficulty of finding strong male counter-tenors in the ranks of the young actors that tend to take these parts; this leads to problems in volume, especially in mixed gender duets, when the female characters are overwhelmed by the stronger voices of the males (a problem for “Refrain, Audacious Tar”). However, Regan has a real winner in Ciaran O’Driscoll, who not only is a convincing, lovesick middle-aged woman, but who has a strong and warm voice perfectly suited to his role. Bex Roberts’ isn’t able to hold up against Tom Senior’s when they duet, but Roberts’ tone is sweet and his singing quite on, if soft.

Overall this show was ebullient, and I spent nearly the entire evening grinning from ear to ear. I’ve already booked to see it again at the end of the month, but I wish I could see it every week all winter long – now that would be the cure for the cold weather blues.

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(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 1st, 2013. It continues through November 30th.)

Review – The Boys From Syracuse – Union Theater

October 8, 2013

Going into The Boys From Syracuse, I knew nothing about it other than it was by the Broadway musicals team of Rogers and Hart. “I’m completely unfamiliar with the plot!” I whispered to my companion. Yet a few minutes and flashing togas later, I realized I was wholly familiar with the plot: it was Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors,” my second least favorite of his comedies. Ooh difficult to swallow multiple-twins plot, ooh misogyny, ooh beating servant for laffs. I was a bit worried I was going to find the evening as grating as the play had been done straight, but this show just kind of wallowed into the whole mess with both feet, starting the evening off with the townspeople warbling about “an execution!” Oddly this kind of softened me up for the whole thing, much like a cartoon of a coyote being hit with an anvil doesn’t register as animal cruelty. It was a screwball musical comedy that had nothing to do with how actual Greek people (or even Elizabethan or modern people) behaved, and I could laugh accordingly.

The plot is slight to start with and even more condensed by George Abbot, as it needs to make room for singing; this, I think, is a good plan, giving us less time to worry about things making sense and more time to enjoy the talents of the cast. We’ve got the considerable comic talents of the put-upon Dromio twins (Matthew Cavendish and the rather too handsome Alan McHale), the great legs of the courtesans and town girls, and the very enjoyable voices of the female leads (Carrie Sutton as married Adriana and Cara Dudgeon as her sister Luciana). The women get some great showpieces, including Adriana’s “Falling in Love with Love” and the showstopper trio “Sing for Your Supper” (performed with cook Luce, Natalie Woods) which put me in mind of the Andrews sisters. It was odd that earlier I’d found Aaron Hayes Rogers’ voice somehow clashing with Dudgeon’s in their love duet; was it written funny or … well, fortunately, it was about the end of the first act, but it did leave me feeling out of sorts during the intermission.

While act two picked up quite a bit from the first, I couldn’t help but feel a little fidgety in my chair. To me, The Boys from Syracuse isn’t an A-list musical; it has too much of the episodic feel of 1930s writing, and the songs are not generally memorable. I’d call it a good night out for fans of the golden age of American musicals and certainly a better evening than the big-name Much Ado down the street; but while it went down better than the original, I might have picked a stronger show in general. Still, at the always affordable Union Theater prices, it delivered good value, and I know I’m not the only one who is happy to get to see a rarity like this performed live.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, October 5th, 2013. It continues through October 26th.)

Review – On a Clear Day You Can See Forever – Union Theater

September 13, 2013

I’m glad, in retrospect, that I knew nothing about On a Clear Day You Can See Forever before I headed to the Union Theater on Wednesday – I just hoped that with lyrics by Lerner and production values by Sasha Regan that I’d be having another lovely evening of golden/silver age musicals in the exquisite confines of my favorite tiny theater in London. And, well, so it was: but if I’d looked up the story beforehand, I might have been scared off! Whether you say it’s about psychoanalysis or about ESP or about past lives … well, any one of these things would have had me reconsidering my plans. A play where someone spends a lot of time with a shrink? Shoot me. A show about reincarnation? Couldn’t live through it.

But thanks, I think, to the utterly charming and completely non-ironic performance of Vicki Lee Taylor (as Daisy Gamble), rather that grumbling about how outrageous, silly, or (worst of all) boring this show was, I found myself relaxing into an utterly lovely and pleasant evening about truly surprising topics – absolutely original in all of the musical theater I had seen. Daisy Gamble is at a teaching psychologist’s office during a lesson and inadvertently is hypnotized. While recovering from her mishap, she winds up demonstrating other skills she has to Dr Bruckner (Nadeem Crowe) – such as an ability to read minds and, as demonstrated by the utterly gorgeous song, “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” a talent at making plants grow. I had been sitting there feeling a bit confused by the hip 60s setting (miniskirts galore) and the way the band (sitting behind me) were kind of drowning out some of the lyrics and dialogue, but once Taylor started singing, I was sunk. (It helped a little bit that she reminded me of Umbrellas of Cherbourg-era Catherine Deneuve.) It was like discovering you were on a journey to an unknown destination with a driver whose tastes you had utter faith in. I was very excited to see where Burton Lane and Mr. Lerner were going to take us.

Although the middle of this show is a very bizarre trip to woo woo land, I had no difficulty in swallowing it hook, line and sinker: as a bonus, Daisy actually has a very neat personal evolution that takes her from a difficult to believe, two dimensional character to a much better rounded person by the end of the show – you really do wind up rooting for her. And Dr Bruckner, well, he’s a bit of an odd duck, but his passion for understanding the mysteries he’s confronted with – and his willingness to accept Daisy without trying to put her in an easily-labeled box – makes him sympathetic as well. Really, On A Clear Day is such a curious thing, but it’s so lovely to watch: and sitting there at the end, five feet away from Taylor as she (and the rest of the talented cast) belted their hearts out – well, it was that kind of Union Theater magic that keeps me coming back show after show. In this case, it might have me coming back just a little bit sooner, because Taylor’s voice was just too good to be believed – playing to a house of, what, forty or fifty people, unmiked – what a treat!

(This review was for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 11, 2013. It continues through Saturday, September 28th.)

Mini-review – Pipe Dream – Union Theater

August 24, 2013

It is not without reason that I have some fear of shows which have not been produced (or revived) over a considerable period of time since their debut: even more so shows which have never been done in London. There’s a good reason Ibsen’s Emperor and Gallilean never made a West-end debut; thus my suspicions about Rogers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, making its London debut 60 years after the fact. But then, you know, it was STILL Rogers and Hammerstein. How bad could it be?

I’m pleased to report that, on the balance, the “Rogers and Hammerstein” outweighed the “but it never made it to
London” side of the equation. When modern musicals struggle to generate even a single decent song, old hands like R & H just pop out one good one after another. It’s the topic, then, and I think the structure that hamper this show. I’m a fan of Steinbeck and of his novels set in Cannery Row, Monterey; I’m also a big marine life enthusiast, so for me, a song about the reproductive habits of octopi and starfish was a dream come true. I am probably not in the majority in this view, however.

The material also struggles with the natural up-beat nature of Rogers and Hammerstein. They’re really not about struggling with poverty or the harsh realities that send women to work as prostitutes; they’re more about boy-meets-girl love stories. Steinbeck focuses on the innate human dignity of his characters; as transformed into the musicals format, I’m afraid they’ve had to become “cute.”

Director Sasha Regan and choreographer Lizzy Gee engage unironically with the material, giving us a great “On the Bus” dance number that unites the wastrel men and the ladies of the night, as well as a nicely executed “me and my reflection” silhouetted tap routine. But the characters stayed superficial, which was, well, not really reflecting its literary origins. Ah well, As a fine musical entertainment performed up close and personal in the Union style, Pipe Dream was still a good night out that repaid the effort it took to pry myself away from the long summer evenings of 2013 to take a trip back to an America that’s long vanished.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, August 17th, 2013. It continues through August 31st.)

Review – Darling of the Day – Union Theater (Southbank, London)

April 4, 2013

The Union Theater’s production of Darling of the Day was my first chance to see a fully realized production of a show I’d only ever seen done before in concert form (in the Lost Musicals series). In this case, the show (as a show) was also a UK debut, for despite its fine pedigree (Jule Styne! Yip Harburg!), Darling of the Day had been an utter failure in America, no doubt due to being unfortunately placed as an old-fashioned, story-and-songs musical at the same time Hair came out. Rock and roll and naked hippies, or, um, sorry, what was that again? Something about about lower class/Cockney English people a la Mary Poppins? You can see where it failed to find its audience.

It’s a show that for several reasons, I think, rates a place in the silver era of American musical. The songs are really solid, and held up well even under the limitations of opening night, when the second female lead was too unwell to sing at all and the first lead (Alice Chalice, played by Katy Secombe) was singing, if softly, through her own bronchitis recovery period. But the unique story, about an artist switching places with his butler so he can live a life of happy obscurity, is a great set-up for a show; we get on one hand the silly, shallow art world (depicted as being pretty much exactly the same as today) and on the other hand the fun yet poor world of the working class folk of Putney (obviously long departed and a comic element of its own in 2013 London). It’s all brightly realized with some pretty costly costumery and non-trivial dance numbers, both of which I think exceeded the normal budget allotted to the Union Shows. The comedy, though, came along with the script, and in a spring that shows not even a peep of hope of arriving, Darling of the Day is a lovely little charmer well worth the ticket cost for its power in warding off gloom and chill.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 22nd, 2013. It continues through April 20th. If the Union’s website is crashing for you like it was for me, tickets can be bought directly at Ticketsource or by calling the box office.)

Mini-review – Fair Em – Claire Evans at the Union Theater

January 14, 2013

In a year in which conservatism has taken over theatrical production, it seems reasonable that even the fringe would want to go but the tried but true – in this case, the “big name” (Shakespeare) with a hint of controversy (but is it by him or is it not?). This time, however, Phil Wilmott has gone not for a “possibly by Shakespeare” show (well, actually King John seems to be fairly secure in its authorship, it’s just not produced much), but a “well it was once in a pile of plays labeled “Shakespeare” so let’s see if this pulls in the punters” title. “Fair Em” ISN’T thought to be by Shakespeare by ANYONE. It is, however, quite reasonable to describe it as a show having its ” modern world premiere” in 2013. And why would this be? I will attempt to clarify in as simple a way as possible – by summarizing the plot.

So, there’s a really pretty girl, named Em (Caroline Haines). She is of noble birth but she and her father are pretending to be millers because of the political changes caused by the invasion of William the Conqueror (Jack Taylor). Being noble, and thus beautiful, Em has attracted suitors above her station – three, in fact. But wait, let’s not forget William the Conqueror. He is also in love – with a woman whose face he saw on someone’s shield. It’s Blanch (Madeline Gould in a comically horned headpiece), daughter of the king of Denmark! He goes there in disguise to woo her, but then falls in love with Mariana (Alys Metcalf), who has promised to wed another. Meanwhile, Em is struggling to deal with her suitors’ competition with each other, and in order to prove herself faithful to her first love, pretends to be deaf and blind to scare off the others, with the comic result that …

Are you lost yet? I promise you will be, even despite the costumes that attempt to keep you cleverly focused on PEOPLE IN DENMARK and POOR YET NOBLE MAKE BELIEVE DEAF GIRL wait DEAF AND BLIND GIRL wait BLIND GIRL wait … and then there’s some sort of a battle and … oh God, it was really all too much. As a bit of Elizabethan theater, Fair Em was like the Dumb and Dumber of its age – no doubt enjoyable at the time but my God, it just did not age well. Or maybe I just go to too much highbrow stuff – I mean, I wound up here because the Shaw triple bill at the Red Lion was sold out. But, you know, um … nice backdrop, and I do think the actors were really giving it their all. Perhaps we might dub this “cringe theater?”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 12, 2013. Fair Em continues through February 9th at the Union Theater.)

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.)