Posts Tagged ‘Why can’t English actors do American accents?’

Review – Silence: The Musical – Above the Stag Theatre

January 31, 2010

I have to say, when I first heard a song from “Silence: The Musical” during “Blink – and You Missed It” at the Above the Stag Theatre in August, I had no idea that this was going to mark the start of a theme for six months of theater-going. Although I might have hesitated to see a musical version of Silence of the Lambs, as I am in fact terribly squeamish and quite adverse to the sight of blood, the very funny song in “Blink!” convinced me that I could easily go without getting squicked, and thus I said yes to the production at the Baron’s Court Theater in October. It turned out to be one of my two favorite musicals of 2009 (the other being the all-male Pirates of Penzance), with shockingly hummable, if generally unsingable (in polite company) songs, sharp characterizations, and a genuinely interesting story. And it was hysterically funny. So of course when I heard it was being performed again, even though a mere three months later, at the Above the Stag theater, I jumped on tickets (a good thing as it’s now already almost sold out for the run).

I have to say, though, I was quite surprised to have the show announced as the “European premiere” right before it started … had my trip to Baron’s Court been a dream? The front of house man (perhaps Peter Bull, artistic director?) insisted that it was the “full” version (some songs had been cut from the other?), and the website itself says this is the “European professional premiere,” which, well, I don’t know what to say, but I don’t really feel like it’s reasonable to call this the European premiere of the show given that it was really no more “fully” produced than the other one was, though this was decidedly actually the version that (more closely) matched the original ’95 NY Fringe Festival, as Christopher Gattelli is given credit as the director. This means that watching them both, I got to see this version as being what the director’s vision of the show was, as opposed to the Tom Murphy/Imperial Productions’ version, and I do seem to remember hearing at least one song I hadn’t in the first show.

Right. Review. Synopsis? Speech impaired wanna-be FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Tory Ross), is asked by irritating FBI man Crawford (Tim McArthur) to interview terrifying imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Miles Western) in order to help draw out clues that might help catch current serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Fabian Hartwell). As she grows closer to Hannibal and closer to finding Bill, the question becomes: will she arrive in time to save latest prisoner, Catherine (Catherine Millsom), or will Lecter … or Bill … get Clarice first?

Now, this all sounds like it would be quite grim, but with cheery little songs like “I Wanna Size 14” (Buffalo Bill’s ideal girl) and “If I Could Smell Her Cunt” (Lecter’s paean to feeling human again), almost-tap dancing lambs (they clacked their little hooves together, which was good enough) and hit you with a two-by-four foreshadowing (the missing pen, the deaths’ head moths), it’s clear through and through that this is meant to be funny, and the occasional gory or grim bits are just Guignol ha ha’s (except for the pictures on the walls of Crawford’s office, I could really have lived without those).

The cast itself was good – the nice singing voices I now practically take for granted in London theater (crazy to think this was a “fringe” production given the professionalism of the cast – hard to understand why any of them were on “the small stage,”), good line delivery, etc. Tory Ross had a nice dry touch to her Agent Star that I really enjoyed, and Shakella Dedi as Starr’s best buddy Ardelia Mapp had a great scene-stealing moment when she ripped off her workout clothes to reveal a blue sparkly mini-dress that she worked within an inch of her life. Pins and pipes – can’t wait to see Dedi take a bigger role in the future, as she’s loaded with talent.

And yet, and yet. While I enjoyed the use of an all-lamb Greek Chorus, especially all Mikado-ized for Starr’s “telling it MY way” bit, I couldn’t help but compare this to the other production and find it lacking. Western may have performed Lecter as requested, as a one-dimensional nutjob, but I far preferred Tom Murphy’s better-rounded creep, who actually seemed like someone who COULD gain Clarice’s trust … before making her eat her tongue. And I missed the heavier development of both the lesbian subtext and sexual harassment of the Baron’s Court version, not to mention the tap-dancing corpse and the overplaying of the “high colonic appointment card.” So while Above the Stag produced a show I’d say would be a fun night out, it just didn’t hit the highs of the Baron’s Court version, which I considered unmissable. But, you know, I also had the hots for BC’s Buffalo Bill, Jame Gumb, and while Fabian Hartwell did do a nice job of tucking his junk and even wrote “Fuck me” on his abdomen, it was no comparison to the sight of all that twinkling body jewelry Jame put on display when he whipped off his kimono.

But I digress. This is certainly a fun and silly night out and well-priced at £15 quid a ticket, but with the other version so fresh in my mind I can’t as enthusiastically recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, January 29th, 2010. Silence runs through February 28th and is already almost completely sold out: buy your tickets today if you’re the least bit interested.)

*Credits to the director for actually using a Safeway shopping bag, a nice touch of American authenticity that I and my two American friends appreciated. However, someone needs to be reminded that, when an American spells the letter H, it is pronounced “Aitch.” “H”aitch is strictly for Englishers – a small niggle in a nearly perfectly American accented production.

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Review – The Mountaintop – Trafalgar Studios

July 20, 2009

On Saturday, J and I went to see The Mountaintop, which had just transferred to Trafalgar Studios after a successful (and sold out) run at Theatre 503. I had wanted to see it but missed out as tickets weren’t to be had, and gave up; but then I got an email from the Ambassador’s Theatre Group announcing that it had been picked up for a run at one of their properties, followed by a hot £10 deal from LastMinute.com. Woo! As I’m spending July in brokeville, this was great news – a show I really wanted to see … and could afford! Even in row N I was still excited to be there – and though many people came in late (when King takes a phone call), based on the fact the house was full, I think there were a lot of people who were as excited as I was. (Pent up consumer demand, perhaps?)

“The Mountaintop,” in summary, is a play about Martin Luther King Junior’s last night on earth, which was spent in a hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. We know it is his last night, and that he will be assassinated at 6 PM the next day, but he does not. He has just given his glorious “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in which he says God’s allowed him to go up to the mountain and see the Promised Land. But with the door shut behind him in his hotel room, the playwright (Katori Hall) has King (David Harewood) display more of what is going on in his head – a man who is (rightfully) fearful of spies, startled painfully at every crack of thunder, and jonesing for a hot cup of coffee and a pack of Pall Malls to get him through the night and the speech he’s writing.

Hall adds to this already emotional mix Camae, a saucy, sexy hotel maid (Lorraine Burroughs), who seems initially to be a dramatic means of lightening up the grim mood. She gives King someone to talk to about his fears – about his worries about his people’s commitment to the movement, about people’s lack of involvement and quickness to criticize, about what would happen to the movement in the seemingly inevitable case of his death. In addition to providing King with his much longed for cigarettes, Camae gives him someone to tease, flirt, and have a pillow fight with (showing us a much more human side of his nature), but also pushes back on his assertions and give him flack for being a “bourgie negro” – which really tones down what could have been some syrupy hero worship.

In retrospect, I have to say I was pretty slack-jawed to discover the leads were actually both English, since not once did I catch their accents slipping (and they both had noticeably different accents, appropriate given that they came from such different backgrounds). I was unsure about Harewoods portrayal of King insofar as he kept fairly frequently falling back on King’s “preacher voice,” which I felt sure would have been used less when having a discussion behind closed doors. (While pleading with God to see things his way, sure, he could pump it up, but not while discussing which brand of cigarettes was his favorite.) However, thanks to the seamlessness of the acting, I was quite caught up in the action for the entirety of the 80 minutes running time. Hall threw a ringer in the show by having it seriously go off into left field “la la” land at about 50 minutes in – a good thing given that it seemed the next turn it was going to take was going to be very X-rated – but somehow I was able to swallow this Deux Ex Machina and just roll with the rest of the show.

And God, you know, I really liked it. It could just be because I’m American and this stuff really resonates with me. It’s my history, it’s the one American of the last 50 years I’m most proud of, it’s stuff I really care about. And the last 5 seconds of the play – this is embarassing – made me tear up.

I can’t say whether or not everyone will enjoy this play because it hit my own personal buttons way too well. But I had a great night, and I’d like to see the theater just as full every night of its run as it was for mine. It’s very much about two characters dealing with their own issues and not some cheesy preachy show that’ll leave you feeling like someone just read a history book out loud to you, even if you do wind up learning something in the end.

God, it was good.

That said … I’d like to leave you with the words of the man himself, one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, in the guise of putting some historical context to the title of the play.

But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

(The Mountaintop continues at Trafalgar Studios through Saturday September 5th, 2009.)

Review – West Side Story – Sadler’s Wells (New Victoria Theatre, Milton Keynes Theatre, The Lowry, The New Wimbledon Theatre, etc.)

August 18, 2008

(Note: this show has now moved to New Victoria Theatre in Woking from Tuesday 2 through Saturday 13 September 2008, from whence it will be at Milton Keynes, The Lowry in Salford and then The New Wimbledon Theatre – even Glasgow and Cardiff.)

As a big fan of the American musical, I was determined to add West Side Story to my “seen” list – and not a cheesy high school production or a remount of the movie, but something very much like the version that’s at Sadler’s Wells right now (and through August 31st, after which it’s touring, including a two week visit to the New Wimbledon Theatre starting October 14th). It’s billed as the 50th anniversary version and “very true to the original choreography,” so I figured it was going to really to give me an opportunity to judge this show in its purest form. Does it deserve to rank with the best of the best, or was it just a 50s flash in the pan that people cling on to because of the Romeo and Juliet connection? Old chestnut or classic? There was only one way to find out … and on Friday, Katie and J and I headed out to Get Experienced.

As it turns out, this show is rather painfully popular and nearing the end of its run, so, as a blogger, I don’t consider it worth my while to spend a thousand words talking about it. You’ve either got tickets or you weren’t going to go (though perhaps you’ll go see it in New Wimbledon). I found it … well, fun, really! Jerome Robbins is a great choreographer, and the initial fight choreography was high energy and a blast to watch. The dancers were totally on form, and I had to think actually better than they would have been in the 50s – although (I think) there were way many performers to choose from back then, technique has really moved forward, and I felt like Joey McKneely’s version had a likely better execution than the original might have had. (Not that one can replace Chita Rivera, but …)

So … the music. Wow, the music was really dated, in a way I found occasionally painful. Xylophones, bizarre not-quite-melodic songs … West Side Story‘s score sounded like it was blended from some record of 50s exotica and more experimental opera of the era. Only a few of the songs were hummable, and “Tonight” was not! This left “America” and “I Feel Pretty” as the only songs I could remember after the show. The other songs were interesting and moved the narrative forward, but weren’t … well, let’s say I won’t be buying the soundtrack and singing them to myself (or an audience of amused strangers).

The set: good, very flexible, nice use of projections (shock!), kept the attention focused on the actors but still did a good job of creating the different “scenes” (the balcony scene, with “Romeo” climbing up the fire escape ladder, was especially cute).

The accents: for once, they were GOOD. Maria had an honest, fresh from a Spanish-speaking homeland young woman, and didn’t sound forced, but rather very much real. This was a huge relief to me (and based on her name I think she was probably not pushing herself too much to get it right). The rest of the performers – not once did I have my “Good God, why can’t English actors do American accents?” button pushed. Were they all Americans? I didn’t read the program (too busy watching the show), so who knows, but what they were was competent and believably American or Puerto Rican.

What does this leave? The acting and the story. Who would think that by coming to London I would have suddenly been put into a frame of mind where young toughs getting into a knife fight would become much more poignant rather than quaint (in America, we just expect street toughs to shoot each other). So when we got to the climactic knife fight, which seemed like a bit of a throwaway in Romeo and Juliet, it became so much more – young kids throwing their lives away for a stupid sense of pride in a way that meant more than it did in R&J (rich fools duelling, not very sympathetic) and very much seemed like “look, nothing’s changed.” And Tony’s role is very different – he’s a nice guy trying to break things up, he’s a completely sympathetic character. Maybe it’s a bit unrealistic that he would fall in love with a girl he only just saw at a dance, but once the fight happens, far more so than in a tale of star cross’d lovers, Tony and Maria really and truly to seemed to have no chance in the world of keeping their relationship together in a world where no one, really, wants to see them succeed.

How was the acting, though? I think it all comes down to this: we all knew how it was going to end, right? And yet way up there in the second balcony, the second balcony, mind you (where I could afford seats), I could here scores of people sniffling at the end – reserved old English people having a cry about the tragic end of what could have been a beautiful romance. And me, uh, I had some dust in my eyes and my contacts were dry, okay?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 15th, 2008. Performances continue through the 31st of August though it’s mostly sold out, but, hey, if you just want a single, you can always call the day of and get a return ticket. More information on the official “West Side Story 50th Anniversary Production website. This show will be touring for a while so you have many chances to catch it still!)

Review – “They’re Playing Our Song” – Menier Chocolate Factory

July 27, 2008

I was quite intrigued by what I would find on my first visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory. Facility-wise, I’d heard them trashed many times by the West End Whingers (and since I don’t actually have other friends who go to see theater as much as I do, this was the only view I had to go on) … but show-wise, I’d noticed that the Menier seems to have a record for picking hot shows that go on to bigger and better places (and longer runs, i.e. Dealer’s Choice) … and win big fat prizes (Sunday in the Park with George,” Oliviers and more). So I was excited to finally check out the space, but also to see the venue strutting its stuff as the place where musicals, new or neglected, take their baby-steps before going on to bigger things. They’re Playing Our Song did not constitute a debut, but rather was marking its first London revival since it opened (thanks to ColouredLights for the hot tip). I mean, God, 1982, that’s a long time for a show to not be on stage in a theater town like this.

Then again … some times shows don’t get revived for good reasons. My big advance warning was – well, it’s embarasing, but _ it was the name Neil Simon on the credits (as script author). WHAT WAS I THINKING? I have read many of his shows, and I’ve got to say, I just can’t stand his writing style. Wooden, clunky, predictable – he writes like he’s creating sitcoms. Everything is right there in your face, the characters have whimsical flaws, there are some jokes thrown in (my favorite being the one about the dress from Pippin), there’s a happy ending, bleh. For me, it’s like eating lunch from McDonalds: sure, it’s food, but are you going to sit around afterwards thinking about what you just ate? Hardly. (I think the English equivalent is Alan Aykborn, who seems to have crapped out as many shows as Mr. Simon has. I mean, really, you see Pinter and start thinking all of the writers here are blazing geniuses, but it’s just not true. I guess someone’s got to write dull old stuff that works for people who have to be talked out of spending a night in front of the television, but me, I want something that makes me excited about being in a theater and willing to spend an hour or two talking about it afterwards. No luck with this.) I felt pain for the actors watching them mouth out this dreck. Were they feeling it any more than I was? I was not convinced.

My experience of actually watching the show was fairly pleasant, though (something which I’m finding a bit embarrassing in retrospect). The leads (Connie Fisher, who’s name I found familiar for some reason, possibly the same as Phillip Whinger although perhaps I was thinking Connie Frances) and Alistair McGowan (no bells ringing there – sorry, guy) had some pretty good chemistry, despite their cheesy 70s hairstyles and clothes and, er, less than convincing command of New Yawk American English. (Connie’s accent was just gratingly heavy and off throughout, though rather like a typical American actor’s failed New Yawk-ese; McGowan’s was smooth enough but when he got out of bed and said “Good mo’ning” or something along those lines, it was just as painful as if he’d pronounced the H in herb). There was a lot of production fun-ness, like the disco dancers in the restaurant scene, the drivable piano, and the silly outfits Fischer wore (McGowan’s were hideous but not as over the top as hers), and, really, I did enjoy watching their relationship progress and got a little emotionally invested in their success (career-wise and as a couple).

But … the songs. While they fit with the show (no surprise), I got absolutely no hint that this was a musical about two people who were pop rock geniuses (or “genii,” if you prefer). The lyrics weren’t memorable, and the tunes weren’t hummable. There was an utter lack of pop magic! What a contrast with Annie Get Your Gun, with its embarassment of riches (seriously, just WHEN do you walk into a musical and find you already know all of the songs?). I actually found myself sitting in the theatre, kneecaps jammed into my femur, thinking not of the permanent loss of mobility I expected as a tragic result of watching this show from the second to last row (perfect view of the stage, but only ten inches clearance between the edge of the seat and the back of the bench in front of me – picture of injuries sustained upon exit here), but rather pining away for Avenue Q and its endless series of wonderful musical nuggets (“Schadenfreude,” “It Sucks to be Me,” “The Internet is for Porn” – when was the last time I went to a show and could name so many songs that I had, in fact, only heard for the first time?) As I sit here writing this, I can’t remember one song from this show (other than maybe a hint of the title tune, which is thankfully fading fast), and I’m the kind of person who sits singing showtunes in my house when I’m in a happy mood, so I consider this a major failure in a musical.

So They’re Playing Our Song was a mixed bag for me – boring dialogue, forgettable songs, but decent performances and entertaining enough while I was sitting there with a friend who loves musicals. (Do bring water if it’s over 20 C outside as you will be melting, and forget eating in the restaurant beforehand – it’s a sauna!) But, really, if you haven’t seen Avenue Q yet and you’re a musical theater fan, go see it instead. When it comes to adding to your lifetime treasury of wonderful shows, They’re Playing Our Song isn’t going to put a penny in your account, and since there’s shows out there that will, I highly advise going to see them instead. Me, I will happily fly Air Menier again, as it’s a great space for shows (aside from our row, which I noticed the other six people abandoned after the interval), but I’m hoping next time I find a bit more gold while I’m sifting through the sand.

(This review is for a matinee preview performance that took place Saturday, July 27th.)