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WHAT'S NEW IN THE WEST END by Tim Connor
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LONDON NEWS – January 2002

RECENT OPENINGS AND SHOWS ON THE WAY

- Trevor Nunn’s production of ‘South Pacific’ has opened at the National’s Olivier Theatre to good notices. Some audience members have expressed disappointment that this is more of a straightforward revival rather than a new approach to the material. Philip Quast’s performance as Emile De Becque has been widely acclaimed, whilst John Napier’s set has also been singled out for praise.

- ‘Privates On Parade’, the musical by Peter Nichols and Denis King, received an equally enthusiastic reception on its recent opening. The new production, playing at the Donmar Warehouse, is directed by Michael Grandage and includes Roger Allam and Malcolm Sinclair in its cast. It runs for a limited period until March 2.

- Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of the Gershwin musical ‘My One and Only’ is transferring to the West End, with previews from February 8. The show will play at the Piccadilly Theatre, currently home to ‘Noises Off’ by Michael Frayn. The acclaimed farce will transfer to the Comedy Theatre to continue its West End run.

- Clive Paget, Artistic Director of the Bridewell Theatre, will direct ‘There’s Always A Woman’, a new Sondheim compilation show subtitled ‘Stephen Sondheim on Women’. Co-produced by the Sondheim Society, it will run at the Bridewell from January 29 – February 9. Later in the year, Sondheim’s musical thriller ‘Sweeney Todd’ will be making a welcome visit to Sadler’s Wells from June 7 – 15. The Opera North production will star Steven Page as the infamous demon barber of Fleet Street, and Beverley Klein as Mrs. Lovett.

CASTING NEWS

- On the pop musicals front, Nigel Planer (most recently seen in ‘Feelgood’), has been named for the cast of ‘We Will Rock You’, scheduled to open on May 14. Meanwhile, Boy George’s ‘Taboo’ will be lead by Gemma Craven, whose credits include ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Calamity Jane’.

- Joanna Riding has taken over from Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’, and the word of mouth is that she is superb. It was also recently announced that award winning actor Alex Jennings (last seen in ‘The Relapse’), will make his musical theatre debut as the next Professor Higgins, currently played by Jonathan Pryce. Jennings will take over from April 22.

REVIEWS

RAGS
Bridewell Theatre

The time is the early 1900s, and Rebecca Hershkowitz, accompanied by her young son David, disembarks from an immigrant ship in the hope of starting a new life in America with her husband Nathan, who is already working in the States. On their arrival, Nathan is no where to be seen and the two are left to make their own way in this foreign land, with a little help from fellow passenger Avram and his daughter Bella.

The story of the hard times endured by Jewish immigrants in this period of history is convincingly and touchingly expressed in Joseph Stein’s tightly written book. Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics allow for character reflection whilst also progressing the action, and Charles Strouse’s gentle and authentic sounding score helps to create atmosphere. I can honestly say that I have never seen a musical so well integrated as ‘Rags’. Dialogue and song blend into each other seamlessly, the creators telling the story without any glaringly obvious moments of rest for song, as is frequently the case in musicals. All the songs in ‘Rags’ come from the characters and their situations, being both witty and touching where appropriate.

‘Rags’ is an unusually serious work, and that could be seen as a flaw. Though there are few moments for audience release, I found myself too engrossed in the stories to care. Sally Ann Triplett gives a beautifully judged performance as Rebecca, displaying the necessary amount of passion for this desperate yet determined woman. My only slight criticism is of her singing which, though strong, could have been projected more. For a show where the lyrics really have something to say, it was a shame to be straining to hear what she was singing.

There was a good comic turn from John Levitt as the elderly Avram, his very Jewish mannerisms and phrases being the main source of humour. Alicia Davies as his daughter Bella was outstanding. She had real stage presence and a voice that soared, especially in the title number, which blew me away with its power.

Unfortunately, the supporting company was less convincing, being a mixed bag of good and bad. There was a likeable performance by Sue Kelvin as Rachel, who sang the warm hearted duet ‘Two Sunny Rooms’ with Avram. Otherwise the performances were rather weak, mainly due to struggles with the difficult accent. Even the usually excellent David Bardsley failed to make a mark as Nathan, but this could be blamed in part on the rather two-dimensional role. The book began to lose its way in the second half, and I found the conclusion rushed and unsatisfying.

Graham Wynne’s stark brick wall set was suitably drab for the story, complemented by David Howe’s simple but atmospheric lighting. There was good musical backing from the Hester Street Band, though the score would have had added effect with some percussion in Martin Yates’ reduced orchestrations.

Overall, I found Matthew White’s production terrifically moving and proof that the piece certainly deserved to last more than a handful of performances, as it did on its original Broadway run. It is by no means a flop, far from it. It is the most challenging piece of musical theatre I have encountered, and a textbook example of how to integrate book, music and lyrics successfully.

KISS ME, KATE
Victoria Palace Theatre

If you asked me to name a show that is a true musical comedy, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ would be it. As with many shows steeped in that genre, it has plenty of great one-liners, hummable music, and lyrics that are both wonderfully wacky and relevant to the story line.

‘Kiss Me, Kate’ looks at a theatre company touring in a musical version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’. It cuts between the on stage hammed-up musical and the dressing rooms of the two touring stars Lili Vanessi (Marin Mazzie) and Fred Graham (Brent Barrett). The concept is that of a show within a show, where the acted out hatred between the leading man and lady, mirrors their feelings off stage. This allows for some great moments of bitchy dialogue, where Shakespeare’s text is mixed in with more modern insults. Consequently, it’s a ridiculously silly but highly entertaining few hours.

Coming straight from a successful run on Broadway, this show had the challenge of needing to live up to the hype circulating prior to its arrival. At the interval, I was not convinced. Though the production was slick, with excellent sets and lighting (by Robin Wagner and Peter Kaczorowski respectively), and the performances by the lead players near faultless, the complete package somehow did not thrill me. However, then the second act came, and was an absolute knockout.

Right from the opening bars of ‘Too Darn Hot’ the show just clicked into another level. Nolan Frederick led this song with a super jazz approach and nimble footwork. Nancy Anderson as Lois Lane later made sparks fly with her terrifically sexy interpretation of ‘Always True To You (Darling In My Fashion)’. Michael Beresse as Bill, her love interest, was equally good with his gymnastics in ‘Bianca’. As an actor, he also displayed great comic timing. Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissik as the gangsters (an unnecessary but amusing part of the plot) provided a further showstopper with ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’. The lyrics for this song are fabulously risqué, with such gems as “If your baby is pleading for pleasure, let her sample your ‘Measure for Measure’”.

As for the leading couple, Marin Mazzie was a feisty and well-sung Lily to Brent Barrett’s tremendous Fred; together they had real chemistry. I would also like to single out Nicolas Colicos in the role of Harrison Howell. He just walked on stage and you wanted to laugh. His performance was a delightful (and all too small) contribution to the evening.

The orchestra played excellently under the leadership of Gareth Valentine, though Don Sebesky’s orchestrations often try too hard to give the show a more modern sound than is appropriate. Nevertheless, this proved a polished night of theatre and on the fun scale ranks at the very top.

UK CD RELEASE – ‘A LAND FIT FOR HEROES’
(Available at Dress Circle, Leicester Square)

As a keen supporter of new musical theatre, I am delighted to review the cast album of ‘A Land Fit For Heroes’, a brand new piece by Mike Gibb and Graham Stephen.

The story is a slice of Scottish history, concerned with the events that befall Sarah McLeod as she lives through the First World War. It is a small-scale work and one that I find extremely charming. Though its themes are serious, it strikes me as a show with real heart. There are some lovely gentle songs in the score. My personal favourites are ‘All I Ever Wanted’ and ‘Remember’, the latter reminding me of Sondheim’s ‘I Remember That’ from ‘Saturday Night’.

My only small criticism of the recording is not concerned with the material but its performance. Though there is some truly excellent singing (particularly from Jill Hay in the main role), there are some flat notes from other cast members. The musical backing is also a little simple with just a piano accompaniment. I can imagine the music really soaring with a fuller orchestration, as in the case of the title song, an anthem in the vein of ‘Do Your Hear The People Sing?’.

The fact that I think ‘A Land Fit For Heroes’ deserves a more lavish performance than it is given on this recording shows how much I have taken to it. I can imagine this being a powerful piece of theatre and the cast album has made me want to see the show. I can only hope that the recording prompts somebody to stage it in London in the future.

Tim Connor, London

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Additional information on London's current theatre scene is available at Albemarle of London.



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