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WHAT'S NEW IN THE WEST END by Tim Connor
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1st September, 2001

RECENT OPENINGS

PEGGY SUE - The newest musical to open in London thankfully hasn’t been panned by the press, but then it hasn’t exactly had raves either. All critics feel lukewarm about the show, though they are in agreement that Ruthie Henshall, in the title role, saves the day. Apparently tickets aren’t selling too well, so the chances of this running for very long sadly look doubtful.

HUMBLE BOY - There had been a lot of publicity prior to the opening of Charlotte Jones’ new play. It boasts an amazing cast including Simon Russell Beale, Diana Rigg and Denis Quilley, with John Caird in the director’s chair. I’ve only heard the highest praise for the play so far, which is said to be a resetting of ‘Hamlet’. It has been described as a comedy yet also an intellectually stimulating work. It runs at the National Theatre in repertoire.

THE RELAPSE - Trevor Nunn’s production of John Vanbrugh’s romp has opened at the National’s Olivier to generally positive critical response. It’s been likened to an older brand of humour in the style of the ‘Carry On’ films, though some found this to be a bit too light and frothy for a satisfactory evening of entertainment. Alex Jennings has received raves all round for his tremendously camp performance in a strong company that includes the booming Brian Blessed. The play continues in repertoire.

WHERE’S CHARLEY - Many critics commented on how the pleasure of theatre in the open air in Regent’s Park made them a bit more forgiving with this musical, for many found it weak and fairly dull. Frank Loesser wrote this show before his masterpiece Guys and Doll’s and the critics complained that the songs weren’t too strong, though the performances helped save the evening. The piece hasn’t stood the test of time. It’s a shame, but at least Regent’s Park has given Londoners the chance to see this neglected work, flawed though it may be.

NIXON’S NIXON - Originally playing at the Bridewell, this new play has just opened at the more centrally located Comedy Theatre. The critics remained complimentary about the play, though it seems that some of the atmosphere may have been lost in the transfer. The Comedy is significantly bigger than the Bridewell, and time will tell whether it works well enough to sustain and respectable run in its new home.

BARBARA COOK SINGS MOSTLY SONDHEIM - One of the great divas, if not the greatest, has hit London to ecstatic responses from audiences and critics alike. It’s really lovely to see Barbara Cook over this side of the pond again, her last appearance being part of ‘Divas at the Donmar’ a few years ago.

NEWS

DIVAS SEASON 2001 - On the matter of this now annual cabaret event, there’s an impressive line up of three of London’s finest this year. Clive Rowe, my favourite male vocalist, Sian Phillips, who most recently starred in ‘Marlene’, and Michael Ball, heart throb to hundreds of women and a versatile and powerful singer. All three are worth catching for evenings of tiptop cabaret.

BRENDAN FRASER AT THE LYRIC - On September 18, a new production of ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’ will open at the Lyric, directed by Anthony Page. Included in the cast is Brendan Fraser, whose many film credits include ‘Bedazzled’ with Liz Hurley. Rumour has it Fraser has taken a significant pay cut to play in the production.

DEPP AND DENCH DOESN’T HAPPEN - Johnny Depp has also been tempted to come to London, to perform alongside Dame Judi Dench. Miss Dench will be opening in Peter Hall’s forthcoming production of ‘The Royal Family’. The two actors had worked with each other on the film ‘Chocolat’ which prompted Miss Dench to approach Depp about whether he would like to be involved. Unfortunately, his busy filming schedule means that he can’t take up the offer. Still, it’s a nice little story!

RAGS AT THE BRIDEWELL - The most exciting news this month to my mind is that the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street, will be showing the UK premiere of the musical ‘Rags’. Written by Charles Strouse, Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein, it survived only a very short run on its original Broadway outing, though the cast album has become a collector’s item. Full details, including the cast list, are yet to be confirmed but the show will play from October through to December, as part of a festival celebrating Jewish culture. I know the music from the show very well and it is beautiful. Miss it at your peril!

VISITING A LONG RUNNER - ART - I recently went to see ‘Art’ before its next cast changeover. I’ve never seen the play before and must say that I agree with every bit of praise that has been showered on it by critics world wide. It is funny, touching, stylishly designed and lit, and extremely well acted. The three men on my visit were George Segal, Paul Freeman and Richard Griffiths. Griffiths as Yvan for me made the evening, being both hilarious yet deeply moving. George Segal as Serge oozed with charm, a complete contrast to Paul Freeman’s aggressive Marc, who I felt was at times a bit too loud and over the top. All in all though I found it engrossing, completely fresh and inventive, and I would never have thought that it had been running for nearly five years. I can’t think of a better compliment.

AN UNMISSABLE EVENING WITH JASON ROBERT BROWN AT THE BRIDEWELL - Before seeing 'Songs For A New World' I had never been to the Bridewell Theatre. I found it a delightfully intimate space, where you had really close contact with the actors. The venue has made a name for itself from its acclaimed productions of lost classics and new works. It also staged the World premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s early musical, 'Saturday Night'.

I heard of this production purely by chance on a web message board, and I am so glad I did! I was well acquainted with the music, being a huge fan of Jason Robert Brown, the show’s creator. He deservedly won the Tony award in 1999 for ‘Parade’, one of the greatest scores I’ve ever heard. ‘Songs For A New World’ originally premiered in 1996, and the Bridewell has presented the first European production of this song cycle, playing until September 15.

I know that I have a tendency to go overboard with the superlatives when I like something, but I more than liked ‘Songs For A New World’ so they will be coming thick and fast! I loved every minute of this show and it was undoubtedly the best night I have had at the theatre so far this year.

At a time when the London music theatre scene is fairly uninteresting, the Bridewell has come up trumps with a show that breaks all the "traditional" rules. There is no big plot. There are no crashing chandeliers or flying witches. There are just four amazingly talented performers, an equally brilliant band and really wonderful material.

Brown’s collection of songs for the piece sounded great on CD, but they were even better when performed live with the added visual dimension. Though the staging was simple, thanks to Paul Clarke’s very clever set of two movable staircases and a white back cloth, complimented by Robert Bryan’s excellent lighting, you couldn’t help but be drawn into the atmosphere created by each number.

I’ve always admired Brown’s superb lyrics, and they were even more impressive when you heard how each member of the cast interpreted them. I noticed a lot more humour in some of the words, and other moments left me with a lump in my throat.

It’s no exaggeration to say that each person in the cast of four was stunning. Nigel Richards had such a warm smile that you couldn’t help but smile with him, though he could also show real frustration and emotion, notably in his best solo, ‘She Cries’. His voice is incredibly powerful and he has that wonderful knack of making it all look so easy!

Craig Purnell did so many great facial expressions, and he is a smooth mover with a fabulous singing voice. He was terrific throughout and just burst with energy and fun. Sarah Redmond was classy both in her appearance and the delivery of her numbers. ‘Stars and Moon’, possibly Brown’s best known song, was impeccably rendered. For a fair chunk of the song she just sat on a chair centre stage. She didn’t need to move about at all. Her eyes, face and the occasional subtle hand gesture said it all.

Golda Rosheuvel, who completed the company, was just as stunning. ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ was beautifully done. Her initial confidence, which gradually crumbles as the song progresses, was convincingly put across and very moving. She, like the others, was also an amazing vocalist.

These four acted, sung and danced their socks off to give the audience a good time, the end result being not just good but outstanding. A big thank you to the director Clive Paget, and to everyone involved for such a memorable night!

If you seriously love musical theatre, you really mustn’t miss this gem of a show.

UK CD RELEASE

(Available from Dress Circle Records, London)

PILGRIM – RUTHIE HENSHALL

Ruthie’s latest solo album is hot off the press, tactfully released to coincide with the opening of ‘Peggy Sue’ in London. I know I am not alone in liking Miss Henshall’s bell-like voice, but this album is a disappointment.

I’ve given the CD several listens now and each time felt the same way. This album does not do Ruthie justice. I have heard her sing far better than on this recording. On many occasions she nearly goes flat on sustained notes. She is also let down by a fairly mediocre selection of songs. She has called this an album of ‘personal choice’, but as a listener none of the songs really stay in the mind after hearing them. The arrangements rely too heavily on synthesisers and one of the album’s most pleasant numbers ‘Maybe I’m Wrong’ is ruined by an unnecessarily strong pop drum beat and, my pet hate, synthesiser strings.

All the songs are ballads and this means that by the fifth track it all begins to sound the same. I got half way through I began to feel bored, though a charming song entitled ‘If You Believe’ did make up for some of the blander tracks that preceded it. Ruthie has included one song from ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘This Time Around’. It’s a completely naff song and suffers from the composer’s desire to give it a huge bang-crash finish. However, for some reason I find it quite enjoyable! There is a pretty melody hidden in it somewhere, even if it does sound like something you’ve heard before.

I’m sure the die-hard Ruthie fans will love every minute of ‘Pilgrim’ but I know what a brilliant artist she is, which is why I am so harsh on this release. She is not singing at her best and the songs are wrong for her. She has a musical theatre voice so she should sing musical theatre. I do not mean the same old chestnuts by Lloyd Webber and Boubil and Schonberg but lesser known songs from the shows.

I hate to say it, but this is an album to skip.

Tim Connor, London

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