The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the Archive we have filed our reviews of several musicals that opened in 2001 on a single page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Alice in Wonderland - Kiss Me Kate - My Fair Lady - Rent - Return to the Forbidden Planet - Shockheaded Peter - Umoja
My seven-year-old companion loved the Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of the two Alice books. I was bored. And that's really all you have to know.
Adrian Mitchell's dramatisation, Rachel Kavanaugh's staging and Peter McKintosh's colourful design are all literal, episodic and familiar (with design bows toward both Tenniel and Disney) and, to my mind, strikingly unimaginative. But that is what kids want familiar images presented in a clear way.
I saw the show in an audience filled with school groups, aged from about 8 to 15, and while there were few signs of enthusiasm (occasional bursts of laughter), there wasn't much restlessness either. My young friend was engrossed throughout and declared herself thoroughly satisfied afterwards; we had a long conversation in which she explained why I must be wrong in thinking Alice was played by a grown-up actress.
There are a few inventive variations to bemuse the adults. The Mad Hatter wears a tottering pile of bowlers rather than the familiar top hat, and the Cheshire Cat is a Lloyd Webber-type kitty reclining languidly on, and occasionally disappearing into a smile-shaped sofa.
But that last effect doesn't really work, and requires Alice's spoken description of what's happening to explain it; and the same is true of many of the other magical moments - falling down the rabbit hole, changing in size, etc - all of which depend too much on our being told what we're supposed to be seeing. That's one of my problems with the production: when it isn't being unimaginatively literal in its depictions of characters and episodes, its attempts at invention don't quite work.
The show is certainly not without its bright spots - a lugubrious Mock Turtle, perky (and surprisingly slim) Tweedledum and Tweedledee, impressively scary Jabberwocky, satisfyingly nasty Walrus and Carpenter (complete with Muppet-like oysters), and a couple of musical numbers that almost, but not quite catch fire: a music-hall version of Father William and the Lobster Quadrille. The music, by Terry Davis and Stephen Warbeck, creates another generation gap: my young companion was able to sing some of the songs the next day, while I found them all tuneless and unmemorable.
My young friend's reaction to Katherine Heath's Alice is testament to the success of her performance, so it is purely curmudgeonly of me to complain that I found her rather lifeless. I grant that Alice is a rather flat character to begin with, but since the adaptation requires continual direct address to the audience, I would have hoped for more panto-like rapport.
There are family shows that offer something, on different levels, for all ages, and others that are strictly for the kids. This Alice falls in the second category, and grown-ups may have to take most of their pleasure from watching the children's enjoyment.
Kiss Me, Kate Victoria Palace Theatre 2001-02
This revival of Cole Porter's 1948 musical is a polished and professional Broadway package, and if that means that it occasionally seems to operate on autopilot, the times it comes alive should more than make up for the by-the-numbers stretches.
The premise of the book by Sam and Bella Spewack has a divorced couple of actors performing in a musical of The Taming of the Shrew, with their backstage bickering and obvious attraction mirroring the Shakespearean action. This was enough to give Cole Porter (who was famously not interested in the plots of his shows - "How many love songs do you need? How many comic songs?") room for everything from the mock-operatic "Wunderbar" and the energetic "Too Darn Hot" (both of which sound like they came out of his trunk) to the witty and pertinent "Always True to You (In my Fashion)" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
The four featured performers all come from the current Broadway production (though they weren't all in the original cast). Marin Mazzie sings beautifully and moves with authority as the shrew-actress, and displays an unexpected flair for comedy in "I Hate Men." Brent Barrett has a boyish charm that is not quite right for the shrew-taming husband, but is still very attractive.
As is sometimes the case in musicals, the comic second leads steal the show (It's noteworthy that it is they, and not the stars, who are shown on the posters). As the flighty starlet playing Bianca, Nancy Anderson combines the elfin sexiness of Bernadette Peters with real man-eating energy, and her take-no-prisoners rendition of "Always True to You" stops the show - though, by including every encore verse Porter wrote, it may outstay its welcome just a bit. Michael Berresse as her love interest really only comes into his own in the late and relatively little-known song "Bianca," which climaxes with some injury-defying acrobatics.
Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissick have fun with the comic gangsters who wander into the plot and find themselves playing Shakespeare, while Nolan Frederick gets his moment leading the big production number "Too Darn Hot."
Michael Blakemore's direction is merely serviceable, and Kathleen Marshall's choreography, despite repeatedly quoting Bob Fosse, is rarely more than rudimentary, with even "Too Darn Hot" taking far too long to get beyond tepid. Still, it is - as my companion said - a nice, big, brassy, brainless Broadway musical and they quite literally don't make them like that anymore.
My Fair Lady National Theatre 2001; Drury Lane Theatre 2002-2003
It would have been fun to pan this revival. After all the hype, and the well-publicised problems with their first leading lady (Martine McCutcheon, citing throat problems, missed almost half her performances before finally quitting, allowing producer Cameron Mackintosh to do what he should have done in the first place and hire an experienced musical star, Joanna Riding), my critic's perversity was sorely tempted.
But the fact is that it is really, really good. In fact it occurs to me that, with Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific, Chicago, Blood Brothers, Phantom and Les Mis, London audiences are being offered a remarkably high-quality crash course in some of the greatest musicals of the past 60 years. What a bounty!
Trevor Nunn's production (which began at the National Theatre) is rich and lavish to look at, deeply moving and entertaining as drama, and - now that they've got the casting right - a delight to hear.
It is almost axiomatic that actresses playing Eliza capture either the flower girl or the lady but not both, but Joanna Riding triumphs over that curse. Her street urchin is a sprightly and spunky gamin whose quick wit and sharp tongue you wouldn't want to be lashed by, and she artfully carries much of that same brightness into the transformed Eliza, preventing her from becoming merely a beautiful mannequin. She can be sharp, pensive or dramatically moving - I have never been so thrilled by the magical moment she gets "The Rain in Spain" right, or so touched when she is ignored after the triumphant ball.
She is also an excellent singing actress, giving delightfully new nuances to lyrics some of us have grown up with. And it goes without saying that Riding has the best voice on the London stage, so that when her big moment comes with "I Could Have Danced All Night," her pure tones and your heart both soar.
If Jonathan Pryce's Higgins is a bit too soft from the start for my taste, his characterisation still works, allowing us to see him falling for Eliza long before he realizes it. It may be curmudgeonly of me to miss Rex Harrison's cold egotistic blindness, and the crispness that gave to Higgins' misogynist lyrics, and I do think Harrison's characterisation made the climactic "Accustomed To Her Face" more dramatically satisfying. But, like Riding, Pryce constantly delights with original nuances and discoveries in the overfamiliar songs.
Anthony Ward's designs are appropriately beautiful, while Matthew Bourne's choreography, a bit generic in early numbers, finds its feet (as it were) in the witty Ascot scene, where hints of horsey movements colour the elegant posturing, and in the sumptuous grand ball.
There are some things to grumble about. Dennis Waterman is too stolid as Doolittle, robbing both his musical numbers and his straight scenes of comic energy. Stanley Holloway's charm 45 years ago may have been pure hokum, but it was engaging hokum, and his songs were constructed to exploit it. Now the chorus has to dance and sing around Waterman in a barely-successful attempt to supply what he lacks.
Caroline Blakiston is appropriately elegant as Mrs. Higgins, but Nicholas le Prevost, in the thankless role of Pickering, has been directed toward hints of camp that raise unwelcome questions about that confirmed old bachelor. Mark Umbers is totally invisible as Freddy and, in one of the evening's biggest disappointments, has been misdirected to reduce the lovely ballad "The Street Where You Live" into an unsuccessful attempt at comedy.
Minor cavils, all of them. My Fair Lady ranks unquestionably in the pantheon of the American musical theatre, and this new production does Lerner and Loewe's creation full justice.
Rent Prince of Wales Theatre, Winters 2001-2 and 2002-3
When I first saw Jonathan Larson's rock musical five years ago, I caught and understood about half the lyrics, but I responded to the show's high energy and delighted in its ability to bring a new young audience into the theatre, much as Hair had done a generation earlier. At this new production I understood every word, but the magic was gone: I didn't believe the situation or any of the characters, and the show came to life only intermittently.
To be fair, I have to report that the audience enjoyed the show, so that even in this luke-warm watered-down version it still evidently has a lot to offer. But I suspect that newcomers to Rent, however much they like it, will leave wondering what all the hype was about. Instead of the groundbreaking event it seemed the first time around, it now is, at its best, a nice conventional musical comedy.
A belated reminder: Larson took as his outline the plot of Puccini's La Boheme (a community of starving Parisian artists adopts a tubercular neighbour; she has a love affair with one, and dies) and updated it to the 1990s and New York City's post-hippies East Village. The gang now includes a songwriter, a film maker, a drag queen and a performance artist, and heroin and AIDS (four major characters are infected, and one dies) replace tuberculosis.
I think the point I noticed about being able to hear and understand every word may be a key to this production. It began in Leicester and has been touring, and director Paul Kerryson obviously worked hard to make the show accessible. But in the process he's made it unthreatening, taken the edge off it, smoothed out the challenging bits and made it more conventional, taken the danger out of it.
The performers are all just actors playing roles they haven't inhabited, and the fact that few of them have bothered even to attempt American accents is a symptom of that failure to create a reality. Another small symptom is taking the show's villain, a former friend who's turned into a yuppie slumlord, and not putting him in a suit.
More significantly, the drag queen isn't flamboyant enough, the group songs not infectious enough, the high operatic passions only occasionally evocative, the spectre of AIDS not real enough. (There's a moment when a key scene is interrupted in mid-sentence as a bunch of pocket alarms go off and half the people onstage stop to take their medication. It was chilling in the original production, but went by almost unnoticed here.)
As the film maker and narrator, Adam Rickitt is personality-challenged, with neither the depth of character to make us care about him nor the energy to set and sustain the show's tone. Neil Couperthwaite injects the most energy into the show as the transvestite Angel, and his romance with Mykal Rand's Collins has more sweetness and reality than the central coupling of Roger (Damien Flood) and Mimi (Debbie Kurup), though the latter couple's duet "Without You" is one of the few songs to really score.
Other songs that should set the theatre afire repeatedly fall just short. Kurup does everything right with Mimi's high-energy dance to "Out Tonight," and Helen York works hard at Maureen's semi-parodic performance piece, but ultimately each number just lies there. Even the show's big anthems, "La Vie Boheme" and "Seasons of Love," are just barely good enough.
I won't tell people not to see this show, especially younger audiences who haven't seen it before. Half a loaf may be better than none, and maybe even this rather lacklustre revival will work for you. But anyone who knows and loves the show is likely to be disappointed.
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Return To The Forbidden Planet Savoy Theatre 2001
This is about as happy and rockin' a holiday romp as you're likely to encounter, and it's only in London for a month, so hie thee hence.
Bob Carlton's pastiche of Shakespeare, sci-fi and rock'n'roll was first seen about a decade ago, when it won the Olivier for best musical, and he's taken the opportunity of a suddenly empty theatre to move this revival from Hornchurch, where he's artistic director of the Queen's Theatre.
It's based very loosely on the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, which was in turn based very loosely on Shakespeare's Tempest: space crew encounters scientist stranded on a planet with his lovely daughter, helpful robot and monsters-from-the-id. What Carlton does is camp it all up and plug in more than two dozen rock'n'roll classics from the 1950s, from "All Shook Up" to "Teenager in Love".
You notice immediately that the appropriately chintzy rocket ship set has keyboards and a drum kit in place of control panels. It turns out that everyone in the cast plays three or four instruments when not (or sometimes while) acting and singing, including a theremin and stylophone. And let it be said quickly: the music is good - real high-energy, hard-rockin' rock'n'roll, with arrangements that remind you how much rock lost when they did away with trumpets and saxophones.
A good part of the fun is the openly cheesy way they get into the songs. An asteroid storm leads in, naturally enough, to "Great Balls of Fire", and you figure out about halfway through that a key character was named Gloria just to set up a song cue. By the time the scientist's perky daughter reappears as a femme fatale, they just have to play the vamp to "Pretty Woman" to get a laugh.
And if the dialogue occasionally sounds either odd or familiar, it's because it is from a half-dozen Shakespeare plays, lines cut and pasted together out of context to create more-or-less sensible conversations.
Think of Rocky Horror's campiness mixed with Little Shop of Horror's sweetness and Buddy's hard rockin' energy (with maybe a bit of the Reduced Shakespeare Company mixed in) and you'll have some sense of this show's fun level. There's even a serious narrator figure stolen bodily from Rocky Horror, in this case a filmed Sir Patrick Moore, Britain's astronomer laureate.
Adrian Cobey plays the square-jawed and dim Captain, James Earl Adair the haunted scientist, Diana Croft the seeming villainess, Philip Reed the lovesick ship's cook, and Fredrick Ruth the rollerskating-dancing-singing-tromboneplaying (sometimes all at once) robot - all with the appropriate high camp and astounding musical versatility. Special note must be given to Reed's fiery Hendrix-like guitar solo, that announces unequivocally that some take-no-prisoners rockin' is going to go on.
It is a bit talkier than it really needs to be, and the cod-Shakespeare joke wears thin after a while, and some nights they may take a while to get really warmed up. But if you are not actively fighting the impulse to get up and dance in the aisles by midway through the second act, you might be in need of a mojo transplant.
Shockheaded Peter Piccadilly Theatre February 2001
[Scroll down for our review of its 2002 return].
In 1844 a German doctor named Heinrich Hoffmann wrote a book of anti-nursery rhymes, because he was sick of the treacly poems he had to read to his children. In his book the boys and girls were almost always very naughty, like the little girl who would insist on playing with matches, and in his book they got exactly what was coming to them, with no punches pulled.
And for over 150 years, kids (who, after all, know in their hearts that bloody death is far more interesting than sugar candies) and adults (who are generally a little more guilty in their pleasure) have loved "Struwwelpeter". In 1998 the theatre company Cultural Industry created a stage version of the tales, which has played Leeds, New York, the London fringe, and much of the world before finally getting a West End production. And we can only feel cheated that we had to wait so long.
The self-styled "junk opera" proves to be a fiendishly funny low-tech-high-camp celebration of the bizarre, presented with insane inventiveness and ghoulish glee -- a hilarious mix of panto and Grand Guignol, suitable for the entire family, if the family is a bit bent.
Under the watchful eye of compere Julian Bleach, the cast act out the cautionary tale of parents who reject their monstrous baby and pay a hideous price. Bleach gives a marvellous depiction of a gone-to-seed 19th century Shakespearean, with just a touch of the Rocky Horrors, fighting to sustain his fragile dignity in the face of audience laughter, and giving a diabolical turn to lines like "Sometimes we have to be cruel in order to be kind. And sometimes we have to be cruel for -- you know --recreational purposes."
The central story is fairly thin, but the real fun comes as it is punctuated by musical interludes turning Hoffmann's poems into song. Composer-countertenor Martyn Jacques and the Tiger Lillies gloat over the horrible fates of Phil, who was always fidgety at table, of Johnny, who never looked where he was going, and the rest.
Several of these interspersed tales, notably the ones about the hunter who lost his rifle (and the hare who found it) and the boy who wouldn't stop sucking his thumb, are accompanied by skilful and inventive puppeteering by the rest of the cast.. The production is very much an ensemble-created piece, with credit for creation going to Julian Bleach, Anthony Cairns, Tamzin Griffin, Graeme Gilmour and Jo Pocock, with the first three joined by Ewan Hunter and Rebekah Wild as performers.
Co-directors Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch immediately establish and consistently sustain exactly the right level of half-camp half-satiric performance style and tone, while the set design by Crouch and Gilmour, a Victorian stage of false perspectives and cut-out props, contributes significantly to the sense of a skewed alternative universe, and to the fun.
It's a fast-moving 90 minutes, so the squeamish can postpone dinner until afterwards (I'm just kidding; the only stomach upset you'll get is from laughter). And it's a limited run, only through April, so get to it while you can.
Albery Theatre April 2002
The welcome return of Cultural Industry's "junk opera", which we reviewed last year, is another opportunity to urge you to run to what will almost certainly be the funniest, most inventive and most theatrically alive thing you will see this year. The campy retelling of Hoffmann's macabre bedtime stories is a delight from start to finish, with the driving engine Julian Bleach's masterfully comic master of ceremonies.
Those who have had the experience of surrendering themselves to absolute theatrical authority know what a pleasure it is when a performer walks onstage and instantly takes you in the palm of his hand. Bleach does this as well as anyone I've ever seen, and as a result he can use the most subtle of gestures or baleful looks to reduce you to gibbering hilarity.
But he's not the whole show, and a second viewing is a reminder of how clever the puppeteering and mime are, how inventive the skewed-perspective sets and cut-out props, and of course how irresistibly wicked the tales being dramatised.
Old fans of the show will note one major change, the original musical group The Tiger Lillies being replaced for this run by David Thomas (usually frontman for avant-garde pop group Pere Ubu) and Two Pale Boys. That's a loss, since Tiger Lillies singer Martyn Jacques added a note (literally) of the bizarre with his countertenor that Thomas's elephantine figure only vaguely replaces, and since the original band played with more assurance and polish than the newcomers have yet developed. But that's a loss that only those who have seen the show with The Tiger Lillies would notice, and is not enough to keep me from once again pressing you to see this delight.
Umoja Shaftesbury Theatre, then Queens, then New London 2001-03
If you feel like a break from eeny meeny miny mo-ing the theatres in lower Shaftesbury Avenue, you'll find a pleasant surprise awaiting a little further up the same thoroughfare. Umoja is one of those song and dance revues from the southern hemisphere about which, without even bothering to see it, the pundits will roll out the plaudits "exuberant", "energetic", "dazzling display"... you get the idea.
But funnily enough, that's exactly what this is. Subtitled "The Spirit of Togetherness" ("umoja" means "unity"), it's a greatest hits romp through the, er, dazzling expressions of South African music, courtesy of a 30-odd cast.
Linked by a kindly narrator, the set pieces are chronological, taking in folklore, apartheid or social issues where appropriate yet never letting the song and dance slip from the spotlight.
The Tribal opener with its soaring vocals and massed drums is - minus the puppets and SFX of course - easily something to rival The Lion King's equivalent stunner. The alternate jitterbugging and crooning of the Durban Talent Competition is a delicious fifties culture clash, and the Johannesburg Street Scene - where an innocent from the homelands steps off the train straight into a downtown whirlwind of spivs, whores and cops - is as complex and Broadway as you'll find on the West End.
It's not all smoothgoing. Although the rootsy Mining and Hostel section is suitably energetic and virile, the guys' gum boot dance is a flaccid affair - particularly when compared to the girls' innovative tin can chorus line. And while the Gospel section simply drips spirituality, as it should, it is a little generic for my taste. Still, that didn't stop the Ama Juba duet with massed choir from getting the biggest clap of the night.
A prime reason for the show's instant across the board appeal lies in the unexpected combinations of men and women enacting showbizzy routines which no self-respecting Zulu impi would be caught doing - on or off stage. So it's not one for the purists.
Yet the golden age of Ipi Tombi, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba is long gone, and the Umoja performers - most of whom were still at kindergarten when Nelson Mandela first took over the helm of their new nation - know it. So although there's none of the political agenda or driving edge of their mentors, this young cast has instead the freedom to go flat-out for the sheer pleasure of entertainment.
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Review - Alice In Wonderland - Barbican 2001, Review - Kiss Me Kate - Victoria Palace 2001, Review - My Fair Lady - Drury Lane 2002, Review - Rent - Prince of Wales 2001, Review - Return to the Forbidden Planet - Savoy 2001, Review - Shockheaded Peter - Piccadilly 2001, Review - Umoja - Shaftsbury 2001