Three West End musicals. All hits. All very different.
Let’s start with the first of three that I saw the last week in June. That would be Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical now playing the Cambridge Theatre. With a book by Dennis Kelly and a score by Tim Minchin (both new to me) based on Dahl’s dark children’s story, this is the reigning box office hit of the past season. I don’t know the source material but evidently every child under twelve (at least in Britain) does. And judging by the reaction out front, it beats “The Wizard of Oz”, “Nanny McFee” and “Mary Poppins” for devotion. Such screaming and yelling you’ve never heard, and not all of it from the front of house.
Onstage we have a couple of dozen little girls. Actually there are 31 of them listed in the program cast, and though I assume some of them understudy or share roles, it did appear there were an awful lot of them featured in several big numbers. Ear plugs are a must, but with or without them, the lyrics by Mr. Minchin are indecipherable whenever they go at it en masse. Songs like “Miracle,” “The Chokey Chant,” “School Song,” “When I Grow Up,” and “Revolting Children” (very apt title) are samples of the ensemble numbers that include not only the little girls, but a number of young men pretending to be teen agers or less.
Set in Miss Trunchbull’s Public School (that means “private school” on this side of the pond), it is a far more dangerous and frightening place for youngsters than Fagin’s Den for Orphans in Oliver! Miss Trunchbull (played with great bravery by a very padded and wigged young man made up to look like a Caucasian Mike Tyson) sings “The Hammer”and “The Smell of Rebellion,” which let us know what a nasty thing she is. Her comeuppance brought more squeals from the house than the melting of the Bad Witch in Oz. In other words, this show did not work for me. What it did do was give me a headache, which is a pity because the writers have delivered a decent number of ok tunes attached to lyrics that occasionally amuse or inform.
I have no idea which of the six little girls listed in the program played Matilda the night I was out front. She was a pleasant looking little thing, but under Matthew Warchus’ direction, she sang most of her solos and duets at full throttle. When you’re only six, (or seven or eight) you don’t yet have much vocal range, so though one usually calls leading ladies in musicals either sopranos, contraltos or belters, this young lead would have to be properly called a screecher. And that’s too bad, because late in the second act she is given a song called “Quiet” to sing, and left alone in a light, sitting by herself, she proves she has a lovely voice, and a commanding presence. It was the one time in an evening lasting 2 hours and 40 minutes, when feeling entered the piece.
I’m told the score sounds infinitely better on the CD, and I’m going to listen to it, because I suspect there is very promising work to be heard there. This show is coming here, so keep an eye out. But be wary. These are not Annie’s cute little orphan friends, they are not the Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist and the fun crowd at Fagin’s, so be certain you want to spend time with the kind of kids who should not be allowed on public transportation.
There are signs all over the program that pronounce: “You gotta be LOUD!,” “Life’s a ball, so learn to throw it” and “The bigger the TELLY the smarter the man.” This will give you an inkling of the kind of education Ms.Trunchbull is offering rich little girls.
I didn’t mention Matilda’s awful parents because I thought the actors who played them wanted to scare little kids, but fear not, the authors have managed to end the show happily enough. Of course it’s all totally unbelievable but no one in my happy crowd seemed to give a fig. Recommendation: Proceed at your own risk.
To move on to what some call Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, please note I’ve been searching for new adjectives of praise ever since I saw it. The score has never sounded so glorious. Under Jonathan Kent’s direction, and Nicholas Skilbeck’s musical direction, an ensemble of sixteen singers makes magic. And though the supporting cast is superb (you will swoon over Luke Brady’s handling of the ballad “Johanna”), it is Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett who will thrill you from start to finish.
I’ve seen Sweeney Todd four or five times on stage, on film, and on the small screen with no less than Patti LuPone and George Hearn, but never anyone like the cast currently wowing them at the Adelphi. Ball and Staunton bring direction to their work that takes them totally to where they belong. The wild drive in Sweeney over his need for revenge for the savage treatment by Judge Turpin of the only two people who have ever mattered to him, is what takes him step by painful step up the mountain of his frustration, leading him to mass murder and ultimately what amounts to self destruction.
Ms. Staunton’s Lovett, permitted to be near her beloved Sweeney only to learn he has no interest in her romantically, makes her final assault upon him savage. Angela Lansbury, who created the role, was brilliant too, but her Lovett was a bloated kewpie doll with rosie cheeks and braids, a frustrated coquette turned into a child-like cannibal. Staunton’s is more feral, more starved for a much needed cuddle.
Jonathan Kent’s production has been transplanted from Victorian times to the bleak and depressed London of the 1930s. It helps its characters to have a record level of relevance for a modern audience, even as it is puzzling to hear the glorious Sondheim score which comments constantly on Victorian music serving here as the Great Depression. But no matter. As sung and played by a company of thiry, with orchestral support to match, this outing does for Sweeney Todd what Diane Paulus’ Porgy and Bess, now playing in New York does for that magnum opus. They both make the material accessible to a larger audience.
There is a lot of blood splashing hither and yon, there is thunder and vivid lighting to remind us this is not a pastoral, and I say “all to the good.” Ball and Staunton work in such harmony you’d think they’d been taught by the Lunts. This overlapping intimacy is evidenced all evening long and it is climaxed in their joint curtain call during which they, like Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths in Sunshine Boys, chatted animatedly with each other, and I hope they were shouting above the bravos, “Well, we got them this time, didn’t we dearie?” I could see all this clearly for I was on my feet, along with everyone else. Standing ovations have become de rigeur for everything on Broadway, but not in London, so you know this is a worthy crowd pleaser.
I’m told Mr. Sondheim has seen the show several times and was thrilled with it. No fool, he.
As the last of my London week’s reports., we have a charming piece of fluff, a welcome return to the richness of the great Irving Berlin, whose work in Hollywood was equal to, and sometimes superior to, his many shows on Broadway. In the early thirties, Mr.Berlin moved to Hollywood for a while, and with Fred Astaire as his muse, came up with some of the most haunting melodies of his career. “Cheek to Cheek”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?,” “Let’s Face The Music and Dance”, “The Piccolino” and more.
Watching Top Hat, the spectacky-lar “new” musical at the Aldwych Theatre, is akin to watching the 33,280th performance of a show written and produced in 1935, still tapping away for longer than A Chorus Line, Phantom, Annie, Les Miz and Cats combined, longer even than The Mousetrap, now in its 60th nonstop year at St.Martin’s in the West End.
This lavish Top Hat has every musical comedy cliché in the book in it — the misunderstanding that keeps the ridiculous plot afloat for 2 1/2 hours until someone finally tells the truth and everyone finds love in the final 2 1/2 minutes. The story is so fluffy that songs can be, and are, dropped in at will.
The acting style is the broad variety, wherein characters address each other briefly, then turn front to deliver 75% of the dialog smack dab out to us in the audience. There are short scenes and crossovers “in one” so that scenery can be changed “in two” and beyond.
The Irving Berlin score is musical comedy at its absolute best, with melody after melody wafting out front from a beautifully orchestrated pit, sung by a company of very exuberant and talented people. It’s all completely over the top, while remaining endearing. It all works so hard and with such glee that it’s ultimately impossible to resist, though my original impulse was to think: “Are they kidding???”
Because the material has never before been used on stage, I’ll continue my phantasm that I was watching the 33,280th performance of this 80 year old original musical, which just happened to serve as the source of the hugely successful Astaire-Rogers film of the same name back in 1935. After all, Chicago has been running continuously for years since its film version was released, and many other shows have outrun their film versions as well. This production has the look and the feel of one that’s been playing for decades, with two stars in Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen who could be the 43rd replacements for the original stars, who could well have beenVernon and Irene Castle.
The difference between the stage show and the movie is the difference in the amount of songs comprising the score, (the movie had abut five, the show has fifteen, though some are from other shows) in the casting and technical advances of film over stage. By casting two bankable stars (“Top Hat” was the third film Rogers and Astaire made together, and they were by then big box office), by casting the supporting roles with the best character actors available, they were able to turn the “best friend and his wife” into Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. They were able to prune the score to better serve the story (though in truth the film cut some beauties, but then, they always do). The film folks were able to create a classy film from what was a popular but tacky Broadway hit that happened to be blessed with an incredible Berlin score, dancing that delights, some gorgeous gowns and the girls to keep them spinning in number after number.
Mind you, the show at the Aldwych is amiable and easy to take. Chambers and Strallen are attractive, can sing and dance, and they play the book scenes with charm. But they seem like talented replacements in a very long running show, who’ve been playing it for a couple of years themselves and it’s all a bit ‘by the numbers’. The toothpaste smiles are there when needed, the tears come when needed too. The film, with its closeups, with its newness, allows for small moments indicating chemistry between the stars. Ginger Rogers was well known for being able to register romance even while merely listening to Astaire sing a ditty into her ear. That sort of detail is missing in this big production in which cues are snapped up rapidly, but little time is taken to relate. Martin Ball and Vivien Parry in the Horton-Broderick roles, use the double takes, mechanical moves and nimble footed movements of 1930 second bananas, but Horton and Broderick were deft and dry; they are in turn bold and broad. But like most of their co-players these four principals are in sync with the style imposed on the show by director Matthew White and choreographer Bill Deamer, who well may have wanted this to play like the world was still young and goofy.
To sum up, Top Hat is a period piece of fluff that will send you out of the theatre wishing you could tap, and humming its time tested tunes whether or not you can carry them. Expect nothing new here, and you’ll have a fine time. But for you movie buffs, see the show, then rent the movie and see a rare example of a movie musical that is better than the West End hit on which it is based.
Matilda The Musical is playing at the Cambridge Theatre, London. Details and tickets
Sweeney Todd is at the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, WC2, London. Details and tickets
Top Hat will be tapping at the Aldwych Theatre at least thru April, 2013. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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