Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sondheim at 75 (Part Four)

This article originally appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on March 26, 1999:

A Too-Brief Review of London Theatre
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Last month, the Metro Herald's Rick Sincere went to London to check out the theatre scene there. In one week, he was able to see five plays -- four musicals and one non-musical. Here Rick reports on what he saw.

(LONDON) --- For most American tourists, their experience of London theatre is the West End -- London's equivalent of Broadway. A wide array of non-West End (off-Broadway) plays and musicals is also available, but the West End theatres are the most convenient for short-term visitors to Central London.

The best way to find out what is playing, and at what price, is to pick up a copy of Time Out, a weekly magazine that includes a comprehensive entertainment guide -- it covers theatre, film, music, television, and radio, as well as current events. Time Out features capsule reviews of all shows playing in the West End and beyond. It should be the first purchase for any tourist arriving in London (along with the necessary A-Z London Street Guide). Time Out also notes the location of each theatre, including the nearest Underground ("Tube") station.

Ticket prices in London are cheaper than they are in New York. (Prices for almost everything else in London, however, are substantially more than they are here -- there seems to be a one-to-one correspondence of the pound to the dollar, even though a pound is worth about $1.65. That is, if a Big Mac costs $2.99 in Washington, it will cost £2.99 in London, or about $4.93. This price inflation is not the case outside of London, in the rest of Britain, however.) Half-price, same-day tickets are available at a kiosk in Leicester Square, near the center of the theatre district. Most of the more popular shows will have half-price tickets available, but if there is something in particular that you absolutely must see, it is best to pay full price in advance at the theatre box office itself, or to reserve tickets by telephone. Some theatres also offer discounts to students and senior citizens ("OAPs," or old-age pensioners); as a student in London in 1986-87, I was able to take in at least one play or musical per week on a very limited budget.

London theatres tend to be more intimate -- that is, smaller -- than American venues. They are closer in size to the National Theatre than to the Kennedy Center Opera House. While this has advantages in terms of seeing and hearing better, one should be alert to the more constricted seats and narrower aisles. One should also be aware that programs, which are given away free in American theatres, must be purchased in London, usually for one pound but sometimes as little as 50 pence. Glossy, souvenir programs cost extra. At the same time, during the interval ("intermission" on this side of the Atlantic), ice cream and other refreshments are sold in the auditorium itself by itinerant concessionaires. And every theatre includes a bar where wine, beer, and spirits are available before the show and between acts.

In London, one can see long-running musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber -- Cats, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera -- as well as his new musical, Whistle Down the Wind, which failed miserably when it played in Washington but has been extended through the year 2000 at the Aldwych Theatre here. There are also productions of classic plays in repertory by the Royal Shakespeare Company, new plays mostly of interest to British audiences, plays that cater to tourists (like Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, almost 50 years into its continuous run), and American imports like Grease and Chicago.

In seven days, I was able to see five popular and highly-acclaimed shows: revivals of West Side Story, Oklahoma!, and Into the Woods, the West End production of Rent, and a new play by Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love.

West Side Story

My friend, Nigel Ashford, who teaches at the University of Staffordshire in England, joined me for a matinee performance of a revival of West Side Story at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Coventry Street, near Soho and Piccadilly Circus. This revival is designed to be a re-creation of the original 1957 production of West Side Story, and in this it succeeds. The production includes the original set design by Oliver Smith, costume design by Irene Sharaff, and orchestrations by Leonard Bernstein, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal. Jerome Robbins' original direction and choreography is reproduced by Alan Johnson.

Looking at West Side Story like this is like looking at an artifact in a museum: it is interesting, it is instructive, but it is ultimately lifeless. Dr. Ashford's reaction to the production was that it is "old-fashioned," and, indeed, it seems that way. The cast was talented, delivered the songs and dances competently and with energy, and the story is as compelling as ever. But something seemed vaguely "off" about this production -- it lacked the cutting edge, the shocking sharpness, that West Side Story presented to audiences more than 40 years ago.

My own reaction was that the show seemed much like any high school production of West Side Story. It had an amateurish quality to it, despite the clear professionalism of the cast and production staff. The reason is, I suppose, that over the past 40 years we have become accustomed to higher gloss productions that take advantage of modern technology.

Moreover, the decision of playwright Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim to use made-up slang, rather than real slang, in the dialogue no longer works. They decided to do this because they were afraid that by using current (1950s) slang, the show would become dated too quickly. The opposite is the case; their made-up slang sounds more dated than ever, and as a result the show loses some authenticity.

During the first act, it seemed that Katie Knight-Adams, who was playing Maria, was having trouble with her voice. This turned out to be the case, and during the interval it was announced that she would be replaced in the second act by her understudy, Celia Graham. An amusing moment took place about two minutes into the second act when Rosalia says of Maria: "She looks somehow different." Laughter rumbled through the audience, which evoked puzzlement at first, then barely constrained smiles from the actors -- that line had been delivered hundreds of times in the past, and never before got a laugh. But that day it had a special meaning. As it turned out, Graham sparkled for the rest of the performance.

Among the rest of the cast, David Habbin was a strong Tony. Alex Harkins stood out as Baby John and Jennifer Ashton was an excellent Anybodys.

West Side Story opened on January 22, 1999, and is in an unlimited run.

Into the Woods

In Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fairy-tale world, happy endings are only the beginning of misery. Into the Woods is their highly intellectual look at what goes on behind the scenes at familiar fairy stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.

The folk tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm were much more violent than the bowdlerized versions that most of us grew up with. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim explored their deeper meaning a generation ago, and Sondheim and Lapine have taken over where Bettelheim left off.

A new production of Into the Woods at the Donmar Warehouse -- a small theatre comparable to the Signature Theatre in Arlington, except that it has a balcony and can seat about 100 more audience members -- does not do much to update the 1987 Sondheim-Lapine work. Director John Crowley and designer Bob Crowley, along with lighting designer Paul Pyant, have been able to accomplish much, however, in the small space available to them. The "woods" themselves have a remarkable depth, but it is all an illusion, almost a trompe d'oeil effect.

The musical itself asks profound questions about our ability to tell the difference between good and evil and our ability to act on that discernment. Faithfulness, naivete, faithlessness, and cynicism all play a part.

A few of the performances are worth noting: Sheridan Smith is, quite literally, a scream as Little Red Riding Hood. Christopher Pizzey delivers a touching, if simple, Jack (the one with the Beanstalk). And there is genuine affection between the Baker (Nick Holder) and his Wife (Sophie Thompson). Clare Burt plays the key role of the Witch with appropriate malice, but her singing voice does not reach the heights it should.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the actors do not sing their roles as well as they act them. Sondheim's music and lyrics are difficult, to be sure, but there seems to be a tendency of British companies to be less competent in bringing Sondheim to the stage than Americans. I don't have an explanation for this odd phenomenon, it just seems to be the case. (An example can be found in the new British cast recording of A Little Night Music from 1997.)

It was difficult to get tickets for Into the Woods, because the Donmar Warehouse has such an excellent reputation for delivering strong products. (Donmar originated the current production of Cabaret, which will be coming on tour to Washington this summer, and hosted the world premiere of The Fix, which had its American premiere at Signature Theatre last year.) The production closed shortly after my colleague, Anthony McCall-Judson, and I saw it, but it was well worth the effort to obtain the seats.


Someone told me recently that there has been a performance of Oklahoma! at least once each day since the play premiered on March 31, 1943, almost 60 years ago. Right now the production to see is at the Lyceum Theatre in London, transferred from the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank. Run, don't walk, to the nearest airport and catch the next flight to London. This Oklahoma! will only be on stage until late July, and you do not want to miss it. Director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Susan Stroman have reinvented this classic American musical, and without a doubt it is the truest manifestation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's vision in decades.

True, this is a darker vision of Oklahoma! than we are used to seeing. (An earlier Royal National Theatre version of Carousel did much the same to R&H's second collaboration.) But the darkness, the sense of foreboding, the infestation is all there in the script and in the music. Not a line has been changed, yet because the tone is different, the musical feels brand new.

A couple of obvious changes may illustrate the genius behind this production. When Laurey appears on stage, and through most of the first act, she is dressed in blue-denim overalls, not the frilly dress of the sort worn by Shirley Jones in the familiar movie version. This gives her a tom-boyish appearance, but also marks her independence, her inner strength. At first it is puzzling why Curly would be attracted to this boyish girl, but it soon become clear that he likes her for her mind and spirit, rather than just her purported girlishness.

The second stroke of ingenuity belongs largely to Stroman (I'd guess). In the second act, the famous title song -- an eleven o'clock number usually characterized by lots of movement and vitality -- is staged at the wedding dinner of Curly and Laurey, as it usually is, with the whole cast (minus Jud Fry), as expected. What is unexpected is that almost the entire number is performed while sitting down. The understatement is sublime.

Moreover, as the second act continues, Nunn puts more emphasis on Jud's death -- was it murder? suicide? -- and the impromptu trial of Curly than we are used to. It is hard to tell precisely what makes up this new emphasis. It might be pacing, it might be staging -- but whatever it is, it is clear that most productions of Oklahoma! like to gloss over this whole episode so that they can hurry along to the finale, when we get to see Curly and Laurey wander off, happily ever after, in their "surrey with the fringe on top." Under Nunn's direction, we cannot forget or ignore the violence that is key to this play.

Maureen Lipman, a veteran West End actress who has earlier starred in Bernstein's Wonderful Town, among other shows, is a delightful Aunt Eller. Hugh Jackman, an Australian, offers a strong Curly with a voice that reaches into the farthest rows of seats in the theatre -- and apparently without amplification and without straining. Josefina Gabrielle plays Laurey perfectly, with balance and energy. One American in the cast is Vicki Simon, who plays Ado Annie with comic authenticity, and is a perfect foil for Jimmy Johnston's Will Parker.

The set design by Anthony Ward and the lighting design by David Hersey are, in a word, magnificent. No, make that two words: They are breathtaking. Magnificent and breathtaking. Who could imagine an Oklahoma! where the orchestra is on stage, behind a scrim (though hidden through most of the show)? Or with authentic looking cornfields, windmills, barns, and sheds? Or with a moving railroad train and a horseless-carriage surrey that put-puts across the stage?

We can only hope that producer Cameron Mackintosh brings this production of Oklahoma! back to the United States, so that we can see how it should be done. In case he doesn't, however, see it now before it's too late.


Rent is offensive. Now playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London's West End, and continuing to be performed in New York, Rent is the least-deserving recipient of the Tony Award for best new musical and the Pulitzer Prize for drama that I have ever seen.

Rent is offensive because its basic message -- you should expect to get whatever you want without working for it, that "success" and "selling out" are synonymous -- is abhorrent. Rent is a story about squatters and "artists" who take advantage of hard-working property owners and productive members of society in order to feed their own egos and wallow in their own self-pity.

Rent is offensive because it rejects an ethic of personal responsibility.

Rent is offensive because its music and lyrics are loud, raucous, and decidedly non-musical.

It is clear that Rent achieved its fame -- no, notoriety -- largely on the basis that its primary creator, composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson, died on the night of the final dress rehearsal. This gave Rent a plethora of undeserved publicity followed quickly by sympathy for a "fallen artist." Just as his character, Mimi, dies for her "art" -- What? Heroin addiction and promiscuity? -- so did Larson die for his.

While some of the young actors in this production show some promise -- Andy Señor as Angel, Peter Eldridge as Roger -- they need to find another vehicle. And Krysten Cummings (Mimi) should worry about being typecast -- she also played a drug-addled prostitute in The Fix.

If you go to London, don't bother with Rent. It's not even worth the half-price of a ticket that I paid.

The Invention of Love

Luckily for me, I followed up a matinee performance of Rent with an evening performance of The Invention of Love, a brilliant new play by Tom Stoppard, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Stoppard has, without a doubt, the nimblest mind of any playwright working today. He is inventive, imaginative, creative, and intellectual. The career that got its start with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead more than 30 years ago and recently got a boost with an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love is in full bloom and shows no sign of fading away.

The Invention of Love is definitely not a play for those seeking light-hearted, unchallenging entertainment. Because it is a play about a keen intellect -- poet and classical scholar A. E. Housman -- it requires concentration and reflection to appreciate its intricacies. The Invention of Love is not just a biographical play, however -- it is a fantasy, a mind-game, a well-crafted character study. Who but Stoppard could create compelling drama out of arcane debates about ancient Latin poetry among the intellectual elite of Victorian and Edwardian England? And who but Stoppard could tie this all in to contemporary political events, such as the Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill that passed Parliament in 1885, which led to the downfall of Oscar Wilde 10 years later?

The characters in this play are real people, including Wilde, John Ruskin, and Benjamin Jowett. Housman is portrayed as a young man by Ben Porter, in a stunning performance, and as an old man about to die (or is he already dead?) by the incomparable John Wood, who is movingly profound, witty, and romantic all at the same time.

I have encouraged at least one local theatre to consider producing the American premiere of The Invention of Love, but I would not be surprised if some smart New York producer beats them to it. Unfortunately, the play has closed in London. I feel privileged -- and enlightened -- to have seen its original production just a few days before it closed.

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