Friday, May 19, 2006

A London Theatre Retrospective: February 2001

About two weeks ago, Washington Post Style section reporter Jacqueline Trescott wrote:

The bad news is that Signature Theatre is delaying its move into its new space in the Village at Shirlington almost five months, until early next year, because construction is behind schedule.

The good news is that because Signature has to juggle its lineup, it has added "The Witches of Eastwick," a musical from producer Cameron Mackintosh that was given a splashy production in London but is being reworked as a more intimate show for Signature.

This article -- and the subsequent news release I received from Signature -- reminded me that I had reviewed the original London production of The Witches of Eastwick just over five years ago, in February 2001. I had spent a couple of days in London in transit from Tel Aviv to Washington, and saw as many shows as I could in a short period of time. Witches was one of them.

The best way to sum up what I thought of Witches is this: Great production of mediocre material. We'll see whether Eric Schaeffer can get the material improved in time for the U.S. premiere next season.

For what it's worth, here is my review of the West End musical, The Witches of Eastwick, along with two other shows from that season, Merrily We Roll Along and Madame Melville, as it appeared in The Metro Herald on March 2, 2001. (There is a temptation, whenever I repost articles like this, to tweak them a bit, change some awkward language, rephrase a sentence or two, or reflect subsequent events. I avoid that temptation because I think it is important to archive these documents as they actually were rather than to alter history -- even though I doubt I could be caught at it.)


Rick Sincere, our Entertainment Editor, has just returned from across the pond where he checked out three productions currently being staged and presents is reviews for those of you headed for merry olde England. Enjoy, old chaps!

When Failure Rises to Perfection:
Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse

It can be said – though some will disagree – that even Stephen Sondheim’s failures as a composer and lyricist are superior to the best work of his contemporaries.

So what can we say about a flawless production of one of those failures? We have, perhaps, two options: one is to close our eyes and swallow, as if to take a mental picture of this impeccable moment; the other is to swallow poison, for after it is over, there is nothing left to live for.

Let’s hope we take the first option, because there’s always an opportunity for an encore, or perhaps a cast album that can later and forever act as a madeleine to bring back, to our minds, that perfect moment in time.

Such is the situation presented us at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London, where Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1980 flop, has been in performance since December 1 and, sadly, closes today, March 3.

Designer Christopher Oram has created the perfect set for this show. In contrast to the “big” musicals in the nearby West End, Merrily We Roll Along is the height of simplicity in its design, emphasizing the words and the music. The show is played on a plain, mostly flat stage of blond wood with white highlights – window frames, curtains. The lighting, designed by Tim Mitchell, is stark and mostly white – a potentially disastrous combination in so intimate a space. The actors perform within only a few feet of the audience, as the Donmar is a small theatre, only slightly larger than Arlington’s Signature Theatre.

In common with Signature is Donmar’s reputation for presenting Sondheim shows of the highest quality – the theatre’s first production was the British premiere of Assassins – as well as recent revivals of Company and Into the Woods. Donmar’s artistic director, Sam Mendes, has been honored for such productions as Cabaret and last year won an Academy Award™ for his film debut as a director, American Beauty.

For Merrily We Roll Along, director Michael Grandage has assembled a youthful cast that, in many ways, returns the show to its original concept, as envisioned by director Harold Prince, who was unable to make it work. The concept was this: A show cast entirely of teenagers and young 20-somethings, many with no previous experience on Broadway. The original production brought Jason Alexander his first major role, for instance.

For various reasons, Prince was unable to fulfill his vision, and the original production of Merrily We Roll Along lasted just 16 performances on Broadway. (At the Donmar, I sat in front of a man who told me he saw the original not once, but three times – a rarity, and a lucky one.)

Grandage seems to have overcome the problems Prince stumbled over. Subsequent productions – including the reworked, rewritten revival at Arena Stage in 1990 – have cast grown-ups in the major roles. (Arena’s Douglas Wager cast veterans Victor Garber as Franklin Shepard and David Garrison as Charley Kringas, to name two parts played by well-known “adult” actors.)

Donmar’s production largely goes back to the original work, reinstating the high-school graduation bookends that were eliminated at Arena, with the exception of two interpolated songs from Sondheim’s 1990 rewrite – “Growing Up,” which sounds like a trunk song left over from Sunday in the Park with George, and “The Blob,” which fits in better with the rest of the score.

Grandage’s cast is filled with youthful exuberance, something aided, no doubt, by Peter Darling’s exhilarating choreography. The dance numbers have the raw, fresh feel of Darling’s choreography for the hit movie Billy Elliot. It is happy and heartfelt.

And where to begin in describing this youthful cast? One place to start is Julian Ovenden, the Young Franklin Shepard. True to Hal Prince’s concept, Ovenden essentially has no résumé – just one professional credit before this one. An unknown in the lead? Yes, and what a find! Grandage has discovered a star, a young man with stage presence, musical ability (he sings and plays piano), personal charm, and movie-idol good looks. We will be hearing from him again.

As Frank’s collaborator, Charley Kringas, Daniel Evans has already been honored with an Olivier Award nomination for best actor in a musical. He certainly deserves it, if only for his stand-out number, “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” in which he goes quite mad in the middle of a live television interview. Washington theatregoers who see Evans might be startled by his remarkable resemblance, in looks and demeanor, to local actor Jason Gilbert.

Also nominated for an Olivier (as best actress in a musical) is Samantha Spiro as Mary Flynn, Frank and Charley’s “old friend.” Spiro plays Mary’s transformation, from youthful-optimist-aspiring-writer to hard-bitten-cynical-film-critic with just about as much fine-tuning as can be imagined. And she plays this tranformation backwards, just like the others.

The rest of the cast is similarly gifted, and much credit must also go to dialect coach Jeanette Nelson, who has taught all these “kids” to speak with believable, authentic American accents.

There’s more: Sondheim’s longtime musical collaborator, Jonathan Tunick, has created new orchestrations for Merrily We Roll Along, fitting for a smaller ensemble in a smaller space. What genius it was for Donmar to go to the original orchestrator to adapt his own work. Brilliant, just brilliant.

If this review seems like breathless cheerleading, it’s because it is, in part. Merrily We Roll Along has been my favorite Sondheim show since I saw the first college production at Catholic University almost 20 years ago. To be sure, if Donmar did a bad job with it, I would tell you so in unmistakable terms.

While the score of Merrily may lack the depth of Sweeney Todd or the sophistication of Passion or the delicacy of Sunday in the Park with George, it is, for Sondheim, unusually accessible. He does here what he seems to decry here: He creates “hum-hum-hummable” melodies. At the same time, the Greek chorus commenting on the action, the reprises prefiguring (in real time) the main songs, the interplay of themes and variations – all these things combine for an intellectually rigorous, challenging score. It is memorable, it is true.

While some have criticized Furth’s book as being weak, it certainly does not seem so at Donmar. While the premise may seem strange – following a group of friends backwards in time to see their transformation from “good” to “bad” – it definitely works. In terms of the way time travels in it, it’s no different than Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Thematically, it succeeds where Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, failed with Allegro.

Donmar’s next production is the London premiere of David Mamet’s new play, Boston Marriage. Previews begin March 8, continuing through April 14. The Donmar Warehouse is located at 41 Earlham Street, London WC2, near the Covent Garden and Leicester Square Tube stations.

For ticket information: 011-44-207-369-1732.

Entertaining But Empty: The Witches of Eastwick in London

London, England — The problem with The Witches of Eastwick is that it has nothing new to say.

The story, about a stranger who upends a small middle American town, is familiar to anyone who has seen Bye, Bye Birdie – and the use of telephones in a “gossip” song is straight from that 1960s hit. And how often have we seen a Mrs. Grundyish matron get her comeuppance from the more “with-it” characters in a play? The cartoonish sets and costumes seem to come from the closets of the designers of Des McAnuff’s revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a few years back.

And yet ... and yet ... director Eric Schaeffer, composer Dana P. Rowe, and lyricist/librettist John Dempsey have given us an evening of entertainment thta includes tuneful melodies, clever lyrics, fun-filled dances, and surprising special effects. If you’re looking for pure enjoyment at the theatre, The Witches of Eastwick is a good bet for you.

Based on the novel by John Updike and a Warner Brothers movie starring Jack Nicholson, The Witches of Eastwick tells the story of three women – Alexandra Spofford (Lucie Arnaz), Sukie Rougemont (Maria Friedman), and Jane Smart (Joanna Riding) – who are dissatisfied with their small-town, New England lives. Along comes Darryl van Horne (Ian McShane), who transforms their boredom into excitement and (quite literally) bedevils the town at the same time.

A cute, romantic subplot involves Alexandra’s son, Michael (Peter Jöback), and Jennifer Gabriel (Caroline Sheen), daughter of the town busybody, Felicia (Rosemary Ashe) and her milquetoast husband, newspaper publisher Clyde (Stephen Tate).

The strengths in the show lie in the exquisite sets by Tony®- and Olivier-award-winning Bob Crowley (cartoonish they might be, but also exciting), energetic dancing (choreographed by Broadway veteran Bob Avian and Stephen Mear), and first-rate performances by the principals, particularly McShane and the trio of Arnaz, Friedman, and Riding. Swedish teen idol Jöback also stands out, and his fans seem to be flocking to see him – the night I was at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the audience was peppered with large numbers of Scandinavian tourists between the ages of 11 and 16.

If the plot were not so empty and predictable, The Witches of Eastwick would be a classic in the making. This shortcoming may explain why it is moving from Drury Lane to a much smaller theatre, the Prince of Wales, on March 23. The show’s predecessor at Drury Lane, Miss Saigon, played there continuously for more than ten years, and Sir Cameron Mackintosh, Lord Lloyd Webber, and the other producers no doubt hoped for a repeat of that record with Witches.

Because of its sheer entertainment value, we can probably count on The Witches of Eastwick to have a long run in London, and it is likely to come to New York before too long, as well.

Sweet Memories of Youth:
Madame Melville and Macaulay’s West End Debut

The wonder of London theatre is that one can go, from day to day, from a huge megahit like Starlight Express or The Witches of Eastwick to a perfection-laden, relatively intimate musical like Merrily We Roll Along to a finely-drawn, three-person play like Madame Melville – all within the same price range, all within the same general neighborhood that allows one to walk from marquee to marquee in search of the day’s entertainment.

Richard Nelson is an American playwright better known in England than he is at home, and his work reflects this fact. Most of his plays involve foreigners set in a country not their own and Madame Melville is no exception.

The narrator, and focal character, in Madame Melville is Carl, who presents himself at the outset as a middle-aged American, looking back on an episode in his life at the age of 15, when he was a reluctant transplant (with his parents) in the Paris of 1966. A shy student, he finds himself in the orbit of Madame Melville, a thirty-something literature teacher who takes groups of students to the cinema on Friday nights, and to her flat afterwards for drinks and discussion.

One night Carl (played by Macaulay Culkin, in his West End debut) is left behind by the other students, and discovers he is alone with Madame Melville (Irène Jacob). It is late, and before too long he has missed the last Metro. Unable to get home to his parents, he spends the night ... at first on the sofa, but soon in his teacher’s own bed. She seduces him, and he falls in love.

The affair lasts only through the weekend, though. The next day we meet Madame (really, we learn, Mademoiselle) Melville’s American neighbor, Ruthie (Madeleine Potter), who approves of the budding relationship. (She is, after all, a rather bohemian violinist and violin instructor.) The bliss comes to a sudden end, and in a coda Carl reveals what happens to him and his beloved teacher.

Culkin is surprisingly good in this role. Those who think of him as the mischievous child of the Home Alone movies will be in for a treat. He expresses a range of emotions, and he seems not to be limited by his training in film work, adapting well to the stage and to the necessities of connecting with a live audience.

Jacob is luminous. She’s any 15-year-old boy’s dream of a favorite teacher. The role she plays is fraught with dangers. If she camps it up too much, she might as well be playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate up the street. If she stiffens and formalizes too much, she loses her appeal. Jacob walks a fine line successfully.

Potter, for her part, brings a necessary lightness to what, if it were a two-character play, would quickly become cloying and claustrophobic. Ruthie is the world beyond, the recognition that Carl will have a life that simply begins – not ends – in Madame Melville’s flat.

Watching the play, I was struck by the fact that, if the roles were reversed – if the characters were Monsieur Melville and Carla, or if both characters were male – the outcry against this play would be heard from both sides of the Atlantic. There’s some kind of double standard at work that allows men to remember fondly their initiation into sex by an older woman, but not if the pupil is female and the teacher is male.

Oddly enough, at the matinee performance I attended, a school group of English teenagers was in the audience. I wasn’t able to observe the girls, but the boys in the group seemed to have a special appreciation for the show. One wonders if their teachers had a full understanding of the plot they would be seeing.

Richard Nelson – who directs his own script – has done an excellent job in bringing together a cast that has real chemistry. Three-character, drawing-room dramas can be very intense. Nelson leavens the drama with appropriate humor, and Culkin’s introspective, innocent charm carries the play far.

Madame Melville is a pleasant entertainment that also will leave you thinking.

Madame Melville closes in London (now at the Vaudeville Theatre) on March 11, but it transfers to Broadway in April. The Metro Herald was among the first to learn that on April 23, Madame Melville will open at the Promenade Theatre in New York.

Postscript: Daniel Evans and Samantha Spiro did end up winning Olivier Awards that year for their roles in Merrily We Roll Along, which also won the prize for best musical (beating out The Witches of Eastwick). I subsequently was told, by someone who was in a position to know, that Stephen Sondheim did not like the Donmar Warehouse production of Merrily, despite its success and acclaim. The Witches of Eastwick has not yet had a New York premiere, but Macaulay Culkin received a Theatre World award for his performance in Madame Melville off-Broadway. Michael Grandage, who directed Merrily, also directed the Donmar production of Guys and Dolls that I saw in the West End last month.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw The Witches of Eastwick when it was on at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. I thought it was a bit empty and unoriginal, but for the most part, I enjoyed it!