110 in the Shade

Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, London
2017-05-27 • 19:30

The small productions of this E17 theatre-above-a-pub can sometimes be hit-or-miss, but this particular one scores very high.

What made this performance particularly exciting was the superlative quality of singing from the ensemble as well as some of the principals (with Nick Wyschna standing out thanks to his particularly enchanting voice). The production does justice to Harvey Schmidt’s gem of a score, even though the reduced orchestration had to get rid of Hersy Kay’s best asset, the brass section. Some aspects were lost, like the end of “The Rain Song” and its bewitching chromatic ascent, but most songs retained their glorious appeal.

Now somebody please produce Celebration, another Schmidt & Jones musical with an incredible score.

Music by Harvey Schmidt. Lyrics by Tom Jones. Book by N. Richard Nash. 
Director: Randy Smartnick. Musical Director: Aaron Clingham. With Laurel Dougall (Lizzie Curry), Daniel Urch (Starbuck), Nick Wyschna (File), Christopher Lyne (H.C. Curry), David West (Noah Curry), Julian Quijano (Jimmy Curry), Rebecca Withers (Snookie Updegraff), …

Tick, Tick… Boom!

Park Theatre, London
2017-05-27 • 3:15pm

I have fond memories of seeing the original Off-Broadway production of this autobiographical musical written by Rent’s author, Jonathan Larson, when it premiered (in its current form) at the Jane Street Theatre in 2001, with the wonderful Raúl Esparza in the leading role.

As often with the autobiographical writings of creative people, Tick, Tick… Boom! is genuine, touching and just the right amount of clever. Its references to Mary Poppins and West Side Story are a lot of fun… and the song “Sunday” is remarkable in the way it works as well for people who understand the homage to Stephen Sondheim as for those who don’t.

The cast is very appealing, and the direction gives the proceedings perfect pace and energy.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson.
Directed by Bronagh Lagan. With Chris Jenkins (Jonathan), Gillian Saker (Susan, et al.), Jordan Shaw (Michael, et al.).


Staatstheater, Kassel
2017-05-25 • 19:30

The Hessian city of Kassel might only have 200,000 inhabitants, it is also home to Documenta, a major contemporary art rendezvous, as well as to a theatre capable of putting on a mind-blowing production of Ragtime, that masterpiece of 20th century musical theatre.

As most local German operas, Kassel’s Staatstheater can rely on a resident orchestra as well as a resident troupe of singers, dancers and actors. They all rose superbly to the challenge of presenting a work that is incredibly demanding in all areas.

The large orchestra felt surprisingly at ease with the highly syncopated nature of the score. Under Xin Tan’s enthusiastic direction, William David Brohn’s fantastic orchestrations never sounded better, with especially blissful performances coming from the brass section.

The principals were not only of Broadway calibre, but they compared quite favourably to the original cast. I don’t think I’ll ever hear another production where the overall quality is so strong and so homogeneous, from the riveting Coalhouse of Alvin Le-Bass to the fantastic Mother of Monika Staszak. As a result, ensemble numbers came through very strongly; I don’t think the final sections of “Journey On” or “New Music” had ever touched me so much… to say nothing of “Till We Reach That Day” (led by an incredible soloist — the best I’ve ever heard).

I counted more than 45 people on stage during the opening number. Rarely has that glorious number been given such a felicitous rendition. The inclusion of a “skating ballet” during “Gliding” was a very nice touch, perfectly in sync with the lyrics.

What made that production particularly distinctive was its sharp directorial touch, particularly during the songs. No character ever remained alone on stage to sing to the audience; they always remained in situation and kept interacting with the other characters. There were a few minor choices that I disapproved of during the course of the play, especially when the action strayed briefly from the libretto, but that was nothing compared to all the illuminating choices made throughout the production.

“He Wanted To Say” was omitted. What a shame.

Music: Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens. Book: Terrence McNally, adapted into German by Roman Hinze. [The songs were performed in English.]
Direction: Philipp Kochheim. Musical direction: Xin Tan. With Alvin Le-Bass (Coalhouse), Monika Staszak (Mother), Dionne Wudu (Sarah), Randy Diamond (Tateh), Mike Garling (Father), Markus Schneider (Younger Brother), Darrin Lamont Byrd (Booker T. Washington), …

War Paint

Nederlander Theatre, New York
2017-05-20 • 20:00

I’d seen a tryout of this new musical in Chicago last year. It has now made its way to Broadway, with the same principal cast and significantly revised book and song list.

I still have the same issue with the book: it relies on the assumption that it took fifty years for arch-rivals Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden to realise they shared more similarities than real differences. That is however obvious from the start of the play, which therefore sadly lacks any real dramatic tension while moving towards its obvious conclusion. The fact that Rubinstein was a Polish immigrant with a passion for the arts while Arden was a typical Anglo-Saxon interested in horses does little to differentiate the two characters, who were both marketing geniuses.

The show still manages to be quite pleasant, thanks to two powerhouse performances by Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, a very pleasant score… and Michael Greif’s fluid staging in David Korins’ magnificent set. Contrary to what I remember from Chicago, the score actually picks up steam in the second act, with a series of great songs like “Fire and Ice” (whose orchestration is reminiscent of Lena Horne’s “Love” or Judy Garland’s “Come Rain Or Come Shine”) and “Pink” (the most melodic song of all — maybe my favourite).

Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Book by Doug Wright.
Directed by Michael Greif. With Patti LuPone (Helena Rubinstein), Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth Arden), John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming), …

Sweeney Todd

Barrow Street Theatre, New York
2017-05-20 • 14:30

This environmental production of Sweeney Todd originated in London, where I chose not to see it — I’ve seen too many productions of Sweeney Todd to be attracted by a small scale affair… and there have been environmental productions of Sweeney Todd before (I remember seeing a particularly good one at the Bridewell Theatre in London — twice, actually).

However, since I had time, I decided to give this New York transfer a try… all the more as the leads are now played by two famous actors, Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello.

Playing Sweeney Todd on such a small scale raises many challenges, which are mostly addressed in a satisfactory manner by director Bill Buckhurst. However, I didn’t quite understand why the set included a board with prices in modern pounds and pence (and a smiley face) as well as a UK electrical socket in plain view (used to power an electric display in the second act).

The infamously complex second act doesn’t play well in a completely fixed setting: scenes that follow one another in rapid succession happen in Mrs. Lovett’s shop, in Todd’s parlour above the shop and in the basement, to name but a few locations. An audience member who had no knowledge of the play would be hard pressed to understand the changes in locales.

It is also quite a shame that this production has given up on singing Todd’s letter to the Judge. It is a notoriously difficult passage to get right musically, but it is an integral part of the score.

Finally, I was shocked that the production allowed the actors to make physical contact with audience members, thus breaking what I hold to be one of the sacred conventions of theatre. I am glad I was safely seated in the mezzanine; I would have left the theatre without any hesitation had it happened to me.

(The Beadle was played by an understudy. As often, he gave a stellar performance — possibly the best one of all. What a wonderful voice.)

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Book: Hugh Wheeler.
Directed by Bill Buckhurst. With Norm Lewis (Sweeney Todd), Carolee Carmello (Mrs. Lovett), Matt Doyle (Anthony), Alex Finke (Johanna), John-Michael Lyles (Tobias), Stacie Bono (Beggar Woman / Adolfo Pirelli), Jamie Jackson (Judge Turpin), Colin Anderson (Beadle Bamford [understudy]).

Pacific Overtures (abridged)

Classic Stage Company, New York
2017-05-19 • 20:00

Even though I’m mad at John Doyle for cutting “Crysanthemum Tea” (among other things) out of Pacific Overtures, I have to acknowledge that what remains of the show still works wonders.

The bare-bones production gives an opportunity to focus on the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The orchestrations, by Jonathan Tunick, are delightful beyond words. All the more reasons to lament that some equally brilliant material was left out.

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by John Weidman. 
Directed by John Doyle. With George Takei (The Reciter), Orville Mendoza (Manjiro), Steven Eng (Kayama), Thom Sesma (Lord Abe), Ann Harada (Madam), …

Come Up ‘n’ See Me

York Theatre Company, New York
2017-05-19 • 14:00

Second “developmental reading” of the week at the York. Come Up ‘n’ See Me, a biosical about Mae West, is not exempt from clichés (starting with the framing device of telling West’s life in flashback as she arrives at the Pearly Gates), but it has a highly hummable score. In a way, it is a female counterpart to Cagney, a musical that originated at the York.

Mae West was of course infamous for her innuendos and double entendres… and the libretto seems to rely a little bit too much on them. It could probably use some additional structure beyond the obvious theme of “under a frivolous surface, she was a woman with a golden heart.”

I was particularly happy to see Debbie Gravitte play the lead — she really has that something that sets charismatic performers apart. George Dvorsky’s performance was equally remarkable. 

Music and Lyrics by Bonnie Lee Sanders and Ellen Schwartz. Book by Bonnie Lee Sanders, Ellen Schwartz and Bianca Leigh.
Directed by Crystal Chapman. Music Direction by Tom Spahn. With Debbie Gravitte (Mae West), George Dvorsky (James Timony),  Joel Blum, Tom Bozell, Robert H. Fowler, Tanya Haglund, Jerome Harmann-Hardeman, Jem Jender, Annie McGreevey, Tommy Vance, Victor Wisehart.

Groundhog Day

August Wilson Theatre, New York
2017-05-18 • 19:00

I was quite enthusiastic when I first saw this show at London’s Old Vic in July 2016. It has now made its way to Broadway with its leading man, the wonderful Andy Karl.

I was slightly less impressed by Tim Minchin’s score than the first time, but I still think the show is a perfect adaptation of the movie. The author of the book, Danny Rubin, had enough sense to stick to the original movie script when it made sense… and to dare to re-envision whole segments when it allowed for a more theatrical experience. Together with director Matthew Warchus, they have created a very funny musical comedy — probably the most difficult genre to get right (failed attempts can be pathetic).

Andy Karl gives a superb performance, infused by a strong instinct for dry comedy. His much-publicised injury doesn’t appear to impact his mobility much… even though he is still wearing a leg brace — which now plays a part in one of the seduction scenes.

Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin. Book by Danny Rubin.
Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography by Peter Darling. With Andy Karl (Phil Connors), Barrett Doss (Rita Hanson), …


Westside Theatre (Upstairs), New York
2017-05-18 • 14:00

This musical originated at the York Theatre Company in 2015 and has been running for a little over a year at Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre, where it is scheduled to close in a few days. It is a somewhat lengthy, but neatly executed, biography of actor/dancer James Cagney… evidently a labour of love for its leading man, Robert Creighton, who wrote part of the score.

Even though it is told in flashback, the show feels very linear and overlong. It is redeemed by Bill Castellino’s sharp staging and by Joshua Bergasse’s choreography, brilliant as always. The hard-working cast does a fine job of playing multiple characters throughout the show.

There have been rumours about a possible Broadway transfer. Stranger things have happened.

Music & Lyrics: Robert Creighton & Christopher McGovern. Book: Peter Colley.
Direction: Bill Castellino. Choreography: Joshua Bergasse. With Robert Creighton (James Cagney), Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Bruce Sabath, Freddie Kimmel (standby), Karen Hyland (standby).

Hello, Dolly!

Shubert Theatre, New York
2017-05-17 • 20:00

From the second Bette Midler makes her appearance, the audience make it clear they will adore her performance no matter what. And they keep their promise, in spite of the abundant mugging and the notes sung an octave lower (in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”).

Not that Midler isn’t a good Dolly. In fact, she’s quite likeable. But the amount of slapstick comedy introduced by Jerry Zaks in an otherwise handsome production does everybody a disservice — including to Midler’s costar, David Hyde Pierce. Hello, Dolly! was never a subtle show. But comedy works so much better when played without excess.

Kate Baldwin stands out among the principal cast — her voice is magnificent. But she too has to transform her character into a cardboard cutout.

The choreography by Warren Carlyle is full of giddy invention. There is a very particular step he has designed for “Dancing” which gives the scene a unique, elegant character. 

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Michael Stewart.
Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. Music Direction by Andy Einhorn. With Bette Midler (Dolly Gallagher Levi), David Hyde Pierce (Horace Vandergelder), Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl), …