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Posts Tagged ‘Bartlett Sher’

Though I wanted to see this, I wasn’t prepared to pay the inflated prices for a decent seat. Then an acceptable stalls offer turned up; I have no willpower. It’s another Lincoln Centre transfer, hot on the heels of the overly reverential 2018 The King & I, with Bartlett Sher at the helm, also currently represented in the West End with To Kill A Mockingbird, It exceeded my expectations, particularly because it got to the heart of Shaw’s story, hiding behind all those lovable cockneys. The staging of the second act scene back at Higgins’ home after the ball is masterly in underlining this.

I won’t bother with the story; anyone who doesn’t know it must have been in hiding or hibernation. What it brings out more than other productions is the arrogance and inhumanity of Higgins’ experiment to turn a flower seller into a Duchess and then ignore her whilst he’s celebrating his triumph. The success in doing this owes much to the casting. Harry Hadden-Paton, a musicals virgin if his biography is to be believed, is a revelation as Henry, bringing a more youthful, animated interpretation, most importantly with zero emotional intelligence. Malcolm Sinclair is the perfect sidekick as Colonel Pickering, more benevolent with genuine affection for Eliza. Amara Okereke has already wowed in very different leading roles in Oklahoma & The Boyfriend and here she gives another wonderful performance as a more defiant, feisty Eliza.

If the last year has taught us regular theatregoers anything, it’s that understudies and alternates don’t mean you are shortchanged. On the night I went to see this Adam Vaughan replaced Stephen K. Amos as Doolittle, Heather Jackson covered for Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Higgins and Annie Wensack stood in for Maureen Beattie as Mrs Pearce, and all three acted like they’ve owned these roles from the outset. Michael Yeargan’s sets are a bit conservative and look a touch dated, but they do make the piece flow seamlessly through it’s many scene changes. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are sumptuous and her hats for the Ascot scene a joy to behold.

It’s unquestionably the best of the 8 shows Lerner & Loewe did together. Their five big hits – Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, Gigi and this – were very diverse, sometimes bizarre material for musical theatre. It’s 21 years since the last London production of MFL at the NT, transferring to the West End (I even managed to see Martine McCutcheon’s Eliza; many didn’t!) though there was a brilliant small scale revival at The Mill at Sonning just under 5 years ago. This is a lot better than Sher’s The King & I and gave me a new perspective on an old show. I’m really glad that offer came through. Look out for one yourself.

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Who’d have thought a stage adaptation of a 1960 novel could seem so relevant 60 years on. There was an earlier stage version in 1990, by Christopher Sergel, which is still performed in and outside the courthouse of Monroesville Alabama each May, with a jury selected at the interval from white male audience members, just as it would have been in 1930, when the play us set. That was hugely successful at the Open Air Theatre in 2013 and 2014 (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/to-kill-a-mockingbird), but this is a new adaptation from Aaron Sorkin, better known for film and TV.

At it’s core is a courtroom drama, the case of a black man alleged to have raped a white girl. A similar real life case in the same year formed the basis of Kander & Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys, co-incidentally a big success here at the same time as the OAT’s Mockingbird. The court scenes alternate with others set in the town, where we see the social background to the case, the ingrained racism and what we would now call white supremacy. This is contrasted with the goodness of a small number of liberal, kind souls including Atticus Finch, small town lawyer, widower and father of two and Judge Taylor, who persuades Atticus to defend the accused, Tom Robinson.

Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation seems to tap in to everything we’ve heard from the far right in recent years. I’m told he’s mined Breitbart, which would account for its resonance today. He’s also added balance by having Atticus’ black housekeeper Calpurnia (a passionate performance from Pamela Nomvete) challenge his blind liberal ‘there’s good in everyone’ sensibility. This takes away some of the saccharine that we Brits sometimes find hard to swallow, leaving a harder edged morality.

Atticus’ two children, Jem & Scout, and their neighbour’s visiting nephew Dill act as narrators and all three – Harry Redding, Gwyneth Keyworth & David Moorst – are terrific. Patrick O’Kane’s characterisation of Bob Ewell, who invents the crime against his daughter whilst himself guilty of abuse, is brilliantly terrifying. We don’t see Rafe Spall on stage anywhere near enough, so it’s great to see him as Atticus, tolerance personified until his shattering outbursts of indignation and rage.

Bartlett Sher’s staging and Miriam Buether’s design are in complete harmony, gently propelling the story organically through many scenes and multiple locations. A deeply satisfying evening in the theatre.

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Of all the big theatrical openings this year, this much garlanded Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1951 show wasn’t the one I was expecting to disappoint. Despite the sumptuousness of the designs and the vocal perfection of Kelli O’Hara, it left me unengaged and rather cold. We’ve become used to revivals breathing new life into classic musicals, but this one seems afraid to touch, and consequently comes out as overly conservative; the evening felt a bit like a visit to the Museum of Musical Theatre.

Like many of their other shows, it was tackling serious themes. Siam, now Thailand, was an island of independence in colonial Asia (the French take Cambodia during the show!). We see the unacceptable face of colonialism and arrogant superiority of the west to other cultures, but also the unacceptable face of local despots, with their own superiority, over women in particular (cue references to #metoo resonance). Add to the cocktail a feisty British woman and you have a classic R&H recipe. With its exotic setting and glorious score, how can it go wrong?

Well, they seem to have mined deeper into the themes of power, culture clash and feminism, but at the same time broadened the humour; an odd contrast which jarred with me. The pace was often very slow, particularly in the second act play-within-a-play, and it seemed a very long three hours. The lack of chemistry between the King and Anna was the final nail in the coffin. Great sets by Michael Yeargan, gorgeous costumes by Catherine Zuber, cute kids, sweet songs, but no heart.

Kelli O’Hara sang beautifully; Hello, Young Lovers in particular has never sounded better. I liked Jon Chew’s characterisation of the earnest, geeky Crown Prince. Na-Young Jeon and Dean John-Wilson made a fine pair of lovers in Tuptim and Lun Tha. Naoko Mori was excellent as chief wife Lady Thang. I’m afraid I thought Ken Watanabe’s King was a complete caricature, which proved fatal for me. It was good to see a stage full of East Asian actors, though.

I don’t regret going, but for me Bartlett Sher’s production is way too reverential and, as a result, lacked sparkle.

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Well, either this has improved immeasurably since opening or I’m easily pleased. Put off initially by the obscene ticket prices (top price £85 – 30% higher than any West End musical), then by the mediocre blogs and reviews and on arrival at the theatre by the £6 programme, things didn’t look promising…….but I absolutely loved it!

I’ve only seen the show twice before – in 1998 in the West End when Gemma Craven was a rather glib Nellie but Bertice Reading a terrific Bloody Mary and at the NT in 2001 when Philip Quast was an excellent Emile but John Napier’s designs and Matthew Bourne’s choreography were the stars. Neither was cast as well as this, where every role is well played and beautifully sung. The musical standards are particularly high with the orchestra playing the score so well both the overture and entr’acte were highlights in themselves.

Samantha Womack is a revelation – sweet-voiced and gorgeous, with an excellent American accent, riding Nellie’s emotional roller coaster superbly. Jason Howard (well, I think it was him – I refused to pay the £6 for the programme!) is excellent, with a lovely baritone voice that does full justice to the songs Rogers & Hammerstein wrote for Emile. Daniel Koek is a fine voiced, handsome Joe and Loretta Ables Sayre a darker Bloody Mary than we’re used to. Alex Fearns showed us his musical comedy credentials in the touring version of the Menier’s Little Shop of Horrors and he confirms them here with a brilliant characterisation as Billis.

In addition to its exceptional musical standards, where this production scores for me is on an emotional level. You really do engage with the characters, their novel situation and their love – it is often deeply moving. The show was way ahead of its time in the 50’s with a war setting and racism to the fore, and with such wonderful songs (and boy, what a score!) it’s easy to bury the issues in the palm trees and grass skirts. They’ve certainly not done that here and for me that’s the real success of Bartlett’s Sher’s production.

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