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Posts Tagged ‘Bartlett Sher’

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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