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Posts Tagged ‘Bert Shevelove’

This was the fifth of five shows for which Lionel Bart was the sole composer and lyricist over a six year period in the early sixties, the most famous of which was of course Oliver. I’ve seen the others, though they are rarely put on, and though they’re not as good as his masterpiece, they are decent populist fare and they did well at the time. This last one was a troubled show which the director, his friend and mentor Joan Littlewood, walked out of before its opening. Bert Shevelove (book writer of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) came to the rescue, but he couldn’t. The opening night was a fiasco and the show a critical and commercial flop (closing early, allowing one of it’s stars, Ronnie Corbett, to take a job on the Frost Report. It’s other stars included Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw and Long John Baldry!). The fact Bart had added an LSD habit to his heavy drinking may have something to do with it. I’m not sure it’s been seen in London since; this Bart fan certainly hasn’t seen it.

There’s a new book by Guildford School of Acting’s Julian Woolford, commissioned by the Bart estate ten years ago and first performed at GSD, and the music has been adapted by Richard John, but I’m not sure what that means. It doesn’t breathe new life into the story of Robin Hood, who’s lost his twang, hence the title, but the production does, by effectively sending itself, and musical theatre, up in a bawdy innuendo-laden romp. There are lots of quotations from and references to other musicals – Les Mis, Phantom, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Legally Blonde, Wicked etc., a running joke where character Alan-A-Dale is trying to write a song called Living Doll (one of Bart’s, of course), somewhat like the title character in a much later musical Blondel, set in the Crusades with King Richard at the same time as this in Britain featuring his brother, and a lot of jazz hands choreography.

Whatever you think of the show, panto in my case, you have to admire the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast, under Bryan Hodgson’s direction, who give it their all and whose fun is infectious. After the first few minutes, I wasn’t expecting a fun night, but they swept me away and it was.

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A musical based on a 2500-year-old Greek play featuring Shakespeare and G B Shaw as characters to be staged in a swimming pool. Well, you have to admire the ambition of Bert Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim. This later version was meant for theatres and here we are getting the UK professional premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre more than twenty years after Broadway and more than forty years after the Yale original.

Sondheim appears to have only contributed choruses to the Yale show, perhaps as a favour for Shevelove as by now he’d had success with Company, Follies and A Little Night Music, but wrote extra songs for Nathan Lane’s revision. The Yale original is now probably just as famous for featuring actresses Meryl Streep & Sigourney Weaver and playwright Christopher Durang in the cast.

It’s faithful to Aristophanes in that Dionysos, the god of drama, decides that there’s a desperate need for good dramatists and heads off to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw. He meets Shakespeare there too and decides to stage a contest to choose between them (Euripides and Aeschylus in the original). Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare beats the old windbag (Aeschylus wins in the original) and returns with Dionysos. A simple story, but with a timeless theme of the importance of the arts.

Lane’s version is a bit of a romp and, though far from Sondheim’s best score, there are some nice tunes and witty lyrics to propel the story, with cheeky contemporary references which delight. It’s well staged by Grace Wessels, with great use of Jermyn Street’s tiny space and nifty movement from Tim McArthur. The fun that the cast of just nine, let by Michael Matus as Dionysos and George Rae as his sidekick Xanthias, are clearly having is infectious and the musical standards under MD Tim Sutton were particularly high.

An unmissable opportunity for Sondheim fans. 

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