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Directors are often afraid of messing with classic musicals and they end up way too reverential, failing to show them through contemporary eyes. Well, you couldn’t accuse Josie Rourke’s revival of Sweet Charity of that. Her 60’s New York is sleazier and edgier, which seems to me a more honest way to portray the life of a dancehall hostess in search of love, something her degrading profession makes it harder to find.

From the minute you take your seat, you realise you’re in the New York of Andy Warhol. The metallic walls and furnishings of a warehouse littered with painted Brillo boxes, Lou Reed playing in the background, uber-cool people dressed all in black, chilling and posing. The Warhol references continue throughout in Robert Jones’ clever design.

We meet Charity Hope Valentine straight away, in the park, where her latest flame steals her handbag and pushes her into the lake, the police rescue her and she heads back to the Fandango Club where her colleagues greet her with sympathy but little surprise; they’ve got used to her endless disappointments with men.

After a brief encounter with Italian film star Vittorio, her next flame is mousy, nerdy accountant Oscar, and it looks like she may have found ‘the one’. Their whirlwind love-at-first-sight romance takes us via evening classes, the Rhythm of Life church and Coney Island, to her farewell party at the club, but this is one musical comedy without a happy ending.

This is Anne-Marie Duff’s first musical. In truth she doesn’t have a strong voice, but she makes up for it with a performance that perfectly combines gullibility, charm and vulnerability, interpreting the songs rather than just singing them, a sort of sung-speech style – think Judi Dench Send in the Clowns – which actually works, and with a real talent for comedy. Arthur Darvill superbly captures the nervous innocence and fear of Oscar.

In a fine supporting cast, Martin Marquez is excellent as Vittorio, as is Debbie Kurup, who could easily be in the lead role, as fellow hostess Helene. The guest ‘priest’ on the night I went was Adrian Lester (a wonderful Bobby in Sondheim’s Company on the same stage 23 years ago), which was a real bonus for me.

There’s no room for the ten-piece band, who have taken over the stalls bar and are heard through speakers in the auditorium. The pace is occasionally slow, but the strength of the production is to bring the lives of these exploited women to the fore with a truth I’ve never seen before, without losing the comedy, somewhat surprisingly perhaps. The pathos of the ending said it all.

Traditionalists might not like it, but I thought it was a fresh and inventive take on a 50-year-old show. Oh, and I want Adrian Lester’s glitter shirt. A bigger size, obviously.

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It’s eight years since the Menier transferred their superb revival of this show to the West End, so enough time has lapsed for me to want to see it again, though with a tinge of sadness in the week its book writer Neil Simon died. The Watermill’s revival is in its customary actor-musician style, with a touch of updating for good measure.

Based on a Fellini film, the adaptation by Simon, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, tells the story of dance-hall hostess Charity and her search for love. It starts with her being dumped, and almost drowned, by then boyfriend Charlie, before a one-night stand with Italian film star Vittorio and a two-week infatuation with nerdy accountant Oscar. It’s one of the few musical comedies without a happy ending.

The wonderful Gemma Sutton plays Charity with a combination of dippy charm, naivety, gullibility and eternal optimism, more vulnerable than usual, and she’s sensational. Her fellow hostesses try to inject some realism to prevent her exploitation, but her rosy specs are irremovable. Even though they are ‘taxi dancers’ (present day lap dancers), there’s a strong suggestion that ‘clients’ can pay more for additional services, which must have been a bit shocking when it premiered fifty years ago, though its also suggested Charity is more innocent than the rest.

The story seems a bit thinner this time around, particularly in the first half, but the score is packed with great songs – Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This, The Rhythm of Life – and they are sung and played very well. As usual, they work wonders with the small space. Diego Pitarch’s design is all black, white and red, with heart-shaped arches that light up and a small video screen at the back to signpost locations like Central Park. The costumes are more contemporary than 60’s.

The rest of the cast is excellent, with an auspicious professional debut from Alex Cardall as Oscar, and another from Tomi Ogbaro as the bass playing head of the hippy dope-smoking Rhythm of Life Church. In Paul Hart’s production, they all play instruments, in brass-dominant arrangements, and the hostesses as showgirls moving whilst playing saxes and trumpets prove irresistible.

Another treat at the lovely Watermill.

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Though it was revived on Broadway in 2010, this Neil Simon / Bacharach & David musical hasn’t been seen here since its 1969 London premiere. It’s based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 five Oscar winning film The Apartment featuring Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. It may be the only musical to feature a Personnel Director!

In case you’ve never seen the film, the story concerns Chuck, a young insurance company employee who helps his career by loaning his apartment to senior executives’ for their affairs. When the Personnel Director Sheldrake becomes his fifth ‘customer’, he gets his promotion, but Sheldrake insists on exclusivity, so the other four turn on him. Then he realises Sheldrake’s mistress is Fran, the object of his own affections. With men lusting after girls young enough to be their daughters, what may have been just amusing c. 50 years ago seems more lecherous and distasteful today. It changes tone in the second half when these behaviours suddenly become unacceptable, seedy men are put in their place and true love wins.

Given the pedigree of the song-writing pair, the score is a bit of a disappointment. The best known song in the original production was I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, a hit for Dionne Warwick, but the Broadway revival added two other Bacharach & David hits – Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home – to their one and only musical score. Neil Simon’s book is pretty good though, but at just under three hours it’s desperately in need of some cuts, particularly in the longer first half. They could start with dumping the incongruous numbers Turkey Lurkey Time in the office Christmas party scene and A Young Pretty Girl Like You, when Chuck and the doctor are trying to cheer up their ‘patient’ Fran.

Simon Wells’ design and costumes capture the sixties faithfully (but he needs to do something about the dodgy door!). It’s a good ensemble, with Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood a fine pair of leads. There’s excellent support from John Guerrasio as the doctor and a terrific cameo from Alex Young as Marge. Paul Robinson makes a good baddie (and a believable Personnel Director, and I should know!).

It has dated more than its contemporaries, its overlong, the two contrasting halves seem like they might be from different shows and it doesn’t live up to the standards of its writers / composers, but I’m a fan of all three and I’m very glad I had the chance to catch it.

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The musical theatre summer shows at the Royal Academy of Music were a real treat this year.

The day started with a rare revival of Cy Coleman & Neil Simon’s Little Me (like the proverbial bus, about to be revived again at Ye Olde Rose & Crown), a show I’ve never managed to catch before now. Belle is recalling her life to biographer Patrick Dennis, during which we flash back to scenes from her action & husband-packed life. A poor kid in love with a rich kid, she set about getting wealth, culture & social position in order to get her man. By the time she does, he’s taken a turn for the worse through drink.

It’s a really funny musical farce. The plot’s preposterous twists and turns provide plenty of opportunities for fun and a fresh & sprightly production by Karen Rabinowitz (well designed by Alistair Turner) makes the most of them. The 25- piece orchestra (so rare these days) made a magnificent sound and the performances were excellent, with Kristin Lindstrom a superb Young Belle.

Hey, Look Me Over was a revue of Cy Coleman songs which reminded you how good his 12-show back catalogue is. Some familiar, some new, the 12 performers packed a lot into 60 minutes, with some lovely lyrics about the performers themselves (and their pending job search!) bookending the selection.

The second show, John Bucchino & Harvey Fierstein’s very un-American American chamber musical, A Catered Affair, was a big contrast. Somewhat like Howard Goodall (so I liked it!), it was a very beautiful piece telling the story of a working class New York family in the early 50’s. Son Terence has died in the Korean War. His sister wants a quick & simple wedding to take advantage of an expenses paid trip to California as a honeymoon, but her mum’s having none of it. Things get out of control, as they have a habit of doing with weddings, and relationships are threatened and finances become precarious.

There’s another excellent and simple design, made up of ladders and washing lines, from Alistair Turner,  fine staging by Matt Ryan and a smaller but again gorgeous sounding orchestra. In another fine cast, Christine Allado & Blair Robertson stood out as Janey’s parents. Together they created a production as close to perfect as you’d get.

The future of musical theatre is clearly safe in the hands of RAM.

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I’d saved this up for some out-of-town visitors, so I’m coming to it late. Add indifferent to late and that just about sums it up.

It’s a 40-year-old Neil Simon play that’s dated and creaking and I doubt it would be revived at all if they didn’t need a star vehicle for Danny DeVito. Given co-star Richard Griffiths doesn’t come on for 30 minutes and is only on stage around two-thirds of the time, it isn’t the double-act you expect. There are in fact eight characters, but we don’t meet five of them until after the interval, and then somewhat briefly.

Vaudeville act Willie Clark and Al Lewis haven’t spoken for 11 years after Al announced his retirement without consulting his partner. CBS wants them to reunite for a TV one-off of the history of vaudeville and Willie’s nephew and agent seeks to facilitate this. They snipe and bicker as they rehearse and record their most famous sketch and when its funny, it’s very funny – but isn’t funny enough of the time.

DeVito is a natural on stage and he does have great comic timing. Griffiths does his best with an underwritten part and Adam Levy is very good as the nephew / agent. There are five more actors whose time on stage makes them mere extras. Hildegard Bechtler has created a realistic seedy New York hotel suite where most of the action takes place. The TV recording takes place on a set in front of the curtain and it’s like travelling back in time to an age of the politically incorrect, predictable, crude and corny.

I didn’t dislike it. I wasn’t wowed by it. The cast seemed to be having more fun than we were. The audience of celebrity spotting tourists and rare theatre-goers was dreadful (easily pleased, noisy and rude). As I said, indifferent…..

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