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Posts Tagged ‘Theatre Royal Drury Lane’

January is the month, awash with ticket offers, when I revisit show’s I’ve loved and catch up with those I wasn’t sure about, certainly at full price, and this is the first of six, and the first of the catch-up’s.

It’s based on the 1933 film, itself based on a novel, which was made to tap dance America out of the Great Depression. It’s the archetypal Broadway show, but it didn’t get there until 1980. It’s director died on the afternoon of the opening, but no-one involved was told until the curtain call. When it got to London in 1984, life imitated art when a chorus girl had to take over from both the lead and her standby and went on to take the lead role and start a glittering career. That was Catherine Zeta-Jones.

My thirty-something self took against it then, finding it unoriginal, the story vacuous and the production deeply old-fashioned. A short while later, I said this at my interview for the Laurence Olivier Awards panel when I was asked what I thought about it winning the Best Musical award (it beat one of my favourite shows, The Hired Man). When I discovered one of its producers was on the interview panel, I was astonished that I got through. One of my biggest faux pas’ ever. After this second exposure, the serious theatre-goer in me still finds in unoriginal, vacuous and old-fashioned, but the good-time guy melts at the ensemble tap dances, bright neon sets and sheer spectacle, let alone the talent on the stage. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so ambivalent about a show.

It may be the first juke-box musical, before the term was coined, as it brings together Warren & Dubin songs from a number of places, including Keep Young & Beautiful, I Only Have Eyes For You, We’re in the Money, and Lullaby of Broadway. I can dispense with the story by saying a leading lady is injured and a chorus girl takes over and becomes a star. It has one of the best opening scenes, as the curtain rises teasingly on something like forty pairs of legs tap dancing. There’s more bright smiles and jazz hands than a musicals regular gets in a years worth of shows. The late Gower Champion’s original dances and Randy Skinner’s musical staging and new choreography, presumably with a nod to Busby Berkley’s work on the film, are conventional but thrilling nonetheless. The design is loud, brash, glitzy, colourful, sparkly, but old-fashioned. Sheena Easton was indisposed, but her standby C J Johnson was sensational. In fact, it’s an excellent cast, with Clare Halse as chorus-girl-becomes-star Peggy Sawyer and Tom Lister as Julian Marsh, the director of the show-within-the-show, Pretty Lady.

Leave your brain at home and go for the dancing, the dazzle and the spectacle. Ambivalent I may be, but I’m also glad I went.

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The premiere of this musical in 2000 was a high-profile affair for a relatively unknown American musicals team, Dana P Rowe & John Dempsey – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane no less (they had Cameron Mackintosh as godfather). It wasn’t a bad show, but the theatre was way too big for it. It moved to the Prince of Wales, but didn’t survive the tumultuous summer of 2001. This revival is at the opposite end of the scale, in a theatre about 10% of the size (in truth, a bit too small now) but its good to take a second look and it scrubs up well.

The first adaptation of John Updike’s novel was the stellar cast film with Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer & Cher. It works as well as a musical, though the first half is a touch too long. Bored housewives Alexandra, Jane & Sukie get more than they bargained for when devil-like Daryl Van Horne arrives in suburban New England to spice up their lives and wreak havoc on the conservative community. Local do-gooder Felicia and her sometime philandering husband Clyde become casualties, leaving daughter Jennifer (Alexandra’s son Michael’s estranged girlfriend) exposed to the advances of Daryl now that he’s bored with the trio he’s been bedding.

It’s done in the now customary Watermill actor-musician style and it’s exceptionally well cast. Poppy Tierney, Joanna Hickman and Tiffany Graves are a fine trio of ‘witches’ and Alex Bourne makes a great ‘devil’. Rosemary Ashe reprises her world premiere role as Felicia and though her singing is sometimes too ‘operatic’, her ability to regurgitate anything and everything is impressive! Tom Rogers’ design takes your breath away; he brings American suburbia to a converted 19th century Berkshire mill with a grey clapboard house and beds and bars that emerge from nowhere.

This is Craig Revel Horwood’s sixth Watermill show and his staging and choreography is as witty and playful as ever. I felt it was a bit crowded and loud (with inaudible lyrics) occasionally, and there’s so much going on it takes a while to settle, but by the second half its steaming (in more ways than one). There aren’t that many musical black comedies, and it’s well adapted for the form, even if it isn’t that memorable a score. Still, a good enough reason for the annual pilgrimage to Newbury and to be recommended.

 

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