Wednesday, 31 October 2007

REVIEW: "Parade"

(Something informal this time as the RZ continues to muck about with writing styles.)

What is left to be said about Parade that hasn’t been covered by every critic and blogger in London? Near-universally raved by the critics and in line for a new London cast recording, the show is yet another hit for the folks at the Donmar.

For the few readers out there who haven’t kept up with the show since its 1998 Broadway incarnation or who are entirely unfamiliar with the story, Parade is a 95% sung through telling of the Leo Frank case, where a Jewish factory supervisor was arrested for the murder of a young girl working in his factory and lynched by a mob when his sentence was overturned. This is not the making of a happy musical, although there are occasional moments of joy to be found in Alfred Uhry’s book and Jason Robert Brown’s score.

What the duo bring to the table instead is an evening of intensity, revealing the power of the media and community to override the workings of the justice system unchecked. While the Frank case is an infamous miscarriage of the courts, a resonance can be felt in newspapers dominated by celebrity murderers and royal car crashes, and the audience is given a vivid reminder of what can go wrong when biases and politics get in the way of doing what is right.

In terms of the production itself, Rob Ashford has redeemed himself from last season’s uninspired work on Curtains with a focused direction and integrated, period inspired choreography lacking in many recent West End offerings. Christopher Oram has a limited space to work in as designer, but creates an effective two tiered set with minimal pieces showing off a variety of locations.

While the original Broadway production focused on Leo and used reporter Britt Craig as a narrator, the new revision is an ensemble piece, and the cast are uniformly excellent - any of them could be lauded for their work here, but it would be unfair to single any of them out when all are worthy of praise.

With its heavy themes and less than cheerful plot, Parade is not for everybody, but those willing to engage it will be rewarded with a tightly constructed, explosive work capable of proving the intellectual and artistic merit of the musical.

Where: Donmar Warehouse
When: Until Nov. 24, M-Sa @ 7:30PM, W/Sa @ 2:30 PM
Cost: £15-32.50
Concessions: Be prepared for confusion - Seniors and Disabled patrons can book in advance, but students and other usual suspects must wait until 30 min. prior to daily performance. All concessions are £12. SRO is also available for £7.50 same day if the performance is otherwise sold out.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. It would be full price, but the Donmar is one of the most uncomfortable theatres in London - all seats are bench seats, and anybody with back problems (like the RZ) or long legs (like the RZ) may wish to consider SRO instead. Still, £25 will buy anything most nights except for the absolute top seats.

RZ Other Notes: Regarding the revisions for the new production, Jason Robert Brown goes into the details on his blog. It’s great reading, even if you aren’t familiar with the original, as it lends some extra insight into the revival.

If you liked Caroline, or Change, you will almost certainly like Parade, which is a similar form of musical-ized play, though Caroline has a far smaller focus plot-wise and a more complex score. As the season currently stands, this will be duking it out with Hairspray (which had press night while the RZ was at the Donmar) for this year’s Best Musical awards. Highly recommended, get to it while you can.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

FEATURE: Ask Michael Billington

So Michael Billington, head critic for the Guardian, is doing a masterclass with the RZ's MA programme in a few days.

Got a question for the man? Be it on the theatre, being a critic, the role of the internet in modern journalism, whatever. Leave it in the comments, and the RZ will do his best to ask as many of them as possible. Please, be polite and professional with your replies.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

REVIEW: "Desperately Seeking Susan"

With the West End under attack from second rate film adaptations and jukebox raiding parties, the new musical Desperately Seeking Susan manages to inflict yet another wound on the theatre-going public. Combined with the Blondie song catalog, the 1985 film is brought to a stage in a shallow, wasteful production.

The primary blame lies with book writer and conceptualist Peter Michael Marino, who gives us cliched dialogue and an utter lack of character depth or development: We don’t care that housewife Roberta Glass (Kelly Price) is bored with yuppie husband Gary (Jonathan Wrather), and her path of self discovery through the world of renegade Susan (Emma Williams) is shallow due to a subplot involving a jewel heist. When a key scene comes for Roberta to leave Gary for new lover Dez (Alex Newman), there is no emotion from the script or Angus Jackson’s direction.

It’s a pity, because the idea to integrate Blondie’s music isn’t entirely bad: most of the numbers serve the plot, but given the low standards they need to perform to, that’s not hard. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography lacks the music’s excitement, though the band were playing in full force. The cast are adequate with the material they’re given, but the book holds them back. The only exception is Ms. Williams, owning the stage with attitude, pizzaz, and a voice to match.

Even the designs are disappointing - Tim Hatley’s set fails to capture 1979 New York, and the encore features a hideous yet giant striped PVC curtain, covering a portion of the stage before running floor to ceiling, with a neon heart finishing off the job. Hatley’s costumes fare better, though who wants to remember 1970s fashion? Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is serviceable, but uninspired, and for a show with two sound designers (Bobby Aitken and Brian Beasley), why couldn’t I hear half the lyrics?

Overall, Desperately Seeking Susan is a pallid attempt to cash in on 80’s nostalgia which lacks the performances of The Wedding Singer or the joyous camp factor of Broadway’s new adaptation of Xanadu.

Where: Novello Theatre
When: M-Th @ 8PM, F @ 5PM & 8:30 PM, Sa @ 3PM & 8PM
Cost: £15-£55
Concessions: The usual suspects get 50% off best remaining stalls 60 min. prior to curtain.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £0. If you can get free tickets and you’re a Blondie fan, you may find value in this show. Otherwise, avoid it or you'll be desperately seeking a refund.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ enjoys a good train wreck as much as anyone (one of his favourite shows of all time is Broadway megaflop In My Life), but Desperately Seeking Susan lacks the shock, camp, or otherwise amazement value of a truly awful production. Rather, it is mediocrity at its worst: a bland and soulless production that leaves little to no impression.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

THOUGHTS: Les Miserables

Recently passing its 22nd anniversary in the West End and celebrating the first anniversary of its revival on Broadway, Cameron Mackintosh decided to swap leading actors in Les Miserables. Fans of the show should make an effort to get to the Queens Theatre before Drew Sarich leaves in six months, as he carries over all of the talent, vocal prowess, and depth that he had in the Broadway production. The rest of the cast are fine, though the RZ preferred Ann Harada as Mme. Thernadier and Max von Essen as Enjorlas to their London counterparts.

That said, the RZ doesn’t much care for the show itself - it’s three hours long, feels like it, and features far, far too many reprises (especially of “I Dreamed a Dream”.) As Peter Brook write in his 1968 book The Empty Space, “One associates culture with a certain sense of duty, historical costumes and long speeches with the sensation of being bored; so, conversely, just the right degree of boringness is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event.” (p. 13) In the RZ’s opinion, this is the only way that Les Miz can still be running after so long. While the RZ has great respect John Napier’s set design and David Hersey’s lights (even if he doesn’t like them), they don’t provide enough eye candy to validly sluice one’s attention from the people’s moans. If any of this site’s readers are unfamiliar with Les Miserables, the RZ recommends downloading the parodies from Forbidden Broadway - you’ll get all you need.

Where: Queens Theatre
When: Until infinity, most likely, M-Sa 7:30 pm, W/Sa 2:30 PM
Cost: £15-55
Concessions: £27.50 best available stalls with student ID, available 60 min. prior to curtain. ONLY ONE TICKET PER ID. Delfont-Mackintosh houses have the worst student rates in the West End, so be aware before you go.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15 for Drew Sarich (one of few actors of whom the RZ is an unashamed fanboy), £25 to see what the fuss is about if you’ve never gone and have an evening to kill.
RZ Other Notes: I’m sure I’ve lost half of the people who read this previously by posting a nasty review of Les Miz, but I really find the show mind numbingly dull - if I could have slept through the entire fight on the barricade I would have, and only went a second time to see Mr. Sarich’s first night. Les Miz fans are welcome (and encouraged!) to post nasty comments.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

UPDATE: Week of 21 Oct...

Short and sweet. Today's writings are short and sweet....

Starting things off with upcoming reviews, it's a big week for cast changes at Les Miserables with the NYC cast saying farewell to Lea Salonga and picking up Judy Kuhn as Fantine. A few other cast members are leaving as well, plus this week begins the London-NYC Valjean switch. Tuesday is John Owen-Jones's first night as Valjean on Broadway, and tomorrow the RZ will be attending Drew Sarich's first performance in the role here in London.

Cast changes are also coming up for The 39 Steps, and the cast of Chicago will have a reunion special for the revival's tenth anniversary in London.

Press openings in the last week include Water at the Lyric Hammersmith, and War Horse at the National. The RZ has tickets for both shows and reviews will be posted when not submitted elsewhere. For previews, Desperately Seeking Susan started previews with the highest concession price in the West End (£27.50, or the same 50% off as the TKTS booth), but the RZ has a better discount for a performance this week.

Oh, and apparently Homer Simpson is coming to do a musical. The RZ suspects tickets will go quickly for this one, and should probably try and book now.

Last, the RZ is jealous of everybody in New York who can go see The Farnsworth Invention, currently in previews. Aaron Sorkin + Des McAnuff + Hank Azaria = win in spite of too much exposition.

REVIEW: "A Night In November"

(Keeping this one quick since I still have to put together this week's news update...)

The conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has expressed itself in countless methods over the centuries: war, terrorism, sport, and the stage. These last two comprised last night's performance of A Night in November at Trafalgar Studios.

Written in 1995 by Belfast-born Marie Jones, Night tells the tale of Kenneth McAllister, a protestant dole clerk in Belfast living a hum-drum life complete with the underlying racism that comes with the Irish divide: checking his car for bombs, lording his acceptance into a golf club over his Catholic boss, etc. until one night when he accompanies his father in law, an open racist, to a football match between the British and Republican Irelands. When the crowd turns hostile and begins invoking slogans in praise of terrorist acts against the Catholic Irish, Kenneth has an epiphany and begins to reassess his life from his family to what it means to be "Irish" in the face of the 1993-1994 World Cup.

The role of Kenneth, along with everybody else, is played by comedian Patrick Kielty. Mr. Kielty does his best with the material, putting on all sorts of voices and mannerisms while running around the stage like a madman, but he is let down by the play itself, which relies solely on exposition and narration with occasional asides to move the story. While this is a flaw inherent with one-actor shows, the introspective material leads to a rather dull play with some choice moments - Kenneth's trip to New York for the match itself and his spiritual awakening are particularly brilliant, but the peaks are few and far between. Cutting the play from 110 minutes over two acts to 95 or 100 minutes without an interval would have helped greatly.

Given that this piece is set at the same time as Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Jones has chosen to give us a more personal look at the Irish situation, rather than a look at the big picture of Northern Ireland in the early 90's. However, Jones lacks McDonagh's command over language, and her play fails to rise to championship standards as a result.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 1
When: Until 1 December, M-Sa 7:30 PM, W/Sa 2:30 PM
Cost: £29-40
Concessions: The usual crowds can get £25 tickets day of excepting Saturday evenings.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £10 for Kielty's performance. Add £5 if you're really into pieces about football (proper footie) or the works on the Irish conflict are of particular interest (as it is to the RZ).
RZ Other Notes: A Night in November may have been a great example of how an audience can kill a show. The RZ saw it the same night as the Rugby World Cup finals where England lost against South Africa, and was curious, especially during the interval, how many people were wishing they could be watching the game at the pub instead. Given that the play is billed as a comedy, the lack of major laughs was noticeable. The RZ also wonders how much of the material went over his head due to being American - perhaps the work is too Irish (even Northern Irish) for him to have fully appreciated it.

Friday, 19 October 2007

REVIEW: "RENT Remixed"

(Not that it should be hard for people to guess what I thought of this. If the review seems as incoherent as the production, it's because I'm only posting the framework of what will be a far longer article for class here.)

The theatre is comprised of many great successes, but an even greater number of failures. Some shows fail from their first performance, yet others succeed in many ways and places, only to fall short in specific locales and times or under certain creative teams. Jonathan Larson’s RENT is one of these shows, and suffers greatly in a newly misconceived production at the Duke of York’s advertised as RENT Remixed. Readers should note that story and character points will be brought up in detail, and are advised to skip to the final paragraph in order to avoid “spoilers.”

As it stands, there are so many problems with William Baker’s production that one is spoiled for choice in areas to pan, but I shall begin with Mr. Baker’s maligned work on the story. Few will disagree that RENT in its original form had book problems, including a fair share of plot holes and the burying of important information in forgettable throwaway lines. However, the overall character through-lines were consistently presented. Not so in Remixed, as songs are moved around, segues are repositioned, dialogue is trimmed, and even the act break is reworked. What’s left is a jumbled mess that destroys the limited narrative of Larson’s original that should (and could) have been fixed during the tumultuous preview period.

Regarding the much-hyped reworked orchestrations, Steve Anderson has come up with a mixed bag of pieces that work and fail, frequently within the same number. There are enough interesting selections here to have compiled a novelty CD of highlights, but the new score lacks cohesion as a whole. While the strong numbers are impressive such as “Contact” which, despite poor staging and hideous costumes provides a terrifying experience in combination with a sequence of fantastic lighting are good, many of the results are mixed. Tone issues are common throughout as the orchestrations, short on rock guitar but heavy on synthesized strings, frequently lack the drive and energy needed to sell the number. Worst off are two numbers known as RENT’s rock anthems. Mr. Anderson changed “What You Own”, a song of self revelation for filmmaker/narrator Mark and songwriter Roger, from a cynical eleven o’clock rouser to a slow, whiny solo for Mark. Similarly, HIV infected dancer Mimi’s powerhouse piece “Out Tonight” is now sung as burlesque, with lots of virtual trumpets but no fire or soul.

In terms of casting, it’s clear that Mr. Baker (unsurprisingly) cared about style and looks over acting or musical capacity, given his background as celebrity stylist for celebrity page favourite Kylie Minogue. Leading this miscast brat pack is Oliver Thornton as Mark. Mr. Thornton plays the role with the cheap antics of someone who has been in the same role for years and jokes around onstage to keep himself entertained rather than the audience. When required to sing, a classically trained opera tenor appears, as if Mr. Thornton is imagining himself across the street at the ENO rather than slumming it here.

Equally miscast is ex-pop star Siobhan Donaghy as Mimi. Ms. Donaghy’s pop experience is helpful when her requirement is strictly to sing towards the audience, but her breath control is distractingly poor, as she gasps for breath after each line in her major songs, and her chemistry with Luke Evans’s borderline abusive Roger is nonexistant. A similar predicament affects TV presenter Denise Van Outen as Maureen, a slutty performance artist and Mark’s Ex. Ms. Van Outen’s singing is passable and she can stir up an audience, but her acting is wooden when interacting with other cast members.

Mark Bailey is also responsible for this production’s sets, a whitewashed set of walls and lit platform with chairs, stairs and a catwalk. It’s even more minimalist than the original designs, and despite looking far too posh (the walls need grime), is perfectly functional for the show with the exception of a large LED board that was broken during the performance I attended.

Overall, RENT Remixed is a failure as a work of musical theatre. It lacks a coherent plot, gives us no emotional attachment to our characters, and poorly represents the score. The only people who should visit this show are diehard RENT fans in need of a fix or the sorts of anoraks who seek out flops and trainwrecks. Unfortunately, the production was capitalized for under £500,000 and only 80% of the budget has been used, meaning that the producers can keep the show open until holiday tourists come, making recoupment a scary yet likely possibility.

Where: Duke of York's
When: Open run, dark on Sundays. Check the booking site for times.
Cost: £15-45 (See note)
Concessions: Students get general admission for £25.
Note: Seats in the circles as well as prime stalls are reserved for £15/25/45. The rest of the stalls are sold as general admission for £30 (going up in a week or two to £35). The RZ strongly recommends checking out Theatre Monkey before you go if you book unreserved.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £15 to see what the fuss is about, but honestly, you're best off avoiding it.
RZ Other Notes: The recommendation in the review proper should be adhered to. If you dont' fit those categories, this is not the show for you. While theatregoers unfamiliar with the original staging or the film may find merit in this piece, and old fans with an extremely open mind will find bits to enjoy, this production will not convert anybody who hated the Michael Grief edition. The RZ is greatly disappointed in the RENT Remixed creative team for wasting their previews on minor staging quibbles (though many of the minor things WERE fixed to an extent) but failing to do anything with the key issues that were pointed out again and again by attendees.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

THOUGHTS: Perfect Pitch

Last night, the RZ had the opportunity to attend Perfect Pitch, a showcase of new British musicals in development. Each night, excerpts from up to three shows are presented as a way for creators to get feedback on their work early on. As these are all unfinished pieces, the RZ will leave some thoughts, but not review them outright.

Lost Boy (20 min.) - This coming of age/boarding school piece is oh-so-English, and you get all the stereotypes here (the athlete, the snobby bully, the quiet brain, the theatre queen) plus a spectre who occasionally steps in to say things in other peoples' voices, guide characters through bits, etc. The tunes weren't particularly incredible, but there's strengths to be found in the characterizations. Sadly, we weren't treated to many book scenes, given the length of the presentation, but there could be a solid work of youth/teen theatre born from last night's staged rehearsal (on book and piano only).

Slow Motion Suicide (30 min.) - The company presented the first 30 minutes of this piece complete with book sequences, and it's very much what one would find at NYMF. Set in a think tank, the employees outsource all of their "mundane" tasks, such as buying groceries and choosing wallpaper, to Personal Liberty, a firm that does it all for them. One employee, though, is starting to feel the corporate world come down around her, and begins to crack under the strain. The songs were more developed here, and we got a four piece arrangement. The book's funny, and the characters are interesting. Hopefully something will come from this one.

All I Want For Christmas (60 min.) - Basically a complete one act, this is the story of a high level banker who hires an actress to play his girlfriend so that he can have the perfect family Christmas. As expected, things go wrong in all sorts of ways, and hilarity ensues with a side of insanity and excitement. The show is already well developed, and ready for a small company/festival willing to take it on.

Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse (Highgate Road)
When: Nightly at 7:30PM until 28 Oct.
Cost: £10 general admission
Concessions: £8 general admission
NOTE: There are 10 shows in rotation, with two or three running per night in different arrangements. Check the website for details when making plans.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £10. You get your two hours of entertainment from these, and it's always a worthy cause to support up and coming talent.
RZ Other Notes: The theatre is set up with front and side seating. The orchestra/piano are always on Stage Left, so sit in the stage right centre seats or the stage right side seats if you want to hear the singers clearly. Everybody is unmic'ed for this.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

REVIEW: "Bad Girls: The Musical"

The musical has always been a medium of adaptation, from early novels and straight plays to today’s films and pop star catalogues, musical theatre has been used to bring a new look at an old work. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bad Girls, a 100+ episode prison drama from British network ITV opened this past August. Retaining one of the TV series’ original stars and filling the stage with a wealth of new actresses and songs, Bad Girls is a mostly new British musical full of talent, but also one that begs the question “why?”

As the show begins, young Rachel Hicks is strip searched and processed upon her entry to prison for possession. The wing’s guards (or “screws” as they’re called) make it clear that she’s in for a tough time, as the scene segues into a long opening number introducing the main prisoners and our setting. The prisoner stereotypes are all represented here, from the domineering top dog to the supposedly reformed Christian, and the screws run the one-dimensional gamut as well. As the first act progresses, prisoner Nikki Wade, played by Caroline Head, is given a shot at an appeal and freedom. At the same time, top dog Shell Dockley is overtaken by newcomer Yvonne Atkins, a mafia wife who makes fast friends. These threads are interwoven with prison politics as a corrupt guard attempts to become Ward Governor while having sexual relations with as many of the prisoners as possible. When tragedy strikes as a result, the ward is thrown into chaos. The second act deals with the aftermath, and most of the plot twists are rather obvious, even to those who don’t know the TV show.

The score, while pleasant, is an uninspired lineup of adult contemporary ballads and pop songs. Most of the numbers are instantly forgettable and shockingly out of tone with the story line - I frequently found myself wishing for a number to end so that we could return to the more engaging book scenes. The one exception was “All Banged Up”, sung by Yvonne (played by Sally Dexter) and “the two Julies”, a pair of bubbly blonde tarts, attempting to seduce a handsome and naive guard. Unfortunately, this song creates a dilemma for the audience: It’s not OK for a guard to try and overpower a prisoner for sex, but should we laugh and cheer on a trio of prisoners attempting the same thing?

A great deal of respect is due to the cast. Three cast members, Nicole Faraday (Dockley), Laura Rogers, and Helen Fraser (Sylvia), worked on the TV series, with Ms. Fraser returning to her original role. The aforementioned Ms. Dexter is also worthy of acclaim as the powerhouse Yvonne, commanding the stage and stealing every scene she appeared in, as did the boyishly charming Chris Grierson as good-guy guard Justin Mickelwhite Also worthy of mention are Colin Richmond’s concrete and steel inspired sets, bringing us into the cold, gray world of prison life alongside Tim Mitchell’s lights.

While fans of the TV series will undoubtedly appreciate Bad Girls more than newcomers to the franchise, the show suffers from a fatal flaw: there is no need for it to be a musical. The book scenes are dramatically sufficient to tell the story on their own, and the songs provide little introspection and frequently harm the show more by breaking up the action rather than supplementing it with emotions and conflicts that dialogue alone can’t reach. It’s entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying as primary character threads are left unfinished and we get a forced ending for some of the secondaries instead. With ticket sales flagging, best to see this one while you can. The educational value of how not to construct a musical is worthy of admission price alone.

Where: Garrick Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 7:30PM, Th/Sa @ 3PM
Cost: £25-55
Concessions: The usual suspects can get best remaining tickets day of performance for £25. A promotion for top tickets at £25 is currently running.
RZ unofficial “worth paying”: £10 if you’re not into the franchise, £15 (maybe £20) if you are. There’s some fun to be had, and a couple of good scenes, but Bad Girls overall is a stinker. It’s worth seeing in the same way that In My Life is worth seeing, only not as much fun.
RZ other notes: This was a musical that could have been better in other hands and if they didn’t stick to the events of the first TV season. The songs should have been darker, more cynical and sarcastic, and not as campy and over the top. Each act also started to drag and could have lost 5-10 min. along the way. (Un?)fortunately, Bad Girls doesn’t appear to be long for this world, given that both circles (aka Mezzanine and Balcony) were closed tonight, and even with their inhabitants moved down to the stalls (Orchestra), they were still less than half full.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

UPDATE: Week of 14 Oct...

There's a lot coming up this week, so it's time for another generic news post.

Tuesday night is a big one for the West End, as RENT:Remixed has its official press opening. The RZ is going on Thursday, and will then post an official review and shut up about this production unless major proper news comes through. Tuesday night is also the first preview for Desperately Seeking Susan, combining the 80s film with the Blondie song catalog. The RZ is hoping to attend, but (as will be shown below), this week is cramped and expensive already. No student rush policy has been announced yet for DSS, so a visit may be held off until press night or a later preview. (EDIT: RENT's opening night has been moved to Monday.)

Continuing with the Tuesday overload, the Perfect Pitch festival is starting then as well, although public performances are not starting until Wednesday night. The RZ is going on Wednesday, when three shows will be presenting excerpts. While more like NAMT's workshop series than NYMF, anything promoting new talent in the field of British musical theatre is welcome in the RZ's eyes, much like the recently announced Notes From The Stage competition.

The RZ is also paying a visit to Bad Girls tomorrow, as he found an exceptional discount. The show is based on a long running British TV series that this author has never seen, so it should be an interesting evening if nothing else. Reviews for all three (or four) shows should go up this week, thanks to a lack of written class assignments.

In other news, Hairspray finally opened in the West End for previews last week. Sadly, the review won't be posted for a while due to class requirements, but the short: It's excellent. All of the energy and excitement from the US productions is here, the score is being played at speed (vs. the typical slowdowns in London), and while the cast have some issues, 95% of them can be worked out after playing for an audience a few times. That said, a handful of the jokes flew over the audience's head, being just a bit too American. Still, the show's a blast and audiences are sure to be flocking to the Shaftesbury.

Much as Les Miserables is doing next week, a US-London swap is coming up for Spamalot. According to all the major sources, Marin Mazzie will be taking on the Lady of the Lake in London, while Hannah Waddingham is to play said role in the New York production. Sorry to all the Broadway people out there, but London is winning out on this one. Waddingham can sing, but the RZ found her comedic timing and acting weak at an August performance.

For smaller theatres, John Doyle is at it again, this time bringing the actor/musician gig to Merrily We Roll Along. Known as Sondheim's most problematic show, Merrily follows four high school friends backwards in time from their reunion to their teenage years. The production is going to run a good hike away from London proper, so it's not certain yet if the RZ will be attending, but we can always hope.

There should probably be some fringe coverage in here, and I guess that WoS provides the good news: Arts Council England is being granted an extra £50 million in funding from the Department of Culture. In terms of what this can do, it costs about £15,000-20,000 to bring a new show to a festival run. This is great news for the English subsidised theatre, though it also means that travesties such as Rider Spoke will continue getting funded.

Lastly, some good news from the US. According to Playbill, Ace, a new musical by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, is on track for a (surprisingly short) DC tryout in March 2008 with plans to move towards Broadway. Combining the story of a ten year old foster child with WWI and WWII pilots, Ace is family theatre that manages to entertain the kids with action, present some interesting themes and issues for parents, and is NOT BY DISNEY (more details at the Wiki link). The RZ was given a copy of the demo CD along with some footage from the San Diego tryouts, and heartily recommends that readers in the Washington, DC area to check it out.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

REVIEW: "Rider Spoke" (Blast Theory)

There’s no point on beating around the bush, so I will get all of the superlative-laden puns out of the way. Rider Spoke, the new work of environmental interactive theatre by video-game influenced company Blast Theory, is a bomb. A total dud. It fizzles out the minute you leave the Barbican, and only becomes entertaining because what it entails is entertaining outside of the event. In short, you can reconstruct Rider Spoke for free, and with far fewer privacy concerns.

For the uninformed, Rider Spoke involves leaving the Barbican on a bicycle with a wi-fi enabled portable media player and recorder in exchange for a hard copy of the participant’s credit card details. Bicycle-challenged attendees can rent a bike or, if they are incapable of riding, go by foot after receiving nasty looks from the company. The participant wanders around as much of London as they can get to, and the machine asks the rider questions of an open and increasingly personal nature at 8-12 minute intervals. Questions start with “What’s your name and where are you?” and continue to “Tell us about a party where you were an outsider” and “Make us a promise of some sort.” Once faced with a question, the rider must find a “hiding place” to record their answer.

After the box has your data, participants can pull up an answer to each others’ answers, based on the three nearest recorders. This is repeated for 45 minutes, when the players are given their final question and orders to return in the next 15 minutes. Upon returning to the Barbican, the recordings are uploaded to Blast Theory’s archives and passed on to a professor at the University of Nottingham for research while the user’s financial paperwork is returned. In other words, participants are paying to be test subjects while putting their financial data at risk.

While there is some joy in the voyeuristic aspects of the event, participants are basically paying to do something they can do just as easily without having to pay £5-10 - getting lost in the middle of London. Should someone wish to add a touchy-feely aspect, they can call random friends and leave comments on their voicemail. The result is similar, and calling ones’ voicemail would take significantly less time than waiting for the Blast Theory boxes to download updates (something which brings the evening to a halt for up to five minutes every time a question gets answered). As someone who enjoys wandering the city on his own, Rider Spoke felt like a waste of money and an evening - the evening’s screening of Ratatouille (playing at the Barbican cinema) would almost certainly have been a more engaging and intellectual experience.

Where: Barbican, lower level
When: Nightly 5PM-9PM, departures every 15 min.
Cost: £5 if you bring a bike, £10 if you need a rental. Rental includes helmet and reflector strap.
Concessions: None.
RZ unofficial “worth paying”: Nothing. Avoid this unless you’re required to go for class or work like the RZ was.
RZ other notes: Not kidding about the nasty looks issue above - the Blast Theory people looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head when I said I had to go for class but couldn’t ride a bike. The wifi boxes also lack any sort of GPS, so unless you know the area (defeats the purpose of wandering and getting lost), you’re stuck relying upon a bike path map to find your way back - not easy when it’s dark and you’re on fairly deserted streets. The RZ wound up getting quite lost (rather enjoyable) and needing to take the tube back (not so enjoyable) to avoid getting his credit card unfairly dinged for holding the box too long. And no, he didn’t get a £5 refund against being forced to buy a rental ticket.

REVIEW: "Transport Exceptionnels"

(I saw this a week ago at the Dance Umbrella, and decided to submit my review of Hairspray instead.)

Sometimes, even the Fringe can upstage the West End in terms of pure spectacle. Most recently, Compagnie Beau Geste began their Saturday Evening performance of Transports Exceptionnels (Exceptional Transport) by driving a digger through an unsuspecting wedding party's photo session in order to approach the open stage at Jubilee Gardens. What followed was a stunning, albeit obtuse work combining modern dance, classical music, and a massive carbon footprint.

Performed by Philippe Priasso and William Defresne (who drove the aforementioned digger), and choreographed in the round by Dominique Boivin, Transports Exceptionnels takes a look at man and machine, their interactions, and the way in which we personify the tools of our everyday lives. Staged across three pieces of music, the dance begins with Mr. Priasso tentatively approaching the digger, and spends the next half hour dodging, riding, and climbing the great machine with curiosity, trepidation, and affection as dancer and device unite, separate, and struggle against each other.

According to the choreographer's notes in the programme, the piece “relive[s] those childhood moments where proportions take on another dimension, and where the street becomes a playground.” Indeed, while the piece and characters are open to interpretation, there is much to be said about the area surrounding Jubilee Gardens as a playground of street performance, with drummers, mimes, etc. reaching out for tourist coins and attracting an audience which, undoubtedly, got stolen away by the imposing vehicle a few metres away. Surprisingly, the audience included some young schoolboys, undoubtedly drawn in by what must have seemed to an outsider to be construction machinery on crack – a whirling dervish of a digger chasing yet embracing a silent older man. Sadly, these lads did not find the piece as engaging as the rest of the audience, and left after about ten minutes.

In terms of Ms. Boivin's story, the work grants the viewer a fleeting sense of emotion, limited by audience visibility – Mr. Priasso frequently had his back turned to where I was standing, making it difficult to see facial expressions. From my perspective, the piece showed how we grant personalities and form attachments to the machines we use, with Mr. Priasso treating his digger much like a new (and increasingly beloved) pet. The two embrace, fight, play together, and protect one another before the ultimate separation at the end of the work. In a post-performance conversation, some of my fellow audience members had entirely different interpretations - the work is vague enough that it is up to the viewer to take what they feel is appropriate. This is theatre for intellectuals and spectacle enthusiasts, and those who fall in between will likely be quickly bored.

Regarding the dancers, Mr. Priasso is spry and in full control, despite his age, dodging the great bucket from the ground at one moment while hanging by his legs the next. However, the true star is Mr. Defresne, who piloted an imposing piece of equipment into a sympathetic and approachable character while successfully managing to not cause a fatal accident for his partner. The daunting task of rehearsing this piece must have been most stressful, but the payoff is evident.

Other than the view problems caused by the digger, two negative issues lurk in the deepest shadows of this piece. First, the environmental impact of running a commercial digger for 30 min. may strike some as distastefully wasteful, and may find themselves challenged to see the artistic merit of the piece. Second, the digger's rental company was clearly marked in multiple places, giving cynics in the crowd a view that perhaps the entire dance was merely a 30 minute advertisement for DIY extremists. These are minor quibbles, though, and patrons seeking a thought-provoking piece could have done far worse with the mimes by the tube.

Where: Jubilee Gardens as part of Dance Umbrella
When: Closed
Cost: Free
RZ unofficial "worth paying": It was free, so there was value for money by default. Had they passed the hat, the RZ would have thrown in a £2 coin, but held back from the bills. He would not have paid £10-15 for this event as a standalone, but perhaps if paired with a few other events and turned into an evening.
RZ other notes: The Dance Umbrella is a month-long festival of contemporary dance from around the world, and is running for three more weeks. Some events are free, others go up to £20/ticket. If you go for this sort of thing, hit it up. The RZ, however, has an increasingly packed schedule and will have to pass.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

NEWS: William Baker NOT FIRED

I just received a phone call from Ewan Thomson, press manager for RENT Remixed in regards to this post over at Dress Circle, and the subsequent hubbub. Upon reading this news and seeing it spread without any form of detailed source material, I started to have my doubts. Unable to find a press release or any cite worthy information, I decided to do a bit of investigation and called the press office (whose number was thankfully in my programme). After getting bounced to a couple of people, and leaving my contact details (along with this blog's address and a note of my wonderful university), I was told that I would receive a call when Mr. Thomson got back to the office. Sure enough, I received a call around 1:30 from the man himself.

First and foremost, Mr. Thomson confirmed that no, William Baker has not been fired, has not quit, and is still working with the cast, though much of the cast's time is being spent with the assistant directors so that multiple changes can be worked on at once (ie a pair of actors can work on entrances/exits while others are with an MD or AD on new music adjustments). No performances are being canceled, and press night is still on for the 16th of October (when the RZ will hopefully be at first preview for Desperately Seeking Susan). Mr. Thomson was unsure of why a cast member would supposedly say that the director is on his way out, but repeated that it was false information.

In addition to the nature and hubbub of previews, the internet, etc. we also discussed thoughts on the show, and agreed that yes, it is in a fixable place, that things are (and should be) changing, and I was informed that Mr. Baker is taking the approach of "putting everything into the cake, and then weeding things out."

Lastly, the subject of Jay Webb's lip syncing and the use of click track in the show was covered. Mr. Webb is indeed suffering from tonsillitis, and performing on antibiotics every night as the understudies will not be rehearsed until the show is frozen. Once recovered, Mr. Webb will be singing live, but for now is performing with a fever and speaking as little as possible.

The RZ would like to thank Mr. Thomson and the Borkowski Agency for taking time to deal with the alternative press (in his words, "it's where it's at"), and for his insights into the show and its current status.

REVIEW: "The 39 Steps"

(I was going to hold this until after class, but it came in about 200 words short, so I'll have to use one of my others.)

Sometimes, all a theatregoer wants is a pleasant evening. No overwhelming amazements or atrocities, just a night of smiles and simplicity. For those occasions, The 39 Steps, currently playing at the Critereon, will undoubtedly satisfy such desires.

Based on the novel and subsequent Hitchcock movie of the same name, The 39 Steps presents a man's flirtation with espionage in 1935 after meeting an attractive young lady at a pallid West End entertainment. Our hero, Richard Hannay (played by Mr. Robert Portal), takes said lady home, she gets murdered, he gets blamed and goes up to Scotland to track down the mysterious organisation responsible.

While the story sounds like serious fare (and indeed it originally was), Patrick Barlow's adaptation renders it with a comedic, rather than psychological touch. Relying upon the traditions of mild-mannered farce, all of the expected cliches are present, with Scottish and German accents used to obscure simple words, non-violent slapstick, silly place names, etc. While this sort of fare was commonplace and reviled by critics in the 1950s, modern audiences view it as quaint material deserving of an Olivier and a New York transfer. How appropriate, then, that it is housed in the Criterion, a beautifully traditional venue full of charm and historical curiosity, and one where the cast can indulge the rare West End occurrence of performing free without microphones.

All of the side characters (claimed as 150 by the adverts, though realistically much lower) are played by Mssrs. Jimmy Chisholm and Simon Gregor, the latter spending much of his stage time in drag. The three main female characters, played by Ms. Rachel Pickup, are all hard-boiled bombshells ready to supply us with predictable plot-advancing romance. While the cast slip in and out of their roles at ease (sometimes even mid-sentence), manipulate an overwhelming number of set dressing and props, and exude professionalism, there was a lack of excitement surrounding the performance I saw, as if everybody was merely running the lines while waiting for a new job to come along.

This isn't to say that the play is bad. It's perfectly enjoyable, and I was never bored during the evening. The jokes are wide enough to be appreciated by those with no knowledge of Hitchcock's film (though a familiarity, even reading the Wikipedia entry helps), and the pacing never falters over the 105 minute runtime, though the presence of an interval is questionable. Clearly the producers are trying to offset thankfully lower than average ticket prices (£42.50 top) with ice cream sales, and the cheerful audience members I saw were more than happy to assist. At the risk of upsetting local readers, it's all so stereotypically English: middle-class friendly, inoffensive, and capable of delivering lots of smirks, but few large laughs.

Where: Criterion Theatre
When: Open run, most nights at 8PM.
Cost: £10-£42.50
Concessions: £12 tickets for the usual groups, available 60 min. prior to curtain for same day only.
RZ unofficial "worth paying": £10. It's fun, but forgettable. Good if mum's in town and you want something safe with local flavour to take her to. Because the theatre is underground, there are an unusually large number of restricted view seats due to support pillars. Check Theatre Monkey for details.
RZ other notes: I wish I'd taken notes during this one. Normally I don't, as I find it distracts me from the show and tips my opinion towards the negative, but I couldn't recall many details while doing the writeup despite having a big grin on my face and finding the entire show thoroughly pleasant...just not impressively so. The real gem for the evening, in my opinion, was walking around the Criterion, which is a beautiful Victorian theatre with lovely lobby areas, drawings of historical men in evening dress on the walls, and restrooms with broken hand driers.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

UPDATE: Week of 7 Oct...

(This is a feature which may or may not continue, based on reader feedback. Let me know if I should keep it up.)

For the curious, here's what has been going on for the past few days, and a look at possible upcoming articles.

First and foremost, comments work now. When I first set up the blog, I forgot to turn them on. My apologies for that.

I had the opportunity to visit the Dance Umbrella on Saturday, and saw a piece involving a man and his construction vehicle. It was an assigned viewing for class, so the review is on hold until I decide if I'm submitting it for credit or not. I'm planning to hit the West End twice this week as well, and may submit a review for one of those productions instead. Expect posts either late Thursday or early Friday.

Rumour is spreading across the message boards that while the creative team are pleased with the reaction RENT:Remixed has been getting, changes ARE being worked on, though I have my doubts that the wildest rumours about a show doctor being called in are true. It's going to be a hell of a lot of fun to see what the critics have to say about this production. Internet buzz has been mixed, with the majority of views landing on the negative side, though most parties on both sides agree that further work is needed. The two scenes most targeted by the posters so far are "Out Tonight" and (almost universally) "What You Own", which both suffered from radical changes in tempo and staging to ill effect. Ironically enough, more discussion is occurring on American boards such as Broadway World and Compulsive Bowlers rather than the domestic alternatives (unless I'm missing links to a big source...could a long time local post if the sidebar is missing anything?).

Rumours are also starting to circulate that a cast album for this new RENT is in the works for Christmas time. IMHO, the more important release is next month's release of PS Classic's new CD Jonathan Sings Larson, which will be comprised of demo recordings from Superbia, tick...tick...BOOM, and RENT along with a pair of isolated one-off tracks as well as a DVD featuring Larson performing four songs from ttB in 1991. I've got an Amazon gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket, so expect this one to be reviewed as soon as it gets to me here in the UK.

Early buzz is already starting for next year's transfer of Aussie hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and which show will have to clear out, as the producers have a deal with RUG for a space. While I think the show will be campy fun, Priscilla won't do anything to help the West End escape its reputation for low end imports and bland film/jukebox adaptations. That said, neither will the rumoured transfer of Xanadu, a show I loved in NYC.

In terms of straight plays, Shadowlands has just started previews, and the new production of Glengarry Glenn Ross starring Jonathan Pryce is approaching its press night. Ideally I'll be getting to both, though they're on limited runs, so best to get while the getting's good.

Ending where we started, it appears that the hardest ticket to get this fall greets us from the Fringe, with Punchdrunk's new production The Masque of the Red Death being sold out until after Christmas (with tickets going fast), making this (soon to be) two sold-out extensions. According to staff at Battersea Arts Centre, the only way to see this interactive Poe-inspired mystery is to queue up for return tickets 60 min. prior to curtain. The RZ may attempt to snag a ticket for the final days, but is battling the start of Winter term for scheduling.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

THOUGHTS: RENT Remixed (First Preview)

I know that I should be posting a proper review of this, given the nature of the site, but I can't do it. Besides the fact that it's considered bad form to review a preview (and a first preview at that), I left the Duke of York's feeling conflicted and almost speechless by what I saw. Some of the new material works well, some would have worked well, and some just failed miserably. I started this list of change and quick opinions as a message board post, but thought I'd expand on and continue it here rather than posting a full review. I have another ticket for the 18th, and will post a proper review then as two weeks is enough time to settle in.

Without further ado, things that stood out, with some spoilers:
-Angel is no longer a drag queen, but rather a new member of Right Said Fred.
-Some of the drag queen text has been removed, but a lot of the he/she stuff is still there and doesn't work in the new context.
-The voice mails are spoken, not sung, and all prerecorded. One is by Kylie.
-The answering machine no longer says “Speeeeeaaaaak.”
-A few numbers retain their original orchestrations, or something close.
-Sometimes, “remixed” just means taking out the guitar.
-The original RENT band has five members. The RENT Remixed band has four members and a computer running virtual orchestra software.
-Today 4 U? All click track.
-Another Day is well orchestrated, but the staging is poor.
-Out Tonight is well staged, but the orchestrations are poor, and come straight from the infamous Jazz edition album of the show. I miss the slam on the electric guitar after Life Support.
-Act One ends with Christmas Bells. Act Two has Over The Moon/La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell You.
-Seasons of Love is used for an encore, though a verse comes through here and there throughout the score, sometimes less than five minutes from the prior use.
-Lots of small dialogue changes, a few voice mails and plot bits have been restructured, but references haven't been edited.
-Due to the edits, it's hard to tell where the cast screwed up lines vs. edits.
-Because they focused the adverts on a celebrity as Maureen, Over The Moon is 10 minutes long including a dance segment.
-Part of the La Vie Boheme hand dance made it in.
-What You Own made me want to cry, and not because I was moved. Rather, it's been redone as a slow, angsty emo solo for Mark.
-Contact. I'd like to hear the lyrics, please. Lots of coloured strobes and fetish costumes and house shaking bass.
-RENT. Needs energy, has none.
-Mark likes taking his shirt off, and is directed to sing the beginning of LVB in a totally OTT manner.
-Vocal arrangements? Generally excellent. Not just saying that because I met the guy.
-Without You's orchestration was heavily influenced by the Swedish cast recording.
-Costumes. Not going there.
-The lyrics and orchestrations fight with each other. A lot.
-Goodbye Love's orchestration fails to live up to the emotion of the song.
-Take Me or Leave Me sounds good, but works as a Gwen Stefani or Kylie video, not as a song in a cohesive piece of theatre.
-The set is three floor to ceiling white flats painted like brick with a white raked platform and a catwalk with exits on stage L/R that is bisected by a stairway. The walls are lit from below by rows of footlight sconces. It's simple and effective.
-Mimi has dancers with giant feathery fans in Without You. It makes no sense.
-Flying beds and Christmas trees. Just saying.
-Adding an extra drum machine line does not count as a proper re-orchestration. Just saying.
-Mark, Mimi, Angel, and a couple of the ensemble had UK accents. Everyone else went American.
-The big thing about mentioning new AIDS treatments? Replace “AZT” with “NDT”. Impressive, huh?
-"Remixed" means "soulless and no emotion."
-The show got a standing ovation from a large percentage of the crowd, but it was by no means the whole house.

As I said above, proper review in two weeks when the shock of seeing a different staging has worn off and I can look more clearly at the production.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

REVIEW: "We Will Rock You"

For those who have escaped the show's presence (most of the US), We Will Rock You (WWRY) uses Queen's song catalogue to tell the story of a dystopian future where all music is created by computer and published by a single corporation and owning instruments or thinking independently is outlawed. Two teenagers find themselves on the outside, meet up with other rebels, and awaken the planet's youth through rock music. While the plot has the makings of engaging sci-fi, Ben Elton's script and direction reduce the storyline to sound bites so that the cast can get to the next song(aka the reason people are paying for tickets). Some of the numbers work well, some don't, many have changed lyrics which help greatly. A handful of the jokes and references are updated with each new cast in an attempt to stay fresh, again to varying effect.

The new cast are young, vibrant actors who rock through the score, but frequently end up flat on the acting, as if Elton is relying upon his stage managers to train replacements from original director Chris Renshaw's notes. All of the ensemble and secondary youths (Bohemians) are given just enough lines to stand out and be forgotten, but give it their all regardless. New Scaramouche Sabrina Aloveche delivers a solid performance, but fails to stand out against her predecessors. Returning cast members Alex Bourne (Khasoggi) and Mazz Murray (Killer Queen) ham it up as the piece's villains, but Bourne has trouble being heard in his musical numbers and Murray lacks the truly vicious streak needed to come off as threatening. Headlining the show as Galileo Figaro, understudy John Boyden sings the role well, but comes off with boyish charm instead of rocker rebellion. I suspect that much of his perceived weakness is genuine, and that he will grow stronger in his tenure.

That said, the true stars of WWRY are its score, band, and visual designs. The house band, hidden in the wings, plays the songs as real rock. While this method brings the sound and feel of Queen to the stage, it does so at the detriment of the lyrics, which become hard to discern, primarily during ensemble numbers. Production designer Willie Williams manages to flood his stage with set pieces, video screens, and lights of all sorts, truly bringing the “mega” back to “megamusical” in all the best ways. In this reviewer's opinion, the technical eye candy alone justifies the cost of a ticket.

Overall, WWRY is a fun night out and worth seeing once for the visuals, but otherwise best left for the tourists.

Where: Dominion Theatre
When: Open Run. Check listings for times.
Cost: £27.50-£60
Concessions: £20 student tickets, best left when the BO opens; £13.50 SRO when otherwise sold out
RZ unofficial “worth paying”: £15 for the tech and a few good moments. The show is fun, but not good enough to command its asking price for the stalls, though it does move quickly and is never boring. Add £5-10 depending on how much of a Queen fan you are. Chances are you'll either hit student price or TKTS rates.
RZ other notes: I saw this as much to go to the Dominion as to see the show itself. For those who don't know, Bill Hicks recorded his Revelations special at the Dominion, and much of the backstage tech was built in for Dave Clark's Time in 1986 (which has its own Queen/Freddie Mercury links). If you see WWRY, look up by the boxes for two gorgeous stained glass windows surrounding a pair of organs, one on either side. Lastly, for a show about the evils of corporate society, they sure were pushing ice cream during the interval and show merchandise after. Perhaps this is why they cut all the bits about “playing for the kids” over the years...