Sunday, 27 January 2008

REVIEW: "The Young Ones"

Oh, how the RZ loves Upstairs at the Gatehouse. This charming pub theatre is one of the few sites willing to take risks on new musicals, something always approved of on this blog. This year's Christmas offering, finishing its run earlier today, was an adaptation of the 1961 UK classic The Young Ones starring Cliff Richard.

Now, for most Americans, The Young Ones is known more as the 1982 TV series which shares the same name (and the only exposure besides Drop Dead Fred that a fair bit of us have had to Rik Mayall, though the RZ prefers Believe Nothing.) Chances are, in fact, that the RZ was the only person in the theatre who hadn't seen the film this show is based on, and suspects that he was better off for it.

The plot, thin as you'd expect, revolves around the members of a youth club in early 60's London who find their building is under threat from a property developer. Conveniently his son is a member and rallies the troops to save the club from his father's intentions by putting on a show for all the youths of London. On the score front, all the big songs from the movie are supposedly here, along with some addition Cliff Richard tracks. Being the alien that he is, the RZ only recognised three tracks (the title song, Living Doll, and Do You Wanna Dance, which Americans know via the covers by The Beach Boys and The Ramones).

Where The Young Ones shines, however, is in its choreograpy. Racky Plews fills his (her?) dances with energy, liveliness, and presence, lifting up some of the drier moments and pushing the best sequences to great heights. Unfortunately, Plews fails at directing for a thrust - the RZ was on the side and found himself facing sides and backs with only occasional sequences of action and choreography greeting a large percentage of the audience. Musical Director Dom Carter led the four piece band (also wisely in period costume) and made the wise decision to mike his singers for genre accuracy, although the theatre's sound design also punishes those on the sides, especially during ensemble numbers. The cast, listed on the website but without roles, did a fine job of channeling the youthful optimism of the era, but did little to overcome the limiting archetypes of their characters.

While The Young Ones isn't going to be heralded as a groundbreaker or masterpiece, it delivers what all pub theatre should: light, fluffy entertainment best taken with a pint or glass of wine.

Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse
When: Closed.
Cost: £10 (previews)/£12/£15 (based on day/time)
Concessions: Usual suspects can advance book for £10
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £7.50
RZ Other Notes: This was fun enough to watch, but rather forgettable after. No doubt the (mostly) older crowd lapped up the nostalgia and quite a few were singing along by the end.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

REVIEW: "An Audience With The Mafia"

(There's a line at the end of the film Ratatouille where a restaurant critic talks about how those in his profession love writing negative reviews because they're fun despite wishing they didn't have to. In this case, he's sadly right.)

What is our fascination with organised crime? Hollywood loves to treat mobsters as an idealised group of anti-heroes, the History channel is loaded with gangster documentaries, and HBO scored one of the greatest television coups in history with The Sopranos. Maybe it’s the conspiracy theorist in all of us, the desire to go offing our enemies, or the style and flair associated with the families. Regardless, An Audience With The Mafia attempts to tap into our obsessions with the mob with some crime family history.

Unfortunately, it’s a pretty weak attempt. Presented by “The Mercy Man” (the programme doesn’t list an actor’s name), an Israeli...something (we never find out much of the character’s background), this glorified one man show presents the audience with a dull, scattershot story of the biggest names in American mobster history. Revolving around the associates of Meyer Lansky, whom the narrator claims to have met twice, the first act describes the establishment of the American Mafia and the prohibition era, and the second the rise of Las Vegas. The counterweights of the World Wars and Great Depression and the Mafia’s involvement (or lack thereof) are skipped over. The interaction between Italian and Jewish factions, however, is heavily emphasised in every story, with every connection, until the audience is beaten over the head with it.

Describes, sadly, is the right word to use - the entire play is a big history lesson with an occasional second narrator more appropriate for a sensationalist crime museum or cable TV than the West End. Backed by three projectors routinely getting ahead of the presentation and mis-cued sound effects, “Mercy” skims the surface of one story after another before being hit with red lights and switching to first person to describe the deaths of mobsters such as Bugsy Siegel. The second, female, narrator plays roles such as Siegel’s daughter and Marilyn Monroe, but it adds a Ken Burns perspective rather than theatricality. The remainder of the sets, two abstract lattice-worked staircases and backdrops (black and white New York in Act One and a vivid Vegas in Act Two) is far more than this work needs or merits. The lighting is minimal, barring the death scenes and mandatory flashing sequences during gunfights (the death of Dutch Schultz is particularly loud and seizure inducing).

Sadly, just when the audience thinks the lecture is over, the tone of the play shifts gears for a surprising worse from boring to delusional as “Mercy” spends the end of the play recapping, introducing new mafia-backed conspiracy theories, and claiming that if the state of Israel had only shown mercy itself and granted Lansky citizenship, he may have been willing to reveal the truths and secrets of the early American mob. Instead of being called An Audience With The Mafia, this play should really be called An Audience With A Loony Mafia Nerd (and one without any Myspace Friends to boot) and suitably avoided in favour of the Hollywood editon of your choice or any number of the books available at Murder One bookstore on Charing Cross.

Where: Apollo Theatre
When: Now through 16 Feb. Sa-Th @ 20:00, W/Su @ 15:00
Cost: £10-£40
Concessions: £20 day seats subject to availability. Given the upper levels were closed last night and the stalls were deserted (esp. after the interval), this should not be a challenge.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £0. Staying home and reading Wikipedia entries on famous mobsters and mob conspiracy theories would be a more entertaining and educational endeavour.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ wishes to express his love for Nimax theatres for putting concession information on their show websites and wishes other houses and producers would follow suit. The Nimax listing also claims that Under-15s aren’t permitted to attend, but the RZ found nothing unsuitable for a pre-teen audience (though he suspects leaving the little ones at home - the crime scene photos can be graphic and the gunshots will scare the hell out of them).

The RZ also wishes to point out that while he and most of the people he talked to were mixed to negative about the show, there were a number of people who did enjoy it quite a bit - perhaps the lack of overexposure compared to the US helps.

The advertising flier for A Night with the Mafia features a pull quote from the Telegraph, claiming the show to be “Chilling”. A search on the paper’s website, however, failed to locate anything to do with the show. The RZ therefore suspects that the only thing “chilling” about this overproduced bore is that audience members are being cheated out of their money and evenings to see this dreck. Save your money and see The Vortex when it begins late next month instead.

THOUGHTS: "The Lover/The Collection"

(Perhaps one of the worst reviews written for this site.)

Harold Pinter is popular again, with a constant presence over the past few months and more in sight for 2008. The West End’s newest revival, a pair of one-acts from the early 70’s, justify the boom: these plays are timeless, engaging, and entertaining.

The Lover and The Collection deal with issues surrounding infidelity: in the former, a couple are openly cheating on (or is it with?) each other. Through the inspired use of doubled casting, the duo expand into each others’ fantasies as passions and tempers flare. Meanwhile, the latter deals with truth and unreality: when the stories differ, change, and take on backings from alternative perspectives, who can say what really happened?

The casting in this production is spot on, with Richard Coyle (the infamous Jeff in Coupling) leading the first play and manipulating the second’s protagonist. Gina McKee has the least to do as the women, but shifts well in the first play from tired housewife to fiery lover. The sets are simple, but functional - these are not plays demanding high visual spectacle.

The Lover/The Collection provides an unorthodox yet humorous and imaginative look at modern love, one well worth taking in before it departs.

Where: Comedy Theatre
When: Limited Season, M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £20-£42.50
Concessions: Usual suspects can get day seats for £20
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £30. Entertaining and worthy of the audience’s money, but not life changing.
RZ Other Notes: This is really a review that should have been written within 24 hours of seeing the play and not four days later.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Review: "The Sea"

(Time for a game of count the cliche, and keeping this short - it’s late and the RZ caught first preview. And one of these days, the RZ will learn to jot down character names - and maybe the Haymarket will learn to put them on the website.)

Watching the Haymarket’s new production of Edward Bond’s The Sea was an experience reminiscent of seeing Terrence McNally’s Deuce last summer on Broadway - a third rate play with a shining lead actress (in the latter’s case, the ever loveable Angela Lansbury). Unfortunately, Eileen Atkins couldn’t save this evening as her American colleague did, despite her scenery devouring rich bitch character. David Haig’s insane shopkeeper delivered better on the laughs, though he ultimately fell for the same weakness as the rest of the production: bad writing.

Yes, Bond is seen as a controversial national icon, but The Sea fails to do what it says on the tin: advertised as a comedy, it’s remarkably unfunny, unless one considers endless monologues packed with amateur philosophy and stilted dialogue humorous. Yes there are some discussions of class struggle, noblesse oblige, and the merits of insanity, but it drags. And drags. And drags. There’s enough solid material to make up a solid 60 min. one-act, or even a decent 90 min., but the play runs a full 2:30.

Lest the RZ be considered an out of touch and uncultured philistine, he will note the large number of walkouts at the interval, and those he talked with during the interval and after the show found the play equally unsatisfying. The one gentleman who did say he was enjoying the play at the interval was later spotted napping during the second act.

Whether the print critics decide to sink The Sea come press night is questionable, as some directing miracles could occur during the preview period and this is the type of play critics usually fawn over, but the RZ doubts it will be enough. The play is all washed up, and should have remained in Davey Jones’ Locker.

Where: Theatre Royal Haymarket
When: Now through 19 April
Cost: £20-47.50
Concessions: Seniors can book matinees in advance for £20, students can go same day for £12.50 or £20 based on location.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5 to see a legend on stage. And if you know where to look, you can see it for that (or less).
RZ Other Notes: Oh the joys of first preview. The show started 15+ min. late due to a bad projector cable, and a row in the stalls was even cleared as they needed to unbolt it and ran the risk of gear falling from the upper circle into the stalls. And before the Whingers ask, no, the toilets do not feature Dyson Airblades, but the next-best alternative: sensible paper towels.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

ARTICLE: 2007 In Review

The RZ saw more theatre in 2007 than he had in the four years prior combined - over 60 performances (lightweight compared to most of the London bloggers). Ideally this number will rise further in 2008. Below are some of the best and worst of what the RZ attended in 2007.

Best designs: Lord of the Rings. Eye popping and jaw dropping and capable of justifying the cost of admission alone.

Biggest waste of good design: Car Cemetery at the Gate. The tiny space was converted into a beautifully decaying junkyard, but the play itself left much to be desired.

Best case of stunt casting saving a show: Angela Lansbury in Deuce. Even in her 80’s, Ms. Lansbury exudes warmth and presence in a vapid role. And folks, let’s be honest, she’s why anybody bought tickets (especially after the reviews), no insult meant to Ms. Marian Seldes, her lovely co-star.

Best reminder of why you should see the original cast: Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal return to RENT. Two returning cast members full of energy, one stuntcast actress trying her best, and twelve sleepwalkers.

Best puppets: War Horse. Handspring’s equine beasts were the most lively things on the stage in this year’s family offering at the National.

Best school group show: Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer. One man, some props, and an Irish accent guide the audience towards the South Pole. Coming to London’s New End Theatre in 08.

Biggest Musical Mediocrity: Bad Girls. Nobody expected this show to work, and while it did, there was nothing special or exciting on the stage. Mary Poppins almost won, but the RZ saw it at the end of three years, not when it was relatively new.

Long Runner Most Ready To Close: Les Miserables. Tired casting, tired sets. The formaldehyde is leaking and it’s time to put this one down.

“Close But Not Enough” Award: The Perfect Pitch Festival. Three months later and no word of any of the pieces performed going anywhere or doing anything. Hopefully the money will start to flow in as the festival continues running.

“Don’t Quit Your Day Job” Award: William Baker (Director, RENT Remixed). The RZ hears that Primark are always looking for new staff.

Best “Show the RZ didn’t need to see because the hype said enough”: Masque of the Red Death. Tickets are still available for the final extension, but at this point, why bother?

Best “Not Really a Cast Recording”: Jonathan Sings Larson. A wonderful retrospective of a fascinating composer. The RZ never got his review into a form he found acceptable.

Best Non-Traditional Evening: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. 1927’s cabaret of animation, piano, and black humour. Currently playing at NYC's PS122.

Best Pantomime: Dick Whittington at Hackney Empire. The RZ has talked it up enough.

Best Play (Revival): The Emperor Jones at the National. Solid design and a powerhouse performance in Paterson Joseph. Boeing Boeing deserves an honourable mention, as does the Pryce-led production of Glengarry Glenn Ross. A great year for West End revivals.

Worst Play (Revival): The Blacks at Stratford East. Genet himself is said to have hated this play, and so did the RZ. For all of its sound and fury, it was little more than a tempest in an onstage teacup as the play’s themes so pervade American media that the play is laughably tame by comparison.

Best Play (New): Rafta Rafta. No, it’s not the best play that opened in London or New York, but it’s the one the RZ saw and liked the most. Seeing better new plays in 08 is on the RZ’s goal list.

Worst Play (New): The Girl Detective at Ateh Theatre Company (NYC). Amateur in every regard, and a reminder of why the RZ usually avoids the New York fringe for traditional drama.

Best Musical (Ongoing): Starlight Express. Eighteen years after opening in Bochum, StEx remains the gold standard in theatrical spectacle and stays fresh thanks to relentless rehearsals and a catchy, upbeat score.

Worst Musical (Revival): RENT Remixed. While massively reworking a show for a new production is nothing new, screwing it up on this level takes talent.

Best Musical (Revival): Parade. An example of reworking done right as the Broadway mass is shaved down to a haunting chamber piece.

Worst Musical (New, London): Desperately Seeking Susan. Dull, annoying, and ugly. Is this really all the West End has to offer? Maybe entrusting Gone with the Wind to a total newbie is the best move after all...

Worst Musical (New, Broadway): The RZ didn’t see anything truly atrocious for NYC musicals in 07.

Best Musical (New, Broadway): Spring Awakening. Technically this is a 2006 show due to its Off-Broadway run, but the RZ saw it in 07 and it won the 07 Tony so there. A high energy, rocking score combined with a cast that grew closer and stronger with every performance has proven that Broadway again has space for unhappy musicals. At the same time, if we’re talking strictly 2007 new, the RZ has to give the award to Xanadu for its razor sharp book and intelligent basis in adapting a movie that was already a musical to start with.

Best Musical (New, London): Hairspray. Officially it’s a transfer and therefore new, even if the RZ did see it back in 2003. And come on, it’s not like the West End had anything better to offer this year. Are there any interesting new British musicals coming up in the next six months besides GWTW? As it stands, the RZ is currently betting on an American transfer to win this again next year as well.

Monday, 14 January 2008

REVIEW: "Jacques Brel: The Rage To Live"

(Second review in one day...see below for thoughts on a second viewing of . Expect a third post in the next 24 hours with the RZ's belated reflections on 2007.)

In 2006, the show which defined Off-Broadway, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris made an artistically triumphant return to the city which rocketed Brel to American fame. This year, writer Judith Paris and actor Anthony Cable are bringing Brel’s words and fifteen of his songs around the UK. Recently concluding a run at Hampstead’s New End Theatre, The Rage To Live is a well meaning but ultimately mild-mannered performance.

Whereas Alive and Well... focuses on Brel’s work and its themes, Rage to Live is all about the man himself. Following the trend of recitatives, most of Paris’s book is sourced from Brel’s writings and interviews on a variety of subjects, including his career, marriage, and faith. Strangely missing are Brel’s wartime experience and his opinions towards Vietnam (all of his protest material is missing), the two things that shot the American revue, mentioned here in passing, to fame. Performed by Mr. Cable as Brel himself with piano and accordion for accompaniment, Rage is a retrospective at the end of life, but for a man with such a fascinating past and catalogue, the text is remarkably dull and lifeless.

No director is credited, a traditional warning sign, and one heeded here: direction consists of sitting in a chair and rambling like the declining hero in Coward’s Present Laughter before standing up, singing a song, and ending in a blackout. When the lights come up, Mr. Cable is back in the chair and flat as ever. If the 2006 New York revue summoned the feeling of visiting friends in an intimate film setting, Rage is like a Radio 2 retrospective - informative and passably interesting, but distant.

But oh those songs. Brel’s music is entrancing and Cable comes to life once the tunes begin, channelling the senses of loss and power associated with his subject, salvaging an otherwise toothless evening. Unfortunately, despite producing a new translation in parts, many lyrics (including entire songs like "Madeline" and "Ne me quitte pas") are left in the original French, depriving the audience of a fuller sense of understanding. While the recent New York production utilised the same tactic, it was limited to one of four characters and provided a setting. When Cable talks about his wife hearing Ne me for the first time, the meaning is lost to the audience without knowing what the words mean.

Fans of Brel will attend regardless of the reviews, but The Rage to Live lacks the fury to survive, petering out before the last song.

Where: New End Theatre, possible upcoming dates elsewhere
When: Closed. Check Website for production news.
How Much: £15
Concessions: Usual suspects can advance book for £11
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £5 for the songs.
RZ Other Notes: What we have here is rather redundant - given that this production crams 15 songs into 75 minutes, there’s not much time for the monologues in between, and there’s little depth in what’s there. When it closed in early 2007, there was talk of transferring the NY Jacques Brel to London (supposedly at the Chocolate Factory). The Rage To Live will take the edge off a Brel craving, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as the plotless work it capitalises from.

THOUGHTS: "Dick Whittington" Revisited

Ah, the age old question: is pantomime still funny when you know all the jokes? And can a cast still deliver after six weeks of 12-14 performances/week?

Fortunately for the Hackney Empire, the answer to both is a resounding "yes". The RZ attended the closing performance of "Dick Whittington", and enjoyed himself just as much the second time around, this time surrounded by a wonderfully mixed audience of families and adult enthusiasts. Clive Rowe still had the audience eating out of his hands (not literally), Hannah Jane Fox's voice wasn't torn to shreds, and David Ashley's King Rat was just as melodramatically love-to-hate perfect as it was when the run began.

Here's looking forward to Mother Goose in 12 months!

Thursday, 10 January 2008

REVIEW: "Rebecca" (Vienna)

(Assessments are over. Time to catch up on 2007 reviews...)

How does one describe the works of Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay so that non-German speaking theatre fans can instantly understand why this duo have the appeal and career longevity that they do? Is it Kunze's poetic German, Levay's sweeping tunes, and the combination that exhibits the best of the genre's 80's grandiose? Perhaps it's their habit of bringing underdog characters to the positions of control audiences crave.

Regardless, Rebecca, based on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, brings much of the duo's formula back to the table: a young girl (referred to as "I") finds herself struggling for identity and control when she marries a rich widower named Maxim de Winter (played by German heartthrob Uwe Kröger) and finds their life together dominated by the shadows of his deceased first wife Rebecca.

Bringing a modern sensibility to this Edwardian tale, Kunze's book turns I's tale from a woman in subservience to one finding the confidence to take control of her life through her lover's misfortunes. In this regard, Rebecca is quite successful. However, it is at the expense of the secondary characters. Key scenes from the novel (such as when I and Beatrice visit Maxim's grandmother) are cut for time, and the character insights present are frequently left out leaving the audience with one-dimensional clutter instead of the human presence necessary to truly bring I's transformation around. Beatrice is merely a concerned sister and too nice to be believable, I's maid is a non-character, and Maxim is so buried in catch phrase ("Why the devil should I care about..." is his default dialogue) that we never get a fully fleshed out set of characters.

A good director would be able to cover up the flaws, but instead the VBW decided to hire renowned opera director Francesca Zambello. While Ms. Zambello is undoubtedly good in her primary sphere, she directs her actors with the broad strokes of opera, not the (still broad but more) refined grace necessary for popular musical theatre. As such, Susan Rigvava-Dumas is wasted in the role of Mrs. Danvers: she has the demanding, imposing presence demanded by her role and a powerhouse voice to match, but the character is again simply given one note. During the scene where she manipulates I into choosing her dress for the costume party, there should be a hint of false kindness, something which breaks I's defenses, but the line is read with the same imposing distance as everything else.

Fortunately, Sylvester Levay delivers with a set of sweeping numbers let down only by how often they're repeated: the title song is used four times vocally (all by Mrs. Danvers) and again multiple times in underscore. Rumour is that new tunes are in the works for the show's September return, but when the audience is paying full price, they expect a certain grade of product. Nevertheless, there are some brilliant songs here including "I Dreamed of Manderley", "Mrs. de Winter is me!", "She never gave up", and yes, the overplayed title number which are sure to stay in your head when you leave the theatre and demand purchase of the cast recording.

The cast also try their best despite the book's flaws and the flat direction: Wietske van Tongeren creates the role she's long deserved as "I", with her voice exuding youth and increasing confidence through the show. Uwe Kröger is reliable as Maxim, though his voice sounded strained when the RZ attended, and he missed the occasional note. Carsten Lepper and his understudy Kai Peterson were both deliciously sleazy as Jack Favell, though the former channeled his Lucheni from Elisabeth a bit too much. As Mrs. Van Hopper, I's original tormentress, Marika Lichter tries hard but comes up short, as her big number ("I'm an American Woman") fails to land the laughs that her characters' grotesque portrayal needs. Likewise, Kerstin Ibald is underused, and while her butch singing voice is appropriate for Beatrice, it doesn't mean the RZ has to like it (he didn't).

Rebecca's minor flaws extend into the design area: While Peter J. Davison (not to be confused with the Dr Who actor) has created a monstrous, claustrophobic yet spacious house and Birgit Hutter bedecks the cast in attractive period costumes, Sven Ortel comes up short as the show's video designer. Rebecca relies heavily upon CG projects for transitional moments, and while some of the sequences are quality, others look years out of date with bad video game camera angles and blatantly computer interpolated animation. Mr. Ortel also has the unfortunate task of combining video (more CG) fire effects with the live flames used towards the piece's conclusion - it looks cheesy from the start and only becomes passable when the video overtakes the live effects.

In the end, Rebecca is a good, but not great musical which brilliantly encapsulates the moodiness of the original novel but fails to cross the border into true genius. Fortunately, nothing about the show as it stands is beyond repair, and with its creators infamous for tinkering and revising their work, may well fulfill its potential for greatness.

Where: Raimund Theatre, Vienna
When: Closed until September. Check the website for reopening details.
How Much: €10-€95 based on day.
Concessions: Students, unemployed, seniors, and members of VBW's MusicalClub can get unsold tickets 30 min. prior to curtain for €11. Standing room is sold at all performances 2 hours in advance for €2.50 and is MOSTLY unobstructed.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": €45 for now, but subject to change with revisions.
RZ Other Notes: Standing room is a bargain - unlike at the Theatre an der Wien, you can see plenty. Despite all the negativity in the review, the RZ enjoyed Rebecca quite a bit, and is looking forward to the reworked Marie Antoinette from Kunze and Levay coming to Germany in 2009.

Monday, 7 January 2008

REVIEW: "Mary Poppins"

She may be practically perfect in every way, but the stage adaptation hybridising P. L. Travers’ original novels and the subsequent Walt Disney film is merely mediocre. Coming to the end of a three-year run, the RZ took a last minute look at this trans-atlantic family fare, leading to what he hopes is a more grown up month of theatrical excursions.

By now, the general plot should be known to every child in the UK and US, and will not be dealt with here. Suffice to say, all the big points from the movie are here, though most have been reworked to the constrictions of the stage. Additionally, new material has been brought in from the novels to counter the syrupy aspects of the film at the request of the Travers estate, and these scenes are what the RZ found most enjoyable. By adding a darker presence, the show is more tolerable to mum and dad, and adds a fright factor which (especially American) children have been far too shielded from in recent years. There’s also something that’s just so right about seeing a character embodied with everything good banishing an evil nanny to hell.

Cast-wise, Scarlett Strallen plays the title character with an appropriately dry wit and a pleasant voice. Gavin Creel has been with the show for what seems like ages, but it was a pleasure to see him still having fun onstage as Bert. The RZ is unsure of which pair of children he got (three sets share performances), but they were thoroughly irritating, even after the script calls for them to be less so. As for the remainder, the RZ could feel the combination of impending unemployment, boredom, and empathy all the way up in the balcony (Grand Circle). This is not to say that the cast were slack - far from it - but there was no energy coming from the stage in most of the numbers (the big exception being Step In Time).

The songs, a wonderful set of tunes from the Sherman Brothers and augmented by new works from Stiles and Drewe, blend old and new together wonderfully, and any youngsters (or sheltered adults) hearing the songs for the first time would be hard pressed to assign ownership. The new book, as mentioned above, adds a new depth to the situation, but it lacks punch and carries the slight boredom many associate with a good night at the theatre. The Victorian morals and archetypes present in the original survived the adaptation process, as though the idea of Mrs. Banks raising the children herself was revolutionary.

Despite all this negativity, praise must be lavished upon Bob Crowley and Howard Harrison for the brilliantly modular house and cityscape sets and mood lighting, respectively. Likewise, Andrew Bruce’s sound work was top notch and the RZ could hear every word clearly from his seat - a rarity for West End musicals these days.

Overall, Mary Poppins does what it says on the tin: it provides a safe show for a child’s first West End outing, resurrects the bits we love, and showers us with a touch of Disney magic. Unfortunately, it’s so by-the-numbers that one leaves feeling entertained but not excited or enthralled. Jersey Boys can't come soon enough.

Where: Prince Edward Theatre London, New Amsterdam Theatre NYC
When: M, W-Sa 19:30, Tu 19:00, Th/Sa 14:30 until 12 Jan.
How Much: £15-£49
Concessions: Children go half price Tuesdays/Wednesdays, student tickets available if sales that day are bad. The RZ couldn’t get a student ticket the night he went.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20
RZ Other Notes: £25 will get slightly restricted view or furthest back seats possible, but they’re enough. The RZ also notes that people in the lower levels get the pleasure of trying to look up Mary's skirt at the end of the show, as is appropriate for a theatre in Soho.

Friday, 4 January 2008

THOUGHTS: "X-Files Improv"

(More quickness from Trafalgar)

Long time actor and comedian Dean Haglund makes his west end debut with this improvisational comedy based on the long-running TV series. While fans of the X-Files will get the most out of attending, non-fans can take comfort in knowing that even without familiarity, Mr. Haglund is very, very funny. Consisting of four skits that combine to tell a story, ticketbuyers are assured of a lighthearted and hilarious time out.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 2
When: Until 5 Jan.
Cost: £15
Concessions: £10 for the usuals.
Unofficial RZ "Worth Paying": £15. Admission is in line for an hour show by a name comedian.
RZ Other Notes: Dean Haglund is also the inventor of ChillPak, a condensation-free cold pack designed for use with notebook computers. If given the chance, it's also worth picking up his comic book on the cancelling of the Lone Gunmen TV series.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

REVIEW: "Starlight Express" (Germany)

When the RZ was a young lad, one of his favourite toys was a set of Brio train blocks. He would spend hours putting them together and pulling the magnetic cars around, going through tunnels, and wishing that his mother would buy the drawbridge pieces. It is with this nostalgia running on high that he went to see the German production of the often mocked Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oft-maligned Starlight Express, now in its 18th year.

Plenty of others have panned the book in depth, and the RZ wishes to offer a counter. Starlight was written as a family show, and punters should not expect a great intellectual work. Instead, the story of engines and coaches racing for love and glory should be taken as presented: some highly imaginative and pleasant storytelling with a variety of lines (“You’ve got to keep him so that he can’t guess / when you are saying no but meaning yes”) nodding towards mum and dad. Such adult moments contributed heavily towards Starlight’s panning in the US, as they were written off as misogynist and out of place. Instead, such material gives the show an edge and prevents it from being too saccharine for grownups in the audience - nobody in this show is perfect, and it is the flaws that give depth.

The German translation, while odd in places, sings well. The Bochum producers have also been smart enough to avoid the endless revisions which plague the various English speaking productions, giving it a clarity and focus lacking elsewhere. As it stands, the only changes made since 1989 are the changing of “Only You” to “Next Time You Fall In Love” (rewritten here as “Alone in the Starlight”, which works far better), and the addition of the Trax characters, a pair of stunt skaters on roller blades vs. the rest of the cast’s quads.

The score, generally considered Webber’s worst, is remarkably catchy, and best compared to his work for Joseph, with hummable pop tunes such as "Rolling Stock", "A Light at the End of the Tunnel", and the lyrically panned "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D". Sadly, an upgrade to the theatre’s sound system over summer included the installation of virtual orchestra equipment, cutting the show’s band from 18 to 10. As a result, the large instrumental sequences (e.g. the four races) sound hollow and flat compared to the live cast recording issued over a decade ago. To add insult to injury, the orchestral reduction occurred simultaneously with a rise in ticket prices - something unforgivable in the RZ’s eyes.

Starlight Express’s true stars, however, are John Napier and David Hersey. Napier’s set, a dystopian monster of tracks and towers, provides plenty of room to skate in all directions, including the custom built theatre’s audience, but imposes upon the characters as a reminder that when all is said and done, a little boy rules over them all. Napier also designed the intricate costumes, responsible for his Tony award. Unfortunately, in a sign of weakness, the German production acquiesced and shifted the characters of the Rockies over to the 2003 tour’s Hip-Hoppers, which meant leaving their songs but using new, simplified (read: cheap looking) costumes which clash with the rest of the cast. David Hersey’s lighting is a kaleidoscopic gem, filled with colour and wonderment. Eighteen years after opening, these two men’s work continues to amaze, and is far more impressive than recent and costlier examples (the RZ is looking at you, Wicked, and your $14 million pricetag).

The cast at the RZ’s performance were truly international, coming primarily from London and Germany, with South American and other European members. All were talented singers and skaters, but Ernest Marchain’s Greaseball was appropriately sleazy, and Leanne Garrety sang wonderfully as Dinah. Carl Abraham Ellis plays a wise and kind Papa, and Jamie Golding a brash yet fragile Rusty. Unfortunately, Mr. Golding suffered an injury or illness at the performance the RZ attended, and was replaced for the second act by Nathan Sloan.

Lastly, while the RZ normally shuns the practice of making attendees buy programmes to get a cast list, Starlight’s is well worth the exorbitant €9 cost. For the money, punters get an A4 sized insert with the cast and crew information, an A3 sheet poster, and 64 oversized (A2?) pages of square bound full colour photos on heavy paper stock. What fans won’t get is any form of English synopsis - a great shame in the RZ’s eyes, as it meant he had to sit next to a loud and annoying woman who translated every other line for her boyfriend into Polish and couldn’t hand over the book to shut them up.

Overall, fans of technically enhanced theatre, lighthearted family shows, and escapism will adore Starlight Express (and have for over 20 years since the original London opening). Others will find it shallow, tacky, and a waste (and have for the same length of time). Falling firmly into the former camp, the RZ can not wait until he has the chance to return to Bochum and see this wonderful show again.

Where: Starlighthalle, Bochum, Germany
When: Times vary by day, check the website.
Cost: €30-€85, section prices vary by day.
Concessions: Students, seniors, and registered unemployed can get a sizeable discount on most ticket brackets when booking online or over the phone - the RZ got about €15 off his ticket in the Red section.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: €70. €5 were taken off for jacking the price for each Saturday show, and €10 for reducing the orchestra.
RZ Other Notes: When going, try to get the lower level centre first, then the three pods built into the stage. The sides are not as bad as implied on the seating plan, but the RZ wouldn’t recommend them for first timers. The theatre in Germany is custom built around the show, and the waiting area is decked out like a train station, serving as something of a museum with old costumes and props all around. There had been rumours in 2002 when the show closed in London that ALW was looking at doing similar for a revival a few years later, but nothing has since come of it. The RZ also feels he should note that once a year (usually in summer), the company has "Day of the Open Door", where fans can go backstage, participate in cosplay competitions, meet the cast, and see a special concert and tech display.