FEATURE: Look Left – London Dispatch
With “The Ferryman”, “The Nap”, and “Network” arriving on Broadway this fall from London, and English productions of “Ink” and “King Lear” planned for the spring, it might feel like the British are invading! On my recent trip to London, though, I caught three American musicals, two-classics receiving new productions on the West End, and one new musical developed in New York that is Broadway-bound. Here’s a roundup look:
“Company” (Revival Musical, Gielgud Theatre): A new revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Tony Award winning best musical “Company” by director Marianne Elliott (“Angels in America”, “War Horse”), starring Patti LuPone and featuring a gender-swapped leading character, is undoubtedly the hottest ticket in London right now. Much has been written and said about the potential novelty of changing the leading man of this show about a 35 year old bachelor and his married friends into a leading lady, but with just a few lyric and dialogue edits, it is amazing how easily that transformation works, and how effective it is at offering new and revelatory insights into both the existing material and, in turn, sexual politics of the present moment. To be clear, “Company” is a perfect musical as is. It does not need “fixing”. But what Ms. Elliott and her collaborators, including Mr. Sondheim himself, have done is not fix “Company” so much as create a newly resonant adaption for 2018. “Company” was not written as a period piece in 1970, so it is refreshing to see it played as a contemporary one once again, something that could not be done without changing some references (“The Seagram’s Building”, “my service will explain”, or the repeatedly mentioned fad-obsession with analysis) and adding in our ubiquitous technology (iPhone, iPad, texting). Transforming Bobby into Bobbie, Amy into Jamie (her gay best friend), the trio of girlfriends into boyfriends, and flipping most of Jenny and David’s lines creates opportunities for well-known scenes and songs to hit the audience in new ways, precisely, if not unfortunately, because society’s baked-in expectations for single women are different than they are for men. This production features the best physical design of any I’ve ever seen for “Company”, and a striking new number that turns the “Tick Tock” sex ballet into a dream-like movement sequence about the tick-tock of a woman’s biological clock. Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie offers a master class in all the many roles we expect women to play while balancing love, marriage, friendship, and career. Patti LuPone is unsurprisingly perfect as Joanne. And Jonathan Bailey is a stellar standout as the aforementioned Jamie (“Not Getting Married Today” is a highlight). That newly added representation of a gay character in a musical about relationships makes a powerful impact almost, if not completely, on par with changing Bobby into a woman. Both upend our gendered expectations. This ravishing version of “Company” deserves to have a long life and, if there is any justice in the world, should transfer to Broadway next season.
“Dreamgirls” (Revival Musical, Savoy Theatre): following the acclaim of “A Chorus Line” (1975) and the bust of “Ballroom” (1978), Michael Bennett’s last musical as director and choreographer was “Dreamgirls” (1981). A fictionalized, backstage drama documenting the rise of black girl group in the 1960s and 70s (loosely based on The Supremes), the musical was a sensation on Broadway, making a star of its Tony-winning leading lady Jennifer Holliday, and received a 2007 film adaption starring Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé. Despite its beloved score and newfound audience, amazingly, “Dreamgirls” has not played New York since a short revival of Bennett’s original production closed in 1987. Enter Casey Nicholaw (“Mean Girls”, “The Book of Mormon”). Like Bennett before him, as director and choreographer, Mr. Nicholaw has fashioned a high energy, fast-paced, and surprisingly moving production of “Dreamgirls” that opened on London’s West End in 2016, starring Amber Riley (“Glee”) as the ineffable Effie White—the scorned diva cast out of the group who sings the Act I closer “And I’m Telling You (I’m Not Going)” and the Act II showstopper “I Am Changing”. Three women now rotate in the part. Tosh Wanogho-Maud is a standout as James Brown-esque soul rocker James “Thunder” Early, and each of the Dreams is given her moment to shine—especially during “Listen”, a song from the film newly added to the show, but re-written as a reconciliation duo of empowerment for Effie and Deena. Across the board the principals and ensemble lack the sharpness and quality of technique that you get from American-trained musical theatre performers on Broadway. That said, like Bennett before him, Mr. Nicholaw is known more for his overriding touch of glitzy panache than for any specific movement vocabulary, and he delivers—notably without sacrificing any heart. The newly envisioned closing montage brought unexpected tears to my eyes. This “Dreamgirls” truly is a dream. Maybe Broadway will follow when this production closes in January.
“Hadestown” (New Musical, National Theatre): The tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold in “Hadestown” through a stirring mix of modern American folk music and vintage New Orleans jazz. With lush music and lyrics and a book in verse by Anaïs Mitchell, fused with the unmistakable imprint of director and co-developer Rachel Chavkin (“The Great Comet”), this new musical—that began its life in 2006 and premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016—is given a first class production at the Royal National Theatre, featuring a suite of superb performances by American actors Reeve Carney (Orpheus), André DeShields (Hermes), Amber Gray (Persephone), Eva Noblezada (Eurydice), and Patrick Page (Hades). Somewhere within this two hour and 30 minute musical, though, is a 90 minute version waiting to break free. The plot points of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth are fairly simple, and a good deal of the material around the Hades-Persephone relationship is superfluous. Indeed, the musical opens strong, but then fizzes out as the action drags and is belabored by extraneous song. Much of the aesthetic, too, while eminently appealing, feels rehashed. What the musical does quite successfully do, though, is merge old and new through story, song, and dance. Plans are underway for Broadway, assuming a theatre can be secured. I hope some narrative tightening is done along the way, because when it gels, “Hadestown” is as exciting and thrilling a new musical as any I’ve seen.