FEATURE: Look Left – London Dispatch
On my most recent trip to London, I caught seven shows—a mix of musicals and plays, both new and in revival. I swung by “Company” for a second viewing, but here’s a roundup look at the other six:
“9 to 5: The Musical” (Revival Musical, Savoy Theatre): a stage adaption of the hit 1980 film opened on Broadway to middling reviews in April 2009; despite a starry cast, it was largely dismissed and closed after only 148 performances. I saw that production, enjoyed it, but don’t remember much. That’s why I jumped at the chance to see the London premiere of director Jeff Calhoun’s revival. A lot has changed in our culture from 2009 to 2019, making this tale of three women rebelling against the sexism and misogyny of the workplace all the more resonant. Now styled as “Dolly Parton presents 9 to 5”, the country music legend appears via video to narrate the top of each act and deliver an epilogue at the end. It’s a clever move that sets the tone and kicks off the title song with its unmistakable vamp. Mr. Calhoun, who previously directed U.S. and UK national tours of the show, pushes the setting firmly into the late-1980s with big hair, shoulder pads, a black, white, and primary color scheme, and wings decorated with now-ancient looking computer monitors. The whole production is as slick, tight, and focused as they come, with near constant motion to Ms. Parton’s superbly written songs and transition music. Like that score, the book by Patricia Resnick—who penned the screenplay and is at work on a film sequel—is an under-appreciated work of great skill, humor, and pathos. In fact, “under-appreciated” might just be the catchphrase of this show. While critics and audiences were cool to it in 2009, on the heels of the MeToo and TimesUp movements, this smart, feminist comedy—as delivered with knockout performances in a tautly re-imagined production—might finally get the appreciation it deserves.
“All About Eve” (New Play, Noël Coward Theatre): Film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Academy Award winning screenplay for “All About Eve” (1950) was inspired by Mary Orr’s short story “The Wisdom of Eve” (1946), which Orr adapted as a stage play (1964)—all of which served as source material for the Tony Award winning best musical “Applause” (1970). Belgian director Ivo van Hove tackles this now-iconic backstage story of fame and ambition with his own stage adaption of Mankiewicz’s script. Alongside frequent design collaborator Jan Versweyveld—and starring Gillian Anderson as the vain-glorious Margo Channing and Lily James as her conniving upstart-fan-turned-understudy Eve Harrington—Mr. van Hove employs his signature style of theatremaking (to which I am a partisan) with live camera filming throughout, a tension-building score by composer PJ Harvey, and an emphasis on menace over humor. The effect is a tale that is transporting, but never deeply moving. The glamour of fame’s illusive stead in the 1940s has been replaced by the tedium of its over-accessibility in our age, which makes the play both a relic but also timely in its notes on obsession and the predicament of aging—here especially emphasized in Ms. Anderson’s steely performance. The style intoxicatingly overtakes the substance at many turns, but the treatment of “All About Eve” as a thriller works in the final analysis, and the story remains as entertaining as ever.
“The American Clock” (Revival Play, The Old Vic): Playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005) is best known for his quartet of masterpieces: “All My Sons” (1947), “Death of a Salesman” (1949), The Crucible” (1953), and “A View from the Bridge” (1955). But his work continued into the early 2000s, including “The American Clock” (1980) a semi-autobiographical 12 performance Broadway flop that took an ambitiously impressionistic and expressly political look at The Great Depression. Subtitled “a vaudeville” following revisions by Miller in 1984 for a prior London version, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”, “The Great Comet”) resurrects this forgotten piece with a new conceptual production at The Old Vic that interpolates music and dance throughout the assorted vignettes that comprise the play. There is a challenge implicit in daring to tell the story of an era through the lens of a closed circuit set of characters. Miller attempted to meet that challenge by expanding the universe beyond one family in Brooklyn, adding a spate of other people and locales spanning the country by drawing on interviews conducted by Studs Terkel for his book “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression”. Ms. Chavkin further continues the effort by tripling up the central characters of the Baum Family, introducing South Asian and African American trios to share the story with their white counterparts. The result offers an expansive, deeply compelling, and emotionally rhythmic account of a terrible time in American history—the most humanizing dramatization of the era that I have ever witnessed. The play itself, at nearly three hours length without a plot, is no jewel, but Ms. Chavkin quite brilliantly unearths its latent potential to make it as accessible as it probably can be. While allegory to contemporary economic woes looms throughout, I suspect the experience of seeing “The American Clock”, its meditation on the illusory nature of the American Dream, and its interrogation of a rigged capitalist system will be more meaningful for, well, Americans. And I hope we are afforded this opportunity across the pond.
“Follies” (Revival Musical, The National Theatre): In his Harvard Crimson review of the Boston tryout of “Follies” in 1971, future New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich closed by offering this insight: “a large part of the chilling fascination of “Follies” is that its creators are in essence presenting their own funeral.” He was partly right. While nearly all went on to achieve even greater success in musical theatre, they had changed the game for the form itself. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies” heralded the solidified arrival of a thrilling new era for musical theatre awash in metaphor and intellect—showing more sweepingly than ever before what a musical could do and be. Like “Company” (1970) the season before it, the story of “Follies” was unusual and its form experimental. Two star-crossed couples, and a host of background characters shadowed by ghosts of their younger selves gather at the “first and last” reunion of the fictional Weismann Follies; as the evening wears on, the past and the present increasingly blur in a fantasia of illusion and disillusion, the characters erupting in a surreal musical sequence (“Loveland”) before greeting the harsh light of day, and facing the future. A divisive masterpiece deemed both brilliant and a perennial flop, the National Theatre’s triumphant 2017 production by director Dominic Cooke is now in revival. And it is breathtaking. The musical works as much in its imagery as its text, with the strength of its visual storytelling (any given frame of which contains multitudes) proven on a scale that has likely never been achieved before in the vast expanse of the Olivier Theatre, and with a cast of 40 and an orchestra of 21. While the original Hal Prince/Michael Bennett production is untouchably iconic, this “Follies” may very well be the defining “Follies” of our time. The only theatre suitable for it in New York would be the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. I hope a transfer happens.
“Six” (New Musical, Arts Theatre): While the idea of a hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton might have seemed far-fetched pre-2015, the first clear-cut spiritual descendant of “Hamilton” has been blazing across stages in the UK for nearly two years now— and in its own unique way. It turns out that who lives, who dies, and who tells the story are evergreen questions when (re)visiting historical figures. In “Six: The Musical”, we visit with the six wives of King Henry VIII—Catherine (divorced), Anne (beheaded), Jane (died), Anne (divorced), Katherine (beheaded), and Catherine (survived!)—who tell their stories in the form of an “American Idol”-style pop concert competition for the title of queen. Each assumes a musical personae inspired by a specific contemporary female pop icon ranging from Beyoncé to Britney and Adele to Rihanna. As they take their turns, and make their cases, the piece itself turns from witty and irreverent fun to a smartly crafted but never too self-serious message about female agency in historical storytelling. “Six” is unlike any musical I’ve seen before, experimenting with form in an exciting and new way. Authors (and apparently best friends) Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss (who also directs) have penned a suite of songs that perfectly nail the sound of their icon inspirations without sounding like second-rate or derivative knockoffs, and while avoiding the comment of pastiche. That, alone, is a remarkable achievement, and it is paired with an appropriately sharp and shady book that conveys a bounty of information in an economic and slyly digestible way. The show/concert is a pure joy-fest that delivers 70 minutes of nonstop movement, a host of history, and an important message. My jaw remained dropped (literally) for a good portion. While the subject matter, and some of the language, is oh so very British, I have no doubt that “Six” will make a splash in America—just as “Hamilton” continues to pack audiences at the Victoria Palace. Like the six wives themselves, it defies category.
“Tartuffe” (Revival Play, The National Theatre): Molière penned “Tartuffe” in 1664; that its themes and story continue speaking to and resonating with audiences nearly 350 years later are a testament to the timeless truths about faith, family, deception, religion, zealotry, and politics that the play taps into. This new version by John Donnelly sets the familiar story of Orgon—the hapless patriarch cast under the spell of Tartuffe (alternatively “the imposter” and “the hypocrite”) who upends his household in farcical and spiritual ways—in the present, grappling with the obscene degree of wealth inequality that defines our time and the pesky persistence of moral hypocrisy and religious extremism seemingly endemic to mankind. The play is long-winded and Tartuffe’s ideology too amorphously defined here, yet it retains the comedy and satire that make it an enduring classic. The cast is superb, as is the style and striking set design. The famous “deus ex machina” ending in which Orgon and his family are saved from eviction at the conniving hand of Tartuffe by a last minute intervention from the crown strikes a grisly chord. Tartuffe is slowly revealed to be a homeless street person whose deceptions, while self-serving and duplicitous, are motivated by a larger, cosmic “reckoning” for the 1% whose greed and indifference are the ultimate moral hypocrisy. Of course the Royal Family would “save the day” for Orgon and co. There is no similar charity for Tartuffe, but the final tableau of this incisive production suggests that time is running out for the elite, with the ground beneath them literally sinking. It seems safe to suggest that the relevance of “Tartuffe” will continue for centuries to come, assuming that “reckoning” doesn’t kill us all first