Musicals in London and the UK: The Light in the Piazza; Company; The Unsinkable Molly Brown; Spring Awakening; A Little Night Music

West End, London and Leicester

8 June 2009

The Light in the PiazzaThe West End is undergoing a time of change at the moment, with various musicals closing either due to the economic climate or simply because they've run their course. Yet the variety of shows on offer in Britain at the moment is as diverse as ever.

During the past couple of weeks, I've seen five different musicals in quite different venues, covering over forty years of composition and a range of styles from rock to quasi-operatic. Collectively, they provide a fascinating picture of the directions musical theatre has taken in recent times, and on the whole give cause for celebration about the state of the genre in the UK.

First, I headed north to the Curve, a brand new theatre recently opened in Leicester to replace the now-closed Haymarket. Designed by Rafael Viñoly, the theatre seats around 800 and is a distinctive and imposing structure that is as comfortable for its patrons as it is impressive in its technical capabilities.

The management had scored a coup by securing the European premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical The Light in the Piazza by Adam Guettel, grandson of the great Broadway composer, Richard Rodgers. Set during the 1950s, the show is based on the novel of the same name by Eizabeth Spencer and describes the seemingly innocent visit of an American mother and daughter to Florence. When the daughter falls in love with a young Italian man, the secret of her mental difficulties emerges and threatens to thwart the relationship, but – this being Broadway, after all – ultimately love conquers all.

I was slightly taken aback by how insipid much of the score is, with the operatic tessitura leading a lack of bite in the vocal writing at times. Yet the evocation of sunlit Florence – very much seen through rose-coloured, Hollywood lenses – in the music is beautiful, enhanced by the impressionistic orchestration (here played by a magnificently large pit band). Paul Kerryson's direction was expert and the production was outstandingly stylish by any standards – all credit to designer Geroge Souglides and lighting designer Giuseppe di Iorio.

Disaster had struck on the morning of the performance I attended, and Lucy Schaufer – who was to have played the lead role – lost her voice. With no understudy in place, her part was taken by veteran musical theatre actress Jasna Ivir, who had been playing a much smaller part. Due to the lack of time available, Ivir had to perform from the book, but her performance was absolutely astounding; quite how she managed to inhabit the character so completely with so little preparation is beyond me. The ensemble was strong as a whole, even if I felt that neither of the young leads – Matt Rawle and Caroline Sheen – was all that well suited to the material, but overall it was inspiring to see a cast work so hard and so successfully together. The production deserved to transfer to the West End, but since it's closed I fear that's probably not going to happen.

Lincoln Stone, who plays Bobby in Company at the Union TheatreBack in London, the latest offering of the sprightly fringe Union Theatre near London Bridge is a transfer of a production of Stephen Sondheim's Company from last summer's Edinburgh Festival. For me, the musical performances did not, on the whole, match up with the generally high standard of the acting and direction (though the American accents from much of the cast were dodgy). The exception was Lincoln Stone's impeccable Bobby, far outdoing the rest of the cast in every department and capping the show with an imaginative and highly individual performance of 'Being Alive'. Lucy Williamson also stood out as Joanne, delivering 'The Ladies Who Lunch' with the perfect icy flair for Sondheim, but none of the rest quite made enough of an impression. Michael Strassen's direction and Michael England's musical direction kept everything moving nicely, however, and it's great to have the comparatively rare opportunity to see the piece in a London staging.

An even greater rarity was the UK premiere of The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Landor Theatre. Meredith Willson's first show, The Music Man, was one of the most successful and popular Broadway musicals of the 1950s, but he never managed to follow up this valentine to his home town with something else that made the same impact. The Unsinkable Molly Brown was the first of three further musicals (the others being Here's Love and 1491), but in spite of winning a Tony Award and being turned into a movie vehicle for Debbie Reynolds, it's never been seen in Britain before.

Sadly, this production wasn't remotely worth the wait. Having known the original Broadway cast album for many years I'm aware of the many fine qualities and complexities of this score. But pitifully few of them were realised in this rendition, largely because of the decision to use the now seemingly-ubiquitous actor-musician format. Yet again, the musical inadequacies of most of the actors when playing instruments meant that huge portions of the score were performed out of tune, and even if they'd all played perfectly, the combination of instruments on offer was incoherent. The only thing that saved it for me was the excellent teamwork of the two leads, Abi Finley and Sean Pol McGreevy, but the majority of the evening had a wearying 'am-dram' air to it that was disappointing in light of the importance of the occasion.

Spring Awakening in LondonAnother Broadway success, Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening opened in the West End in March to almost uniformly rave reviews and has become something of a cult classic amongst late teenagers. The latter were out in force for a sold-out house at the final performance of the stunted two-month run last Saturday (it ran 888 performances on Broadway) and screamed  to the rafters before and after most of the numbers. The piece has a fascinating conceit, in that the band is onstage and many of the rock-style songs are sung with hand-held microphones, while this modern idiom is juxtaposed with the period setting of the drama.

However, the authors of the show did not quite carry the idea through to its conclusion, so sometimes the actors are singing the songs in character, without concert microphones, thereby taking us into conventional musical territory. In these instances, there is a clash between the modern language of the song lyrics and the period dialogue of Wedekind's expressionist play. My feeling is that the show might be more powerful if the music were staged in a more metatheatrical style, with a separate 'concert' taking place alongside the play; this would also allow rock voices to be used, rather than music theatre voices, which don't particularly suit the style of the score. I was disappointed at the poor diction at this showing, as well as the slightly bland, generalised acting (the script called for a lot more edge than it was given), so for myself I can't say I mourn the closing of the show too much. Still, to see a West End theatre full of young audience members was truly inspiring, and for that reason alone it's a shame it hasn't lasted longer.

The cast of A Little Night Music in LondonOf all the shows I've seen recently, though, A Little Night Music remains the West End's most compelling. Now transferred to the West End after an excellent run at the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory (which I reviewed here), the show has perhaps lost a little detail through needing broader performances at the larger Garrick Theatre, but the cast continues to gel and create the ideal atmosphere for Sondheim's musical setting of Ingmar Bergman's movie (Smiles of a Summer Night). Hannah Waddingham's poignantly ageing Desiree and Maureen Lipman's icily humorous Madame Armfeldt continue to provide the two poles around which the production works, and musically it could be a notch better, but this is an ensemble cast with no serious weak links. Nobody with the chance to see this beautifully staged and acted production should hesitate.

By Dominic McHugh


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