Attending the thee-a-tre in London is a much more regal experience than in New York, even in the rain. While navigating the latter’s theatre district involves dodging the trashiest of fast food joints and souvenir shops, London’s West End is just steps away from the splendour of Covent Garden and the majesty of Trafalgar Square — leading directly to Buckingham Palace. And across the Thames, over on Southbank one can find fantastic theatre as well. Yet don’t think that the delightfully staid atmosphere leads to a bland artistic experience in any way.
Last week I had the pleasure to enjoy two packed and diverse days of theatre ranging from ‘razzle dazzle’ to riveting historical drama. And on a student budget to boot! I was fortunate to stay in the heart of Westminster at the apartment of an actress friend of mine — Laura Kruse — who I met at a musical theatre evening in Paris this past Fall.
The Menier Chocolate Factory might just be my favourite musical theatre company in the world, and after experiencing their lively production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide last year, I considered myself lucky to be back in its intimate, medieval space in Southwark. I obtained one of the last tickets to its blistering new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. The 1990 musical about the motley crew of misfits that either failed to assassinate, or succeeded in assassinating, Presidents of the United States, is eerily relevant in an era of continued political violence, including a ‘lone wolf’ attack at the Canadian Parliament in my hometown this past October. However, Assassins may be out of step with recent research on violent extremism — which disproves the conventional notion that these criminals are disenfranchised and ‘lost’ — and instead imagines the various assassins as forming something of a gang, an idiosyncratic one at that.
This production, directed by Jamie Lloyd, has received tremendous acclaim — not something this musical, or Sondheim’s work in general, is used to — and all performances are entirely sold out, with a West End transfer likely in the works. I was attracted initially by the chance to watch Aaron Tveit after seeing him in the Les Misérables film and in Catch Me If You Can on Broadway in 2011. Tveit is marvellously sly as John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln’s killer), particularly in the pivotal scene in Act 2 in which he pressures Lee Harvey Oswald (Jamie Parker, in an arresting performance to foil his chipper banjo-playing earlier as the Balladeer) to shoot JFK.
They join a gifted and versatile cast that deftly handles Sondheim’s notoriously difficult score — the duet, “Unworthy of Your Love,” and the ensemble, “Something Just Broke,” are especially intriguing — while creating complex portrayals of assassins and wannabe assassins and their intense if often bizarre interactions. There is Mike McShane, who as Samuel Byck (dressed like Santa Clause), pens a letter to composer Leonard Bernstein expressing his adoration for his music — telling him to keep writing love songs (“what the world needs”) and none of that “long hair stuff” — and revealing his ‘calling’ and plan to kill Richard Nixon. Catherine Tate (of “The Office”) brings comic relief as Sara Jane Moore, a divorcée who can’t quite aim her pistol. Her scenes with Carly Bawden (a creepy ‘Squeaky Fromme,’ proud girlfriend to a murderer) are particularly over the top. Simon Lipkin is a heavily tattooed and bloody Emcee-like character who beckons, “come here and kill a President,” but then finds himself stuck when his recruits realize the meaning and fulfilment he promised them remains out of reach, dead President or not. The show also offers more intimate moments, including a moving scene in which David Roberts as Czolgosz recounts his job making glass bottles for six cents per hour (that is, unless one breaks). Yet whatever pathos is generated here, one thing is for certain: Assassins does not further cast assassins as celebrities, and instead paints the whole lot of them as exceedingly unappealing.
Assassins reminds me of another Sondheim show, Company, with its focus on character and atmosphere rather than linear plot. Yet this production feels remarkably fluid and cohesive. Moreover, the spoken and sung elements of the show are seamlessly integrated. The visuals conjure a state fair of sorts, with clownish set pieces and “bystanders” holding popcorn as they watch the sordid entertainments, and neon signs on opposite ends of the stage declaring “hits” and “misses” as we learn about each assassination attempt.
Supposedly Miss Saigon intended to be an updated version of Puccini’s achingly beautiful opera, Madama Butterfly, but other than the general plot of an American soldier falling in love with an exotic woman for hire and then abandoning her, the brash, arresting, irresistible 1989 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil could not be further from the intimacy and subtle tragedy of the opera. Legendary director and producer Cameron Mackintosh has mounted a new hit West End production of Miss Saigon — set in the midst of the Vietnam War and its savagery — and after performing much of the music from this show in a concert at the National Arts Centre with original lead actress Lea Salonga , I could not pass up the opportunity to catch the show in London.
The production shares a number of elements with Mackintosh’s recent production of Les Misérables, currently running on Broadway (I reviewed it here last Spring ): breathless, almost cinematic pacing, as well as loud amplification, which detracts from the tenderness of the score.
This Miss Saigon spares no expense — the helicopter is there, as are the showgirls — but ultimately succeeds thanks to bold, committed performances from Eva Noblezada (Kim) and Alistair Brammer (Chris, the shell-shocked GI who falls in love with her in “The Last Night of the World”. Kim bears Chris a son, but by that point the latter has returned to America and attempted to start life anew, married and burdened with PTSD. The desperate decadence of Saigon is masterminded by “The Engineer” (an engaging Jon Jon Briones, whose “American Dream” has never seemed more ironic). Rachelle Ann Go is also excellent as Gigi, a veteran stripper, and her duet with Kim — “The Movie in My Mind,” describing the ladies’ attempts to block everything out — is among the best parts of the score. Noblezada concludes the first act with a moving, “I’d Give My Life For You,” solidifying her commitment to her new son.
That Miss Saigon is so entertaining makes the piece even more uncomfortable, especially at the beginning of Act 2 when a soldier, John (a moving and powerfully sung performance by Hugh Maynard), returns from the war and sets up an organization to support “Bui Doi,” (street children, referring to those “conceived in hell and born in strife,” just like the son shared by Kim and Chris). Chris and his new wife, Ellen, return to Saigon with John, but their appearance as a couple leaves Kim devastated and the outcome is tragically predictable. This is a must-see production.
Sometimes my best theatre experiences are those for which I have absolutely no advance knowledge of the work, the creators, or the cast. I grabbed a last-minute “day ticket” to the National Theatre’s production of 3 Winters, by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić. The play manages to cover nearly a century of Croatia’s turbulent history through the lens of the Kos family and the home they inhabited after the fall of Hitler’s puppet, the Independent State of Croatia. The family has always shared the nationalized home with others, yet Lucia’s (Sophie Rundle, her younger self energetically played by Charlotte Beaumont) new groom-to-be has plans to buy the place and evict the Kos’ neighbours. This ignites a firestorm of family feuding in the lead-up to the wedding, with the most biting criticism coming from Lucia’s sister, Alisa (a pro-European lesbian who has moved to London and finds herself with less and less in common with her traditional family) played with verve by Jodie McNee.
The three periods — 1945, 1990 (Croatian War of Independence), and 2011 (Croatia as candidate for the European Union) — overlap within one ingenious set by Jon Driscoll. As Masha, the mother of the bride, Siobhan Finneran is particularly touching as she reflects upon her own life and builds enough courage to confront her armchair pundit of a husband, Vlado (an amusing Adrian Rawlins), demanding more attention from him in one of the strongest scenes of the play. We also meet Masha’s sister, Dunya (Lucy Black), and her husband Karl (Daniel Flynn) who becomes abrasive and then abusive after failing to convince his wife of the importance of establishing an independent Croatia.
3 Winters may sound on paper like a heavy slog — armed conflict? family angst (enough of that at home for theatregoers, no?) but let me assure you this is first class theatre and Howard Davies’ direction is impressive for its brisk fluidity.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
David Yazbek is enjoying somewhat of a London residency at the moment, with two of his Broadway musicals both on the boards: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (a success in 2004, based on the 1988 film of the same name starring Steve Martin) and his 2010 flop, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (based on another film from 1988 by Pedro Almodóvar).
I caught Women on the Verge in its second preview on Broadway — with plenty of starts and stops due to technical malfunctions, with apologies from director Bartlett Sher — but the show was a riot, thanks to a brilliant cast headed by Patti LuPone. Sadly not everyone agreed with me.
This almost sinfully entertaining production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — directed and choreographed, as on Broadway, by Jerry Mitchell — stars Tony winner Robert Lindsay and Alex Gaumond as Lawrence and Freddy, two different generations of top-notch con artists. As the young grasshopper, Freddy (originated on Broadway by Norbert Leo Butz) is bewildered by the elder scoundrel (John Lithgow in the original) and all of his “Great Big Stuff.” Yet the town (near the French Riviera) is not big enough for the both of them, so they make a deal: the first who can get $50,000 from a woman wins all the glory, while the loser has to leave town. Enter Katherine Kingsley as Christine Colgate — yes, the toothpaste — and the two scoundrels have found their target, only she turns out to be the wiser one all along.
Lindsay gives a masterclass in comic swagger, especially when he breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and at one point asks, “sorry, did I miss a scene?” His Lawrence is the consummate showman, sinking his teeth into the hilarity and decadence surrounding him — with countless pelvic thrusts and finger snaps. Bonnie Langford (a superb Roxie in Chicago in Ottawa) makes the most of Muriel, whose gullibility is only matched by her desire for status and ultimately fulfilment (she put her eggs in the wrong basket!). Yet the Friday matinee seemed fairly low-energy — post-Christmas hangover, perhaps — especially in terms of the singing. The ensemble dances up a storm in numbers like “The More We Dance,” clearly enjoying Yazbek’s jazz and tango-infused score. But what you will remember from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is Lindsay.
What a pleasure indeed to take in these four unique and powerful theatrical experiences in London. Next time you go to visit the Queen, make sure to squeeze in a show (or four).