It had been many years since I visited London’s West End to see a show. My late husband Greg and I had been regulars starting in the late 70s. We saw all the mega hits at their inception - Cats, Evita, Phantom, Les Mis├ęrables, Equus – and we reveled in the total immersion experience that is very distinctively part of the London theatre scene. In later years, as part of my work, I came often for opera and classical music, so I got to know and love the city’s great cultural venues. Though there is so much more to the London experience, the city always was synonymous to me with the stage. It was a place where the transformative magic of theatre was a deeply ingrained part of daily life.
A friend and I decided to join a group tour organized by Maine State Music Theatre (my home town professional company) and Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Fulton Theatre. The choice was a brilliant one because, not only were travel logistics simplified, but the accommodations at the St. Ermin’s Hotel and all the hospitality arrangements were first class and welcoming. Moreover, the group was a stimulating, friendly one, which made our evening discussions the highlights of the week. Most of all, the theatre experience, led by MSMT’s Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark, and the Fulton’s Executive Artistic Producer, Marc Robin, made the entire trip extraordinary. These two artists with their years of professional experience as actors, directors, choreographers, and artistic administrators brought a perspective and insight to the events that made each theatre outing and every subsequent talkback memorable. The
opportunity to engage in lively, thought-provoking conversation about the plays capped the powerful visceral experiences in the theatre.
For me, who had long ago done all the tourist things, this week was a chance to experience London as if I were a resident. During the day I walked, shopped, ate in charming restaurants, visited a few galleries and sights I had missed in earlier visits, but my focus was always directed with anticipation toward the evening at the theatre. And each of the five plays we saw amply rewarded that anticipation.
The balance in the selection of shows was another high point of the trip, allowing us to get a good feeling for the exciting range of repertoire London’s West End has to offer from riveting dramas to frothy musicals to opera. The standouts for me this year were the two straight plays, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman and J.T. Rogers’ Oslo. Both deal with serious, challenging, historical events and neither spares the audience the pain and complexity of the situations at the same time that they weave these emotions and events into powerful narrative with empathetic characters.
The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, recounts the story of the Carney family whose past involvement with IRA comes back to haunt them in their Derry farming retreat during the annual harvest of 1981. What unfolds is a drama that deals with the pressures of politics and personal life, regrets, recriminations, lost dreams, suppressed passion, and the deep need for kinship and solace in family amid the struggle to articulate a future for an Ireland in turmoil. Written with the poetic lyricism that seems an Irish literary birthright, The Ferryman’s characters are all developed with great subtlety and colorful touches, and though the play runs three hours and ten minutes (something unthinkable on Broadway), it grips the audience’s attention and builds the tension to its violent and powerful climax. The unit set by Rob Howell with atmospheric lighting by Peter Mumford
evokes perfectly the Irish countryside as well as the realm of memory into which several of the characters – most notably Aunt Maggie – journey. The cast creates a tight ensemble, led by the incandescent performances of Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney), Brid Brennan (Aunt Maggie), Laura Donnelley (Caitlin Carney), and John Hodgkinson (Tom Kettle). Performed at the historic Gielgud Theatre, originally designed by W.G.R. Sprague and recently restored and refurbished by Cameron Macintosh, the Louis XVI ambiance adds to the experience, though the sight lines for the upper reaches of the theatre seats are woefully obstructed. Yet, despite some visual and a few aural difficulties, it is still thrilling to hear theatre without amplification as is done in virtually every Broadway house.
The Harold Pinter Theatre, which began existence as the Royal Comedy Theatre in 1881, was the four-tier horseshoe configured venue for J. T. Rogers’ Oslo. The play tells the thrilling, behind-the-scenes true story of two maverick Norwegian diplomats who risk everything to coordinate top-secret talks for Middle East peace held in a forest outside Oslo. Peopled with colorful depictions of historic personages such as Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, Ahmed Ourie, as well as the lesser known heroes of the piece, the Norwegians Terje Rod-Larsen and his wife Mona Juul, Rogers’ play moves with a feline grace and spellbinding suspense to its dramatic conclusion. Told with human warmth and a disarming sense of humor, Oslo offers a candid, intimate look at what goes on behind closed doors at the highest level of diplomatic negotiations. What it reveals is often surprising,
sometimes jarring, but ultimately inspiring in the way that the play (and the events themselves) advances a message that all men have more that binds them together than that which separates them as enemies. Oslo redefines the meaning of “enemy” and “friend,” and despite the collapse of this bold, peacemaking venture, ends the play with a message of quiet idealism and hope. Director Bartlett Sher works his customary magic with the piece, keeping the pacing nimble and the tension high. The all-neutral palette of Michael Yeargan’s set and Catherine Zuber’s costumes adds to the veil of secrecy, muted activity, and quiet hope, enveloped in risk. Donald Holder’s lighting lends the necessary variety, while the projections by 59 Projections create the historicity of the work. Again, the performances are uniformly memorable, with the actors inhabiting completely their historical characters and humanizing
them. Toby Stephens as Terje Rod-Larsen exudes quiet determination and an undeterred sense of idealistic courage, while Lydia Leonard is luminous as his wife, Mona Juul, the supportive and subtle force who makes most of the events happen. Peter Polycarpou (Ahmed Ourie), Nabil Elouahabi (Hassan Asfour), Paul Herzberg (Shimon Peres), Jacob Krichefski (Yossi Beilin) are standouts in a fine cast. One leaves Oslo, not only with a firmer grasp of a recent historical event, but with a renewed sense of hope that men can communicate and compromise if they will only learn to listen to each other and to respect each other’s essential humanity.
After two intense evenings, a visit to the venerable Theatre Royal at Drury Lane to see the musical 42nd Street was a delightful change of pace. Directed with idiomatic period detail by Mark Bramble (who also co-wrote the book) and choreographed by Randy Skinner, this revival of the Tony-Award-winning 1980 musical with dances by Gower Champion features a m├ęlange of music by Al Dubin, Johnny Mercer, and Harry Warren that includes existing songs from films of the period and several memorable new ones. The frothy plot tells the story of a would-be chorus girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who gets her Broadway break when the aging star is injured. The plot employs all the requisite romantic and comic twists and turns, but the heart of the show is the spectacle and the choreography.
The London production is lavish, elaborate, and full of dazzling production numbers, not the least of which is the Busby Berkeley-styled mirror number, or the virtuosic tap extravaganza of “Forty-second Street.” And there are fine lyrical moments as well in “The Lullaby of Broadway” or “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Douglas K. Schmidt (sets), Roger Kirk (costumes), and Peter Mumford (lighting) outdo themselves with an expensive and elegant physical production. Todd Ellison leads the ten-person pit orchestra with idiomatic brio. Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer proves herself an amazing dancer and a winsome actress, capturing perfectly the naivet├ę and the steel in the aspiring actress. Sheena Easton delivers the vocal goods as Dorothy Brock, though she is not fully convincing as the grande dame. Stuart Neal is an appealing singer-dancer as Billy Lawlor,
while Graeme Henderson is a perky Andy Lee. Tom Lister’s Julian Marsh is a puzzling portrayal – younger and more predatory than customary. The Drury Lane with its long, phoenix-like history (having been destroyed four times by fire) has been lovingly refurbished and restored to its original grandeur by its current owner, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and proves the perfect setting for the sparkle and spectacle of this show. One leaves the theatre with a song in the heart and a skip in the step.
Meant to provide a similarly magical and escapist experience, the London production of Disney’s Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre does not succeed nearly as well as does 42nd Street. To be sure, the production has all the glitz and glamour of any Disney effort, and this West End mounting recreates the 2014 Broadway original. The score (originally from the 1992 Disney film) by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin, and a book by Chad Beguelin is, in my estimation, not one of Menken’s best. The show relies, instead on its jaw-dropping set (Bob Crowley) and special effects, elaborate costumes (Gregg Barnes), and transformative lighting (Natasha Katz) designed to enchant the young and young at heart and create the magic which is at the heart of the story. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw delivers serviceable
staging and dances – the most clever and catchy moments reserved for the Genie and Aladdin’s trio of friends. Trevor Dion Nicholas as the Genie captures the audience’s imagination and delights with his nimble, humorous antics, while Leon Craig (Babkak), Daniel De Bourg (Kassim), and Miles Barrow (Omar) provide comic relief and high-jinks as Aladdin’s sidekicks. Unfortunately, the central protagonists currently in this London production are the weak link with Matthew Croke a non-charismatic, vocally insecure Aladdin, and Jade Ewen a lackluster Jasmine. Nonetheless, the audience – a fascinating mixture of children and adults of various ages – was a forgiving one, willing to revel in the timeless story, enjoy the lavishness of the Disney visual magic, and warm to the sweet, simple message of the tale. This coupled with the gilded and graceful ambiance of the Prince Edward Theatre’s Art Nouveau auditorium makes
for an enchanted evening.
The final theatre foray was to the English National Opera’s production of Verdi’s Aida at the monumental Coliseum. While, in theory, Aida makes an admirable choice to introduce newcomers to opera, this modernized and often puzzling production directed by Phelim McDermott might have been more confusing than embracing. Set in a loosely flowing time span from Verdi’s time to Mussolini’s Italy, the stark d├ęcor by minimalist Tom Pye, the angular lighting by Bruno Poet, and the muted, mixed period costumes by Kevin Pollard succeeds in creating a geometric modernity, though they lost much of sun-drenched light and pageantry one associates with ancient Egypt. Since the ENO has no resident ballet, the traditional dance sequences are minimal, mostly replaced with fluttering silks, waving flags, and stylized movement. Perhaps most
disappointing was the “Triumphal March” which was staged as a funeral procession for the fallen heroes and a brutal display of barbaric treatment of the prisoners of war. The impact of the performance therefore relies largely on the musical aspects. Conductor Keri Lynn Wilson leads the ENO Orchestra confidently; her tempi are occasionally maddeningly slow, and her crisp, clean phrasing often made one yearn for more passionate lyricism, but overall she draws a rich sound from the pit. In the title role Latonia Moore displays a lush, soaring soprano voice that rose above the ensemble, had heft and beauty, if not necessarily excitement. Similarly, Michelle De Young proves a strong Amneris vocally, but a static actress, so the fiery exchanges between rivals are lost. Matthew Best as Radames is possesses a sturdy, bright tenor, and he sings the role musically, even attempting with good results the Bb pianissimo at the end
of “Celeste Aida.” Baritone Muso Ngqungwana is an outstanding, emotionally and vocally compelling Amonasro. The ENO, of course, is committed to presenting opera in the vernacular, and though this is nothing new in the history of the genre, to these ears, the poetry of Antonio Ghislanzoni’s libretto with its melting Italianate cadences sounds jarring in English, and the frequent unsynced supertitles are just a plain nuisance. Nonetheless, it was a thrill for me personally, after so many years to sit in a European opera house and to experience the rich heritage of the medium in as magnificent and imposing a setting as the 2359-seat Coliseum with its perfect acoustics.
A few days after I returned home, my work brought me to New York City, and I took in a couple Broadway shows. As brilliant as they were and as much as doing this always takes me back to my forty career years as a New Yorker, the entire experience has a decidedly different feel than “theatre across the pond”. What is it that makes London’s theatre world so special? Certainly, it is the sense of palpable history of the theatres themselves and of the tradition which dates to the Middle Ages, and which placed its stamp on world theatre in the 16th century with the likes of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. There is an indescribable feeling of participating in a 900-year-old ritual with its origins in the sacred and its roots planted firmly in the secular. There is that awe-inspiring experience of seeing actors, singers, performers who have been trained in a classical, age-old
tradition, as well as in the modern theatrical idioms, especially American musical theatre. And then, there is the feeling of camaraderie that attending a play in the West End offers. London is still a place where theatre-going is not reserved for tourists, where ordinary folk make it a habit to attend shows, and live theatre is a cherished form of entertainment. Finally, there is the sense of respect for and support of the arts that manifests itself – however much the Brits bemoan the cuts in funding – in government support for theatre, the arts, and cultural institutions as invaluable pillars of a civilized and enlightened society. So it is, in this embracing environment that the entire experience of theatre going – whether the play is light- hearted or thought provoking, escapist or searing – becomes an inspired celebration.
MSMT and the Fulton Theatre organize the London Theatre Trip each October. For more information visit their websites at msmt.org or thefulton.org
Cover Photo - MSMT & Fulton Theatre 2017 London Tour
Front center: Marc Robin & Curt Dale Clark)