A Theatrephile returns to London. | Carla Maria Verdino-Sullwold | Scene4 Magazine | December 2021 | www.scene4.com

Plays…Glorious Plays…
 A Theatrephile returns to London

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

After two years without the joy of international travel, a group of intrepid theatre lovers, led by Maine State Music Theatre, sallied out to revisit the West End and get a much-needed "fix" of plays. With Covid restrictions loosening in the U.K. – at least for the fully vaccinated – we were able to enjoy all the rich offerings London has and to take in nine plays in seven days.  The experience was refreshing and uplifting, the perfect trip to recharge batteries after  so many difficult months for the theatre community. 

The entire atmosphere in London, despite the requirements for two Covid tests during the week, was remarkably open and hopeful.  Masks were routinely worn as a matter of volunteer choice; theatres checked vaccination passes, but otherwise allowed their full houses to enjoy the bars, the lobbies and the auditoriums almost as in pre-pandemic days. There was a sense of hopefulness, courtesy, and adult responsibility – most of all a sense of joyfulness that was like manna to this traveler.

The Maine State Music Theatre group, led by Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark with assistance from Development Director Morgan Rodgers, had the opportunity to enjoy five shows as part of the package and four optional offerings – all chosen with an eye to variety and impact, and the group came together each evening to discuss the shows with Clark in stimulating talkbacks.


Perhaps the most consummate production in my eyes was a spectacular revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes at the Barbican. Directed by Kathleen Marshall with musical direction by Stephen Ridley, this was a period-perfect feast for the eyes and ears.  Visually stunning in a palette of neutrals and pastels with elegant costumes by John Morrell, sets by Derek McLane, and lights by Hugh Vanstone, the cast was stellar with exceptionally strong performances by Rachel York (who had just replaced Sutton Foster) as Reno Sweeney and Samuel Edwards as Billy Crocker. What struck one throughout the course of the evening was the timeless magnificence of Cole Porter's score – one glorious melody with scintillating lyrics after another, well-placed show-stoppers, and a beautiful sense for the architecture of a classic musical.


A more modern musical with the makings of a classic, the West End production of Dear Evan Hansen proved the enduring quality of this heart-wrenching tale of modern youth.  Steven Levenson's book captures the angst, the tragedy, and the healing of this tale in a tightly wrought narrative with songs by Pasek and Paul that grow seamlessly out of the story and come just at the right moments to heighten the drama.

Directed by Michael Greif with choreography by Danny Medford, the play moves with taut and powerful urgency.  David Korins' scenic design (projections by Peter Nigrini) which relies heavily on video and digital images of the social media that is a character, in and of itself, in the drama, creates a brilliant context, complemented by Japhy Weideman's lighting, Nevin Steinberg's sound design, and Emily Rebholz' costumes.  The West End cast is a compelling one with an especially moving performance in the title role by Sam Tutty, who captures the emotional anguish of the character so convincingly. The remainder of the ensemble each limns strong portrayals of the youngsters and adults caught up in the aftermath of a boy's suicide, and everyone demonstrates the kind of naked courage required to explore this story and these characters.  Like Next to Normal before it, Dear Evan Hansen is not for the faint-hearted, but it handles painful subjects with sensitivity, empathy, and just the right blend of agony and uplift.


Another new musical, And Juliet, is a clever concoction of existing popular songs woven together with new ones by Max Martin with a book by David West Read.  Drawing its inspiration from the recent triumph of Six (a modernization of the history of Henry VIII's wives), And Juliet imagines that Shakespeare consents to his wife Anne Hathaway's entreaties to change the ending of Romeo and Juliet by not letting Juliet  or Romeo die, but rather find new lives for themselves.  The  familiar characters are all there, cleverly seen in the dual context of 15th century Verona and 21st century modernity.  The play embraces hot button contemporary  issues like feminism, sexism, and sexual and gender diversity, serving them up with a gentle wit and warmth that avoids didacticism.  Directed by Luke Sheppard and choreographed  by Jennifer Weber, the play has a ragtag minimalistic look that befits the company of itinerant players. Soutra Glimour creates a very fluid set with levels and moving crates and other pieces to reconfigure new locations. Paloma Young's costumes blend 15th century with the contemporary.  Miriam Teak-Kee is a radiant and strong-willed Juliet; Jordan Luke Gage a preening Romeo; Cassidy Janson a persistent, yet persuasive Anne Hathaway to Oliver Tompsett's smug Shakespeare. Two newly created characters, Lance, played with stylish élan by David Bedella and Arun Blair-Mangat as May  (a gender fluid version of Benvolio), add piquant moments to the script.  The entire work has a delightful feel of familiar and novel, and manages to deliver the unpredictable in a play based on one of literature's most iconic dramas.


Three other musicals filled the roster.  Of these Andrew Lloyd Webber's new take on Cinderella was perhaps the most hyped. Using a new book by Emerald Fennell that also blends contemporary sensibility with fairytale tradition, this Cinderella believes less in miracles and the impossible and far more in characters who opt for their own destinies based on choices that are original. Lloyd Webber's score shows flashes of some of his best work, but at this first hearing, seems uneven and seriously in need of some more polished orchestrations than those he, himself, has supplied.  A number of the songs with lyrics by David Zippel have the potential to become popular tunes, while others seem conventional pieces – albeit stylish but not groundbreaking.  Laurence Connor directs and JoAnn M. Hunter choreographs the large cast and ensemble with a steady hand. Gabriela Tylesova's sets suggest storybook cutouts, and her costumes blend period dress with musical comedy chic – and outlandishness. There are sufficient twists and turns to keep the audience engaged with a spectacular (no spoilers) staging of the ball that is meant to dazzle.  Of the large cast, Carrie Hope Fletcher makes the strongest impression as a very real, warm, human Cinderella, and she sings the role beautifully. Ivano Turco is moving as an actor and exciting as a dancer, but vocally does not do justice to the Prince's music..  Characterful performances are given by Rebecca Trehearn as a nymphomaniac Queen, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as an imperious Stepmother, and Gloria Onitiri as an unconventional Godmother.  There is much to like, especially some of the non-traditional twists and turns, but the overall impression is that the work needs more work – some new melodies, re-orchestration, cast changes. 


A much slicker and lavishly turned-out piece of froth is Back to the Future – a musical revisiting of the famous Michael J. Fox movie fantasy. With a book by Bob Gale that captures all the beloved high points of the film and artful music by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, who know exactly the perfect architecture of this kind of production, John Rando's deft direction, and Chris Bailey's choreography, the show moves with grace and ease.  Olly Dobson uncannily channels Michael J. Fox to perfection as Marty McFly; Roger Bart is a zany Doc Brown, and Hugh Coles and Rosanna Hyland are funny and sympathetic as the senior McFlys.  But it is the technical aspects of this production that are really the stars. Gareth Owen  (sets), Tim Lutkin (lights), Finn Ross (video) transform the Adelphi Theatre into a science fiction wonder.  The seamlessness of the video and live stage effects amplifies the impact immersing the audience in the total experience.  With no expense spared, the final scene of the production is so daringly over-the-top as to leave the audience breathless.  Perhaps not great art, but certainly consummate theatre!

Prince of Egypt, based on the Disney animated movie, was a very mixed experience. Not Stephen Schwarz's most seamless effort, the music and lyrics were often colorless or banal, and Philip Lazebnik's book seemed uneven. Among the large cast Liam Tamne as Ramses stood out in a strong vocal performance, while Luke Brady's Moses often lacked the same charisma. Once again it was the production values that created the strongest impression. stunningly evocative desert sets by Kevin Depinet with projections by Jon Driscoll and and lights by Mike Billings – all of which contributed to amazing effects such as the Burning Bush and the parting of the Red Sea. Directed by Scott Schwartz with pulsating modern-dance choreography by Sean Cheesman, the narrative enfolds fluidly.

The last of our musical adventures was a return to Tina.  With the original West End production and many of the cast now on Broadway and the touring companies being prepared, this West End production has been reduced in scope, substituting a great deal of video (Jeff Sugg) and lighting effects (Bruno Poet) for more physical scenery.  The musical, itself, has a compelling book by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins) and features a glorious selection of Tina Turner's musical hits – all of which account for the enduring appeal. Phyllida Lloyd's powerful direction does not shy away from the harsh and painful parts of the
story.  Anthony Van Laast's choreography  recreates Turner's dance energy. Aisha Jawando takes over the title role and fills it with convincing vocalism, if not as dazzling dancing.   This third visit for me to this show reinforces my belief that Tina will have a long life in musical theatre annals – a combination of its powerful story, exciting music, and the opportunity for true star turns for the leading actors.

The final two selections were straight plays. Of these, Ocean at the End of the Lane, based on the Neil Gaiman novel, despite its excellent reviews and several Olivier awards, proved inscrutable and puzzling for the non-initiated viewer.  The stage adaptation by Joel Horwood offered no context, no background, no means for anyone who had not read the novel to understand what was happening.  Thus, the experience was reduced to an appreciation of the well-crafted mystery and horror effects with no real identification with the characters or their psychological dramas.


Happily, The Shark Is Broken offered exactly the opposite experience.  This beautifully written three-character drama based on some real incidents during the filming of the movie classic, Jaws, is subtle, funny, and poignant by turns. Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon's ninety-minute script is taut and well-calibrated. Guy Masterson directs deftly, while the single unit set of a boat in the waters off Martha's Vineyard is attractively recreated by set designer Duncan Henderson, video designer Nina Dunn, and lighting designer  Jon Clark.  Ian Shaw plays his father, actor Robert Shaw, with uncanny likeness, probing his alcoholism, his quick wit and accomplished stage presence; Liam Murray Scott vividly conjures up a young Richard Dreyfus with all his acting angst, while Demetri Goritsas makes a kind, empathetic Roy Scheider. This is a little gem of a play and production that takes a slice of Hollywood history and transforms it into a meditation on existence.

Having spent so many delightful hours in Britain's historic theatres, soaking in the invigorating experience of plays, the audiences, the entertainment and inspirational aspects of West End theatre going, I felt myself revitalised.  It was wonderful to observe the diverse and virtually color-blind casting of the productions, the breadth of offerings, the depth of production resources, the undiminished enthusiasm of audiences.  Theatre in London has – for centuries – been intrinsically part of the fabric of daily life. A visit to a play is not an occasional or unusual experience for these audiences.  It is part of their very lifeblood, just as the rebirth and renaissance of post-Covid London theatre is the script ending no one has ever doubted.

Plays…glorious plays….to paraphrase Oliver's song…Please, sir, may I have some more?


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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2021 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
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