ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY APRIL 25

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE.

Now that I’ve moved my weekly theatre diary and digest to the end of the week just gone instead of the start of the next one, Monday’s newsletter will concentrate on a preview of the week ahead.

Planning my theatre schedule

Regular readers will know I’ve made a determined effort to scale back my theatregoing to four or five times a week, instead of the seven (to twelve, on occasion!) times I used to routinely do; I’ve done so not least by moving out of London to West Sussex, which my husband and I did last summer. If you’re an alcoholic, you can’t live above the pub, and I’ve duly made a similar life shift so I’m no longer living (too) close to having theatres on tap. 

However, I do make the most of the times I do return to London. And as I’m coming back into circulation after my recent bout of spinal surgery, I’ve booked myself in for quite a few shows this week and next, after which I return to New York from May 6 and 16.

For tomorrow, I’ve arranged tickets for BORN TO MINCE, Julian Clary’s new touring show kicking off, as in the old days, with a week at the Bloomsbury, at his personal invitation — “Not to review the nonsense but because you might like a laugh!”, he messaged; I’m also going to finally squeeze in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE at Southwark Playhouse — the shortest-lived of all Sondheim’s original Broadway musicals, it ran for just 9 performances in its 1964 premiere production — in the afternoon.

Then for Wednesday I requested tickets for the opening of PRIMA FACIE, the new solo play starring Jodie Cromer, whose entire run at the PInter is already sold out, so it seems that going as a critic is the only way to actually see it; these were immediately confirmed by the always efficient and affable David Bloom of Storyhouse PR.

In the transactional, prid pro quo world of publicity, it’s refreshing that in this case, at least, the producers of PRIMA FACIE are welcoming critics regardless of the direct benefits it might bring them; they’ve not got any more tickets to sell, after all. (There is, however, an NT Live broadcast into cinemas around the country on July 21, so there might be some commercial upside to positive reviews).

And for Thursday (April 28), I made yet another request to see the return of Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM at the Apollo, which was finally only confirmed by Premier PR on my fifth attempt to do so last week, and only after I copied in the show’s producer. It is another run of course that doesn’t need critics at all. Although I’m grateful for the opportunity to see it again, I just wish I didn’t need to jump through so many hoops to do so.

For Saturday April 29, I’ve booked in for London Gay Men’s Chorus’s SONDHEIM SONGTIME show at Cadogan Hall, which will feature Sondheim superstar Jenna Russell as a special guest.

And next week, I long ago bought a ticket for THE DIVINE COMEDY (no, not a play, but singer-songwriter Neil Hannon doing a show at the London Palladium on Tuesday May 3); this turned out to be a clash with Cambridge Mackintosh’s Sondheim gala at the Sondheim, but at least it helped me to make up my mind about not even attempting to attend that massively overpriced (and therefore pretty much exclusive) fundraising event; even tickets to watch a live stream at another West End theatre are £95.

The next day (Wednesday May 4), I’ll be back in London to finally catch Ralph Fiennes in STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY at the Bridge in the afternoon, which I’ve booked a £15 stalls side seat to see; when you can sit in the stalls for £15, it’s easier than dealing with that theatre’s appointed PR. That evening I’ll be seeing Sam Harrison’s LOVE IS ONLY LOVE at the Other Palace Studio, performed by its writer with David Seadon-Young as the love(s) of his life.

Nice bonus: when I looked into booking my trains, they’re on sale that week — so a return to Amberley costs me just £5.40 each time!

New York: the end of season crunch

As usual at this time of year, shows are scrambling to open ahead of this Thursday’s originally announced deadline for eligibility for consideration for the 2022 Tony Awards. Last week saw four, and this week, there are another five (across four days, with two shows opening on Wednesday, POTUS at the matinee followed by MR SATURDAY NIGHT in the evening).

But on Friday they moved the deadline. The eligibility cut-off date is now May 4 instead of April 28, due to “challenges that Broadway has faced in recent weeks.”  Nominations will now be announced on May 9 instead of the originally planned May 4.

I’ll be there myself from May 6 for ten days. That will enable me to catch up on some of those current openings, including the last six openings of the season — FUNNY GIRL (which opened last night, see reviews below), tonight’s revival of the rarely-seen Thornton Wilder play THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, the new musicals A STRANGE LOOP (opening tomorrow) and MR SATURDAY NIGHT (opening Wednesday), as well as the plays POTUS (opening at Wednesday’s matinee) and Daniel Craig’s MACBETH (opening Thursday). Whether this means there’ll be a last minute switch for the opening of one of these shows is yet to be seen; given that MACBETH lost a week of previews, it might be the one to delay, though I’m guessing they may have begun press performances already as well.

I’ve also still got to catch Tracy Letts’ new play THE MINUTES that opened last week, plus the revival of David Mamet’s AMERICAN BUFFALO. And Off-Broadway, I want to catch up with the new musicals SUFFS (now extended at the Public to May 29), ¡AMERICANO! (at New World Stages) and THE BEDWETTER (beginning previews at the Atlantic from April 30), with a cast that includes Bebe Neuwirth and Caissie Levy.

More of last week’s reviews

In Friday’s newsletter, I quoted from Sarah Crompton’s perplexed three-star review of Punchdrunk’s THE BURNT CITY and said that reading it validated my decision not to go to see it;  but other reviews have been considerably more welcoming, including five-star raves from both Susannah Clapp in The Observer and Anna James in The Stage. I’m not sure they’ve changed my mind — as the latter puts it succinctly, “It won’t be for everyone, but there is simply nothing else like it”.

I’m always open to different theatrical experiences, but having experienced Punchdrunk frequently in the past, I’m pretty sure I know what i’m going to get: as Clapp puts it, “Everyone is likely in turn to feel bewilderment, exasperation, quickening, wonder.”

Reviews of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s MARYS SEACOLE, which opened at the Donmar Warehouse on Thursday, arrived too late for me to include in my Friday newsletter; they’ve been even more divided than those for Punchdrunk. On the one hand, Sarah Crompton (in a four-star review for WhatsOnStage) writes, “There are perfect well-made plays. Then there are plays that thrill and incite, refusing to accept simple, neatly-tied solutions. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole is wild, brave, and absolutely riveting. It doesn’t accept any easy options and I utterly loved it.”  On the other hand, there’s Arifa Akbar in The Guardian, who describes “a dramatic meltdown that resembles an experimental psychodrama – bizarre, mystifying, melodrama that we watch rather than feel.”

Sunday saw Barbra Streisand’s 80th birthday — and also the Broadway opening of the first revival of the show that made her a star back in 1964, FUNNY GIRL, in a revival that has adopted a slightly circuitous route back there. (As Bob Verini noted in New York Stage Review, “Streisand turns 80 on opening night, as it happens, which may not be the surest way to put her out of mind.”)

It is directed by Michael Mayer, who also directed the 2015 London production at the Menier Chocolate Factory that subsequently transferred to the West End’s Savoy Theatre starring Sheridan Smith in the title role. But while Mayer is still helming this revival — and the lead producer is still Sonia Friedman Productions, joined by the Chocolate Factory’s David Babani and many (many!) others — the creative team has been comprehensively overhauled: it is now choreographed by Ellenor Scott, with sets by David Zinn, costumes by Susan Hilferty, lighting by Kevin Adams and sound by Brian Ronan. These duties were previously fulfilled respectively in London by Lynne Page, Micahel Pavelka, Matthew Wright, Mark Henderson and Richard Brooker.

So, how does Beanie Feldstein (photographed below at the curtain calls by Bruce Glikas), the young actress stepping into Streisand’s matchless shoes, match up? In the New York Times, Jesse Green goes straight to the point: “To rip the bandage off quickly: Feldstein is not stupendous. She’s good. She’s funny enough in places, and immensely likable always… You root for her to raise the roof, but she only bumps against it a little. Her voice, though solid and sweet and clear, is not well suited to the music, and you feel her working as hard as she can to power through the gap. But working hard at what should be naturally extraordinary is not in Fanny’s DNA. Still, you can’t blame Feldstein for the show’s problems; that would be like blaming the clown for the elephants. The main elephant is the book, written by Isobel Lennart and fiddled with for this production by Harvey Fierstein, to no avail.”

For Associated Press, Mark Kennedy’s review is headlined “A Beanie Feldstein tiumph”, and he declares: “The show rests and falls on Feldstein, who must posses as Brice both a grand confidence — ‘I’m the greatest star’ — and an insecurity (‘You mean it?’). Brice is a beacon for all the misfits, a stand-in for the unconventional — ‘a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls’ — and Feldstein nails it. Plus, she can deliver a ‘fakachta’ with authenticity… There is a winking, fourth-wall-smashing flavor to the show, with Feldstein starting Act Two by jumping up through the orchestra pit and Grimes acknowledging and encouraging cheers during his Act One dance break. Confetti cannons and fake dollar bills are also tossed into the audience, perhaps too cloying a step. It turns out you don’t need that. All you need is Beanie Feldstein. Hello, gorgeous, indeed.”

In the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones nails a point about what audiences today want: “Watching the performance of this 28-year-old actress actually feels like a living referendum on what now makes a great lead performance in a classic musical comedy. Feldstein struggles mightily with the internal vocal demands of numbers like Don’t Rain on My Parade and People, her voice coming and going. She has, though, figured out how to sustain the crucial final note, which is, for some, what matters most. She throws back her head, summons up every inch of her heart and soul and lets fly on, like, “pa-RAAADE.” Boom. Its amalgam of theatricality and raw determination inspires forgiveness. All of Feldstein’s chips are in the middle of the table at every moment and who does not enjoy seeing that in a Broadway theater on a Saturday night, surrounded by people who need people?”

In the New York Post, Johnny Oleskinski is far harsher: “She is supposed to steal our hearts and sprain our funny bones. No dice.Ticket-buyers are walking in forgivingly, with an understanding that we don’t expect any Broadway performer to match up to one of the greatest American vocalists of all time. Feldstein, however, barely muddles through the beloved songs. The best performed numbers (Sadie, Sadie) are merely capable; the worst (People) are awkward letdowns. In the spoken scenes, the jokes are pushed harder than a broken-down Hummer on a highway and few of them earn more than polite giggles. Feldstein is, I’m sorry to say, not giving a Broadway-caliber performance.”

More unkindly still, Matt Windman in amNY opens his review by stating, “It took nearly 60 years for “Funny Girl” to receive a Broadway revival – and theater aficionados will probably spend the next 60 years scratching their heads wondering how and why Beanie Feldstein got cast as Fanny Brice… Without an extraordinary lead performance, Funny Girl doesn’t work – which is unfortunately the case here. Vocally, Feldstein is strained and nasal and unable to handle power solos like I’m the Greatest Star, People, Don’t Rain on My Parade, and The Music That Makes Me Dance. She also overplays the comedy and resorts to mugging. (I question how Feldstein could even be cast as Fanny in a high school or theater camp production)”


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