ShentonSTAGE DAILY FOR MONDAY APRIL 4

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, which finds me back in London after a week in New York.

Diary and Digest of the theatrical week

This new weekly feature began last Monday, presenting a digest of the theatrical week just past, both personal and more wide-reaching, including theatrical announcements of the week and openings of both the week past and the one ahead, plus day-by-day observations.  (Last week’s column is here).

  • MONDAY MARCH 28

The headlines about the Oscars last night (March 27) were inevitably dominated by WIll Smith’s public assault of Chris Rock, but an altogether more delightful and moving moment was watching Lady Gaga gently supporting Liza Minnelli as they presented a 50th anniversary tribute to CABARET: two legends of song, one a contemporary powerhouse, telling the other — a truly legendary figure of the Broadway and concert stage — that she’d got her back.

For a long-time fan of Minnelli’s like me, who first saw her live from the front row of the upper circle of the London Palladium  in the early 80s and then at her absolute best at the Royal Albert Hall in the early 90s when she brought her Radio City Music Hall show Stepping Out there, I feel strangely protective of her; and that’s exactly what nails her appeal and talent. She has always put her vulnerability as well as her fierceness on open display.

As Ben Brantley, former chief critic of the New York Times, tweeted on her 76th birthday on March 12,

  • TUESDAY MARCH 29

Reviews came out today for the official opening last night (March 28) of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, starring Broadway royalty Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker; my own thoughts, plus a digest of some of the reviews, appeared in my newsletter today here.

These are, of course, only a selection of the reviews; later in the week, I saw a couple of more favourable ones, including this from Peter Marks in the Washington Post: “An audience’s comfort level is sustained in direct proportion to the expertise of the players. And so here, all is well. The acting couple is so in the zone that a mishap at the opening night performance only made things funnier: Broderick’s Roy at one point is supposed to run at the bathroom door, fail to break it down and batter his arm. On this occasion, the door gave way. Broderick looked around helplessly, and then at Parker, and after they shared a laugh, he gently closed the door. And the scene went on.

That is how it’s done by the pros, and these two have been doing it all their acting lives: Parker was a replacement for Andrea McArdle in the original 1977 production of Annie, and Broderick portrayed Eugene Jerome in the 1983 premiere of Brighton Beach Memoirsby … Neil Simon. They convey here a lovely sense of a Broadway continuum that is reflected, too, in John Lee Beatty’s resplendently detailed set of Room 719, a luxe facsimile of a Plaza Hotel room — complete with a view of the General Motors Building. When you want a fantastic New York interior, Beatty is unbeatable.”

It also triggers deeper memories: “To be sure, the hyperbolic tornadoes whipped up by Plaza Suite originate in a bygone era, one for which theatergoers of a certain vintage will respond with instinctive affection. I swear that I can still hear my mother on the night in 1969 when she and my father returned from seeing Plaza Suite on Broadway, and her repeatedly cracking up as she recounted the jokes. She’s gone now, but Parker and Broderick brought her back to life for me on their opening night, by making me laugh, too.”

I respect Marks’s longevity as a critic immensely; and therefore his perspective of the production as a relic of a bye-gone theatrical age, is worth reading more than the show is worth seeing.

  • WEDNESDAY MARCH 30

Today (March 30) I had a day in London, catching the matinee of DIARY OF A SOMEBODY — a theatrical adaptation of Joe Orton’s diaries, at Seven Dials Playhouse, before it opened to the press in the evening and then the wonderful Broadway singer Melissa Errico in cabaret at Crazy Coqs in the evening.

I wrote about both of them in a column here the next day; it was nice to see I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm for the Orton show, with Ryan Gilbey giving it a richly deserved five-star rave in The Guardian.

In The Times, Donald Hutera offers a four-star review, too, which says: “It’s a class act all the way, sometimes uproariously funny, and ultimately unsettling, no matter how familiar one is with the arc of Orton’s story…. George Kemp is irresistibly charming as Orton, a cocky, hedonistic rebel whose talent and fame outgrows and painfully overshadows Toby Osmond’s brooding, dangerously fragile Halliwell. And their beautifully balanced performances receive protean support. A most welcome revival.”

  • THURSDAY MARCH 31

London had to wait 35 years for the arrival of DREAMGIRLS from Broadway, when Sonia Friedman produced its UK premiere at the Savoy Theatre. But I was reminded today (March 31) on Twitter of just how stunning the original Michael Benett directed and choreographed production was, when someone I follow posted a 90 second ad for it. 

I saw that production on my very first-ever trip to New York back in 1983, and it is still one of the most stunning productions I’ve ever seen! Robin Cousins, former Olympic ice-skater, follows me on Twitter, and responded to my tweet of the ad, “I’m so glad I got to see this original cast blow the roof off the theatre. It was electric..”

And I, in turn, replied: “One of the benefits of being older is that we got to see these shows first time around!”

  • FRIDAY APRIL 1

It was reported by The Times today (April 1) that Corbin and King (Jeremy and Chris), the founders of the Wolseley, Delaunay and Brasserie Zedel, amongst others, have been ousted from the management, after their attempts to wrestle back control from MInor International, the Thai hotel group they sold a controlling stake to four years ago, failed. Minor put the group into administration in January, and have now succeeded in outbidding Corbin and King in the auction held by the administrators.

Of course, with these sorts of restaurants, it’s all to do with the personal touch of their management, and they won’t be the same without Corby and King presiding over them. The Wolseley is a bit beyond my usual budget, though I’ve been treated to lunch there a few times by a couple of theatre producers. I’m more of a regular at the Zedel’s, mainly because I love its cabaret room Crazy Coqs and also enjoy visiting its street level cafe for coffee and maybe a sandwich beforehand, as I did on Wednesday when I went to see Melissa Errico there (pictured below).

And although I’ve only been to the Delaunay a handful of times, the maitre d’ there greets me like a long-lost friend, by my name; he clearly knows his theatre folk! That’s the sort of thing a corporate player like Minor international will never understand.

  • SATURDAY APRIL 2

Today (April 2) I headed back to the Menier Chocolate Factory for a second helping of Maria Friedman and Friends, her beautifully intimate and generous tribute to three composing icons she had close personal associations with, Stephen Sondheim, Michel Legrand and Marvin Hamlisch. In the last fortnight, I”ve also seen Liz Callaway in New York and Melissa Errico in London performing solo tributes to the first two respectively; I only needed a solo Hamlisch show to complete the trio.

In each case, the performers all had direct connections to the composers; Friedman is in the lucky position of having been close to all three. For Callaway, her relationship with Sondheim began when she made her Broadway debut, aged just 20, in the original, short-lived production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG in 1981; likewise for Errico, hers with Legrand began in another short-lived Broadway musical, AMOUR in 2002. But each deepened and developed their relationship with those composers in the years that followed.

Friedman played Mary in the 1992 production of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at Leicester Haymarket; a cast album lives in (which coincidentally features liner notes written by yours truly). The company also included Matthew White, who joins Friedman as one of her friends in this show (they are pictured above together at the curtain calls on Saturday); Friedman would, of course, also go on to direct a production of the show for the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012 that subsequently transferred to the PInter (and later this year she will direct again at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop).

So the Menier — which also revived Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music (both in productions that subsequently transferred to both the West End and Broadway) — is itself a major part of Sondheim’s UK legacy. And by way of another personal note, when I was chair of the drama section of the Critics’ Circle, we honoured Sondheim with our award for distinguished services to the arts; I arranged for the celebratory lunch to be held at the Menier’s (currently shuttered) restaurant. And at the lunch, I also arranged for Maria Friedman to sing for him!

  • SUNDAY APRIL 3

Talking of the Critics’ Circle, yesterday saw the presentation of its annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards — after a two year Covid hiatus. For nine years, from 2010 to 2019, I used to host the awards in my role as chair of the section; Henry Htchings, who took over from me, presented the awards in 2020. But as he wrote here, his run was for just that year alone: 

“When I took over from Mark Shenton at the end of 2018, I expected to occupy this role for several years before passing the baton. But last summer I lost my position at the Evening Standard – along with my colleague Fiona Mountford, who had been in post for seventeen years. Our jobs were moved in-house, as part of a programme of cost-cutting. Our successors are good people, knowledgeable and passionate. Yet broader change is afoot.”

Noting further changes afoot in the critical landscape, that has also seen new lead critics appointed at both THE TIMES and THE GUARDIAN, as well as Quentin Letts swapping the Daily Mail for the Sunday TImes, Henry also cheered the arrival of ten new members to the drama section as he stood down as chair, “since the future of writing about this most public and yet most personal of artforms is in their hands.”

And so to yesterday’s awards, where Kate Maltby — a freelance critic and political writer is now chair of the drama section, and the secretary is Rosemary Waugh — the new guard presided over a ceremony

the new guard presided over an in-person ceremony, held not at a West End theatre as it was during my time but in a trendy Soho hotel.

Across nine regular categories — plus five additional commendations this year for exceptional theatre during lockdown — the immersive revival of CABARET, in the reconfigured Playhouse, took three awards, including for best designer Tom Scutt and director Rebecca Frecknall, as well as for Jessie Buckley, named Best Actress for her performance as Sally Bowles: as this is not a best actress in a musical category but a best actress overall, it was a notable win.

The Almeida’s SPRING AWAKENING — which I am still hoping will have a further life — won the Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical, as well as a joint newcomer award for actor Stuart Thompson, alongside Samuel Creasy for THE BOOK OF DUST at the Bridge. Also winning two awards: the Young Vic saw James Graham’s BEST OF ENEMIES win the Michael Billington Award for Best New Play, and Cush Jumbo winning the Best Shakespearean Performance for her HAMLET that was seen there.

The remaining two categories saw another joint win in the Most Promising Playwright Award, with novelist turned playwright Zadie Smith named for THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN seen at the Kiln alongside Igor Memic for OLD BRIDGE at the Bush; and Ben Daniels named Best Actor for his role as Ned Weeks in the National’s THE NORMAL HEART.

In a post-awards picture posted on twitter (above), I could spot few people of colour visible in the picture, and not a single mask was to be seen. Only two winners, Cush Jumbo and Zadie Smith were non-white, and just one award was presented by a member of the circle of colour (though a couple of guest presenters for the additional set of commendations of lockdown productions were not white).

  • Announcements of the week

One of the theatrical events of last summer was Ian McKellen returning to the role of HAMLET, aged 82, at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. This summer he’s doing it again, this time in a  new 75-minute “performance concept”, sharing the role with lead dancer Johan Christiansen, on the Edinburgh Fringe from August 2-28 at St Stephens. This may actually get me to Edinburgh again this summer after many years away….

The one-night Sondheim Old Friends gala — being held at the Sondheim Theatre on May 3 — sold out the moment it went on sale; on Wednesday, it was announced that a simultaneous live screening of the event will take place at the Prince Edward Theatre that night. Tickets for the live screening are priced at £55-£95. Suffice it to say, they are not exactly flying out of the door at those prices…..

On Saturday, the producers of COCK at the Ambassadors issued a terse announcement: “Joel Harper-Jackson will take over the role of M in Mike Bartlett’s razor sharp, hilarious play C O C K until the end of the run. The part was originally played in this production by Taron Egerton,  who has had to  withdraw from the production due to personal reasons. Joel understudied the role and has been playing the part of M for the past ten days while Taron was absent from the production having tested positive for Covid.”

On Broadway, a revival of August Wilson’s THE PIANO LESSON is to run at St James Theatre from September 19 for a 16-week season, starring Samuel L Jackson, John David Washington and Danielle Brooks. And Lincoln Center Theatre announced a new production of Lerner and Loewe’s CAMELOT that will run from November 3, opening officially on December 8, with a new revised book by Aaron Sorkin (whose new version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD opened in London last week as well; see reviews below), directed by Bartlett Sher. 

Off-Broadway, TITANIQUE — a musical send-up of the blockbuster film Titanic, featuring the songs of pop icon Celine Dion — will open off-Broadway at The Asylum Theatre (307 W 26th St), running June 14-Sept 25, opening June 23.

  • Opening of last week

While Broadway saw the opening of a new production of Neil Simon’s 1968 play PLAZA SUITE last Monday (see above), on Thursday Broadway sent its 2018 production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to London’s Gielgud Theatre (after a nearly two-year COVID delay). 

As Tim Bano notes in his review for The Stage, “As one of literature’s most famous courtroom dramas battled its way to the West End, it dragged its own courtroom dramas in its wake. Harper Lee’s estate sued the production claiming Aaron Sorkin’s script strayed too far from the source material. Meanwhile, the production company of the Broadway version forced several smaller productions of Mockingbird, including a major UK tour, to close, asserting global rights. Then producer Scott Rudin faced multiple accusations of bullying and was himself forced to step away from the show. Add Covid, a change in the lead cast, and it’s a minor miracle the show is here at all. Worth the drama? Worth the wait? The jury’s out.”

Having seen it on Broadway in 2018, I didn’t feel compelled to see it again; one of the freedoms of my new life away from the reviewing rat-race is that I only need to go to see things that I want and need to see. (So my London trips this week saw me seeing DIARY OF A SOMEBODY and Melissa Errico on Wednesday and revisiting Maria Friedman at the Menier on Saturday afternoon; see above).

But I’m pleased to see that, Bano’s reservations notwithstanding, the London critics have otherwise embraced it: in a five-star review for the Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish exclaimed, “The near three hours fly by. Directed by Bartlett Sher, this is one of those evenings when it’s impossible to see the joins between the vision of the script and the intricacy of the staging. Every characterisation is beautifully rendered amid Miriam Buether’s derelict warehouse space.”

And in iNews, Sam Marlowe credits Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher for “a vital rebalancing that examines the story through a sharpening modern lens.”

Broadway last night saw the opening of PARADISE SQUARE at the Barrymore Theatre (pictured above). There’s a round-up of major reviews here. Like its returning-from-disgrace producer Garth Drabinksy’s late 90s shows — the original musical RAGTIME in 1998 and a massive Broadway revival of SHOW BOAT four years earlier —  it is a sprawling epic that seeks to stitch together a tapestry of American society at a key moment of societal change.

Critics have different views of how successfully it has achieved this aim. In Variety, Naveen Kumar praises Bill T Jones’s choreography, but says, “while conflicts between the neighborhood’s Black and Irish residents at times come thrillingly to life through dance, Paradise Square is wrong-footed from the jump… The staging, by director Moisés Kaufman, can often feel like a churning exercise in traffic control, with all or most of the sizable ensemble cluttered onto designer Allen Moyer’s rotating black-scaffold set. There’s a random, almost chaotic, shuffle to the succession of scenes, where it’s anyone’s guess who might sing next and why. And despite its distinct historical setting, the production feels neither gritty nor transporting, or much like New York as compared to any other port city. Only when Paradise Square clears the way for dance, and everything falls away between soles and the floor, does it strike anywhere close to the heart”

In Toronto’s Globe and Mail, J. Kelly Nestruck identifies similar problems: “Unfortunately, for a story set during the Civil War,  Paradise Square sometimes seems at war with itself. The captivating choreography is rarely well-integrated into director Moises Kaufman’s stand-and-sing staging – which also makes it devilishly difficult to connect emotionally to the characters.”

In the New York Times, Jesse Green offers the harshest historical analogy: “in hammering these large-scale events into individual stories, and in manipulating them so performers have reason to sing at top volume and dance nearly nonstop, the uplifting, star-making, overwrought new musical,  turns history on its head. Racism becomes an individual character flaw instead of a systemic evil; resistance, the solitary moral genius of a hero.”

  • Openings in the Week Ahead

This week sees the delayed openings tonight of Alexis Zegerman’s THE FEVER SYNDROME at Hampstead (it was originally due to open last Monday) and Jeremy O. Harris’s “DADDY”, imported from Off-Broadway to the Almeida, where it opens on Wednesday (it was originally programmed to open there in March 2020).  There’s also the transfer of For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy to the Royal Court from the New Diormaa (opening April 7), and Mike Bartlett’s new play THE 47TH at the Old Vic (April 8). 

Broadway has a revival of Richard Greenberg’s TAKE ME OUT opening at the Hayes tonight (April 4).

For full details of these and other upcoming openings in London, at selected regional theatres and on Broadway, visit http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-april-4-onwards/

SEE YOU ON WEDNESDAY

If you can’t wait that long, I can also be found regularly on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/.

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