ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY FEBRUARY 7

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, which comes live from New York City this week. I was travelling here on Thursday and not available to file a newsletter on Friday, so apologies for radio silence!

I did, however, manage a few updates on ShentonSTAGE LIVE, a rolling theatre blog that appears on my website, updated throughout the day as necessary, to reflect news updates and other observations and commentary as they occur. The landing page for this is here: http://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-live/

I can also be found regularly on Twitter, https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/

MY NEW YORK WEEKEND

I was due to see MJ — the new Michael Jackson jukebox musical that opened officially at the Neil Simon last Tuesday on Friday — but in the late afternoon got a notification from the press agent that Myles Frost, who is playing the title role, was out that evening (for non-Covid related reasons, it hastened to add) and so press tickets were cancelled.

Instead I hastily regrouped and arranged to see The Phantom of the Opera again at the Majestic Theatre (and never has a theatre been more appropriately named; I’ve only been there three times before this visit, first when it hosted the original production of 42nd Street, the first show I ever saw on Broadway back on my first trip in 1983), then Phantom soon after it opened there in 1988, and once more for a Broadway daytime memorial event for a luminary who had died; alas I can’t remember who it was for!)

Now the longest-ever running show in Broadway history and — unlike in London where it was recently “streamlined” and lost nearly half its orchestra — this is still the glorious and sumptuous original production.

I’ve vowed never to see the London production again now that co-producers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh have diminished it musically (and also lost elements of Maria Bjornson’s original design); but the original is still a breathtaking wonder, lushly orchestrated and stunningly played and sung.

A thrilling set of principals is led by the powerfully-voiced Ben Crawford in the title role, with an utterly radiant and natural Emilie Kouatchou as Christine (the first African-American to play the role on Broadway), and the dashing John Riddle as Raoul.

And the full original orchestra — 28 players, a luxury indeed in these diminished times —  is magnificently led by musical director David Lai.                                     

Talking of full-size orchestras: one of the most singular pleasures of the annual Encores! season of short runs of old Broadway titles at New York City Center is the large Encores! orchestra that it features. Last week, in a run that ended last night, they presented The Tap Dance Kid, a 1983 musical with music by Henry Krieger (his next show after his smash hit Dreamgirls two years earlier — and now back on a UK tour), lyrics by Robert Lorick and book by Charles Blackwell, about an upwardly mobile black family (the father is a lawyer, and his daughter aspires to become one, but the young son has a talent for tap-dancing that his father is keen to suppress).

An onstage orchestra of some 24 players makes the score soar. I saw the original production back in 1984 on my 2nd-ever trip to NYC, and remember becoming obsessed with the original cast album. I’ve not listened to it for years, but it all came flooding back again on Saturday afternoon.

The music is recognisably Krieger’s “sound” that fans of Dreamgirls will instantly recognise; he would go on to also write the music for a cult flop show, SIde Show, that premiered on Broadway in 1997; an attempt to revive Side Show in 2014 and restore its fortunes ran for even shorter time.

Perhaps there would be more mileage in a revival of The Tap Dance Kid, which reveals itself to be a poignant family drama in putting black family lives centrestage, does something rarely tackled in Broadway musicals, at least until now. 

There’s been a sudden flurry of plays about black lives on Broadaway this season, after the awareness of their absence that followed the Black Lives movement; and April will see the arrival of a new black biographical musical A Strange Loop on Broadway.

And on Saturday night I coincidentally saw something even rarer: an opera that puts black lives centrestage, in RIcky Ian Gordon’s chamber opera adaptation of Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play Intimate Apparel, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre (who co-produce it with the Metropolitan Opera, their upstairs neighbours), that is austere but absorbing. It is beautifully staged by Bartlett Sher with clarity, musicality and emotion. And it is wonderful to see a new opera be given such a substantial run too: typically new operas get a run of six or seven performances. But this one is running for two months, albeit in a theatre that seats just 300.

But back to The Tap Dance Kid: the tremendous cast is led by a firebrand pre-teen Alexander Bello in the title role (pictured above left), Trevor Jackson as his uncle and dance mentor, Dewitt Fleming Jr as his inspiring grandfather, a one-time performer in vaudeville, and most notably, Joshua Henry (above right) as his uptight father, who has the show’s most dramatic and best number that climaxes the second act.

On my last trip before the pandemic arrived, I saw Henry in a spellbinding off-Broadway musical called The Wrong Man at MCC Theatre (at 52nd and 10th, which happens to be two blocks from my Manhattan apartment, so is my ‘local’).

Last night I was back at MCC for a new musical called Space Dogs, written and performed by Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire. A quirky musical history lesson about the US/Soviet space race in the 60s — and how the Soviets trialled putting man into space by sending dogs up first — it is engagingly performed by its two authors, and also ingeniously and inventively staged, too. It is still in previews (I bought a ticket), so I won’t say more yet.

THE IMPACT OF COVID ON ART AND ARTISTS (AND ME!)

There was a fantastic feature in The Guardian last Tuesday on the changes that COVID has wrought to people working in the arts, with the experiences of many who chose to change careers documented. As Andrew Dickson wrote in his introduction, “While no sector has been immune from the effects of Covid, the arts have been experiencing an earthquake that has been rumbling on for the best part of two years. Everyone has felt the shockwaves, from laid-off front-of-house staff (some of whom were then rehired for less pay) to musicians thrown out of work and artistic directors scrambling to keep major institutions from imploding.”

One of his interviewees is Jonathan MacMillan, who at the age of 36, changes career from actor/puppeteer to software engineer, who tells him: “Staying in a job that isn’t working for you, working for free, working for credits on your résumé, not standing up for your rights, not having the guts to turn a job down, for fear you’ll never work again? That’s failure, right there.”

I have to say I really related to this. As a freelance journalist who lost ALL my paid work during the pandemic, I’ve re-positioned myself as a self-publisher with this website.

This is only viable because I’ve moved out of London where my expenses are much lower. Plus we actually MAKE money renting out our London flat and we pay much less to rent in the countryside. I don’t regret leaving the rat-race behind me. And frankly I’m happier seeing LESS theatre, too! I’ve still got one foot in the game — but the other outside of it, too.

I only see what I *want* to see now. And also WHEN I want to see it, too. If that means going in the LAST week of the run instead of the first, that’s just fine. Or if I miss something, so what?

TALKING OF CRITICS….

When I flew to New York on Thursday, I picked up a free copy of the FT at Gatwick Airport, which included Sarah Hemmings’s weekly theatre column in which she reviewed A Number at the Old Vic and The Glow at the Royal Court. And it reminded me, not for the first time, how interesting it is that our three best theatre critics in London, in my opinion, are all female (the other two are Susannah Clapp, long-time critic for The Observer, and Sam Marlowe, who can be found in The Times and iNews, amongst others).

SEE YOU TOMORROW

See you in online here tomorrow. But if you can’t wait that long, you can find me on Twitter @ShentonStage (though not as often on weekends), or in my live blog here.

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