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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

Yesterday I went to musical theatre heaven — followed immediately by musical theatre hell. Those are the contrasting joys and disappointments of London theatre you can have in a single day.

Let’s start with the heavenly — COLORED LIGHTS, which I saw yesterday afternoon at the Royal Academy of Music, director Matt Ryan’s lovingly curated and expertly staged revue celebrating the long and brilliant Broadway collaborations of Kander and Ebb, thrillingly rendered by students from the Royal Academy of Music’s Musical Theatre Company.

The title is taken from a song from Kander and Ebb’s short-lived 1983 musical THE RINK that nevertheless won a Tony Award for Chita Rivera, and also featured another signature performer of their work, Liza Minnelli. It was also the first of their musicals that I ever saw in its original Broadway production — I subsequently also saw the original Broadway bows of KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN (1993, as well as earlier try-outs in Purchase, NY in 1990 and the West End in 1992), STEEL PIER (1997), CURTAINS (2006),THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (2010) and THE VISIT (2015), the latter three all premiered after the 2004 passing of Fred Ebb.

I’ve seen pretty much the entirety of their output, apart from THE HAPPY TIME (1968) and WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1981), both of which premiered before I started going to New York regularly and have never made their way to London in any form (though I adore the Tony Awards clip of Lauren Bacall singing “One of the Girls Who’s One of the Boys” from WOMAN OF THE YEAR). I even myself produced a production of their first Broadway collaboration FLORA, THE RED MENACE (1966) for a summer run in Cambridge when I was a student there, with a mixed cast of professional and student actors led by Susie McKenna and John Barr, in 1986.

A stunning arrangement that pairs “I Don’t Remember You” (from THE HAPPY TIME) and “Sometimes a Day Goes By” (from WOMAN OF THE YEAR), that I first heard Bryn Terfel sing on an operatic cross-over album with Renée Fleming (and you can see him perform here) is included; also from THE HAPPY TIME Is the utterly exquisite and elegiac “Waking Amongst My Yesterdays” that I know from a great Barbara Cook concert. These are stitched into a revue that gives us many of their greatest hits as well — up to and including, of course, “New York, New York”, from the 1977 film of the same name, that is finally being brought to the New York stage this season, by director/choreographer Susan Stroman next spring. I can’t wait to see it.

But meanwhile, I was in sheer theatrical heaven yesterday at the Royal Academy. This show could transfer, intact, to a longer run elsewhere and give these students their professional debuts.

HEX (National Theatre)

I went from Marylebone Road to the South Bank for a far more dispiriting experience: the first night of HEX, twice delayed from a year ago when it ran over Christmas 2021, but saw both its planned first nights then cancelled owing to recurring COVID cases in the company. (I took in the final matinee of that run in January, and wrote about it here;  though director Rufus Norris, who is also the show’s lyricist, promised a return for the show then, I wrote, “GIven that it had trouble selling tickets this time around, it may be best to not throw good money after bad and bring it back after all.”`)

Unfortunately, however, they’ve done just that, and the show is back for another Christmas run, its structure tweaked a little in the intervening year but its problems essentially unresolved.

Despite the hard working efforts of an enthusiastic cast and some expensive set pieces (pictured), it remains effortful to watch, and even harder to listen to. It is a floundering, befuddling musical theatre mess.

It’s hard not to think there’s a hex on HEX itself. No one has yet worked out which audience it’s for; kids will be overwhelmed and/or bored. Adults will be perplexed and/or indifferent. When there are experienced MT writers dying to have their work produced at the National, Norris and his wife Tanya Ronder are odd choices for lyricist and book writer respectively. (It is simply astonishing that Howard Goodall, the greatest British theatre composer of my lifetime who has written an unarguable masterpiece in THE HIRED MAN has never had any work produced here; and where is Richard Thomas, whose JERRY SPRINGER — THE OPERA was a hit for Nick Hytner’s NT in 2003 that transferred to the West End? He’s since gone on to work with ENO, the Royal Opera and Sadler’s Wells, but is yet to return to the NT)

HEX seeks to provide an original take on the fairytale SLEEPING BEAUTY, but it’s muddled storytelling and derivative score (with songs for the bright yellow bewigged thorns, for example, specifically referencing the songs of pop group Madness, whose songs formed the score of the jukebox show OUR HOUSE) see that it is hardly a patch on Sondheim’s reworking of fairytales INTO THE WOODS. (Like that show, it also centres on faulty parenting; in this case, the mother of Sleeping Beauty’s rescuer turns out to even have a  taste for human flesh — I wanted to eat my own while watching it).

As that mother, VIctoria Hamilton-Barritt channels her similarly showstopping turn from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CINDERELLA as an exercise in weirdly accented evil; the flying fairies reminded me of the dementors from HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD, though with less hostile intent.

BLACKOUT SONGS (Hampstead Theatre)

The ongoing fall-out of the Arts Council’s recent funding round continues. Today it was announced that Rosane Silbert, Hampstead Theatre’s artistic director, is to step down from the post; as she commented in a press statement,

“Due to financial constraints, which are well documented, and after thorough reflection, it feels appropriate for me to resign my post at Hampstead Theatre. This has not been an easy decision.  Hampstead will have to recalibrate and change in order to go forward and I wish it every success.”

The theatre has stated that “it will need to change direction and can no longer continue solely as a new writing theatre. Going forward, Hampstead’s Executive Producer, Greg Ripley-Duggan, will be responsible for the transition to a new model.”

As it happens, on Monday I saw its world premiere of Joe White’s bleak, piercing study of alcoholism and co-dependent relationships between two sufferers, BLACKOUT SONGS, at Hampstead Downstairs; the play was commissioned and workshopped at Hampstead, and is precisely the sort of scorching, intimate drama that this theatre specialises in. As someone who has been in two recovery programmes myself (though not for alcohol addiction), I was able to identify intensely with their mutual need and destructiveness.

And it is acted with raw intensity by Alex Austin and Rebecca Humphries under the direction of Guy Jones, with movement direction from Iskandar R. Sharazuddin.

People don’t want critics (or even ex-critics)

Yesterday it was announced that the London Coliseum’s summer hire this year will be the return of the Queen musical WE WILL ROCK YOU, which previously played for over 13 years at the Dominion.

I tweeted,

Dr Stuart Morley — a musician who works on the show — replied,

And another tweeter, who does not follow me, wrote:

As ever, we live in a world where critics — and critical commentary — are no longer welcome. It’s why uncritical bloggers are being so readily embraced instead; it’s far easier not to hear criticism, only fawning praise. (One blogger’s virtually daily cry that the show he’s just seen is potentially his best of the year is so regular it has become utterly meaningless).

But as one prominent producer recently said when introducing me to another American producer, “This is Mark Shenton, we need him, he is honest with us.” I may not always be right, but I am honest. I am delighted theatre is happening, of course, but I’m only speaking my truth when I am saying that some shows disappoint me — and decisions to host them at such important musical venues as the Coliseum are even more disappointing. 


My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here:

Newly added this week include the return of GROUNDOG DAY to the Old Vic in May and the aforementioned WE WILL ROCK YOU to the Coliseum next June.

See you on Monday

I will be in New York from tomorrow to next Wednesday, and will report from there next on Monday. (though not as regularly on weekends)

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