Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, in which I look back on the last week of theatre news and reviews (including my own), during which time I completed a short four night stay in Edinburgh, had a day in London, and have since been in Provincetown on Cape Cod, from where I return home overnight tomorrow.
FRIDAY AUGUST 18
I’ve already reported on some of my short stay in Edinburgh last week; for those who subscribe to the newsletter version, it may have not been received as I got quite a lot of bounce-backs saying it was over-sized. But you can read it online here: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-for-sunday-august-20-the-week-in-reviews/
My four night/five day stay ended today with two last shows: first a Scottish student production of Pasek and Paul’s 2005 song cycle EDGES, written when they were still college teenagers in Michigan, long before they achieved mainstream success with their scores for DEAR EVAN HANSEN and the film THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s student production (presented at the Assembly Rooms) is an appealingly brisk song cycle (but slightly dated now, as witness a song about The Facebook), performed with gusto by a young quartet — including a spectacular stand-in called Grace, who negotiated quite complex lyrics and staging while reading her lyrics from an iPad!
South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company found international fame with their work on WAR HORSE for the National Theatre; at the Assembly Hall on the Mound, they are now presenting a heartfelt story from the Karoo, LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K, that’s exquisitely heart-felt and tells a particularly South African story of survival amidst deprivation.
SATURDAY AUGUST 19
I’ve been championing the Broadway musical NEXT TO NORMAL ever since I saw its original production in New York in 2009 — and my efforts came to the attention of its original producer David Stone who got my number and called me in London about seven years ago, after which we met in New York, to talk about ideas to bring it to London. I suggested that the Donmar Warehouse would be the perfect London home for it, and tonight, I finally saw it there — and David was at the theatre and remembered our chat!
An exemplary new production — directed by the Donmar’s artistic director Mike Longhurst, and with a fine, fierce cast led by Caissie Levy, Jamie Parker , Eleanor Worthington-Cox & Jack Wolfe — gave NEXT TO NORMAL a thrilling new life. I can’t wait to see it again and review it for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL after I return to the UK.
And this afternoon I revisited Ian Hallard’s THE WAY OLD FRIENDS DO, newly transferred as a summer filler to the Criterion following a national tour after its Park Theatre premiere earlier in the year. My full review for PLAYS INTERNATIONAL is here: https://playsinternational.org.uk/the-way-old-friends-do-at-criterion-theatre/
SUNDAY AUGUST 20
A huge sigh of relief: Quentin Letts has announced, via a column in THE SPECTATOR, he’s retiring as a theatre critic (after two decades, first on the Daily Mail, then the Sunday Times next, during which time he claims to have filed roughly 4000 reviews). He’s returning to parliamentary sketch writing for the Mail. The theatre world won’t miss him.
MONDAY AUGUST 21
Today we head up the Cape to the nearly northernmost tip, as we have for most of the last 16 years (bar the two COVID years when entry to the US was prohibited from Europe), to spend time in Provincetown. Our trips here have typically been for a fortnight, though in 2018 we spent nine weeks here, and in 2019 six weeks.
But this year we are only managing five nights — and even so we will not be in PTown itself but in North Truro, the next settlement away (above is the view from Truro towards PTown). This is mainly driven by cost — PTown has become increasingly unaffordable, and this year we were finally defeated. So we’ve come further out of town, where a beachside cottage is a third of the price, but the attractions of PTown are less than a ten-minute drive away.
TUESDAY AUGUST 22
Schmidt and Jones’s 1960 musical THE FANTASTICKS ran for some 42 years in its original Off-Broadway production, making it the world’s longest-ever running musical. It’s a show with some beloved classics — ‘Try to Remember’ and ‘Soon it’s gonna rain’ amongst them; but this whimsical tale of parents trying to match-make their kids with each other has always had an enforced jollity to it for me, and included a rather suspect ‘Rape Ballet’ to encourage the mating.
But in a new version officially approved and sanctioned by co-writer Tom Jones just before he died a few weeks ago, Provincetown Theater are offering a bold and moving take on the show that gives it a new softer energy and focus, as the respective parents are now mothers, not fathers, and their kids are two young men who they are urging to partner.
Of course, the coersive rape ballet is gone, too, but it is also played with a loving conviction and quirky sincerity in David Drake’s production, that includes my friend Kenneth Lonergan — the former PTown Town Crier — as Mortimer. And it was lovely to hear Schmidt & Jones’s charming score again, with its many echoes of Kander & Ebb (whom they must surely have influenced).
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 23
NEXT TO NORMAL, which I saw last Saturday on one of its final previews (see Saturday above), opened officially last night — and today’s reviews in the national press are a surprisingly mixed bag, confirming David Stone’s now understandable reluctance to allow the show to be done in the UK for a full decade and a half since its New York premiere.
Some of the reviews demonstrate such stunning incomprehension at the seriousness of what the show is trying to achieve that they trivialise its purpose and importance. I acknowledge that I have always felt this show on a deeply personal level, and not every critic will have the direct experience of suffering from long-term depression that I have to make it resonate as powerfully for them.
But on each of the ten times I saw it on Broadway, and again at the Donmar last Saturday, you could hear a pin drop, given the close attention the audience were paying to it, and the very visible sobbing around me, myself included, that demonstrates just how intensely felt it is.
Yet in a deeply questionable review by Andzrej Lukowski for TIME OUT, he draws attention to what he calls “some very questionable writing” of the show itself. He addresses some of these concerns thus: “The message throughout seems to be that much as Diana has been damaged by one specific incident, she is also over-medicated by her doctors and suffocated by Dan, and that addressing these two factors will allow her to move on with her life. Which feels a bit… libertarian, to be honest. Clearly over-medication is more of a thing in America, and let’s not get too bogged down in the verisimilitude of it all when it’s a musical. But there’s something a bit questionable about its suspicion of medical science versus the merits of simply confronting one’s problems and pulling oneself up by the boots. I can’t help but feel Yorkey’s book and lyrics frequently mistake sincerity for insight when it comes to addressing mental illness. I’m also wary of why two male writers felt they wanted a female protagonist – despite Levy’s gut-wrenching performance, Diana feels notably manic pixie, as does the sardonic Natalie. There’s something wearying about associating female mental health problems with kookiness.”
That’s a seriously reductive interpretation of a fully-realised, complex portrait of a woman’s long-term breakdown which cuts far deeper than mere kookiness.
THURSDAY AUGUST 24
Last night I saw the phenomenal Marilyn Maye, now 95, in cabaret in her 12th consecutive season at Provincetown’s Art House, and proving to be both in total command of her voice and her audience. What a true privilege to see her in such an intimate setting.
In March, she finally made her Carnegie Hall debut (pictured above onstage in front of the auditorium) — but the Art House seats just 120 For her, as Melissa Errico — the wonderful one-time Broadway ingenue who has become a not-inconsiderable cabaret artist herself — put it in a feature for the New York Times earlier this year, this was just another gig. “Carnegie Hall will be the most important night of her life … and just another gig in a year, like all her years, jammed with travel, devoted audiences, parties, mentoring, master classes and a steady rush of concerts on any and all-sized stages.”
As Errico also pointed out, “Maye is famous for many things: She made 76 television appearances (the most of any singer) on ‘The Tonight Show’. and was a friend and favorite of Ella Fitzgerald’s. She works nonstop all over the country, and has had hit runs with birthday concerts, including 10 sold-out nights at 54 Below in Manhattan called ’94, Of Course, There’s More’.”
There’s always more with Maye — you can see an extract from tonight’s performance that I filmed myself here. But alas this will be her last time at the Arthouse, where producer Mark Cortale’s annual seasons of drag and Broadway stars, often with Seth Rudetsky, are coming to an end after this season, when the venue will be re-purposed as a nightclub. Cortale’s seasons have, for me, long been the best part of the last decade of the summers I have spent in PTown. They’ll be hard to replace!
SHOWS AHEAD IN LONDON, SELECTED REGIONAL THEATRES AND ON BROADWAY
My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: https://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-august-20-2023/
See you here on Tuesday
I will be here on Friday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/, as well as Threads and Instagram with the same handle (@ShentonStage).