ShentonSTAGE Daily for FRIDAY JANUARY 20 — The Week in Review(s)

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, in which I look back on last week’s news and reviews (including my own).

FRIDAY JANUARY 13

Critics can sometimes be fond of hyperbole, and a few have  virtually turned themselves into excitable bloggers falling over themselves to fawn over A Streetcar Named Desire that finally opened at the Almeida last night.  For Arifa Akbar in The Guardian, “Two weeks into 2023 and we have already arrived at one of the year’s hottest, most hyped shows.”

And of course it inevitably makes it hard to rise above the noise and sell-out heat the production has already generated, selling out its entire run before it even began previews, which were then delayed by the late withdrawal of Lydia Wilson, originally announced to play Blanche DuBois (she was replaced by Patsy Ferran, above right, who has come a long way since her debut as the scatty maid in the Angela Lansbury revival of Blithe Spirit in 2014).

But first things first: Akbar citing it as “one of the year’s hottest, most hyped shows” is odd, as it is actually a hold-over from last year, with its official press night delayed to last night (January 12) from the originally announced December 20.

But if it’s a victim of being over-hyped, it’s also sometimes overwrought. Yes, there’s a smouldering intensity to Paul Mescal’s Stanley (above left), muscular in every sense; and a resilient vulnerability to Patsy Ferran’s Blanche. But the specificity and claustrophobic smallness of the New Orleans apartment of Blanche’s sister Stella and husband Stanley, where she seeks refuge, is diluted by the open stage, and there’s no divider in the space.

But there’s plenty of interior rain (a new directorial cliche) and intricately choreographed movement that undermines the organic naturalism being strived for. I was impressed, but not moved.

SATURDAY JANUARY 14

I’ve already written here about Robert De Wynter’s funeral that I attended today. He was my first boss and had a major impact on my life.

I’m proud of some of the heartfelt reactions I’ve had to the piece. As one friend wrote, “I’m ill at the moment with a bug but your piece on Robert De Wynter lifted my spirits. Lovely piece – he seems quite a character.”

Another West End producer wrote to say, “Lovely lovely newsletter and tweets etc re RdW. Legend. Inspired me alongside APJ who both showed us all the right way. And the FUN. So great to see the pictures. Thank you.”

SUNDAY JANUARY 15

A few months ago the wonderful Jenny Seagrove was in a play with Finty Williams at the Theatre Royal in Windsor (I saw it and wrote about it here). Jenny also runs an animal sanctuary Mane Chance, in Godalming in Surrey, that offers a safe home to abused and abandoned horses. And Finty brought her mum Judi Dench to visit it.

And as a result, they volunteered to hold a fundraiser for the sanctuary, in which Finty interviewed Judi and her own son Sam Williams (TikTok star and social media influencer), held in the great hall at Charterhouse, a public school near the sanctuary.

I was delighted to be there and contribute to the sanctuary for a pair of tickets, even though I once conducted my own onstage interview with Dench (in aid of the Theatrical Guild, held in a private room in the Royal Albert Hall).
Finty made a perfect interviewer, though, as she knows her mother so well and there’s a wonderful trust and familiarity between them that no outsider can match.

MONDAY JANUARY 16

Broadway saw the closing of six shows over the weekend — three at the end of scheduled limited runs (Death of a Salesman, Topdog/Underdog and The Old Man and Pool), one after a brief extension to the planned hit run (The Music Man), one prematurely on its announced limited run (Ohio State Murders) and one after running out of steam (A Strange Loop, which won last year’s Tony for best musical but had exhausted its audience by the end of the year).

Five more already closed the week before — A Christmas Carol, Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Into the Woods and 1776 — with The Piano Lesson set to bow out on January 29.

So that’s 12 shows going or gone by the end of the month. Of course some of this is the usual churn, and at least one (A Christmas Carol) was a seasonal offering only; but as David Smith, The Guardian’s North American correspondent (and a keen theatregoer himself who once queued overnight to get a ticket for David Tennant’s Hamlet in London), wrote, “January is the cruelest month for Broadway as ticket sales dip in synch with thermometers. But this year’s cull is a reminder that theatre has not fully rebounded from Covid-19, which wiped out live performances for 18 months – the longest closure in its history – and continues to expose a yawning chasm between haves and have-nots.”

He went on to amplify: “Over the traditionally lucrative Christmas week the Disney musical The Lion King (pictured above) broke records with a haul of $4,315,264 over nine shows, followed by The Music Man – starring Sutton Foster and Hugh Jackman – with $3,971,531, Wicked with $3,152,679, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with $2,671,191 and the Lea Michele-led revival of Funny Girl with $2,405,901.

At the other end of the spectrum, Suzan-Lori Parks’s acclaimed play Topdog/Underdog brought in just $345,567 over eight performances while a revival of Between Riverside and Crazy, a Pulitzer prize-winning dark comedy starring the rapper Common, notched a meagre $260,085. Broadway’s survival-of-the-fittest cycle seems more unforgiving than ever.”

Smith speaks to director Sam Gold — not represented by any of these shows — to get the pulse on what is happening, who tells him,

“We have to acknowledge that it’s a hard time for live theatre. We’re still dealing with fallout from the pandemic. We have challenging supply chain issues. We have the $1tn a month poured into streaming so people can stay home and watch things at home. That got sped up because of the pandemic. People just got used to staying home and getting people back out and remembering how amazing live theatre is is taking time. Also people are still suffering and dealing with the trauma of the last few years. People want to think everything’s back to normal but it’s going to take longer for all people to feel normal after two and a half years of tragedy.”

TUESDAY JANUARY 17

When I first reviewed Moulin Rouge at its Broadway opening in 2019, I wrote,
“In a crowded Broadway market place, Moulin Rouge is a show that has it all: it’s not just 70 songs that are rolled into one show, but also a canvas of spectacle and emotion that isn’t just a floorshow but left me floored with its sublime artistry.”

It’s Covid-blighted West End transfer in 2021 (it’s opening night was postponed several times) was a bit flatter; though the Piccadilly Theatre, one of London’s ugliest theatre interiors, was utterly transformed into an immersive space of glitter and glamour, some of the grit was missing, especially in the original principal casting.

A year on, and a new company — now led by the strutting Jamie Muscato as pop troubadour Christian and Melissa James as the consumptive courtesan he falls in love with — brings it a galvanising heightened energy.

The hard working chorus of dancers are a thing of wonder, too; but as Jason Leigh Winter, swing and dance captain has tweeted, they are seriously underpaid.

In a subsequent interview with Broadwayworld, he also amplified another bugbear:

“There’s no reward for experience within the industry. From show to show you will be on the same basic wage as everyone. Meaning someone with 10, 15, 20 year’s worth of experience in the industry, and all the wealth of knowledge and etiquette that brings to a production, will be on the same pay as someone who has just left college and is just starting out. That’s not to take away anything from the worth/talent of graduates: we were all one at one point. But in any other industry, experience amounts to a pay progression. Not to mention that naturally as we get older, we tend to pick up more responsibilities, and our outgoings become higher. To reach the West End, the “pinnacle” of UK theatre, and need to work one or two extra jobs just to stay afloat seems crazy to me.”

WEDNESDAY JANUARY 18

Continuing its reign as London’s main champion of underdog musicals, Charing Cross Theatre now hosts the UK premiere of Allegiance, a flop 2015 Broadway musical inspired by the true story of Star Trek actor George Takei’s family’s WW2 experiences in being interned, in which he also appears.

Now 85 (8 years older than when he first did it), he casts a benign glow over the proceedings, and an authenticity — it’s his story, after all. But it’s also earnest and plodding, with very mediocre music, and cheaply staged in traverse. A good cast can’t save it.

It’s the second WW2 musical for theatre in a row, after the revival of Stuart Brayson and Tim Rice’s 2013 West End musical version of From Here to Eternity; that had better songs, and was better staged, too.

From the ragged charms of Charing Cross to the world’s biggest and grandest Big Top, the Royal Albert Hall has — since 1996 — hosted an annual extended visit from Canadian corporate circus behemoths Cirque du Soleil.  Kurios, receiving its European premiere, is their 11th touring show to play here; the previous titles are Saltimbanco, which played three seasons, Alegria (4 seasons), Totem (three seasons), Dralion, Varekai, Quidam, Amaluna (two seasons) and Kooza (two seasons each), and OVO and Luzia (once each).

It combines Cirque’s typically dazzling technical feats (much of it airborne, like juggling while suspended upside down, or balancing on wobbling cylinders on a moving swing, or cycling while suspended in the sky) with their usual lavish theatricality. It’s spellbinding stuff; the only pity is that I wasn’t able to stay for it all, as a late start and an extended interval meant I had to leave to get my last train.

THURSDAY JANUARY 19

The Menier Chocolate Factory has, since it first opened its doors in 2004, done a brisk trade in reviving Broadway musicals from Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music to La Cage Aux Folles and The Color Purple that they’ve returned to New York in glory. Right now they have (a significantly upgraded) version of their 2015 revival of Funny Girl on Broadway, while their 2012 production of Merrily we Roll Along is at New York Theatre Workshop ahead of a Broadway transfer this year.

They’ve also brought a few shows the other way, offering London homes to such off-Broadway solo hits as Fully Committed (in 2004) and Buyer and Cellar (2015), and off-Broadway productions of What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined (2015), Into the Woods (2016) and Indecent (2021).

Now they’re giving house room to a wonderfully brisk and bracing solo show by New York stand-up comic and writer Alex Edelman (pictured above), Just for Us, that played off-Broadway last year. 

It’s his account of gatecrashing a white supremicist meeting in Queen’s, New York — and discovering how even there he feels empathy, a true Jewish quality. He weaves this into a revealing narrative of his own family’s religious affiliations and kindness that is heart-warming, even as he acknowledges his own entitlement and privilege that enables him to carry out this stunt at all. It is genuinely thought-provoking and superbly performed.

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: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-january-16/

See you here on Monday

I will be back on Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends)

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