Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, which is my week in review(s) and news, plus reviews of others, too.
SATURDAY APRIL 30
Today I attended the London Gay Men’s Chorus 30th anniversary show, SONDHEIM SONGTIME, a celebration of all things Sondheim, at Cadogan Hall, which was at its best when at its simplest: just singing the songs, and not trying to “perform” them. Particularly gorgeous and poignant as a result: “Our Time” from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.
At other times — for instance, an extended medley from INTO THE WOODS — there was too much distracting “performance” and unnecessary costuming; when it stripped things back to just the song, as in “Children will Listen”, my own inner child definitely listened.
In a bit of luxury casting, the choir were joined by Jenna Russell as special guest, who exemplified the gorgeous simplicity of singing Sondheim unadorned for the biggest effects, with Sally’s “Losing my mind” from FOLLIES — a role she nearly played.
SUNDAY MAY 1
Today’s news is dominated by the shocking late afternoon announcement that CINDERELLA Is to shut on June 12 — made to the CURRENT cast after the matinee performance today, and then quickly released (via a news story in THE STAGE) to the rest of the world, which included — as it happens — the cast currently waiting in the wings to take over; they had already been contracted, and had begun preparatory costume and wig fittings. So once again, as the cast did for Lloyd Webber’s LOVE NEVER DIES in the West End when that closing notice appeared in the media before they had been advised, they found out via social media that they would be unemployed.
As I saw the witty Broadway commentator “Burnside Gooch” tweet the next day,
MONDAY MAY 2
- My newsletter today is on the announcement of CINDERELLA’s closure (see above), plus reviews round-ups for MACBETH with Daniel Craig on Broadway and the return of JERUSALEM with Mark Rylance to the West End. To read in full, click here.
TUESDAY MAY 3
Tonight the Sondheim OLD FRIENDS gala took place at the Sondheim Theatre; Baz Bamigboye’s report for Deadline tells me what I sadly missed. Various other critics were there, including Clive Davis for THE TIMES and Marienka Swain for the DAILY TELEGRAPH (see reviews below). I’m told, however, that even the critics were made to pay for their tickets. So the privilege, I suppose, was being granted access to do so, when everyone else had to scramble for tickets online.
Instead, I’m at the London Palladium, to see (some of) one of my favourite pop acts, the Divine Comedy, in concert. I’ve long been a fan of its singer-songwriter iconoclast Neil Hannon; he writes proper pop songs with heart and art, with very memorable hooks and great orchestrations. He’s also a fantastic vocalist. I saw him many years ago, in the early noughties, at the Forum in Kentish Town; it’s so great he’s now at the London Palladium!
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see it all: as there was a support act, he didn’t come on till 8.30pm and I had to leave after his first set to make my train back to West Sussex. But it contained some rousing classics, plus a new single, and I loved what I saw!
When I tweet about being there, West End star Kiillian Donnelly (currently playing the title role in The Phantom of the Opera) reveals himself to be a fellow fan:
WEDNESDAY MAY 4
My newsletter today is on the continuing fall-out of the bungled announcement that CINDERELLA is to close that led to pickets by Equity yesterday (pictured below) plus last night’s Sondheim gala and my plans for New York as I head there on Friday. Read it in full here: http://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-for-wednesday-may-4/
Today I head to London and have a triple bill of theatre-related engagements:
- For the matinee, I head to the Bridge to finally catch up with David Hare’s STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY. I love that at the Bridge you can buy a front side stalls seat for just £25; they’re billed as restricted view, but in fact the view is fine, and you’re right beside the action.
I’m also massively impressed by Ralph Fiennes’s unceasing commitment to return to the theatre, where he started, despite his status as a film star. And he doesn’t go for easy options, either, but invariably challenging fare — from runs in the National Theatre in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and Shaw’s MAN AND SUPERMAN to Ibsen’s THE MASTER BUILDER at the Old Vic.
As in the latter, he plays an architect, in this case the real-life revolutionary figure of Robert Moses, the New York architect and parks commissioner who remapped Manhattan and Long Island during the 20th century.
Hare focuses on two key struggles he fought: one that he won in the 1920s, to open up Long Island to visitors by constructing a highway to bring people to it, against the protests of the wealthy residents who preferred to keep it to themselves; and another, that he lost in the 1950s, to drive a highway through Washington Park in Lower Manhattan.
This is rich terrain for drama as well as urban planning, but Hare only animates it intermittently; but Fiennes is always wonderful to watch, and this production also has a scene-stealing performance from Danny Webb as New York Governor Al Smith. It is worth seeing for them alone.
- I then attended a short press preview for the forthcoming return of Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical one-man musical THE LION, that will run at Southwark Playhouse from May 25 to June 25. When Scheuer played himself, originally at the Other Palace’s downstair studio in 2014, I saw it four times during its three week run and declared it my single favourite new musical of that year, on either side of the Atlantic; I subsequently travelled to see him do it again at New York’s Culture Project downtown, and then yet again at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.
Scheuer, who is a native New Yorker but had a British mother, is now married to a Welsh illustrator, and lives in London with their daughter Elodie (and another child on the way); he was at the press event yesterday, but the man on the right is now being played by the man on the left above (Max Alexander-Taylor), and it was wonderful to hear these gorgeous songs being sung in an English accent!
- And finally, I headed to the Other Palace studio — where I coincidentally first saw Scheuer above — for another intimate and entirely delightful autobiographical musical, Sam Harrison’s LOVE IS ONLY LOVE, about discovering his sexuality through falling in love with musicals as well as a boy at school.
Set to songs from the great American songbook, it’s both heart-warming and heart-breaking: a tender journey of self-acceptance that is beautifully played by Harrison, joined by David Seadon-Young as his handsome but withholding suitor, it aches with repressed emotion and tenderly expressed feelings; it’s a show that fills the heart. (And for gay men like myself who also discovered myself through musicals, it reveberates with echoes of shattering intimacy. But Sam was at least blessed with a completely accepting mother). I particularly loved the section on CRAZY FOR YOU — and the superiority of the original London cast recording with Ruthie Henshall over the Broadway one (with Jodie Benson).
That musical is being revived at Chichester Festival Theatre this summer; I wonder how many young Sam’s will be in the audience and similarly affected? (Ruthie, meanwhile, is now starring as Fosca in a new production of Sondheim’s PASSION that began performances at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester last night: I’m booked to see it on May 25).
THURSDAY MAY 5
I was due to see Alecky Blythe’s OUR GENERATION at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre on Bank Holiday Monday, but it was cancelled because of cast illness. I rebooked for tonight — but it was cancelled again for the same reason.
And now as I’m off to New York tomorrow, I’m going to miss it entirely. The original press night at the National Theatre was also delayed for the same reason; the show has lost many performances between the South Bank and now Chichester.
All of which is unavoidable. But it proves yet again how precarious the theatre sometimes is, and that it is impossible, of course, to see everything.
FRIDAY MAY 6
I’m headed to New York this morning. Usually by this point I will have seen all the Tony-eligible productions of the year, but owing to my spinal surgery revision nearly four weeks ago, I was unable to travel before the cut-off date for eligibility for this year’s awards (which was originally supposed to be April 28, but owing to the prevalence of COVID and the resulting cancellations was delayed to May 4).
But I will, between tomorrow and May 15, be seeing a good number of the eligible shows that I’ve not already seen (I’m booked in to see 15 shows in all during this time, but not all of them are on Broadway). The nominations will be announced on Monday (May 9) at 9am ET here.
The Broadway that will greet me will be teaming with shows to see: as Lee Seymour reported on Wednesday for Forbes,
“Is Broadway back? Depends on who you ask. With 36 shows up and running, the industry’s roster has fully recovered to pre-Covid size. And anyone working on established hits like Hamilton or starry revivals like Daniel Craig’s Macbeth will likely say business is booming. (Craig’s show, despite savage reviews, is grossing $150,000 per night.)”
I’m not seeing that MACBETH myself (life is too short). Seymour also reports on the state of play(s), attendance wise:
Two of the new shows on the roster have already announced early closures: THE LITTLE PRINCE, which mostly met hostile reviews, will close on Sunday, and for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, despite faring much better critically, will close May 22.
As Nellie Nugent, one of the lead producers of the latter, told the New York Times, “Our numbers were much lower than those rave reviews would justify. There are so many choices this season, which is very exciting, but there’s a lot of inventory, and the shows with major stars are doing better. I think there’s also a confusion in the public’s mind about safety.”
Announcements of the week
- BAT OUT OF HELL is to return to the West End, to play at the Peacock Theatre from February 17-April 1 2023, following its current national tour. Full touring dates/booking: https://www.batoutofhellmusical.com/uk-tour/
- Tim Walker’s BLOODY DIFFICULT WOMEN, premiered at London’s Riverside Studios, is to transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe’s Assembly Rooms, playing in the Ballroom from August 3-28. My review of the play when it opened at Riverside is here: https://shentonstage.com/shentonstage-daily-newsletter-for-thursday-march-3/
- Principal performers for A JOURNEY TO THE PAST, a celebration of the musicals of Ahrens & Flaherty to take place at West End’s Lyric Theatre on June 6, will be Carrie Hope Fletcher, Rob Houchen, Cedric Neal, Lucy St Louis and Summer Strallen, with further casting to be announced. Maria Friedman, who has just directed the Sondheim gala, will direct. https://nimaxtheatres.com/shows/a-journey-to-the-past/
- The Old Vic have now officially cancelled their production of Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer nominated play 4,000 Miles that was postponed because of COVID in 2020. It had been due to star Eileen Atkins and Timothée Chalamet (pictured above). In a statement sent to ticket holders on May 5, it was stated: ““Despite an enormous amount of effort from all involved, we have now sadly and reluctantly concluded that we are unable to reschedule the show at a time possible for everyone involved.”
For more details and press contacts for these productions, visit my updated list of forthcoming productions in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-may-2-w-c-onwards/
Openings of the week: London
- Tuesday’s SONDHEIM: OLD FRIENDS gala at the Sondheim Theatre was reviewed by a number of outlets — even though critics, too, had to pay for their tickets
In The Times, Clive Davis opened his five-star review stating: “Excuse me if I gush, but this was one of those nights where it was difficult to focus on highlights simply because there were so many. Cameron Mackintosh’s memorial concert for Stephen Sondheim, who died in November, began on a high note when the veteran Julia McKenzie, who did so much to champion the composer’s work on this side of the Pond, walked onto the stage to sing Side by Side by Side. Proof, if needed, that British artists don’t need to feel like intruders on this territory. They’ve made the music their own. McKenzie’s appearance was the kind of moment which, in normal circumstances, would crown a memorable evening. In this case it was just the prelude. Of course, it was all the more fitting that this gala concert for the Stephen Sondheim Foundation was happening at the theatre (formerly known as the Queen’s) that bears the artist’s name. In his opening speech, Mackintosh wryly quipped that the twisted ankle that had prevented the great man from attending the opening in 2020 had just been an excuse to avoid having to sit through Les Misérables.”
In a five-star review for The Guardian, Mark Lawson called it “a glorious memorial service, each of the tunes a eulogy, every eulogist either a current star (Judi Dench, Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton, Clive Rowe) or a likely future one (the cast swelled by young actors and drama school students.)…. Among flourishes of choreography (Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear) is reshaping the usually solo Broadway Baby for a chorus line of 10 top musical women, led by Julia McKenzie, on stage for the first time since the 1990s.”
And In the Daily Telegraph, Marienka Swain’s four-star review is full of praise for Judi Dench (pictured above): “The undoubted highlight was Judi Dench. Though she was helped on and off stage, her rendition of Send In the Clowns held us spellbound. Her voice catching with raw emotion, eyes glittering with unshed tears, it was a masterclass in acting through song.”
- David Eldridge’s MIDDLE, the second part of an intended trilogy of plays about couples in relationships, opened at the National Theatre’s Dorfman on Wednesday. In The Times, Clive Davis provoked some controversy by referring to the physiques of both Daniel Ryan and Claire Rushbrook:
In the Evening Standard, Nick Curtis is far more sympathetic to both the play and the actors: “Heartfelt, nuanced performances from Claire Rushbrook and Daniel Ryan illuminate David Eldridge’s portrait of a late-fortysomething Essex couple in crisis…. Maggie detonates a bomb under the marriage in the first five minutes, with the kind of statement that usually ends rather than begins a story. Rushbrook eloquently unpacks what brought the character to that point. Ryan’s Gary is sometimes oafish – opining on the “sex desert” all new parents have to navigate – but more often a quietly poignant figure. Together they excavate a marital pit of regret, but this emotional workout ends on a sliver of hope.”
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends).