Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.
Last Tuesday saw the official press opening of GREASE at the Dominion Theatre — the same address where the long-running 1993 revival was also launched, but now in a splashy brand-new production that re-introduces previously cut numbers from the premiere of the original 1971 stage version in Chicago, as well as the now familiar interpolation of the new songs written for the 1978 film version.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the show’s Off-Broadway premiere (after that Chicago opening the year before); they were closer to the 50s then than we are now. Indeed, they were closer to the 50s than we are even to that last major London revival at this very theatre. So nostalgia has very long shoots, which makes this a revival for cross-generational appeal.
But times have certainly changed in the intervening years. Not least that two of the show’s three leads — including its sole star-billed ‘name’, Peter Andre, playing Vince Fontaine and Teen Angel, and co-star juve lead Olivia Moore, due to play Sandy — were both already off at the Saturday matinee, just five nights after the opening. No reason was offered, or even any announcement made, beyond the electronic cast board on the right hand side of the foyer and a small notice posted beside the box office; but given that the show’s title is what customers are buying, I don’t know how much disappointment was caused.
And certainly in the case of understudy Ellie Kingdon, stepping in for Sandy (extreme left below), and Darren Bennett (the billed alternate to Andre, third from the left), audiences aren’t being shortchanged. Kingdon, in particular, brings physical freshness and vocal vivacity to the role.
As it is, it seems as if some members of the audience don’t really care WHO is starring in it, so determined are they to put on their own show. So much so that not only is there an announcement on the show’s foyer boards but also a verbal announcement is made before the show itself begins:
I’m relieved to report that at Saturday’s matinee, at least, the audience were remarkably well-behaved, and only joined in when encouraged to do so at the megamix finale (which is also when the prohibition against filming or photographing the show is also lifted).
But then turning shows into ‘participatory’, immersive events has been a growing tradition: Six, for instance, did a Singalong performance back in January at the Vaudeville; and & Juliet is doing one on June 6 at the Shaftesbury.
When the latter performance was announced last month(, director Luke Sheppard commented, “We wanted to create a special occasion where everyone is welcome to join in and have as much fun singing our songs as the actors do every night – when normally we ask the audience to leave the performing to them! A key message of the show is celebrating inclusivity through the magic of theatre, and our hope is that this event continues to open up this show to new audiences as well as those who want to experience the show in a unique way.”
Familiarity breeds content
A big part of the ready appeal of jukebox shows like & JULIET — a friend from New York has become so obsessed by it that he makes regular trips to London now specially to see it — is that you go in knowing the songs, so you already know something of what you’re getting.
Theatre that trades in this kind of nostalgic release is all the rage; for many, it’s enough to know the title and even the outcome, with a stage version of Agatha Christie’s novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS now providing theatrical comfort food at Chichester. After two starry film adaptations of the story. including Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 release with a cast that included Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, MIchelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench and Olivia Coleman, this is its first theatrical outing, in a version by playwright Ken Ludwig that was written at the express invitation of the Agatha Christie estate. (Ludwig will make a second appearance at Chichester this summer, when CRAZY FOR YOU — his 1992 Broadway update of the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy — is revived there from July 11-September 4).
It opened on Friday, and as Mark Lawson notes in his four-star review for The Guardian, “Even for those who know its audacious pay-off, Murder on the Orient Express remains a joy for the author’s exemplary plotting – it’s a different sort of fun to be in on where Christie is leading and misleading us – and the latest actor inhabiting Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot.”
That actor here is now Henry Goodman (pictured above), glinting with mystery and twinkling with mischief, about whom in another four-star review for the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish issues the following to David Suchet, the actor most associated with the role thanks to his long-running TV incarnation: “The good news is that Goodman amply lives up to his name; he’s terrific in the part. Suchet won’t want to hear it but: watch out, Sir David!”
He goes on to declare, “In his time, Goodman, 72, has been a superb Shakespearean actor, and the rigour he has showed in some of those classical leads, conveying darting intelligence and a transfixing aura of isolation too, is in full evidence here. His noted physical meticulousness is a perfect fit in this case; there’s not a movement that’s unconsidered.”
And the review concludes: “The blend of gore, suspense, comedy and cerebral titillation works entertainingly well, and this is a spur, surely, for more of the back-catalogue to be given the bells and whistles treatment, banishing the creaky, reppy associations that bedevil her work on the road. There’s something about Christie’s detectives – Poirot above all – that gives her work dimensionality even when other dramatis personae are flat. The immediate appeal is escapism – the reassurance of being guided through a maze – but Poirot’s beady-eyed fixity invites our vigilance. “We must stand up for the law, or there will be nothing left of us!” he rails, observing the rise of fascism. Timely stuff, in its antiquated way.”
THE WEEK AHEAD….
This week I’ll be back at Chichester on Thursday, for the premiere of Steven Moffat’s play THE UNFRIEND in the Minerva (pictured below), with a cast that includes Amanda Abbington, Frances Barber, Reece Shearsmith and Michael Simkins, under the direction of Mark Gatiss.
I’m in London tomorrow (May 24), for the opening of a new production of LEGALLY BLONDE at the Open AIr Theatre, Regent’s Park; I will also take the opportunity of Southwark Playhouse’s Tuesday matinees to catch up with its revival of the British musical LIFT.
And on Wednesday I’m going up to Manchester for the day to catch MIchael Strassen’s new production of Sondheim and Lapine’s 1994 Broadway musical PASSION, with a cast led by Ruthie Henshall.
I’ll be back in London next Friday and Saturday, seeing a new production of Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical solo musical THE LION opening at Southwark Playhouse’s studio on Friday, with Max Alexander-Taylor now stepping into Sheuer’s own shoes (and guitar strings); and then on Saturday catching Mark Ravenhill’s new chamber production of LA BOHEME at its penultimate performance in the afternoon, before revisiting CABARET at the Playhouse in the evening, with tickets that an American friend has donated to me after cancelling her London trip; it will give me the chance to see Fra Fee as the Emcee and Amy Lennox as Sally Bowles, replacing Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley respectively.
And next Sunday I’ll be closer to home again, to catch a rehearsed reading of THE FALSE SELF, a new play by Lucy Hornak and Deborah McMahon, being presented as part of the Steyning Festival in West Sussex.
For my regularly updated list of theatre openings in London, selected regional theatres and Broadway, visit https://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-may-23-onwards/
SEE YOU ON WEDNESDAY
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