ShentonSTAGE Daily for THURSDAY MAY 26

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

On Wednesday I was in London for the day to attend the opening at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre of their first summer production, LEGALLY BLONDE, and then yesterday went on to Manchester (and back home to West Sussex after), specifically to see a new production of Sondheim and Lapine’s 1994 Broadway musical PASSION at Hope MIll Theatre. It was a lot of travelling (so apologies for my absence here yesterday) , but I was rewarded twice over.

The two shows could not, of course, be more different. LEGALLY BLONDE is a bright pink fluffball of a show, though like its title character, it contains an inner core of steel; Lucy Moss, fresh from her success as the youngest-ever woman to be nominated for a Tony Award for her co-direction of SIX, has lent it the same crisp girl-power vivacity that informs SIX, making her an inspired choice to direct it. 

As is now customary at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where it is playing to July 2, it is being given a high-concept make-over — last year’s CAROUSEL there was brilliantly relocated from Maine in New England to our England somewhere in the North — but this approach refreshes a piece that trades in archetypes and stereotypes to give them brand-new colours.

Sometimes literally: the lead character of Elle Woods is no longer a regulation blonde white girl but the wonderfully braided bombshell Courtney Bowman (herself an alumni of Six, pictured above right), with a killer voice and great timing. I also loved Michael Ahomka-Lindsay as Emmett, her mentor (above left), and Nadine Higgin as her hairdresser best friend Paulette.

The show retains the show’s pop sensibility jauntiness, but adds some sassy new undercurrents to make it very much a show for today.

PASSION, by contrast, is a dark, seething cauldron of emotional obsession for possession of a man’s very soul, and it is pursued — in James Lapine and composer Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 taut and unremitting Broadway adaptation of a 1969 Italian novel and a 1981 film that was based on it — with a devastatingly heightened intensity.

In the overpoweringly intimate surroundings of Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, it is given a production of thrilling concentration and devastating power by director Michael Strassen. He has proved himself one of the best directors of chamber musicals we have working in the UK right now, time and again, in revivals of musicals by Sondheim and others at London’s Union Theatre that have included an unsurpassed version of Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein’s THE BAKER’S WIFE and a revelatory version of Dempsey and Rowe’s THE FIX (soon to coincidentally receive a new concert staging in the West End under different auspices, at the Sondheim Theatre on June 20.

A stunning trio of principal actors — Ruthie Henshall as the sickly, emotionally disturbed Fosca, Dean John Wilson as Georgio, the handsome officer she becomes obsessed by, and Kelly Price as Clara, his mistress — lend it power, poignance and astonishing vocal power.

Henshall completely owns the role of Fosca in what is surely one of the most devastating musical theatre performances of the year (so far). I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her sing or act better. 

And both Wilson and Price (pictured above) are heart-rendering good: yes, they’re both gorgeous —but good looks alone don’t solve their issues and longings. They are surrounded by a fantastic ensemble, including the luxury casting of the genius (and genial) West End veteran Ray Shell as Fosca’s doctor who brings her and Giorgio together; when a production gets casting of this calibre for even such a small featured role, you know it is completely right.

I spent much of the second act in quiet tears of recognition and the devastating self-knowledge of my own past harms in relationships, driven by what I now know to have been love addiction, much as Fosca herself suffers from.

So the show spoke to me personally. But this searching, devastating production of one of Sondheim’s trickiest works, which some regard as his most unlikeable, demands to have a further life.

Audiences (and critics) are being discouraged….

There are times when, as a critic, I don’t feel I’m being exactly encouraged to keep supporting the theatre — I actually had a serious run-in with a young producer earlier this week who sought to keep me away a production of his until next week, even though it had already opened; in the event, the performance I tried to go to was cancelled minutes before it was due to start, owing to flooding in the theatre. (I’m going to try again next week).

It seems, though, that audiences, too, are being discouraged from going to many shows, too.

I sometimes dip into theatreboard.co.uk to take the pulse of ordinary, regular theatregoers — or at least the extraordinary ones who comment on this public forum — and the announcement of Amy Adams starring in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, now in previews at the Duke of York’s ahead of its opening next Tuesday (May 31) at the Duke of York’s, drew this comment last September:

We’ve since, of course, seen the serious price surging — or price gouging — at COCK for the last weeks of its run at the Ambassadors, which reached a whopping £400 a ticket, but were subsequently reduced after public outcry. (A case where Twitter actually had a beneficial effect)

Audiences once lost won’t be returning in a hurry. And this is the longer-term impact of such naked greed. Habits are easily changed. For myself, I used to consider the National Theatre an essential venue — one where I”d choose to see EVERY single production. Nowadays, I miss more than I see there. I’ve not seen THE CORN IS GREEN; I won’t be seeing THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN, either. 

I’m sure both are well worth seeing, I hasten to add: they are respectively the work of Dominic Cooke and Indhu Rubasingham. But I can’t see everything, and the NT press office doesn’t exactly offer a warm welcome. (Another veteran critic recently told me she has the same experience, and won’t humiliate herself to ask for tickets there again). RIght now, the only show I actually WANT to see there is David Eldridge’s MIDDLE. (So I’ve already bought one for next Wednesday evening). 

SEE YOU TOMORROW

I’ll be back here tomorrow with a round-up of the week. 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

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