Problem: I don't know how to adequately describe the magnificent theatre week I had last week. It was filled with all the great things!
Solution: I'll just give a few of my own personal awards in this post-Tony Awards bliss state:
A Doll's House Part 2
So, as the title says, what a week it was!! By the way, as far as the results of the Tony Awards go, I wouldn’t argue with any of the results (but did have some personal favorites that didn’t win). Having seen all of the nominated shows, and watched and met many of the nominated performers, I can honestly say that the awarded work was richly deserved, and truly good people were rewarded. This is unquestionably true for everyone involved with Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away and Indecent, three of my favorite shows this past season.
On to the new season! 2017-18, we’re coming for you!
p.s. Phil is proud to bear the signatures of his talented friends at Groundhog Day Musical , Andy Karl & Tim Minchin... On this first day of summer, Phil thinks you shouldn't have been complaining about some extra winter, but talk to the paw at this point...
In honor of Tony Awards Week, some thoughts:
Go see a show. Go tell a story. Go be kind to one another.
It's here: Tony Award Nominations Eve. I love this night because, until tomorrow, all the eligible shows, all the eligible actors, creatives, producers, are “hopefuls." Even if unlikely, a nomination is still possible. And even if the reviews weren't stellar, I can attest to the fact that every show has its fans; I see them on social media every day. So whether or not a show gets nominations, it may have changed someone's life, and how can any award match that? Well, a nomination, and then even more with a win, can mean the financial life-blood that allows a show to keep changing lives. The thing(s) I really hate about post-nomination day is/are the inevitable closing notices that may result if a show isn't nominated. But tonight, hope is still alive.
So, here are my Tony nomination wishes. But first, the shows I did not see/have not seen yet (I will see most before the awards): A Doll's House Part 2; Six Degrees of Separation; The Little Foxes; Anastasia; Oh Hello on Broadway; The Present; The Glass Menagerie; Les Liaisons Dangereuses; Present Laughter. Based on what I did see, and general reactions from audiences (not critics), here are my picks for the big four categories, and one category, not currently covered by The Tony Awards that I believe is a must to be added someday:
A Doll's House Part 2
Come From Away
Dear Evan Hansen
Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812
Tie: Amelie / In Transit
Best Revival of a Play
Six Degrees of Separation
The Front Page
The Little Foxes
Best Revival of a Musical
Best Ensemble / Musical
Come From Away
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Best Ensemble / Play
The Play That Goes Wrong
But I'd also like to offer a somewhat random list of memorable moments from this past season that transcend whatever may happen with awards for me:
So, regardless of what happens tomorrow, I deeply appreciate all the joy, soul-challenging, heart-filled, life-changing moments I've experienced in theatres this season. Everyone who worked to bring these shows to audiences have my heart.
I rarely win games of chance. Lotteries are not my friends. Raffles laugh in my face. Despite that, I love chance, serendipity, four-leaf clover type moments. Those things that you never expect to happen; and perhaps didn't even know you wanted.
As I say often, I LOVE going to shows during previews (the performances before official Opening Night, and a period during which the show is generally being fine-tuned). I especially love going to a show during previews, and then going back after it's ‟frozen” (generally, no more changes). It's absolutely fascinating to experience a show as it grows up :). Songs may come and go, scenes get modified, performers evolve their roles.
Groundhog Day, the new musical based on the 1993 Bill Murray film, started previews last night. Sort of. To my elfish surprise, I won, actually, WON, two tickets to the first preview! They dedicated the first performance to filling the house with winners of tickets and some social media folks, and the producers were there as well. It was set to be a grand night for fans. Spoiler alert: it was. GRAND.
The composer of Groundhog Day is musician, actor, lyricist, Tim Minchin, of Matilda The Musical fame (for which he won the Olivier Award and was Tony-nominated), and that prompted my friends and I to grab tickets to see the show in London last September. A very good decision; we loved it.
Fast forward 6 months, cross the Atlantic, and it's the first Broadway preview. The show starts, and I settle in, remembering how strongly the opening number pulled me in, and how the staging, using a turntable, so appropriately represents the turning of the clock. And then it happened. A critical failure of the set effectively stopped all 5 turntables from their appointed rounds (blame me for that pun). Punksutawny Phil was not having a good day.
From the angle we were seated, we could see a little unsteadiness the first time the all-important set piece of Phil Connors' Punksutawny guest house bedroom slide onto the stage, and stage hands were briefly visible as they adjusted the structure. It was not obtrusive, and most of the audience likely didn't see it. But about 15 minutes into the first act, the house lights went up, and the actors were asked to leave the stage.
A very calm announcement of a technical issue was made, and the house lights were again dimmed. We chatted amongst ourselves in the darkened house, and after a bit, a scrim lowered to cover the stage. Clearly, this was not going to be a quick fix. Having seen the show before, I was pretty sure that an inoperable turntable would doom the performance (no spoilers as to why :)), but it never occurred to me that they wouldn't get it working. My friend and show companion, Laura Heywood (@BroadwayGirlNYC, check her out on Twitter, and AOL's Build Series interviews!), commented that, if they couldn't get it fixed, they should continue the show in concert form at least. Smart woman. More about that in a minute.
Meanwhile, another announcement; this time from director Matthew Warchus himself (the crowd cheered just hearing his voice and knowing he was in the room). Matthew explained the fluke nature of what had happened, and that they were continuing to try to fix the issue, but they'd never had this particular problem. It might take some time, he said, enough time for the show to buy every single person in the audience a free drink! Cheers rose and, not surprisingly, a mad rush for the bars ensued. It was a most convivial crowd; I think we were all enjoying being part of the unexpected. The producers mingled, and the merchandise stand definitely benefited (despite a lack of a plush Punksutawny Phil! What's up with that??). After about 30 minutes, we were summoned back to our seats, and Matthew Warchus, Andy Karl (who plays Phil Connors) and producer Trevor Albert came on stage to tell us that the show could not continue [and, by the way, bad news just seems not so bad when delivered in a British accent]...BUT, we would all be given complimentary tickets to another preview performance of our choice! That really wasn't the best part. Free drink-good. Free ticket-good. A continuation of the show that night in concert form?-pricelessly great. They would do the rest of Act I with as much dialogue as possible, and then go through the main 5 songs in Act II. Yep, Laura called it!
The audience was, judging from the cheers, thrilled. And for good reason. We all knew this was unprecedented, and a chance to see a completely unique version of the show. When the scrim rose, all the various seating that could be corralled from the set was now filled with the cast in two rows that filled the stage side to side. They started from the point they'd left off in Act 1, with both dialogue, miming of action, and songs. It was truly amazing to watch this show come to life in a one-of-a-kind incarnation; it seemed spontaneous, joyful, and somehow fully itself. One of my favorite parts was the reaction of the cast members as they watched each other's performances. At one point, some of the second row stood up, or craned their necks and leaned over to see what was getting such a laugh from the audience. Andy Karl gave a fantastic performance; sublime physical comedy and his heart on his sleeve. Thc close of Act I got a standing ovation, and Act II featured Matthew Warchus coming on stage to set the context for the various songs. Not to be forgotten is the incredible job done by the sound and light crews, who spun on a dime to adapt to a show with virtually no set and no props. Truly amazing.
Last night was filled with all of the things I adore about live theater. Every single time a show is performed is different, not just the ones where the stars don't align, because the infinite combination of cast, audience, happenstance, weather, et al, make a new soup each time. As Phil Connors learned, no day is exactly the same, because you are not exactly the same. Do not ever underestimate your contribution to the show you're seeing as you sit in that theater. Every single cast member at the stage door was overwhelmed by the audience reaction, and willingness to take the ride with them. They talked about facing the unexpected, the pride in the proof that the show and story can stand alone, the joy at seeing their fellow cast members' performances (that they would not normally get the chance to experience), and the gratitude to the audience. I wouldn't have changed a thing.
Punksutawny...it's a helluva town. And it's got an awesome groundhog (musical).
Thanks to every single show person (cast, creative, producers, theater bartenders, marketing team) last night who kept smiling, kept calm and gave us a Broadway night to remember.
UPDATE: Andy Karl shared his thoughts on the evening here, and more details on the evening are in this Playbill article.
Here are some pics to capture the moments:
Broadway has gotten a little sweeter in anticipation of the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the stage musical, which joins the 1971 and 2005 films based on Roald Dahl's beloved book. The show is finally arriving in NYC after a long run on London's West End, where I first saw it in 2013, and again last September. I'm really looking forward to see the American production (it is being referred to as "retooled for Broadway"), most especially because Tony Award-winner Christian Borle is playing Willy Wonka! You'll remember him from his Tony-winning turns as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher and William Shakespeare in Something Rotten!. Oh, and that television show [I still miss it!!!] Smash. No one does charmingly, irresistably sinister like Christian Borle!!
The show begins inside-the-theater previews on March 28 '17, but if you don't want to wait, you can enjoy the whimsy right now on W 46th St! I love the Lunt-Fontanne theater for its grand exterior, wonderful banner marquees, and good seating plan, but I don't think its facade has ever been put to better use, or stolen my heart the way it has with Charlie. I suspect there's a bit of Charlie in all of us...and maybe a smidge of impish Oompa Loompa as well...
Take a look at the "pure imagination"!:
Watch Christian Borle talk about Charlie...
I get lots and lots of questions about getting tickets to Hamilton because I've been fortunate enough to see the show multiple times. "There must be a secret you have," say my friends. Alas, no, I have no secret method, no insider pipeline. The good news though is that I don't/haven't done anything you can't do.
I would say that the single most important factor in my opportunities to see Hamilton more than once, and to see the original cast, has been my membership with The Public Theater in NYC. The Public, founded in 1962 by Joseph Papp, is a prolific incubator of new work. Their Lafayette Square home has five theater spaces, a music venue and a restaurant, and any given season will include all manner of productions, from workshops to full productions. The historic musical Hair, was born at The Public in 1967, and two recent Tony Award winners for Best New Musical, Fun Home (2015; now on tour) and Hamilton (2016), had their starts there. The Public doesn't offer subscriptions to the season, where you buy tickets to all shows in advance, but there are various levels of membership available, with benefits like early access to information and tickets, and some of which include advance, guaranteed tickets to the annual Shakespeare in the Park productions (free to the public, but only available the day of). How early your priority access is to the shows depends on level of membership, but it will still be before the general public. Memberships start at $65, and I've been a member for several years at different levels, primarily because I want to support the arts, especially new theatrical work, and I really like that, with membership rather than a subscription, I can decide on a show by show basis what I want to see.
Priority access to tickets is great, but the other benefit to Public membership is being introduced to new work before it becomes widely known. And that was the case with Hamilton. It showed up in the Public's 2015 season, and I was intrigued by a musical based on Alexander Hamilton (skeptical, mind you, but intrigued). I also knew Lin-Manuel Miranda was no stranger to writing successful musicals. So I bought a single ticket to the 3rd preview performance for $50. And then the word got out, and the entire run sold out before I could buy a ticket to see it again (which I immediately wanted to do after Act 1). But then it got extended. As a member, I was notified early about the extension. I jumped online and bought a pair of tickets, this time for $90/each. The friend who accompanied me thought I'd hung the moon by the time the house lights went up at intermission.
As expected, the show announced a Broadway transfer (to the media, not just Public members), and I immediately marked the on-sale date on my calendar. Then I made sure to buy tickets to two different performances at the same time, one before official opening, and one after (it's fun to compare how a show changes during previews!). I bought a single ticket for one show, and a pair of tickets to another, figuring I'd find someone available to go with me. I didn't check with people first, to see if they could go; that would have taken too much time, I just bought the tickets. I purchased one premium ticket in the front orchestra for my single ticket to treat myself (regular price, approx. $250), and the first row of the mezzanine for the second pair of tickets for about $150/each, knowing I'd likely be reimbursed for that 2nd ticket.
My Public Theater membership came in handy again when I was given the opportunity to attend a special performance and afterparty with the cast, to benefit the Public Theater. Despite how that sounds, I'm not a VIP at all, just a member, and the tickets (for show/party combined) were $500, with some of that constituting a charitable donation (for that amount now, you'd barely get a regular price ticket in the mezzanine). If you wanted to spend the money, and acted fast enough, you could go. At the request of friends, I also took advantage of an American Express presale for a new Broadway ticket release and the tickets were $199 each (regular price, side orchestra). Getting those tickets required lots of waiting on hold, and navigating a ticketing system rife with problems like nonfunctioning presale codes, etc. It wasn't pretty, but the tickets were mine at the end. So part of this is how much trouble you're able and willing to endure to see this show!
Aside from advance notice, and the willingness to try something new, the deciding factor, of course, is money. Hamilton tickets are expensive, even the cheap seats are not cheap anymore. Expect to feel lucky if you can get regular price tickets for $200 each, and expect them to be at the rear of the theater. No question, the show is worth that, and considerably more, but not everyone can, will or should, spend that money on a theater ticket, no matter how wonderful the show. Without discussing the financial wisdom of my choices :), the bottom line is that I spent various amounts on tickets, have never purchased tickets on the secondary market (be very careful with that option), and haven't ever regretted my decisions.
So, you know the show is happening, you're willing to spend money on tickets, and the next critical step (for any tough to get tickets) is advance planning, and the willingness to be flexible in your timing. Be ready to make quick decisions while you're making the purchase, especially if the site does not allow you to select seats yourself, but offers you the best available. I've learned the hard way that if you give up what they offered, thinking the next choice will be better, you will be disappointed. If tickets pop up, grab them. You might also consider breaking up your party to sit singly or in other combinations, rather than seating the entire group in a row. My friends and I often purchase single seats for the same performance to improve our seats, and potentially pay less. You won't be talking during the show anyway, so especially in the case of hard-to-get tickets, it may be the best way to go.
It is not often I can say this, but really, this show is great from anywhere in a theater. Not because every seat has a great view, some won't, but to borrow an overused line from the show, just being in the room where it happens is pretty darn great. If all you can get, because of price or availability, is the rear of rear balcony, take it. I've seen the show from close up, rear side orchestra and mezzanine, with multiple casts, and it's as good as you think it will be.
Currently, the Hamilton landscape has changed considerably with two sit-down productions in New York and Chicago (sit-down meaning no set end dates for the runs), a touring production starting in San Francisco in March '17, and a London production starting in November '17.
The London run is currently sold out through June '18 for the first booking period, but the theater is being renovated for the show, and future blocks of tickets will likely go on sale in the coming months. Keep checking the website, and, as they suggest, use Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date on availability.
Closer to home, Chicago currently has tickets on sale for Sep '17 to Jan '18. Also, when I was checking the San Francisco run for a friend a couple of weeks ago, there was not a seat to be had for any performance. But now, various performances are showing limited availability. Mind you, some of the tickets are over $800 at regular price (close up orchestra), but there are seats. The future cities on the tour (Los Angeles is next) have not gone on sale yet, but you will probably want to sign up to be notified by email for any city that might be a possibility for you. I wasn't going to try for tickets in Chicago (despite having friends there, and wanting to visit), and the tickets sold out, so I figured it wasn't meant to be. But then they announced a cast member (Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr, who will be playing the role on tour!)) of whom I'm a huge fan, and on a whim, I checked again for tickets and found one! It was a single seat, and, as always, pricey, but regular price, no mark up. I guess it was meant to be after all :).
My understanding is that for some cities on the tour, ticket priority will be given to those who subscribe to the current season as well as the Hamilton season. Even if the show is not arriving in your city until 2018 or even 2019, check the theater website (not just the Hamilton website), or otherwise contact the theater for specifics. Another possibility in some cities may be opportunities if you're a member of an organization, such as a teachers' association, to purchase tickets through them.
No matter which location you're eyeing, and depending on your level of motivation, the theater may have a cancelation line for each performance. For Broadway, there is also a day-of digital ticket lottery (as there is for a number of other shows; check todaytix.com for the app that will help you). Hey, someone has to win, right?? And, believe it or not, I know of people who have walked up to the box office on Broadway for a same-day performance and tickets were available. Expensive (regular price, not marked up), but available. My mantra: if you don't ask, the answer's always no.
UPDATE: The San Francisco run has announced a digital lottery!
I've been continually impressed by the Hamilton show website. It is well designed, and has all the information and links you might need. That said, just checking the website probably isn't enough on its own; social media, signing up for email notifications, and trying for some plain old luck of the draw are only going to improve your odds.
p.s. Just fyi, the current hot ticket at The Public is Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, a new musical from David Byrne (Talking Heads; Here Lies Love), and directed by Alex Timbers (Broadway's Peter and the Starcatcher, Rocky, & Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon).
It's all her fault.
Judi Dench. She's the reason I found myself in the West End for a second theatre expedition to London this past November. I hadn't planned on it; my budget hadn't planned on it; but the universe clearly had other plans, and who am I to argue with the universe? Or Dame Judi? Seeing her on stage has been on my wish list for years, and it didn't hurt that Kenneth Branagh has just formed a theatre company, with a stellar first season, including Kenneth starring with Dench in A Winter's Tale, Harlequinade, a farcical comedy that I had not seen before, and All on Her Own, starring Zoe Wanamaker, another treat to see on stage.
Shopping for shows is one of my favorite pastimes, no matter the locale, but London is especially fun because many of the theaters are unfamiliar to me, and it's fun to discover a new corner or new neighborhood, or even a new town outside of London. By the way, my go-to website for London theater is Official London Theatre (officiallondontheatre.co.uk). Note that you don't have to buy your tickets through their links. You can go directly to the show website or search elsewhere for discounts.
I do know some of the theaters by reputation and experience; the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in particular. I remember seeing the RSC perform a spectacular A Midsummer Night's Dream (my favorite Shakespeare play) on tour while I was living in Melbourne, Australia, and had always wanted to visit their home in Stratford-upon-Avon, which I did in 2013, and will definitely do again.
This time, I focused on The National Theatre, as I'd seen their productions of War Horse, and The Audience, (starring Helen Mirren), on Broadway, and I wanted to experience a production on their home turf. When I saw that Jane Eyre was playing while I was there, it was an easy choice, and turned out to be a fantastic decision!
It's also fun to see shows that are no longer on Broadway, but that I missed along the way, and I took my first trip to the famed London Palladium to see Cats, which I hadn't seen since 1983 in DC on its first national US tour. I also made what turned out to be an ill-fated attempt to see a much-lauded production of In the Heights at King's Cross. I thought it would be great to see a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway show, amidst the storm of attention being paid to his current Broadway masterpiece, Hamilton. Unfortunately, nature and mechanics did not cooperate with me on that choice, as I explain below.
Along with Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and Zoe Wanamaker, Nicole Kidman and Mark Rylance (one of my very favorite actors, on and off Broadway) were also appearing in London plays at the same time. Kidman starring in Photograph 51, which sounded like a fascinating story (based on the true story of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who actually discovered the double helix structure of DNA before the men who have the credit, Watson and Crick), and Rylance in a play with which I was unfamiliar, Farinelli and the King. Mark Rylance is absolutely a "destination actor" for me; I will see him in any show he decides to do!
So, I'd planned five days of theater, but to my great thrill, the long-rumored revival of Funny Girl turned up as starting previews just a couple of days after I'd initially planned to leave London. Really, what else could I do, but extend the trip?? It was going to run at one of my favorite London theaters (Off West End), the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is an intimate black box space (meaning it can be configured as needed by the show), and yes, there is a restaurant that has chocolate on the menu that shares the building. I had been to Menier in 2014 to see Aaron Tveit (did you just see him in Grease Live!??) in a revival of Sondheim's Assassins, and vowed to return. Spoiler alert: definitely the right call.
Also coinciding with my visit was a chance to see my friends Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch dance in a one-night only program of classic song and dance musical numbers. Making the tough choices about what to see on my infrequent visits to London is seriously painful, but seeing talented friends perform is not a tough choice! In other news, I'm short.
I did, however, decide to leave a couple of show slots open to see how I felt while I was there, and to experiment with the discount ticket booth in Leicester Square (the London equivalent of Broadway's TKTS), and the TodayTix discount ticket mobile app that operates in certain US cities (including NYC, DC, Chicago) and London. That strategy left me with one rousing success (The Play That Goes Wrong), one enjoyable afternoon (Mr. Foote's Other Leg), and one hiccup (the aforementioned In the Heights).
My friends sometimes comment that they think I love everything I see. Not so. What I do dearly love, always, is the experience of sitting in a theater and being told a story on stage. So, because I go in with that filter, I almost always find lots to enjoy about a show, even if I felt it was more flawed than not. The other factor in the equation is that I make very careful choices; and while I rarely read reviews, I do take "buzz" into account. So I am probably choosing right (for me) more often than not, and I have extremely diverse and eclectic tastes, which doesn't hurt. Turns out, this trip was no exception. I really did love every show I saw. They were each so different from one another, and provided great contrast each day.
Here's a little about why I liked what I saw:
A Winter's Tale / Starring Judi Dench & Kenneth Branagh
From the snow gently falling as the show opened, to the force of presence that these two actors bring to the stage, I was spellbound throughout the show. This is one of Shakespeare's plays that I've made a point of seeing multiple times. Along with The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, it has a story I enjoy seeing interpreted in different ways. The cast overall was stellar. It's hard to imagine I'll see a more beautiful and well-acted production of this play.
Wildly inventive, with abstract staging and musicians on stage, providing sound effects as well as accompanying music. The incredibly powerful performances by actors, sometimes playing multiple roles, made me hear this classic story in a completely new way. The unexpected staging emphasized the despair and futility the characters battled, while also making the characters stripped down and more vulnerable to the audience. And The National Theatre is fantastic (some photos from the foyer area below)!
Pure, unadulterated silliness; a great example of the things that make a farce work: actors who are completely fearless and without ego, a simple enough story, and a set/staging that is technically close to perfect. The audience is theoretically watching a hapless theater company attempting to put on a show while avoiding its apparently usual calamities. It's a play within a play and double the fun. The set, and its deft manipulation by the actors, was a big part of the success of the gags!
The story of a king suffering from the onset of dementia, who is calmed only by the angelic voice of Farinelli, a famous opera singer. The increasing madness of the king, contrasted with the beauty of the arias sung by Farinelli was stunningly poignant. I am not an opera aficionado, but the role of Farinelli was cast with professional tenors, and I overheard other audience members talking about how they had come to the show to hear that particular tenor. For me, Mark Rylance as the king was the reason to go, and he did not disappoint. Rylance is so vulnerable and chameleon-like; fluid and natural on stage. If you've seen the recent movie Bridge of Spies, Mark is the spy, and has been nominated for an Oscar! He's also a very kind, kind man in person. And as you can see in the glimpse above center, the set was gorgeous. In the foreground is the flower that a sweet stage hand gave me at the interval (when in London...the intermission is an "interval" :)).
A short, taut, psychological thriller of sorts, this play was such a fascinating glimpse at the way women were (and still are) marginalized and disrespected in staunchly male-dominated fields such as science. But more than that, in Nicole Kidman's remarkable embodiment of Rosalind Franklin, who actually "discovered" the double helix structure of DNA, the character was heartbreakingly human and provided such insight into how we are each a mixed bag of talents and challenges; how we balance that bag as we carry it is the key. In a serendipitous twist, I found myself at a small group (maybe 30 people) talk back after the show. The playwright, the director, and cast members discussed the importance of the show, bringing it to London, and then answered questions. Nicole Kidman is articulate, warm, humble and quite funny! Also of note is that the playwright, Anna Ziegler first premiered this play with Active Cultures Theatre in Maryland.
Based on British theatrical history, this play has a tragicomic relevance to present day "celebrity culture," and what can happen when an individual becomes a public persona, and life spins out of their control. It is the kind of funny that has a sadness to it, and this story of Samuel Foote, a famously flamboyant performer who reveled in fame during the late 18th century, but who fought demons and injury (there is that matter of the missing leg, removed after a stage mishap, and a bit gruesome on stage!). The highlight of this show was my delight in finding Dervla Kirwan as one of the leads. Some of you may remember her as Assumpta on the BBC serial Ballykissangel, to which I became addicted while living in Melbourne. She was fabulously funny and sharp and a master of physical comedy in this show, and I loved her.
This was a double-bill, with the first part of the evening devoted to All On Her Own, a phenomenal solo performance by Zoe Wanamaker, as a widow having a drunken conversation with her deceased husband; battling past pain and present loneliness within herself. In stark, but not unwelcome, contrast, was Harlequinade, another farce about a company of unfortunately untalented theater actors attempting to stage a touring production, led by the hysterically funny, dim but ego-maniacal actor played by Kenneth Branagh. I had no idea Branagh was such a comedic talent, but this part clearly suited him. There were mistaken identities, pratfalls and happy endings, and it was good.
Sheridan Smith, I learned, is a veteran stage actor, television performer, and quite the celebrity in the UK. Name above the title famous. Having her star in Funny Girl was apparently quite a coup. I can attest to this fame, as a fairly substantial segment of her fan club attended the first preview with me (evidence below). American director Michael Mayer spoke before the show started, and requested that we be a bit patient, as this was the show's very first full run through. However, with the exception of a small, technical blip with the two moving walkways on the already small stage, the performance went off beautifully! Smith packs a huge punch of talent and charisma in her 5 ft of height, and helped make this tiny theater seem massive.
My companion for the evening was my friend Alan, and as he knew some of the cast members, we had some fun after the show chatting with them (shout outs Kelly Rees-Roberts (Homewood), Stuart Ramsay and Leah Harris, in photos below). Sheridan Smith is delightful, and it turns out that composer Jules Styne's widow was sitting inches from me on a couch after the show. I suspect the show will come to the US, but when I mentioned that to Sheridan, and said I'd love to see her in it there, she told me, "they won't want this little British girl as Fanny." I'm not as sure as she is, but I guess she's probably right. The show will play the West End through September '16 (as currently scheduled).
Memories. Seriously, I have memories of Cats. At the National Theatre in DC in 1984, and being a dance fanatic (I may have organized groups of friends to see Fosse's Dancin' more than once), I loved the choreography especially. But I also loved the music, and I think it was seeing shows like Dancin' and Cats that made me realize that I do not need a linear story to enjoy theater. In fact, there's something very freeing about giving up that kind of control over the story, and letting your mind go. I realize that's not for everyone, but I think live theater is particularly good for that sort of experience. Plus, although "Memories" (the song) is not high on my list, this production reminded me of how much I really love the song "Jellicle Cats" :)!. I had been forewarned that Rum Tum Tugger is now a hip hop rap kitty, and I guess that worked for me (he was a crowd favorite for sure). This was by no means an understated production; the sets and effects were massive and elaborate. I will say that I think I preferred the more minimal approach of the original, in which I felt the focus was more on the music and dance, but times have changed :).
In the Heights (almost)
Freezing cold outside. Even colder inside the cavernous space that is the King's Cross Theatre. I was thinking that I must have missed the memo about it being a cold theater normally, as I saw people across the way (it's a thrust stage with audience on both sides) bundled up in blankets. Turns out, the HVAC system was seriously malfunctioning, and about midway through the first act, they had to stop the show. The truly unfortunate aspect to this particular problem was that the story of In the Heights is fairly dependent on an oppressive heat wave happening in Manhattan. This meant that the actors were all performing in the most summery of summery costumes. Not only was it hard to get into the spirit of it for the audience, the cast finally called it quits, saying they were simply too cold to perform. The theater staff handled it all well, even refunding the cost of the souvenir program for me (even more impressive was the automatic refund I received from TodayTix)!
Note: Something to remember about seeing shows in London is that there is not the equivalent of the complimentary Playbill show program that we are used to at all US theaters, small and large. In London (and Dublin), the only program you will receive is one you decide to pay for, and is akin to what we think of as a "souvenir" program that is sold at the merchandise kiosks at the shows. This means that if you want to know about the actors and creative teams, etc., you will need to spend approximate £4-6, in addition to your ticket price.
Oh, and just in case you might (reasonably) think I did nothing in London other than inhabit theater seats, here's some evidence of my other adventures (and see my post below about enjoying the magic of the Christmas windows at Harrod's!):
This was my second visit. Yeah, I'm a fan. And there are some new features (Hogwarts Express, for example). But my main reason for going this time was to see it decorated for the holidays! Loved.
Covent Garden, Carnaby Street and the Tate Modern!
As a postscript, I was in London the day of the attacks in Paris, and my walk from the Tube to the National Theatre that evening looked liked this, as London showed its solidarity with the French people.
When in London last month for a holiday theatre feast, I walked to and from the tube each day past the enchanting and whimsical world of venerable Harrods department store's Christmas windows. It was as if I was being given an extra gift of theatre of a different sort. Especially late in the evening, when the crowds had dissipated, I noticed more detail and more story each time I looked. My favorite aspect to the design is that each window has three elements: a large elaborate, moving tableau up top, a narrower diorama underneath (at perfect height for a child) and a very subtle photo-style image on either side of the diorama that revealed that all this miniature activity was taking place underground. I couldn't stop taking pictures, as I didn't want to forget any of the delightful discoveries I made, so I thought I'd share that visual adventure with you too!
The World Underneath
T'was the time before Christmas, and on Brompton Road,
A Stage Elf was wand'ring, in theatre mode.
She happened on windows that gave her a peek,
of a quite special show taking place through the week.
Behind all the glass, the magic sprang forth,
but underneath each tableau, it appeared that the North (Pole),
had forgotten to draw the curtains you see,
and a whole other show was going on, dear and wee.
So come now and explore, imagination run free.
Merry Christmas to all and Happy New Year from ME!
Two and a half days in lovely London (even in the wind and rain, its charm is palpable), and four shows makes for a happy Stage Elf. My main motivation for this visit was to be in the audience for Imelda Staunton's performance as Rose, in the West End revival of Stephen Sondheim's Gypsy before it ends its run this winter. I am not, by any means, an "experienced" Gypsy aficionado, but I really wanted to see Imelda on stage, and it seemed such a good fit of a role for her. I am well aware that it's considered a gigantic "classic" of American theater, and I don't disagree. Gypsy seems to me a richly complete show: filled to bursting with memorable songs, weighty story, multiple leading characters that make me care about them, and some damn funny bits thrown in for good measure. It's nearly impossible to imagine a production that would do this show more justice than this one. Staunton saturates her performance with pathos, and very nearly blows the seats out from under the audience when she sings the big numbers. I feel pretty certain that, if you ever did, you won't ever again think of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," as an ode to the Pollyanna outlook on life. Imelda Staunton wrings every last drop of pain, regret, desperation and defiance out of those lyrics. Plus, she knows how to use silence too; a tricky thing for a small person, in a huge theater, and on a bare stage. As she sobs in her daughter's arms at the end, I think the whole audience held its collective breath. But the entire cast is great, especially Peter Davison as Rose's best (but oft-mistreated) guy, Herbie; their ill-fated love affair broke my heart.
By the way, I had a fascinating conversation with the elderly gentleman and his wife sitting next to me, about the show. He's been in the theater business for a long time, mainly as a writer from what I could tell, and had seen Angela Lansbury play Rose. His whispered comment to me at the interval, eyes darting about conspiratorially, was "I saw Angela...this is better!" I promised I wouldn't tell Ms. Lansbury, so shhhh.
Kevin Spacey has a theater in London, did you know that? It's called The Old Vic, and he's been shepherding it for ten years as the Artistic Director. I'd been wanting to see a show there for a while, and a production of High Society (based on the Katharine Hepburn film The Philadelphia Story, and a film musical, High Society from 1956), with Cole Porter's classic songs, got me to Waterloo (the tube station, that is). I was delighted to discover that the theater had been refitted to stage the show in the round, and this is one of my favorite in-the-round productions I've seen. I really loved how the scene changes were beautifully choreographed as musical interludes, "performed" by various parts of the cast, and was wildly impressed by how they wow-ed with intricate and highly energetic dance numbers in a relatively small space. It was altogether frothy and delightful.
The second "new to me" theater was The Lyric Hammersmith where I saw a production of Alan Parker's Bugsy Malone, with a precocious and very talented young cast. This was another time when the staging really impressed; it was so playful, combining a cartoon feel (a speakeasy set that plummeted from the rafters when needed; "splurge" guns that shot pink slime; and corpses that exited the stage on their own power, moaning "oh, maaaannn"), without losing the darker, gangster-era grit. I was there for the Wednesday matinee, as were, apparently, half the middle schoolers in London. They LOVED it, and it was such fun to share it in that audience. I will say that it is impressive when a show can keep a theater filled with young people enthralled and (mostly) quiet throughout.
And on my last night, I saw a show that had really piqued my curiosity: Bend it Like Beckham, a new stage musical based on the acclaimed 2002 film starring Parminder Nagra and Keira Nightly. I'm always intrigued when the subject matter of the story doesn't seem to naturally lend itself to the stage; I half-wondered whether I'd be ducking careening soccer balls that hadn't quite learned the choreography yet. I think it succeeds in the way it must; it focuses on the real story, of family, of the relationship between parents and children, between siblings, between friends. I thoroughly enjoyed the score, particularly how the big dance numbers involving the footballers stood in for actual soccer action. I also thought the chemistry between the members of the core family of Jesminder, her sister Pinky and very traditional parents, was strong and believable. Natalie Dew as Jess, and Tony Jayawardena as her father were particularly wonderful together.
I have been laughingly saying that I'm working my way through seeing the entire Harry Potter film casts on stage, sometimes intentionally (Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Fiona Shaw, Imelda Staunton, for example), but sometimes unexpectedly. This time, it turned out that Jess's coach/love interest was Jamie Campbell Bower, who played Young Grindewald in Deathly Hallows Part 1, and a couple of other cast members in the other shows I saw this week are also on the Harry Potter Film Family Tree (a Whomping Willow, of course :)). It pays to read the bios in the program!
Back home to the stages of Boston, New York City and DC now...I can't wait!
Top Hat is the very definition of a big, classic, splashy feast of dance and music. One of Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger's most enjoyable films together (nominated for four Academy Awards), it is chock full of irresistible tunes from Irving Berlin, and masterful tap choreography that will, I maintain, convert even a non-dance fan.
The humor is broad and slapstick, and the production (and talented cast) completely own the show's spirit, an essential element to its success. I've seen the show twice now (once during its West End run), with a huge grin on my face through each performance. Last evening, the lady to my right was moved to softly sing along a few times, something that would normally raise my ire, but as it happened, she had a lovely voice, and was so enjoying the show, that I couldn't hold it against her. And the young woman in front of her was full-on dancing in her seat from the first notes of the overture. Alan's co-lead, Charlotte Gooch, is wonderful as Dale Tremont, and the sustained applause after Cheek to Cheek, was a testament to the charming chemistry of the pair.
The tour has, thankfully, brought along two of my favorite featured actors from the West End, Clive Hayward as Horace Hardwick, Jerry's London producer, and John Conroy as Bates, Hardwick's long-suffering, dry humored, primly genius valet.
The very modern Bord Gáis sits in the Docklands neighborhood of Dublin, right on the River Liffey; and their upcoming season of shows, is quite appealing (Carousel, The Sound of Music and others)...enough so that I find myself wishing I lived just a bit closer! On a practical note, the seats were comfortable and the sight lines seemed good overall. As for Top Hat, the tour runs through July in the UK, and may even visit Japan in October. If you happen to be in one of the neighborhoods, go see it! And if you meet up with Alan, tell him I said "hi." :)
In fact, I had such fun last night, that I think I may just pop over and see the show again before I leave Dublin...:). See why, below...