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!