Monday, June 27, 2016

Musical Revivals in London's West End

Emmanuel Kojo (centre) and members of the cast of Show Boat at London's New London Theatre. (Photo: Johan Persson)

There are three major American musicals in which the main male characters are gamblers, and by chance all three have been revived in London’s West End this season. So audiences who check out Show Boat at the New London and see Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso) toss his winnings in the air as he shares his good luck with his wife Magnolia (Gina Beck) may feel a weird déjà vu sensation if they’ve already seen Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell) perform the same action with Fanny Brice (Natasha J. Barnes) in Funny Girl, which moved to the Savoy from its original venue, the Meunier Chocolate Factory. No such scene appears in Guys and Dolls at the Phoenix, but nonetheless it is the quintessential gambling musical.

This Show Boat uses the same version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein show as the Goodspeed Opera House did in 2011, with the restorations to the score, cut after the show’s 1927 Broadway opening, that Harold Prince made when he revived it on Broadway in 1983 – “’Till Good Luck Comes My Way” and the gospel-tinged “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” (led here by the marvelous Sandra Marvin as Queenie) as well as “I Still Suits Me,” the duet Kern and Hammerstein wrote for the 1936 film version. (This latest production also puts back “Hey, Feller!,” which doesn’t enhance the musical in any way, mostly because it’s extraneous to the plot and the characters and occurs so late in the show.) It’s a very enjoyable production, well staged by Daniel Evans for the most part and robustly sung, under Tom Brady’s musical direction. Its weak point is the acting. Some of the cast – Malcolm Sinclair as Captain Andy Hawks, the proprietor of the show boat, the Cotton Blossom, Lucy Briers as his ornery wife Parthy, Alex Young and Danny Collins as the novelty dance duo in the troupe, Ellie and Frank – are downright awful, though Collins, at least, is an impressive dancer. Leo Roberts plays Steve Baker, the white man married to his co-star, Julie La Verne (Rebecca Trehearn, though Victoria Hinde stepped in for her at the matinee I attended), who, in the memorable subplot, turns out to be of mixed race. Julie jokes that she loves Steve partly because he’s such a terrible actor; Roberts doesn’t indicate much of a difference between Steve’s melodramatic overacting and his own. These characters drop out of the musical in the middle of the first act, when an embittered suitor, a “wharf rat” named Pete (Ryan Pidgen), tells the local sheriff that Julie has Negro blood, and when we see her again, just once, in act two, she’s been abandoned by Steve, she’s drinking too much, and she’s singing in a club in Chicago. At this point Roberts, sporting a mustache, shows up as her boss, who has to read the line, “I’d like to get my hands on the man who walked out on her.” Who came up with that casting idea?

Gina Beck and Chris Peluso in Show Boat. (Photo: Johan Persson)
Hammerstein, in a real feat of showmanship, trimmed Show Boat from Edna Ferber’s sprawling soap-opera novel; the show, which covers forty years, beginning in 1887, is the first great play in the American musical-theatre canon. Nola and Gay are its main characters and their romance and subsequent marriage – which ends when, deciding in the wake of diminishing fortunes that he’s wrecking Nola’s life and that of their little girl, Kim, he walks out on them in Chicago – are its main focus. But it’s the racial material, the miscegenation story and “Ol’ Man River,” the lament of the black man in the post-Civil War South, that is the most potent element, especially for a twenty-first-century audience. Evans has built it up with intelligence and skill. A surly brute of a white overseer wielding a hook hovers over the African-American dock workers as they make their way around the New London’s semi-circular thrust, slinging heavy cotton bales and keeping their eyes carefully lowered to avoid inciting him by coming across as “uppity.” “Ol’ Man River” is always beautifully sung (in this case by Tosh Wanogho-Maud, standing in for Emmanuel Todd), but this is the first version of Show Boat I’ve seen where the staging as well as the singing moved me to tears. At the end of act one, when the lovers marry, the black characters get up to dance and Frank impulsively joins them, making an effort to ape their steps, and there’s a tense moment when they stop dead, unsure of how to handle a white man’s crossing over publicly to share in their culture. Queenie rescues it by taking the initiative to teach Frank how to kick up his heels in their style, and the dance becomes joyously integrated. This moment isn’t in the script, but Evans has used what is there – the “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” number, where a black woman (Queenie), a half-black woman who’s passing in secret (Julie) and a young white woman (Nola) sing a “Negro song” together – to lay the groundwork for it. Of course Evans borrowed the idea for the first-act finale from that of a much later but equally famous American musical, Fiddler on the Roof, where the line being crossed, also by tradition, separates women and men. And it’s an inspired borrowing. Too bad the script doesn’t allow him to do much with the racial theme in act two, especially since the black performers – not just Marvin and Wanogho-Maud but the entire ensemble – are the strongest personnel in this revival.

Evans botches the last moment in the musical, when Nola and Gay, apart for a couple of decades, are reunited on the show boat at a party celebrating their daughter’s theatrical success. And I think he shortchanges another big melodramatic scene, where Nola, performing in Chicago for the first time since she and Gay left the Cotton Blossom (where they were the leading players after Julie and Steve’s ignominious departure), has to win over a hostile New Year’s Eve crowd that came to see the featured singer Nola is replacing. That’s Julie, who’s changed her name, but Nola doesn’t know it. And she never learns of Julie’s sacrifice for her: overhearing her audition, she walks off the job so that Nola, to whom she has always been devoted, can take it over. Nola has just received Gay’s farewell note; she’s heartbroken and desperate for work to support herself and Kim, so the stakes are high when she takes the stage at the Trocadero to sing “After the Ball,” one of the two standards Kern and Hammerstein interpolated into their score. (The other, “Goodbye, My Lady Love,” is a duet for Frank and Ellie, now also Trocadero performers.) And since this kind of narrative depends on coincidences, Captain Andy, who has come to Chicago with Parthy unannounced to see his daughter, just happens to be drinking at the Trocadero when she comes onstage. At first her style, so different from Julie’s, bores the audience, but Andy shushes them and stands up to coach his daughter, as he did in the old days on the Cotton Blossom, reminding her to flash them her million-dollar smile. The scene ends in triumph, and Nola goes on to become a musical-theatre celebrity.

Natasha J. Barnes as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

This scene, wherein a novice proves herself, later became a convention in musical biographies; you see it, in different ways, in Lady Sings the Blues (with Diana Ross as Billie Holiday) and Walk the Line (with Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash), and of course you see it in Funny Girl. Fanny has landed a number in a local vaudeville house, courtesy of her pal Eddie Ryan, its dance director, but at first she’s nervous and tentative; with Eddie’s encouragement, though, she turns a rough, raucous audience into a room full of fans. This scene works better in William Wyler’s 1968 movie, where Barbra Streisand as Fanny sings “I’d Rather Be Blue” and the build-up is scripted more efficiently, but it should work in the Broadway version, too, with “Cornet Man.” In the West End revival, the director, Michael Mayer, working from a somewhat revised book by Harvey Fierstein (the original is by Isobel Lennart), doesn’t shape Fanny’s growing confidence, so the number falls a little flat.

It’s a mediocre production, from Mayer’s staging and Lynne Page’s choreography to the set design by Michael Pavelka and the costumes by Matthew Wright. (The choreography includes a couple of brief expressionistic moments so puzzling that they seem like accidents.) Among the supporting cast, Marilyn Cutts is perfectly OK as Fanny’s mother Rose, a tough-tender cookie who runs a Brooklyn saloon, and Joel Montague has an appealing sad-sack presence as Eddie, who in this version pines for Fanny and doesn’t like her posh gambler beau Nick from the outset. I wouldn’t say that wrinkle adds much to the script, though it’s not as bad as the big speech Fierstein gives Rose – after Nick, desperate to make a financial success, gets arrested on a phony bond deal – where she blames her daughter for turning her emasculated husband into an embezzler. Lennart’s original book follows the convention of musical bios of turning on the heartbreak in act two, but it’s not stupid about the balance of blame in the failed marriage between Fanny and Nick; Fierstein’s emendations are both unnecessary and deleterious. None of the versions, including Lennart’s screenplay, solves the problem of Nick, who comes across as insipid. Darius Campbell looks handsome and sings prettily; it would be unfair to make a judgment about his acting based on this performance. As Florenz Ziegfeld, who turns Fanny into a star in his Follies, Bruce Montague barely seems present. It’s not much of a part, but you can give it authority and panache, and Montague has neither.

The show hinges, of course, on the actress-singer-comic who plays Fanny. The revival was meant to be a vehicle for the effervescent English performer Sheridan Smith, but she dropped out of the show for medical reasons last month and Natasha J. Barnes, her understudy, has been appearing ever since. (Barnes also replaced her for the last week of the run at the Meunier.) One certainly admires Barnes’ pluck and it would be nice to report that she’s a revelation in the part, but it’s beyond her powers, at least at the moment. In the early scenes she emphasizes Fanny’s little-girl qualities, but those aren’t the ones that make her a star, so “I’m the Greatest Star,” the first of her big numbers, isn’t convincing; neither is the fact that Nick falls in love with her. Barnes seems to find her footing toward the end of the first act: she’s canny and assured in her comic seduction duet with Nick, “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” and she pulls off both the first-act finale, the exuberant belter “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and the second-act opener, “Sadie, Sadie.” But she doesn’t yet have the acting chops to ride the melodramatic waves of the second half. Funny Girl hasn’t been revived in New York since its original Broadway run because of the challenge of finding someone to fill Barbra Streisand’s shoes. (Bartlett Sher was supposed to direct it with Lauren Ambrose, but the funding fell through.) Sheridan Smith might have been that someone; the London reviews seemed to indicate that she was. It’s no insult to Barnes to say that, despite her obvious talent and spirit, she isn’t it.

The cast of Guys and Dolls at London's Phoenix Theatre. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Gordon Greenberg’s hit revival of the great 1950 Frank Loesser show Guys and Dolls has been playing since March; the broad-faced American TV and stage performer Richard Kind, who sounded like an inspired choice to play Nathan Detroit, has already been replaced by Nigel Lindsay. There are dozens of problems with this production, beginning with Peter McKintosh’s generic set and the overzealous mugging of some of the actors (Jason Pennycooke, a gnomish Benny Southstreet, is the worst offender). But it gets the most important things right. All four of the leading performers go for the emotional truth in their songs, including the comic duet “Sue Me,” sung by Lindsay and Samantha Spiro as Adelaide, and the touching second-act reprise of “Adelaide’s Lament.” And Oliver Tompsett and Siobhan Harrison, as the fly-by-night gambler Sky Masterson and the Salvation Army doll Sarah Brown, who succeeds in clipping his wings, underscore, delicately but decisively, the arc of their characters’ relationship. In his wonderful The Secret Life of the American Musical, Jack Viertel showcases the brilliance of the Abe Burrows book, which alters the usual division of the romantic-musical-comedy couples into a major straight pair and a supporting comic pair by making Nathan and Adelaide (the comic couple) and Sky and Sarah (the straight couple) equally important, balancing the fortunes of the two men – and ultimately their romantic futures – on a bet between them. Nathan, desperate to land a thousand bucks so he can secure a location for his illegal floating crap game – the very game that stands between him and his longtime fiancée, the nightclub singer-dancer Miss Adelaide – bets Sky that he can’t take get a woman of Nathan’s choosing to go with him on a date to Havana, and then picks Sarah. Sky gets her to agree to accompany him by promising to make the failing Broadway mission she manages look good in the eyes of her superior, General Cartwright, by guaranteeing a dozen bona fide sinners. When, unexpectedly and against their own better judgments, Sky and Sarah tumble for each other, it complicates the bet, not to mention their sense of who they are.

The trick to a classic American musical like this one is that, even if the premise is light-hearted and the milieu is highly fictionalized, we care about what happens to the characters. That’s because both the book and the songs stylize authentic emotion just as surely as a good romantic comedy stylizes the process of falling in love. This Guys and Dolls won me over during Sky and Sarah’s first duet, “I’ll Know.” She presents the romantic match she’s envisioned for herself and from which she’s sure she can never deviate, then he makes fun of it: “You have wished yourself a Scarsdale Galahad / The breakfast-eating, Brooks Brothers type.” After she’s expressed her idealized version of love, he offers her own freewheeling one: “Mine will come as a surprise to me / Mine I leave to chance and chemistry.” “Chemistry?” she asks incredulously, speaking rather than singing, and he replies in kind, “Yeah, chemistry.” Before Tompsett reads that line, he takes a long pause that he fills with a silent appreciation of Sarah, part amusement, part surprise, and you can actually see him shift from his original assessment of her (straight-laced, repressed, boring). In Havana, he gets her drunk on dulce de leches and she loosens her stays; by the time they return to Manhattan in the wee hours, she’s sobered up enough to realize that she’s in love with him. And he feels the same way, though as Tompsett plays the scene, he’s doing his damnedest to resist his own heart. The tension between his good impulse to give into his feelings and his bad impulse to run away from them because he’s defined himself as a man who doesn’t take women seriously makes “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” their second duet, a full-fledged dramatic performance of Loesser’s tender love song. Further, it sets up a reversal when, moments later, she discovers that – unbeknownst to him – his gambler pals have been playing craps in her mission during her absence and she takes it as evidence that they’re dead wrong for each other, that there’s no way a mission doll can wind up with a gambling guy. The Pajama Game, which arrived on Broadway four years later than Guys and Dolls, uses a labor protest in a pajama factory to draw a similar line between a hero and a heroine who love each other, Sid the factory superintendent and Babe the union activist. In the second acts of both these shows, the man has to dissolve that line somehow. In The Pajama Game, Sid does it by ingeniously settling a strike. In Guys and Dolls, Sky does it by paying off the bet that in fact he has won (thus making it clear that Sarah is more important to him) and then, ironically, by winning another one. The pass he makes with a pair of dice at the end of “Luck Be a Lady” results in the arrival of “a dozen or so assorted sinners” at the Save-a-Soul Mission on the night General Cartwright comes by to decide whether or not it should stay open. And as all of this musical’s fans know, that scene permits Loesser to follow one bringing-down-the-house number with another, the unassailable testimonial “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” here sung with brio by Gavin Spokes as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Greenberg’s revival, for all its peccadilloes, showcases the qualities that make Guys and Dolls one of the high points in the history of musical theatre.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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