Monday, July 10, 2017

Musicals Round-up Part I: Niagara-on-the-Lake and London

Kristi Frank and Michael Therriault in the Shaw Festival production of Me and My Girl. (Photo: David Cooper)

This article contains reviews of Me and My Girl (Shaw Festival), Dreamgirls (West End), and On the Town (Regent’s Park).

Michael Therriault is so thoroughly winning and energetic in Me and My Girl at the Shaw Festival that you feel he could carry the production on his back if he had to. The musical is built as a vehicle for the performer who plays Bill Snibson, the Lambeth Cockney who discovers he has inherited an earl’s title and is expected to relocate to Mayfair, and the diminutive Therriault, with his pop-eyed charm and apparently elastic body, claims squatter’s rights to every scene he’s in. Therriault is a well-known Canadian musical-theatre actor (he played Gollum in the musical of Lord of the Rings both in Toronto and in the West End), but the only time I’d seen him before this summer was in Studio 180’s production (in Toronto) of Parade, as the Jewish factory owner Leo Frank, framed for the rape and murder of one of his employees in pre-World War One Atlanta. He was superb, but the role was so downbeat that I didn’t immediately make the connection to the song-and-dance man who plays the lovable, insouciant Bill. Therriault’s peculiar gift is for balancing charisma with modesty – like Dick Van Dyke, though his musical-comedy gifts are more extensive than Van Dyke’s and he’s more believable as a Cockney than Van Dyke was in Mary Poppins.

As it happens, Therriault doesn’t need to carry the show, which has been staged (by Ashlie Corcoran) and choreographed (by Parker Esse) with great charm on Drew Facey’s smart, flexible tiered set, which manages – as not all previous Shaw musical designs have done – to fill the barn-like space of the Festival Theatre. (Sue LePage’s costumes and Kevin Lamotte’s lighting are similarly accomplished.) It’s the musical itself that is rather dim. Me and My Girl was a big hit in the West End in 1937, with Lupino Lane in the lead, and Lane also starred in the 1939 movie version, called The Lambeth Walk after the one take-away tune in the score. (It was one of only two songs retained in the movie.) It’s a thin romantic musical comedy, of the type routinely produced on Broadway in the teens and twenties, but without the tossed-off wit of shows like Jerome Kern’s Very Good Eddie or the Gershwins’ Oh, Kay! –  or, God knows, the quality of their scores. (Noel Gay wrote the music, with lyrics by the book writers, L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber.) Tellingly, it never occurred to anyone to import Me and My Girl to American shores in the wake of its runaway London success, presumably because Americans could do this sort of thing so much better. There were probably other reasons, too. By the mid-1930s, when Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart were adding liberal dashes of contemporary satire to their shows, Me and My Girl, whose music-hall banter could just as easily have been written twenty years earlier,must have seemed decidedly retro. And then there is a distinctly English element to the narrative: its emphasis on class. The conflict in Rose and Furber’s book is that Bill gets to ascend to the title of Earl of Hareford only if he turns his back on his Lambeth associations – mainly his fiancée, Sally Smith. This tension is set out in the opening scene and resolved in the last five minutes of the show, after a second act in which virtually nothing else happens. The musical did make it to Broadway, at long last, in 1986, in a revised version by Stephen Fry and Mike Ockrent that had opened in London two years earlier. Robert Lindsay played Bill and the show ran for three years, which tells us more about the comparative state of the Broadway musical in the mid-thirties and the mid-eighties than it does about any heretofore hidden treasures in the material.

It’s to Corcoran and Esse’s credit and the credit of the lively cast that the Shaw’s Me and My Girl manages to be so broadly entertaining nonetheless. There are only a handful of decent songs: “The Lambeth Walk,” which provides a rousing first-act finale, the title duet (for Bill and Sally), and Sally’s solo, “Once You Lose Your Heart,” which she performs in act one and reprises in act two. Yet I enjoyed all the numbers except for a lengthy, foolish interlude in the second act wherein Bill is visited by the ghosts of his noble antecedents, and, big and technically challenging as the show is, it moves with admirable fluidity and speed.

In the part of Sally (which Emma Thompson played opposite Lindsay in the West End), Kristi Frank has something of Petula Clark’s blend of jauntiness and authentic feeling, and her rendition of “Once You Lose Your Heart” is – aside from “The Lambeth Walk,” which she and Therriault dance with the ensemble – the highlight of the evening. Shaw veterans like Ric Reid, Kyle Blair, Sharry Flett, Neil Barclay and Donna Belleville lend their considerable skills in supporting roles; Blair (always a bonus in Shaw musicals) and the robust Reid are particularly fun to watch. Only Élodie Gillett, in the role of Lady Jacqueline, Bill’s cousin – who is determined to land him as a husband to top up her sagging bankroll – seems to be trying too hard, in a part that perhaps she’s not right for. But as good as the cast is overall, Me and My Girl belongs to Michael Therriault.

Ibinabo Jack, Amber Riley and Liisi LaFontaine in Dreamgirls. (Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg)

Three and a half decades after Dreamgirls opened on Broadway, in a virtuoso production by Michael Bennett, and a decade after Bill Condon’s hit movie version, London is finally getting its own production – with an American director-choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, and three American women as The Dreams, which is probably why, unlike many West End translations of Broadway musicals, it feels right. Few things are as likely to knock a stage or screen audience over as the power of pop when it’s unleashed in the form of musical melodrama, whether the subject is a real-life star like Ray Charles or Tina Turner or a fictionalized version of personalities like Diana Ross and The Supremes, the model for Deena Jones and The Dreams. The musical credits Tom Eyen with the book as well as the lyrics (set to Henry Krieger’s driving, infectious music), but there isn’t much dialogue, and for once that’s not a problem because the songs do what they seldom do in musicals: provide a narrative arc. And what Eyen does as book writer is to shape it dramatically – also unconventionally, dividing the dramatic action between Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) and Effie White (Glee’s Amber Riley). During the first act, The Dreams make it to the big time when their manager, Curtis Taylor (Joe Aaron Reid), shifts the big-boned, gospel-voiced belter Effie (read Florence Ballard of the original Supremes) into back-up alongside Lorrell Robinson (Asmeret Ghebremichael) and replaces her with the delicate-featured, feathery-voiced Deena, who has also replaced Effie in his bed. Just before intermission Effie is tossed out of the group for being difficult and her ballad of protest, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” – which made stars out of both Jennifer Holliday in 1981 and Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 film – brings the house down. When The Dreams ascend into pop nirvana without Effie, her struggle to regain her career (and, offstage, raise the child Curtis knows nothing about) are paralleled with Deena’s attempt to slip the iron grasp of Curtis, to whom she is now married. Curtis, a one-time Detroit car salesman who builds a hometown enterprise to shape the careers of crossover black artists like The Dreams, is a particularly unflattering portrait of Berry Gordy.

Though Dreamgirls has a bifurcated heroine role and tells a more compelling story – the story of how Gordy funneled Detroit’s music scene into the first African American sound to be accepted by white audiences – in many ways the musical it’s closest to, both on stage and on screen, is Funny Girl. The Dreams, like Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice, are talented poor girls (the Detroit projects standing in here for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Fanny’s home) who get noticed in an unimpressive setting (a local talent night in Dreamgirls, a downtown vaudeville house in Funny Girl) and find romance at roughly the same time. The trio, originally known as The Dreamettes, lose the talent show but Curtis, insinuating himself with them as their new manager, sells Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Adam J Bernard), a charismatic singer, on the idea of replacing his departed back-up vocalists with this fresh-faced young threesome. (Early is a version of James Brown, though with a different story.) Eventually Jimmy makes his famous moves on Lorelle, while Curtis is romancing Effie. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is the equivalent in Dreamgirls to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” which Fanny sings when she decides to leave the Ziegfeld Follies on tour and join her beloved Nicky Arnstein, the sexy gambler, on a boat to Europe. And as in Funny Girl, the second act of Dreamgirls focuses on the heartbreak side of the saga – Deena’s struggle to forge a more meaningful career for herself, Effie’s tough years. Also included here is the disintegration of Jimmy’s career, presented here as the direct result of Curtis’s insistence on blunting his edge and turning him into a crooner after he takes over from Jimmy’s loyal long-time manager Marty (Nicholas Bailey), who has always put him first. (In the movie, Jimmy also becomes a heroin addict. No one who’s seen it is likely to have forgotten the scene where Eddie Murphy as Jimmy deflects his friends’ efforts to get him to stop with a look of defeated melancholy that haunts you after his character vanishes from the picture – a silent moment of resignation that is the best scene Murphy has ever played.) And both musicals end with poignant moving-on numbers – Funny Girl with a reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on stage and “My Man” in the movie, after Fanny and Nicky have split up for good, Dreamgirls with a reprise of The Dreams’ signature song, “Dreamgirls.” The trio – Michelle Morris (Lily Frazer) having long since replaced Effie – re-enacts the song with Effie herself, now reconciled with Deena, as a surprise fourth.

Dreamgirls is a hell of a show, and Nicholaw’s is a hell of a production – way better than anything he’s done since The Drowsy Chaperone (including, I have to say, The Book of Mormon). If you were lucky enough to see the musical on Broadway in the early eighties, then perhaps Tim Hatley’s set design can’t dim your memories of the amazing high-tech environment, a series of ambulatory towers, created by Robin Wagner; but Hatley, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and costume designer Gregg Barnes make the Savoy stage glitter. The big numbers, especially “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” (about how payola works), are dynamic. And there are many high points among the performances. If Riley runs away with the production (that’s what the role is designed for), that doesn’t diminish Bernard’s second-act soul rap or Gheremichael’s rendition of “Ain’t No Party” (a song that, unhappily, was omitted from the movie) or the dancing of Joshua Liburd, who plays Effie’s brother and the group’s songwriter C.C. As Deena, LaFontaine has a lovely voice and her performance is perfectly fine, but Effie is so much more exciting – and so are her songs, including “I Am Changing” in the second act – that without an actress as grounded and as sweet as Beyoncé Knowles, who can hold her own against even Jennifer Hudson, the character seems a little wan. (She did when Sheryl Lee Ralph played her in the Bennett production, too.) Luckily the West End edition has interpolated “Listen,” written for the movie, and given it to the two women as an eleventh-hour duet, and they perform it stunningly. As Curtis, Joe Aaron Reid moves with silken grace and sings confidently, but even Jamie Foxx couldn’t make this part work. He’s the musical’s megalomaniacal villain, sacrificing both Effie and Jimmy to his own ambition and his unswerving notions of what fits the label’s style for African American pop artists. In a way, the Curtis character falls victim to the show’s efforts to keep Deena an innocent ingénue. But Dreamgirls, once again, is a knockout.

Samuel Edwards, Danny Mac, Miriam-Teak Lee, Lizzy Connolly and Jacob Maynard in On The Town. (Photo Tristram Kenton)

On the Town at Regent’s Park is pleasant but doesn’t quite get the spirit of this wartime Yankee musical. The director, Drew McOnie, overshoots his goal – the stock company of New York types is too quaint, too exaggerated, and he throws the ingénue, Ivy Smith (Siena Kelly), into the mix, playing her as a comic role with a funny Brooklyn accent, which isn’t the way Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote her. Some of the supporting characters, like Maggie Steed’s Madame Dilly (Ivy’s dipso voice teacher), seem to be in the wrong show altogether, and though McOnie, who also choreographed, does well with the straight musical-comedy numbers, the ballets – Leonard Bernstein wrote five, originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins – are strained, affected. In one of them a random sailor has a one-night stand with another guy. But you can’t get much more heterosexual than On the Town, the archetypal 1940s show about three sailors who fall in love with three girls on a twenty-four-hour leave in New York. The queering of On the Town isn’t a transgressive achievement; it’s a case of putting the wrong suit on the wrong model.

Still, much of the charm of the musical comes through, and except for Kelly (who dances well but is misdirected), the leads – Danny Mac, Jacob Maynard and Samuel Edwards as the tars, Lizzy Connolly and newcomer Miriam-Teak Lee as Hildy the cabbie and Claire the anthropologist – are more than adequate. (Lee’s line readings are overeager but she shines in the musical numbers; Mac is an impressive premier danseur. Mark Heenehan stands out among the supporting players as Claire’s judge fiancé, Pitkin, who finally stops putting up with her obsessive cheating (in the second-act song “I Understand”). Peter McKintosh’s nifty set is a series of moving metal cages, and Hildy’s taxi is a hollowed-out chassis that chorus boys ferry around the stage for her “Come Up to My Place” with Mynard’s Chip. As always with Regent’s Park’s summer shows, the space is used imaginatively and the magnificent outdoor venue is cheering. And the second-act quartet, “Some Other Time,” lands exactly where it needs to: squarely on the longing and regret of two men who – though Comden and Green don’t make the point explicitly – are going off to war and the two women who don’t know if they’re coming back. The song comes across as what it is: the emotional high point of Broadway musicals of its era.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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