West End Revisited

I’ve been itching to get back to London ever since my 2012 visit came to an end. I took the opportunity to fly back when I learned that The Union Theatre was going to be presenting the first fully staged production of Darling of the Day in England. The flop musical, with a score by Styne and Harburg, was a fast flop in 1968 but won my fave Patricia Routledge a Tony. I’ve known and loved the score for many years, but have never had an opportunity to see it onstage. An added bonus was the casting of my friend Rebecca Caine as Lady Vale. I booked my flight, and my tickets to this show (its final performance), as well as the first preview of the West End transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Merrily We Roll Along.

This was all I had planned. I decided a couple weeks before I left to improvise most of the trip, including what theatre I saw. I decided to visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square and try for day seats (the classy term used in the West End for rush) for either Peter and Alice or The Audience (or both). I wasn’t married to any particular show, idea or tourist attraction and just decided to see what would happen. Trips can be a lot more fun when you have this sort of freedom.

I took an evening flight out of JFK (aka the most cheery place on earth…), and managed to get no sleep on the flight. In a sign that proves I am turning into my father, I mostly avoided the in-flight entertainment and watched the flight tracker. However, I did watch an episode of Miranda during dinner (lesson learned: never watch something that will make you guffaw while you eat). With the exception of allowing myself an extra day, I followed a similar trajectory as I did on my last trip. I landed in Heathrow and made the claustrophobic trek from the airport to Canary Wharf on the underground. Thanks to my pal, Vera Chok, soon to be on stage at The Almeida in Chimerica, I was able to stay in the same house I did last year, with its tremendous location on the Thames overlooking the O2. I collapsed for a few hours in the mid-day, and then ventured out to the West End.

What surprised me most was how much of the layout I remembered. When I arrived the previous year, I had very little clue as to how to get around on the underground or where I had to go. This time, I barely even consulted a map. I soon found myself getting to know the West End: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road became familiar sights during my week-long stay. That first day I knew that I would once again hate having to leave this wondrous city.

My original plan was to see nothing I had already seen in New York (or London, with Matilda running in both cities). Well, I scrapped that plan the very first night. Having arrived the morning of the explosion in West, Texas and while still reeling from the tragic events of the Boston Marathon, I decided at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square that I wanted something funny and silly to pass the time. So, I chose One Man, Two Guvnors. The show was my favorite of last season, which I saw three times with its original cast. While the NY production closed with James Corden’s departure, the West End run is now on its third cast.

While it wasn’t as bombastic a show without the original cast (my last experience seeing the show had been their wild, free-for-all closing performance), the play is still unbelievably hilarious. Rufus Hound is not nearly as indelible as Corden, but the staging is fool proof. Some of the improvisational bits included Dead Maggie Thatcher jokes, which went over big. Having seen the show so many times, and being familiar with the staging, I took the opportunity to observe the audience around me during some of the sure-fire bits, notably the uproarious food preparation. Also of note: Josh Sneesby was leading The Craze in the show’s skiffle music. Exceptional musicianship; and Grant Olding’s score is still quite remarkable. I find I listen to the show’s original London cast album more than anything else that opened on Broadway last year.

I made this a one-two punch as I decided on my second night to see the West End transfer of the Tony-winning musical Once. More on this next time.

On the Town: May Edition

When I was a senior in high school, I had the great pleasure of playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill in our spring production of My Fair Lady. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the school’s performing arts center. It was a thrilling experience for the principal cast; an experience we still recall with each other fondly. It seemed to us that no expense was spared to make the production as thrilling as possible, including fully realized sets, costumes and the presence of the entire licensed orchestration in the pit (including harp!). Much was made of this weekend in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Walter Panas High School’s performing arts center, and I have to say it was a special experience to see these kids take on this American classic with such brio.

Kudos to Jim Filippelli, who has been directing shows at the school since 1978, and without whom the Panas Players wouldn’t be what it is today. At intermission, the normally unflappable Mr. Filippelli was stunned by the senior class’ announcement that they were going to petition the Lakeland School Board to put his name on the school’s performing arts center. I can’t think of a greater honor for the man who made that building a reality, and for the man who makes sure that these kids put on two musical productions each year and insists that any student who wants to be involved is involved.

SarahB was officially endorsed by The Best Man and part of her responsibilities included seeing the show currently in revival at the Schoenfeld Theatre. I was quite fortunate enough to attend with her, and see Gore Vidal’s staggering play in this volatile election year. The most amazing thing about the play, and something I’ve heard from many people, is how relevant this text – written in 1960 – is today. James Earl Jones seems to be having the time of his life as the old school ailing former President, Angela Lansbury gives a master class in how to steal a scene with nothing but a bottle of Coke and a newspaper. Candice Bergen offers a fascinating portrait of a candidate’s wife who is uncomfortable with the entire process (and gets one of the best lines), while Kerry Butler  plays a Southern tart who’ll do anything to help her husband get elected. Angela Lansbury proves once again she’s one of our treasures with the rather small role as party dowager (and manages to steal a scene with nothing but a bottle of Coke and newspaper). Leave it to Gore Vidal to have a conclusion that is simultaneously inspiring and cynical. (Also, sending my best wishes to the always-excellent Michael McKean for a speedy recovery).

I find I’ve been listening to one new score more than any others. One Man, Two Guvnors. I loved the play when I saw it in April but didn’t expect to fall for the music. The skiffle band which plays a set before and during the show consists of entirely new songs, all of which were written by Grant Olding (who also functions as the lead singer in the UK production, and is featured on the original cast album of the score. It’s tuneful, entertaining with some clever lyrics. Mr. Olding is a Tony-nominee for Best Score Written for the Theatre. The general consensus is that Newsies will win because it’s an Alan Menken Disney hit and a musical. However, with apologies to Mr. Menken and Mr. Feldman, I think Mr. Olding takes the cake this season.

Picked up Maureen Stapleton’s biography at the Strand and devoured it. A Hell of a Life was published in 1995 and offers the Tony, Oscar and Emmy winning star’s usual candor and straight talk. She’s ferociously funny, salty and compelling. Her observations of the Actors Studio are fascinating, including the scene she did with Marilyn Monroe in the mid-50s. When she won her Oscar she famously quipped in her thank yous, “…and to everyone I ever met in my life.”  When she won her second Tony for The Gingerbread Lady, she was asked how it felt to win her reply was, “What the hell, it’s better than getting hit with a wet fish.” Those are just some of the choice one-liners that appear throughout. Pulling no punches, Stapleton (who died in 2006)  openly talks about her successes and failures with equal abandon. When not filling us in on fun anecdotes from her storied stage and screen career, she is also not afraid to talk of her alcoholism, failed marriages and the insecurities and problems that plagued her life. A hell of a life, indeed.