As it was at the overture and shall be at the exit music, bliss without end. Amen.

Theatre Aficionado at Large

Tag: London

She Loves Me – Menier Chocolate Factory

“My kingdom for a revival of She Loves Me!” is a thing I once tweeted. I fell in love with the original Broadway cast recording in high school, but it would be years before I would get to see it onstage. That chance arrived in 2013, when Ted Sterling presented a 50th anniversary concert at Caramoor. Cut to 2016. Exactly four years to the day after sending out this desperate missive, I was at the fourth preview of an enchanting revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory (and the second major production I’d seen this year).

She Loves Me is the ultimate charm show: a perfect confection of musical comedy writing that is romantic without being sentimental, witty without being self-aware, and heartwarming without being cloying. Based on the Miklós László play Parfumerie (source material for the films The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail), it’s about two coworkers are carrying on a profound correspondence by letter, not knowing that they work together — and loathe each other. Bock and Harnick’s score is one of the greatest in musical theatre. The songs are so character specific and integral to the plot that they don’t work as well without the context of Joe Masteroff’s expert libretto. The show is also blessed with one of the strongest second acts of a musical ever, with what I call The 11:00 Stretch from “Vanilla Ice Cream” to “Twelve Days to Christmas.”

She Loves Me has never become a household title, though it remains a cult favorite. Its original production was eclipsed by flashy blockbusters like Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl, running only nine months in spite of good notices and direction by Harold Prince. Every subsequent high-profile production has either been a financial failure or a limited engagement at a non-profit theatre.

My hat is off to director Matthew White, who pitches his production at a perfect pace. First and foremost, he trusts the material (even if saddled with the mostly-inferior 1993 revisions). He emphasizes the humanity of these characters, with profoundly funny and moving results. Secondly, his focus never strays far from the economic and political uncertainty of 1930s Europe. Finally, he uses the space with such economy and invention that it becomes impossible to resist the show’s intoxicating charms.

Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen play the feuding co-workers and would-be lovers. These two don’t just bicker, they hurl insults at each other like grenades. Their chemistry is sublime; combusting with euphoria in the one-two punch of “Vanilla Ice Cream” and “She Loves Me” in the second act. Umbers is immensely likable as the bookish and shy clerk, bringing out colors in the text that I’d never noticed before. Strallen, blessed with a lovely soprano, gives what feels like a close approximation of what Julie Andrews might have done with the part.

Katherine Kingsley is quite simply the best Ilona I’ve ever seen, combining expert comic timing with pathos. Kingsley’s real-life husband Dominic Tighe plays her Kodaly, the likable cad. They have a playfulness that most paired in the roles don’t have, and Tighe’s “Grand Knowing You” is an absolute riot. Alistair Brookshaw puts a new spin on weary, reliable Sipos, whose neuroses over job security wreak havoc on Georg’s life. Cory English plays the haughty head waiter with a mix of droll comedy and surprising warmth. Callum Howells is an endearing Arpad (and has the most charming Welsh accent) and Les Dennis (Mr. Maraczek) is particularly moving in his “Days Gone By” reprise. A favorite among the game ensemble: Aimee Hodnett. Ms. Hodnett’s nosy shop customer lived for the workplace drama at Maraczek’s, and I lived for the grace notes she was adding on the periphery.

Jason Carr’s new orchestrations sound better than the synth-heavy charts used in 1993. MTI should consider licensing his treatment for school, amateur and chamber productions. Catherine Jayes leads the band and conducts the show with sensitivity and depth. Paul Farnsworth’s jewel box of a set effectively uses four small turntables for transitions in and out of the shop. Farnsworth’s costumes are even better: his attention to period and character is beyond reproach.

She Loves Me runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory through March 4. No word yet on whether or not there will be a West End transfer. To the powers that be, I can only say: Don’t let it end, dear friends.

‘Darling of the Day’ – The Union Theatre

DOTD Finale

One of the reasons I planned my trip to London when I did was to see the first staged UK production of Darling of the Day at the Union Theatre in Southwark. The tiny London theatre has been noted for limited season revivals of various musicals in its small black box space, and I felt compelled to make the trip because there haven’t been many opportunities to see this show, with a score by Jule Styne and Yip Harburg, since its Broadway failure in early 1968.

Based on the novel Buried Alive by Arnold Bennett, Darling of the Day tells of an esteemed painter named Priam Farll who returns to London after an extended absence only to discover he’s to receive a royal welcome: knighting, galas, dinners, audiences with royalty; all things he despises. Upon the sudden death of his valet Henry Leek, Farll seizes the opportunity to “get out of the world alive” as he puts it and swaps places with the deceased. Matters are complicated by a lovely Putney widow named Alice Challice, who has been corresponding with Leek through a matrimonial agency. Romance and farcical hijinks ensue.

The musical was a bit of a fiasco in late 1967 and early 1968, going through a slew of directors, choreographers and writers before opening on Broadway without a credited librettist (never a good sign). Vincent Price starred as the artist, with Patricia Routledge as the lovely widow. The show received some kind notices, but was buried in the NY Times by a second string critic. By the time Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr had both chimed in favorably, it was too late. Darling of the Day closed after 31 performances. A few months later, Routledge won a Tony (shared in a rare tie with Leslie Uggams) for Best Actress in a Musical.

Unavailable for amateur licensing in the United States, the musical has languished in obscurity for many years. There have been concert revisions presented at Musicals in Mufti in 1998 and 2005, as well as a couple of rare regional productions. However, the musical has most lived on with the cognoscenti because of its superb original cast album, featuring the show’s two best assets: its lovely, rich score and Patricia Routledge, who is one of musical theatre’s most unsung heroines. This is the show that introduced me to the vocal wonder of Routledge, and I’ve long hoped for the opportunity to see a production of the show.

I had been following the progress of the show via Twitter, where I’d been interacting with director Paul Foster, musical director and arranger Inga Davis-Rutter and my beloved Rebecca Caine, who was cast as unscrupulous art collector Lady Vale. In the weeks and months leading up to the production’s premiere, I was following their missives from rehearsals and had some wonderful online discussions with Foster about the script and lyrics, and with Davis-Rutter about the instrumentation and vocal arranging she was going to be doing for the show. As a matter of fact, Davis-Rutter saw me in line for the show, introduced herself and proceeded to give me a whirlwind pre-show tour of the theatre, where I got to meet many of the actors during their warm-up.

The intimacy of the Union Theatre puts the audience close enough to the performers to feel as if you are in the scenes with them (most notably the Putney bar where Alice and co. kick it up). Foster’s production focused on the unlikely and enchanting romance between Priam and Alice, giving the show a great, big heart as well as some choice laughs. Matt Flint’s choreography was superb, and in many cases, downright surprising because of the limited performance space, most notably the barroom showstopper “Not on Your Nellie.”

The original book isn’t as much a liability as one might think. There are certain elements that don’t work, most notably its Gilbertian climax and ending. However, pushing past the farcical elements, there is a lovely and tender relationship at the show’s center and while it pokes satiric fun at upper classes, there is tremendous charm. Foster was given three versions of the script to use, and ultimately used the 1968 Broadway script (written by Nunnally Johnson, who refused opening night credit), aside from minor trims from that script, and the use of “An Extra Little Shilling” in place of “That Something Extra Special,” the text ran pretty much along the lines seen at the George Abbott Theatre in ’68. Foster also included “I’ve Got a Rainbow Working for Me,” which was excised from the Musicals in Mufti revision.

James Dinsmore infused Priam with dry sense of humor and class, and unlike Vincent Price, can actually sing. Katy Secombe made the audience fall in love with her the moment she opened her mouth. Secombe’s more of a Cockney belter; a contrast to the Routledge’s soprano, but everything about her performance worked beautifully – sort of the warm, charming woman young Cosette would wish Madame Thenardier to be. Caine was impeccably droll as Lady Vale, bringing unexpected and welcome soprano flourishes to the role. The entire production was superbly cast. The ensemble was packed with exceptional singers, with more harmonies than I can remember from other incarnations of the score that I have heard. A stand-out among his peers was Matthew Rowland, who played Alice’s Cockney pal Alf, a far departure from Mr. Rowland’s recent stint as Boy George in Taboo.

As I saw the show on its closing night, I was invited to join the cast in the Union Theatre’s accompanying bar for a drink. The cast was aware of me, and that I was coming to see the show – something that took me a bit by surprise. I had some lovely chats about the show and its score, and got to tell everyone just how much I enjoyed their production, and how much it meant to me to see it. I also had the opportunity to chat with Secombe and her brother Andy, also in the company, about their father: the late, great Harry Secombe. Hearing their stories growing up with one of the great voices in musical theatre was thrilling (particularly hearing what the late Mr. Secombe thought of the abysmal film adaptation of Song of Norway). My night entered another realm entirely when Caine presented me with her copy of the script, which she had signed by the entire company. My cup runneth over. (Pic courtesy of Rebecca Caine).

Dotdscript

One of the treasures of this experience was not only the opportunity to see a production of one my beloved forgotten shows, but also the chance to see a show in the Union. They have developed a reputation for their various productions, which receive consistently strong notices and are handsomely attended. The venue had been threatened with closure by its owner, who wanted to turn the theatre as well as other surrounding businesses into office space. That should never happen.

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.

Posted on April 27, 2013 at 12:50 pm.

I’m in London Again

It took eight years, but I have finally returned to England. It started in the fall when I couldn’t stop listening to the cast album of Matilda, and I found myself clamoring to see the show. I have usually waited for the West End smashes to arrive on Broadway in order to experience them. But given how much I appreciated this show, I figured it was time for me to stop waiting and just go. I bought my ticket in December and impatiently played the waiting game. As fate would turn out, for this weekend of theatre, Matilda would mark my first-ever experience seeing a West End show (all previous visits to England were, alas, bereft of theatre). More on that musical hit in another post, I’ll just say that I’m seeing it again tomorrow night.

I left JFK via Virgin Atlantic, but unfortunately was unable to get much sleep on the plane. I rarely can; I don’t sleep well sitting up, and can feel every bit of turbulence. I ended getting about 15 minutes of twilight sleep on what was a 7 hour flight. I took in My Week with Marilyn to pass the time. Michelle Williams was absolutely superb as Marilyn Monroe. Hell, most of the cast was (except Julia Ormond, who didn’t seem to have much of a grasp on Vivien Leigh). The script was a bit rote, but it held my interest throughout. Eddie Redmayne was good as Colin Clark, but Kenneth Branagh walked away with everything with his funny, brittle performance as Sir Laurence Olivier. Special kudos to Dame Judi Dench, whose performance as Dame Sybil Thorndike made me unreasonably happy.

Now, I’ve flown before, but I haven’t been on a train in England since 2000, when I visited by brother in Oxford. And I have never experienced the London Underground. After getting through customs, I made the trek to the tube. The first order of business was getting an Oyster card. I had researched it online several times, but that didn’t quite prep me for the menu options and my sleep deprived self just sort of stared glassy eyed at a screen for a long beat. Fortunately, they had a gentlemen there to assist me. I got on the Piccadilly line with a map of the underground and little knowledge except that I was to meet my hostess after reaching the Whitechapel region (Jack the Ripper’s old haunt).

I got on with my suitcase and laptop bag and sat down. I was in a fog so I failed to realize that it was a Thursday morning and there would be commuters heading into the city for work. It wasn’t long until the train was filled to what seemed to be beyond capacity. Being sleep deprived, I just sort of sat and observed everyone around me. Almost everyone was reading something: a book or newspaper. (One committed gent was deep in a game of Angry Birds). Rapidly, the subway car filled up to capacity, and were I claustrophobic I may have had a break down. Uncertain of what transfer to make, I asked a lovely young woman who was more than happy to help. I switched lines and got to Whitechapel with little incident, where I was handed keys to the house I was staying at.

The London rail system is a marvel of cleanliness and efficiency. And you pay for what you get. The rides are not cheap, especially when compared to the NY subway, but Then I had to get to a different line two blocks away. I am staying in a house in the Canary Wharf area thanks to my pal Vera Chok, actress, producer and artistic director of the London-based theatre company Saltpeter. The house is overlooking the Thames, and about 50 feet from the water itself with a most spectacular view. The O2 Arena is across the water, and in general it’s just a resplendent place. Getting to this house was really no problem, and I opened the door and settled in. After squaring away some minor details, I passed out for several hours.

First on my agenda was the evening’s performance of Matilda. After my nap, I got cleaned up and went out to discover the West End. I have never been through the area in any of my previous trips, so it was all going to be new for me. A couple of rides later, I was out at Leicester Square and wandered around, making my way to the Cambridge Theatre to pick up my seats. Nearby is the famed Dress Circle, so I made a pilgrimage and picked up a couple of London goodies before meeting my Twitter/Facebook friend Rebecca Caine for the first time, and folks she’s even more delightful and funny in person than she is online (and she is one of my favorite presences on Twitter). I was less than a day into my trip, and our meeting is already one of the happiest memories I’ll treasure from this trip. We grabbed a quick bite before the show, then Caine, a West End Eliza, giving me a fast tour of the Covent Garden area before we both went to see Matilda.

As for the show itself, that post is pending as jet lag has gotten the best of me…

Posted on March 22, 2012 at 11:57 am.
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Walking Among My Yesterdays

2016

2/11 - The King and I

2/12 - Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

2/14 - Cabin in the Sky (Encores!)

2/16 - Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

2/19 - She Loves Me (first preview)

2/21 - Translations (Oxford Arts Space)

2/22 - The Secret Garden (MCP Concert)

2/28 - Anna Netrebko in Recital (Met Opera)

2/28 - Kate Baldwin & Friends: Welcome to My Party (Sheen Center)

3/9 - She Loves Me

3/11 - Noises Off

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

4/3 - 1776 (Encores!)

4/4 - The Light in the Piazza (10th Anniversary Reunion Concert)

4/25 - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

4/28 - Dido and Aeneas (City Center)

5/15 - Do I Hear a Waltz? (City Center Encores!)

5/25 - The Robber Bridegroom

6/3 - The Color Purple

6/8 - Bright Star

6/13 - Lettice and Lovage (Acting Company Benefit)

6/26 - The King and I

7/23 - Shuffle Along

10/24 - Sunday in the Park with George (City Center Encores! Gala)

10/29 - Kelli O'Hara at Carnegie Hall

11/9 - Guillaume Tell (Met Opera)

11/23 - Half a Sixpence (West End)

11/24 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/25 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

11/28 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/29 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

12/12 - Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Gala)

12/14 - In Transit

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2015

1/1 - Beautiful

1/8 - Honeymoon in Vegas

1/12 - A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration (92nd Street Y)

1/15 - On the Town

1/25 - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Paper Mill Playhouse, opening night)

1/28 - The Merry Widow (Met Opera)

1/30 - The Elephant Man

2/6 - Lady, Be Good! (Encores!)

2/13 - The Screen (Taksu Theatre Company)

2/19 - You Can't Take It With You

2/27 - The Lion

3/1 - John and Jen

3/3 - Craig Ferguson: Hot & Grumpy Tour

3/8 - The Audience (opening night)

3/12 - The King and I (first preview)

3/17 - Hand to God

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

3/22 - Paint Your Wagon (Encores!)

3/25 - Cabaret

3/26 - The Visit (first preview)

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 1

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 2

4/8 - Gigi (opening night)

4/9 - Rhiannon Giddens at Town Hall

4/21 - Gypsy (West End)

4/22 - Wicked (West End)

4/22 - The Audience (West End)

4/23 - The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

4/24 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (West End)

4/25 - Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)

4/25 - Matilda (West End)

4/27 - Sweeney Todd (Tooting Arts Club)

4/28 - Follies (Royal Albert Hall)

4/28 - Gypsy (West End)

5/10 - Zorba (Encores!)

5/26 - The Visit

6/2 - On the Twentieth Century

6/9 - The King and I

6/14 - The Visit

7/2 - Little Shop of Horrors (Encores!)

9/21 - Hollywood Arms (Merkin Hall Reading)

10/4 - Dames at Sea

10/14 - King Charles III

10/16 - The Pirates of Penzance (Collegiate Chorale)

10/27 - Spring Awakening

11/2 - Kate Baldwin: Sing Pretty and Don't Fall Down (Keen Company Benefit)

11/17 - Songbird

11/25 - Gypsy (West End)

11/28 - Gypsy (West End, closing)

11/30 - The Winter's Tale (West End)

12/1 - Kinky Boots (West End)

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