Thursday 27 June 2019

Fiddler On The Roof - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


Book by Joseph Stein
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Maria Friedman and Andy Nyman

With its first major cast change since opening - as well as a shift across the Thames - Trevor Nunn’s Fiddler On The Roof remains one of London’s musical theatre jewels. The intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory's original treatment is not quite replicated in the Playhouse’s transformation, that sees "shtetl-lite" timber cladding dotted around the auditorium, but with a winding pathway built through the stalls there's enough enhancement to draw the audience into Russia's Pale of Settlement and away from the show's traditional West End proscenium treatment.

Some six months into the role sees Andy Nyman sit ever more comfortably as Tevye. There is a wise youthfulness to both Nyman’s timbre and gait and even though the show is set at the turn of the last century, Nyman brings a perceptible modernity to his performance. His Tevye is a man witnessing the very tenets of his faith being tested as his three grown up daughters each explore their different paths towards emancipation and he remains convincing throughout. It helps that Nyman's voice is glorious too – resonant and thrilling in If I Were A Rich Man, yet deeply tender in Do You Love Me.

In a canny casting move by the producers, Maria Friedman and Anita Dobson make the move from Albert Square to Anatevka. Friedman’s Golde defines the Jewish matriarch, loving and compassionate, yet with a resoluteness that permeates her delivery. Friedman has long been recognised as a gifted musical theatre leading lady and it is only a shame that the show does not allow Golde more centre stage moments. Some in the audience may recall Friedman’s turn at the National Theatre some thirty years ago in Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto, a role that is today only enhanced as she displays a strength and resilience in portraying the timeless persecution of the Jews. At all times though Friedman acts with an artistic beauty that shuns mawkish schmaltz.

Dobson steps up to the role of the ageing, widowed Yente the village matchmaker. There is an unquestionable sparkle to Dobson’s work – in a role that Sheldon Harnick imbued with more than its fair share of the show’s witticisms – but currently she is more battleaxe than busybody and misses a hint of Yente's nuance. The criticism here  slight but subtle. Yiddishkeit is not easy to master, but given time and an exposure to Friedman and Nyman’s onstage chemistry, Dobson can only grow into the role.

Most of Nunn’s staging has transferred well – the wedding scene in particular – though amidst the lofty heights of a full London stage, Tevye’s Dream loses a little of the wit that worked so wonderfully within the Chocolate Factory’s intimacy.

Excellence continues to abound throughout the show – with Nunn eliciting every moment of Harnick’s wry, self-deprecating pathos. The show's song and dance is wonderful - sadly the message of Fiddler On The Roof and the agelessness of antisemitism remains as depressing as ever.

Booking until 2nd November
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Thursday 20 June 2019

The Light in the Piazza - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Daniel Evans

Renée Fleming

Crossing the Atlantic, Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza deploys some of the finest musical theatre talent in town to tell its curiously enchanting love story in a plot that upends one of society’s most deeply rooted taboos and prejudices.

The young and beautiful Clara Johnson together with her mother Margaret are American tourists footloose in Florence. A chance encounter with Fabrizio, a handsome Florentine, ignites a youthful, passionate love - and as Margaret anxiously frets over her daughter's emotions, a carefully nuanced story unfolds.

To say much more of the plot would spoil. Suffice to say that the unexpected twists offer a touching and unconventional portrayal of love, affection and the challenges of honesty that make for a rare and wonderful evening.

Making their professional debuts on this side of the pond are Broadway and opera’s leading lady Renée Fleming as Margaret, alongside Instagram and Hollywood star Dove Cameron playing Clara. Fleming’s classical voice stands out as a beacon of aural magnificence, effortlessly filling the Royal Festival Hall and notwithstanding the excellence that surrounds her on stage, Fleming’s powerfully poignant performance is worth the ticket price on its own. Cameron's Clara is an unexpectedly complex piece to deliver - and as the tale unfolds, she turns in an act of remarkably measured and touching sensitivity.

These two American women are the only players on stage allowed to perform in their native tongue. Everyone else has to masquerade in cod Italian - and if there is but one niggle of the piece it is the irritation of massed, cliched Latin dialects. The singing however is top notch. Rob Houchen’s Fabrizio captures the combination of Houchen’s physical and vocal beauty - the love that sparks between him and Cameron is delightfully plausible and convincing.

Alex Jennings is Fabrizio’s father - a man who we learn has never lost his admiration for the fairer sex, while Liam Tamne and Celinde Schoenmaker play his son and daughter-in-law. Guettel has liberally sprinkled his libretto with narrative-advancing solo turns throughout his cast, and under Daniel Evans’ perceptive direction the musical theatre treats are frequent.

For a simply presented semi-staged show, the highly spec’d creative work only enhances the production. Mark Henderson’s lighting offers an enchanting brilliance to Robert Jones’ delightfully suggestive set - as, sat above the action, Kimberly Grigsby conducts the Opera North orchestra in a lavish treatment of Guettel’s score.

Only on until July 4th before an international tour, The Light In The Piazza is a must see for all who appreciate modern writing and quality musical theatre.

Runs until July 4th

Sunday 16 June 2019

The Starry Messenger - Review

Wyndham's Theatre, London


Written by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Sam Yates

Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern

As a love letter to New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger serves a purpose. Matthew Broderick is Mark, a professor of astronomy who teaches an evening class in the introductory basics of his subject, with an aspect of the play forming an  autobiographical nod to classes actually taken by Lonergan and Broderick in their youth at the Planetarium, before it was demolished in 1997.

Lonergan’s story however takes our disbelief and suspends it by the slenderest of threads. Amidst a string of weak constructs, we observe Mark being tested by a mid life crisis that stresses his long standing marriage to Ann (Elizabeth McGovern). Along the way Lonergan offers up a glimpse of many recognisable facets of modern living, his text enveloping love, lovelessness, deceit, jealousy, grief and ageing - together with a smattering of hope too. But ultimately there is little in this piece that grabs the audience to take them on much of a dramatic journey. For the price of a West End ticket Lonergan serves up a slice of life which, and for a fraction of the cost, many of the show’s audiences may well be experiencing day in, day out. The message of the piece may well be that sh*t happens but life goes on, but this is far too skimpy an argument to drive three hours of troubled text. There’s perception in the writing that offers up a sequence of meticulously observed mundanities, but too much of Lonergan's fiction is just implausible. 

Broderick does what he does best - this is Leo Bloom, thirty years on only without Mel Brooks writing the comedy. And as drama The Starry Messenger falls way short of Albee’s barbed acerbity that made George and Martha such a horrendously compelling mid-life, middle-aged, monstrous couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Overall, Lonergan’s Mark misses the mark. 

The acting is fine throughout. Alongside Broderick, McGovern captures an inner angst as Rosalind Eleazar's trainee nurse Angela puts in another well defined turn. Jim Norton's curmudgeonly Norman, an elderly cancer patient who drives one of the show's subplots is also spot-on in depicting the emotional onslaught of his disease and its impact on daughter Doris (great work from Sinead Matthews). 

There are momentary gasps and occasional laughs but ultimately this is a stretched out evening at the theatre, albeit one with a starry cast.

Runs until 10th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner