Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Dame Ruthie Henshall?

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Dame Ruthie Henshall? In terms of bright new musical theatre leading ladies, Broadway has Melissa Errico, while the West End has Ruthie Henshall. Several years ago in my presence, a very major British producer, alluding to Henshall's swfit rise and sudden pre-eminence among West End musical comedy ladies, dubbed her (with tongue in cheek) "Dame Ruthie Henshall," and he may not have been very far off the mark.
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In terms of bright new musical theatre leading ladies, Broadway has Melissa Errico, while the West End has Ruthie Henshall. Several years ago in my presence, a very major British producer, alluding to Henshall's swfit rise and sudden pre-eminence among West End musical comedy ladies, dubbed her (with tongue in cheek) "Dame Ruthie Henshall," and he may not have been very far off the mark.

Unlike Errico, whose Broadway career began with principal roles (in Les Miz and Anna Karenina), Henshall was, after touring in A Chorus Line and toiling in Cats, one of the bar girls in the original London cast of Miss Saigon in 1989 (she eventually moved up to the role of Ellen, a part she sings on the complete symphonic recording). After a somewhat bigger role in Children of Eden, Henshall became a star playing Polly in the smash London version of Crazy For You, then won an Olivier Award for her Amalia in the revival of She Loves Me.

She went on to take over as Nancy in the long-running revival of Oliver!, stepped into the Toronto Crazy For You (where her co-star Mickey Rooney was so impressed that he dubbed her the new Judy Garland), and was Fantine in the Les Miz anniversary concert gala seen internationally on video.

Having just finished playing another Polly, in the Chichester Festival revival of Divorce Me, Darling!, Sandy Wilson's sequel to his The Boy Friend, she now gets a real plum, Roxie Hart in the London incarnation of the current Broadway revival of Chicago, virtually guaranteed to be a smash (and the first time London will see the show in a semblance of its Fosse staging, the first West End production in 1979 having been staged by others). So it looks as though both Henshall with Chicago and Errico with High Society have this season the roles that will firmly secure their respective places at the top of their field.

Henshall has looks, charm, freshness, youth, and talent, and she can sing (from high soprano to belt), dance, and act. In addition to the cast albums of Children of Eden, Crazy For You, She Loves Me, and Divorce Me, Darling!, the complete Saigon and concert Les Miz, and the TER/JAY studio Godspell, she has made two solo discs, the first in 1994 when she was in Crazy For You and saluting that show's songwriters, Love Is Here To Stay: Ruthie Henshall Sings Gershwin (Bravo). She's very appealing on the program of mostly show and film songs, especially in "Somebody Loves Me," "They All Laughed," and "Boy! What Love Has Done To Me." More interesting is her recent disc for Tring Records, The Ruthie Henshall Album, accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, which gives her the chance to show off all sides of her talent: She belts her way through "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Don't Rain on My Parade," caresses "Summertime," tries comedy with "Nothing" (from A Chorus Line) and "Second Hand Rose," and drama with "The Man That Got Away." From her stage roles, she reprises "I Dreamed A Dream," "Someone To Watch Over Me," "I Got Rhythm," and "As Long As He Needs Me." Throughout, she displays a smooth combination of soprano and brass; if she doesn't have a drop-dead diva voice like Elaine Paige's, Henshall's is a highly adaptable sound, and her versatility is likely to stand her in good stead in both contemporary and traditional leading lady roles.


DIVORCE ME, DARLING!
Dame Ruthie is divine (in her soprano mode) on TER's new cast recording of this summer's Chichester Divorce Me, Darling!.

But first, a word about Sandy Wilson: After achieving international acclaim with his completely delicious spoof of '20s musicals, The Boy Friend, Wilson never had another real success, but his scores for such shows as Valmouth, The Bucanneer, His Monkey Wife, Aladdin, and Divorce Me, Darling! are among the finest in British musical theatre.

The problem was that Wilson's shows were caviar for general audiences, too sophisticated and campy in their appeal to ever find mass audience favor. But do yourself a favor and secure both CDs (original and 1982 Chichester Festival revival) of Valmouth, the LPs of Bucanneer and Monkey Wife, and both Divorce recordings (that's assuming that you are already familiar with The Boy Friend, which is the place to start).

Divorce Me, Darling! picked up the characters from Boy Friend in 1936, as the happy marriages that ended the first show are fast approaching the rocks, and its score is, if anything, even better than Boy Friend's; Wilson's flair for '30s styles is so inspired and dead-on that his songs are at times almost preferable to the real thing (although a duet called "You're Absolutely Me" is perhaps too close to "You're The Top"). But 1965 wasn't a time in London for '30s nostalgia, and the original Divorce Me, Darling! folded after two months, leaving an LP (once issued here by DRG) that is one of my ten all-time favorite West End albums.

The show got a small revival here and there, then made it to the states at Houston's Theater Under The Stars in 1984, but this summer's Chichester production had an extraordinary cast of West End regulars, including Tim Flavin, Marti Webb, Linzi Hateley, Kevin Colson, and Liliane Montevecchi, and won the piece far more acclaim than it got the first time around.

While the '65 production had a much larger orchestra and more full-bodied, brassier sound, the new recording is a joy, confirming once again that Wilson's only peer for wit among British show composers was Noel Coward.

Henshall offers a limpid, pensive, droll Polly; Webb sounds as good as ever as an American gal on the look-out for a husband; Hateley is amusing as Hortense, the French maid; and Montevecchi is pure camp as the mysterious cabaret artiste "Madame K." (formerly the wives' headmistress Mme. Dubonnet). Don't miss this new Divorce (and also seek out the original recording, still not on CD). Now we can look forward to hearing Henshall on the forthcoming London cast album of Chicago (opposite the Velma of internationally celebrated musical theatre and cabaret singer Ute Lemper, no less).

You can e-mail me at kenmanbway@aol.com