On the second day of the inaugural Playbill Preview Tour of London, we settled into life in the capital by taking a traditional open-air double-decker bus tour of the city's familiar landmarks, while preparing to attend Oliver! at the legendary London Palladium.
It turned out to be a very timely excursion, since Oliver! uses many of the same landmarks as sets and backdrops. Consider Yourself is staged with St. Paul's Cathedral in the background. Oliver awakens to the sound of Big Ben tolling, which we'd heard in person just after we passed the Houses of Parliament. Bill Sykes kills Nancy and takes Oliver captive on London Bridge -- which we had crossed just a few hours earlier.
The climax of the show is staged on a London rooftop as thunderbolts crack the sky. It turns out that we'd been dodging very real London lightning and rain of our own most of the afternoon. We read in The Times the next day that some of that same lightning had injured guests at a garden party given by the Queen that same afternoon.
The members of the Playbill entourage survived to give Oliver! a unanimous 18 thumbs up. (One person had attended a different show.) Here are their reviews:
Francis Lamburini of Queens, N.Y.:
It's exactly what I expected. It's charming; a family show. Frank Henderson of New York City:
The sets were fabulous. It made my think of the Christmas show [Alan Menken's A Christmas Carol] at the Paramount Theatre [in NY]. The gal [Ruthie Henshall] had a beautiful voice.
Ken Robbins of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.:
"I always felt the show starts with 'Consider Yourself' [in the fourth scene]. The whole fun of the show is from the arrival of Fagin and the boys, on." Mr. Robbins, it turns out, is in rehearsal to play Fagin in a local production of Oliver! in his hometown, and kept a special eye on British comedian Russ Abbot, who has replace Jonathan Pryce and Jim Dale in the role.
Judy Robbins of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.:
Bet [Katie Hughes] has a great voice.
Milton Demel of Studio City, CA:
They should have gotten her [Henshall, owing to her strong voice] to play Bertrande in Martin Guerre.
Judith Gister of Reistertown, MD:
Fagin [Abbot] is wonderful. I love the staging, especially the way they [set designer Anthony Ward and director Sam Mendes] make them go underground. [The street set rises, Sunset Boulevard-like, to show Fagin's lair underground.]
Arnold Sundel of Brooklyn, N.Y.:
Nancy [Henshall] has a terrific voice. She's sensational.
Robert Hatem of New York City:
I enjoyed the songs and the music. The story is cornball and tear-jerky, but the dancing and the color are wonderful. I saw the original with Georgia Brown [as Nancy] and it was magic. This one [Ruthie Henshall] comes across as a real showgirl. She has a wonderful voice. I didn't think Fagin [Abbot] was as loveable as we'd been told. When you think about the human frailties in the show, it almost attains Biblical proportions. A few of us were talking this over last night and made a list of them: illegitimacy, domestic violence, greed, lies, murder, child abuse, prostitution, theft, quackery, deception, lies, dishonesty, violence, gluttony and alcoholism. But on the other side there's love, sacrifice, friendship and honesty. That list's a little shorter. You come out feeling happy, even though it's really a sad story.
After the performance, the group split into smaller groups and returned to the hotel separately, each having their own adventure on a warm, clear night walking the maze of cobbled streets in Soho and Covent Garden.
The area and those surrounding it are particularly rich for theatre fans, since many of the place names are familiar to fans of My Fair Lady, Gilbert &;Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Sondheim and many others: Tottenham Court Road, 84 Charing Cross Road, Fleet Street, Lambeth Walk, St. James, Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Piccadilly Circus.
On the third day of our trip, we'll be exploring the backstage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, climbing to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, and then, in the evening, seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar at the Barbican. Check in tomorrow for our reviews.
The second Playbill Preview Tour to London, Nov. 17-24, is booking quickly. For details, jump London in November, or call Beverly Markman or Roberta Cohen at (800) 554-7513.
-- Robert Viagas