There were no foggy days in London town for the members of Playbill's February London Theatre Tour. From Feb. 14 to Feb. 21, nothing resembling winter weather darkened the tour's days in the West End. Days began cloudy, then cleared up by 10 AM, with partial sunshine prevailing until nightfall.
Much has been made of the number of British plays and productions transferring to New York this season, so it's no surprise that the Playbill tour's week in London amounted to a preview of the upcoming Broadway spring and summer seasons. We took in Conor McPherson's The Weir, due at the Walter Kerr Theatre Mar. 23, and the musicalization of the John Travolta movie Saturday Night Fever, set to arrive at the Minskoff sometime this summer. The Peter Hall Company production of Eduardo de Filippo's Filumena starred Dame Judi Dench, who will be seen at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre in April in David Hare's Amy's View. Even the fourth production on the Playbill schedule, the Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman rethinking of Oklahoma!, once had designs on Broadway, before Actors' Equity put the kibosh on its crossing the Atlantic with its English cast intact.
Just prior to Playbill's trip, two of these productions -- Oklahoma! and The Weir -- won London's Olivier Awards for best musical production and best play, respectively. Those kudos, however, did not sway the group and, in the critical upset of the trip, the two shows, while enjoyed, proved the least popular among the tour's members.
The group's favorite production was Peter Hall's interpretation of Filumena. In the wake of the hit movie, "Shakespeare in Love," interest in Judi Dench was high, and second row seats allowed the tour members close scrutiny of the Oscar-nominated Dame's artistry. Dench did not disappoint them, growling her way through the 90-minute show and dominating the proceedings.
Mary Jacoby, who had purchased and read the play the day before seeing it, said the production far exceeded the written script and that the acting was excellent. And several people -- including Annette Louis, Ruth Shapiro, Barbara Lappin and Jane Schuman -- thought the production would be a hit if it tried Broadway. Causing the most division and inspiring heated argument was The Weir, McPherson's anecdotal play about locals in a rural Irish bar spinning ghostly tales of supernatural experiences. As he demonstrated in last season's New York production of St. Nicholas, McPherson is more interested in spinning a gripping yarn than constructing an obvious plot line. And this lack of a dramatic arc split the tour in its reception of the piece.
Gene Neibel called the play a "slice of life" rather than an actual drama. Ed Corman agreed, noting that the play, while slow at the start, picked up steam and became more entertaining as it went on. Aside from a monologue about lost love delivered by the character of Jack, an old and wily bachelor, Zal Puchkoff found little to relate to in the play and gave the production poor marks as a whole.
Ed Kuffner objected to a critical speech delivered by the play's sole female character, Valerie, in which she describes receiving a ghostly phone call from her daughter days after the child died in a swimming accident. Kuffner found the story and its placement within the plot unpersuasive and the male character's incredulous response to it unnatural. Others argued that it was the playwright's right to depict the action as he saw fit. It was also observed that the behavior of Irish citizens in such situations differed from that of Americans.
All agreed that Jim Norton was superlative in the role of Jack. And all were doubtful as to whether the show would succeed in New York.
The group likewise disagreed with the Olivier's assessment and the widespread praise of Oklahoma!. Going into the show, an American familiarity with the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein musical fed the group's skepticism about the probability of a revolutionary reimagining of Oklahoma!. And, indeed, little in the production convinced them they were seeing the show anew. Susan Stroman's fifteen-minute dream ballet at the end of act one was, everyone agreed, fantastic, imaginative and the absolute highlight of the show. Unfortunately, nothing else in the production -- aside from Stroman's work in "The Farmer and the Cowman" -- reached that level.
"It was so slow at the beginning," said Ed Korman. "Nothing was happening until the ballet." Other observed that the show was fine, but nothing more than a very good revival. Among the performers, Maureen Lipman's Aunt Eller and Hugh Jackman's Curly were the favorites. As Will Parker, Jimmy Johnston was found likable but far too short for the role.
Not everyone was disappointed with the show. Barbara Lappin found it quite enjoyable and commented that the character of Jud Fry had become more sympathetic in Shuler Hensley's portrayal.
The tour's reaction to the generous-spirited and intentionally campy Saturday Night Fever was far more positive. In fact, the show practically sent them dancing onto the street. Had they not stepped off the plane just hours before, Janet Rothstein and Beverly Farrington said they were prepared to go straight from the show to a nightclub.
Lee Peiffer marvelled at the youth and energy of the audience, which spent much of the show screaming and wildly applauding and moving to the virtually non-stop bargage of songs by the Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band and others. While allowing that Arlene Phillips' choreography was bountiful and exciting, Jane Schuman thought the dancing a bit sloppy and imprecise (particularly in contrast to Stroman's work in Oklahoma!). And the consensus was that star Adam Garcia held his own as Tony, the role originated by John Travolta.
Over the course of the stay, various Playbill travelers took in performances of Les Miz, Michael Frayn's Alarms and Excursions, Yasmina Reza's Art, David Halliwell's Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs and Agatha Christie's long-running chestnut, The Mousetrap. Camaraderie within the group had grown so great by week's end, Schuman organized a few of her New York-dwelling companions into a theatre club, with plans to get together for a Broadway show from time to time.
As the first meeting on the schedule, the group will pay a return visit on - who else? -- Judi Dench, in David Hare's Amy's View.
[Playbill's next London Theatre Tour is scheduled for Apr. 18-25. For information, call Janice Johnson at Playbill Tours at (212) 557-5757.]