Playbill On-Line and 23 guests from across the U.S. are spending the week of Nov. 18-24 in London's West End, touring legendary theatres, seeing great shows, walking hallowed streets many of us had visited previously only in our imaginations.
Heathrow Airport might have been Newark for all its Englishness, but as we coached into London at dawn, watching the sun come up on the narrow cobbled streets of the West End, the antique brick architecture, leaded glass, chimney pots, slate roofs, and the street names affixed to white plaques on corner buildings -- Charing Cross Road, Knightsbridge, Shaftesbury, High Holborn -- we knew we had arrived.
Our base of operations is the Radisson Mountbatten Hotel on the famous Seven Dials in Covent Garden. From here, our group -- including guests from Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Texas and a large contingent from New Jersey -- are directly across from the Cambridge Theatre (Grease!) and within blocks of half the major West End theatres, not to mention the Dress Circle record shop and cabarets.
On our first night in town, we got an introduction to London Theatre from International Herald Tribune critic Sheridan Morley (also the London correspondent of Playbill On-Line and author of 26 books on show business. Then we saw the revised version of the musical Martin Guerre, the latest from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who wrote Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Martin Guerre opened to mixed reviews in July (including some from the inaugural Playbill On-Line Preview Tour that month), then closed for a week in October for a rewrite of Act I, followed by a reopening to the critics less than two weeks ago.
Here are selections from the opinions of Playbill On-Line's guests: Susan Coakley of New Jersey:
I loved it. It's powerful. They have very strong emotions for their cause, right or wrong. I especially liked the duet for the two Martins ["Here Comes the Morning"]. I liked the scene in Act II [where Guillaime riles the Catholic villagers to attack the Protestants]. It's about how we give away our own power. You must empower yourself. You can't allow people to take that away from you. To me, it goes to the soul.
Lester Bushman of Pennsylvania:
How can one be critical of such a magnificent musical, what with a revised and excellent book, the surprising superior production, decor and abetted by the work of the revolving floor center stage and the marvelous choral work. But where did it fall down . . . yes the music on the whole, with the exception of the new addition "Working on the Land," suffers much of the sameness that one of the [Boublil & Schonberg] trilogy, Miss Saigon, also was guilty. But the great choral effort made the music on the whole secondary to the entire superior production. A tribute to the very versatile cast. And, finally, a plus to the innovativeness of the choreography.
James Simon of New York:
It's Les Miz meets Riverdance. The plot doesn't get going until the end of Act I. It's a lot like Les Miserables -- [at times] like they went through it with a Xerox. When [Bertrande] sings her solo ["Here comes the Morning"] I think, 'It's Fantine!' [from Les Miserables]. The similarities [with earlier Boublil & Schonberg musicals] were so dramatic.
It was also too long. The courtroom sequence was a complete waste -- it tells us a lot of things we already know. Just tell us the story! The judge [Paul Leonard] was great -- he had amazing presence. It could have been a good one-act musical, a good 100-minute musical.
Mary Kelleher of New Jersey:
Others said the beginning of Act I was too slow, but they had to take the time to establish the mood! It's a period piece [16th century France] and you need to get a feel for that period of time. I think they did a very good job explaining the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants.
William Coakley of New Jersey:
I liked the score. The duets ['Tell Me To Go" and "All I Know"] were good, and the dance numbers. But right at the beginning they belabor the part about Martin not caring about [Bertrande]. Let's get going with it! It picks up [toward the end of Act I].
Barbara Meyer of Kentucky:
You could smell everything on the stage: the gunsmoke [in the battle scenes], the incense [in the church scene]. It was like Smell-o-vision. Good thing they didn't throw rotten eggs at the Protestants! Also: Good use of trees.
Marion Dabulas of New Jersey:
I think there's a lot of energy, but I didn't quite always know what was going on [during Act I]. To me, this was the same, almost, as what's happening in Ireland. They could have been digging potatoes. I was born in the coalfields of New Jersey, and I remember, as a girl, I couldn't go to the Girl Scouts because they met in the basement of the Protestant church. I couldn't be maid of honor for a friend of mine who was Protestant. But I enjoyed the show, that's the point. I liked all that stamping.
Sharon Ciano of New York:
The second act was much better than the first. The first was hard to understand and follow. It doesn't stack up to Les Miz. I didn't like all the stomping [of Bob Avian's choreography]. The singers here have incredible voices, though. I'd definitely see it again, so I could understand it better. the musical score was fantastic.
Selma English of New Jersey:
It was our first London play -- just magnificent! The scenery here can't compare [to that of Broadway] but it was just as effective. Right down to the expressions on the actors' faces, it was just great.
Alice Whitehead of New Jersey:
My daughter and I both loved it, especially the man with the scarecrow [Michael Matus as Benoit] and of course the two leads [Stephen Houghton and Rebecca Lock as Arnaud and Bertrande]. It was like being at the opera.
Alfred Anderson of Texas:
It had a real emotional impact on me. It made you look at your sense of right and wrong.
George Allgair of New Jersey:
I loved it. You can see a lot of the themes today. The religious hatred is like our civil rights [problems]. You can see it in Africa with the Hutus and the Tutsis. Or in Northern Ireland with the Catholics and Protestants there.
Janet Allgair of New Jersey:
Times change, but some things never change. I loved it at the end. I was going to jump out of my seat!
Playbill On-Line will be reporting from London throughout the coming week. As a group we'll be touring the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Royal National Theatre, the working recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre -- as well as seeing and reviewing a variety of West End shows including Art with Albert Finney and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Diana Rigg. Check in daily to follow our progress.
Playbill is planning more exciting Preview Tours to London in spring and summer of 1997. We get the toughest tickets for the newest productions, and post guests' reviews online. For inquiries, call Beverly Markman or Roberta Cohen at (800) 554-7513.
-- By Robert Viagas