What's Hot in London: July 30: American Musicals Making a Splash in London, Plus Ben Whishaw Returns to the Stage

News   What's Hot in London: July 30: American Musicals Making a Splash in London, Plus Ben Whishaw Returns to the Stage Three American musicals from the last three decades have made major waves in London over the last week, even though their original American runs only created minor ripples.

7 Brides Find Seven Brothers Outdoors

In the case of 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, a stage version of the 1954 movie musical first brought to Broadway all-too-briefly in 1982 in a production that starred Debby Boone in her Broadway debut, it received a tsunami of a bad review from the New York Times's Frank Rich that left the show – and its stars – stricken. About the late, great David Carroll, he declared that his "sturdy singing voice and colorless personality valiantly uphold the Howard Keel tradition." But then he said of his co-star, "In the Jane Powell role, Miss Boone sings ably and smiles constantly – in the remote, rigidly ungiving manner of a veteran professional gladhander or beauty-pageant contestant. The star's acting skills are minimal, but when her hair is up and her forced good cheer is particularly frosty, one can picture her doing a rude impression of Nancy Reagan on ''Saturday Night Live".

<i>7 Brides for 7 Brothers</i>
7 Brides for 7 Brothers Photo by Helen Maybanks

For show's return to London last Thursday, however, in a production at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, a pairing of Alex Gaumond (a Canadian-born performer long resident in the UK) and Laura Pitt-Pulford yielded far better notices. In The Guardian, Michael Billington confessed,

Frankly, I was surprised. I had expected this musical, based on the 1954 movie about a group of Oregon farmboys who abduct their future brides, to look positively antediluvian. But while it may not exactly be in tune with modern gender politics, it comes off well in Rachel Kavanaugh’s production thanks to some exhilarating dancing.

And he said of its stars, "Laura Pitt-Pulford endows the far-from-modern Milly with the right dogged determination, and Alex Gaumond even manages to find a few redemptive qualities in the Petruchio-like figure of Adam, who seems to think a wife is a domestic slave." Jason Robert Brown Comes Back to London

Also brought back to the London stage last week was Jason Robert Brown's song cycle Songs for a New World, the musical revue that first introduced his unique musical voice to New York in 1995, since when he's had no fewer than four musicals play on Broadway, winning Tony's for the scores to two of them (Parade and The Bridges of Madison Country). The new production at the St James Theate has an all-star cast, including Jenna Russell (Tony nominee for recreating her performance as Dot in the Broadway transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory's Sunday in the Park with George), Damian Humbley (Russell's co-star on the last London production of Merrily We Roll Along that transferred to the West End, also from the Menier), Cynthia Erivo (soon to recreate her Menier performance in the Broadway transfer of The Color Purple, opposite Jennifer Hudson) and Erivo's offstage partner Dean John-Wilson.

In a four-star review  for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner notes that the show "has a delicate, mature Chekhovian regret in both its scoring and subtle emotional layering. This is a show that knows that every new beginning also marks an ending, that the person we will be tomorrow is not the person we are today. The show is like a series of accumulated bruises. In the wrong hands it could be mawkish, maybe even self-absorbed. But the simplicity of the staging combined with standout performances ensure this grabs the attention and touches the heart."

Cynthia Erico in <i>Songs for a New World</i>
Cynthia Erico in Songs for a New World Photo by Darren Bell

Getting Grilled Again in London

Finally, The Spitfire Grill – briefly seen under the auspices of Playwrights' Horizons in 2001 on either side of 9/11 and lost in the wake of it – has been revived at London's tiny fringe Union Theatre, about which I myself wrote in The Stage, Here's exactly what a theatre like the Union and the fringe are for: the opportunity to see a musical that's never been produced professionally in Britain before from the off-Broadway canon that was only briefly seen there in 2001. It proves to be both worth uncovering and seeing… Set to a haunting score by James Valcq that feels very much in the Adam Guettel mode, Alastair Knights’ production is full of feeling and staged with a simple charm… The cast of seven give it a gritty heart, aching with longing and regret but also hope."

Opening This Week

  •  "We've got magic to do, just for you,' goes the opening number of Pippin; but there's plenty of people with magic to do in the West End this week as a variety bill called Impossible opens at the Noel Coward Theatre July 30, featuring mind-reader Chris Cox (who doesn't read minds), daredevil escapologist Jonathan Goodwin, magician Ben Hart, street illusionist Magical Bones and sleight of hand master Ali Cook. Also heading to London in November: TV's mind-bending Darren Brown will play a season at the Palace Theatre, and The Illusionists at the Shaftesbury (simultaneously with a return to Broadway, presumably featuring different illusionists, unless part of the trick will be for them to recreate themselves on either side of the Atlantic simultaneously!)
  • The rarely seen 1931 Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing revolving around a Presidential candidate's romantic life as he runs for office was the first musical to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Now it is being staged for a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall for one night only July 30, with a stellar cast that includes Hadley Fraser (seen on Broadway in The Pirate Queen), Louise Dearman, Hannah Waddingham and Tom Edden (Broadway's One Man, Two Guvnors).
  • Ben Whishaw, best known nowadays as a film actor from his recurring role of Q in the Bond series, appearing opposite Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in "Cloud Atlas" and providing the voice for "Paddington Bear" in last year's film, returns to the stage to star in James Macdonald's new production of Euripdes's Bakkai, opening at the Almeida July 30, playing Dionysos opposite Bertie Carvel (the original Miss Trunchbull in Matilda both in the West End and on Broadway) as Pentheus.
  • The Who's Tommy (first heard as a concept rock opera album in 1969) gets a new London theatrical outing at Greenwich Theatre, opening July 31.
  • Also being revived is the 1989 Broadway musical Grand Hotel, opening August 5 at Southwark Playhouse, from the same director/producer team of Thom Southerland and Danielle Tarento that produced Titanic (which also featured a score by Maury Yeston) that was revived for a run in Toronto last month.

Headlines of the Week

  • John Owen-Jones, who has played the title role in the original West End production of The Phantom of the Opera more than any other actor during the show's 29 year history so far, returns to the show at Her Majesty's Theatre Sept. 7.
  • Owen-Jones will be followed by Ben Forster, winner of the reality TV show "Superstar" which led to him starring in the UK arena stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Forster will begin performances Feb. 1, after completing a Christmas season starring as Buddy in Elf.

For more updates
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