What an extraordinary job theatre is. You go along for weeks seeing play after play, musical after musical, most of which are perfectly competent — well rehearsed, well acted — and yet you remain unmoved. This is when the coven of critics clutter the aisles, muttering about the lack of good writing and how we should give it up because there's nothing good to see any more. Then you hit a week — one single week in a whole season — when the stage lights up, when the performances are perfect, and when you're so grateful to be alive and able to be part of it, even as a member of the audience.
In just such a week I recently saw the best play of the London season, the best play revival, and the two best musical revivals of the year.
Here's my week.
Tuesday — I go to the Menier Chocolate Factory with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Why dread? Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along is the musical on offer and, despite its exquisite score, rarely works as a production. Also, because it is directed by a friend of mine — her directorial debut, no less — and I desperately want her to succeed, though with this show, I fear she may not. I need not have worried. Maria Friedman, a great singer much loved in the U.K. for her starring appearances in musicals, is better known in the U.S. for her cabaret appearances. She is not known on either continent as a director.
Merrily is a story of a friendship that begins on a rooftop in 1957, where three recent college graduates gather to see Sputnik, the first satellite, a symbol of the bright future in store for them. It ends in disillusion and disappointment, the friends each in their own ways having failed to realize those bright futures. Beginning to understand why the show rarely plays well? If the depressing nature of life doesn't get to you, the structure of the show will — the story is played backward, so our first view of the protagonists is when their friendship has crumbled and they're confronting the mess they've made of their lives. All the joy in this show is in the second half, as they get younger.
Sailing out on a post-war tide of optimism, the characters begin to face the darkening events of Vietnam, Black Power, nuclear threat, race riots, and a world in constant turmoil. Slowly, as they get younger, these stumbling blocks, not yet experienced, disappear. This director has exposed the great play that was buried inside a great musical. (And Friedman has cast it properly.) Brava!
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