What's Hot in London -- January 1997

Special Features   What's Hot in London -- January 1997
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LONDON NEWS -- January 1997

Reviews of recent London openings by Playbill On-Line's correspondent, Sheridan Morley. This month: Old Wicked Songs, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cercle Invisible, Sweeney Todd.

At the Gielgud from Off-Broadway is Jon Marans's Old Wicked Songs in a production by Elijah Moshinsky, which differs widely and in my view unwisely from the American original. No longer are we in the chaotic, score-strewn study of the old Viennese singing coach; instead we are in a vastly more antiseptic college music room. Then again, Bob Hoskins, a fine actor making a welcome return to the stage after a decade or so in movies and television, is physically and vocally very odd casting for this defeated musician, while James Callis, hot from drama school, can never quite convey the desperation of the piano prodigy suddenly unable to equate his talent with his political and social arrival at young manhood.
For all that I still believe this is a remarkable play, infinitely greater than such contemporary transatlantic hits as Master Class in what it has to say about the power of art, in this case musical, to restore the human spirit. Both the prodigy and his apparently intolerant old master are unable to get back to the classical keyboard until they have freed their souls and cleared their minds from the terrible legacy of World War II as represented by the former Nazi Kurt Waldheim winning the Austrian election in the 1986 summer of the play's setting; but in the end this is a play about the life force of music itself. Hoskins does finally win over his physical miscasting just about in time to allow the play to soar towards its redemptive conclusion at his keyboard, but for a while there, it is a close-run thing.

And to the much-threatened and long-defunct Mermaid comes a real treat: Chaplin's daughter Victoria and her wonderfully eccentric husband Jean-Baptiste Thierrée in their Cercle Invisible, the illogical extension of the Cirque Magique with which they started dazzling audiences worldwide more than 20 years ago. Now they are totally alone in their one-ring circus, save a few waddling ducks and innumerable eccentric props. Long before the term "performance art" became an alibi for whatever rubbish could not be contained within orthodox plays or musicals or revues, Chaplin and Thierrée patented the only truly radical and innovative alternative to legit theatre or circuses, and their act remains a conjuring trick of breath-taking skill. It is also, this Christmas holiday, the best introduction I have ever seen to stage art for children of one to one hundred.

The handsomely restored Lyceum, now back to full theatrical life for the first time in fifty years, has a major revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar fully 25 years after it first opened on Broadway in a glitzy production later disowned by both its creators. Time has not been altogether kind to the show or its score, and to work out whether it or we have changed we need to go back a bit. Superstar was the first and thus far the only Webber score to open in the U.S.A. rather than Britain, and it came hard on the heels of their only previous score, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which at that time was still only a 40-minute show for schools. It was the unprecedented American success of the album, coming at the moment when the Beatles had opened up U.S. charts to the British for the first time, that caused the Broadway production, and when the show first came to London (in the liberating aftermath of the Lord Chamberlain's retirement as stage censor), it was still the time of Hair and Oh Calcutta.
Superstar swept into town on a wave of useful controversy about blasphemy and stayed there for a decade; seen now, it is, however, more interesting for what it says about Rice on his way to Evita, for which this is in many ways a dress rehearsal. Here we have at least four apparently charismatic leaders of factions (Jesus, Judas, Pilate and the Herod who gets the best song) all of whom are seen to be, like Mrs. Peron, dictatorial in many unattractive ways.
Gale Edwards has staged a revival that sharply contrasts with the original in its infinite good taste: the setting is now a mini-Epidaurus apparently carved out of rock instead of the old biblical bandstand, and the audience sits all around it in suitably nineties fashion. But her production is crippled by some weirdly uncharismatic central casting. Neither Steve Balsamo as Jesus nor Joanna Ampil as Mary are remotely charismatic enough to hold our attention, and the production thus, weirdly, stars David Burt as Pilate and above all Zubin Varla as a furiously self-torturing Judas. Not so much Jesus Christ Superstar as Jesus Christ Co-Star.

At the Leicester Haymarket, the theatre that does more than any other in Britain to keep Stephen Sondheim's scores alive in the regions, the director Paul Kerryson has another winner with a long, somber revival of Sweeney Todd. The more often I see this darkly magnificent tale, the more convinced I am that it will outlive all the other Sondheims, not necessarily because it is his best or most lyrical work but because, thanks to Hugh Wheeler who did the book and Christopher Bond who wrote the melodrama on which it is based, this one has the best of the plots.
At times self-parodic, at others heartbreakingly romantic even as throats are being slashed and bodies hurled into furnaces for the making of them into meat pies, Sweeney has acquired a new and terrible relevance in an age of serial killers with bodies in their basements. Dave Willetts leads a fine cast in which Jeanette Ranger is a suitably plump, possessive Mrs. Lovett.
-- By Sheridan Morley

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