The Theatreguide.London Review
Gielgud Theatre Autumn-Winter 2018
Director Marianne Elliott's almost-fiftieth-anniversary revival of Stephen Sondheim's ultimate New York City musical is a hit-or-miss affair, more hit than miss, though nowhere near as revolutionary as it thinks it is.
George Furth's original book (heavily shaped by original producer-director Hal Prince) told of 35-year-old bachelor Bobby, who critically observed his friends' imperfect marriages and his own feckless single state and reached some mature conclusions.
Marianne Elliott turns Bobby into a female Bobbie, along with a few other gender shifts – her trio of dates are now all male, panicking bride Amy is now Jamie, half of a gay couple, and the pot-smoking couple have all their lines exchanged so that she is the dominant and protective one.
Sondheim has tweaked some lyrics to accommodate the sexual reassignments (along with some quiet updating – 'I'll call you in the morning or my service will explain' is now 'or I'll text you to explain'), to no particular improvement.
(Incidentally, this production is being promoted as being the first ever to feature a female Bobbie. It isn't. A production we reviewed at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe took things even further by making Bobbie bisexual, dating men and women, adding freshly dark overtones to both the seduction of April and Joanne's climactic proposition.)
The strongest argument in favour of the gender change is that it offers a big juicy role to Rosalie Craig, best remembered as charming us all in the National Theatre's Light Princess in 2013.
Craig here establishes herself as an unquestionable West End star, not only singing beautifully but acting her songs with sensitivity and intelligence, drawing all the emotional power out of Sondheim's lyrics.
It goes without saying that she moves you to tears with Being Alive, but even the earlier Someone Is Waiting, which had always seemed just a space-filler to me, takes on new depth and resonances. And while the interpolated Marry Me A Little still feels inadequate as a first act finale, Craig certainly finds everything there is to be found there.
As if to demonstrate that she's not perfect, Craig does prove herself uncomfortable with comedy. A running gag of having Bobbie notice and be startled by the Chorus's surprise appearances grows old very quickly, and the whole seduction-of-April (here, Andy) sequence, from the lost motel story through Barcelona, falls flat.
While Richard Fleeshman can't do much with Andy, George Blagden does raise Another Hundred People from just a virtuoso patter song to a sharp-edged comment on metropolitan life, and musical director Joel Fram has found some surprising and delightful male harmonies for the three boys (also including Matthew Seadon-Young) in You Could Drive A Person Crazy.
Co-starring billing goes, appropriately, to Broadway diva assoluta Patti Lupone as rich bitch Joanne. But – dare I whisper it? - she really isn't up to the challenge of The Ladies Who Lunch, missing the excoriating outer- and inner-directed rage the song wants.
She isn't helped by the simple directorial error of not providing the disapproving background figures whose presence is needed to generate the song. And in what plays like a failure of adapter's nerve, the revised script fudges on Joanne's proposition to Bobbie, losing what could have been a really powerful moment. *
On the other hand, the male trio Sorry-Grateful is beautifully sung, and as the panicking groom-to-be, Jonathan Bailey milks the high-speed patter song Getting Married Today for all it's worth, and rightly stops the show.
Elsewhere Elliott's staging, Liam Steel's choreography and Bunny Christie's designs are too often awkward, jumbled or just ugly.
Crowding everyone into the tiny cube that represents Bobbie's apartment does make a point about their claustrophobic effect, but it just looks cluttered and cramped.
A couple of visual allusions to Alice In Wonderland go nowhere, as do a couple of moments in which Bobbie seems to appear in two, three or more places around the stage at once, and others that suggest that Bobbie may have a serious drinking problem, all giving the impression of being left over from some previous production concepts.
Restaging the chorus-line Side By Side By Side as a game of musical chairs with the cast barely missing each other as they shove chairs and tables around, is over-busy and unattractive, and also buries the number's choreographic punchline. And, unwilling to leave well enough alone, director Elliott all-but-kills the musical's strong ending by tacking on two or three unnecessary sight gags.
See Company for the great songs, for Rosalie Craig's performance, and for the other good moments that stand out among the production's missteps and missed chances.
(* Later note:
Internal logic calls for Joanne to reveal her bisexuality and
proposition Bobbie. But she just offers her the use of her husband.)
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