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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

Archive: 1999 MUSICALS

For the Archive we have filed reviews of five musicals that had brief runs in 1999 on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
A Saint She Ain't - Candide - Honk! The Ugly Duckling - The Pajama Game - The Villain's Opera

A Saint She Ain't
Apollo Theatre, Autumn 1999

This is a real rarity - a musical whose book is better and more entertaining than its songs. With one or two exceptions, this delightful tribute to low-budget Hollywood comedies of the 1940s would be just as much fun if they didn t keep interrupting it with music.

Author-lyricist Dick Vosburgh is an old-movie buff from way back; one of his earlier hits, A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine , was a salute to the Marx Brothers. This time he's taken on just about everyone else: W.C. Fields, Mae West, Jimmy Durante, and Abbott and Costello.

What passes for a plot has to do with a boy and girl who each mistakenly believe the other has been cheating. But ignore it -- it's totally irrelevant to the fun, and the two performers are pretty poor. Well, that's unfair. What's more likely is that veteran director Ned Sherrin was far more interested in the comic characters around them and left the romantic juveniles to their own devices. No loss. The real joys are elsewhere.

Radio-TV wit Barry Cryer captures the spirit of W. C. Fields without resorting to simple impersonation, and clearly enjoys swearing "by the nicotine-stained fingers of Bette Davis" or dryly tossing off lines like "She had admirers by the score - and they all did." Pauline Daniels does a fine Mae West; her song beginning "You're the banana in my cream pie" and progressing (regressing?) into a catalogue of phallic symbols is one of the musical highlights. Another is Brian Greene's Start off the Day, an evocative Durante pastiche.

There's an Abbott and Costello pair, with the best variant on the classic "Who's on First?" routine I've ever heard, and a Martha Raye clone bellowing about her demureness. Names (Fairbanks, Bogart, Veronica Lake, etc) are dropped at the slightest provocation, and groaner jokes ("Don't just stand there like an idiot!" - "Where should I stand?") are thick on the ground.

Great art it ain't. Computer-driven sets and fancy special effects it ain' t got. Denis King's music ain't memorable. There ain't even an orchestra, just twin pianos. But it sure is fun.

Gerald Berkowitz


Olivier Theatre, Summer-Autumn 1999

In 1956 Leonard Bernstein wrote two classic Broadway musicals simultaneously, the hit West Side Story and the flop Candide. And yet Candide has been revived almost as often as its sister, its overture is a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire, and its songs are continually sung by vocalists of taste and by a growing cult of fans.

Over the years everyone and his sister - Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur, Hugh Wheeler, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, among others - has had a hand in various versions of the text and lyrics. Songs have been cut, restored, reassigned, rewritten. The tone was lightened or darkened. The book was made more like Voltaire's original satirical novel, or less. For over 40 years the theatre world has been convinced that there is a masterpiece in there somewhere, with Bernstein's extraordinary music at its core.

John Caird, directing and adapting the text once more for the Royal National Theatre, may not quite have found it, but he's come awfully close. Returning to the dark anger of Voltaire, he has produced a Candide that provides a solid support for Bernstein's score. It might not have worked in 1956 but it is just right for the century's end.

Voltaire's hero is a naive optimist who has been taught that this is the best of all possible worlds and who then experiences all the barbarities and atrocities humanity and a godless universe are capable of. Where earlier versions made him blindly Pollyanna-ish until the end, this Candide (played with exactly the right mix of innocence and intelligence by Daniel Evans) is no fool. He sees and feels the horrors of war and rape and bigotry and betrayal, and he thinks and learns. And so there is a moving and engrossing character progression, charted by his songs, from the lightness of Life is Happiness Indeed through the despair of It Must Be Me to the stirring reaffirmation of Make Our Garden Grow.

Similarly deepened and darkened is his beloved Cunegonde, not the airhead coquette of earlier versions, but a woman of the world long before the plot gets around to debauching her, and so not merely Candide's reward at the end, but someone who is lucky to get him. Alex Kelly plays her a little too lumpen, as if resisting the ugly truth about her, but she sings beautifully, doing full justice to Bernstein's ironic coloratura aria Glitter and Be Gay.

Simon Russell Beale is ideal for the narrator, a broad actor able to hold the stage alone, who carefully controls the touches of camp in some of his witty asides. Beverley Klein has a lot of fun as the mono-buttocked (As she repeatedly says, don't ask) old woman. Clive Rowe and Denis Quilley, ordinarily stars in their own right, aren't given much to do in secondary roles.

Special plaudits must go to designer John Napier for what he didn't do. There are no computerised special effects, not even a revolve, just a big round stage for the actors to stand on and sing that glorious score.

Gerald Berkowitz


Honk! The Ugly Duckling
Olivier Theatre, Winter 1999-2000

The Royal National Theatre's holiday family show is this delightful new musical by George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (book & lyrics), based of course on the Andersen fairy tale.

In the tradition of British Christmas shows, Honk! is a mixture of the childlike and the sophisticated designed to delight children while elements that go over their heads keep the adults entertained. (Non-Brits may not be familiar with the genre of Christmas Panto, musicals based on fairy tales that mix kiddy-level stuff, like broad slapstick and audience involvement, with bawdy double-entendres the kids hopefully don't get. Honk! is not exactly a Panto, but it shares the genre's mix of styles and appeals.)

So Julia McKenzie has directed the performers to mix child-understandable simplicity and broad playing with little hints the grownups will get: Ugly (Gilz Terera) is simultaneously an open-hearted innocent and a black actor dressed in the symbol of Britishness, a schoolboy's uniform, and thus a witty visual symbol of outsiderness.

The predatory Cat (Jasper Britton) camps about like Julian Clary (American equivalent: Harvey Fierstein), while the goose leader (David Bamber) is a parody military officer out of Dad's Army. When Ugly goes missing, his parents are descended upon by paparazzi-birds and TV interviewers.

Instead of Cats-like animal costumes, designer Peter McKintosh has wittily found human equivalents: the ducks, for example, wear galoshes and baseball caps, and various styles of tweeds. And the jokes are the sort that will delight kids while the adults happily groan at their corniness; if I say that one involves "down in the mouth," you'll get the idea.

The plot takes off from Andersen as Ugly, laughed at by the other ducklings and lured by the Cat, strays from home and gets lost. With his mother (Beverley Klein) in search, he wanders about, encountering a military troop of geese, a pair of maiden-lady house pets, a joke-cracking frog, and finally a girl swan who recognises him for what he is and joins him on his return home in triumph.

In a nice touch, he has to learn to love himself as an ugly duckling first, before he can blossom into Superswan at the end.

The songs are pleasant pop, leaning slightly more toward Sondheim than Lloyd Webber, though none is particularly memorable. -- surely a mistake, since the kids should go out whistling something.

Terera is appealingly awkward and vulnerable as Ugly, while Britton seems to be working too hard at the job of being a comic villain. Klein goes for the heartstrings as the loving mother, and David Burt plays her blokey but good-hearted husband (and doubles as the vaudevillian frog) with charm.

In general, the whole show seems pitched just a bit too high, with adults enjoying the jokes and songs more than the kids, who didn't always know what was going on. (There was a lot of "Who's that, mommy?" - "That's the cat, dear." -- "What's he doing?" going on around me.) Still, Honk! is a welcome addition to the midwinter repertoire and well worth reviving in future seasons.

Gerald Berkowitz

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The Pajama Game
Victoria Palace Theatre, Autumn1999

I saw The Pajama Game on Broadway in 1954. (I was, of course, but a babe in arms.) I loved it then and, though I hadn't heard the recording since 1960 at the latest, I could have sung you every song in it before seeing this revival.

That's what first-rate Broadway musicals were like in the 1950s -- the best of American pop music (here, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who also wrote Damn Yankees ) strung together with just enough of a plot to fill out an evening.

I can give you the whole story of The Pajama Game in nine words: the boss and the union leader fall in love.

That's it, but around that frame Adler and Ross hung songs like Hey There and Hernando's Hideaway that became big hits and that stuck in the mind for 45 years.

So there's no reason why this revival, directed by Simon Callow, couldn t be a total delight. The songs are all there. The choreography, by David Bintley of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is inventive and energetic. (Wisely, Bintley has not tried to recreate Bob Fosse's choreography, but has gone his own way. As a result, for example, Steam Heat, one of Fosse's signature numbers, is wholly reinvented, and it works).

Leslie Ash is a perky Babe when feisty might have been preferable. She sings well and dances even better, though you get a clear sense of the dedicated trouper working hard, rather than of the natural.

Graham Bickley is too lightweight, both physically and vocally, for Sid - songs like A New Town and Hey There, which should haunt, merely float. And even by the fairy tale psychology of musical comedy, it is hard to believe that Babe would fall in love with him at first sight.

So, when the whole plot is boy-meets-girl, and you don t instantly accept the love story, the backbone of the show is gone.

In the comic role of the time-study man, poet-comedian John Hegley affects a flailing-limbed Jim Carrey persona which almost works, except that it is so out of sync with the rest of the cast. (There are hints that Callow first intended a stylised production, in touches like Frank Stella's cartoon sets and imagining the union president as a proto-Elvis, but the lifelessness of the central couple seems to have dragged him down.)

So, for too much of its length, The Pajama Game just lies there barely alive or meanders like a provincial touring company production on a midweek matinee.

There is still that first-rate score, and the big production numbers all work. But it just isn't enough.

Gerald Berkowitz


The Villains' Opera
Olivier Theatre, Winter 1999-2000

Each year the National Theatre, armed with a grant from Cameron Mackintosh, does a summer musical, usually a classic revival. This year they've done something different, a new adaptation of John Gay's Beggar's Opera by Nick Dear, with music by Stephen Warbeck.

Yes, I know it's been done before, by Brecht and Weill, but there's no reason why an updating shouldn't work, and this one comes so very close to working, despite some real handicaps, notably the adaptation by Nick Dear and the music by Stephen Warbeck.

The problem with the first is that, for the first half at least, it isn't really very inventive. The plot is updated to modern London, with lots of topical references (to the Millennium Dome and the like), but the updating doesn't seem to add much. Peachum runs an East End pub along with his criminal gang, Macheath's favourite brothel has been replaced by a lap dancing club, and a new character, a crime lord named Mr. Big, has been added. But the first act follows Gay more-or-less slavishly, with no real inventiveness and nothing to tell us about the London underworld today.

(Those who come early enough to read the programme will discover than an article on London's underworld inadvertently points out that Dear's picture is at least 30 years out of date, resembling the age of the Kray brothers more than today.)

It isn't until the second act that Dear begins to deviate from his source, as the fleeing Macheath meets a group of homeless but honest beggars, an estranged mother and daughter, and a newly-bent woman cop. Each of these encounters raises real moral and emotional issues, and each affects Macheath, deepening the character and the drama. Strikingly, the best songs are in this section, and Tim Supple's direction, rather sluggish and uninventive in the first act, also picks up, culminating in a thoroughly satisfying mass shoot-out.

With the exception of a couple of second-act numbers, the songs are all weak, with tuneless melodies and clumsy lyrics (Typical rhymes: observe/love, cup/pub.) (In an in-joke salute to Brecht and Weill, Peachum's first song uses the music from Gay's original, just as it does in The Threepenny Opera.)

So why bother? First of all, it does get very much better as it goes along. Second, Alexander Hanson is an attractive Macheath, easily holding the stage and our sympathy. He brightens the stage as a star should, and his returns from offstage are always welcome. David Burt's Peachum and Oliver Cotton's Inspector Lockit have authority, but Clive Rowe (surely the nearest the London theatre has to a certified musical star) is reduced to almost unintelligible growling in his songs as Mr. Big, and most of the rest of the cast play like rejects from EastEnders.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - A Saint She Ain't - Apollo 1999
Review - Candide - National 1999
Review - Honk! The Ugly Duckling - National 1999
Review - The Pajama Game - Victoria Palace 1999
Review - The Villains' Opera - National 1999

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