The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Summer 2010
This review is tricky because I am not sure what to make of the production, but a pleasant jolt of surprise may be the effect that Tony award-winning co-directors Harold (Hal) Prince and Susan Stroman want for this world premiere of a new American musical - at the Menier, where bravery and experimentation are often rewarded with West End and Broadway transfers.
The style is light-operetta with a Gilbert & Sullivan feel, where English lyrics - sometimes clever, sometimes clunky - are pitted against the searing, waltzing splendour of Strauss. Credit should go to the sound department who produce perfect pitch in a very small space.
The plot is an adaptation of a novel by Joseph Roth, The Tale of the 1002nd Night. Here, an ageing Shah (John McMartin) has not had a woman in ages, despite a harem-full at his disposal, and it is driving him into a deep 'oh' of melancholy.
The Grand Vizier (George Lee Andrews) and a sweet-natured Eunuch (MandyPatinkin of stage, screen, and Chicago Hope fame) urge a change of scene to inflate the Shah's spirits.
And our scene (now) is gaudy Vienna, a hotbed of decadence where we meet a randy Baron (Shuler Hensley) whose favourite brothel-girl Mizzi (Kate Baldwin) also happens to be the mother of their son.
Inconveniently, the Shah falls in lust with the Viennese Empress and, in a possible nod to Shakespeare’s 'bed-trick', Mizzi is disguised/replaced as the Shah’s object of affection.
There is something Measure for Measure about proceedings, with 'madam' Frau Matzner (an enjoyable Judy Kaye) reminiscent of Mistress Overdone and the overarching theme that we pay for our pleasures in the end.
Patinkin, the star name here, cleverly weaves a handkerchief into his characterization that proves most handy for mopping his shaved head (it is hot, in the auditorium). His pleasant singing voice spends much time in its highest range but this seems commensurate with how we might imagine a singing castrato to sound.
It is ironic that the word 'baron' is repeated around one who, bereft of manhood, can never experience the paradise of the play's title. However, this places our Eunuch in an elevated position.
Free from the passion that blights other characters (blights that are all resolved in the end) he can urge that reason and true love are ultimately more rewarding than forbidden fruits.
Hensley - as the said Baron - has a fine voice and conveys well the light and shade that transforms his character between parts one and two. The international (largely American) cast work their socks off, and to try something new - in a world of revivals - is laudable.
Nevertheless, this show has a 'Marmite' feel and will be loved and un-loved in equal measure. Whether or not the Menier-magic works this time remains to be seen, but I would rather like to see it again.
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