A Brit On Broadway: feature

With a ‘landmark’ birthday looming, musicOMH theatre critic and self-proclaimed musical theatre nut, Lisa Hunt took leave of London and the West End, to sample the best of what Broadway has to offer.

She discovered that the New York and London theatre scenes are not that dissimilar.

Except for the presence of Legally Blonde The Musical that is.

I love the theatre. Especially the big musicals; Ive seen so many yet the joys never get old. I still feel the same thrill as I did when my parents took me to see Tommy Steele in Singing in The Rain or Emma Thompson and Robert Lindsey in Me and My Girl.

So you can imagine I was like a kid in a candy store when the opportunity arose to spend two weeks in New York, sampling all that Broadway had to offer. In an attempt to avoid what some people call a landmark birthday, I had decided to cross the Atlantic, working on the premise that if Im not in England for the day in question, then it doesnt count.

Some kind friends decided to book me a bunch of theatre tickets in order to deaden the pain. A few people I spoke to thought it might be a bit weird to go on holiday and spend all my time in the theatre, but to me its a bit like an addiction – I can’t go too long without a fix, and where better to feed my habit then Broadway.

The first thing I noticed was how similar in many respects the theatre in New York is to London, there are many of the same productions, mainly musicals: Mary Poppins, Chicago, Mamma Mia, Phantom Of The Opera, The Lion King and Les Miserables. These are the familiar products, the tried and tested shows that everyone recognizes and knows.

Then there are also some more recent musical productions such as Hairspray, Rent, Wicked, Spamalot, Avenue Q, The Colour Purple, Jersey Boy and The Drowsy Chaperone, many of which we either have in the West End or are due to get later in the year.

Many of Broadways top plays are however transfers from London. These include the Donmars Frost/Nixon, and the Old Vics production of A Moon for the Misbegotten, both with their original casts intact. Other transfers include Tom Stoppards The Coast of Utopia and the Nationals Coram Boy. However, just like the West End, the musicals far outnumber the plays.

When Ive visited the theatre in the United States before, in Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, what has always struck me is how huge the theatres are; I always miss the intimacy of the London stage. No matter how old, run down and dilapidated the theatre in London, they are almost always small enough to allow a level of intimacy between the audience and the actors. Well, the same is true on Broadway, even the biggest venue is relatively small in capacity compared to the vast theatres elsewhere in the States.

The first show I saw was Grey Gardens at the Walter Kerr Theatre, a new musical written by Doug Wright with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, based on the cult 1975 documentary of the same name about the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little’ Edie Beale, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy. Directed by Michael Greif, the musical tells the story of these two women living out their final years in ‘genteel squalor’ with a dozen cats and a house falling down around them. This is a small scale, off-Broadway production with songs that feed the plot and a cultish vibe in keeping with its background. It helps if you know the film well, I suspect.

I then saw another Off-Broadway show, Tall Grass at the Beckett in Theatre Row. Written by Brian Harris, it tells three separate blackly comic stories. The three actors, Mark H. Dold, Edward OBlenis and Marla Schaffel, demonstrate the different ways love and relationships can develop; one story features an obsessed executive couple who cast aside their careers for a much darker path, another features an elderly couple who hide a terrible secret. It wasn’t the greatest written of plays, but it engaged in parts and kept me entertained and amused throughout.

Terence McNally’s new play Deuce: recommended if you want to hear “Jessica Fletcher curse like a marine.”

Fringe theatres in London are often just that out on the fringes of London. However in Manhattan, the fringe and mainstream venues often sit side by side. So it was that about a block down from Tall Grass was Deuce a new play by Terence McNally at the Music Box Theatre, starring Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes as two famous grande dames of tennis who reminisce about their past and discuss their fears for the future. It was very funny piece, not least because it afforded me the opportunity to hear Lansbury, Jessica Fletcher herself, curse like a marine.

As I mentioned earlier, much of what Broadway has too offer is musical based and, being a fan, I can’t say I am too troubled about that. I have already seen Wicked both in the UK and in the US and Avenue Q in its London incarnation; I already have my tickets in the draw for The Drowsy Chaperone. So, of course, I couldnt resist making my last two shows musicals.

Now, though Ill happily confess to being a musical theatre nut, I have never liked Les Miserables. I I didnt like it when I saw it nearly fifteen years ago at the Palace Theatre. However, my friend was very excited that Lea Salonga was back in the cast, this time as Fantine, so we had to go. And so we went, we watched Fantine die and then we left. Yup, we walked out. What really irritated me most, was not the man who was snoring away behind me, or the man whose mobile phone went off repeatedly subjecting the audience to three long bursts of faux Latin beat. No what really annoyed me was how outdated the show had become; it is now almost a joke. When I first saw it, while it was simply not my thing, it was at least moving in places. This time nothing. You can’t even blame the cast, because it had some very good people in it, not least Lea Salonga. There was also the great Jenny Galloway as Madame Thenardier, and Norm Lewis was excellent as Javert. However, like in London it has been shunted to a much smaller venue where the big sets just looked silly and the cast seemed to be moving in slow motion throughout, the piece drained of any passion it may once have had.

Legally Blonde The Musical: “not nearly as bad as sounds.”

Thank God then, that I completed my stay in the Big Apple with a trip to see the newest musical in town Legally Blonde The Musical. Yes, it sounds dreadful, but actually in reality it was funny, upbeat and surprisingly good. Laura Bell Bundy was just excellent as Elle Woods, the perky would-be lawyer, and she was surrounded by a very strong cast, first-rate singers and dancers every one. However most importantly, it was a damn funny show, my American friends almost expired during the Irish Dancing episodes.

As ways to ignore an evil birthday go, this was pretty much the best, and while not everything I saw was brilliant, it was definitely great to see the best of what Broadway currently has to offer – it will certainly make me pay more attention to the Tony Award nominations when they are announced in May.

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