Follies

Of the latest Sondheim production, “Follies” at London’s Festival Hall, John Peter proclaimed in the Times, “This is still one of the greatest American musicals” and Sondheim’s “music and lyrics…confirm that he is among the greatest creators of musical theater.”  At a 1970s reunion in their former theater, now derelict and facing demolition, “Follies” brings together the Weissman (read Ziegfeld) chorines thirty years after their heyday to confront the ghosts of their past as young lovers and as performers, statuesque beauties parading in glittering, revealing costumes and towering headdresses.

            Center stage are two disillusioned married couples, Ben and Phyllis and Buddy and Sally, who, as their younger selves, buy wholeheartedly into the romantic dream of marriage perpetuated in the song lyrics and movies of the thirties and forties, expressed in some of their songs, cleverly echoed by Sondheim.  Sally’s “In Buddy’s Eyes,” idealizes her husband – who is faithless - and the big production number “Loveland,” promises eternal bliss in love and marriage. (Remember the celebratory wedding lyric of “Me and My Gal?” “Someday we’ll build a little house … in Loveland, for me and my gal.”)

 In addition to Sondheim’s pastiche of the songs and lyrics of this bygone era are haunting melodies like “Too Many Mornings,” jazzy patter numbers like “Lucy and Jessie,” and character-revealing songs like “Broadway Baby” and “I’m Still Here,” two tributes to survival in show business.

            Throughout, the optimism of the young couples is contrasted with the cynicism of their present selves.  That the youths who plan marriage are adolescents is suggested by their songs as they wait at the stage door, singing the spirited “Waiting for the girls upstairs,” and the chorines reprise “Waiting for the boys downstairs.”  Prone to romanticize, they never grow up, and Loveland is a never-never land that time will replace with a real world of tension, disillusionment, and desertion. 

 Sondheim’s dazzlilng lyrics only emphasize that book writer James Goldman’s dialogue is mundane, and when it just about disappears in the second act, the show takes flight. Here the characters express themselves in solo turns that also are interior monologues like “I’m Still Here,” “Losing My Mind,” and “Nobody Loves Me Blues” (sung by Henry Goodman as Buddy, brilliant as the clown). The other principals are Louise Gold as the acerbic Phyllis, Kathryn Evans as the sprightly, despairing Sally, and David Durham, too stiff as the wooden Ben.  Paul Kerryman directs the production, concluding August 31 at the South Bank Festival Hall, but hopefully it will relocate.( Phone: 020 7960 4242)                      

Pacific Overtures


       With two new productions opening on the same night, one in London’s West End and the other in Chicago, the greatest living composer of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, has got to be the hottest prospect on the musical horizon.  A super revival of “Pacific Overtures” is at the Donmar Warehouse, scene of some outstanding Sondheim revivals in recent years, and pre-Broadway “Bounce,” earned respectful reviews at its opening at the Goodman in Chicago, where it plays through August 10, after which it is destined for Washington, D.C. and then Broadway in the 2003-04 season.

Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse in London is a co-production with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, scene of the 2001 revival of .this brilliant Sondheim musical, a production that is both terrific theater and food for thought. Directed by Gary Griffin in Kabuki style, it relates the effect on the Japanese of the 1853 arrival at Uraga harbor by U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry, with four warships.. A cast of ten men in black robes present the Japanese viewpoint of the visit, creating all the roles, including those of women.  Typically, Sondheim’s delightfully rhymed lyrics and versatile score (combining Japanese and American motifs) reflect the action, set the mood, reveal character, and carry the story along.

The opening number by the Reciter (Joseph Anthony Foronda) creates a Japan at peace for hundreds of years, as he sings of “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea.” Using the stereotypical view of old Japan as a land of rice and sliding screens, Sondheim’s lyrics give a deeper slant:

 Beyond the screens
That glide aside
Are further screens
That open wide
With scenes of screens like the ones that glide.

The rice is raised by the farmer, blessed by the priest, bought by the merchant, sold to the lord, protected by  his sword which was made by the craftsman, who buys at “twice the former price…The rice.”

Perry’s warships are viewed by the local inhabitants as “Four Black Dragons,” but wisely, quoting from haiku verse, they decide “There is No Other Way” but to accept the letter Perry brings.  Written by the President, it is a “pacific overture” asking for better treatment of American whaling crews storm-driven into Japanese ports.  It also suggests trade between the two nations. In a year the fleet will return for an answer.  Samurai Kayama (Kevin Gudahl) is made a police chief to negotiate with the Americans, taking with him friend and fisherman Manjiro (Richard Henders), who has been to America.  A Rashomon-like, perceptive number, “Someone in a Tree,” weaves together differing reports -- by the Reciter, a young and an old man, and a warrior -- of what they have seen and heard of the arriving Americans.

In keeping with the minimalist staging, with additional touches to a costume designating a change of character, the men with flowers and mincing gait become geisha girls, led by a madam and singing “Welcome to Kanagawa,” promising the newcomers a variety of pleasures. A Noh mask (growing larger in successive scenes) on puppet sticks depicts the emperor, receiving reports of the arriving “barbarians,” while the Shogun lies ill.  “Chrysanthemum Tea” is a delightfully cynical roundel, the Shogun surrounded by his nagging mother, one-note wife, soothsayer, priests, and a doctor – each with his or her own agenda.  It ends with his death from drinking the tea, lovingly administered by his mother:

When the Shogun is weak
Then the tea must be strong.

Given the circumstances of history and the melodic, peaceful song with which the work opens, it is inevitable that the action will grow darker in the second half.  But it begins with the comic “Please, Hello,” in which successive admirals from America, Britain, Holland and France surround the Reciter, promising to introduce to his country their “improvements,” like Dutch tulips and French champagne. No present-day composer comes close to Sondheim in parodying musical styles, and the humor of the lyrics matches the styles of the emissaries’ songs, Sousa for the American, Gilbert and Sullivan for the British (with lyrics as good as Gilbert’s), Tchaikovsky for the Russian and Offenbach for a hilarious song and dance by Jerome Pradon as the Frenchman.

Friends Kayama and Manjiro have grown apart, the former rising in station and adopting Western ways and dress, the latter joining the staunch dissenters, who cling to tradition.  When they meet in Samurai combat, Kayama kills Manjiro.  The last two numbers are contrasts in style, although both comment bitterly on the effects of Westernization on Japan.  The first, “Pretty Lady,” is a melodic waltz, at odds with the action: three sailors, believing an innocent young girl can be bought for money, at first woo her and then attack.  The powerful and ironic finale, “Next,” brings us up to date: the Japanese have learned the “barbarians’” ways and the students will improve on their teachers – not only with cars and watches – but also warfare.  As the haiku says,

The practical bird,
Having no tree of its own,
Borrows another’s.

The ten-man cast is excellent, including seven English actors plus three from the original production: Joseph Anthony Foronda as the Reciter, carrying the narration throughout as he sings and acts in the scenes he introduces; Kevin Gudahl as Kayama, changing from a devout Samurai as he rises through the ranks, to become completely Westernized (beginning with a bowler hat); and Richard Manera, whose thirteen roles include one of the sailor trio and an impressive lion dance. The band of four, led by Mark Warman, make an important contribution as they perform on a variety of instruments, from celeste and synthesizer to glass chimes and gongs.  The original book by John Weidman now contains additions by Hugh Wheeler.  Through September 6.  (Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Lonfon EV2H 9LX, phone 020-7369 1732; online booking: www.donmarwarehouse.com. )

Assassins

“Assassins” opens in a garish fairground, as the proprietor of a shooting stall whose sign flashes  SHOOT! WIN! encourages eight customers to become winners instead of losers. How?  By shooting a President and gaining instant celebrity and a place in history.  “Everybody’s got the right to dream,” he tells them, handing each a gun to aim at silhouette targets, and introducing them to the audience. Appropriately suggesting a limbo for the dispossessed, disappointed, and demented, the fairgrounds’ game of chance is backed by a wooden-beamed  skeleton of light and shadows, resembling the supporting structure of an old-time roller coaster. As the would-be killers agree that “everybody’s got the right,” the proprietor eggs them on to achieve their dreams of love or recognition or fame: “No job? Cupboard bare? /  One room, no one there?/ Hey, pal, don’t despair: / You wanna shoot a President?” 

In an excellent portrayal by Michael Cerveris, Southern actor John Wilkes Booth is the prototype of murderers to follow.  His stirring song of self-aggrandizement justifying the murder of Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in 1865 as the heroic destruction of a tyrant is, however, set askew by counterpoint from a Balladeer (Neil Patrick Harris), who with irony typical of the composer, suggests that bad reviews and waning popularity really motivated Booth’s claim to celebrity.  Trapped in a barn set on fire by his pursuers, Booth spends his last moments penning a letter declaring his altruistic motives. The letter is never published. 

Contrast being the keynote of a Sondheim musical – the irony of the illusion versus the reality – the Balladeer continues to deflate the claims of assassins like Charles Guiteau, a demented evangelist who shoots President Garfield in 1881 because he fails to reward Guiteau with the ambassadorship to France for his writing an unsolicited campaign speech.  In a chilling larger-than-life portrayal by the talented Denis O’Hare, Guiteau jauntily cakewalks up the stairs to the scaffold singing a hymn with lyrics he penned himself for the execution, “I Am Going to the Lordy.”

Samuel Byck (Mario Cantone) needs no Balladeer to remind us of his inconsistencies.  The unemployed tire salesman voiced his complains about corruption in politics on long, rambling tapes which he sent to celebrities. In a standup monologue that is both funny and scary, he is dressed in the Santa Claus costume he actually wore when picketing the White House.  Attempting to assassinate President Nixon in 1974, Byk is seen piloting a commercial jetliner he has hijacked, with the intent of crash diving it into the White House.  He killed two before he killed himself. 

Fate or shortness of stature deflects the assassination attempt on President Roosevelt by immigrant bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara( (Jeffrey Kuhn).  Barely five feet tall, he blamed the burning pains in his stomach on the capitalist system that exploited him as a child worker.  In Miami in 1933, he stood on a chair in the crowd to take aim at the President; it wobbled, and he missed, killing the mayor of Chicago instead.  Here Sondheim introduces realism in the reaction of the Ensemble or chorus – those everyday citizens who had come to cheer the President and now, thrown off balance, are recounting what they witnessed and asking, “Why?”

At the Pan-American exposition in Buffalo in 1901 a few bars of “Hail to the Chief” welcome President McKinley before skewing into a dirge as the President is shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish laborer in a bottle factory.  James Barbour’s beautiful rich voice as Leon recounts the pain and injury he suffers by making glass bottles, and in a brief but touching meeting with Emma Goldman, he confesses that he has been stalking her from town to town to hear and act on her speeches advocating anarchy.  He declares his love for her as she rushes off to a meeting, while he takes off for the Buffalo exposition, with a view of murdering of McKinley as a “duty.”

  In a barber-shop quartet that is a paean of praise to guns as the great equalizer, Mr. Barbour’s Czolgosz joins Booth, Guiteau, and Sarah Jane Moore, the batty housewife who tried to assassinate President Ford.  The lyricism of the music contrasts to the murder weapons they hold and reminds one of Sweeney Todd’s love ballad to his razors.

 “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a haunting love duet beautifully sung by John W. Hinckley, Jr. (Alexander Gemignani) as he addresses a photograph of  Jodie Foster and by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in praise of her lover Charles Manson, to whose “family” she belonged.   Both hoped their attempted assassination of a President would impress the object of their love.  Hinckley tried to shoot President Regan, and “Squeaky” believes her attempt on the life of President Ford will result in a trial that will offer witness Manson (she believes he is the “son of God”) the opportunity to preach to the world.  The tone lightens, momentarily, with Mary Catherine Garrison as “Squeaky” and  Becky Ann Baker as Moore ineptly attempting to kill Gerald Ford.

In “Something Just Broke” (added for the Donmar London production in 1992) the chorus of ordinary people comes into its own.  Tension mounts as Booth and the other assassins enter the Dallas textbook warehouse in 1963 and convince Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris) that he can achieve the power and importance he always sought and never attained – by shooting President Kennedy.   Most moving is this song by the Ensemble, representing the dazed public onlookers to the tragedy.

The finale is an ironic reminder of the ending of  Oklahoma.”  After the reprise of “Everybody’s got the right to dream,” the downstage cast face the auditorium and point their guns at the audience.  With a full orchestra directed by Paul Gemignani, and direction by Joe Mantello, “Assassins” is one Broadway production you won’t forget after you leave the theater.  (Studio 54, 254 W. 54, New York, N.Y., performance schedule and tickets: www.roundabouttheatre.org. )

Sweeney Todd

“Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is one of Stephen Sondheim’s finest theater works, having been on stage constantly, somewhere in the world, since its debut in New York in 1979, with Len Cariou as Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.  The Watermill Theatre (Newbury) production has been touring England and has moved into London’s new 400-seat Trafalgar Studios. Earlier in the year, the Royal Opera House presented the work with Thomas Allen as Sweeney and Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Lovett.   In the Watermill production Paul Hegarty is Sweeney, with Karen Mann as Mrs. Lovett, directed and designed by John Doyle, with arrangements and musical direction by Sarah Travis.

A brilliant score accompanied by lyrics that move the action forward and define the characters earns praise from conductor Paul Gemignani as the composer’s “most symphonic and dramatic score.” Set in Victorian England, the dark opening ballad in streets peopled by the dregs of society, tells of Sweeney, framed and sent to jail by a malicious Judge who ravages his young wife, kidnaps his daughter Johanna, and makes her his ward.  Returning from prison, Sweeney vows revenge.  He resumes his trade as a barber, which gives him the opportunity to wreak bloodthirsty revenge on the wrongdoers of his past.  With Mrs. Lovett, who runs the pie shop below his business quarters, he sets up an innovative partnership.  The melodramatic story is relieved by the dazzling music and witty lyrics accompanying the outrageous action.  Sweeney sings a hymn of love to the razors he has preserved while incarcerated, and in a waltz-time duet, “A Little Priest,” Mrs. Lovett details the ingredients for her meat pies made from the barber’s victims, including “shepherd’s pie peppered/ With actual shepherd.”  (Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, SW1A 2DY, phone: 0870 060 6632)

 

 

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