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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

MAURICE KORT REVIEWS #1 (article first published : 2007-02-12)

During October and November last year I spent a fortnight in London followed by eight days in New York during which time I managed to see 23 and 13 shows, respectively. These might not have been the best or most popular as these might often have been seen on previous trips to the West End and Broadway and shows run for many years, even decades, for example The Mousetrap which is still going strong, having opened in London on November 15, 1952.

There is a big interchange of big shows between New York and London, originating in both cities, and even in Australia (Dirty Dancing) and on the odd occasion from South Africa (for example Meropa, Kat and the Kings and Ipi Tombi), which have proved to be great hits. There are currently a large number of new stage musicals which have been adapted from films, for example Dirty Dancing, Billy Elliot, Mary Poppins, Footloose in London, and The Color Purple, The Wedding Singer and Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas in New York not forgetting Monty Python’s Spamalot inspired by the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (in New York and now in London as well) and Tarzan, based on the Tarzan stories by Edgar Rice Burrows and the films. Here are the shows I saw in London.

Dirty Dancing has made a remarkable transition to the stage. The footbridge where Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman and Johnny Castle meet rises magically from the stage. Much film back projection is used, for example for the classic scene where he lifts her into the air in the water while he is teaching her to dance. The pop songs are all there, the audience often singing along with the cast, especially Kellerman’s Anthem, attesting to the popularity of the movie. The role of Johnny Castle, taken by Patrick Swayze in the film, is portrayed by Josef Brown, who originated the role of Johnny Castle in Australia. He has the looks and can dance, but his acting and singing weren’t of the best.

Billy Elliot has also proved to be a great hit, deservedly so. Three alternates each act as the young boys, Billy and Michael, who are superb, as well as three for the young girl Debbie, because of the laws governing the use of child actors in England. The music by Elton John grows on one as one becomes more familiar with it.

Mary Poppins is an enchanting show with amazing special effects and scene changes to reveal the different levels of the Bank’s home, the rooftops (Chim Chim Cheree), the park, with statues coming to life, the bank etc. The Chimney Sweep Bert even dances along the walls and ceiling of the proscenium arch, a full 360 degrees. It is not a strict transfer of the film to the stage but the story has been cleverly adapted by Julian Fellowes from the film and the books. There are many of the original songs from the film with several new ones added. The acting and singing were great, as is to be expected from a West End cast but I found it disconcerting to see someone who did not look like Julie Andrews and I missed the stand-out Glynis Johns as Mrs Banks, although Gavin Creel bore a nice resemblance to Dick van Dyke as the Chimney Sweep Bert.

Footloose is not a lavish production, set-wise, but the exuberance and dance routines of the cast made up for it. The story line involves Ren and his mother Ethel McCormack having to relocate from Chicago to the small town of Bomont to live with her relatives, the Reverend Shaw Moore and his wife Vi and daughter Ariel. Ren and Ariel of course fall in love and wish to have a school dance but dancing in Bomont is banned because of a car accident in which the Reverend’s son and a couple of his friends had been killed after a dance. There is much conflict and eventual self-realisation. It was good for my national pride to see Fem Belling who had made her mark in South Africa amongst the cast.

Monty Python’s Spamalot is based on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It was a real treat to see Tim Curry in the role of King Arthur, fresh from his run in New York, although he might not still be in the show in London. The show is, as to be expected, a very humorous romp with flawless acting and directing, with great spoofs of the musical genre, particularly exemplified by The Song That Goes Like This which digs at those tedious songs in so many musicals. A taste of things to come was exemplified by the various posters outside the theatre, viz. “Girls! Knights!! Girls! Killer Rabbits! Girls! French People! With Burnings! Cut – too expensive”, and my best, “Funnier than the Black Death”.

George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, conceived as an opera, was completed in 1935 and initially ran for four hours. After considerable later rewriting and trimming it has often been performed since then, including by Trevor Nunn. He has now turned it into a musical with dialogue, substantially shortened and amended, lifting the show to new dramatic heights. Clarke Peters as the crippled Porgy is superb, ably supported by Nicola Hughes as Bess, Cornell S John as Crown and O-T Fagbenle as Sporting Life and a very, very strong supporting cast. Trevor Nunn cannot put a foot wrong in his directing. Of course one instantly recognises the timeless classics Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So, I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ and I Loves You Porgy which I have never heard sung better.

Although I have seen Guys and Dolls many, many times, I had to see it again now as it starred Patrick Swayze as Nathan Detroit. (He’s shorter than I expected). This is one of those all time great musicals with wonderful songs so it cannot fail. It is certainly a most enjoyable production.

I had seen Avenue Q in New York in 2004 and couldn’t resist seeing this most innovative and original musical again. The production is as good. The action takes place in front of an apartment block on Avenue Q, in a not too salubrious New York City neighbourhood, the various doors and windows opening to reveal the cast although most of the action takes place in front of the block. The cast are glove puppets, from the waist up and they are handled by a cast of six plus Giles Terera as Gary Coleman, yes indeed, the diminutive American Negro child actor, now an adult, and the butt of many very clever running jokes. The puppet handlers are completely visible, and there is much singing and dancing by the puppets and the live cast, and even a hilarious simulated sex scene by two of the puppets. Much clever use is made of superb video projection and the songs are brilliant; very catchy, contemporary and biting. Each of the puppets has his or her own character, beautifully delineated and a very clever story line is weaved into the action. Life’s hard lessons are learnt by the people, puppets and monsters as they attempt to scrape by and survive adulthood and the trials and tribulations of life. It is great fun and thoroughly entertaining.

I saw Canterbury Tales in London in September 1969 and again in Johannesburg in November 1970 and in Durban in August 1985. On those occasions the Tales of the Miller, the Steward, the Merchant and the Wife of Bath, with the additional Tale of the Priest in the South African productions were presented. These 2006 productions of Canterbury Tales Part 1 and Part 2, a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Commission, are a new adaptation of the Geoffrey Chaucer tales by Mike Poulton, performed in Repertory in which the pilgrims mentioned above tell their stories on the way to Canterbury. One could see either or both of the parts with equal enjoyment and one could not fail to enjoy the brilliant acting, singing and stories.

Chicago opened at the Adelphi Theatre in November 1997 and is still going strong, now at the Cambridge Theatre. It is still as fresh as ever and now stars Amra-Faye Wright as Velma Kelly, reprising her highly successful performances in Johannesburg and Cape Town in 2005. One cannot help but enjoy the show with its excellent dancing and wonderful songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb.

Daddy Cool is a musical based on the music of Boney M so it has a ready-made market. Needless to say, the story is weak and rather contrived, borrowing heavily from the hackneyed Romeo and Juliet theme, exemplified by two rival music groups. A suitable atmosphere is created by frequent set changes and effective lighting and colourful costumes although the choreography is nothing outstanding. Another musical, Dancing in the Street also caters to the mass young pop audience, being a tribute to Motown’s greatest hits, originally made famous by The Four Tops, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas and The Marvelettes. Cover versions of many of their songs are presented by a very talented cast, some being more successful than others and some indeed are outstanding. Mercifully no attempt is made to invent a storyline as a vehicle for the show, the focus being entirely on the artists and their songs.

The last musical seen in London was Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre, an import from Broadway. This intimate story addressing questions about race, human rights and relationships, love, loss and social transformation, is set in the turbulent times of Louisiana in the United States during 1963, in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Tonya Pinkins reprised her role of Caroline Thibodeaux, a Black maid to a southern Jewish family, in the Broadway production. Also central to the story is the young son Noah Gellman, the change of the title arising from the small change left in Noah’s trousers which Caroline removes before putting the clothes in the washing machine. Caroline struggles to keep afloat emotionally and economically and the young boy tries to make sense of the world after the death of his mother.

Half price tickets (with an additional small handling charge) can be obtained at tkts booths in Leicester Square, London, and Times Square, New York (now temporarily housed outside the Marquis Hotel on 46th Street while the original booth is being rebuilt). One can only obtain tickets for the matinee and evening performances for that day. Credit cards and cash only, are accepted in London, whereas only Travellers’ cheques and cash are valid in New York. I made good use of these two facilities but tickets for the real blockbusters are often not available at these venues. In addition, I would book in advance for the more popular shows, always by going to the theatres. There is seldom any problem obtaining single seats. Copies of The Official London Theatre Guide can be obtained at the box offices of all the theatres. These are replaced with updates every fortnight. The equivalent Official Broadway Theatre Guide, also updated fortnightly, can be obtained at a Tourist Information Centre in Times Square. It takes some arranging, planning and foresight to see so many shows in so short a time. – Maurice Kort. (These reviews continue on Maurice Kort#2 and #3)




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