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BILLY SUTER IN LONDON (#2) (article first published : 2004-07-23)

Mercury Arts Editor Billy Suter continues his report his recent trip to London:

Musical No 3 on my list of favourites is the ever-sexy, super-slick and ultra-sophisticated Chicago at The Adelphi Theatre, which is infinitely more lean and sexy, with heaps more Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, than the Oscar-winning movie. This revisiting of Kander and Ebb's 1975 hit, about two merry murderesses battling for headlines and fame while in the Cook County Jail, is a show I could see again and again and again. It unwinds on a stage bare but for lighting rigs and a 14-member band - positioned centre-stage and contained in a gigantic gold frame. The cast of toned, attractive singer-dancer-actors, dressed throughout in sexy black mesh, net and tight clothing, perform to the sides and in front of this frame.

I had the good fortune of catching Marti Pellow, former lead singer with Wet, Wet, Wet, in role of egotistical, conniving laywer Billy Flynn - a role made famous on screen by Richard Gere. He was great vocally but - surprisingly, considering the calibre of the cast and the fact that he moved this week to New York to fill the same role in the Broadway production - a little wooden as an actor. Chicago is performeed at Monday to Thursday at 20h00, Fridays at 17h00 and 20h30 and on Saturdays at 15h00 and 20h00.

Musical No 4? Yet another screen-to-stage conversion: this time the ebullient Thoroughly Modern Millie, the 1967 film version of which starred Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing. Now on a UK tour, following its season at The Shaftesbury Theatre - which, incidentally, was home to the South African musical, Umoja, in 2002 - Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in New York in the Roaring Twenties. It stars a bubbly Amanda Holden (currently in Cutting It on DStv's BBC Prime) as the title character, a thoroughly modern young flapper who plans to marry her boss and has adventures which unmask a white slave racket centring on a Chinese laundry. Also featured in the 30-strong cast - and a stand-out - is South Africa's own Craig Urbani, last seen here in the title role in Buddy, who plays Millie's uptight boss. His more recent UK roles include Danny Zuko in Grease, Nick Piazza in Fame and The Fonz in Happy Days.

The show, the website address for which is www.modernmillie.co.uk, opened in the West End last October after the Broadway production won Tony Awards that year for best musical, choreography and costumes. It is directed by Michael Mayer, who is now in rehearsals of Arthur Millerís After The Fall, starring Peter Krause and due to open in New York soon. Thoroughly Modern Millie's delightful choreography is by Rob Ashford, who is is currently choreographing A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at London's National Theatre which was set to open on July 9.

Others of note in the cast are former Three Degrees vocalist Sheila Ferguson as big-voiced socialite Muzzy and a comical Anita Dobson (recently cast as swaggering prison warden Mama Morton in Chicago) as conniving kidnapper Mrs Meers.

Dobson, by the way, is the wife of Queen rocker Brian May - which brings us to We Will Rock You, a musical featuring 32 Queen hits, which May attended the night I saw it at London's largest theatre, the Dominion, where it opened on May 14 2002. I thought it surprising that all of J row in the stalls was empty that night, but half the row suddenly filled when the lights dipped before curtain-up - and May's distinctive mop and profile caught my eye. The great guitarist took notes throughout the first half and quickly scuttled out with his party seconds before the lights came up for interval. On his return after interval he was recognised - along with Queen drummer John Deacon and We Will Rock You writer Ben Elton - and loud applause followed them back to their seats, which were six seats away from me, smiling broadly in the aisle seat in K row.

And what of the show, which was six years in development and cost about R90million? I have to say straight off that the plot reeks of cheese, unashamedly acting as a loose hanger for the Queen classics. The story centres on a future Earth where a rebel American called Galileo Figaro (a Matt Dillon-like Tony Vincent) and a comical, cocky Cockney called Scaramouche (Hannah Jane Fox), set out to break a long-held ban on rock music in a world controlled by a glitzy killer queen of computers.

But if the story is naff, the production boasts a wonderful cast and is beautifully staged amid amazing lighting rigs and towering silver scaffolding that supports band members. Terrific use is made of computer imagery on eight, large squares that shift, rise and fall around the stage. Production designers Mark Fisher and Willie Williams have created set designs for Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson. They were also responsible for the acclaimed multi-media shows for U2. Pushing the boundaries of his innovative designs even further, Williams' lighting concepts for We Will Rock You involve more than R12million worth of LED screens, especially shipped from Hong Kong to feature in the production's unique set.

Best moments among the songs performed include renderings of Under Pressure, These Are the Days Of Our Lives, Radio Ga Ga, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and a finale, set outside a wrecked Wembley Stadium, that has each principal cast member sharing vocals on Bohemian Rhapsody. Now going global, productions of We Will Rock You will open in Australia in August (directed by Ben Elton), Spain in November, and next year further across Europe and into North America.

Other shows new to the West End include Dirty Blonde at The Duke of York's Theatre, which focuses on Mae West and has had mixed reviewes. Forthcoming attractions include Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, The Lady In White, based on Wilkie Collins' novel and starring Michael Crawford as Italian Count Fosco. Directed by Trevor Nunn, this eagerly awaited show previews from August 28 at the Palace Theatre.

Also of note - Richard Dreyfuss and Lee Evans in Mel Brooks's celebrated The Producers, a musical opening on November 9 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Booking is also now open for Mary Poppins which opens at the Prince Edward Theatre in December. Note, too, that a stage musical version of Billy Elliot, featuring songs by Elton John, is in line to open in London early in the new year.

This report continues in Part Three. (see Drama pages)




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