I was really happy to go to the theatre this evening, to see a musical about to be premiered. Some friends and colleagues had seen it already and their review was very positive, so I was ready to get impressed… and that was my mistake, I guess, because I am not an easy one to please. I imagine that all the people around me must have been a very hard audience as well: the yawning, seat shifting, time checking, puffing in despair and shameful laughing happened far too often this evening to think otherwise.
The first weakness of the play is that it is a theatre adaptation of a famous novel, and that is always dangerous. When it is also an adaptation of a great film, it’s a Russian roulette. Personally I gaped when I left the show and saw Sir Tim Rice‘s name featuring… Either the director has done a very poor work or the adaptation doesn’t reach the quality he has used us to -and the “swearing, nudity” and so on that the publicity warned about felt totally natural, that wasn’t the problem. Many scenes were unnecessary, only adding fast, dirty scenography changes to the story. The production in general is good enough though, with a very wise use of furniture and props to place us in all needed scenarios. The one exception to this is the fuming finale of the first act. Just unbearably cheesy -someone near me said “was this really necessary?”.
Of course it had to be cheesy with such a title -after all it’s a 1951 novel, but it was just too over the top. And if at least it had moved us, if the acting had made us feel the passions of the characters, if we had got inside the story, the ‘cheesiness’ wouldn’t have minded. But the acting was generally very dull, without any emotion, just not believable. And of course, comparisons are odious, but when you adapt a film with two Oscar winners (Frank Sinatra & Donna Reed) and three Oscar nominees (Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift), it is very unlikely that you ever reach a dramatic level similar to the one in Zimmermann’s movie.
No worries! This is a musical theatre adaptation. Everybody knows that to get a great cast of actors who can also sing and move is very difficult. Ahem. Well, if I tell you that only the blues by the two main male roles is worth a mention from the whole score, you’ll understand that the show starts to be in big trouble. I don’t even remember the name of the composer, I won’t make any effort to learn it. He intentionally seeks a very American flavor, he hits rock and twist and Hawaiian tunes and typical 30s-musical songs with simple harmonies… and it just doesn’t work. The music doesn’t add any emotion to the lyrics, so what is it for? It should be the most important part of the production!! I wouldn’t blame the performers either, for not being able to do a good work with the score… the orchestra sounded well, the choruses were good, the soloist singers were ok… the music itself was to blame: it didn’t say anything.
From the cast I would like to outline especially Ryan Sampson‘s work as Angelo. He made us laugh, he made us suffer, we believed he was for real; and he did fine with his voice -though please, please, Mr conductor, don’t make him end in falsetto his second act song, it’s ridiculous and breaks the intensity of the moment. Although he still has work in the high register, I would say that the best voice in the cast was Darius‘, also because his voice was probably the only one that fitted perfectly for the role he was singing -who would have said he’d be singing like that after his first TV appearance! Robert Lonsdale, in the leading role, has a very beautiful voice color (brilliant every time he does duets or backing vocals), but he needs to improve his technique to get much more powerful high notes and falsetto. None of the leading girls stood out for her singing either, and that’s a real shame because London is full of great pretty singers.
There was though one aspect that really caught our eyes, especially at the beginning: the choreography. Very wisely used the props and furniture to organically turn the soldiers’ movements into dancing, a very manly and martial dancing to which the tight uniforms gave lift. The male chorus was great, very good work as dancers, singers and actors. Especial mention to Joshua Lacey, who depicts a complex character as private Bloom. The fight movements looked great when they were part of the dance, but when they got into real action, the fight was just too fake. The female chorus was good as well, although her choreographies didn’t look as bright when they were on their own. The best female moment was probably the trio from the first act.
I must confess that when I arrived to the theatre I didn’t know the existence of this novel or this movie -yes, I am a big cinema illiterate. I guess that the best I take of tonight’s show is the discovery of that novel and that film that I must see now. The rest of the musical, heaven help me forget it!
(All images linked, from the musical’s official webpage)