A Week in the West End

Your resident Los Angeles Theatre Critic just got back from a week in London and couldn’t wait to report in on a week’s worth of shows.

Let’s start with the musicals.

"Spitfire" from Early Adventures

To begin with:  I blame Swan Lake.  Having seen Matthew Bourne’s revolutionary production, I will not pass up a chance to see anything else of his.  While I’ve certainly adored some pieces (say, Edward Scissorhands) more than others (the not-quite-ready Dorian Gray), there’s always going to be something enjoyable in anything he choreographs.  So, when I heard that in celebration of the 25th anniversary of his company, New Adventures, there would be a touring production of three of his early works (under the title Early Adventures), I made certain that my trip to London happened to take place during the week in which it was playing there.  After all, how often do you get the chance to revisit the beginnings of artistic brilliance?  To see the seeds which ultimately matured into a really tremendous talent?

The downside, of course, is that Early Adventures really is just seeds.  If you’re coming in expecting something on the level of Swan Lake (or Cinderella, or Car Man, or Play Without Words, or …), you’re going to be disappointed.  None of the three works here are up to that level.  More than that, the execution is a bit off.  You get the feeling for this tour, Bourne perhaps didn’t have the time to rehearse his 9-member company quite as much as necessary for a perfectly polished production.  It isn’t poorly danced or anything like that, but the synchronization isn’t always where it should be.  I originally thought that this would be acceptable for Early Adventures — after all, we’re seeing some rough, early work, so there’s no problem having the execution be a little less than smooth.  But it isn’t acceptable at all; when everything actually does come together for a minute in the third piece, The Infernal Galop, the sheer power of perfect execution of the clever choreography leaves you speechless … and wondering if the whole thing wouldn’t have been as effective had it been so tightly danced.

The choreography is clever.  In these earlier works — which are each sets of several individual dances, not full stories themselves — Bourne’s wit is the quality most on display.  The dances are full of arch commentary … on vanity, class structure, and French stereotypes, among other things.   It often lacks the passion and outright sexuality of some of Bourne’s more famous ballets (surprising indeed, that Spitfire, a piece danced by four men in their underwear, is actually kind of sexless), but it has charm to spare, and just enough sparks to remind you of what Bourne’s choreography would eventually become.  Early Adventures isn’t spectacular by any measure but, as a taste of what was to come, it’s tantalizingly delicious.

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Speaking of delicious, I also caught Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi.  I suppose there’s a time in every theatregoer’s life when she realizes she’s getting on in years — for me, that’s seeing Michael Ball as Sweeney.  Michael Ball!

Michael Ball as Sweeney

As far I’m concerned, Michael Ball is juvenile lead material.  He’s Marius in Les Miserables; Raoul in Phantom; I saw him as Alex in Aspects of Love.  As far as my memory is concerned, Ball should be playing Anthony; when on earth did he become Sweeney material?

Apparently, sometime in the last 25 years.  Ball is absolutely unrecognizable as Sweeney — and that’s a good thing.  Gone is the slight-figured blond with the light tenor voice; in his place is a larger, dark-haired man, with presence and gravitas, who sounds rather comfortable as a baritone.  I honestly ponied up the money for a program at intermission to make certain I hadn’t been watching an understudy.  Ball also brings something new to his interpretation of the murderous barber.  When Sweeney sings of his past, “There was a barber and his wife; she was his reason and his life,” I’ve always heard “reason” as “reason to live.”  With Ball’s Sweeney, I heard “reason” as “soundness of mind.”  Without his Lucy to ground him, this Sweeney is simply at sea.  It’s no wonder he takes so quickly to Mrs. Lovett’s bright idea for sourcing new pie fillings; he no longer has his moral compass.

Ball is here partnered with Imelda Staunton as the dotty and amoral baker.  (The Americans sitting behind me had no idea who Ball was, but recognized Staunton from the Harry Potter movies.)  Staunton’s Mrs. Lovett is a damn near perfect combination of scattered chef and shrewd manipulator.  Realizing that fate has thrown the barber back into her life, and aware that he is in serious need of guidance, this Mrs. L. very gently takes over as the brains of the operation, giving Sweeney what he wants and getting what she wants in return.  And if things don’t quite turn out the way she’d hoped, it’s because she just overplayed her hand.

The production is vocally well-sung, and the set (which moves the proceedings up some 80 years, without being particularly intrusive about it) effective.  With the last Sweeney in recent memory being John Doyle’s slimmed-down version (in which the actors played their own instruments), it’s great fun to have a huge ensemble and a full orchestra vigorously attacking this score again.

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And then:  I blame Swan Lake again.  Having seen Adam Cooper dance the hell out of the “Swan/Stranger” role in Matthew Bourne’s production, Cooper is on the short list of performers I’ll pretty much pay to see in anything. He’s a crazy charismatic dancer; and if you dress him in leather and put him in a seductive role, you might as well just be prepared to hose down the audience.  (Don’t believe me?  Check out this clip from his website, where he’s dancing Valmont in a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.  Whatever that indefinable “it” is, dude’s got a pile of it.)  So, when I hear that Cooper is playing the lead in a big ol’ West End musical, I am so there.

But it’s Singin’ in the Rain.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Singin’ in the Rain.  Well, I love the film; I’ve never actually seen it pulled off successfully on stage.  More than that, it’s synonymous with Gene Kelly — Singin’ in the Rain is all about style and charm, whereas I think Cooper’s strengths are more in the area of dark, brooding sex appeal.  (Not to mention that the character sings.  I’ve never heard Cooper open his mouth before.  As far as I’m concerned, seeing Adam Cooper attempt a singing role is about as dangerous as Lockhart and Lamont trying a talking picture in Singin’ in the Rain — we’re entering uncharted territory here.)  So, what did I think of this grand experiment?

At intermission, I nearly bought a program again, to make sure it was actually Adam Cooper I was watching.  This actor was smiling, open … downright boyish.  He had a light singing voice which I’d call better than serviceable — I’m not saying I’d buy a solo album from the guy, but he certainly got the job done, and didn’t seem to be straining for (or cheating around) any of the notes.  There’s none of Cooper’s trademark dark sensuality here, but there shouldn’t be; it’s Singin’ in the Rain, fer cryin’ out loud.

Adam Cooper in Singin' in the Rain

“What about the dancing?” you ask.  Indeed, yes, I didn’t pay to hear Adam Cooper sing, as decent as that turned out to be.  (I didn’t pay to hear him attempt an American accent either, which was somewhat less successful.  Honestly, when a show has a plot point turning on the proper American pronunciation of various vowel sounds, you know you’re in trouble when the character of the dialect coach doesn’t have them right.)  I paid to watch Adam Cooper dance.  And the one thing I hadn’t really focused on when I bought the ticket is that the character of Don Lockwood really has only one solo dance in the whole damn show.

The upside is that the one solo dance is downright magical.  Let me be perfectly clear about this:  Watching Adam Cooper dance “Singin’ in the Rain” is, in fact, worth the price of admission.  Genuinely playful, exploding with joy, Cooper and his umbrella cannot be contained by the fairly massive stage at the Palace Theatre.  (In point of fact, they are not.  The box office tells you that if you’re seated in Row A, you will get wet, and if you’re in rows B through E, you may get wet.  It looked to me like Cooper was actually going for the record here, gleefully splashing the audience to pull us into the fun.)

This production as a whole is also the most successful attempt I’ve ever seen to put this movie musical on stage.  I suspect this is because director Jonathan Church and choreographer Andrew Wright were not afraid to step away from slavishly following the classic film step by step.  By moving away from what we expected to see, they kept the material fresh; but they never omitted anything that was so iconic, we couldn’t do without it.  Thus, for example, “Good Morning” has been moved from the living room to an outdoor park; but the actors still walk a park bench over.  “Moses Supposes” is transformed from a duet for Don and Cosmo into a trio in which the dialect coach joins in the festivities.  It’s still the great tap number we want, but it’s also completely new and engaging.  There’s nothing actually surprising in this Singin’ in the Rain, but there’s enough of the unexpected to keep your attention.  Not to mention the production features several big, glorious, ensemble dance numbers.

And while Adam Cooper seems to have traded in his dangerous sex appeal for a good-natured playfulness, when he reaches out his hand to his lady, his entire frame becomes part of the invitation to dance, and it’s clear that he’s still got “it.”

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