Always

Alot of unkind things --- most of them accurate --- are going to be written about "Always," so let's begin by accentuating the positive and talk about Hildegard Bechtler's sets. What is Deborah Warner's long-standing designer doing in the realm of the big-budget commercial musical, which, one assumes, both she and her subsidized-theater director and colleague would eschew? The answer: lending elegance, taste and wit to a musical sorely in need of all three via a series of clean, geometric sets --- an abstract expressionist backdrop here, some curved statuary there --- that bring a spare sophistication to musical-theater design that is rarely seen on either side of the Atlantic. While the temptation was surely to go with overstuffed opulence in keeping with the upper-class milieu the show describes, Bechtler and collaborators Tom Rand (costumes) and Peter Mumford (lighting) keep the look light yet impressive, airy while always imposing. And then there's the show itself. It wasn't long ago that Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson were once again making newspaper headlines, this time for their alleged Nazi sympathies. But far from traveling such a risky (and potentially dramatic) route, William May and Jason Sprague's West End debut tells a cliche-packed tale of a forbidden love done in by the Establishment in a show featuring two --- count 'em, two --- title songs, "Always" and "If Always Were a Place." If only Wallis had died an untimely death, the show could be a musical "Shadowlands" (as it is, it often plays like a thinly veiled account of the present-day Prince of Wales), since its outlines are as familiar as the British stiff upper lip: the well-bred Englishman done in by wellsprings of emotion that require an American in order to gush forth.

With:
Jan Hartley (Wallis Simpson), Clive Carter (Edward VIII), Shani Wallis (Aunt Bessie), Sheila Ferguson (Analise); Chris Humphreys, David McAlister, James Horne, Ursula Smith, Philip Aiden, Helen Anker, David Arneil, Brodie Bass, Simon Coulthard, Edwina Cox, Stuart Cross, Naomi Crouch, Nicholas Denney, Lisa Devereaux, Brian Ellis, Tim English, Elaine Gibbs, Tim Godwin, Mari Gordon-Price, Peter Johnston, Mark Joslin, Mary Lincoln, Francesca Newitt, Audrey Palmer, Jane Parsons, Buster Skeggs, Rachel Stanley, Taffy Taylor, Emma Tunmore, Kevin Wainwright, Robert Wilson.

Well, I don’t think Americans will be alone in their dismay at the banality of an evening that doesn’t possess the epic surrender to kitsch — in that sense, it is saved by its design — to become an instant West End camp classic along the lines of “Which Witch,” “Bernadette” and “The Fields of Ambrosia.” Instead, “Always” comes across as an often daft potpourri of would-be appeals to the audience (the token appearance of a dog named Slipper included), most of which only make it that much more difficult to suppress the giggles.

With Mumford’s vibrant lighting recalling Ken Billington’s work on “Chicago,” this musical has its own faux Kander and Ebb number, “Love’s Carousel,” for a chorus of prancing horses and onetime Three Degrees star Sheila Ferguson. With a nod to “Hernando’s Hideaway,” the song is soon piling on the Fred Ebb-like expressions of zest — “life’s what you feel,” blasts Ferguson with a vibrato Liza Minnelli might admire — in as imposed and forced a show-stopper as any musical has showcased in years.

Playing Wallis’ ever-stoic Aunt Bessie(!), Shani Wallis (remembered by filmgoers as Nancy in “Oliver!”) gets her own solo equivalent song in the second act, advising us that “the reason for life is to love.” Elsewhere, she croons pearls of wisdom “for you and I,” suggesting that grammar comes rather less readily to the character than deportment. Still, these good-natured supporting turns are a relief set against the sexless and charmless leads, who play no small part in torpedoing “the ultimate love story,” as the show bills itself.

In a role requiring a black-wigged Rebecca Luker, Jan Hartley hasn’t got the voice, the accent or the magnetism (on this evidence) of the scheming manipulator Wallis, for whom memories of her humble youth are never far off. Clive Carter’s Edward must suffer comparison not once but twice with Fred Astaire, an unfair task for a performer who couldn’t be less light on his feet. Elsewhere, he’s saddled with the bulk of the three book writers’ psychobabble — “the fake king living a fake life … this is my reality” — though he deserves credit for keeping a straight face during a ludicrous second-act opener in which some grimy-faced Welsh miners break into a hopeful chorale on behalf of the monarchy. (Those were the days.)

Anyone wondering whatever happened to Thommie Walsh since his “Chorus Line” years and beyond, most famously as Tommy Tune’s choreographic sidekick, will be astonished to find this Broadway veteran responsible for such dance numbers as “It’s the Party of the Year,” featuring champagne bottles and glasses glued to trays and smiles glued on the dancers’ faces: no mean feat (feet?) presumably, given the perilously open orchestra pit near the front of the stage from which the Buckingham Palace functionaries emerge prior to the finale. As co-director with Frank Hauser, Walsh more often than not seems rightly content to let the design take center stage. The picture frames (a gold one further evokes the sleek, pared-down “Chicago” aesthetic) in “Always” are always impressive; it’s what is in between that almost never is.

Always

LONDON

Production: An Always Company U.K. presentation, in association with Cher Intl., of a new musical, with music, lyrics and book by William May and Jason Sprague, additional book by Frank Hauser. Directed by Hauser and Thommie Walsh. Choreography, Walsh; sets, Hildegard Bechtler; costumes, Tom Rand;

Crew: lighting, Peter Mumford; musical arrangements, John Cameron; musical direction, Chris Walker; sound, Terry Jardine. lighting, Peter Mumford; musical arrangements, John Cameron; musical direction, Chris Walker; sound, Terry Jardine.

Cast: Jan Hartley (Wallis Simpson), Clive Carter (Edward VIII), Shani Wallis (Aunt Bessie), Sheila Ferguson (Analise); Chris Humphreys, David McAlister, James Horne, Ursula Smith, Philip Aiden, Helen Anker, David Arneil, Brodie Bass, Simon Coulthard, Edwina Cox, Stuart Cross, Naomi Crouch, Nicholas Denney, Lisa Devereaux, Brian Ellis, Tim English, Elaine Gibbs, Tim Godwin, Mari Gordon-Price, Peter Johnston, Mark Joslin, Mary Lincoln, Francesca Newitt, Audrey Palmer, Jane Parsons, Buster Skeggs, Rachel Stanley, Taffy Taylor, Emma Tunmore, Kevin Wainwright, Robert Wilson.Musical numbers: "Long May You Reign," "Someone Special," "I Stand Before My Destiny," "Why?," "Love's Carousel," "If Always Were a Place," "This Time Around," "It's the Party of the Year," "Hearts Have Their Reasons," Entr'acte, "The Reason for Life Is to Love," "Montage," "Invitation Is for Two," "Always."

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