Fringe venues rewrite tuners

Critic's Notebook

While an unprecedented number of blockbuster tuners is crowding the West End, it’s not just the London commercial sector that appears to have a song in its heart. With “Caroline, or Change” at the National, “Jenufa” at English National Opera, “Tobias and the Angel” at the Young Vic and “Follies” at the Landor, musical ambition also is being writ large across the subsidized and fringe sectors.

As John Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd” proved, when it comes to Sondheim revivals, small really can be beautiful. That production, however, looks like a Madison Square Garden spectacular compared with Robert McWhir’s miniature staging of “Follies.” OK, he marshaled a cast of 21, but it was in a room above a South London pub seating a cramped 53, and the show boasted a band of, er, one (on a grand piano).

The advantage of this seemingly foolhardy but surprisingly enjoyable enterprise was witnessing the tribulations of the show’s two central couples up close and personal. The hopes, fears and tears induced by the collision of Sally, Ben, Buddy and Phyllis during the old showgirls’ reunion at the soon-to-be-demolished Weissman Theater worked with unusual directness. When they were, on occasion, actually sitting among the front row of the audience, it was as if we really were there at the party eavesdropping.

McWhir cunningly used sets of drapes to change his tiny, intractable space for different moods and moments. His entire cast of Follies ghosts (two girls) pulled white curtains across the room to create a screen for movie projections of the past during “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.”

Having a number as lavish as “Who’s That Woman” done almost as Tap-in-Your-Lap gave the show an undeniable frisson. Which is why this is one SRO hit that really shouldn’t transfer. For all its pleasures — especially Bryan Kennedy’s strong Buddy and an exquisite “One More Kiss” from Roni Page and an unseen Georgie Fellows — this was a site-specific delight. In the larger space necessary to fund a full production, its unique charm likely would evaporate.

No such qualms about a future life for “Tobias and the Angel.” This rhapsodic retelling of a mystical story from the Apocrypha about the triumph of hope is musical theater of extraordinary range and emotional impact.

Jonathan Dove’s score (words by David Lan) is a deliciously idiosyncratic mix of styles. His rhythmic drive is reminiscent of John Adams’ orchestral writing, and it underpins echoes of the counter-tenor shimmer of Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” All that plus zesty klezmer-band songs playing against spine-tingling choral writing in nine-part harmony, performed here by a cast of 126.

Conductor David Charles Abell and director John Fulljames coax ravishing sounds and visions from nine musicians, eight opera singers, and 109 local residents of all ages, singing and performing as everything from rival townspeople to sparrows and angels on — and sometimes above — a traverse stage bisecting a rapt, sellout audience.

Premiered in 1999, it is billed as a community opera (something of a speciality for Dove), a term that might suggest it’s a slightly earnest endeavor. Its enviable theatrical and musical imagination banishes any such notion. Its 10-performance revival as an opening show for the restored Young Vic theater (a triumph for architect Steve Tompkins, previously famous for his rebuild of the Royal Court) was a masterstroke.

By contrast, the first two productions of English National Opera’s 2006-07 season were seriously weak. The misconceived “Gadaafi” was a bold commission of operatic/theatrical novices insufficiently guided, to put it mildly, by the artistic management. Conall Morrison’s new “La Traviata” had tons of set and almost zero atmosphere and wasted the potential of Emma Bell’s debuting Violetta.

Morrison could learn how to make singers command the stage by watching David Alden’s riveting production of Janacek’s “Jenufa” at the same address. Alden’s precision with singers meant every second of stage time was filled. The work itself is never undramatic, but this was a masterclass in committed performance, from the superbly engaged chorus to Catherine Malfitano’s unusually sympathetic Kostelnicka to a sparkling Amanda Roocroft in the title role.

The latter’s searing passion is rivaled by Tonya Pinkins, reprising her Broadway perf in “Caroline, or Change.” In fact, it’s largely a case of “Caroline, No Change,” as the National has chosen merely to import George Wolfe’s production, which originated at New York’s Public Theater.

Aside from Pinkins, the U.K. cast tips the balance slightly differently. Hilton McCrae is an amusingly headstrong Mr. Stopnick; Pippa Bennett-Warner’s Emmie has a bright appeal but not the electrifying zeal of Broadway’s Anika Noni Rose; London’s Anna Francolini is funnier but less pained than Veanne Cox.

With no discernable changes to the material, the piece still exhibits the same strengths and weaknesses. What’s different here is context: Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s ambition alone trounces every other British musical about the black experience.

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