Yank classics get hit Brit makeover

West End revivals take on revered texts

LONDON — The Broadway community loves to be outraged by British directors tampering with American classics. David Leveaux (“The Glass Menagerie,” “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Edward Hall (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) are just two recent examples of Anglo auteurs facing firing squads of legit cognoscenti.

So when Brits take on revered texts from across the Atlantic and get them as resoundingly right as they do in the current West End revivals of “The Crucible” and “Sunday in the Park With George,” bringing fresh vitality to well-worn works, acknowledgement is demanded. Dominic Cooke is an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and his work on “The Crucible” augurs well for his appointment as artistic director of the Royal Court, starting in January. Cooke approaches Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama about the Salem witch trials not with the starchy reverence so often reserved for period classics but with an immediacy and scorching intensity that suggest a play hatched out of the current political climate.

The Massachusetts setting is unchanged, and Miller’s target, of course, remains the anti-communist hysteria of the 1952 McCarthy hearings. But the parallels with Bush’s America and beyond emerge incisively in Cooke’s gripping RSC production even without contemporary signifiers. This trenchant reading renders the Salem court’s rigid with-us-or-against-us dictum with chilling resonance, pointing up the dangers of undrawn lines between God and government and the compromise to individual freedom when restrictive ideologies are imposed.

Cooke’s meticulous character detailing through the first act gives way to devastating payoffs in the second, avoiding the melodramatic sermonizing that often can encumber this play. As the drama’s fierceness becomes steadily more amplified, so too does the awareness that the self-righteous, self-interested cabal of men fostering its chaos have modern-day counterparts from the White House to the Middle East.

There’s been no shortage of powerfully performed stagings of “The Crucible” in the half-century since it premiered, high among them Richard Eyre’s 2002 Broadway revival, with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. Iain Glen and Helen Schlesinger are no less commanding here as John and Elizabeth Proctor, their commitment and integrity matched by a superb ensemble. But what makes this staging so revelatory is less the cast than Cooke’s unfailing faith in the text. His grasp of the material is contemplative, urgent, physical and emotional as required.

Unfortunately, the production’s unlikely to be seen in New York. Producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt are no strangers to Broadway. But a play with a cast of 22 is a daunting proposal for transfer, not to mention the challenge of selling a New York audience on a familiar work from the American canon without major stars.

Here’s hoping that, failing a commercial transfer, Brooklyn Academy of Music or Lincoln Center may import this stunning production, running in London through June 17.

The principal credit in Sam Buntrock’s bio is a 1997 London fringe production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins.” The director’s stock rises instantly with “Sunday in the Park With George.” Transferring to the West End after a lauded run at the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, this lucid rethink of the Sondheim-James Lapine musical about artistic creation and compromise connects the dots in ways perhaps never before fully realized.

The Pulitzer-winning show may be the most cerebral work of a composer frequently accused of favoring brains over heart. Since first seen in 1984 with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, the musical has been admired more for its parts than its whole, a bias undoubtedly fed by its emotionally detached central character, French pointillist painter Georges Seurat.

The perceived disjointedness of the show’s two halves — outlining, respectively, the creation of Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in 1886 and the presentation, a century later, of a Seurat-inspired multimedia work by the artist’s American great-grandson — also has factored heavily in its appreciation.

“Art isn’t easy,” goes one of Sondheim’s better-known lyrics from the show. The composer takes a highly personal look here at the conflict between artistic purity and commercial concerns, between making art and funding it, between maintaining relationships and the innate self-absorption of genius.

It’s appropriate that in a musical notable for its nuanced exploration of color, light, detail and perspective to reveal a bigger picture, Buntrock has brought elegant cohesion, completeness and harmony to a previously fragmented emotional drama. And in what seems a significant breakthrough for a much discussed technological advancement in stage design, the use of projections here is less a visual expedient than a tangible expression of the play’s thematic concerns, allowing the audience to share in the thrill of creation.

The production’s care and complexity are mirrored in the vocally and dramatically enthralling work of leads Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, as Seurat and his model-lover Dot, as well as their contemporary heirs.

Like “The Crucible,” “Sunday in the Park” is far from an automatic contender for New York transfer despite the prominence of Broadway regular Boyett Ostar among lead producers and a string of U.S. backers among the associates. With the recent exception of “Sweeney Todd,” Sondheim revivals invariably have struggled to recoup, and the arrival of John Doyle’s pared down “Company” in the fall could either fuel or satiate auds’ appetite for the composer’s vintage shows.

It seems greedy to ask for more when two of the past season’s towering highlights — “Sweeney Todd” and “The History Boys” — both came from London and Disney is fine-tuning another potential Broadway money machine with the transfer of “Mary Poppins.” But “The Crucible” and “Sunday in the Park” provide vibrant reasons to hope the trans-Atlantic flow is ongoing.

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