Musical preems wait in West End wings

'Flight' lands at London Factory

Last year may have been London’s Year of the Musical, but 2007 isn’t exactly all quiet on the tuner front.

In addition to transfers of existing productions, including “Fiddler on the Roof” (opening May 29), “The Drowsy Chaperone” (June 5), “The Lord of the Rings” (June 19) and “Hairspray” (previewing in October), there are two shows whose leads are now being cast on reality TV. “Grease” begins previews July 29, while “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will start perfs July 6, less than two years after the last revival closed.

More exciting are the world preems waiting in the wings.

“Desperately Seeking Susan,” which revamps Susan Seidelman‘s 1985 cult movie to the back catalog of Blondie, is rumored to be opening in the West End at the Gielgud in November.

Produced by Susan Gallin, Ron Kastner, Mark Rubinstein and Old Vic Prods., “Desperately Seeking Susan” will be helmed by Angus Jackson. Despite being best known for dramas, including a production of “Dealer’s Choice” much admired by its author Patrick Marber, Jackson has directed regional revivals of tuners including “Carousel” and “Promises, Promises.”

The enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory has a further ace up its sleeve. Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire‘s long-awaited “Take Flight” will land there in late July. The production of the musical based on the Wright Brothers and the history of manned flight marks a further collaboration for the award-winning partnership of director Sam Buntrock and designer David Farley following their Olivier-garlanded, Broadway-bound “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Music also features strongly in two recent London productions despite the fact that neither could be called a musical.

It’s only May, but this column’s prize for Most Unlikely Debut of the Year goes to singer Martha Wainwright, deservedly showered with bouquets on opening night for her starring role with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in “The Seven Deadly Sins.”

Not that Wainwright has suddenly plunged herself into the world of pointe shoes and pirouettes. For five perfs only, she played Anna 1, the singing narrator, in the Brecht/Weill piece about a woman in search of money traveling to seven cities and immersing herself in the seven sins.

Wainwright’s extraordinary voice appears to have no break in it. That gives her a rare, ceaseless flow up from the seductive croon in the lower depths to her extraordinarily expressive higher register, which can float a sigh or a cry to distinctively haunting effect.

Dressed in a pale raincoat, her plangent presence moving in and out of the action was the perfect complement to Anna 2, her alter ego, danced by long-limbed Zenaida Yanowsky.

Wainwright’s presence onstage, however, served to accentuate the work’s already dangerously split personality, a problem unsolved by Will Tuckett‘s undynamic choreography.

When a dance text is sung, putting a soloist on the stage rather than keeping her in the pit with the orchestra leads to major problems. In this instance, the aud’s eyes were inevitably drawn to Wainwright. Yet the visual interest lay in Yanowsky scissoring across the stage and losing herself to various men in Tuckett’s sexualized choreography, which bordered uneasily on exploitation.

The split focus of “Seven Deadly Sins” is preferable, however, to Liam Steel‘s overstaged, underdirected production of “Absolute Beginners” at the Lyric Hamersmith.

Based on Colin MacInnes’ vibrant 1959 cult novel about young street life in racially tense Notting Hill, Roy Williams‘ stage version features flashes of naturalistic dialogue largely at war with a jazz score by Soweto Kinch that plays like a soundtrack almost throughout. Attractive though the music is, it distracts from the dialogue, which is further undercut by Lizzie Clachan‘s interlocking set of moving, vertical black-and-white boxes with occasional splashes of color.

Looking like a three-dimensional version of a Mondrian painting, it’s intricate but totally fails to provide a single dynamic acting area in which any of the cast look either strong or comfortable.

The 1986 movie version of “Absolute Beginners” — starring Patsy Kensit and David Bowie, no less — famously tanked. The stage version may well be heading the same way.

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