Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart to the rescue?

No one is going on the record yet, but buzz around town has it that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are getting into the saddle to ride to the rescue of the Theater Royal Haymarket. Previously teamed in the “X-Men” movies, the thesps allegedly will meet again next spring at the venue to play Beckett’s absurdist clowns who are famously “Waiting for Godot.”

One of London’s most illustrious West End venues — Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband” both premiered there — the Theater Royal Haymarket has been struggling. In autumn 2007, it ambitiously relaunched as a producing company with ex-Almeida boss Jonathan Kent helming three shows, none of which did boffo box office.

Kent’s season opener, the Restoration comedy “The Country Wife,” did respectable business, but the second, Edward Bond‘s politicized, philosophical comedy “The Sea,” was a financial disappointment despite strong reviews for lead performers Eileen Atkins and David Haig.

The season’s banker, however, was always going to be “Marguerite,” a tuner with music by Michel Legrand, book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Jonathan Kent, and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer from Boublil’s original French lyrics.

Reviews for this musically lush but dramatically limp piece were mixed and opening in May added to the producers’ woes, as the beginning of summer is traditionally London’s worst box office period. But business has reportedly picked up, and the show may also benefit from its newly released, superbly sung original cast album.

It’s also rolling out further afield. Horipro and Umeda Arts Theater will present a Japanese production of the tuner, directed by Kent, in Tokyo in February, followed by performances in Osaka. Plans are under way for a Spanish production in 2009 and a French one in 2010.

With the Haymarket’s strictly limited season ending Nov. 1, the next few months’ box office take is crucial to the venue’s future policy, which must already have a question mark hanging over it. One unconfirmed reportputs the venture’s current loss at close to £1 million ($2 million). The prospect of the potential box office bonanza of McKellen and Stewart would steady a few nerves.

Mounting a musical in an 888-seat venue such as the Haymarket was always going to be a head-scratcher in terms of profitability. But it has nothing on the Young Vic revival of Kurt Weill’s Broadway opera “Street Scene.”

The Weill estate maintains an ever-vigilant and vise-like grip upon the composer’s work. Thus even with a staging using amateur choruses and professional singers in three venues for a total of nine perfs, the estate insisted upon a full 31-piece orchestra.

London hasn’t heard Weill’s richest music-theater score since English National Opera revived its celebrated staging in 1992. But the estate’s insistence on so large a band in as relatively small venue as the Young Vic meant that punchy brass and lush strings often drowned singers already forced into over-emoting. Less would have been considerably more.

There’s certainly less pressure on the budget if your cast members double as musicians. That’s been the method of helmer John Doyle, most of whose recent U.K. productions started out at the Watermill, the 219-seat regional theater in Newbury, 60 miles southwest of London.

Doyle’s approach has been taken up at the Watermill by choreographer-turned-director Craig Revel Horwood, this time with Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s “Sunset Boulevard.”

For all the arched neck grandeur of Kathryn Evans‘ powerful diva turn as Norma Desmond, the production proves more effortful than affecting.

The cast works wonders with Sarah Travis‘ felicitous re-orchestrations, but Revel Horwood is overly insistent upon showing the inventiveness of his staging. A singing studio exec clasps a phone to his ear while playing double-bass; Joe Gillis chooses a new suit and has his inside leg measured by a piccolo.

Actor-musician stagings rob scenes of engaging naturalism. If you’re constantly admiring the physical dexterity of instrument juggling, you’re unlikely to be lost in the drama. “Sweeney Todd” worked because so much of the show is sung, and the spare dialogue is driven by music. But much of this music is accompaniment to a cumbersome plot with too many locations. Staging all that in a space crowded with instruments is impressive to behold but, dramatically, less than rewarding.

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