Crowded West End holds musicals

'Wicked,' 'Dirty Dancing' look set to stay

A slew of tuners is hovering over prospective London theaters like planes in a Heathrow holding pattern. Producers of “Carousel,” “Legally Blonde,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Phantom of the Opera II,” “Priscilla Queen of the Desert — The Musical,” “Sister Act” and “Spring Awakening” are like vultures awaiting the deaths of any number of musicals in a West End starved for fresh space.

The competition engendered by the tuner deluge of 2006-07actually produced more winners than losers. “Evita” managed only a year, but arrivals like “Wicked” and “Dirty Dancing” look set to stay for the foreseeable future. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is safe so long as its reality-show lead, Lee Mead, stays on — and he has extended his contract.

Which brings us to “The Sound of Music” at the 2,255-seat London Palladium.

With its reality-show lead Connie Fisher as Maria, ticket availability was zilch. Her replacement, Summer Strallen, also has received first-rate reviews, and even at this point in the calendar — May being the worst month for London theater — its losses are a mere “few thousand,” according to Andre Ptaszynzki, chief executive of the Really Useful Group.

Ptaszynzki, who is on the brink of signing a deal with Back Row Prods. to produce “Priscilla” in London, refuses to name the venues in his sights. But a combination of industry rumor and glances at shows too often available at the TKTS booth suggest the RUG-run Palace Theater may be one of them.

A spokesperson for “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” the Palace’s incumbent, calmly pours cold water on the idea that the show is going anywhere soon. Other future homes for “Priscilla” — and the rest — include the Piccadilly, occupied by “Grease,” which is unlikely to survive the end of the contracts of its own reality-TV-cast leads.

Then there’s the Dominion. But while producers may rub their hands with glee at the prospect of 2,016 seats, it’s a barn of a building that makes Broadway’s Hilton look cozy. And what’s more, it’s filled by the resilient “We Will Rock You.” In mid-2006, when the producers announced it was time for the Queen back-catalog show to quit, the bookings surge was enough to rescind the closing notice.

Over at the New London, “Gone With the Wind” has just shaved a further 25 minutes off its running time — now, 3 hours and 5 minutes — but the chances of this persuading auds to flock to the show after such poor notices is debatable.

A question mark also hangs over the Savoy. A production called “Never Forget” based on the greatest hits of Brit boy band Take That bows this week after a tour. If that doesn’t work, the Savoy, too, would prove attractive for all but the biggest shows.

While the real estate market for incoming musicals is uncertain, three plays have found a home. Although previously reported in Variety, it’s now official: Beginning Sept. 11, the Old Vic will mount “Table Manners,” “Living Together” and “Round and Round the Garden,” the three interlocked comedies of a hilarious marital-weekend-from-hell that form Alan Ayckbourn‘s 1973 work “The Norman Conquests.” Astonishingly, this is the trilogy’s first London production in 34 years.

The Old Vic will be completely reconfigured to present the shows in-the-round (as they were in Ayckbourn’s original pre-West End production). They will be designed by Rob Howell, with sound by Simon Baker and helmed by comedy supremo Matthew Warchus, all three of whom are Tony-nommed for their work on “Boeing-Boeing.” That production’s total of six noms is part of an impressive U.K. showing, with one-third of the nominees coming from London.

Two recent London revivals, however, are unlikely to make it to Broadway.

A febrile, distressed Lia Williams dominates Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea” at the energetic and enterprising off off West End Arcola Theater. Her nemesis is played with impressive authority by Christopher Obi, but virtually no one else in Hannah Eidinow‘s insufficiently controlled production is remotely in their league.

Both there and in Edward Hall‘s dismayingly overplayed West End revival of Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea,” the actors have been encouraged to show off their research at the expense of emotional truth.

In both productions, supporting actors dutifully assemble and (over)exhibit their character’s idiosyncrasies, with supposedly telling bits of “period flavor.” The result is shockingly unengaging. What should be a remarkably modern portrait of sex vs. society, passion vs. restraint, comes across as overwrought melodrama. Even the well-disposed opening night audience at “Deep Blue Sea” was reduced to laughter. The last London revival of what is undoubtedly Rattigan’s tragic masterpiece was heartbreaking. This is art-breaking.

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