This week’s quiz: You’ve got 400 actors, 46 horses, two donkeys, five falcons, two eagles, two vultures and 120 doves — what show are you going to mount? Here’s a clue: there are also five chariots. Yes, it’s “Ben-Hur.”
Exactly 50 years after the debut of the movie that won 11 Oscars — but based, we learn, on Lew Wallace’s novel “Ben-Hur:A Tale of the Christ” — the legit world premiere of “Ben-Hur Live” will gallop through the vast 360-degree 02 Arena for just five performances Sept. 17-20. The show seats 14,000 with a top ticket of £115 ($190).
The total cost? A cool $14 mil. This massive undertaking, which will then play a series of dates throughout Europe, Australia and South America, is produced and promoted by Franz Abraham and his German company Art Concepts. Helmed by Philip William McKinley, (Gotham’s “The Boy From Oz”), it features designs by Mark Fisher (Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas show “Believe,” the Beijing Olympics’ Opening and Closing Ceremonies as well as numerous rock concerts) and Ray Winkler, with costumes by Ann Hould-Ward.
Most intriguingly, the script by Shaun McKenna (he of the misbegotten stage tuner of “Lord of the Rings”) is in Latin and “old English.” Fears that audiences may be less than conversant with either lingo may be calmed by the news that the show will feature a narrator who will explain the actions and back story. For London, that role will be taken by ex-drummer of the Police: Stewart Copeland, who has also written the score for a 70-piece orchestra.
Such multiples make the otherwise impressive 18-piece orchestra for “Shall We Dance” seem rather small. This salute to the music of Richard Rodgers produced by Raymond Gubbay, Askonas Holt and London’s premier dance venue Sadler’s Wells, is directed and choreographed by — and stars — a seriously overstretched Adam Cooper.
He’s the former Royal Ballet dancer who shot to fame as the dangerous swan in Matthew Bourne’s homoerotic, double Tony-winning “Swan Lake.” But unlike that now legendary classical revamp, “Shall We Dance” is unlikely to have legs.
The vast majority of the music comes from the Oscar Hammerstein shows rather than the Lorenz Hart ones. Yet with none of the music sung, Rodgers’ glorious melodies are divorced from the lyrics that gave them shape and point. The result is, for the most part, depressingly anodyne.
There’s little more excitement in the choreography. A tap-dance hoedown (to “Oklahoma,” natch) finally brings zest to the evening, and Cooper’s revamp of his “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (from the 2003 production of “On Your Toes”) has fire in its belly, largely thanks to Cooper’s partner, Sarah Wildor.
Despite largely lukewarm-to-poor reviews, “Shall We Dance” is playing out its six-week engagement. That’s three times as long as was managed by London’s recent blink-and-you-missed-it tuner “Too Close to the Sun.” This, was the musical of the final days and suicide of Ernest Hemingway, memorably retitled by one industry wag as “Ernie Get Your Gun.”
Slaughtered by every reviewer, it featured songs with no rhymes or audible structure (or purpose) and a plot devoid of drama or tension. On opening night, the only thing that grew was the number of vacated seats in an already under-populated house. But one aspect of the show will survive its speedy demise.
Its producers had the, er, business acumen to attempt to sell off parts of the set on eBay. A shame that what passed for the show’s script failed to conjure an idea even half as interesting.