Brits hit right note with tunes

Fresh approaches revitalize genre in Blighty

Thanks to a Broadway production climate of financial and creative conservatism, Tony voters might be struggling in May to fill nomination quotas in the tuner categories, both new and revival. But across the Pond, London theaters are illustrating a surprisingly diversified approach to staging traditional book musicals.

It may be too early to anticipate a full-scale British invasion to parallel the 1980s, when a sustained wave of London hits pumped new blood into Broadway box offices. But the old-school caricature of the New York musical producer as a brash showman in the David Merrick mold, and of his West End counterpart as a more reserved breed, now seems more obsolete than ever.

The fact that the Great White Way’s great white hope for the spring, “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” comes from British roots only adds to the perception of a shift in the musical’s center of gravity.

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The current London crop might vary wildly in qualitative terms, but the shows and their producers are to be applauded for continuing to develop a range of exportable, Broadway-ready fodder and to explore new ways to keep the musical from slipping off the endangered species list into extinction.

Leading the pack is the lavish “Mary Poppins,” a family-friendly classic revisited with such charm, buoyancy and invigorating intelligence that its somewhat overburdened aspects become entirely secondary. In any case, the production’s flaws likely will be corrected en route to what seems sure to be a spectacular Broadway run, dates and venue for which have not yet been set.

The poster boy of the ’80s tuner, Andrew Lloyd Webber, is back with “The Woman in White,” an ambitious but lumbering bid to marry literary source material with lush musical melodrama and cutting-edge design technology. Broadway opening is set for Nov. 10.

And in two vital, arrestingly spare productions, imaginative directors John Doyle and Michael Grandage have reconfigured musicals “Sweeney Todd” and “Grand Hotel,” respectively, into pared-down reinventions, breathing exhilarating new life into a modern classic with the former and adding a stylish veneer that makes the latter forgettable show entertaining.

Unlike London’s other Sherman Brothers musical, the bloated pantomime “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (opening April 28 on Broadway), “Mary Poppins” has not been simply dusted off and lumped from screen to stage.

Disney Theatricals and heavyweight producer Cameron Mackintosh assembled a crack creative team to invest fresh nuance both visually and thematically into P.L. Travers’ story of a family whose ills are healed by a magical nanny, enlisting screenwriter Julian Fellowes, director Richard Eyre, choreographer Matthew Bourne and designer Bob Crowley.

The result is a show far more sophisticated, emotionally engaging and less twee than anyone had any right to expect. Faithful to its source yet radically rethought, the musical will mesmerize kids without testing adults’ patience.

OK, so the dysfunctional family thread and self-help message are a little overstated and the British penchant for three-hour tuners has yielded some dispensable padding in one or two agreeable but unnecessary new songs penned by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. (The bank clerks’ fussy “Precision and Order,” the menacing animated-toy tune “Temper Temper” or the disciplinarian anthem “Brimstone and Treacle” all seem candidates for pre-Gotham excision.)

But with minor tightening, this will be a major cash cow on both sides of the Atlantic for many years to come.

And while the heart of “Chitty” is largely the mechanical hoist that makes the car fly, the lofty budget for “Mary Poppins” (undisclosed but believed to be in the $16 million region) has not been deployed in random gigantism. The splashy set-pieces without which no Mackintosh show would be complete are enchantingly human: Mary flying with prim resolve up over the audience; Bert dancing a complete circuit around the Prince Edward’s proscenium arch.

While the ponderously kitschy new “Woman in White” offers less to rejoice about, Lloyd Webber’s musicalization of Wilkie Collins’ Brit-lit classic presents an interesting case in a theater sector in which the investment-recoup balance is notoriously precarious.

Staged on a budget of £4 million (more than $7 million when it opened), the show solves the daunting problem of multiple locations and period sets by using projections more extensively than perhaps any mainstream commercial legit venture to date. This means a considerable part of the production can travel to offshore or touring engagements on a disk.

Too bad, then, that the emotionally distant musical is a lugubrious yawn whose florid bombast saps the life out of Collins’ Victorian thriller, with visuals that are like a (literally) headspinning Imax Anglo-heritage tour. Still, ALW fans will find their requirements for swelling “Phantom”-style ballads met.

The innovations are far more rewarding in director-designer Doyle’s bracing, deliciously gruesome “Sweeney Todd,” redrawn as the feverish memories of the institutionalized Tobias.

The bloody magnificence of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Grand Guignol opera about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is very much intact despite the reduced dimensions of the production: a single set with a cast of nine who double as the orchestra. Even the famous trap-door death chute exits of the original production’s murder victims find a simple but effective correlation in Doyle’s sinister staging, with the barber’s “customers” slipping on blood-stained lab coats as whistles blow and the stage is bathed in red.

Negotiations are under way to bring the production — which began at the regional Watermill Theater before transferring to the West End — to New York. The challenge will be to find actors able to sing their roles while periodically whipping out a trumpet, cello or accordion to rip into the score. This may not be the most dazzlingly sung “Sweeney” ever staged, but it’s thrillingly performed, and the musical’s brooding wit has rarely been sharper.

Working on a similarly reduced scale, Donmar Warehouse artistic director Grandage shows what muscularity a talented director can bring to a mediocre musical with “Grand Hotel.”

Of course, in its numerous productions of Sondheim shows and in former a.d. Sam Mendes’ take on “Cabaret,” the Donmar all but wrote the book on downsizing musicals into chamber pieces. But most of the London company’s chosen projects have had the kind of intellectual heft and complexity that more readily welcome intimate Donmar dissection. Inevitably, the show immortalized in Tommy Tune’s 1989 Broadway production is an exercise in style over substance.

While Grandage can do little to amplify the inner lives of the unsubtle stereotypes taken from Vicki Baum’s novel about decadent Weimar-era Berlin, he sure knows how to populate an unfurnished stage. And while this show will never be “Cabaret,” the grim cynicism of the staging goes a considerable distance toward evoking an intoxicated sense of time and place, and energizing the cardboard figures that drift through it.