For a while there, it seemed there was nothing a legit producer liked more than movie talent. Clare Lawrence and Anna Waterhouse hit paydirt bringing the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon, Julia Stiles and David Schwimmer over to London stages, and Sonia Friedman has had a string of successes with Matthew Perry, Woody Harrelson and, most recently, Orlando Bloom. Now they’re eyeing a whole new talent pool: television.
TV used to be the poor second cousin to theater. Not any more. Love ’em or loathe ’em, there’s no getting around the fact reality-TV casting vehicles have created boffo box office for revivals (or, in some cases, exhumations) of “The Sound of Music,” “Grease” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
The last of these has had impact well beyond its specially tailored West End production. Producer Bill Kenwright, one of the TV show judges, is about to tour his own production of “Joseph” with two more of the TV show’s contestants as Joseph and Benjamin, the youngest brother. A third is in rehearsals to play Link in the forthcoming London run of “Hairspray.”
It’s not just reality casting shows that have been providing a passport to the stage.
Producers of the hit revival “Boeing-Boeing” (Sonia Friedman Prods., Act Prods., Matthew Byam Shaw, Robert G. Bartner and Bob Boyett) have trawled the smallscreen on both sides of the Atlantic for replacement casts. Out goes “Cheers” veteran Rhea Perlman, and in comes Jean Marsh, who co-created and starred (as Rose) in the beloved long-running drama “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
Even the classics are not immune to such shenanigans. Patrick Stewart has “Star Trek” to thank for the serious box office clout that has enabled him to headline a string of strong Shakespearean revivals, including his powerful turn as Prospero in the RSC’s recent “The Tempest” and a blood-soaked “Macbeth,” which opens at Cameron Mackintosh’s newly refurbished Gielgud Theater on Sept. 26.
Even more mouthwatering is the prospect of the next RSC “Hamlet,” which will star David Tennant. A former RSC actor and major legit talent, Tennant’s career has gone into orbit thanks to two series as the iconic title character of “Dr. Who,” the BBC’s ratings sensation.
Not to be outdone, Barry and Fran Weissler, the king and queen of stunt casting, have Kelly Osbourne as Mama Morton in London’s “Chicago” — which hits its 10th anniversary Dec. 5. So what if the role was created by the then 52-year-old Mary McCarty, and Osbourne is only 22?
Casting aside, there is more imagination, wit, flair and sheer theatrical fun in “Chicago’s” six-minute “Cell Block Tango” than there is in the whole of the West End’s latest prison musical, “Bad Girls,” which has the temerity to include a (lesser) tango of its own: “We’re all banged up without the bang …”
The production has a couple of saving graces. Sally Dexter is a riot as the red leather-coated vixen of a gangster’s moll, and Colin Richmond‘s superbly atmospheric steel set meshes perfectly with Mic Poole‘s video and sound effects. The trouble is, their fluid, powerful transitions are genuinely more thrilling than the limply predictable scenes they link. The lamentable choreography is the weakest in the West End, a sorry level matched by the script.
To enjoy the original culty, trashy TV series — which has recently started airing in the U.S. — fans merely had to turn on the tube. This musicalization is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but a £55 ($111) top is an absurdly high price to pay for a not very good joke.