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Hollywood on the Thames

Brit theaters go west for some of their new legit offerings

With marvels and monsters including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revamp of “The Wizard of Oz” and Danny Boyle’s production of “Frankenstein,” London’s fall-winter 2010-11 season is already looking unusually ambitious.

February and March are traditionally unstable months in the city’s legit calendar. Post-Christmas, tourism disappears, children are back at school and household budgets tighten. Yet producers have already locked in an impressive array of shows. And untethered ones, including “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” remade for the stage by Kneehigh’s Emma Rice (“Brief Encounter”), are hovering vulture-like over venues currently housing productions that will vanish the moment takings drop below break-even point.

“The Wizard of Oz,” opening March 1 at the London Palladium, is produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bill Kenwright, and comes armed with the boost of more than one-tenth of the U.K. population watching and voting for leading lady Danielle Hope every week on the BBC talent search skein “Over the Rainbow.”

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Michael Crawford will play the Wizard and the helmer is Jeremy Sams (“The Sound of Music”), who has rewritten the book.

“I love the movie,” says Sams, “but previous productions have tried to put that onstage, in some cases right down to the tiniest detail. But it seems to me, the closer you get to the original the more you’re faced with the question of, why are you doing this? Why not just give audiences the DVD?”

Instead, while cleaving to the spirit of the movie, Sams will use the entire Arlen/Harburg score and reconceive the piece as a theatrically satisfying two-act stage tuner with additional songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

“Musicals usually have an opening number in which people sing and set the tone followed by an ‘I want’ song,” the helmer explains. “With ‘Over the Rainbow,’ we have the best ‘I want’ song of all time, but it seems wrong to me to start with that. So now we have an opening number.”

Sams has also created the structure for an old-fashioned 11 o’clock number for Glinda and a major second-act opener for the Wicked Witch and her Winkies.

There’s been similar re-imagining of a beloved property on another tuner, albeit one destined for the West End’s smallest house. “Love Story,” based on Erich Segal’s novel and film and starring Michael Xavier as Oliver Barrett IV and Emma Williams as Jenny Cavilleri opens Dec. 6 at the 476-seat Duchess Theater.

Rachel Kavanaugh is forthright about her approach. “It’s not the film on stage,” says the helmer. “The adaptation is quite surprising. It’s centered around Howard Goodall’s score and the idea of Jenny as a pianist. There’s no pit band, just a string quintet, guitar and another pianist all onstage. An intimate telling of an intimate story, it’s a true chamber musical. Obviously, we hope it will have a long and wonderful life, but absolutely not in huge 2000-seat theaters.”

Poised between those polarities is “Betty Blue Eyes,” the new tuner from Cameron Mackintosh, helmed by Richard Eyre, which previews at the Novello in March 2011. This project is also a reworked movie, the slightly more recherche “A Private Function,” a 1984 comedy about a chiropodist, his social-climbing wife and a pig, set in a small English town in 1947 and written by Alan Bennett (“The History Boys”).

Rob Cowen and Daniel Lipman, executive producers of “Queer as Folk,” who so loved the movie they snapped up the rights, have written the book. Following advice from Stephen Schwartz, they approached composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe who, coincidentally, were already considering the idea. A year later, Mackintosh, Eyre and choreographer Stephen Mear — who all worked with Stiles and Drewe on “Mary Poppins” — came aboard.

Stiles argues that tales of unlikely underdogs triumphing is standard tuner fare.

“It’s all about finding the right tone,” says the composer. “Even from the outline, it was clear Rob and Daniel understood exactly what music could do for this material. It’s a black comedy with a distinctly surreal element. And it’s 1947 so there’s a comedy collision of English folk tunes, Gilbert and Sullivan and American swing band music.”

Details about “Frankenstein,” at the National in February, are currently under wraps, but it will be a grand-scale production as evidenced by its presence on the vast Olivier stage. Most important is the show’s director: Danny Boyle. Although he’s been working in film for 15 years, Boyle is a former artistic director of the Royal Court Theater Upstairs and directed five productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, including an adaptation by Nick Dear, who rejoins Boyle here to pen this version of Mary Shelley’s novel. Retaining the 19th-century setting, the production stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who will switch nightly between playing the monster and its creator.

The other highlight of the National’s forthcoming season is Marianne Elliott’s revival of “Season’s Greetings.” First staged in 1980, it’s the 26th play by Alan Ayckbourn, who is currently writing his 75th. It’s a savage comedy of the fits, fights, feuds and egos at a typically high-strung three-day family Christmas.

“You can’t teach comic timing,” observes Elliott. “My job is to finesse the actors.” So she has handpicked a gifted cast including Jenna Russell (Tony-nommed for “Sunday in the Park with George’) and Catherine Tate, who, prior to her hit eponymous BBC sketch comedy show, appeared in several National productions.

There are more juicy female roles in “Cause Celebre” at Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic theater (Mar. 17-July 11). Thea Sharrock (“Equus”) directs Terence Rattigan’s 1976 play, based on a true story, a battle of wills between a woman (Anne-Marie Duff), accused alongside her 18-year-old lover with the murder of her husband, and the redoubtable forewoman of the jury.

Female talent will be still more conspicuous when Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss appear in the first-ever West End run of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama, “The Children’s Hour.”

Previewing at the Comedy from Jan. 22, the play, according to helmer Ian Rickson (“The Seagull’), has been largely neglected in the U.K. but “it’s subversive, complex and clairvoyant. It predates “The Crucible” by 20 years and it’s critiquing a culture of fear that we live in now. I feel as if I’ve stumbled on a classic that is punchy and contemporary,” says Rickson.

ALSO IN THIS FEATURE:
Hollywood on the thames | Nina Raine returns to writing roots | Dominic Cooke continues winning streak

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