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Theatre trips - John C. Kirk

Apr. 24th, 2009

02:29 am - Theatre trips

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I've been out to the theatre a few times recently, so here are my thoughts on "Avenue Q", "Wicked", "Blood Brothers", and "Dirty Dancing". (I've tried to keep spoilers to a minimum.) I've been near the back each time, so I've also commented on how much this restricted my view of the stage. Interestingly, despite the recession, the theatres have been pretty much packed out every time.

Avenue Q

I went off to watch this a few years ago, and enjoyed it, so I wanted to watch it again before it closed.

Last time I was at the front of the Grand Circle (middle balcony); this time I was at the back of the stalls (ground floor), so the balcony above meant that I could only see the lower half of the stage. For this show, that's a bit of a problem, because it's quite a "tall" set. Since it's supposed to be a row of houses, you have characters leaning out of 1st floor windows or climbing up and down ladders. Actually, I think they missed an opportunity: there are TV screens to show animated sequences, so they could have used those to show the whole stage the rest of the time. Still, I was able to get a slightly better view by leaning over to one side.

I bought the soundtrack album after I first saw this, and I've listened to that several times in the last few years, so I'm quite familiar with the songs. However, the album is a recording of the American version, and there are a few differences in the UK version; I didn't really notice this when I first listened to the CD, but it's more obvious now that I've heard the CD version a lot more than the stage version. (As a side note, this seems to be pretty common in musicals; I'd like to see London cast recordings for sale as an alternative.) For instance, in Gary Coleman's intro song, the American version refers explicitly to Diff'rent Strokes, whereas the UK version doesn't. I like both versions, so I wasn't bothered by this, and it was nice to be surprised by something that I've seen before! Speaking of surprises, I'd also forgotten how ... expressive some of the puppets could be (i.e. they can make remarkably rude gestures), so that made me laugh.

At the end of the show, the cast perform the song "For Now". Basically, they're saying "this too shall pass", i.e. if something's bothering you then it's just temporary. As one example, back in 2006 (and on the CD) they sang "George Bush ... is only for now!" I wondered how they'd handle that now that he's left office; it seemed unlikely that they'd substitute in Barack Obama's name. As it turned out, they changed the line to "George Bush ... was only for now!" That's a bit of a cheat, but I can see why they preferred to avoid major re-writes so close to the end of their run.

As a related issue, there was a certain "end of term" feel to the performance. For instance, one song goes "If you were gay [tum te tum te tum te tum] it would be ok [tum te tum te tum te tum]". (The bits in brackets are my approximation of the tune, not actual lyrics.) So, as the music plays, there's a fairly clear entry point for the character to start singing. However, this time around they did it a bit differently: the (allegedly) gay puppet was waiting expectantly, but the other puppet didn't start singing. Instead, he swung his arms around, and the music played another lap. I don't really have the technical vocabulary to describe this properly, but the idea was to convey "Wait for it... Ok, now!"

I liked that, but I do wonder how well it would work if I hadn't heard the song before. Actually, it reminded me of the trailer for "Kim Possible: So the Drama" (Disney website). The music is based on the theme tune for the episodes (YouTube), but it's been modified a bit. In particular, about 27 seconds into the trailer, the music builds up in a triumphant way, leaving quite a big gap between each line of the lyrics, whereas the original theme tune was faster. Again, I like the trailer, but I'd be interested to hear from anyone who watches that before the normal credits. (Keeping this vaguely relevant, the voice actress for Kim Possible has performed in the US version of Avenue Q.)

Anyway, that was a fun evening out. Although Avenue Q has now finished at the Noel Coward theatre (replaced by "Calendar Girls"), it's moving to the Gielgud theatre in June; they're booking seats until the end of September, so if you've never been then I recommend taking advantage of the extra opportunity. I haven't been to the other theatre, so I'm not sure how the seating works there.

Wicked

I'd heard good things about this from other people who'd seen it. In particular, one person said "I was expecting it to be good, but I didn't realise it would be that good!" However, I read the novel a couple of years ago, and I was very disappointed in that; I'll post a separate review of that sometime.

When the performance started, I was a bit dubious; the music was a bit too loud (drowning out the voices), and it was hard to make out the words when lots of people were singing at once. However, it got a lot better as it went along, and I had a lump in my throat at the end. I particularly liked the song "Defying Gravity", and I was humming "For Good" afterwards.

I was standing at the back of the stalls: this gave me a complete view of the stage, although it was hard to make out the details of faces. For instance, I didn't realise that Elpheba was wearing glasses until Glinda removed them. Still, that wasn't really a problem. After the performance, I wandered down to the front, and noticed that there was a huge dragon dangling from the ceiling above the stage. I couldn't see that at all from the back, but I'm guessing that it was just for decoration, rather than being actively involved in the show.

Blood Brothers

I've been meaning to watch this for at least 10 years, although I only found out quite recently that it was a musical! Based on the posters, I'd assumed that it was a drama. That said, it did have a strong plot, rather than just short scenes to link songs together. It's fairly light-hearted overall, but there's some fairly intense drama too. Some of the cast looked pretty miserable at the end (taking their bows); I'm guessing that this is because they'd channelled genuine emotion into their performance, rather than just staying in character.

The show starts at the end, then goes back to show how things reached that point, but the ending still took me by surprise when it happened, which is impressive. The cast had to be quite versatile in this show: some of them were playing the same characters at different ages, while others were doubling up between different roles. They were surprisingly convincing at this, relying on body language and tone of voice more than props/costumes. (If you've seen the "Angel" episode where Illyria meets Fred's parents, that should give you a rough idea of what I mean.) I also have to give the cast credit for quite physical performances; for instance, it looked as if they were literally spitting on each other at some points. The songs worked well in context, but I'm not planning to buy the soundtrack album.

I was sitting near the back of the stalls, and I had a pretty good view of the stage, even when characters were leaning out of windows. However, there were a few times when the actors sat down on the stage, and I couldn't see them because of all the audience heads in the way. I'm guessing that would be a problem pretty much anywhere in the theatre, if you're not right at the front.

Anyway, this is certainly worth watching.

Dirty Dancing

I saw the film of this when I was at school; it was alright, but I wouldn't count myself as a devoted fan. The stage version came up with some inventive ways to mirror the film. For instance, they had film being projected onto screens at the back, although it was unfortunate that at one point I saw "LINK1" in the bottom left corner. Similarly, since they couldn't flood the stage, they simulated a river by lowering the stage curtain and projecting an image of water onto it; you could see the actors standing behind the curtain, so it looked as if they were in the water. It was quite effective, but I'm guessing that they wouldn't have written that scene if this had been an original stage show, so really they just did a good job of overcoming their limitations.

As with Spamalot, I'm not sure whether the film really benefitted from being moved to the stage. However, I think it's fair to say that this was aimed at people who've already seen the film. Some of the plot scenes are very compressed, so they really just act as reminders, and don't make much sense on their own. It certainly has a "crowdpleaser" ending, with one line in particular that got a big reaction from the audience. I think that's more a case of "here's what you've all been waiting for" rather than "wow, that was a nice turn of phrase", i.e. people were reacting to it because it was familiar. That's fair enough: I have a similar reaction when I watch something like "Ghostbusters" or "Back to the Future", and I'm glad that the audience were having fun, but in this case it doesn't really appeal to me personally. Mind you, I'm pretty sure that they nicked the spoon joke from "Coming to America"; it was funny, but slightly jarring.

I'm not particularly interested in the "dirty" style of dancing, but I was impressed by how graceful and fluid the movements were. My favourite scene was the bit where three people were dancing together, with a female instructor standing behind the pupil to demonstrate her motions. I'm not sure whether that would actually be useful in real life (since the pupil can't see what's happening behind her), but it looked good. Sadly, my dancing skills are closer to Numfar's dance of joy.

I was standing at the back of the dress circle (1st floor), so I couldn't see the top half of the stage, but that wasn't much of a problem. One unusual thing about this show is that a lot of the music was just sung in the background, rather than the characters bursting into song themselves (for the most part). I think some of the music may have been pre-recorded, i.e. they may have been using the original songs from the 1960s, but I'm not certain about that. There was some trouble about that last year for the Peter Pan musical, so if they did use recordings in "Dirty Dancing" then presumably the union were happy with it.

Finally, a quick word about etiquette. If you go along to the theatre, please turn your mobile phone completely off. Some people just put their phone into silent mode; I'm sure they have good intentions, since they want to be able to send/receive text messages without disturbing the people around them. However, if you're in a dark room then the light shining out from a phone's screen is very conspicuous, so it does distract attention from the stage, even for people on the far side of the room. Full marks to the staff at the Apollo Victoria (for "Wicked"): they were very good about swooping in when someone used a mobile.