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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

West End whirl

BY CHRISTOPHER RAWSON
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

LONDON - Scheduling a one-week blitz of London theater could mean concentrating on stars, classics, playwrights, or theater companies. But this time, I opted for the Chinese-menu approach: one of these, one of those, a couple of that.

But there's a lot that I missed, even without leaving the West End (London's Broadway) and getting into the extensive Fringe. That's London theater: Whatever you choose, you will barely sample the riches, and something you most wanted to see will have closed just before you arrived or will open the day you leave

The following shows are still running, starting with two big musicals that we are bound to see one of these years in New York.

'MARY POPPINS'

Last year I returned from London to pour disdain on a weak, treacly stage adaptation of a movie musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and it wouldn't have surprised me if Mary Poppins had been a similar one-trick rip-off. But Poppins turns out to be a different matter entirely, a family musical of humor, melody, charm, and even a certain dry wit.

Most important, it refuses to stir in too many spoonfuls of sugar. Laura Michelle Kelly's Mary Poppins has a starchy rectitude and prim posture that make it all the more entertaining when she loosens up to dance with chimney sweep Bert. Indeed, she's a potent combination (in mythic terms) of maiden, mother, and crone, tartly mixing magic with order, autocracy with misrule, and it is the wisdom of this adaptation not to try to penetrate her mystery.

The setting is that Edwardian London familiar from Peter Pan, but Mary Poppins doesn't sentimentalize the children, Jane and Michael, who have life lessons to learn just as much as their distracted father and nonassertive mother. The book is by Julian Fellows, based on the Disney movie and the stories of P.L. Travers (1899-1996), who lived long enough to bless Cameron Mackintosh with the rights that have led to this musical. The score combines the movie songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman with new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, talented composers of Honk! Of theirs, none (except perhaps "Practically Perfect ") is the immediate equal of the Shermans' "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which have the advantage of fond familiarity.

The absence of gratuitous sugar owes much to director Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre, and co-director and choreographic innovator Matthew Bourne, who brought that electric Swan Lake to Broadway. I particularly like his twirling ballet of sign language, spelling out Supercali etc. Bob Crowley provides a rising and falling, multilevel set that glows with gaslight. Kudos to the technicians who make it possible for Bert to tap-dance horizontally up one proscenium, upside-down across the arch and down the other side. Gavin Lee's cheery, limber Bert nicely balances Kelly's tart Mary. David Haig is rather broadly hangdog as the father, but Linzi Hateley's mother has the ditziness of a young Maggie Smith, and I love the dour cook, played al dente by Jenny Galloway.

The day I saw a matinee, the original Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews herself, attended the evening show, and great was the media coverage thereof. I hope she was pleased. This is one musical that won't take much work to transfer quickly to Broadway.

At the Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street.

'THE WOMAN IN WHITE'

A lonely railway shack at the end of a dark tunnel, a distraught woman in white pleading for help, and a young man on his way to tutor two young women at a lonely mansion: That's the start of The Woman in White, a musical adaptation of Wilkie Collins' 1860 novel of the same name.

From the first strains of the mysterioso music, you know it's Andrew Lloyd Webber returning to a gothic mode, as in his Phantom of the Opera, after the relative disappointments of Whistle Down the Wind and The Beautiful Game. He is here reunited with director Trevor Nunn, former head of both the RSC and National Theatre and director of Les Miserables and four Lloyd Webber musicals, right back to Cats.

Although there is some banality about The Woman in White and much that will gladden the gleeful parodists at Forbidden Broadway, it is a viable entertainment that should make it to New York. When it does, it will owe a lot to the innovative production and video design of William Dudley, which should be much copied, and to the comic/sinister role of Count Fosco and a very plump white rat with which he performs gratuitous (but welcome) comic routines.

Less gripping is the story itself, as told by librettist Charlotte Jones, a better playwright on her own (Humble Boy). The young tutor is loved by both tutees, but the one he loves is promised to the immeasurably more eligible Sir Percival Glyde, who turns out (surprise!) to be the epitome of villainy and not a very nice man, to boot.

The rejected young woman, Marian, is a real piece of work who imagines herself the heroine and is unfortunately supported in this by the musical, which doesn't seem to notice what a self-dramatizing, selfish heroine she is. And who is the woman in white and what is her secret? It turns out there are really three women in white, as each ingenue adopts the victim role in turn.

It's all very melodramatic, for which Lloyd Webber's score is an atmospheric accompaniment. What's more surprising and fun is Fosco's comic side plot. In his sprightly songs "A Gift for Living Well" and "You Can Get Away with Anything," the lyrics by David Zippel, who elsewhere succumbs to the banality endemic to Lloyd Webber shows, rise to the wit we expect of the lyricist of City of Angels. The expository "I Hope You'll Like It Here," sung by the passive uncle, is equally deft.

Michael Ball, playing Fosco in replacement of the ill Michael Crawford, is deliciously effulgent, and I cheered each lavish sneer and pirouette. Edward Peterbridge is drily precise as the fastidious uncle. The young people bear up under all the earnest melodrama, especially Maria Friedman as Marian.

The mesmerizing video scenery is projected on circling sections of cyclorama. It swoops around us as if we were flying over the Constable-like countryside and grand estates, now gliding down to an exterior, now circling inside.

At the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus.

'FESTEN'

The long-running Festen (which translates as "The Party") is dramatized by David Eldridge from the 1998 Danish Dogme movie of the same name. To celebrate the 60th birthday of Helge, head of a family of hoteliers, nine family members from four generations, a business associate, and four servants gather to eat, drink, toast, reminisce, argue, and spill long-buried secrets.

The triggering event is the suicide of one of Helge's daughters; the long-planned party follows directly on her funeral. It isn't the wild son or the repressed daughter but the coolly successful son, Christian, who comes to dig up the past. Others, including Helge's wife, brother, father and business associate, don't believe him, but the servants (who, in democratic Danish style, seem family members themselves) wish him well.

Initially, Christian is ignored, while the party takes its preordained way through speeches, songs and games, the roistering gradually turning ugly, even demonic. But eventually the dead sister's voice is heard and the truth is faced, leading to an anticlimactic ending that doesn't match the claustrophobic power of the rest.

The play just doesn't have the edge of David Mamet or Martin McDonagh; it doesn't even have the awful glee of the dinner-party-from-hell-play of last year, Moira Buffini's Dinner.

At the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.

'TROPICANA'

Produced by a collective called Shunt, Tropicana is presented in a series of dark, echoing 20-foot stone vaults adjacent to London Bridge railway station. It's a spooky/funny mix of mystery, carnival, and macabre comedy.

Entering through a work door into a janitor's closet, then through a metal locker, we find a mysterious laboratory. Conducted by a Charon-like figure, we descend by elevator to the dank stone vaults, where we're led forward through the misty gloom by waifs and feathered show girls, reflected in mirrored columns. Percussion throbs in the dark; we hear cascading water and trains (perhaps real). The dark gets darker. In a spotlight, a pineapple is assaulted. In the distance, we hear volleys of laughter, maybe our own. A guitar player parades by with wailing women, then a hearse filled with flowers.

We sit on risers for a mock lecture/sermon/autopsy, complete with a dummy realistic enough to occasion giggling shock at what is done to it. The girls provide aerial display.

It's a trippy 75 minutes, a mild provocation, and an enigma, plus there's a chance to talk with the performers over shots of tequila when the show ends.

Schedule varies; go to www.shunt.co.uk.

'NATIONAL ANTHEMS'

There are almost as many American actors in American plays in London as there usually are Brits on Broadway. And sometimes there will be American references the Brits can't be expected to get fully - allusions to Iron City, or objects of faith like Pennsylvania high school football.

Those are all features of National Anthems, the small but edgy 1988 comic drama by the late Dennis McIntyre, now playing at London's Old Vic under the artistic directorship of Kevin Spacey and starring him along with Steven Weber and Mary Stuart Masterson.

On stage, which is where it matters, National Anthems has been doing very well, drawing an especially young audience. That's a testament to the drawing power of Spacey rather than McIntyre, who first wrote National Anthems as The Partycrasher at the University of Michigan, where it won the same Hopwood Award that had earlier launched Arthur Miller.

The British are well known for appreciating American playwrights they feel we have slighted, and McIntyre is certainly a candidate. But London critics are also known to savage American movie or TV stars with the temerity to try their legit chops on the stage - the latest example is Kim Cattrall in Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Spacey has made himself an even more prominent target by daring not just the London stage but also stage management. Having conquered the town by winning an Olivier Award (London's Tony) in The Iceman Cometh, he signed on a year ago, amid much ado and media attention, to help rescue the endemically vulnerable Old Vic, a gorgeous old house with a heroic tradition, but awkwardly located near Waterloo Station, far from the theater district.

In National Anthems, Spacey plays Ben Cook, resident of Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit. New residents Arthur and Leslie Reed are cleaning up after the first party in their posh new house when Ben arrives, ostensibly to welcome them. Like some agent provocateur, he forces himself upon them, and they tolerate him, bragging about their possessions, while he feeds them gossip about the neighbors. Obviously he has some other agenda, and the play eggs us on to figure it out while tantalizing us with hints of possible violence.

The play has some great patches of writing, though it doesn't have the ultimate crackle of David Mamet or Neil LaBute. But the acting is crackerjack, with Weber (a real surprise to me) and Spacey, both playing former high school football stars, going at each other like enraged turkey cocks and Masterson flitting about between them like the unfulfilled former cheerleader she plays.

Under Spacey's leadership and with the significant talents he attracts, the Old Vic is developing a new life as a flagship of good American acting in London. It looks like a case, as Churchill said, of the new world coming to the aid of the old.

At the Old Vic Theatre through April 23.

'HISTORY BOYS'

This is the best new play in London because it is deftly ambidextrous: a smart, allusive comedy about education and ambition, but also a feeling lament for the entropy of all things human. Combining comedy and the "not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper" kind of apocalypse is a tough act to sustain, but Alan Bennett pulls it off with mature, compassionate writing that balances belly laughs with tragic regret.

History Boys won the 2004 Olivier Award for best new play, as well as Oliviers for director Nicholas Hytner and lead actor Richard Griffiths, while playwright Bennett won a lifetime achievement award. That gave it one more Olivier overall than the year's best musical, The Producers.

History Boys is set in the 1980s in what the English call a grammar school - a state-run high school into which the better students are channeled.

The boys of the title come from mixed ethnic backgrounds - one Indian, one African, one Jewish, all of differing economic levels. But they are united by their brains and by being 17- and 18-year-old boys in their final year of a single-sex school, prepping to "go to university."

Through the school year of the play, the boys are being prepared for the rigorous written exams which, together with interviews, sort out university hopefuls. The headmaster is anxious to get some of them into Oxford or Cambridge, so he hires Irwin, a sharp young history teacher, to give the boys a more trendy polish than they've been getting from rigorous Mrs. Lintott and eccentrically imaginative Hector.

That's the conflict: A struggle for the souls of these evolving young men between education for the heart and education for success.

Teachers and boys cover lots of history, literature, and pop culture, especially World War I and its poets. Bennett creates some great comic scenes, such as a French conversation skit that has to change course 180 degrees when the headmaster walks in, and some funny practice interviews.

Meanwhile, since these are teenage boys, there's lots of talk about sex, including regular accounts of the charismatic Dakin's pursuit of the headmaster's secretary. The eight boys are as true and natural an ensemble as any noisy gaggle of young students you might see horsing around on campus. Geoffrey Streatfield plays the enigmatic Irwin, and the excellent Frances de la Tour is Mrs. Lintott, but the play's star is the rotund, Olivier-winning Griffiths. His Hector is no saint, embodying all the ambiguity that Bennett packs into this wise and witty play.

At the National Theatre through April 26; expect a transfer thereafter and an American production someday.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Christopher Rawson is the Post-Gazette drama critic.



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