Don’t just rock the boat. Let fly. Tickets for Nicholas Hytner’s production of boys & dolls will be the most coveted of the season. This 1950 musical (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) has it all. Dialogue and lyrics stand out from Damon Runyon’s short stories, sizzling and punchy. The storyline – which focuses on collision and elision between cheaters and saviors – is energetic, tender and cunning. The musical numbers are non-stop lush – in fact, such a whirl of fame that traffic jams can threaten: “Showstopper” is not always a recommendation when the show has to go on.
This staging never stops asserting itself. Powered by Bunny Christie’s design, Tom Brady’s musical supervision and choreography by Arlene Phillips with James Cousins, it sways up, down and sideways, enveloping the audience without ever dampening the glamor of the performance. In what is becoming a bridge specialty, various scenes are staged on platforms that revolve around a standing audience of 420 people (there are 600 seated spectators). Essential lighting by Paule Constable and design by Christie create a neon orama: scarlet caps and orange cursive, a glowing barber pole, a pliable bright green dart. The Cabaret Hot Box rises and falls; on the other side, Mindy’s deli slides into view; Steam rises from the shaft through which players slip into the sewers.
This is immersive theater with a real punch. Not only do you gain new thrills, you see new jokes because you’re close to the action. This is a thoroughly urban story: it should never freeze into set pieces; it needs hype and faces from the street. Here, the spectators are another backdrop to the frenzied scenes. But the actors are always different. Impolite. Christie and Deborah Andrews’ costumes are a jazz of berets and homburgs, big plaid jackets and cropped tinsel skirts, pink-feathered corsets.
And, oh, the thrill of precise choreography, from the tip of a cap to the toe of a fellow interviewee’s shoe; that scurries across small spaces without appearing cramped, and has more flare than flounce, more expression than attitude. And plenty of savory innovations: The Havana dance sequence is performed by male couples: our hero has to be dragged away by a huggable guy; a dirty grind cabaret act is awesome with carrots.
Marjorie Prime is set in a near future where owning an iPhone is a sign of being ancient
It’s an evening of beautiful swing that doesn’t depend on stars. Still, the leads are terrific. Daniel Mays gives Nathan Detroit a special mix of deviousness and loveliness. Andrew Richardson has an easygoing ease as cool Sky, seeming to relax into happiness and song. As Miss Adelaide (arguably the only heroine to ever sing about a cold), Marisha Wallace rocks the stage like she did at Young Vic’s Oklahoma! Celinde Schoenmaker, who plays the upright Sarah Brown, levitates, melts and unravels spectacularly button by button: the missionary position has never been so captivating. The musical highlights go beyond rousing and beguiling. In the course of Sky and Sarah’s infatuation duets, their voices change into a new mix of sounds, a new beginning. Sarah and Adelaide’s skeptical but loving Marry the Man Today suggests this musical could also be called Dolls & Guys.
Something is happening on Nancy Carroll’s face that I’ve never seen before. It seems to be melting, losing definition: gradually but irrevocably moving from skepticism to an anxious blur. It would almost be worth looking at Marjorie Prime for that alone. Or for the way Anne Reid, who plays Carroll’s implacable mother, puts a huge smile across her features and has you guessing how much it expresses her feelings.
Dominic Dromgoole’s sleek new production, which also features capable performances from Tony Jayawardena and Richard Fleeshman, brings a gentle probing aspect to Jordan Harrison’s playing. Something against the odds. Set in a near future where an iPhone is a sign of aging, the plot revolves around the idea of creating avatars that, when fed real human memories, will be able to honor the dead to replicate and bring comfort to the bereaved.
It premiered in LA in 2014, and Harrison deserves applause for his foresight. There are nice twists on what counts as identifiable personal information: like thinking that the only scent a woman needs is fabric softener. Interesting dilemmas about identity are raised: How much can one forget and still be oneself? How much of someone else’s memories can you store without becoming that person? Though enhanced by Jonathan Fensom’s clever design, in which blue skies morph into unfathomable constellations, the plot intrigues rather than involves, unfolding skillfully but mechanically. Gifted actors suggest another level: how does an audience differentiate between humans and copycat bots?
The Flabbergast Theater Company is well known. They aim to shake an audience. The fast, snapping version of the troupe of The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed and designed by founder Henry Maynard, is driven by the witches who are all too often neglected in contemporary productions. These strange sisters transform into other characters. They deliver the pulse of the action beating on mighty drums.
In true magic style, characters and objects become grotesque, sometimes comically indistinct. Watching the plot unfold is like watching an object take shape and dissolve on a potter’s wheel. Everything on the stage is the color of pale mud: the backdrop of gray canvas, rough, fluttering costumes, smeared faces. Matej Majeka’s direction of movement has the actors process slowly, as if walking through quicksand, or gesture rigidly, like creatures in a frieze. The porter, that usually dreaded unfunny interlude, is a modern day clown: fluid, squeaky-voiced, only occasionally bursting into recognizable words. He is the shadow of the earth, barely clothed. He could be poor Tom he escaped King Lear.
The effect, which was first seen in Edinburgh last summer, can be more taxing than explosive and always more visual than verbal. Speeches burst out as if from a frantic subconscious: exclaiming, slurred at times (I was at a preview), and not very variable in intensity, though multitasking Maynard delivers “tomorrow and tomorrow” with a resonant slowness, suggesting that the time really is had started sneaking. Nevertheless, the imaginative rethinking is noticeable, not least in Adam Clifford’s musical arrangements, which fuse Japanese taiko and English folk songs. The evening ends with an unforgettable chorus by Three Ravens. These witches can turn into anything.
Star rating (out of five)
boys & dolls ★★★★★
Marjorie Prime ★★★
The Tragedy of Macbeth ★★★