Review – She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, 29th January 2017

She Loves MeI’m probably as guilty as anyone else in thinking that Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof and probably not much else. Wrong! Together they wrote nine other shows, including She Loves Me, an adaptation of the 1937 play Illatszertár, by Hungarian dramatist Miklos Laszlo, with whose works I am sure we are all highly familiar. Surprisingly perhaps, the play was also the original basis for three films, including the (relatively) recent You’ve Got Mail. She Loves Me was moderately successful artistically, but didn’t make any money, with a run of 302 performances on Broadway and 189 in the West End. A film, that was to star Julie Andrews, failed to materialise. Nevertheless, a revival in London in 1994 ran for a year and won many awards, and a revival on Broadway in 2016 was very successful – so now we see it back in London at the Menier.

slm5The scene is mainly set in Mr Maraczek’s perfume shop in Budapest, where diligent and respectful sales clerks bend over backwards to satisfy the demanding hoity-toity ladies of the Hungarian capital. Miss Ritter and Mr Kodaly have an on-off relationship which seems to be more off than on as they argue and then spoon despite Maraczek’s disapproval. The second-in-command, Mr Nowack, has been writing love letters to a “dear friend” whom he has never met and he’s getting very agitated about the prospect of finally meeting her. One day a new face appears at the shop – Miss Balash – who impresses Maraczek enough to give her a job. However, she and Nowack start off on the wrong foot and before long they can’t stand the sight of each other. Yes, you’ve guessed it; she’s the recipient of his love letters and neither of them realise it. What happens when the two pen pals finally decide to meet for dinner? Well, you’ll just have to see the show to find out.

slm4It’s a really beautiful, charming, funny and exquisitely musical musical. Paul Farnsworth’s set, which utilises four small revolving stages to transform a Budapest street into an upper class haven of retail delights, is stunning – although I did find the acting space provided for first two scenes of the second act – the hospital and Amalia’s bedroom – a little cramped. Catherine Jayes’ band plays Jerry Bock’s entertaining and beautiful melodies with loads of fun and character, and Sheldon Harnick’s witty and thoughtful lyrics are in very safe hands with a fine cast and sensitive direction by Matthew White. There are a lot of musical numbers in the show, and I appreciated how well each song either progressed the plot or gave us valuable character insights. It’s not a stop-start musical, but rather the book and the songs join seamlessly to create a satisfyingly well-structured piece.

slm3Scarlett Strallen leads the cast in the role of Amalia Balash, with a fine portrayal of both the enthusiastic shop girl head over heels in love and the feisty, obstinate colleague from hell. She sings immaculately – well you knew that already from her appearances in A Chorus Line and Candide. She really nails the humour of the role too – her tear-stained slumping around the bedroom was hilarious, and of course she expresses Harnick’s superb observations with telling accuracy. She’s perfectly matched by Menier favourite Mark Umbers, whom we loved in Sweet Charity and Merrily We Roll Along, with his essential earnestness and hilarious portrayal of Nowack deviously wriggling out of a difficult situation. He sings with great tone and warmth and has a great stage presence.

slm2There are plenty of other show-stealing performances on offer – Katherine Kingsley is officially fabulous as Ilona Ritter, characterising her as a working-class girl whose head is turned – eventually – by the lure of books; the downtrodden voice she gives Miss Ritter is simply brilliant. Dominic Tighe confidently expresses Kodaly’s superiority and smugness, and I’m always impressed by how nifty he is on his feet for a big chap. Alastair Brookshaw’s Sipos is an entertainingly humble everyday guy, with a little more of the wheeler-dealer about him than you might expect; Callum Howells’ delivery boy Arpad is bright as a button and keen as mustard, and Les Dennis plays Maraczek with avuncular generosity until he has cause to doubt the world around him. But for scene-stealing, you only have to look to Norman Pace’s hilarious head waiter at the Café Imperiale, managing his bumbling staff and his unsuspecting customers alike with ruthless authority.

slm1Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in complete agreement that this is a beautiful and classy production that absolutely brings the best out of the cast and the music. But we also agreed that the show itself is extraordinarily lightweight. It’s pure, insignificant light entertainment with absolutely no substance whatsoever. Given the fact that its subjects include adultery, a suicide attempt and broken relationships, there’s not an ounce of gravitas or a provocative moment in the whole two-and-a-half hours. It’s truly a soufflé in an art form where you have the potential to be a Chateaubriand. Depending on your point of view, this may be the perfect escapism from a world of Trump and Brexit. For me, however, it makes the show borderline irrelevant. There’s no doubting the talent that brings all this together, but on the whole I’d prefer to take home memories of something a little more substantial. One year later Harnick and Bock would give the world Fiddler on the Roof, with all its important observations and superb character creativity. Perhaps this show just came one year too early.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Review – Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory, 9th December 2012

Merrily We Roll AlongThank you for your patience, gentle reader. If you’ve been hanging around waiting for an account of another theatre trip, I’ve had to spend the last few weeks twiddling thumbs and urging the diary pages to lurch forward. Still, we’ve broken our fast now, and if you’ve got to wait ages for a show to come around, you might as well wait for a good one. And that’s certainly what the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along is. A very very good one.

What’s really hard to believe is that this 1981 Stephen Sondheim classic was such a flop on its first outing. The lyrics and melodies are Sondheim at his toppermost; George Furth’s book is witty, shocking, sad, funny and everything in between; the characters, storyline and structure are gripping. Obviously what 1981 didn’t have was Maria Friedman in charge; someone who has Sondheim written through her like a stick of rock,Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers  and who can identify and enhance the sweet and sour within each scene, if that isn’t too many food metaphors for you. Ms Friedman introduced us to the show in the delightful 80th birthday gala for Stephen Sondheim at the Derngate in Northampton we saw two years ago, when the first half of the evening was a concert performance of the songs from Merrily. You knew even then that she was itching to direct it. Well, it’s been worth the wait.

Like Pinter’s Betrayal, that we saw at Sheffield earlier this year, it starts at the end and ends at the beginning (must have been a late 70s, early 80s thing.) This gives a whole new dimension to dramatic irony, so as the show develops you watch out for the clues that created the future out of the past. “How did you get to be here” is the big question that’s continually asked as the whole jigsaw puzzle gets assembled in retrospect. Definitive moments from the three friends’ lives are highlighted, each one a “dangerous corner”, as we go back in time to their first meeting. J B Priestley would have loved it.

Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers and Damian HumbleyThe show digs deep into the nature of friendship and loyalty, ambition and expectation, what’s for real and what’s façade, and I for one found it absolutely spellbinding all the way through. Not only do these themes run throughout the show as a whole, you also get visual and musical reminders of them – the interlocking little fingers; the advice to write “from the heart”; the internal rhythms of Charley’s 1973 song “Franklin Shepard Inc” that are proven to be an accurate recollection of their late 1950s Opening Doors scene. These constant little reminders are like individual moments of reward as you appreciate the ebb and flow of the relationships.

Jenna Russell, Josefina Gabrielle and Glyn KerslakePerfectly suited to the intimacy of the Menier, it’s superbly staged – clear, crisp, practical, sensible; no element of the staging has been sacrificed to any directorial whim or “clever idea”, it simply lets the words and music tell their tale, and the occasional spilling out of the action away from the stage only involves the audience even more. One segment of the song “It’s a Hit” was performed so close to where Mrs Chrisparkle and I were sitting that we had to bring our feet and coats in a bit otherwise they would have formed part of the action too. I love it when it gets that close.

It’s not only the quiet, revelatory, personal songs that come across so well, the big numbers are also impressively staged. I loved the whole opening scene in Frank’s Beach House with the company doing “That Frank” – engaging, funny, insightful and beautifully put together – only Mr Ashley Robinson’s microphone was not quite loud enough for his voice to be heard over the music. The scene at Gussie and Joe’s Brownstone in 1962 with all the decadent trendsetters doing “The Blob” was equally entertaining (Mrs C was laughing her head off at it actually). And I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so camp – but absolutely realistic in its context – as Act Two’s opening scene, the finale of “Musical Husbands” involving French tap dancers and Miss Josefina Gabrielle in best vamp mode; quite brilliant.

The whole castJenna Russell is mesmerising as Mary, the aspiring writer who writes one big successful novel but for whom further success dwindles as she relies more and more on alcoholic support. She makes a fantastic old sot of a sourpuss in that opening scene, instantly combining rich comic timing with desperately pathetic sadness. There’s no doubt it’s a superb role – and she really makes the most of it. You follow the sequence of emotions that the character experiences and she tugs at your heartstrings at each event. It’s a wonderful performance.

Mark Umbers, as the hideously successful Frank shows an impressive progress or regression from ambitious purist to selfish sell-out or vice versa, depending on which time structure you’re observing. Mrs C wasn’t over convinced by his characterisation of the very young Frank, finding his youthful innocence a bit girlie and simpering; I know what she means, but I was prepared to forgive it as I was so rapt by the entire show anyway.Josefina Gabrielle in full flow At least the youthful Frank is a bit different from the older Frank, which cannot really be said for the youthful Mary and Charley. Mr Umbers has a great voice and stage presence and he uses them wisely.

Damian Humbley, a very sharp-toothed Harry in Company at Sheffield last Christmas, takes to the role of Charley like the proverbial duck to water, with his opening scene including the show-stopping “Franklin Shepard, Inc”, a bitter slice of savage Sondheim from which Charley and Frank’s friendship cannot recover. Mr Humbley does it brilliantly. His verbal dexterity throughout the whole show is remarkable – I loved his contributions to the Bobbie and Jackie and Jack routine when they’re doing their revue as youngsters.

Clare FosterJosefina Gabrielle is terrifically well cast as the manipulative star Gussie, and her singing and dancing is superb as always. She throws herself into the part with huge gusto and you cannot take your eyes off her when she’s onstage. Her drifting away from husband Joe towards Frank, and Frank’s subsequent rejection of her is all rivetingly well expressed. In a relatively unglamorous role, Glyn Kerslake as Joe does a wonderful progression/deterioration from all-powerful producer to toothless cuckold and it’s an amazingly good portrayal of how influence wanes (or grows, depending on your time perspective).

But all the cast are terrific. It’s a tremendous ensemble – and although the rest of the cast join the applause for the three leading performers at curtain call, each and everyone gives their all and is equally important to the success of the show. Clare Foster as Beth, for example, Frank’s first wife, is stunning as an emotional wreck the first time we see her, and as their earlier days together are revealed, you understand how she’s never going to recover from the shock of the marriage breakdown.Amy Ellen Richardson, Robbie Scotcher, Martin Callaghan and Joanna Woodward Superb support from the likes of Martin Callaghan, Amanda Minihan, Amy Ellen Richardson and Kirk Patterson too, whose appearance as the Reverend is one of the funniest retorts against racism I’ve ever seen on stage. Big up to young Noah Miller who played Frank Jnr on the performance we saw – super singing and word perfect, his use as a pawn in his parents’ warring brought a lump to your throat.

Just two more observations – what a great band! They’re stuck in what looks like a converted garage office at the side of the stage but they can’t half wallop out a show tune. And congratulations to whoever it was that went out and bought all the coats that get used in the course of the show. Some of them were exquisite. I felt like scouring Ebay for similar items as soon as I got home. Wasn’t quite so convinced by all the white socks, however.

All in all a wonderful production of a sensational show; it was one of those occasions that reminded me exactly why I love the theatre. It’s already got a two-week extension at the Menier tagged on to what would otherwise have been the end of its run – but surely this is not going to be the last we see of this. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.