Whatever next? Abu Ghraib the Musical!? Guantánamo the Musical!?
Any new musical is a tremendous risk but to stage one set in 1942 about the occupants of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw staging a show about Masada (where a siege by troops of the Roman Empire in AD 73 led to the mass suicide of Jewish rebels who preferred death to surrender) seems like, well, suicide.
Choose the same venue that housed the mega-flop Gone With the Wind – The Musical! and you might as well be go round backstage shouting “Macbeth” at every Tom, Dick and Manny.
Then there is the misfortune of staging it at a time when “the R word” is tightening belts.
And finally you have to take into account that this is, after all, Whingertown and the Whingers are curiously resistant to new musicals (all the good musicals having already been written in our humble opinion).
Suddenly GWTW begins to look like a relatively good idea. At least it was based on a much loved source, was staged by a well-known director of successful musicals (Trevor Nunn) and contained what these days amounts to a crowd-puller in the form of Darius Danesh. Not to mention those hoop skirts.
But “love grows in the most unexpected places” runs the tag line for Imagine This and so, it seems, do musicals. For the Whingers found themselves pleasantly and unexpectedly surprised.
Shuki Levy‘s music may not produce the most memorable score ever but it’s very effective: particularly the prologue number – “The Last Day of Summer” (Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939) – and the anthemic title song.
But then – to be fair – one of the main problems with new musicals is that you haven’t heard them enough times for the tunes to be hummable. Phil remarked that the most hummable song from the first act was a rousing soupçon of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” but Andrew thinks this was a misguided attempt at dark humour. [UPDATE: At an unscheduled emergency editorial tele-conference the following day, each Whinger independently revealed that he had found himself humming a tune from the show: “The Last Day of Summer” (Andrew) and “Masada” (Phil). Extraordinary.]
But people who are happy humming tunes from Les Miserables will have no trouble embracing these. David Goldsmith‘s lyrics are more than serviceable and if the comedy songs are not quite Cole Porter, you have to admit that no-one is.
Yes, comedy numbers. Imagine This doesn’t have that many laugh out loud moments (although Andrew sniggered at “Sarah Bernhardt gave that to my father after she saw his Hamlet”) but Jewish humour is given a welcome airing including one song wisely crafted to facilitate a couple of funny jokes of the Rabbi Lionel Blue variety.
Phil had a problem with the first act. The play within a play structure sat uncomfortably and didn’t give the performers enough time to establish anything resembling character before they had to double up playing other parts in their Masada play. This was resolved early in the second act when an incredibly strong Sophie’s Choice type dilemma injected a dramatic tension that David Hare’s Gethsemane could only dream of.
There’s lots of wintry light (effective lighting by Tim Mitchell) steaming through high up windows, raggedly dressed characters huddling in groups looking miserable, furniture and general detritus being built up to suggest scenic configurations, red banners waving around and a stage revolve. So nothing like Les Miz then.
The romantic leads (Leila Benn Harris and Simon Gleeson) have excellent voices and while Andrew thought Peter Polycarpou seemed to not yet quite have found his stride (this is a preview) he makes a most engaging anchor for the story.
Phil on the other hand thought he was very good and gave a nicely understated performance rarely seen in musicals.
Sound-wise there are still one or two hitches: having problems hearing many of the performers over the noise of the lighting rig fans there were times when Phil wanted to shout, “Sing out, June!”.
It’s directed by Timothy Sheader who made such a good job with the unlikely revival of Gigi at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this year. Sheader delivers the show with verve and, well, chutzpah and makes full use of the quite outstanding, cathedral-scale synagogue-scale set (an abandoned train depot in the Warsaw Ghetto which had chilling echoes of Birkenau) by Eugene Lee who is almost forgiven for Wicked.
Speaking of which, the Whingers were fully expecting to feast on an early musical turkey this winter. On paper Imagine This sounds as misguided as Springtime for Hitler and while it’s not Hairspray or even Zorro, it soars above most recent new musicals – Wicked, Take Flight, Gone With The Wind – that the Whingers have endured. The Whingers were accused of “sealing its (GWTW‘s) fate” in The Guardian which resulted in a deluge of emails congratulating them but on this occasion they have to say that Imagine This is a jolly well done.
The last 15 minutes are particularly effective and left the Whingers unexpectedly moved. Not as much, perhaps, as the woman next to Phil who gasped in shock at one inevitable development (but then she was American and probably didn’t see it coming) or the woman next to Andrew who sobbed into her Kleenex. Judging by the cheers of the audience at the curtain call and several who awarded standing ovations (probably Americans too – they’re on a high at the moment so it’s excused this time) it could prove to be the next surprise hit.
If the crowds who turn out for Les Miz (and God knows there are enough of them) aren’t deterred by the credit crunch The Whingers imagine this could be the just the fare they’ve been looking for. Imagine that.
Who would have thought that tickets would be so hard to come by?
The Whingers almost had enough entertainment for one day simply trying to obtain tickets for the show; indeed they felt they’d had their money’s worth before the show had started.
When Phil turned up at the Leicester Square Tickets booth Imagine This was not listed. He was informed the producers “were in discussion whether to put it on the booth or not” and was advised to come back in 20 minutes.
Deciding to fill that time by ambling over to the New London Theatre to enquire about day seats he found an empty box office. Eventually after five or more minutes of finger drumming (which would surely deter all but the most determined punter) he was attended to, only to be told that there were no day seats.
But he decided to purchase the cheapest seats (£17.50 reduced to £7.50 for previews) with the plan of moving to better seats once the house lights went down.
On attempting to pay with good, old-fashioned cash the solitary but friendly box office Alan Carr lookalike informed him that they couldn’t open the safe to give him any change – no-one had turned up at the box office that morning (and no other punters either) and the poor man had been seconded in from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to help out.
As it happened the seats were rubbish but at £7.50 The Whingers were hardly in a position to complain. Some half-hearted pleading with an usher to be relocated came to nothing (and to be fair, the theatre was fuller than one might expect) but then a miracle occurred: moments before the show began a charming American woman with big hair (presumably a producer, possibly Beth Trachtenberg, as she sat a few rows behind them with other creatives) came and invited the Whingers to move to a prime position at the centre front of the circle. Phil is still fantasising that she recognised the Whingers and knew which side her bread was buttered. Andrew is unconvinced.
Either way it was a good move for the show and a bargain for the Whingers.