Review – Imagine This The Musical! New London Theatre

Thursday 13 November 2008

Imagine This

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.

Footnote

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.

43 Responses to “Review – Imagine This The Musical! New London Theatre”

  1. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Another opening, another Shoah?


  2. Damn. Why didn’t we think of that? Well done.

    Let’s see what Shuttleworth comes up with.


  3. Only a query about running time, I’m afraid. I’m not on FT duty for the show, so will be catching up with it on Friday 21st.


  4. How remiss of us! Two and a half hours. Quite creditable.

  5. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    I almost neglected to forget: following on from ‘Take That’ and ‘Imagine This’, I’m calling my latest musical masterpiece ‘Stuff You’. It’s the Scrooge story told from the point of view of Bob Cratchit’s turkey. And in a nod to the recession, I’m thinking of offering tickets for an inflation-busting £150. We all have to do our bit.


  6. Looks like I’m gonna have to look at booking this one on the strength of this review, cheers Whingers!

  7. hank schneider Says:

    we saw the preview in plymouth in 07 and invested in the play. the music is incredible and the energy is hard to beat. good music,great voices,unforgettable story, and overwhelming audience appreciation.

  8. Real Live Theater Says:

    I enjoyed reading your review and am glad to know that live theatre is alive and well in the West End. I’ll be back again to read more of your reviews. Thanks and forever break legs! Cheers!


  9. I found this surprisingly good as well when I went. Is the character of Pompey from Pompeii still distractingly camp? It’s been a couple of weeks and some of us were asked to fill out those lovely post-show surveys afterwards and that was something both my companion for the evening and I commented on.

  10. Nicholas A Says:

    We saw the try-out in Plymouth, and found the show very moving. I believe that there have been changes to the production with the move to London (not least – one member of the original cast is now in Jersey Boys, and I am told that the dog has gone). Will probably go to see it again.


  11. @ Rogue: Not distractingly camp, no. Sounds as though they’ve toned that down.

    @ Nicholas: There was a dog????? Was it a singing role?

  12. David D Says:

    I hear this baby is HUGE. Am flying to London from USA next week specifically to see it on 11/21 and 11/22. Have you all seen the web site for this musical? It sure looks big, big, big.

  13. Dissenting Voice Says:

    I’ve just listened to a couple of songs on the official website. Be afraid, be very afraid: horrible schmaltzy music, banal clunking rhymes. A Holocaust musical? I thought we’d scraped the bottom of that barrel with Bent, but this seems actually worse. I hope I’m wrong.


  14. No, whatever you do, don’t listen to the music on the website. Big mistake. We did that.


  15. Am I being too, too paranoid, or have you guys now become so influential that viral marketing campaigns are being conducted on your site in the form of series of supposedly spontaneous rave comments from quote members of the public unquote?

  16. Sophia (a clueless American) Says:

    I’m American, and embarrassed that my fellow Americans would either gasp or give a standing O, as I thought this show merited neither. This would last a day in New York. But you Brits love your big overblown musicals, don’t you?

  17. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    er Sophia just how long did Lez Miz/Phantom/Miss Saigon/Cats run on Broadway ?

    Gutted they took out the dog -lets start a campaign to put it back in!

  18. Adelle Says:

    Saw show while in previews in London on 11/11. Thought it was a clever idea, comparing Masada to the ghetto. Cast was good but think it needs a big name of a stature similar to an actor like a Zero Mostel, Theodore Bikel or a Harvey Fierstone, to attract the audience and the media coverage it needs – at least for the first few months. Same with young leads. Suggested that at end writing on curtain needs to be more damming and include the word ‘Death” somewhere for shock value. Opening number particularly attractive. Enjoyed the show and would like to see it be successful.

  19. Fringelover Says:

    I can see why Americans love it. I was aghast when the first verse of the title song asked us to imagine a figure holding a torch rising from the sea and just in case we hadn’t got the point one of the getto group draped in a clogh stood on a table holding aloft a rolled-up paper ( I think that’s what it was – I was writhing under my seat so couldn’t see. ) Other than that, excellent lead performance for such tosh but the choreography was weak. The ‘Salome’ quasi-belly dance number was truly dire.


  20. […] score and complex subject matter in the West End and was very hopeful and quite touched by the West End Whingers’ review. In reality though, it actually made me feel quite nauseous. Please don’t tell me not […]

  21. precious Says:

    Harvey Fierstein? Zero Mostel? Throdore Bickel? Would the average British punter have a clue who they are??? Or are we just promoting to Americans now?

  22. The Gibbster Says:

    I’m flying in with David D. wouldn’t miss it.

  23. Dan Says:

    I’m shocked that people who saw the show in Plymouth enjoyed it – it was absolutely awful, with so many problems that should have been avoided (40 mins before the first song? A pointlessly large set that caused sightline issues? A truly misguided ending?).

    Having not seen the show since its transfer, I’m assuming a LOT of changes have been made – I know the producers had a lot of things to mull over before the transfer, and it was no secret that some of them (and also some backers) were pretty disappointed with what they saw.


  24. I can’t remember how long it was before the songs started up again after the opening in London but it certainly wasn’t 40 minutes. I also suspect that the set was built with the New London’s dimensions (one circle) in mind, not the theatre in Plymouth’s.

    Meanwhile the papers are weighing in and are unsurprisingly trashing the show. I’d say it’s Gone With The Wind all over again, except there’s a genuine word of mouth that is slowly but surely building. While I won’t say we have another Wicked on our hands, I don’t see Imagine This closing overnight either.


  25. Having seen it Thursday night, I liked the show and thought it deserves success… It is a far superior show than Gone With The Wind (although GWTW had more laughs)…

    And didn’t the singing start straight away??!


  26. I believe the show ‘Imagine this’ to be one of the bravest shows on a London stage for a very long time….It has integrity, heart, and commitment…Very important characteristics, much lacking in our dear Britain and indeed our precious world…Yes, it is set in a Warsaw Ghetto, yes it is a play within a play which also tells the story of Jewish sufferance…However, at this point I believe our narrow-minded critics fall short of the overall picture..This is a story for everyone. ….’Imagine this’ is about people everywhere. It is about courage, pride, truth, principles, humanity and love…
    Are we so scared to believe these qualities are still attainable? ‘Safely’ favouring trivia like ‘I’m a celebrity..’ and listening to judges/critics bullying another celebrity, who has given his heart and time for charity? Surely the point is lost..It’s not about being the best dancer…Otherwise, the public would have voted differently..It’s about generosity, spirit, humour and more than anything, appreciation of life….
    I was lucky enough to be at the press night of ‘Imagine this’ and I stood spontaneously at the end of the show, with an entire packed New London theatre audience,screaming through floods of tears at the immense feeling of hope…
    Hope…for the future of the unity of our cosmos, with which we have hope for our world…with which we have hope to love life and indeed ….live it!!!
    ‘Imagine this’ has a brilliant score, challenging the usual West End musical. The choreography is exciting, innovative and intimate in its understatedness. The staging and lighting give the sense that anything indeed is possible…The performances have a great energised universality… Through Peter Polycarpou’s fresh, truthful and sonoric portrayal of Daniel (Eleazar) Warshowski, he displays a heartfelt leader whose choices leave us all thinking about our individual and collective morals and our personal duty to respect our world, our lives and our part in each other’s.
    Imagine that!!!!!!

    • Nancy Enright Says:

      Wonderful review! My sentiments exactly. Thus far I have only listened to the CD and love it. Purchased the video and play to see it this week. Looking forward to London so I can see for myself how wonderful it really is. Perhaps my visit to the Ghetto and concentration camps has influenced my thinking but in my opinion that is a real benefit. Long live Imagine This!!!!

  27. blah Says:

    ….And the above post links through to a web-site for a double act starring Eve Polycarpou; surely no relation to the fresh truthful and sonoric Peter Polycarpou?

    Imagine That!!!!!

    Hopefully when this piece of Holo-Porn closes it will take the shillers with it.

  28. J.A. Says:

    Love grows, where my Rosemary goes?


  29. Well, having seen both the show and some further comments posted here, I’m more persuaded than ever that you guys have now attained the status of being programmatically propaganda-bombed by those wishing to big up what was the least satisfying show I saw in a week that also included “Treasure Island” and “The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes”, so that’s saying something. I’m sorry the lead actor’s ¿sister? feels we “fall short of the overall picture”; personally, I believe that picture should include not just the emotions being called up by the script, but the crudeness with which they attempt to manipulate us into feeling them, and that one’s mind should be broad enough to take account of such manipulation as well. Here, just as with a poorly shot episode of Thunderbirds, you can see all the strings. If I were to note that the book was written by the former executive producer of TV’s “Touched By An Angel”, you may get the idea.

    “Gone With The Wind” lasted eight weeks after its opening; I’ll lay money this doesn’t beat it.


  30. Ian – Surely part of the charm of Thunderbirds is that you can see all the strings?

    We weren’t bored and we didn’t cringe at the lyrics and these are our two of our principal criteria for a musical.

    Looking back, however, I think our main response was one of relief that it wasn’t as bad as Gone With The Wind. Reading between the lines, others felt that too. Strange that GWTW should – in it’s way – have become a benchmark.

    Thank Goodness that La Cage Aux Folles is around to provide a benchmark at the opposite end of the scale.

  31. SBS Says:

    We live in a particularily jaded world where reality shows rule and musicals like Wicked get top billing.Lets face it. Wicked was written for teeny boppers,who relate to toy boys being poached by best friends.If Les Mis came out today it would get slaughtered.Such are the times we live in.
    I just came back to Philadelphia after being lucky enough to see Imagine This twice.The energy of the show is amazing,the music is outstanding and the performers sing and act their guts out.Simon Gleeson plays Adam with poignancy and steals the show with his beautiful voice.Both performances that I saw on the weekend received well deserved standing ovations—so give it a break;it’s a brave and flawlessly executed piece with a heart and a soul.

  32. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    My God, the whole cast are at it now.

  33. J.A. Says:

    “If Les Mis came out today it would get slaughtered”

    Well it was ‘slaughtered’ 20 odd years ago dear but has managed to limp along quite well since then.

  34. martyn Says:

    i look nothing like alan car. friendly maybe but alan carr. quite offended.


  35. Martyn – Apologies. Do you wear glasses? Phil thinks that anyone in glasses looks like Alan Carr. Please don’t take it personally.

  36. JohnnyFox Says:

    Well, it’s official. Beth Trachtenberg pulled the plug and it closes December 20. At least you can’t be accused of putting in the fatal stiletto this time.

    Speaking of deserving fatalities, whither the review of Sunset Boulevard?


  37. Just heard the show has been given a notice to close…Sure some of the people who have given their backstabbing comments will be delighted…Feel very saddened by some of the heartless things that have been said…especially those spiteful comments of “Closing Early…Imagine That. Good riddance!” by one Stephanie. What goes around comes around dear… So many people who were expecting to be working for at least the next few months will now be unemployed from December 20th and all through Xmas and well into the New Year.

    As I said in my review…

    I believe the show ‘Imagine this’ to be one of the bravest shows on a London stage for a very long time….It has integrity, heart, and commitment…Very important characteristics, much lacking in our dear Britain and indeed our precious world…Yes, it is set in a Warsaw Ghetto, yes it is a play within a play which also tells the story of Jewish sufferance…However, at this point I believe our narrow-minded critics fall short of the overall picture..This is a story for everyone. ….’Imagine this’ is about people everywhere. It is about courage, pride, truth, principles, humanity and love… Are we so scared to believe these qualities are still attainable? ‘Safely’ favouring trivia like ‘I’m a celebrity..’ and listening to judges/critics bullying another celebrity, who has given his heart and time for charity? Surely the point is lost..It’s not about being the best dancer…Otherwise, the public would have voted differently..It’s about generosity, spirit, humour and more than anything, appreciation of life…. I was lucky enough to be at the press night of ‘Imagine this’ and I stood spontaneously at the end of the show, with an entire packed New London theatre audience,screaming through floods of tears at the immense feeling of hope… Hope…for the future of the unity of our cosmos, with which we have hope for our world…with which we have hope to love life and indeed ….live it!!! ‘Imagine this’ has a brilliant score, challenging the usual West End musical. The choreography is exciting, innovative and intimate in its understatedness. The staging and lighting give the sense that anything indeed is possible…The performances have a great energised universality… Through Peter Polycarpou’s fresh, truthful and sonoric portrayal of Daniel (Eleazar) Warshowski, he displays a heartfelt leader whose choices leave us all thinking about our individual and collective morals and our personal duty to respect our world, our lives and our part in each other’s. Imagine that!!!!!! – Eve Adam

  38. Mark I Says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if they could invent a way to post a “pointer word” or “link” which could take you to other text – perhaps even to another whole website – rather than just copying and pasting great blocks of it all over the internets?

    We can dream.

    Mxx

    • Rada Aluminum Says:

      Dear Eve – what the general consensus seems to be is that it’s a fine premise,
      and I agree, well staged; the show is a bit late in its message of hope…west end theater caters to a tough audience that prefers to “cut to the chase” rather than squirmimg in their seats; as olivier once said…”timing is everything, unless it can become timeless” – best, rada

  39. Diane Says:

    I am watching Imagine this on PBS and joined the broadcast 25 minutes into the production. Is it my imagination but the music sounds like Les Mes but with different words and weaker voices?

  40. Commentator Says:

    Watching this on PBS I can see the problem. Much of the show is unconvincing posturing–someone’s idea at one remove of what a musical should be rather than a portrayal of the real thing; the real emotions; the immersion in the roles that come with a great show. There are a few moments of surprise and tension, but not enough to rescue an otherwise ersatz version of a dramatic musical. Even the characters’ facial expressions when not in the limelight are unconvincing.

    Good intentions do not a great musical make. Salieri, not Mozart, is what we have here.


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