We’re still a wee bit shell-shocked, to be honest. Contrary to early reports, this is NOT car-crash theatre and this is NOT train-wreck theatre. This is the theatre of two trains colliding on a level crossing on which is stuck a Robin Reliant of orphans on their only day out of the year. With their pets. Oh, and did we mention there was a big tanker coming in the other direction full of flammable chemicals?
Or to put it another way Paradise Found is Kismet meeting The Great Waltz via A Little Night Music, Carry On Emmannuelle and Up The Chastity Belt. Except, well, again, not so much “meets” as “crashes into”, with the wreckage strewn the length and breadth of Southwark Street.
And yet we couldn’t tear ourselves away from watching.
And we are still very much in a state of shock.
Thankfully others have not been so badly affected with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also in the auditorium on that sweltering Sunday afternoon were JohnnyFox, WebCowgirl and – although we didn’t realise at the time – Not The West End Whingers (an exciting new addition to the blogosphere) all of whom have managed to come to terms with the experience by writing about it and – hopefully – move on and rebuild their lives.
So to help us come to terms with what we witnessed our counsellor has asked us to try and write down what we’ve learned so that we might derive something useful from the experience and achieve some closure. So here goes:
1. You can’t judge a book by the number of Tony awards held by the creative team
The Menier Chocolate Factory is nominated for an incredible 15 Tony awards this year (in addition to its nine previous nominations). The legendary director, Harold “Hal” Prince has 21 Tony Awards plus another 17 nominations under his belt. Co-director/choreographer Susan “von Stroheim” Stroman (she of The Producers) has five Tonys plus a further six nominations). The orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, one of only eight living people to hold all of the big four awards: Tony, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy The lighting is by Tony winner Howell Binkley (plus three other nominations) and the costumes by Tony winner Judith Dolan. The cast have at least three Tony wins and a further 11 nominations between them.
We’ve run out of fingers and toes (Phil can actually count to 21 using this method) but we make that 36 Tony wins plus 72 nominations, and we haven’t even started on the producers or mentioned the countless Olivier and Drama Desk awards and nominations etc.
Suffice to say: one of the trains was transporting a cargo of Rolls Royces, the other a set of lesser known – but nevertheless priceless – Old Masters.
2. The operetta is NOT a genre well overdue for a revival
This most curious of confections is a an operetta set in Vienna in the late nineteen century. We are fairly certain that the technical term for a Vienna Operetta is a Vienetta
The book is by Tony winner Richard Nelson and the songs are set to the music of Johann Strauss II (No Tonys. Not even nominated! But on the plus side it’s one less mouth for the royalties to feed). Sadly Strauss’ music just doesn’t suit the conventions of musical theatre: every number sounds pretty much like the previous one and the lyrics are lost in the unforgiving phrasing of the music – indeed, most of Ellen Fitzhugh‘s lyrics are rendered inaudible, particularly the choral stuff.
It’s almost too wearisome to go into the absurd plot which is based on Joseph Roth‘s novel The Tale of the 1002nd Night* but the gist of it is that it has something to do with the elderly Shah of Persia (John McMartin – 5 Tony nominations) who is feeling a little peaky and disinclined to make love to any of his numerous wives. He takes himself off to Vienna with his chief eunuch (Mandy “Battleship” Patinkin – Tony Award plus 2 nominations, Emmy Award plus 2 nominations Golden Globe nomination) where he gets the hots (it’s actually an erection) for the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and demands to sleep with her.
To avoid an international incident the eunuch and the baron (Tony winner Shuler Hensley) enlist the help of brothel-keeper Frau Matzner (Judy Kaye – 1 Tony, 2 nominations) and they agree to substitute one of her employees, Mizzi (Kate Baldwin current Tony nominee for Finian’s Rainbow), who just happens to be a dead ringer for the Empress for the Shah’s very noisy night of passion. Less Paradise Found more Shah’s Gotta Have It.
On and on it goes until you think the end might finally be in sight and then it cuts to 15 years later and plods along some more. Bewilderingly the eunuch in the meantime now resembles Oscar Wilde and seems either to have had surgery to re-attach his bits or he has had vocal coaching as his voice no longer screeches.
3. There is always someone worse off than yourself
This terminally dreary show has clearly had more money thrown at it than the Duchess of York, but with a very slipshod aim (and probably underarm like a girl or the Whingers). The big problem is unquestionably the book, but no matter how unendurable the show is you have to spare a thought for the cast and not least for poor Mr Patinkin who to play the eunuch is obliged to shave his head, sing even higher than usual, squint like Robert De Nero, dress like a Hare Krishna and produces noises like Kermit the frog.
It is meant to be funny but these have to be some of the unfunniest comedy numbers ever. Was there anyone in the audience laughing? Not that we could detect. The sound of silence in the audience was palpably embarrassing. Many were asleep. Come the curtain call, there was polite applause evenly spread among the cast.
Some of the dialogue made little or no sense (“Being a castrate focuses the mind”). How each performer came to a decision about what their character was trying to say and why is beyond us. You have to admire them. Some of the dialogue aimed for platitude and fell short – “We learn so much from just watching other people” says the chief eunuch wisely a propos of.. well… nothing.
Only mild smiles were inadvertently elicited from lyrics such as like “from rising star to a poor old stumble bumble” and from lines such as “I’ve not finished with my gugelhupf” to the breathtakingly cavalier “Theatre is never as interesting as real life”. But to derive any pleasure one had to put one’s own spin on things. When someone addressed the eunuch with “I will get back to you about the rugs” Phil’s mind immediately wandered to one of the few redeeming factors – the wigs by rug supremo Richard Mawbey (no Tonys; they don’t give Tonys for wigs).
The Whingers found their own own bit of paradise by escaping for air afterwards to sit on the kerb with their heads in their hands, trying to make sense of the disaster they had just witnessed but frankly we don’t think we shall ever quite recover.
* In the event that your appetite to know more about The Tale Of The 1002nd Night has been piqued you might want to rush along and see this LAMDA student production – a sparkling and epic new play about despair, escapism and whether art can save us.
** So many questions, not least: why does the cover of the programme look like a drawing from The Joy Of Sex?