Review – Paradise Found, Menier Chocolate Factory

Tuesday 25 May 2010

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.

Mandy Patinkin - Kate Baldwin - Shuler Hensley in Paradise Found

Mandy Patinkin, Kate Baldwin and Shuler Hensley in Paradise Found

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?



30 Responses to “Review – Paradise Found, Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. Dickie and Butch Says:

    Hello boys! Glad you see we agree on this one! Can you believe they are still talking about a Broadway transfer?

  2. Do you think it will still be running by the time we get to see it (if we can be bothered) on June 6th? It sounds just dreadful!

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    Good lord. Did this deserve a whole new picture to express what just happened?

    I wish like hell that while this giant pile of talent is gathered together in our fair (as in “fair to middlin”) city they could come up with some sort of one-off production they could do that actually let them demonstrate their talents. John McMartin just oozed talent – his ability to perform his role as if it wasn’t a horrible joke alone attests to his skill – and I would LOVE to see him do something I could actually enjoy. And he is so old. What are the chances of me ever getting to see him on stage again at all?

    Finally, I’m surprised you didn’t use the line “Mandy ‘Potempkin’,” but then I don’t think he can be blamed for creating this house of cards.

  4. NotTheNotTheWestEndWhingers Says:

    I am delighted to see the premiere of the new ZERO GLASSES OF WINE graphic.

  5. […] extraordinarily sunny Sunday afternoon, it was hard to describe the atmosphere amongst my 10 or so theater loving friends. Was it glum? Was it funereal? It was certainly creative, as we struggled to put into words the […]

  6. JohnnyFox Says:

    ROFL. Of course it’s a ‘Viennetta’, why didn’t I think of that ?

    Possibly because we were brought up on Wall’s vanilla and given a thick ear even for asking for Raspberry Ripple.

    Where did you rip the production photograph from, I’m surprised they’re circulating prior to official opening night?

    And did you edit the poster yourself to lose the final ‘e’ from Premier and the misplaced acute accent, or has the management caught up with its own imperfections ?

    On the poster, at least.

  7. Anyado Says:

    I won’t see this… But just to reassure you that one good thing came out of your suffering: I was highly entertained & amused by your review!

  8. Chris Voisey Says:

    Since Saturday evening I have been on the edge of my seat – seat mind you, not Menier banquette – to see what you thought of this.

    I was in the third row… there were times I could hardly bring myself to look at the stage, I was so sorry for these performers STRAINING to make the damn thing work.

    I couldn’t agree more about the relentless hurdy-gurdyness of the Strauss score – every song no matter what the subject matter had the same tempo.

    I was also close enough to marvel at the joke-shop costumes – whoever did Shuler Hensley’s officer outfit should be shot to say nothing of the schmate that Nancy Opel is dressed in by Mandy Patinkin – like, this is your BEST? The set – all black reflecting walls – looked like it would be better suited for THE STUD: THE MUSICAL than for the Austr-Hungarian Empire.

    Kate Baldwin, Judy Kaye and John McMartin did the best they could under the circumstances I suppose.

    In 1990 I saw Battleship Patinkin in the woeful BORN AGAIN at Chichester – is he doomed to appear in this country in anti-musical musicals?

    Oh and is it me or do you think the artwork for PARADISE FOUND would be better suited for the upcoming ASPECTS OF LOVE? That surely isn’t John McMartin’s arse…

  9. Seeing as how the costumes are by Angels, the world-famous theatrical and film costumiers, I think someone ought to be shot. Most of them looked like they had been found after a good rummage in the dressing up box. And why was Mandy dressed like Oscar Wilde in Act 2.

    The defining memory for me of this production will be Mr. Patinikin geisha-stepping around the stage in his harikrishna-esque robes with a hat that wouldnt’ disgrace Bill and Ben and screeching “Perfect Love!”


  10. Jan O Says:

    Wonderful review. If that scene in the dressing room had continued for minute longer I think I’d have run onto the stage, grabbed the gun out of his hand and shot myself.

    It was also amusing to see the Eunuch in Act 2 using a clicky retractable ballpoint pen – when they weren’t invented until 1950!

  11. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Chris, goodness you’ve jogged my memory – I’d completely forgotten Mandy P was in Born Again, he (and José Ferrer) were the reason I trailed to Chichester.
    Wasn’t it dreadful? But wasn’t it great seeing those Rhino costumes still turning up in the London Marathon for years and years…

  12. Lee Wilson Says:

    I was there on Sunday Matinee too, with this cast it was like putting a Rolls Royce engine into a 1972 Ford Capri.

    I hope we get to see Shuler Hensley more often in the West End though, he is really is a fantastic performer, just a shame he is in this mess.

  13. Kelly Hamilton Says:

    I’m reading all your comments from America — I have so many friends involved in this production! It sounds terrible, and I am so heartbroken, because so many of them really, really needed a hit(as do we all). On behalf of my fellow American musical theater friends (so many of them so talented), I apologize for any pains you may have suffered!

  14. Joe Says:

    I saw the Saturday matinee last weekend and overheard a few of the creative team talking afterwards and one them said it was “a good performance”. It was dreadful.

    A friend of mine saw the Friday show and she said they were having major technical problems during the scene changes, so much so that for most of the second half they had to have stagehands lug bits of set about for each change.

  15. The Omnivore Says:

    It’s basically the plot “Sex and the City 2”, in reverse. Although I think SATC2 got better reviews.

  16. webcowgirl Says:

    A friend of mine last night said it sounded like the plot to Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America.” I’ve been searching for the right combination of abysmal badness to compare this show to, and perhaps for once she’s nailed it on the head. A spike through the heart would, however, be much more appropriate.

  17. Jay Says:

    My darlings – I was alerted to your existence by a sympathetic member of staff at the Menier, to whom I poured out my mostly incoherent, breathless ramblings at the end of Act I, which went something like “But…. it’s… so…. bad…. and… Harold…. Susan… How? … Why?… shite… eunuch… ugly…. can’t…. pain…. help… need… wine…”

    Having regained the power of speech, and concluded that this is, quite possibly, the worst show I’ve seen in London, and a giant turkey of a production (actually, more like the fungus that grows in the impacted fecal matter of a dead turkey’s ass), I’m relieved to find you boys expressing so eloquently what I and the mostly septuagenarian Home Counties crowd at the Sunday matinee only dared to think.

    This is truly, madly, deeply appalling theatre, for which there is really no excuse. Where to begin? Dreadful, outdated, racist sexist homophobic plot that wanted to be Benny Hill meets Deepak Chopra, garish, migraine-inducing costumes and set, dirge-like music, lyrics with the grace and wit of a sledgehammer, awkward Hot Hoofers choreography, and a desperate vulgarity of tone. The zombified cast mugged desperately and resorted to out-shrieking each other, no doubt to drown out the voices in their heads saying “Fire your agent for getting you a role in this piece of crap!”. Even Dame Mandy Pantinkin was terrible, sweating like a rapist and apparently re-experiencing his voice breaking as he swooped between octaves. Was this male menopause as performance art?

    Well, I suppose I shouldn’t really judge, since I only lasted till the end of Act I. As the curtain came down, I tried to lift my hands off my lap to bring them together to make some applause (after all, no one had actually shat themselves on stage, and the sound engineer deserved some applause for trying to make the bat-out-of-hell shrieking on stage sound mildly listenable) but it was like I’d had a stroke. My arms couldn’t move, but my legs got me out of there faster than a truck stop hooker chasing her crack dealer. How, how, HOW did you manage to last till the end of Act II? I admire your fortitude. Or maybe you’re just masochists. But please keep writing.

  18. But now I’m wondering if they have done some tweaking with it because we went on Sunday and although some aspects were appalling, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting… I just think they’ve credited the story with more integrity than it deserves and that it should be played completely over the top – and if they could remove the eunuch from the plot altogether that would be a bonus!

  19. Jay Says:

    I wonder if Her Highness Ms Benjamina Brantley from the Noo Yawk Times will be taking a private jet to London to see this travesty. He’s rather fond of the Menier, and he does so love his trips to The Mother Country. Surely with a collective kicking from him AND the Whingers, this rubbish will be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with other Great Shite Musicals of the recent past like “Wuthering Heights the Musical” starring Cliff Richard as Heathcliff.

    • Chris Voisey Says:

      I was wondering whether Michael Riedel might swoop over the Menier to flick the v’s at it but didn’t he do a Hal Prince puff-piece recently so maybe he won’t.

      This IS the biggest dog in years!

  20. Dean Porter Says:

    Well, having read your review we were expecting an utter debacle of Too Close To The Sun proportions, but randomly ended up enjoying it. Not sure if this was down to vino plonko but we thought the cast were outstanding.

  21. […] unbelievable coarseness and vulgarity” – and he was probably the politest of the bunch. The West End Whingers, a delightfully bitchy couple of old queens who write a theatre blog about their apparently […]

  22. Dr Montgomerie Says:

    I cannot comment on this production
    I escaped after fifteen minutes and they can keep my £32
    I was so happy to get out

  23. jmc Says:

    Prince, in the spirit of Thatcher when she escaped her minders and ran round to announce to the press that she was determined to fight on after doing less well than expected in the 1990 leadership election, throws caution to the wind and says he wants to go on with the show…

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