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Eye on Broadway: Angels in America, Dreamgirls, 42nd Street Take the West End

…And Broadway beckons.

Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
(© Helen Maybanks)

In London, the "Great Work" begins at 1pm, breaks for lunch around 4:30, and continues from 7 to nearly midnight. Marianne Elliott's revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is a full day affair, and it's become one of the big theatrical events of the summer. Happily, the show is a perfect reflection of the two-part drama itself: exhilarating, frustrating, and vibrantly filled with life.

Angels is one of the classics of the American theatrical canon getting a workout on the West End these days. Across the Thames at the Savoy, Casey Nicholaw brings the iconic Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen-Michael Bennett musical Dreamgirls to the stage for its U.K. premiere, while the old-fashioned classic 42nd Street is dancing its feet off at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. (Cat On a Hot Tin Roof featuring Sienna Miller is also up on the marquee.) But which shows will jet to the Big Apple?

The title number in 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
(© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

Though it's a delightful production, the musical 42nd Street, featuring Grammy winner Sheena Easton (singer of the James Bond theme "For Your Eyes Only"), is a complete re-creation of the Tony-winning 2001 Broadway revival. Randy Skinner's dazzling tap dances were glorious 16 years ago, and they shimmer just as brightly now (as do Roger Kirk's shiny costumes). It's thrilling to hear a big orchestra play iconic tunes like "Lullaby of Broadway," but it's unlikely the exact same production will land on the Great White Way a second time.

The show itself, directed once again by coauthor Mark Bramble, feels oddly hollow. With the exception of Easton, a real hoot as the aging Broadway diva Dorothy Brock, the company seems canned in its delivery, almost as though Bramble gave each person a copy of the 2001 cast album and had them memorize the deliveries of his Broadway cast.

Dreamgirls takes the stage at the Savoy Theatre.
(© Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

The opposite can be said for Casey Nicholaw's vocally thrilling iteration of Dreamgirls, a Broadway classic that's taken since 1982 to reach the West End (as a result, it received a "Best New Musical" nomination at this year's Oliviers, but lost to Groundhog Day). There were no fewer than five understudies playing principal roles on Friday, July 21, but if you didn't look at your program, you'd never be able to tell based on their powerhouse performances.

Dreamgirls, which charts the rise of a Supremes-like singing group, is not the greatest of musicals. The thinness of the plot seems to glare amid the pizzazz of Nicholaw's cinematic staging, which pays loving tribute (though never overtakes) Bennett's original direction.

For audiences who've seen only the movie, the stage version is very worth attending, and no matter which actors are performing, ticket buyers are in excellent hands. In their regular roles, Liisi LaFontaine is a charismatic Deena, while Joshua Liberd is filled with heart as C.C. As for the understudies: Ryan Reid was a deliciously snakelike Curtis, Carly Mercedes Dyer found a great deal of humor as Lorrell, Kirk Patterson made a proud and confident Marty, and Tosh Wanogho-Maud is a fabulously charismatic Jimmy "Thunder" Early.

Best of all was Marisha Wallace, a Broadway vet on for Olivier-winning headliner Amber Riley (Glee), as Effie. Wallace tore into the big numbers "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and "I Am Changing" with such ferocity (both in her vocals and acting) that they threatened to tear the art deco roof right off the building. If Dreamgirls is coming to Broadway as rumored, Wallace should be the one to lead it here.

Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
(© Helen Maybanks)

The full company of Elliott's Angels revival is likely to travel with the production when the drama heads stateside (and, who are we kidding, with this cast and this political climate, it will). While this meticulous and overwhelming staging features one of Broadway's greatest headliners in a role he's born to play — Nathan Lane as slimy lawyer Roy Cohn — as well as big-name actors Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Russell Tovey as Joe Pitt, the entire ensemble is firing on all cylinders and not only do justice to Kushner's play, but bring a new vitality to it.

In Elliott's hands, Kushner's world of reality combined with elements of magical realism comes to life through a shape-shifting set by Ian MacNeil that underscores the discordance within the relationships of central characters Prior (Garfield) and Louis (James McArdle), and Joe (Tovey) and Harper (Denise Gough). Similarly, the emotional conflict within each role has never been clearer.

Gough is a bravely tough-as-nails Harper, a turn from the emotionally fragile version we've seen in the past, while McArdle, though having a tendency to push Louis's New York Jewish accent a bit too far over the edge, finds the truth in Louis's struggle to understand the world in which he lives. Tovey is a devastatingly truthful Joe, and Garfield, in the titanic role of Prior, beautifully navigates the very different worlds in which the character lives. Equally excellent are Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize and Susan Brown, a comforting vision as Hannah Pitt, Joe's mother who unwittingly becomes both Harper and Prior's caretaker.

But Lane's performance is a revelation. While New York theater seems to pigeonhole him as the classic clown (in The Producers, Forum, and last season's The Front Page), we often forget how astonishing a dramatic actor he is, too. As Roy, he manages to blend sardonic humor, completely savagery, and recognizable humanity, into a well-rounded portrait of a devil you feel sorry for. It's in the top among his all-time greatest performances.

The one downside to the piece is the physical scale of Elliott's massive production, while it befits the play, it would have to be wildly downsized to fit in one of Broadway's biggest theaters. Even with a change of scale, American audiences deserve to see this landmark play in a version as thrilling as this.

Russell Tovey as Joe Pitt in Angels In America, directed by Marianne Elliott.
(© Helen Maybanks)