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The Sweetest Sound

Connie Fisher in The Sound of Music, Fiona Shaw in Happy Days, and Felicity Kendal in Amy's View are among the reasons to make a visit to London. logo
Connie Fisher in The Sound of Music
(© Ralff Brinkhoff)
Several million English men and women can't be wrong, apparently. They're the ones who voted 23-year-old Connie Fisher the winner in last summer's reality show, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, in which Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to let the public call the tune on the leading lady for his The Sound of Music revival, now at the London Palladium. Astonishingly, what seemed an instance of cruising for a critical bruising came up fresh as edelweiss on a hillside.

Fisher, who more than occasionally sounds like Julie Andrews, actually has all the irresistible charm of Julie Harris and is one of the undisputed highlights of the current London theater scene. Though she's not entirely polished yet, the rough edges work to her advantage. Romping across the stage by herself or in the company of the seven von Trapp children, she looks and behaves convincingly like a girl who, as she frequently repeats, was raised in the mountains.

Singing as if in a cathedral choir, Fisher is the focal point of a sumptuous mounting of the show, supervised with an extremely sure hand by Jeremy Sams and greatly abetted by Arlene Phillips' often genuinely cute choreography. Fisher is more than ably supported by the strapping, young Alexander Hanson as Georg von Trapp -- the love scenes between failed novitiate Maria and the stern captain are actually hot -- Lesley Garrett, chanting lustrously as the Mother Abbess, Lauren Ward as Georg's soon-to-be discarded fiancée, Baroness Schraeder, and seven young actors. (At least, the ones I saw were spunky. Three actors alternate in the roles of each of the six young siblings.)

While The Sound of Music is the latest case of adoption by an entire nation, adaptation appears to be the major theme of many other current West End offerings. A prominent example is Trevor Nunn's Porgy and Bess, which re-conceives the famous Gershwin-Gershwin-Hayward opera as a musical comedy. The reasoning behind Nunn's revision at the Savoy isn't clear, though one suspects it's his belief that audiences respond better to musicals than operas. But, in the end, it simply doesn't work. Nunn hasn't noticed that when George Gershwin's music is interrupted too long for what are now book scenes, something invaluable is lost. Even more shocking is that, while this Porgy and Bess is forcibly acted (especially by Clarke Peters as Porgy), it's not particularly well-sung. And that's blasphemy.

Rhys Ifans and Stephen Wight
in Don Juan in Soho
(© Hugo Glendinning)
On the other hand, the red-hot Patrick Marber is having a high old time with the perversely delightful Don Juan in Soho, helmed by Donmar Warehouse's artistic director Michael Grandage. Although Molière is the only precursor cited on the program cover, there are a number of sources from which to lift and transform the story, and Marber probably checked them all out for his rake's progress update to today's Soho. (The statue that eventually leads the Don to his demise is modeled on the restored Soho Square representation of Charles II.) The playwright's depiction of modern-day decadence, as well as his language, is rich with venom and lubricity, especially when delivered by Rhys Ifans -- who looks startlingly like a cross between Peter O'Toole and David Warner -- as DJ and Stephen Wight as the bridling gofer Stan.

Another adaptation that works like gangbusters is Patrick Barlow's raucous treatment of The 39 Steps at the Criterion, which is based on Alfred Hitchcock's extremely loose 1935 film version of the John Buchan novel. Barlow sticks closely to the heart-palpitating Hitchcock plot, but recasts it as a camp comedy. Charles Edwards as Richard Hannay -- who's trying to track down a spy cove -- repeatedly gives the audience his tilted-chin profile. The appropriately named Rachel Pickup stylishly plays the three women Hannay picks up. All the other parts are enacted by Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor, two masters of every imaginable British dialect. The fast-and-furious farrago is directed by Maria Aitken, who did this same sort of effervescent entertainment some years back with Charles Ludlum's Mystery of Irma Vep.

Over at the National, a more traditional adaptation is Nicholas Wright's go at Thérèse Raquin, which Emile Zola fashioned in 1873 from his hot-on-the-charts novel. On a vast and cold-looking set designed by Hildegard Bechtler, Therese (Charlotte Emmerson) plots the death of her husband Camille (Patrick Kennedy) with her lover Laurent (Ben Daniels). Where Wright differs from previous takes on this gloomy tragedy is that he underplays the Therese-Laurent passion and works to the hilt their subsequent innards-consuming guilt. The tormented lovers go at each other so violently that fight director Alison de Burgh has to be called in for a wowee contribution. Meanwhile, for sheer brilliance of adaptation at the National, there's the just-about-to-close Waves, the radio play-cum-cameras-and-wraparound-sound effects opus that director Katie Mitchell and an indefatigable eight-actor company have made from Virginia Woolf's cinematic novel of the same name.

Also at the National, Fiona Shaw, is bringing as much color as anyone ever has to the role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett's marvelously pessimistic Happy Days at the National. Buried to her waist in the short first act of this virtual monologue (Tim Potter is barely seen and never heard as Willie) and buried to the chin in the shorter second act, Shaw's face is a kaleidoscope as Winnie tries to pretend all is well but slowly loses faith in her perspective.

Shaw has been directed exceedingly well by long-time collaborator Deborah Warner, but Warner has miscalculated by commissioning Tom Pye's set, which takes up the entire Lyttleton stage and is chockablock with slabs of fallen wall. It's as if Winnie has just survived a major catastrophe, when what Beckett is after is a look at Winnie trying to survive life itself.

Another great leading lady, Felicity Kendal, has avoided saccharine touches in a revival of David Hare's Amy's View, directed by Sir Peter Hall. She invigorates this realistic -- not to say depressing -- study of a mother-daughter resentment that festers and finally undoes. The last of the play's four scenes is some of Hare's finest work, and so beautifully executed here that the breath is held and then taken away.

Imelda Staunton and Eileen Atkins
in There Came a Gypsy Riding
(© John Haynes)
New plays can be tracked down in and around the West End, but the search requires a magnifying glass. What can be said in favor of John Kolvenbach's Love Song at the New Ambassadors is that imported Americans Kristen Johnston, Michael McKean and Neve Campbell and Irish-born Cillian Murphy give brave and lovely performances under John Crowley's direction -- and on an ingenious Scott Pask set that repeatedly morphs from a grim flat to a soigné one. Otherwise, this tale of a catatonic slacker (Murphy) being brought to life by a femme burglar (Campbell) who might or might not exist as the fellow's nervous, well-meaning sister (Johnston) and laid-back husband (McKean) look on is so arch and stuffed with gaggable dialogue that it's worth a miss.
Much better is Frank McGuinness' There Came a Gypsy Riding at the Almeida. Again, the primary attraction is the cast, headed by the can-do-no-wrong Dame Eileen Atkins and the equally reliable and versatile Imelda Staunton. The former plays to hilarious effect a plain-spoken (and therefore provocative) West Coast Ireland woman called Bridget, and the latter is trenchant and touching as Margaret, who's come to Bridget's rocky part of the world with her husband, son, and daughter to recover from another son's relatively recent suicide. The lack of a suicide note is a big factor in this portrait of a dysfunctional family attempting to right itself. It's an intriguing situation, but the prolific McGuinness' script is marred by familiar bickering sequences and a sentimental resolution.

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