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There's No Place Like London

Filichia wanders the streets of London, looking for his theater fix. logo

Baker Street
Here I am, singing "I'm in London again," Inga Swenson's opening number in the 1965 musical Baker Street -- because indeed, I am in London again. After I sleep off the jet-lag, I get right to work, which means planning what I'll see while I'm here.

Figuring my income tax each year is difficult, but almost as mind-bending is looking over "The Official London Theatre Guide" and seeing how many shows I can cram into my five-day stay. When's each show playing? Does any have an off-time matinee? Is one short enough to allow me to dash to another theater whose production starts a bit later? It's all I do on the tube on my way to the half-price booth in Leicester Square -- which, of course, the locals pronounce as "Lester Square." That makes me wonder if those great Britons who've seen A Star Is Born heard the heroine's name and envisioned it as Vicki Leicester.

I immediately get a ticket for Friday night's performance of The Lieutenant of Inishmore by my new favorite playwright, Martin McDonagh, whose The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, and A Skull in Connemara knocked me out when I saw them. And though I haven't yet seen The Cripple on Inishman, I was laughing so hard and so consistently when I read it on a train that I made a great many passengers nervous.

With a production of Follies at Royal Festival Hall, I certainly know how I'll spend Tuesday, my final night in town. (You've got to save the best for last.) But how will I spend my Saturday? I could see two shows -- but I also figure out a way I can see three, or damn close to three. The Constant Wife has a matinee at 4:45pm and, assuming it's the standard two-hours-plus, I'll get out by 7, leaving me plenty of time to get to an 8pm show, which will be Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy. Okay -- but is there a 2pm matinee of something, anything?

Alas, Sleuth does a 4pm, Benefactors a 3:30pm, and Bombay Dreams a 3pm. But wait: Bombay does a Sunday matinee at 4, so I'll go to that tomorrow, for very few West End shows play on Sunday. (We Americans are ahead of them there.) In between my attending a 1:30pm matinee of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe and a 6:30 Twelfth Night there, I can sneak in Bombay Dreams.

But isn't there even one 2pm Saturday matinee? Dammit, no. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang does a 2:30pm matinee at the London Palladium, and I am telling you, I'm not going. Yes, I know it's a big hit and a white-hot ticket, mostly because a car flies over the house three times. But I'm a grown man, for God's sake, and I can't bring myself to endure another Sherman Brothers score, which probably includes yet another song that's titled with a 14-syllable, made-up-word. I wouldn't even see the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie when I was younger; until quite recently, in fact, I had successfully avoided it. But then I went to a buddy's house, and he'd just bought the DVD, and -- as always -- he wanted to show off his HDTV equipment. So I watched about 12 minutes of the picture and heard a couple of songs that convinced me never to go near this property again.

Jochum Ten Haaf and Clare Higgins in
Vincent in Brixton at the Royal National Theatre
(Photo: John Haynes)
Maybe I should go to We Will Rock You, which has music by Queen, which I don't know from the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The description in Where magazine says it's about a future society where rock music is forbidden. So maybe I should attend the 3pm matinee, because you know and I know that by the end of the show, rock music will reign triumphant -- but, by then, I'll already have left the theater.

I pass by the Wyndham's Theatre, where I get a ticket for Monday night for a new play that two critics I know recommended: Vincent in Brixton. Outside are the critics' quotations, including one from the Financial Times, which says: "It works like a magnet on it's audience." That's right: i-t-apostrophe-s. Why can't the English teach their children how to -- oh, never mind.

Speaking of My Fair Lady, I saunter by the Drury Lane, where the acclaimed revival of the Lerner-Loewe masterpiece currently resides. In the foyer are statues of Shakespeare, Kean, Garrick, and Balfe. (I had to look up that last one when I got to a bookstore; turns out he's Michael W. Balfe, a 19th century composer who wrote three operas that were big Drury Lane hits.) They surround a souvenir stand where you can buy T-shirts that say, "I'm a Good Girl, I Am."

I also love that the Drury Lane sports by its entrance a Top 10 list of shows that have played there, each one immortalized in gilt lettering. The scorecard: 1) Miss Saigon (opened 1989), 4263 performances; 2) My Fair Lady (1958), 2281; 42nd Street (1984), 1824; Oklahoma! (1947), 1375; A Chorus Line (1976), 1,113; The King and I (1953), 947; Billy [not the musical version of Billy Budd that played a night on Broadway but the musicalization of Billy Liar] (1974), 904; Rose Marie (1925), 851; Hello, Dolly! (1965), 794; South Pacific (1951), 792; and The Great Waltz (1970), 705. (Aren't you surprised, as I am, that it was the 1970 revival of The Great Waltz that managed to run almost two years, and not the original in the '30s?)

The current My Fair Lady, as it turns out, plays at 2:30pm. So I could see one act of Trevor Nunn's acclaimed production, but half a Lady is better than none. Besides, it's not as if I don't know how the Lerner-Loewe masterpiece turns out, for this will be my eighth Fair Lady, ranging from the Broadway production in 1961 to a community theater production in Casper, Wyoming in 1983.

Now that I've made my decisions, I have time to kill. Sad to say, Dress Circle, the best London emporium for cast albums -- it's where I found the Original German Cast disc of Windy City -- is closed. How sad to see the front doors boarded, with "Closed Because of Fire" written on the plywood. (I am glad that the store has got on its feet enough to process internet orders.)

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe Theatre
(Photo: Donald Cooper)
I take my own personal tour of London theaters, enjoying the differences between our culture and theirs. (Says the sign in the lobby of the Victoria Palace, "Due to the indisposition of Michael Berrese, the role of Bill/Lucentio will be played by Nick Winston.") But I still find myself singing "I'm in London Again" from Baker Street, and that gives me an idea: I decide to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which is ensconced -- fittingly enough -- at 221B Baker Street. Let's see if the script, published by Doubleday in 1966, and the M-G-M cast album (still not available on CD) are proudly displayed on the premises.

Alas, no. "We do have a copy of the album for the Sherlock Holmes musical done in the West End," says Grace Riley, the museum's director, referring to the 1989 Leslie Bricusse effort. "But we don't have it on display," she continues, before adding in a slightly wary voice: "You're the first person in ages to ask about this."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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