Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Come back after 7/5/07 for the last set of posts about London. This will be followed by some travel news and then a new set of posts about New York City. In the meantime, I hope this gives many of you the opportunity to catch up on all the latest posts. Enjoy, T.H.T.

A Video Slice of 'Spamalot' - Rehearsals

This clip features the original London cast in rehearsal of 'Spamalot'.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

More Than a Taste of 'Spamalot' at the Palace Theatre - A Production Review

Advertised as ‘lovingly ripped off’ from the 1975 film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, “Spamalot” the musical is a silly production from beginning to end. Sit back and relax and just enjoy the show.

'Spamalot' is supposed to be based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of The Round Table. We first meet King Arthur (Simon Russell Beale) on a recruitment drive for knights. As in the film, Arthur's horse is invisible but his faithful servant, Patsy, provides the sound effects of hooves via two halves of a coconut. Some of the funniest dialogue then happens immediately. To determine how Patsy got a coconut, guards at a castle start debating the migratory habits of various species of swallows, and whether they could carry a coconut to the temperate climate of England. In another scene, French guards lash out endless verbal abuse at Arthur and his Knights.

God is revealed to be no more than a giant pair of feet who instructs Arthur to seek the Holy Grail. What ensues is a journey that finds Arthur and his knights in a ‘variety show’ of ludicrous settings and challenges. There are also appearances from head-bashing monks, a ferocious white rabbit, and a hilarious scene where the Black Knight ends up impaled on a doorway still eager to do battle with Arthur in spite of having had both his arms and legs cut off.

'Spamalot' not only succeeds in recreating some of the best moments in ‘Holy Grail’ but makes a direct attack on the musical genre itself and hits a bullseye. For example, the number “The Song That Goes Like This” pokes fun at the ‘big ballad’ moment that happens in every show.

Beale is a respected British actor known for tackling dramatic roles such as “Hamlet”. He plays it straight faced throughout and succeeds winningly. But best in this show has to be Hannah Waddingham who displays a fabulous range of vocal styles and great comic timing as the Lady of The Lake. After all, she gets all the big ballads. And by the way, you can actually buy a can of Spam at the show (note: due to custom regulations, that can of meat may have to be declared).

Besides this production that currently plays at London's Palace Theatre, the show has settled in for a long successful run on Broadway and if you happen to be in Las Vegas, you’ll be able to catch the production there as well. The combination of “Spam” and “Vegas” in the same sentence should have Hawaii residents flocking to the show at the Wynn Hotel.

‘Spamalot’ plays at the Palace Theatre. Performance times are Mon-Sat at 8pm and Tues & Sat at 3pm. Ticket prices: GBP17.50-60. Book tickets at Recording of the Original Broadway Cast available on iTunes or on CD from Decca Broadway. More information at Production photographs used for illustration purposes only.

More Than a Taste of 'Spamalot' at the Palace Theatre - The Venue

The Palace Theatre originally opened in 1891 as the Royal English Opera House. Over 100 years later the terra-cotta red-brick theatre is still an imposing presence at the intersection called Cambridge Circus. It is the only theatre in London that occupies an entire block. The marble, dark earthy colors, mirrors and ornate molding (espcially in the stalls bar and auditorium) with the unique exterior makes for one of the more beautiful theatres in London.

Among productions that have opened here include several Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals: “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1972), “Song & Dance (1982) and “The Woman in White (2004). A revival of Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind” was the last occupant prior to the Sept 2006 opening of the current tenant “Monty Python’s Spamalot”

In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical 'Les Miserables' opened here and became the longest running show in the building’s history with 7,602 performances before transferring to the Queen’s Theatre in 2004. The closure of 'Les Miserables' allowed for a substantial internal refusbishment to restore some of the building’s original splendor. The theatre has a capacity of 1,400 on four levels of seating: stalls, dress circle, grand circle and balcony. To preserve unobstructed sight lines of the stage, the uppermost level gives new meaning to stadium seating. Handrails are included. Pictured below: Palace Theatre façade; hallway and bar on the stalls level; rear exterior of the theatre along Shaftesbury Ave.

The Room at the Radisson Edwardian Kenilworth

In case any other hopeful travelers may be considering this hotel, here are shots of my room on the 5th floor. Now when I saw this room was right across the elevator, it had me worried. But no problem, the room is entered via two doorways with the second door keeping all the noise from the hall to a minimum. This room is large by London standards unless you are staying at one of the big hotels around Hyde Park. But the rooms are all modern and include all the basics although I could never figure out the increasing use of so many decorative pillows on the bed.

Most Americans would find the television very small. But it does its job to entertain whilst in the room. I like how text messages are sent to hotel guests via the TV. Also there is no radio in the room. A few channels on the TV is set aside to carry radio broadcasts. The comfy couch and in-room coffee service made for some relaxing moments to read the paper during some of my down time. There is an in-room safe under the desk and the unnecessary in-room bar in the cabinet underneath the TV. These rooms include wireless internet service.

Probably to cut costs, all the soaps are in liquid dispensers attached to the walls of the tub and above the sink. Also there is no shower curtain around the tub. A swinging glass panel the length of half of the tub is all that's there to keep the water from spilling on to the bathroom floor. It does not succeed entirely. But still, a hotel room worth staying in again.

By the way when booking a room at this hotel, read the description carefully. Some of the rooms are rather small that the description indicates the room cannot accomodate more than one person. Rooms have decent views along Bloomsbury & Great Russell St but tend to carry some of the noise from these streets. If you absolutely need quiet, request for rooms away from the street. However these rooms will likely give you a view of the backside of a neighboring building.

Lastly always check if the room rate includes the 17.9% VAT. This can add a substantial amount to the per night cost of the room. Room rates will also note if breakfast is included.

Apple Bites Into London....Windows Cracks Under Pressure

The Apple retail store on Regent Street opened in November 2004. At the time this represented the first such store in Europe, and only the fourth outside the United States. Three Apple Stores previously opened in Japan (a number which has since doubled in that country). Since then Apple has also opened other stores in England, Canada and even Rome, Italy.

After a refurbishment in late 2006, the Apple Store Regent Street became the largest Apple retail venue in the world by floor area, a title owned by the 5th Avenue Apple Store in New York City for a period of time. The Regent Street store now offers 28,000 square feet of selling space compared to the previous 18,500 square feet when it first opened over two years ago. Besides the fashionable address, the store design includes a striking glass staircase that leads shoppers to the upper level of the store. A glass bridge at the front crosses over shoppers as they enter/exit the store. The upper level includes an auditorium at the rear for workshops of Apple products. Unlike most Apple Stores, this location has two seperate Genius Bars: one to service Apple Computers and the other for iPods.

The spacious shop has all the Apple products but they come with a pretty price tag as with most things in London. For example, an 80GB video iPod retails for over US$400 compared to US$350 in America. As usual with Apple Stores, there are lots of hardware on display to test drive and many salespeople donning black t-shirts to help you with your Apple shopping needs. (Note: the iPhone lanuches in the U.S.A. on 29 Jun 07; the media has reported that foreign Apple fans are flying to America to try and nab one). More info about at Store Hours: Mon-Sat 10am-9pm; Sun 12noon-6pm

Monday, June 25, 2007

Piccadilly Circus - London's Times Square

The heartbeat of central London has got to be Piccadilly Circus. Often compared to Times Square in New York City, five major streets intersect to be one of the world's busiest traffic circles. Neon signs on one corner flash above the constant flow (or at certain times of the day, crawl) of traffic and tourists, workers and shoppers who visit or pass through the area at all times of the day. It's one of my favorite areas to wander about for the electric atmostphere. Underneath Piccadilly Circus is one of the largest and busiest tube stops in London.
The photo above is taken from the top level of the Virgin Megastore. This view east towards Coventry Street leads to Leicester Square, famous for the cinemas that host London premieres. The London Trocadero, on the left, is a center of shops, restaurants, cinemas, and even a bowling alley. The entry to the Criterion Theatre is at ground level on the structure at right. This theatre is the only one in London where the entire auditorium is below street level. You walk down to the balcony.
This pic is looking northwest at the curving grandeur of Regent Street. The building on the left holds a Virgin Megastore, one of the biggest retailers bordering Piccadilly Circus. This three-level shop, although huge, is comparable to the retailer's flagship store on Oxford Street. Until a few years ago, this was the location of Tower Records before it was forced into bankruptcy.
The focal point of Piccadilly Circus is the aluminium statue known as Eros situated above a bronze fountain and erected in 1892 as a memorial to the philanthropic 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (one of the five streets that meets here is Shaftesbury Avenue). The statue was intended by the designer to be a Christian angel of charity rather than the Greek god of love.
The building at left is the only one to host billboard type neon signs. This building is home on the ground floor to branches of The Gap, McDonald's and Boots. The red sign at the top is a LED video-display ad for Coca-Cola in motion. Shafesbury Avenue is straight ahead and host to more London theatres than any other street. Look carefully and you can make out the huge black & white marquee for 'Equus' starring Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe.
The origin of the name Piccadilly is commonly believed to be from a 16th-century frilly collar called a pikadil. A dressmaker who made his fortune selling these fashion items built his house nearby. By the way, the T.H.T. lucked out that blue sky finally appeared this Tuesday morning (29 May 07). However not for long. After visiting the Virgin Megastore, the weather quickly changed to its normal dreary wet self.
Piccadilly Circus serves as the southern hub to one of London's grandest thoroughfares, Regent Street. For the shopper, the mix of upscale and mainstream retailers makes this a popular avenue. Among the major retailers here is a branch of Hamleys. Once the biggest toy store in the world with six levels devoted to playthings, it has long since been been surpassed by Toys 'R Us. A list of all shops can be found at

Belgo Centraal - A Place for Beer & Monks

Belgo Centraal is the place to go for Belgian specialties of mussels, great fries and a vast array of dark, blond and fruity Belgian beers. Cross the metal bridge and look at the bustling and steaming kitchen below. Then descend into the vast underground lair of Belgo with waiters dressed in traditional monk habbits.

There are two sections of the restaurant. One is a classy and intimate dining room where reservations are recommended or the wait can be rather long. For the spur of the moment and no reservations needed, just ask for seating in the noisy beer hall with its communal benches and tables. It’s the same menu and specials no matter which part of the restaurant you are dining. The restaurant as a whole is a pretty trendy spot for a hearty meal.

For an economical dining experience, try Belgo’s “beat the clock” meal specials from 5pm-6:30pm. The time you order is the price you pay. The options for this meal are limited so I opted for an a la carte selection. During my visit the building where the restaurant was located was under some construction and so the restaurant was obscured by scaffolding and panels of plastic.

For my dinner, I opted for the Soupe de Crabe et Moules (a rich crab, mussel & red chili soup flavored with ginger, coconut & Thai basil) and the Carbonnnade Flamande (beef braised in sweet Gueuze beer with apples & plums, served with frites). To wash it all down, I ordered one of the Belgian beers on tap -- a St. Feullien Blonde…very light and smooth. A filling meal which left no room for dessert.

It should be noted that most London restaurants allow smoking with the exception of cigars and pipes. But from July 1st, the restaurant will be non-smoking in accordance with new legislation.

Entrées cost between GBP10-14. Belgo Centraal is open Mon-Sat 12noon-11:30pm; Sun 12noon-10:30pm. Note that a "suggested" gratuity is added to your bill. Nearest tube stop: Covent Garden. The restaurant is located at 50 Earlham Street. Look for Seven Dials where seven streets intersect in a very tight roundabout. One of the streets is Earlham. More info at

British Television Interview & Performance with Leon Cooke of 'Billy Elliot'

These two videos are from YouTube. One is an interview of Leon Cooke for the BBC children's show "Blue Peter"; the other, a TV appearance of Cooke on "Any Dream Will Do" performing "Electricity". Just press the play button to watch either video.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

'Billy Elliot' Storms The Victoria Palace - A Production Review

This musical is an adaptation of the 2000 film of the same name that garnered three major Oscar nominations (supporting actress, director and screenplay) and starred Jamie Bell as Billy. The film's director, Stephen Daldry, and screenwriter, Lee Hall, have taken up the task of adapting the film for the stage. Hall takes on the additonal duty of lyricist to the show's composer Elton John. The stage version is faithful to the film and in many ways better.

'Billy Elliot' is about a young boy growing up in a mining town in England during the early 1980s when the British government took on the powerful miners’ union. Billy’s father and brother are miners who are striking with the union. The family still grieves for Billy’s mother, and his grandmother needs constant attention because of senility. There is a running gag about finding food hidden all over their household by the senile grandma.

Billy reluctantly is sent each week by his father to attend boxing lessons at the local community center, but is distracted one day by Mrs. Wilkinson and her ballet class. Slowly, Billy is drawn to dance because of his need for self-expression and could make good one day as a dancer for the Royal Ballet. But confrontation follows, as Billy’s father and brother are not only fighting for their economic survival but also their dignity as men. They consider an activity like ballet to have no value.

Because of the demands and age of the lead role, no less than four young performers take on the role of Billy. Each young man must be able to sing, act and dance and essentially carry a show on their young shoulders. There is another requirement that their voices have not yet 'cracked'. The night I saw this production, Leon Cooke, graced the stage as 'Billy'. Incidentally, Billy's best friend and sister are youngsters as well and therefore these roles are triple cast.

Young Mr. Cooke showed that he is a skilled and talented young actor/dancer. His "Angry Dance", "Swan Lake" and "Electricity" dance numbers are amazing. Cooke performed each one effortlessly nearly stopping the show after each. Even non-dance fans will definitely be cheering for Billy. Shaun Malone, played Billy's best friend Michael at this performance and won over the audience for his comic performance that nearly overshadowed Cooke in their scenes together. The scene where Billy gives Michael a 'pinched' tutu is priceless. All the adult roles are cast well and Sally Dexter's performance as Mrs. Wilkinson stands tall with Julie Walter's performance in the film.

Elton John's tunes are engaging and runs the gamut of emotions. You'll probably find yourself toe tapping in a couple of the numbers. The score keeps up pace with the story and keeps everyone entertained. Particular standouts are the anthems "The Stars Look Down" and "Solidarity"; the fun "Born to Boogie"; the moving "The Letter"; and Billy's big number "Electricity". Among other audience favorites was "Grandma's Song" and "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher". The scene that preceeds this last number is a pantomime that has a wink of fun at the expense of Americans in the audience.

Standing ovations in London are not automatic. However the rapturous standing ovation at the end was well earned. 'Billy Elliot' is a sensational, tough and bold show. Even at three hours, it succeeds brilliantly with songs, dance, and more than a dose of moving moments to bring out a tear or two. Audiences should be storming through the theatre's doors for a long time to come. There is no doubt why the show has been a hard ticket to find since it opened in May 2005.

'Billy Elliott' plays at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Performance times are Mon-Sat at 7:30pm and Thurs & Sat at 2:30pm. Ticket prices: GBP17.50-59.50. Book tickets at Recording of the Original London Cast available on iTunes or on CD on Decca Broadway. Due to some swearing, the CD carries a "parental advisory; explicit content" sticker. The CD includes a bonus disc of Elton John performing "The Letter", "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher" and "Electricity". More information at Production photographs are used for illustration purposes.
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