Saturday, July 28, 2007

Last Thoughts As All Good Things Must End

The picture above pretty much sums up how I felt by the end of this trip. Truly exhausted. This guy had a good idea of taking a nap but he chose to have his on the theatre steps of the London Palladium prior to a matinee performance. I still had the energy to make it through the last full day and to a proper bed.

By habit on every trip, late in the evening on the last night is always reserved to pack for the journey home. I always do so as not to have to rush the chore the day of departure. Yup, all items at right would have to be re-packed. I always find it easier to unpack completely when I arrive at my destination rather than ruffling through a suitcase. Also unpacking clothing saves time from having to iron since clothes naturally lose some (and not gain) wrinkles by just hanging them up. But first a break to relax and read the day's paper was in order. It's always important to have these moments to just unwind.

On 31 May 2007 it was time to fly on the long journey back to Honolulu. I would travel by taxi, train and then by plane (on American Airlines via Los Angeles) again over the course of the entire day. I took my last meal by visiting Patisserie Valerie for their eggs benedict. Since I would not have to take the train out of central London until 11am, I could at least take my time to enjoy a delicious end to this trip.
The quiet subway late in in the evening the night before my departure echoed the end of this visit London. In spite of losing my checked bag for a day, finding replacement items for the interim, returning some of said items after the bag was found and experiencing some truly miserable weather for the month of May, the trip was still another enjoyable one.
It’s a city I love visiting and no doubt will visit again. The preceding posts of things to do and see is by no means the best London has to offer. They are just the tip of the iceberg with the most popular attractions having been visited previously. Perhaps if time permits I may have a go and review them in hindsight. In the meantime I recommend a trip to London by all Hopeful Travelers or at least with this series of posts hope to have wet your appetite for a visit. If not, maybe the pic below of the eggs benedict from Patisserie Valerie will do the trick instead.

'Mary Poppins' Takes Flight at the Prince Edward Theatre - A Production Review

The run of plays during my London visit ends on 30 May 07. The last play is ‘Mary Poppins’ at the Prince Edward Theatre. Because rights to the movie and book are owned separately by Disney and Cameron Macintosh (“Les Miserables"), two of the most successful producers in theatre, they have joined forces to present a story that combines elements from both mediums. Julian Fellowes, Oscar winning screenwriter of “Gosford Park”, takes on the task of adapting the two to the stage. He has devised a mix of whimsy that is at times enchanting and sometimes underwhelming but reported to be closer to the vision of the book’s author P.L. Travers.

Growing up in London in 1910, the unruly Jane and Michael Banks need a nanny. They write an ad to put in The Times stipulating that she must ‘have a cheery disposition. Rose cheeks, no warts. Play games, all sorts.’ Their father, who is incapable of giving or receiving love, views the ad as all nonsense. All the while their mother wishes for some deeper connection between them all. This sets for the mysterious arrival of Mary Poppins but the games she has in mind are not at all what the children expected.

Bob Crowley continues his string of ingenious set designs. The massive lifesize dollhouse set of the Banks family home dramatically reveals different levels from the ground to the lower and upper floors and finally to the rooftop. London Barbie & Ken would be happy here. In addition there are moments of some on-stage magic. From her carpet bag Mary incredibly pulls out among things a hat stand as well as a sheet that miraculously turns into a bed. In another moment, Mary does indeed take flight with her umbrella over the audience and up into the uppermost reaches of the Prince Edward auditorium.

One key element in making the show work is casting the Banks children. Naturally there is a rotation of children that fill out the parts of Jane and Michael during the eight performances each week. The two at this performance were just okay to say the least. It would help if there were a believable transformation of the children between the two acts. Perhaps it may have been these two young actors or maybe the book writer is to blame also.

All the well-loved songs are presented including “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Supercalifragi…..”, well you know the title. To augment the movie songs by the Sherman Brothers, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have concocted some songs in the similar simple but melodic style. They succeed in the sweeter numbers “Practically Perfect” and “Anything Can Happen”. They are less successful in more dramatic songs such as “Temper, Temper” and “Brimstone and Treacle”.

The choreography comes full tilt in the dazzling “Step In Time” number. In the scene Bert, the chimney sweep (among his many trades), literally tap dances 360 degrees along the walls and ceiling of the proscenium arch. Equally fun is the hand acrobatics during the song “Supercal…”, yeah that song again. The production number featuring the toys that come alive seems extraneous and the “Jolly Holiday” segment is enjoyable if just a tad bit too long. Note to parents: the running time is 2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission.

As Mary Poppins, Scarlett Strallen creates a character that is stern and endearing. She delivers a warm and scrumptious performance and is so poised throughout that she literally glides up and down the Banks' staircase. Equally interesting is her on stage pairing with Gavin Creel as Bert. There is some uncanny connection between the two that I credit to these two actors. It almost makes one want the story to veer toward exploring their relationship and opening the mysteries of their past and maybe future. Creel reveals a natural charm in his scenes and a knack for bravely tackling the intricate choreography.

The look of the production is exceptional and professional and the story is not as syrupy as the film. Though never reaching the heights of perfection that Mary would demand of herself, the production does has its moments. Taking a line from one of the songs, “Practically perfect in every way?” Not quite.

‘Mary Poppins’ plays at the Prince Edward Theatre to 12 Jan 08. Current performance times are Wed-Sat 7:30, Tues 7pm, Matinees Tues 2pm, Thu & Sat 2:30pm. Ticket prices: GBP15-59. Book tickets at The Original London Cast Recording available on iTunes or on CD from Walt Disney Records. More information at Production photographs used for illustration purposes only.

NOTE: 7/1/07 - 'Mary Poppins' at the Prince Edward Theatre will close on January 12, 2008.

'Mary Poppins' London Promo Video

Promotional video of 'Mary Poppins' featuring the original London cast.

'Mary Poppins' Takes Flight at the Prince Edward Theatre - The Venue

Among the sex shops, pubs and restaurants in the lively if not sleazy area called Soho stands the Prince Edward Theatre. Despite the seedy environs, the theatre has hosted the London premiere of the family-musical ‘Mary Poppins’ since December 2004.

The exterior of the theatre is meant to resemble an Italian palazzo. Once inside, theatregoers are greeted by a spacious circular lobby lit by a large chandelier and a red plush auditorium. Opened in 1930, the theatre has gone through various incarnations from theatre to cabaret-restaurant to cinema before being reclaimed as a legitimate stage theatre with the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice’s ‘Evita’ in 1978. This musical reigned at the Prince Edward for eight years.

The theatre has continued to host a number of blockbuster musicals: ‘Chess’ (1986), ‘Crazy For You’ (1993) and ‘Mamma Mia!’ (1999). The latter moved to the Prince of Wales Theatre in 2004 where it continues to run. The theatre is scheduled to host the London premiere of the Broadway mega-hit ‘Jersey Boys’ in January 2008.

In regards to the seats and sightlines, this 1,600-seat theatre is one of the most comfortable theatres in London for viewing a play. The theatre is far less cramped than most other venues in London. The aforementioned lobby, hallways and aisles, especially on the stalls level, offer generous breathing and leg room.

The top photo was taken on my last morning after seeing 'Poppins' the previous evening. Notice the blue sky finally appearing. The middle photograph is a view of Old Compton Street. Prior to the end of a matinee earlier in the week, drivers with their pedi-cabs line in front of the theatre in hopes of snagging a patron or two for a fare. In the pic below, theatre patrons mingle and rush outside of the theatre prior to the evening performance.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

'The Sound of Music' Sings at the London Palladium - A Performance Review

‘The Sound of Music’ tells of how a young novitiate named Maria and her love for music and singing sees her sent from the convent to become a governess for the seven children of the strict widower Captain Georg Von Trapp. Her infectious nature fills the Captain and his children’s home and eventually their hearts while the shadow of Nazi Germany is approaching.

This new London stage production opened to healthy advance ticket sales in November 2006 and continues to sell out today. Fueling the renewed interest in the musical is how the lead of Maria was cast. Newcomer Connie Fisher was discovered on the popular BBC talent show ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?’ where the viewers chose the actress to play Maria.
Due to a vocal injury Fisher suffered earlier in the year, her workload was reduced from eight to six performances. Aoife Mulholland (pulled from the musical ‘Chicago’ on the other side of the West End) performs on Monday evenings and Wednesday matinees. This post is based on a matinee with Mulholland.

Now one will notice that both Fisher and Mulholland bear a more than slight resemblance to Andrews especially with their short cropped hair. But with such a resemblance it places an unfair pressure on either actress to duplicate Andrew’s performance in the film. Unfortunately, the sprite charm from Aoife seems too well rehearsed and the chemistry between her and Alexander Hanson (as the Captain) is lukewarm.

The show opens promising with the chorus of nuns. Then a shock happens. What appears to be devised as the ‘coup de theatre’ (think chandelier, helicopter, barricade), turns out to be one of most awkward if not most massive pieces of scenery ever devised. To depict the Austrian mountainside, we see Maria lying on a huge oval slope. The slope then tilts and appears to be more of a massive pancake or rather another planet.

There is one strikingly haunting moment in the production. Before the Von Trapp’s performance at the musical festival, the entire auditorium is cloaked in massive red banners (with Nazi German symbols) that unfurl on stage, along the theatre boxes and dress circle and one particularly scary one that spans the auditorium ceiling.

Hanson fares well as the Captain and is especially moving when he joins his children on stage at the festival and experiences his children singing for the Baroness. Faring even better are Ian Gelder (Max Detweiler) and Lauren Ward (Baroness Schraeder). Gelder and Ward perform the two numbers (“How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It”) cut from the film with excellent camaraderie and humor.

With all the above said, this ‘Sound of Music’ definitely does not lack in the most important factor: the songs. They are orchestrated superbly and sung beautifully by all (including Aoife). Simply, they still stir the emotions. If the entire show is a misfire here and there, any audience member will agree that the songs and music remain fresh and justify another listen by generations old and inviting to generations new.

‘The Sound of Music’ plays at the London Palladium. Performance times are Mon, Wed—Sat 7:30pm; Tue 7pm; Matinees Wed & Sat 2:30pm. Ticket prices: GBP 25-55. Book tickets at Recording of the 2006 London Palladium Cast available on iTunes or on CD from Decca. More info at Production photographs used for illustration purposes only.

'The Sound of Music' British Promo Clip

This promotional clip of the new London production of 'The Sound of Music' features UK talent show winner Connie Fisher performing the title song and, with the children, 'Do-Re-Mi'.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

'The Sound of Music' Sings at the London Palladium - The Venue

Sometimes referred to as the ‘People’s Palace’, the London Palladium has a special place for many who have lived in London. The theatre was the site of live concert performances that ran the gamut of big names from Bing Crosby to Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra. From the mid-1950’s, the theatre became known to millions on TV with the weekly variety show broadcast of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ (the UK equivalent of the Ed Sullivan Show).

The theatre is now familiar to a whole new generation who have enjoyed the family spectaculars that have opened over the past two decades. Among them are lavish revivals of ‘Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ (1991), ‘Oliver! (1994 - starring Jonathan Pryce), ‘The King & I’ (2000 - starring Jason Scott Lee and Elaine Paige) and a stage version of 'Saturday Night Fever' (1998). State-of-the-art technology allowed a car to fly in the premiere of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ (2002). Even the harshest critics agreed that seeing the car fly over the stage and eventually over the orchestra and front rows was a stunning moment. ‘Chitty’ now holds the record as the longest running show ever to play the Palladium with 1,414 performances.

The vast, richly adorned and gilded auditorium seats over 2,200 patrons making the theatre among the largest in London. A mansion occupied by the Dukes of Argyll and Marlborough formerly occupied the site of the theatre. Hence the names of the two streets that bound the Palladium. An ice skating rink was the last occupant on the site prior to the building of the Palladium which officially opened in 1910. The Palladium is part of the Really Useful Group Ltd which own and operate seven of London’s West End theatres. The photo below is Argyll Street facing south with the Palladium on the left. The mock-Tudor building at the end of the street is Liberty, a retailer of luxury goods and clothing.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Stop at Trafalgar Square - The Day Grows Dreary

The weather had turned quite dreary this Wednesday so I headed to the post office to mail more cards before returning to my hotel. On my way I took a quick stop and look over another of London’s major squares. Trafalgar Square is normally a thrilling place to hang out under good weather. The picture above is looking south. Big Ben is seen in the distance.

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson stands atop a 185-foot tall granite column in commemoration of his victory over the French at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. Part of this 1842 memorial is made from his victims melted-down cannons. He’s surrounded by spraying fountains, giant lions and usually hundreds of people. Until recently one of the biggest attractions of the square was the thousands of pigeons. London’s mayor had decided that London’s “flying rats” were a public nuisance and evicted the seed salesman. Feeding pigeons is now forbidden.

Along the northern perimeter of the square is the National Portrait Gallery, location of the most comprehensive portrait collection in the world; and the National Gallery, home to the nation's collection of Western European art.

Wellington Arch in Celebration of a British Victory

England’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is an arch erected in 1826 to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars. Originally the arch served as the northern gate into the grounds of Buckingham Palace before being moved to its present position opposite Aspley House as part of a new city planning scheme.

The rooms inside the arch at one time housed London’s smallest police station. Now there’s a permanent exhibition on the statues and memorials of London on three floors. Take the elevator to the viewing gallery which offers glorious views over London’s Royal Parks. The bronze sculpture at the top of the arch is the largest bronze sculpture in Europe. It depicts the angel of peace descending on the chariot of war.
The Arch is located on Consitution Hill. Also within the same open space are other war memorials. The touring of Aspley House, the Wellington Arch and Hyde Park would be a good plan on a day of fine weather in London.

See the Apsley House post for info on nearest tube station and opening times. Admission to the Wellington Arch is GBP3.20. Below is the view towards Hyde Park from the arch's viewing gallery. Below that is a view of the arch from inside Apsley House.

Apsley House: London's Ultimate Address Number

My last day in London (30 May 07) began with a visit to Apsley House. Designed and constructed between 1771 and 1778 and named after Baron Apsley, this aristocratic townhouse at the western end of Piccadilly, between Hyde Park and Green Park, became the London home of war hero and future prime minister, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, in 1817.

Having beaten Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was once the most famous man in Europe. If it were not for the Duke, French would be the national language of the country.
Also known as ‘No. 1 London’, because it was the first house within the city gates on the west side, it houses the Duke’s outstanding collection of paintings, porcelain, silver, sculpture, furniture, medals and memorabilia. Pictured above, the lavish Waterloo Gallery (90 ft long), contains the Duke’s magnificent art collection. Between 1992 and 1995 the interior of the house was restored to its early 19th-century appearance
An 11-foot-tall marble statue of Napoleon (above), clad only in a fig leaf, dominates the stunning grand stairwell in the center of the house. Downstairs is a small gallery of Wellington memorabilia. A comfortable seating area in the Inner Hall allows visitors to browse through leather-bound albums of images of Wellington, his descendants and Apsley House.

When the seventh Duke of Wellington gave the house to the nation in 1947, the family retained the private rooms, which they still use today. Pictured below is the Piccadilly Drawing Room.
Views from the upstairs apartments offer grand views of Hyde Park (pictured below) to the west and the Wellington Arch across the street to the south. The English Heritage also manages the Wellington Arch and admission can be combined to visit the viewing platform at the top.

Tube Station: Hyde Park Corner. Opening times 10am-5pm Tues-Sun, closing at 4pm from Nov-Mar. Adult Admission: GBP5.30. Joint ticket to see the Wellington Arch: GBP6.90. Family Fare: GBP17.30 (2 adults, 3 children)

Porn & Racism Only on 'Avenue Q' at the Noel Coward Theatre - A Production Review

Described as Sesame Street mixed with South Park, ‘Avenue Q’ the musical stands as one of the most original musicals in London’s West End. Very little has been lost in the transfer from Broadway with the addition of a show curtain that maps out Avenue Q being located outside of Manhattan. It’s the sort of neighborhood where everyone knows and likes one another but can’t really afford to live anywhere else.

‘Avenue Q’ is populated with some friendly, if not off-the-wall, neighbors. Some are puppets. Some are humans. They include married and career-challenged couple Brian and Christmas Eve; single and looking Kate Monster; the closeted-Republican Rod; his roommate Nicky; the porn hungry Trekkie Monster and their building super (an actor portraying former child TV star Gary Coleman). Enter Princeton, a broke and unemployed recent college graduate who is trying to find his elusive purpose to life. His entrance to the neighborhood leads to a hilarious adventure of self-discovery and truth for himself and his newly found friends.

Life surely sucks on Avenue Q, maybe that’s why being politically correct is not one of the street’s salient characteristics. The witty score includes songs about porn and racism. In the show these subjects do not shock because what the characters sing is true and everyone knows it. Coming from the mouths from puppets such topics seem even more harmless. By the way, the scene with full-puppet nudity and sex is a sight to behold that will leave you dumbstruck with laughter.

One of the memorable aspects of live theater is when the unexpcted happens for the cast and audience. This evening the light bulb at the front door of one of the neighbors accidentally falls onto the stage and breaks. The actors playing Princeton and Brian stand speechless and the audience for a moment thinks it is part of the play. After a few beats, the actors just stare at each other smiling trying to regain their composure and the audience is finally in on the joke: that was not scripted. The actors are cheered with applause and laughter to go on and they do as if nothing had happened at all.

With more than one or two slight nods to the children programming that inspired the show, Avenue Q is a guaranteed night full of laughter. You may think: watching puppets for two hours? It works. The actors are not ventriloquists. With the limitations of the puppet faces, the actors use their own faces, bodies and acting skills to add expressions. Mainly the the jokes with references to Gary Coleman’s infamous past were largely lost on this European audience.

The talented ensemble could be comfortable playing these roles on Broadway with no one knowing they all hail from Britian. Jon Robyns (Rod/Princeton), Julie Atherton (Kate/Lucy the Slut) and Simon Lipkin (Nicky/Trekkie) particularly execute their roles on par with, if not slightly better than, the actors that created the roles in New York. Not for the young ones, the show is brash, naughty and full of heart and humor. Visit this neighborhood. You’ll leave smiling.

‘Avenue Q’ plays at the Noel Coward Theatre. Performance times are Mon-Thu 8pm; Fri 5:30pm & 8:30pm; Sat 5pm & 8:30pm. Ticket prices: GBP10-50. Book tickets at Recording of the Original Broadway Cast available on iTunes or on CD from RCA Victor Broadway. More info at Production photographs used for illustration purposes only.
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