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Good Shows Perk Up

In spite of difficult economic times, West End audiences

THE resilience and verve of the London stage never cease to amaze. Despite the darkening economic situation, somehow it flourishes. While Broadway has suffered another year of declining audiences, the West End actually continues to enjoy a steady rise. Out of 50 theaters, most have their marquee lights ablaze, with 15 new productions opening in recent weeks and 10 more in the offing. How does London's theaterland manage to do it?Variety, rather than "formula," seems to be the key. Musicals, for instance, are invariably good bets. Rather than looking to what has worked in the past, London producers have shunned elaborate gimmickry. At the Lyric Shaftsbury Theatre, "Five Guys Named Moe" is as unadorned as they come, and a perfect example of a dazzling production without gloss. Voted Outstanding Entertainment of the Year at the West End's Laurence Olivier Awards a few months ago, this modest show with six players plus a small on-st age jazz ensemble rattles the rafters and, by the end, has theatergoers in the aisles: At one point in this musical tribute to American 1940s jazz-and-soul sax player and songster Louis Jordan, the all-black cast cajoles theatergoers into a calypso conga line around the seats. The show's mood is infectious. "Five Guys Named Moe" is set around the simplest of premises. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. But the twist here is that when the lovelorn chump turns on his radio for some late-night commiseration - poof! - out pop the five guys from the title tune, proffering plenty of streetwise advice on life, love, and how to get the most out of both. Stringing Jordan's songs together with this slim but clever thread of a story works marvelously thanks to the mega-voltage dancing devised by choreographer Charles Aug ins. A lot of expatriate American talent is injected into this show, including that of Mr. Augins and director/author Clarke Peters. British producer Cameron Mackintosh ("Cats,Les Miserables,Phantom of the Opera,Miss Saigon"), who snapped up the production the very night he saw it in London's fringe, told me in an earlier interview that he's convinced it will eventually "be seen all over the world." If London theatergoers and critics are anything to go by, Midas-touch Mackintosh is onto another winner. Similarly humble beginnings mark "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which was originally written as a 40-minute ditty for school kids back in 1968. A witty, rock retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph being sold into slavery, it provided the springboard to fame for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his lyricist pal Tim Rice. Now at the London Palladium, the newly expanded show is getting its first large-scale stage treatment and has become one of the biggest hits of the season. Australian pop throb Jason Donovan in the title role is an added attraction for some, but he only plays a small part in the show's success. Combustion is created by director Steven Pimlot's concoction of the same sort of innocence that made the show popular 23 years ago with just enough tastefully disguised sophistication for '90s sensibilities. A large chorus of London school children recruited for the production appear on both sides of the pyramid-shaped set to establish the storybook tone and pave the way for a lot of visual jokes. Lightening-paced, Michael Jackson-style dancing laced with acrobatics, and the show-stopping pharaoh played as a pelvis swiveling Elvis, make this one of the happiest productions around. Thrills of a different kind are to be had at the Playhouse Theatre. "The Rose Tatoo," directed by Sir Peter Hall, who brought to Broadway via the West End two other recently acclaimed productions ("The Merchant of Venice," with Dustin Hoffman as Shylock, and "Orpheus Descending," starring Vanessa Redgrave) will surely deprive New York theatergoers of a huge treat if he doesn't bring them this latest London hit as well. Hall is undisputedly one of the top stage directors in the world today, and this revival of a lesser-known Tennessee Williams work gives a good indication why. The attention to detail is Sir Peter's hallmark. From the densely cluttered set to the eerily evocative sounds of a Mississippi Delta summer's night to the plangent bleats of a billy goat, the parts add up to a breathtaking whole. It is rare to see a Williams play without at least a brief longueur or two. And this work is certainly not one of the playwright's best. Yet Hall's version grips us from start to finish. Apart from superb direction, a big reason is Julie Walters (of "Educating Rita" fame). As Serafina Delle Rose, an Italian immigrant to a little Sicily in the bayou, widowed by her beloved no-good husband, Ms. Walters runs the gamut of emotions in 30 seconds flat with an extraordinary deft touch. Walters's great gift for comedy is what lifts the play from bathos to pathos. Indeed, when Serafina finally casts away her ritualism and embraces life, it's a joy to behold.

Taking a wider look, the West End is awash with revivals - the one indication of economic strain, as producers are discouraged from trying out riskier new work. But, in the majority of cases, this isn't a bad thing. "Carmen Jones," at the Old Vic, is playing to packed houses with a solid, exuberant rendering. Over at the Comedy Theatre, Harold Pinter directs his own 31-year-classic, "The Caretaker," starring Donald Pleasance as the weasle-like little tramp - the role he created in the original production - who cunningly moves into the lives of two working-class brothers. This study of the paucity of real communication between people and concomitant isolation is doing well, as would be expected with Mr. Pinter at the helm; but I found it surprisingly pedestrian, with Mr. Pleasance too posh around the vowels to be believed as a London down-and-out. A more exciting performance is given by Edward Fox in "The Philanthropist," an early work by Christopher Hampton ("Les Liaison Dangereuses"), at the Wyndham's Theatre. Although a somewhat slight play, Mr. Fox makes the seemingly passionless university don a marvelous study of how legendary British reserve and good breeding often mask a great deal more. Fox's subtlety, both in humor and the occasional poignant moments, is superb. At the Royal National Theater (RNT), during these halcyon days under the artistic leadership of Richard Eyre, there is an entertaining remake of "Napoli Milionaria," by Italian playwright Eduardo de Filippo, which was reputedly a big hit in his native country when it was written in 1945. Originally set in wartime Italy, with its severe food rationing and inevitable black-marketeering, this version has been transposed to Liverpool in 1942, to amusing effect. Mr. Eyre himself directs the consistently stron g cast, headed by Ian McKellan. The only drawback is the play itself, which falls a bit flat with its somewhat tired anti-war message. Still, the humor is good, with Mr. McKellan providing a few endearingly funny moments as the unemployed pain-of-a-paterfamilias who gets dragged off to war and returns a changed man. As a total production, however, my preference would be "White Chameleon," a new work by Christopher Hampton, on the RNT's smallest stage, also with Eyre directing. It's an autobiographical piece, depicting the various strains in young Hampton's life - growing up during the demise of British rule in India, the love of the family's Indian servant, the Suez invasion - that contributed to the makings of a playwright. Despite a lack of pinsharp focus, the show is more than worthwhile for its canny portrait of the twilight of the British Empire and a memorable performance by Saaed Jaffrey ("A Passage to India") as the wise, witty, and devoted servant. Another new work, "Dancing at Lughnasa," by Irish writer Brian Friel, received this year's Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play. It began its stage life at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, prior to being brought over as part of the RNT repertoire. Hailed by the critics, it has transferred for an indefinite run to the Phoenix Theatre. This is a gently paced piece, set in 1930s rural Ireland, and narrated by the alternately grown-up and seven-year-old boy who lived in the house with his four spinster aunties and un wed mother. Lughnasa is the name of the pagan harvest festival still celebrated throughout Ireland in early August; and it's the pagan roots lurking just below the humdrum peasant Irish Catholic lives that Mr. Friel is celebrating. These ladies' repressed longings get joyous release when their most prized possession, a new radio that only sometimes works, brings music flooding through their kitchen. Seeing these drab, homespun women break into a frenzied Irish folk dance is one of the most stirring moments on the We st End stage right now. Although uneven, the play does linger in the mind, with its reminder that we often don't appreciate the magic of congenial company and simple pleasures until long after they have dissipated. As for Shakespearean productions - a London theater season wouldn't be complete without them - the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which has just returned to its Barbican home after being forced to shut down for four months due to debts, has hit pay dirt with its current staging of "The Comedy of Errors." Tickets, in fact, are amazingly scarce. The story of two sets of twins and a lot of mistaken identity gets the full RSC treatment. The stunning black and white checkerboard set with the characters clot hed in off-the-wall screaming bright costumes as they come and go through a multitude of doors, the floor, nonsequitur magic acts, and so on, make this a very busy, farce-like play. It is obviously loved by some, given its huge success, but won't be everyone's cup of tea. A much better Shakespeare offering, I believe, is "A Midsummer Night's Dream," at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. The story's fairy-tale quality is beautifully realized in this perfectly gauged version, with its chattering punk-like mythopoetic creatures popping out of the bushes and trees. And veteran Cockney comedian Roy Hudd, as the bumptious Bottom whose head gets transmogrified by mischievous wood nymphs into a donkey's, is an absolute delight, making young and old alike laugh helplessly on the nig ht I saw the show. For some rare stage magic, this simple but highly effective production is Shakespeare at its best.

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