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Musicals Shake The West End Theater Scene

THERE is currently something akin to a siege mentality in London's theaterland. The unrelenting economic gloom pervading the town means West End producers are having to fight that much harder for audiences than in recent years. The atmosphere is made all the more fraught by a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) London bombing campaign, which has resulted in a disturbing series of blasts and disruptive security alerts in the area over the past few months.

Yet playhouse marquee lights remain defiantly ablaze. Nearly all the West End's 51 stage venues have, quite amazingly, productions on at the moment. Audiences may be sparser in many cases, but the show definitely goes on.

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Musicals are the prevailing trend: Almost half of the present offerings fall into that category. London theater impressarios are ever on the lookout for another international moneyspinner in the league of a "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera," or "Les Miserables." But hitting upon the kind of alchemy necessary for an enduring mega-crowd pleaser is extraordinarily difficult. The number of musicals - often with a staggering amount of money, time, talent, and artistic integrity poured into them - that have popp ed up in recent times only to sink without a trace attests to the incredible elusiveness of getting it right.

`Kiss of the Spider Woman,' a new work from John Kander and Fred Ebb (composer and lyricist for "Cabaret"), premiering at the Shaftesbury Theatre, is the latest case in point. Hopes for the show have been high. It is the biggest news of the current theater season. Based on the book, play, and Oscar-winning film of the same title, the musical has enough gravitas - the story is set in the political corruption and wanton brutality of an Argentinian prison - and pedigree to give it more than a chance of succ eeding. Its director Harold Prince, and one of its stars, Chita Rivera, are both Broadway veterans. Yet the show splurts and splutters in an effort to catch fire, finally achieving only a smoldering fizzle.

"Kiss of the Spiderwoman" highlights the dilemma many stage musicalmakers face today: How does a show meld the 1990s desire for a substantial story with a high degree of song-and-dance entertainment?

The makers of this production have tried to resolve matters by laying the song/dance emphasis on the escapist fantasy life of one of the inmates - Molina, a window dresser who has been jailed for a crime related to his homosexuality. Molina is constantly recounting the celluloid scenarios of his favorite screen star, Aurora (Ms. Rivera), to his cellmate, Valentin.

The main problem here is that these songs are wholly forgettable, as are the routines - as is the purpose for them in the first place. They do nothing to advance the story, which is really about the unlikely close bond that develops in a prison cell between a lonely, apolitical homosexual man and a heterosexual, idealistically impassioned revolutionary. By giving so much non sequitor song-and-dance space to the character of Aurora, who is meant to be a metaphor for death, the great emotional potential of

the show is squandered. What remains is a production that starts to go in one direction, then abruptly shifts to another, then, just as abruptly, shifts back again.

On the plus side, the show is visually stunning. At the outset the entire stage appears to be covered in bars to suggest a prison. As the story progresses, the bars transform, through tricks of lighting, to become, say, a barbed wire fence or an enormous spider web. But it is Brent Carver as the sensitive Molina, in a marvelously mercurial performance just this side of camp, who shoulders the entire enterprise.

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IT has to be said that a few London critics have hailed the show as a serious musical that deals with serious ideas. Yet if a theatergoer comes to the show untutored in any of the story's previous incarnations, this version on its own does not make those ideas clear. And, too, the production has just won one of London's yearly drama prizes, the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical - which demonstrates that the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome is always with us.

A curiously contrasting situation is taking place at the nearby Piccadilly Theatre. A new Norwegian rock-opera creation, `Which Witch,' has received a uniform panning from the London critics - quite unwarrantedly. But there is no Hal Prince directing - a lesser-known Piers Haggard is at the helm - and, instead of stage people of the stature of Kander and Ebb as its creators, there is a Norwegian pop duo, Benedicte Adrian and Ingrid Bjornov. The pair displays further audacity with Ms. Bjornov taking up th e baton as musical director.

Yet "Which Witch," despite an unfortunate title that quite erroneously suggests a frivolous comedy, is, in fact, better value than the over-hyped "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Certainly, as family entertainment goes, it's a good bet. That's not to say it's a perfect show. But at least there's an identifiable story, some admirably atmospheric music, and the kind of pace that holds the attention.

"Which Witch" is set against the backdrop of 16th-century Roman Catholic Church politics and the rise of witch hunts in middle Europe. But this is essentially a love story between a bishop and the girl he once tutored. The relationship is doomed from the start, with the added difficulty of the girl being accused of casting a spell on the conscience-torn bishop.

"Which Witch" is not, however, all downbeat. The Breughelesque depictions of village life, a ghoulish dance in the woods with witches flying on stage from above the audience, plus a particularly well-executed - if you'll pardon the pun - rock number sung by the macabre town executioner, add good aural and visual variety to the show.

But the worthiest, undeniable hit of the season, according to critics and theatergoers alike, is `The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.' This unusual, modest production by up-and-coming, north country British playwright Jim Cartwright is hard to categorize. Billed as a comedy - indeed, it has just received the Evening Standard's Comedy of the Year award - its music is also pivotal to the show. It premiered at the Royal National Theatre's small studio stage and proved so popular with the audiences that squee zed into this intimate venue that it has now achieved a well-earned transfer to the West End's larger Aldwych Theatre.

"The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" is about a young girl - as painfully introverted as she is physically thin - who lives with her rowdy, blowsy, working-class mother in a state-subsidized house. Both avoid domesticity, but the contrast between the two could not be greater. The mother, Mari, devotes all her energies to land a man - any man as long as he's willing to support her in the style to which she has never been accustomed. Her daughter, dubbed Little Voice, or LV, because she can hardly be heard when she speaks, lives almost entirely in her bedroom. LV repeatedly plays old Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey, and Marilyn Monroe records bequeathed to her by her father. Not long into the show LV reveals an astounding hidden talent: She can imitate these songs with uncanny feeling and accuracy that it's almost chilling. One of Mari's infinitesimally small-time boyfriends hears LV and attempts to exploit her talent in the local clubs.

The crassness of mother and boyfriend is juxtaposed with the touching vulnerability of LV and the only person who manages to break through to her, an introverted telephone engineer. How the engineer gets LV to finally sing in her own voice is hilarious and heartbreaking by turns. Apart from a rather flaccid happy ending, this is a quirky, intriguing, off-beat show.

Despite the trend toward musicals, not everything worth seeing on the West End stage this season falls into that category. Near the top of the list has got to be the new work, `Our Song.'

Granted, the title is musical (it refers to the Stephen Sondheim tune, "Send in the Clowns," that evocatively recurs in the background), but the play at the Apollo Theatre is a striking comic vehicle for actor Peter O'Toole. Written by Keith Waterhouse with Mr. O'Toole in mind, this tragicomedy about a middle-aged man destructively besotted with a much younger woman fits the actor's talents like a glove.

So effortlessly does O'Toole command the stage with self-deprecating quips, the sighs of lascivious infatuation and, finally, a mordant self-awareness, that it hardly seems like acting. He is precociously supported by newcomer Tara FitsGerald, making her West End debut.

But this really is O'Toole's night. Although a lightweight work, generally, it is an undeniably entertaining role for an international star at the summit of his powers.

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