A trio of musical treats

Recently, I’ve made three trips to three different theatres (in two different towns) to see three very different shows.  From a classic to a new piece, from a star vehicle to an ensemble piece, they offered very different pleasures.  None of them were perfect, but none of them were a waste of time or money either.  I’m probably not all that hard to please if you throw a musical at me, but I think that all three were definitely enjoyable.

The first was by far the strangest, being Thatcher the Musical! (exclamation mark essential, and yes, it really does have a website, which includes a couple of sound samples).  Based on the life of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it’s an ensemble piece for eight women, all of whom play Thatcher for at least part of the show, and one male accompanist.  Each of the women take on an aspect of Thatcher’s character or career, while everyone else plays her relatives, colleagues, enemies and allies.  Being a young man in his late 20s, I remember some of the Thatcher era quite clearly, but much of the action took place before politics and the like really meant much to me.  Cabinet shuffles, the Falkland War (or should the name of the dispute contain the word Malvinas?), entry into Europe, recession, the unions, betrayal and old age all played a part in a show that was almost relentlessly funny.  So many touches, including staged fights between Thatcher and her opponents, an extended politics/sailing metaphor, brief audience interaction and many one-liners, made this a very engaging evening.  I was never bored, but three sections really made it work for me.  The first was the ‘Cabinet Shuffle’ a song-and-dance routine about that political inevitability which just made me smile.  The second was a beautiful love song for the elderly Maggie, looking back at the most important men in her life – the reaction of the Narrator Maggie to this song was also a delight. And finally the finale (strangely enough) which managed to be disturbing, well-executed, thought-provoking and hilarious all at the same time.  This is not even remotely a conventional musical, and some of the writing is a little rough around the edges, but it’s great theatre.

My second trip was to see Barnum, in a production by one of the local operatic societies.  This definitely had its pluses and minuses.  The show is a difficult one, as it is terribly episodic, but it does have a central thread in the conflict between P.T.Barnum’s view of the world and that of his wife.  The moment where they set these views out in ‘The Colors Of My Life’ is the defining musical moment of the show for me, crystallising everything else into one clear statement.  The show is very much a star vehicle for Barnum himself, but in this case, his wife outshone everyone else with a brilliant performance that was subtle when it needed to be, and exuberant when that was necessary.  That’s not to say that everyone else was terrible, as that’s not true (though one person was having a bad memory day and another just didn’t convince me at all), but her performance was simply wonderful.  My opinion of the show and the production varied as it went on, but I enjoyed most of it and the joyous finale made me very happy indeed.

And finally The King and I, performed in the faraway town of Southend-On-Sea.  The particular reasons for going to see this are perhaps a little convoluted, so I’ll stick to my opinions of the show.  This was again very enjoyable, with (for me) one of the supporting roles outshining everyone else – Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife who had wonderful warmth and stage presence, never breaking character for a second.  She wasn’t the absolute best singer in the show, which was abundantly blessed with great voices, but you believed every word she sang and had immense sympathy for her.  Some of the staging was a bit odd for me, butof course the Siamese children just steal everyone’s attention whenever they appear, making it very hard to be objective for a while.  Seeing the show live (having previously only seen the film and read the script) made me reevaluate it to an extent.  The colonial attitude is there, of course, but I felt that the show is far more balanced in showing up the flaws in both Eastern and Western culture than I had thought.  It does have its problems, though, including the woefully underwritten supporting role of Lun Tha (though as he’s a tenor, that’s not all that surprising if you look at some of the other Rodgers and Hammerstein tenor roles).  The music for this show is ravishing, and I even found myself enjoying ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’, where some of the royal wives reenact Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Siamese fashion, a section that I’d always found irritating before.  Of course it helped that the orchestra were very good indeed.

I’m not sure that there’s much point to this post, as it doesn’t really educate anyone, doesn’t offer full and frank reviews, and may well not entertain that much.  Three very different shows and very different productions.  All had their strengths and all had their weaknesses.  But all were enjoyable in very different ways and all made me think, either about theatre or about the issues the shows raised.  None of them are the most profound or the most brilliant things I’ve seen on stage, but all entertained me, and when it comes down to it, that’s what I most want theatre to do.

  1. I hope you realize how very fortunate you are to live somewhere where you can go see theatre regularly. green with envy here.

  2. Well, you have certainly helped to educate me a little, Singing Librarian, with your description of the Margaret Thatcher musical. Any information on musicals currently in production is always interesting.

  3. I was entertained, in that I found reading your opinions of the shows interesting, so there. ( =

  4. I think, generally, your enthusiasm for the genre is convincing me I should make more of an effort to see some musicals. Especially the Thatcher one, which sounds a hoot.

  5. Some people simply can’t cope with musicals, as you have to overcome the ‘people don’t burst into song in real life’ barrier, and I can definitely understand that. Plus they’re often very expensive! healingmagicghands, I am very lucky indeed, although the rip to Southend did take an hour and a half or so (much like a trip into central London would). My city has two theatres, and there’s another good one in a nearby town, so I don’t even get to see as much as I’d like of the offerings in the area.

    So I’ve educated and entertained accidentally? How odd!

  6. We saw Thatcher the Musical on Friday night, and found it much as you described.

    It was a treat to be at a, well, a piece of feminist theatre, or how else would you describe an ensemble piece where all the players are women? It was interesting, fun, funny, clever, moving and painful. I could have done with more miners strike, and a few yuppies, but the characatures were funny – particular praise to the woman who briefly played Dennis, and (the same?) woman who briefly played Heseltine.

    You found the music a little rough round the edges, I felt they were actors who danced rather than dancers, and that the choreography was a bit simple and clunky.

    It was, however, definitely fun!



  7. I don’t even remember how I even found your site, it’s great. Yes, Barnum was a bit of a sad disaster, the production was completely put together by one closed group and didn’t use the usual set up of stage managers/stage hands (inc. me)/directors that Herne Bay Operatic commonly use. Shame I was hoping it could beat the production they did 10 years ago but no.

    With Regards.

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