Saturday, 6 December 2008

Ghetto Blaster

Tricky one, this. Imagine you're a producer with a new show to launch on the brink of the worst recession for thirty years, amid plummeting audience figures, in an unpopular theatre, with a cast of mostly unknowns. About the Holocaust. And it's a backstage musical.

This in itself could be a comedy to put The Producers in the shade, but it says something about the central theme of indomitable spirit that has clearly infected the investors, production team and cast as "Imagine This" defies its assault by the broadsheet critics and cheap jibes at its soft target from bloggers (like myself) to limp bloodied but unbowed into its second month in the West End.

I met two of the American small-scale backers who had flown over for the premiere, seduced into contributing to the $10 million investment by a DVD of the less-than-stellar production in Plymouth. They had been told that the show would start to pay back after 26 weeks of sellout performances. Yeah, right, at a time when nothing less than David Tennant or Harry Potter in the nuddy can spontaneously erect a 'House Full' sign ...

Blind faith is another pervasive theme of the production.

In 1942, a bunch of actors are among the thousands corralled into the Warsaw ghetto and, with historical improbability straining at its stays, are encouraged by the Nazis to put on a musical pageant about the fall of Masada (in 73AD when the Romans laid siege to the Judaean mountaintop settlement and the Jews committed mass suicide rather than be captured). Each actor plays both a Warsaw Jew and a Masadist (?) or Roman, and the ludicrous dual romantic sub-plot involves a spunky Jewess falling for the local Nazi commander, and a Judaean firebrand being bedded by the Roman general.

The Roman general/Polish resistance fighter left me cold, being played by diminutive Australian Simon Gleeson whose speciality seemed to be spitting every line whilst keeping his carefully trimmed beard dry, but the stomping Nazis who stopped just short of homoerotic fantasy still pulled focus. Call me old fashioned, but in a musical you're naturally going to favour the tall blond leading men over the whiny and runtish kosher munchkins.

In the Warsaw scenes, there's just a whiff of promise that this plot might pick up where Cabaret left off. Yes, I know there are four years between Kristallnacht and the foundation of the Warsaw ghetto and Berlin isn't Poland, but historical continuity isn't this show's strongest point and I was referring to the variety of musical styles Cabaret manages to embrace, whereas Imagine This is mired exclusively in the minor key, plangent, Kletzmer wail that pervades so much 'Jewish Music'.

But unfortunately most of the hours are given over to the Masada thing, and therein lies the show's failure. One of the rules of 'backstage musical' going right back to 42nd Street is that the audience is interested more in the actors' personal dramas than the show they're supposedly performing. Go on, name any of the shows that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ever put on in that barn. Exactly.

The other argument for focusing on the Warsaw episodes is that the whole Nazi/victim thing has got previous form. From both Cabaret and Sound of Music we know that the good and tuneful get shat on by the Germans, and understand the stock characters of the sympathetic SS officer and the morally weak collaborator. Both here, natch, but not given the stage time to develop their characters beyond the superficial, because we're busy raising barricades and waving an awful lot of red banners (wonder where they got those ideas) so as not to let the Romans climb up the the mountain top and start to blow Gabriel blow. Sorry, touch of the 'Anything Goes' creeping in ...

I must be one of the few audience members (there were about 300 of us last night) who has been to both Masada and Auschwitz, and I can tell you that it's the Holocaust stuff that schticks in your memory, not some 1st Century Judaean Jonestown massacre, and therefore makes the better material for a musical.

My suspicion is that this production, which has a lot in common with Martin Guerre, will be called off for major revisions and come back re-branded and re-packaged (and hopefully re-cast with a couple of faces you could put on a poster) for a more successful run.

It should, because the production values are high, the lighting and staging are very effective - again, moreso on the Warsaw front with dramatic lighting changes and so much gunfire and crashing of metallic scenery that we could have been making the last act of Major Barbara in Undershaft's cannon foundry.

I liked some of the music: the anthemic title song, and one with something about clouds, but it's pretty monothematic and whilst the score contains some good Boublil-and-Schoenbergesque marching tunes, it needs better ballads and more variety. The introduction of the otherwise valuable actor Michael Matus (the 'village idiot' from Martin Guerre) as a camp slave is too "Up Pompeii" crude for the quality of the production, and this whole area needs a substantial re-write.

Lyrics universally need more work: this was the second musical in a week to rhyme 'virgin' with 'submerge in' and frankly Sondheim does it better ...

Peter Polycarpou works tremendously hard to hold the cast together, channelling David Kossoff , and mostly succeeds. I didn't enjoy Leila Benn Harris as a part-time Christine in Phantom, but she's on much safer ground here as the love interest of the freedom fighter, just needs to be given some better songs.

Incidentally, Masada was constructed by King Herod. Did you know his wife was called Doris? Now there's a Jewish momma waiting to be discovered in a musical ...

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