Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dressing for yet one more spree

Bernadette Peters in Follies: yes, please! I was looking forward to this show for months - we made it our first night out without the baby. My review is posted at Verdicts, Commonweal's new books-and-culture blog. Read it here.

Looking back at what I wrote about the Encores! production four years ago, I see this version has many of the same high points and low points. The high points are not quite as exhiliaratingly high, but on the other hand, I like this Buddy and Phyllis better.

The biggest disappointment, for me, was Elaine Paige, who I thought did a lousy job with "I'm Still Here." Looking back I guess I shouldn't have been surprised; she sang it exactly the way you would expect it to be sung by someone who has spent her career singing Andrew Lloyd Webber music and Tim Rice lyrics. She seemed determined to sell it on the strength of her belting alone, which meant every time she got to the release ("I've gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover..."), she lost track, as an actress, of what her character was saying, and the lyrics got lost in the noise. Plus she had a pop-twang in her voice that doesn't quite work for a musical written and set in 1971 and referencing song styles from the decades before that. Also, she has a very unflattering costume. It's this bright blue dress with a fur wrap around the shoulders and a slit up the leg that makes her look the shape of a slice of pizza standing on its pointy end.

Even if I loved her performance I think I would have been turned off by her bio in the Playbill. I swear, this is what it says:
ELAINE PAIGE (Carlotta Campion), an actress, recording artist, producer and broadcaster, has made a major contribution to the modern musical, ensuring her own chapter in the entertainment world and the title "The First Lady of the British Musical Theatre." Having starred in numerous productions, she swept to fame when she created her award-winning performance as Eva Peron in Evita. Thereafter she created the role of Grizabella in the original production of Cats. The song "Memory" is one of Elaine's many hit records, 26 albums total. She has been honored with an OBE for services to musical theatre and she presents a weekly BBC Radio 2 program,"Elaine Paige on Sunday."
I feel like she's being awarded an honorary degree from some university with a not-so-great English department.

This was my first experience with The First Lady of the British Musical Theatre, although I did try to see her in The King and I in London back in 2001. The show was playing at the Palladium, in a production that was more like a Disney World animatronic show than actual live theatre. I mostly wanted to see the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet done up right, but I was also interested in getting a load of the star. I talked my flatmate into going with me, even though she knew nothing of the star or the show. When we got there, we saw a sign in the lobby: "At this performance, the role of Anna will be played by..." I reacted - Oh, no! - and my friend said innocently, "Is that a big part?" Yes, you could say that. Anyway, I can't remember much about the understudy (as I said, it wasn't the most inspiring of theatre experiences), but I always remembered my friend's question because I thought it was so funny and sad. Part of me felt like I should refund her ticket money, and the other part of me thought it might be better if I concealed the fact that the role being understudied was the "I" in the title and let her think we were seeing the star. Why should we both be disappointed?

Ben Brantley had nothing but praise for Paige in Follies, which just goes to show (in my opinion) that you can't quite trust Brantley about these things, especially when the subject is a diva. I noticed her name does not appear in Michael Feingold's list of the high points of the show, nor should it. Do read his take, because he really knows what he's talking about, and he's right on.

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