West End hits a high note with audience turnaround

Musicals driving London theater

After a difficult start, London's West End theaters made a spectacular comeback last year, setting records on three fronts: attendance, ticket revenue and advance bookings. The reason for this dramatic turnaround can be described in one word: musicals. Everywhere you turn, audiences are happily queuing up to hear, in one particular case quite literally, the sound of music.

This profusion of musicals, many of which have arrived courtesy of Broadway ("Avenue Q," "Wicked," "Monty Python's Spamalot"), has dramatically revitalized a theater industry that, considering recent events, might as well have been in the doldrums.

During a recent visit, the sheer volume of theatergoers on display, even in the middle of winter, was a happy sight. A sampling of current offerings well demonstrated the reasons for the full houses. Such familiar titles as "Porgy and Bess" and "Evita," for instance, have been revitalized in thrilling new productions. For the former, director Trevor Nunn has transformed the normally massively scaled Gershwin opera into a relatively intimate Broadway-style musical. Adding dialogue but featuring a smaller cast and orchestra and a shorter running time, he has made the previously daunting work far more accessible in an entertaining and intelligent manner.

The revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's "Evita" is similarly innovative, with director Michael Grandage (of the Donmar Warehouse) delivering a streamlined, fast-paced version that replaces spectacle with intimacy. He also has given the show a sexier, more authentically Latin vibe, with Rob Ashford's tango-based choreography adding to the sizzle. And with Argentinean actress Elena Roger in the title role, the show has a dazzling spitfire who dances as thrillingly as she sings.

The biggest current crowd pleasers in London are of a more traditional vein. Nothing could induce me to see "Dirty Dancing," the faithful musical adaptation of the 1987 cult movie that is playing to packed houses at every performance. But the lavishly staged revival of "The Sound of Music" at the London Palladium, starring the delightful Connie Fisher, is a real delight. The talented newcomer, winner of the British television reality show "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," has been thoroughly embraced both by audiences and, more surprisingly, the London critics, who recently bestowed her with their Most Promising Newcomer award.

Unlike Broadway, which is currently starved for dramatic fare, London offers plenty of serious theater to offset its heavy quotient of musicals. The Royal Shakespeare Company is in residence at the Novello, with Patrick Stewart starring in back-to-back productions of "Antony and Cleopatra" (opposite the brilliant Harriet Walter) and "The Tempest." Two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange is playing Amanda Wingfield in a revival of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie." Playwright Tom Stoppard's powerful "Rock 'n' Roll" fascinatingly charts the lives of several characters in Prague in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet takeover. And the recently closed "Frost/Nixon," written by Peter Morgan (screenwriter of "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland") is set to open soon in New York with original stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen.

As always, the institutional theaters can be counted on for important work. At the National, Conor McPherson's alternately hilarious and haunting "The Seafarer," about a drunken gathering interrupted by a mysterious visitor, demonstrates that this Irish playwright has become one of the theater's most important new voices. Among the other offerings at the multi-theater complex were a gorgeously staged adaptation of Emile Zola's "Therese Raquin" and director Nicholas Hytner's ("The History Boys") audacious modern-dress production of George Etheride's Restoration comedy "The Man of Mode." The latter, about the shallow fixations of London's high society, seemed ripped from the pages of today's society pages.

At the Almeida, Frank McGuinness' "There Came a Gypsy Riding," a moving if generic drama about a family coping with the suicide of one of its members, is providing the opportunity for Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton ("Vera Drake") to deliver brilliant lessons in the art of stage acting. (Seeing the latter belting out the number "Broadway Baby" in a benefit performance of Sondheim's "Follies" a few nights later was a revelation.)

The Donmar Warehouse can always be counted on for compelling productions, and "Don Juan in Soho," written by "Closer" playwright Patrick Marber, was no exception. This updated version of the Moliere classic featured a wildly entertaining turn by a surprisingly hunky Rhys Ifans, quite physically transformed from his scrawny "Notting Hill" appearance.

Finally, there's the Royal Court's current revival of "The Seagull," now the single hottest ticket in London. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a new adaptation by Christopher Hampton, this sterling production from director Ian Rickson dusts the cobwebs off Chekhov's play and provides it with an almost unbearable emotional intensity and intimacy. Helping to bring in the crowds is the presence of Mackenzie Crook, familiar from the original British version of "The Office," who delivers an impressively moving performance as the doomed playwright Konstantin.

There's no shortage of exciting productions in the pipeline as well. Already receiving massive amounts of press coverage, thanks in no small part to the recently released photo of a buff Daniel Radcliffe with his shirt off, is the currently previewing revival of Peter Shaffer's "Equus" in which the big screen's Harry Potter co-stars with recent Tony Award-winner Richard Griffiths ("The History Boys").

Also causing buzz is "The Lady From Dubuque," a revival of Edward Albee's little-seen work starring Maggie Smith, which is already being talked about for a Broadway transfer; "The Entertainer," a new production of John Osborne's modern classic starring Robert Lindsay, opening at the Old Vic; and "The Lord of the Rings," the lavishly staged musical version of the Tolkien books that is being retooled after a less than rapturous reception in Toronto. And the New York to London express continues with upcoming West End productions of "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Jersey Boys."