London theater used to be quiet in August. What happened? A spectacular “Batman Live,” a Broadway transfer of “South Pacific” and a new “Don Giovanni” opened this week. Did someone cancel holiday for showpeople?
In the case of Batman, the performers are working hard for their summer cash. They fly on harnesses, twirl on trapezes, and do unlikely backflips while punching villains on the jaw. Designer Es Devlin recreates the gothic comic-book visuals of Gotham City. The show is currently playing at the 02 Arena and looks terrific.
There are some wonderful coups de theatre. A giant model appears of the head of Batman’s chief nemesis the Joker, looking creepy. Then it begins to wriggle, and looks even creepier. It’s actually made up of acrobats. Very neat.
The story, such as it is, is an excuse for a series of aerial stunts and set pieces. It involves Dick Grayson (Kamran Darabi-Ford) trying to get revenge for the murder of his circus-performer parents with the help of caped crusader Batman (Sam Heughan). A host of villains including the Penguin, Poison Ivy and the Riddler appear alongside the Joker, for no clear reason.
No matter. It’s a supersized arena show for the hotdog and cola crowd, not “Uncle Vanya.” If the plot doesn’t bear scrutiny, there’s plenty to keep the eye entertained. Catwoman looks hot in her slinky leather outfit. The Batmobile, designed by Formula One supremo Gordon Murray, is a great boys-with-toys piece of kit. The Joker’s balloon ride over Gotham has real wow-factor. And all for a top price ticket of 35 pounds ($57.28).
Director Anthony Van Laast works hard to keep it rattling along, even when the plot grinds to a halt for another display of aerialist acrobatics. It’s touring the U.K. until October, and then heads to North America next year. Ker-pow! Rating: ***.
A show making the reverse journey from the Lincoln Center to the Barbican is Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” directed by Bartlett Sher. It could have saved itself the trouble. Whatever magic it had in 2008 New York, where it garnered awards, has evaporated in its journey across the Pond.
Perhaps the story of a racist young woman learning to accept her mixed-heritage stepchildren had particular resonance with the presidential campaign. Perhaps the World War II setting hit a nerve with U.S. military campaigns. I’m guessing.
In London, the bubble has burst. Despite the irresistible tunes such as “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Bali Hai.” It’s more like “Unenchanted Evening,” “Unhappy Talk” and “Wash That Show Right Out of My Hair.”
It doesn’t help that it looks cheap. A Pacific blue backcloth has wrinkles. A plastic palm tree sits atop a prop pile of sand which doesn’t quite meet the floor.
Poor Samantha Womack (Nellie) broke her toe just before press night. She bravely carried on and sang sweetly, as did Paulo Szot as Emile. With the cracked foot, it was understandable why there wasn’t much spark between them.
It was less understandable why the other dance routines lacked fizz, or why the first act came in at a Wagnerian 1 hour 40 minutes. The melodies are fantastic, and the leads competent. It’s not enough. “South Pacific” can head back west. Rating: **.
OperaUpClose won an Olivier Award last year for its innovative production of “La Boheme.” Director and translator Robin Norton-Hale is continuing the experiments with a new “Don Giovanni,” set in contemporary London.
There are some good things in the small-scale show. Norton-Hale has sensibly cut it to 2 hours 15 minutes. She has the smart idea that Johnny (Don Giovanni) is a jaded city trader out to get nihilistic kicks. She’s also worked hard to create plausible motivations for some weaker bits of the plot, and the overture intriguingly mixes live piano and electronics.
It falters about halfway through. The electronic parts aren’t fully integrated and feel half-hearted. The creaky “identity-swap” plot device of Act 2 isn’t as carefully directed as the earlier parts. The hellfire ending lacks oomph.
The show is triple cast. I saw promising newcomer Marc Callahan as Johnny, and Fleur Bray, Rosalind Coad and Emily-Jane Thomas (all excellent) as the women in his life. Not quite a hit. Not quite a miss either. Rating: **.
“South Pacific” is at the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS, until Oct. 1. Information: http://www.barbican.org.uk
“Don Giovanni” is at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, W1D 3NE, until Sept. 17. Information: +44-20-7478-0100, http://www.sohotheatre.com.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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