London Theater Hums to Peppy Musicals

Andrew Lloyd Webber's `Sunset Boulevard' has created a ripple effect, renewing enthusiasm in the West End

THE buildup was incredible. London is not New York: Very little, if anything, gets mega-hyped here, which made the anticipation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest stage extravaganza, Sunset Boulevard, all the more remarkable.

Within hours of announcing that the Adelphi Theatre, where the show's world premiere was scheduled to take place in a few months, was opening its box office for business, a line of eager theatergoers formed around the block. With a staggering $9.6 million in ticket sales well before even a single review had been written, "Sunset Boulevard" was considered "critic proof."

Does it deserve all the fuss?

Frankly, no. But that's not the whole story. It has to be said this is the first new musical since "Miss Saigon" that actually has, from beginning to end, an attention-holding score; it's amazing just how often such a basic show wins high marks.

"Sunset Boulevard" is a meticulously faithful stage adaptation of the 1950 Billy Wilder film classic of the same name. The tale centers on Norma Desmond (Patti LuPone), a former silent film queen abandoned by her legions of fans with the advent of cinematic sound. She lives in the self-imposed exile of her Hollywood mansion, where she is able to perpetuate her now fantasy-fame to the point of madness.

A handsome young screenwriter named Joe Gillis (Kevin Anderson) with little left, including scruples, accidentally stumbles upon Desmond's weird world of Neo-Gothic kitsch. He ends up living off her wealth, in exchange for "love" and helping her to make a comeback, both of which are sad, impossible delusions.

Lloyd Webber, along with director Trevor Nunn ("Nicholas Nickleby"; "Cats"; "Les Miserables"), has managed to put together an impressively slick show. And the celebrated composer has created some tuneful songs, which have variety and feeling. "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" had, well before the opening, a life beyond the show, thanks to Barbra Streisand's recent recordings.

A couple of particularly snappy ensemble numbers cleverly convey the hyperactive superficiality of Hollywood. At the same time, they epitomize all that musicals today should be. And the staging could not be better. The sets, by the master of design, John Napier ("Starlight Express"; "Les Miserables"; "Miss Saigon"), are show-stopping.

But the big question is: Why turn this particular tale into a musical? The lead characters inspire little sympathy. The torch songs, therefore, merely ignite a simulated blaze. LuPone is marvelous in the role, while Anderson, although distractingly nasal, is otherwise engaging. The lyrics are intelligent; the storyline cohesive. Yet something is missing. The saga is fine for a moody film, but, as a musical, that essential spirit is lacking: The show dazzles with its consummate skill, but ultimately fails

to either tug at the heartstrings or, at a fundamental level, pack a punch.

The excitement generated in the West End by "Sunset Boulevard" has been a boon. The day the show opened, news was initially dire: It was announced over at the nearby Prince of Wales Theatre that the City of Angels was closing. The twin events gave rise to news coverage and "City of Angels" had a sudden box-office rush from all the publicity. In the West End's history, such a rescue stampede was unprecedented. The show has now been extended to October.

HE excitement also seems to have had a ripple effect on the newly mounted revival of Grease at the Dominion Theatre. The 1970s stage - and, later, film - hit has been given the 1990s high-tech treatment, replete with laser beams and other updated enhancements, such as the occasional hint of breakdancing choreography. The total effect is a cross between a rock concert and a street party. Despite Australian teeny-bopper titillator Craig McLachlan not being quite up to the talents of his American co-star De bbie Gibson, audiences clearly don't care. They are flocking to the show.

And speaking of revivals, the Royal National Theatre (RNT) has a well-deserved West End transfer, beginning Sept. 10 at the Shaftesbury Theatre, of its much-garlanded production of Carousel - worth seeing, if you're fortunate enough to get a seat.

Not all the worthiest tickets in town, however, are musicals. Yes, they are dominating the West End. That's inevitable. Theatergoers have clamored, and always will, for an spectacle that typically only musicals can provide.

Still, London's theaterland, which by tradition prides itself in giving audiences variety, can rightfully boast about the range of choice it offers. Internationally acclaimed director Sir Peter Hall has mounted a pin-sharp revival of Separate Tables, Terrence Rattigan's 1954 study - a crisp comedy with a biting edge - of English manners, mores, and class pretensions set in a seaside hotel, at the Albery Theatre.

Over at the Queen's Theatre, Much Ado About Nothing gets a particularly deft modern twist that I'm sure the Bard himself would have approved: The wise-cracking, reluctant lovers are relocated to Northern Ireland, with outstanding performances from Mark Rylance, as an unworldly Irish country boy Benedick, and Janet McTeer, a strikingly commanding Beatrice with a no-nonsense tomboy air. The Irish angle is certainly off-beat, and at times, hilarious.

A more traditional, albeit graphically bloody, rendering of Shakespeare can be found over at the RNT with its new production in repertory of Macbeth. For purists, you couldn't do better this season.

As for brand-new plays, it's refreshing to see, also in repertory at the RNT, a different kind of hit show - Mr. A's Amazing Maze, by Alan Ayckbourn - written specifically for children and, according to the program, "intelligent adults." It's a bold, clever, funny play about a man who steals voices - Mr. Accousticus - or any loud noises that offend his arrogantly discerning eardrums. As a girl and her dog try to recover the stolen voices, the audience is asked to choose, at various junctures, which direc tion the story should take.

RITISH critics have underestimated the skill and subsequent popular appeal of a new modern comedy, On the Piste, by John Godber. Despite the generally lukewarm reviews, is going strong at the Garrick Theatre. Godber has written a funny, at times acutely perceptive, play about working-class English romantic ways. Two couples go on a skiing holiday (complete with on-stage ski slope) to Austria - there are some astute observations about the "Europeanization" of Britain, as well - and no one has a very good time. Successful romance, it seems, is a hard thing for people today who are more used to miscommunication or noncommunication.

Oddly enough, this is exactly part of the main theme, transposed to middle-class England, in Michael Frayn's new play, Here, at one of the West End's most dynamic fringe theaters, the Donmar Warehouse. Centered on a young couple buying their first one-room flat, the show amusingly depicts how people often strangle the very spontaneity that initially brought them together.

The biggest pitfall in thoroughly modern relationships, "Here" cogently conveys, is the rampant inability for men and women to express their real feelings. Layers of emotional manipulation, lack of genuine acceptance of differences, and an underlying desire to make the partner into what one wants him or her to be intervene. The result is a gradual loss of an ability to appreciate the preciousness of the moment. This is a gem of a play, with an impact that resonates long after the final fade-out.

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