Saturday, July 27, 2013

Stuart Munro's Letters From London, #2 - 9 To 5, Le Gateau Chocolat

In which 9 to 5: The Musical and Le Gateau Chocolat are discussed
by Stuart Munro

Hello again friends! It’s hard to believe that my two weeks of research work have come to a close! I’m speeding back to London (high-speed commuter rail! Bliss!) and thought I’d take the time to write another letter home. Last time, I wrote about how to properly move a story from screen to stage with Billy Elliot and Once. This week, a lesson in how not to do it, provided by the disaster that is 9 to 5: The Musical.

I saw 9 to 5 in its original (and very brief) Broadway run back in 2009, and I didn’t care for it. Yes it had some good performances from Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty, and yes it had an amazing set and some great choreography. But poor Allison Janney was constantly vocally overshadowed by her two co-stars (I mean, really, was that fair to her?) and the entire thing was hampered by a clunky book and a mostly forgettable score by Dolly Parton. But I thought to myself, hey, it’s making its way to the West End (I saw it out of town on tour). The show’s probably had a serious re-think, right?


The act’s highlight was easily his reenactment of the film version of Les Miérables, dressed only in a Dalmatian unitard.

I’ve since come to learn that the West End production is based on the North American Tour which saw original director Joe Mantello, and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler replaced by Jeff Calhoun. Seriously? Who replaces Joe Mantello? With Jeff Calhoun?! Now, where we had smooth scene changes gracefully covered with amazing choreography, we have actors moving every bit of scenery on by hand because there’s no automation, and video of Dolly Parton herself introducing the main characters (because we can’t figure it out on our own?), making jokes about the English calling it an “interval” instead of an “intermission,” and (God help us) even singing the title song during the curtain call.

The biggest problem with this new production (besides the book and score) is the design. If this had been a regional production, I might actually have been impressed. But the whole thing looked more like a second (or third) national tour – the priority had clearly been “How can we get this on stage as cheaply as possible?” – than a pre-West End one. People shelling out £65 to see it in London will be sorely disappointed.

Hyper aware that the show flopped in New York, this version has been Dollyfied within an inch of its life – she’s on every poster and ad and, as mentioned above, even features in the show itself – in the hopes of attracting an audience built on her fan base.

Where Billy and Once re-imagined themselves for the theatre, 9 to 5 essentially just throws the movie on stage, complete with too-short scenes that make the evening feel choppy and inconsistent, especially given the lack of finesse in the scene changes. Some of the minor book changes from Broadway are improvements (Violet’s love interest, created for the show, no longer saves the day, leaving that for our main characters), while some are just confusing (Judy’s scene with the photocopier is missing, but is still a plot point later on?).

All I can say is if you’re reading this from London and you’re thinking of seeing 9 to 5: don’t. Save your hard earned cash and go see something worthwhile.

Thankfully, in the week before this disaster, I was fortunate enough to witness the amazing cabaret act, Le Gateau Chocolat. An opera singer with an impressive résumé, Le Gateau Chocolat has made a name for himself as a baritone/sometimes-drag queen with a beard, and puts on a stellar show, singing everything from “Pure Imagination” to “Chocolate Salty Balls,” all with finesse and style.

The (sadly only an) hour-long act was built around Monsieur Chocolat handing out chocolates to various audience members and asking what flavour it was and (theoretically) picking the next song based on it. The game is merely a ruse – the songs are almost certainly already chosen – but that didn’t matter. With his flair and style, I easily went along with the game.

The act’s highlight was easily his re-enactment of the film version of Les Misérables, dressed only in a Dalmatian unitard. The absurdity of that juxtaposition, in which each song was ended with “And then s/he died,” drove home just how long that freaking movie is (“It’s 5,000 hours later, and Valjean is now the mayor of some small town”) as well as just how brilliant it is. I laughed at, and fell in love with one of my favourite shows all over again.

In this, we see a better translation of stage to screen and back to stage than we get in 9 to 5, and I’ve no doubt Le Gateau Chocolat will still be on stage long after 9 to 5 has left the city.

Next time: The Menier Chocolate Factory’s new production of Sondheim’s Merrily we Roll Along, and Cirque Alfonse’s Québécois Lumberjack Circus show, Timber!

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