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London delivers a trio of musical theatre gems

memphis broadway cast The Broadway cast of Memphis.
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The next couple of months are bringing a slew of new musicals to the West End: the locally-created Made in Dagenham to the Adelphi, plus two imports from New York, Here Lies Love (to the National) and Memphis (to the Shaftesbury).

If they deliver as much pleasure as the three American musicals I’ve seen this week, I’ll be a happy man. London is currently having a winning streak with fantastic productions of both new and old musicals, but they’ve all been beyond the West End in limited runs elsewhere.

The first you’ve already sadly missed: Marry Me A Little – a delightful musical revue of Sondheim ‘out-takes’ from other shows first created Off-Off-Broadway in 1980, and now itself an established part of the Sondheim canon – was seen in a short run at the St James Studio, and I caught the final performance on Sunday.

This is a small but perfectly formed package of songs cut from shows like Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Company and the (then-unproduced) Saturday Night, and it is a real and lasting pleasure to hear them again. They’re exquisitely performed here by the ever-invaluable Laura Pitt-Pulford and Simon Bailey, to the unobtrusive accompaniment of David Randall. (It’s always wonderful to hear such fine musicianship in both voice and playing, where each participant supports each other rather than overwhelms them).

And from a show drawn on a poignantly miniature scale – though one containing large and bruising emotions, expressed in both aching tenderness and brittle irony – to another American classic painted on a much larger scale: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park is a true wonder. The 1935 “folk opera” may have one of the greatest scores to a musical ever written – songs like Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So are absolute standards, and set the highest standards for their performers.

But I’ve often found productions of this show sluggish and difficult to engage with, for all the pleasure of the music. Not here, though: even on a cold (but at least dry) night in Regent’s Park, the show resonated both through the music and well beyond it, in the heartfelt and infectious performances of a cast that are utterly engaged and connected with it.

I’d go so far as to say that this is the best musical I’ve ever seen at this address. Director Timothy Sheader and his movement director and choreographer Liam Steel give it a continuous flow of momentum and emotion, stunningly supported by full-bodied orchestra under conductor Simon Lee.

It is also set against a remarkable wavy panel of burnished copper by designer Katrina Lindsay that means there are no cumbersome set changes to accommodate, but for which simple adjustments of lighting states by Rick Fisher flood it with new textures.

And last but not least, the British premiere of Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse sees this South London powerhouse once again hosting the London premieres of the freshest and most powerful new American musicals, after Titanic last year and In the Heights earlier this year.

This production, beautifully staged by Matt Ryan, sees a fantastic cast of mostly unknowns and a stunning six-piece band under George Dyer give Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s haunting score great integrity and intensity. The show is an earnest but audaciously gritty piece that brings captivating heart to an unpleasantly bullish story about soldiers on the pull for the ugliest women possible, in order to win a competition that heartlessly asks them to find the best candidates.

Yet something else happens on that journey that both surprises and enchants. The result is a refreshingly bold and challenging new musical.

It’s just the sort of thing to break us out of the current stalemate in the West End and augurs well for the new arrivals I mentioned earlier.

Read more Mark Shenton columns from The Stage

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