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David Benedict: When it comes to musicals, the place is the thing

Renée Fleming and Dove Cameron in The Light in The Piazza at Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Over an eye-widening 32 seasons, Kirstie and Phil have consistently reminded us of the importance of location, location, location. What they have thus far failed to mention is how crucial this is for musical theatre.

I’m not talking about where to develop a new musical – although for long-range development I’d be looking towards experienced theatres such as Sheffield’s Crucible and Leicester’s Curve. I mean something more specific: how a space can make or break a show. The prosecution calls Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out.

A rip-snorting dance-drama built around Billy Joel’s back catalogue, the energy from the deliriously dynamic show filled Broadway’s darkly coloured, 1,319-seat Richard Rodgers theatre for three years. But in the mishandled London transfer – marooned in the vast white wasteland that was the pre-Wicked 2,328-seat Apollo Victoria – it was strenuously enervating. From halfway up the stalls, it felt like watching a show through the wrong end of a telescope. It lasted two months.

Conversely, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has long taken advantage of its uniqueness to give energising perspective to musical theatre. In 2002, Ian Talbot directed the best revival I’ve seen of Oh What a Lovely War. The al fresco setting proved a perfect fit, the outdoor wooden stage being the closest thing imaginable to the show’s celebrated end-of-the-pier style.

Talbot’s successor, Timothy Sheader, has gone further, staging Sondheim’s Into the Woods in 2010 in, well, the woods. That could have gone in two ways: dully literal or richly imaginative. Happily, it was very much the latter. The following year, he presented Crazy for You, a show about putting on a show in the wilderness of Deadrock, Nevada, which looked dead right amid the trees.

Capitalising on those and other musical theatre successes, Sheader branched out further (forgive me) by joining up with English National Opera. Last season, designer Soutra Gilmour created a perfectly spooky skeleton of a burnt-out country house for Britten’s thrilling adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ chiller about goings-on in the garden of a country house.

His follow-up there last week, again with ENO, was Hansel and Gretel. The story of terrors and dangers discovered and despatched when lost in the woods gained immeasurably from the location – so much so that most reviews overlooked the production’s glaring tonal clashes, not to mention its failure to plumb the depths of Engelbert Humperdinck’s powerfully emotional music.

Hansel and Gretel review at Open Air Theatre, London – ‘an energetic, feel-good production’

At the opposite end of the spectrum came the London premiere of The Light in the Piazza in the considerably plusher, safely indoor atmosphere of the Royal Festival Hall, a production choice about which the biggest question is “Why?” Or, to put it another way, Adam Guettel’s subtly shaded, lushly scored musical is a small-cast story of love and tenderness with increasingly intense but never overblown emotions, so why is it being staged in a 2,500-seat concert hall?

The hall is a masterpiece of postwar design but was never intended as a theatre. It’s a bald concert platform. Pity the poor set designer, Robert Jones, with neither wing space nor a flying system to work with. No set pieces can be added in so the only answer is a standing set with lighting designer Mark Henderson going for broke attempting to isolate the actors and animate the (in)action.

It’s a presentational space, not a dramatic one, with seating stretching back for days. The cast has to underline everything to make the drama travel, which damages the show’s fragility.

‘Why is The Light in the Piazza being staged in a 2,500-seat concert hall?’

The likely lure for ex-ENO supremo John Berry and Anthony Lilley launching their independent production company Scenario Two will have been the seating capacity. Their wage bill for the (excellent) 40-piece Opera North orchestra will have been epic. And casting the great American soprano Renée Fleming won’t, understandably, have come cheap. Nor will she have wanted to sign up for an extended theatrical run of eight shows a week – anathema to an opera singer who would usually sing, at the most, three. This, presumably, is why she settled for just 20 performances here with others following abroad.

But if a gain in potential production yield – the top price is £150 – comes at the expense of the material, what’s the point? And what’s more, it looks as if the producers’ ploy hasn’t worked. Even before opening, serious discounts were widely (and are still) available.

It’s a venue steeped in prestige but it is not suited to dramatic subtlety. Previous attempts to stage musicals there have been equally unsuccessful – Peter Pan proved a turkey, likewise The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps it’s time producers realised that, as the song almost goes: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the place that you do it.”

The Light in the Piazza review at Royal Festival Hall, London – ‘Renée Fleming is sublime’

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict

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