The Shah of Persia is feeling low. So to lift his spirits he’s off to Vienna with his Eunuch in tow for some new adventures. He promptly falls in love with the Empress of the Empire, much to the dismay of her husband, so a resident of the local brothel – who is a double for the Empress – is substituted for a night of passion. But she’s in love with a Baron, who’s having an affair with the Soap Manufactuer’s Wife….
Colonel/Trummer – Herndon Lackey
Shah – John McMartin
Eunuch – Mandy Patinkin
Vizier/Soap Manufacturer – George Lee Andrews
Baron – Shuler Hensley
Mizzi – Kate Baldwin
Frau Matzner – Judy Kaye
Soap Manufacturer’s Wife – Nancy Opel
Mayor – Daniel Marcus
Director – Harold Prince
Co –director/Choreographer – Susan Stroman
Music – Strauss (arrangements by Jonathan Tunick)
Scenic Design – Beowulf Borrit
Lighting – Howell Binkley
Costume – Judith Dolan
And so ends a long run of Menier Theatre hits with the sound of a dead duck falling very heavily on the stage. I did wonder beforehand about the advisability of going to the theatre on a boiling hot Sunday (when one really should have been In the Park With George), but with seemingly the entire theatre-reviewing community of London also en route (even those of us who had paid for our tickets) I was obviously going to be in august company, especially since the Broadway transfer of this show has already been announced, following hot on the heels of 15 or so Tony nominations for other Menier productions which have already crossed the pond. But its important to note that this isn’t a Menier production in the same sense as A Little Night Music or La Cage aux Folles (both currently wowing the yanks) as it hasn’t been produced in-house – although it will probably have “direct from the Menier Chocolate Factory, London” plastered all over it in New York to give it some added cachet – and by god it will need every ounce of cachet it can get. Despite an awesome array of talent both in front of the curtain and backstage, this is a real stinker of the kind I haven’t seen since Too Close to the Sun last year.
The insurmountable problem here is the sheer awfulness of the book, which is essentially operetta of a kind that went out of fashion about 30 years ago. It starts by trying to be something vaguely 1001 Nights, tries desperately to reference The King and I in that its framing device is the clash of culture between east and west (or in this case the Middle East and Mittel-Europa) and then mixes in Strauss’ Vienna and Die Fledermaus (there’s a louche club called – with extreme heavy-handedness - “The Bat”, the baron makes a pass at someone’s wife’s maid, there's a "comedy" deception when a whore masquerades as an Empress) with dollops of Ivor Novello (soubrettes called Mizzi, chorines in dirndls and so on). It then gets all realistic and grim for a while in Act 2 and then goes back to 1001 Nights with an implausibly “happy ever after in the harem” ending. The set-up is dire, the story daft beyond words, the characters unsympathetic and badly drawn and the execution perilously close to farce. If it were parodying operetta, it would be just about allowable, but its not – its played straight and its bloody awful. The songs are uninspired, set to not-very-well-known Strauss, although the Blue Danube is referenced and the Kaiser Waltz features a couple of times. The dialogue is risible and, although it tries hard to be funny, just isn’t. The audienece is practically silent for the entire performance, although there is the occasional titter from someone low on oxygen in the dark heat of the auditorium. I laugh once, when one of the characters asks for a slice of a Viennese pastry called a gugelhupf – and the only reason I laughed at that is because it’s a private joke (look at me in a particular way and say profiteroles or sachertorte and I’ll collapse in hysteria). The costumes are occasionally unbelievably tatty, despite being from Angels, and the wigs, which could be beautiful if dressed properly, don’t look as if they’ve seen a perruquier’s loving hand or a quick blast of Elle-Net for ages. And then there’s Mandy Patinkin, warbling and sweating and attempting to sing falsetto (he is playing a eunuch after all) and looking and sounding like he’s channelling Yoda from the star wars films.
Truly, this is really, really bad, to the point of my feeling embarrassed for some of the people sweating their tits off on stage. I predict they will be giving tickets away for nothing by the end of the run. Which should at least please some people.
EMPTY WINE GLASS
What the critics thought: