LONDON—The West End stage has always been a treasure trove of thrilling theatrical treats and a boundless source of artistic inspiration for us. But, with our crazy and confining schedule these days, its spellbinding lure and enchanting allure have become a reinvigorating refuge.
Whether you’re a culture vulture or a performing-arts practitioner, it’s difficult not to get smitten or bitten by the theater bug when you watch the formidable likes of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (“The Breath of Life”), Ralph Fiennes (“God of Carnage,” “Man and Superman”), Glenn Close (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), Daniel Craig (“A Number”), Mark Strong (“A View from the Bridge”) and James McAvoy (“The Ruling Class”) driving their thespic limits at full throttle.
After all, it isn’t every day that you get a chance to see Emma Thompson demonstrating her underutilized singing mettle in something as thematically dark and melodically complex as Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”
This week, our trip to the United Kingdom has taken us to Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Phoenix Theatre, where the stage adaptations of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist” and Lloyd Bacon’s 1933 movie musical “42nd Street” are on view.
The genre films’ jump from screen to stage isn’t always seamless, but the crowd-pleasing productions of directors Sean Mathias (“The Exorcist”) and Mark Bramble (“42nd Street”) benefit from their lead stars’ acting chops as much as their stellar presence.
Yes, stellar presence. In “42nd Street’s” case, ’80s pop luminary Sheena Easton steals the thunder from triple-threat Clare Halse, who portrays the musical’s performing firebrand Peggy Sawyer.
The tap dance-heavy jukebox musical—about chorus girl Peggy (Halse, who’s occasionally weighed down by her hammy, larger-than-life excesses) who suddenly finds herself thrust into the limelight when musical-theater star Dorothy Brock (Easton) breaks her leg, pun intended—is a sparkling visual spectacle that features flashy but distended production numbers. Too much dancing isn’t always a bad thing, but when it becomes gratuitous, it eventually overstays its welcome.
The lithe and lovely Easton, who’s making her West End debut, doesn’t do much terpsichorean heavy-lifting—she plays a gifted singer with little aptitude for dancing who has slept her way to the top. But, when she sings “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” she steals the show. (Another memorable tune from the musical is “Lullaby of Broadway.”)
The stunning songstress behind such ’80s hits as “Almost Over You,” “Telefone” and “For Your Eyes Only” is already 58 years old, but the huskier quality of her “maturing” voice lends texture and depth to her prodigious performing ability.
Terror in the aisles
Euripides (“Medea”), Sophocles (“Oedipus Rex”), Christopher Marlowe (“Doctor Faustus”), John Webster (“The White Devil”), William Shakespeare (the ultraviolent “Titus Andronicus”) and Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty have long given audiences the heebie-jeebies.
But, the contemporary yarns spun by the brilliantly imaginative likes of Stephen Sondheim (“Sweeney Todd”) and Stephen Mallatratt (“The Woman in Black”) bring “terror in the aisles” closer to home.
Up there with the aforementioned titles is Jack Thorne’s eerily staged movement piece inspired by Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish horror-romance drama, “Let The Right One In,” which we saw at the Apollo Theatre in 2014.
With its scratching noises, crawling ghostly shadows, rocking bed and objects sailing through the air, playwright John Pielmeier’s stage version of “The Exorcist” is littered with spine-tingling moments of unadulterated terror.
It follows a mother’s (Jenny Seagrove) desperate attempt to seek the help of Father Merrin (Peter Bowles) and Father Karras (Adam Garcia), to exorcise the powerful demon who has possessed her lonely 12-year-old only child, Regan (Clare Louis Connolly).
The play and the movie may be works of fiction, but the extraordinary true story that inspired them isn’t: In 1949, Fathers William Bodern and Walter Halloran came to bookish 13-year-old Roland Doe’s rescue.
Thereafter, the Catholic Church forbade the priests to talk about the “incident,” but author William Peter Blatty managed to unearth enough details about the four-week exorcism rite for his 1971 novel.
In the play, Connolly’s portrayal is uneven, but your misgivings about it will fly out the window once the production’s creepy sequences begin to work their magic.
The head-twisting scenes and clever staging aren’t the only appealing elements about it. It’s also a delight to see theater heartthrob Adam Garcia, who played Fiyero in the original London cast of “Wicked.” (A trivia from the program of the play: the actor helped develop the role of Fiyero in the musical’s early workshops in New York.)
Another treat: The Demon is voiced by none other than Ian McKellen. Need we say he is terrifying in the role?
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