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My London Adventure: Five Shows in Five Days

Hey readers! 

I recently returned from a trip to London and wanted to give you a full report.  First I must thank Kent Davidson and his crew over at Keith Prowse for helping me make my inaugural trip to London an adventure I'll never forget.  After booking my flight and hotel, one visit to their website and a call to the folks at Keith Prowse was all that was needed to schedule not only the shows I wanted to see in the West End, but also most of the attractions I had planned on checking out as well. Before I left NY, I had all the tickets and vouchers in hand which made focusing on enjoying myself while on vacation stress-free!

I took a redeye Friday night across the pond and got to The Strand Palace (in the heart of the West End) around noon. Dropped off the bags and immediately picked up an Oyster Card to travel the London Underground and made my way to Notting Hill. Walking down the infamous Portobello Road was a treat for me because I have always loved the Disney movie musical "Bedknobs and Broomsticks."  I also found an AMAZING bakery during my stroll - Hummingbird Bakery - which is infamous for their delicious cupcakes. Easily the "Magnolia" of Notting Hill. 

From Notting Hill, I went to explore the Theatre Museum which was a block away from the hotel. The museum is home to tons of theater memorabilia and multimedia exhibits. Fascinating to see was the section dedicated to the Redgraves which featured several on camera interviews with the infamous family.  There was something for everyone there as well since the museum is a bit interactive. They have shows and kids events - and in various locations within, you can put on period costumes and have your mate take a picture. I enjoyed seeing the various props, set designs and historical celebration of the West End theater industry. And, as many museums are in London, it's an entirely free (and fun) way to spend a few hours!



It was a long night/morning/day between the flight and running around, so I grabbed a quick bite at a nearby pub before getting ready to relax a bit in the evening walking around Leicester Square.  While at dinner I got a text message from my buddy Emma Williams (the Original Truly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and we met up at a cafe while she poured over a flood of emails on her laptop. A few nights earlier she withdrew from the revival of "The Sound of Music" and of course everyone wanted to show their support and also ask all the questions you can imagine one wants to ask. It was fun to catch up with Emma as I hadn't seen her since she performed with Larry O'Keefe at Birdland about a year prior. Expect a lot of great things from Emma within the year (I promised I wouldn't spill the beans just yet!)  She and I made plans to meet up again at Evita…

Sunday was a bit damp in the morning but by the time I got to my 1/2 day London tour (booked via Keith Prowse) the wet weather had left.  A group of 35 of us took a bus in and around London and made our way to St. Paul's Cathedral. It was a quick stop (to let the shutterbugs snap some photos) and then we made our way to the Tower of London. Aside from being an ominous and beautiful historical complex, it also houses "The Crown Jewels" including the largest cut diamond in the world. I'll keep my comments about the touristy stuff to a minimum as I am sure you will all be most interested in the shows I saw.

In fact, I'll skip most of my travelogue and let some pictures speak for themselves at the end of this article.

Monday evening I experienced my first West End show - EVITA at the Adelphi Theatre. The first thing I noticed about several theaters in the West End was that the outside entrance way was deceptively small. If not for the giant EVITA banner/signage affixed to the building facade, at street level, you could easily walk by the theater never knowing what was there. Once inside however, I was immediately in awe of the architecture and lighting. So much history and elegance within these "temples" of theatre.  And might I add - the Adelphi seating offers the most legroom I have ever experienced!  Many of you know how cramped the Broadway houses are here in the states, so I'm sure you can appreciate feeling spoiled overseas in this department.

Not since I saw my first show on Broadway (which was Pippin by the way) had I felt that total excitement of what was in store. Sure I've been excited and enthusiastic to see various shows throughout my lifetime so far - but this was something different. I was mesmerized and giddy as the first chords echoed throughout the audience from the Orchestra.  I had never seen EVITA when it was on Broadway (although I burned a hole through the vinyl album and CD). My only "visual" experience with the show was the movie version with Madonna and Antonio Banderas - and before people start groaning (or not) - I'll just say that it's a guilty pleasure of mine and I'm not one of the haters. Seeing it live however - totally breathtaking. The sets, lighting and costumes were excellent and the orchestrations rich and vibrant (I highly recommend picking up the CD).  The well-lauded Elena Rogers was on leave while I was in London, so I saw the understudy, Jodie Jacobs. I was concerned in the first part of Act I that I was seeing a poor substitute as it took me awhile to adjust to Ms. Jacobs' voice (which I found weak and sounding as if it were under duress).  Her acting and vocal performance became much stronger and she did, indeed, win me over by the latter half of the first act.

Giving exceptional performances throughout were Philip Quast as Peron and Matt Rawle as Che - although I would have liked to have seen a bit more angst in Rawle's performance.  After hearing Quast on both my Les Miz and The Secret Garden CDs, I was thrilled to be able to finally watch this consummate performer live on stage. The standout of the evening, believe it or not, came from Lorna Want who played the mistress.  Remember that name because I expect great things from her in the future!

At intermission err I mean "interval", I enjoyed what so many of my friends have raved about when seeing shows in London - Ice Cream!  Quite a nice treat to enjoy before sitting back for Act II of EVITA.  Act II was filled with energy and pathos all assisted brilliantly by Rob Ashford's choreography.  When the curtain came down, I was extremely satisfied with my first theatrical experience in London.

Tuesday evening's show was MARY POPPINS. But before I sat down to watch the show, I spent an hour or so chatting with Gavin Creel backstage (and on stage). That video feature will be live on later this week.  Gavin and I had a lot of fun talking about the differences between performing in the states and in London, what he loves and misses most, how he's been spending his off time, and so much more. You won't want to miss it and I can't wait for you to watch it.

Being a lover of the Disney movie - and after hearing how the musical was different (and darker) I went in, perhaps unfairly, expecting to be at least a little disappointed with the execution. I am pleased to report that I found the show to be very entertaining. Was it different? Yes. Was it darker? Absolutely. Could things work better? Of course. But I had so much fun in the theater watching the story unfold and where it delineated from the film.  Biases aside for "one of our own" - Gavin Creel brought so much energy and charisma to the role of Bert. There is little doubt how much he, and the rest of the cast are having in the show. There's a moment Gavin spoke to me about on camera which is his favorite (I won't spoil it here) but it definitely packs an emotional, albeit subtle wallop.  But the show isn't called Bert, now is it? No, it's Mary Poppins, and let me tell you that Scarlett Strallen hits it out of the park in the lead role. Her voice, acting and mannerisms are so fun to watch. Every SINGLE time she went up the Banks' staircase, the entire audience tittered. Aden Gillett and Eliza Lumley bring Mr. and Mrs. Banks to life in their unique way. Louise Gold as Miss Andrew (the Nanny from hell) is deliciously evil.  By the way, Miss Andrew makes Madame Morrible look like Mary Poppins!

I won't spoil the special effects involved in this production since so many of you are getting ready to see it now that it's on Broadway - but suffice to say, Disney magic is working overtime on this production and you can't help but cheer at the end of this show - especially with one of the songs written for the stage production, "Anything Can Happen"  The song might sound a bit cheesy, cheeky and contrived - but even the most cynical will have a hard time wiping a smile from their face.

Now that I'm back in the states and have read comments in the press and on our message board, I thought I'd weigh in on the notion that elements of the show are "too scary."  I think that the there should definitely be a caveat to the younger set - but I sincerely hope nothing gets cut from the show. With what's on television, in the movies, etc - what happens on stage doesn't really come close. It's intense, and it is disturbing (the number "Temper, Temper") but it needs to be because it's what "knocks some sense" into the bratty Banks' kids.  There were several children of all ages in the audience the night I saw it and I didn't hear anyone cry or audibly get upset. I was seated near a family and their 7 and 9 year olds loved every minute of it.

Having seen it in London, I eagerly await the opportunity to see the likes of Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee and Rebecca Luker in the U.S. Production.

Wednesday was opening night of Wicked--Apollo_Victoria_Theatre--London.html">WICKED. One might think that I booked my trip to overlap this event in the UK, but it sincerely was a coincidence. However, not wanting to pass up the opportunity to bring you, our readers, the best and most comprehensive coverage of the event, I made the call when I knew I'd be in town.  If you haven't checked out the photo coverage or opening night video yet, definitely click on those links!  Thanks to our West End correspondent Jake Brunger for assisting with the opening night photo coverage.

I have been to several opening nights here in the states, so I was again, excited (and intrigued), to be at an opening night in London - especially of this megahit.  Well before the doors opened, crowds were lining the streets outside the theater to watch the stars walk down the green carpet. Inside the theater, there was an intense energy amongst the audience, who for many were about to get their first taste of WICKED.  There were several recognizable faces in the audience from both sides of the pond. 

The lights dimmed and those first powerful chords struck and spread throughout the audience. Having been to opening nights before and knowing that much of the audience was "stacked" (as it is typically on Broadway as well) I expected boisterous reactions. I was not fully prepared for the intensity at which the audience would react. Size of audience aside, I don't think I have ever experienced responses so loud, enthusiastic and intense.  Each entrance was met with thunderous applause. And nearly every number as well.  "The Wizard and I" and "Defying Gravity" both received a reaction so loud, I have to believe that it was hear across the street inside BILLY ELLIOT.

As for the show, I enjoyed it just as much as the Broadway version. Not being an uber-fan of the show, I wasn't aware of too many differences other than the use of projection (and no big hat) at the beginning, some choreography changes and slight dialogue alterations. The orchestrations felt fuller and more intense, which I enjoyed. Helen Dallimore had to win me over - which she did after the first 2 or 3 scenes. It's a very different "feel" to the show when Glinda is talking the queen's English. Standouts in this production were Nigel Planer as the Wizard and Miriam Margolyes as Madame Morrible. Katie Rowley Jones (Nessarose) and Martin Ball (Doctor Dillamond) also get high marks for their roles.

The biggest "issue" I had with this production was the various accents. I didn't mind that people from different areas (Glinda, the Wizard, Boq, etc) all spoke with different accents, but what threw me was that Elphaba's father and Nessarose spoke with a British accent and Elphaba didn't.  Given the size of the former roles, I think it would have been easy to have both of Elphie's relatives speak in an American accent (and then switch back after Idina left the production) 

After the show, we were whisked away to the party where I had the opportunity to chat with the cast and crew before calling it a night…

While WICKED was a "bonus" during my trip, the show that was one on the reasons I chose London as my vacation spot was because I wanted to catch BILLY ELLIOT before it jumped the pond.  I had already heard wonderful things about the show from various friends who had seen it.  Having enjoyed the movie (and it might be blasphemy to state that while I enjoyed it, it wasn't what I considered so amazingly brilliant as so many of my friends had insisted) I was genuinely excited to see this very British musical. I booked three tickets to the show because my good friend Joanne and her boyfriend, Justin took a train into the city and joined me. Justin had never been to a musical before (and admitted not so much a "musical" type of guy), so I was also looking forward to hearing his thoughts…

Everything that has been said about Billy Elliot is true. I found it to be an amazing musical that combined all the elements of plot, design, music/lyrics and performances in the perfect way.  In fact, I will say that as enjoyable as the film is, I thought the musical was far superior - which was a nice surprise since you never know with stage adaptations. 

Matthew Koon was on for Billy (they have four rotating performers) and although I was hoping to catch Liam Mower in one of his final performances, Matthew was incredible. A true triple threat, he had me, and the audience in the palm of his hand for the entire evening.

While I enjoyed the songs, only a few were memorable enough to stick with me after the curtain went down. This is definitely one of those shows that benefits from hearing the songs live and in context of the show. On the CD, they are well done, but again, seeing them staged helps tremendously - especially because of the staging of this show.  If you're going to put BILLY ELLIOT on stage, you better have some incredible choreography and this show scores in aces on that. Major kudos for Peter Darling (Choreographer) and Stephen Daldry (Director) for creating a fast paced, energized and fluent production that never lags.

Aside from Matthew Koon's performance, I wanted to mention Ann Emery who scores major points for her role as Billy's Grandma (especially during the riotous "We'd Go Dancing" where she pulls out all the stops. Also, Alex Delamere was very entertaining as Mr. Braithwaite.  Almost stealing the show (and scenes) was Shaun Malone as Billy's best friend, Michael. A role that is triple cast, I can't imagine anyone else bring as much charm to the role as Shaun. He gets to play both emotional and funny scenes in BILLY ELLIOT and does so deftly and with the precision that would have even the stage veterans in awe. The number "Expressing Yourself" is one of the best in the show as Shaun convinces Billy to try on some of his mother's clothing and dance around the room. I won't spoil the "surprise" element to the number, but suffice to say, a simple "effect" that reminds you of how wonderful the magic of live theater can be.

Of course the number which stands out the most is "Electricity" - which features Billy dancing his proverbial shoes off. It's the final number which delivers exactly what you'd want and expect for this musical about a boy fighting to be who he wants to be despite the societal "norms" and (initial) wishes of his family. I also defy anyone to get through "The Letter" without choking up.

The verdict from Justin? "Brilliant!  I really enjoyed it!" 

I'll also confess that I wanted to see this show before it transferred to Broadway because the show is VERY British in tone and language. I wanted to see the show as it was intended. I suspect that the show will undergo changes before it plays here in the states and understandably so. I'm generally not in favor of the practice of changing shows for audiences between here and the West End as most of the time, it doesn't seem "justified." Many of the shows that have been altered could and would work just as well in either country "as is."  BILLY ELIOT, however, is, as I said, VERY British, and language will have to be changed (and perhaps some plot points) to provide American audience with the same experience.  Even some of the Brits around us didn't fully get some of the references and humor…  If you have the opportunity to travel to London, this is the MUST SEE musical.

The last show I saw in London was the second musical I knew I "must" see while overseas.  One of West Ends longest running musicals, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see BLOOD BROTHERS - another very British show.  I never saw the show on Broadway, but Kerry Butler turned me onto the show when she gave me a cassette (you remember cassettes right?) of the London Cast Recording several years ago because she was shocked to learn I had never heard the score. It's one of her favorites and she wanted to share that with me.  So, having heard the music for several years, I knew it was on the "must see" lists if I ever crossed the Atlantic.

Seeing the show staged was a real treat. The performances were all top notch and there's some serious rollercoaster (no pun intended) moments in the show playing both comedy and tragedy in the same scenes. It's no wonder why this show has lasted as long as it has. It's not "Shakespeare" - but the plot does keep you intrigued while several of the songs remain in your head long after the curtain come down. 

The first act moves pretty briskly. The second act felt a bit bloated and slow and I had wished the pacing moved as quickly as it did in the first act.

My one and only gripe about the production is the sound design. Now I'm not old by any stretch of the imagination (not that this "issue" is reserved for our older readers and theatergoers) but every single performer was either over mic'd or they had the volume set to 10+  Combine that with the "echoey" effect (designed I'm sure to make everything seem more ominous) and I found myself wanting to cover my ears several times in the show (most noticeably when the Narrator was belting out his songs).  The voices were all beautiful to listen to - just WAY too loud.  And the theater was the most intimate of all the ones I had attended all week. Oh.. but the ice cream at interval at this theater was the best!

Five shows in five days - something that I haven't done in ages - but I enjoyed so much and would do again in a heartbeat.  Combine that with walking around and visiting all the major "must sees" in London made my first trip across the pond one that I will never forget. There are several other shows I would have liked to have caught, but I will have to save those for my next trip - one that will not take as long to book as this one did.  Thanks again to the folks at Keith Prowse for taking all the scheduling hassles and arrangements off my hands and providing me with a way to enjoy my trip from the moment my plane touched down at Heathrow. 


The crew puts the final touches on the outside of the theatre where
Spamalot recently began previews

What a fitting venue for this show!

The colorful Portobello Road in Notting Hill

Covent Gardens still plays host to Punch and Judy puppet shows

London's "Times Square" - Piccadilly Circus

Hamley's infamous toy store - FAO Schwartz meets Toys R Us!

Attend the tale...

"Look kids, Big Ben.. Parliament!"

a view from the London Eye

The London Eye

The steps at St. Paul's Cathedral. Sadly, there was no bird lady.

St. Paul's Cathedral

The Tower of London

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Tower Bridge

Westminster Abbey

The National Gallery

Home Sweet Home for my stay - the Strand Palace Hotel

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From This Author - Craig Brockman