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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In

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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In#1
Posted: 3/23/11 at 5:52am


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
(Gielgud Theater, London; 955 seats; £59.50 $97 top)

by David Benedict

A Daniel Sparrow & Mike Walsh Prods., Curve, City Lights Enterprises and Raise the Roof 6 in association with Be My Prods., Jane Dubin, True Love/Fabula Media, Watson/Monocherian presentation of a musical in two acts based on the film by Jacques Demy, music by Michel Legrand, English lyrics by Sheldon Harnick in association with Charles Burr. Directed, adapted and choreographed by Emma Rice. Musical direction and supervision, Nigel Lilley.

Maitresse - Meow Meow
Genevieve Emery - Carly Bawden
Guy Foucher - Andrew Durand
Madame Emery - Joanna Riding
Roland Cassard, Aunt Elise - Dominic Marsh
Madeleine - Cynthia Erivo

Perched soulfully at the edge of the stage, Meow Meow sings "Sans toi" ("Without You"), an impassioned meeting of performance and material that's rich and riveting. But since her standalone number is the only one divorced from the story, its strength points up the weakness of the show surrounding it. Following its runaway hit "Brief Encounter," Kneehigh's equally idiosyncratic take on "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is, as expected, brimming with imaginative touches. But this time, effort outstrips the achievement.

Jacques Demy's iconoclastic 1963 Cannes Palme d'Or winner is the love story between a young umbrella-shop girl and a mechanic who has to leave her to do his military service. Closer to opera than traditional tuner, it features not one word of spoken dialogue: Everything is sung. It is, to say the least, an acquired taste, but Demy's eye-popping use of super-saturated Eastmancolor and Michel Legrand's haunting score helped a lot of people acquire it.

Such non-naturalism is meat and drink to helmer-adapter Emma Rice. Kneehigh's trademark tearing down of the fourth wall and winningly rough-and-ready theatricality held audiences in thrall in previous productions like "Tristan and Yseult." But Rice's best work has always been tied to strong script and storytelling. "Umbrellas" has neither.

The movie's storyline -- girl meets boy, now-pregnant girl loses boy to the army, girl is persuaded into smart marriage, boy returns and mends broken heart -- was deliberately simple, its dialogue consciously mundane. That allowed room for the sustained, yearning swirl of Legrand's intensely romantic score as epitomized by the oft-reprised "I Will Wait for You."

Sung dialogue/plot is notoriously hard to take; recognizing this, Rice adds a master of ceremonies -- or, in this case, Maitresse -- as a framing device. Meow Meow uses all of her considerable skills to flirt with, entice and engage the audience in all things French at the beginning and end of each section of the story in order bring everyone into the show's world and calm their fears.

But delicious though her interludes are (scripted by Carl Grose), they prove counterproductive in terms of engagement. Switching between cabaret intros and recitative passages only underlines how artificial it is to sing such baldly informative lines as, "Three soldiers were shot when they were ambushed on patrol."

Oddly, Rice doesn't appear to have adjusted the lyrics first heard in Sheldon Harnick's translation in a production at Gotham's Public Theater in 1979. Hearing a cast using English accents to sing such American phrases as "I guess" and "trimming the tree" is jarring.

Faced with such self-conscious material, the cast resorts to differing styles. Joanna Riding brings Julie Andrews-esque vowels, diction and precision to Genevieve's sensible mother. As Genevieve, Carly Bawden glides about emulating the breathy innocence of Catherine Deneuve, but Andrew Durand as her lover looks stranded, as if working in a language he doesn't quite understand. The higher his voice goes, the stronger it is, but as he stares fixedly out at the auditorium, you wish he would relax into the role.

Orchestrally, the show couldn't be better. Musical director Nigel Lilley, onstage throughout ramping up the cabaret mood, marshals a band of seven that sounds far bigger. Legrand's orchestrations of his typically rippling, downward-sigh phrases are given shimmer and color, eschewing the expected accordion overload and giving the harpist a serious workout. Even when the love theme is given full rhapsodic expression, Lilley and sound designer Simon Baker ensure vocals are never swamped.

If the rest of the show had that controlled flair, it would be a winner. Lez Brotherston supplies chirpily atmospheric design (touches of neon, charming models of Cherbourg buildings, a rising crescent moon), but Rice's helming swiftly hits overkill as it tries everything from puppetwork and cross-gender casting to secondhand choreography. The result feels scattershot, and despite moments of beauty, with no tension, there's little emotional release.

Sets and costumes, Lez Brotherston; lighting, Malcolm Rippeth; sound and music remixing, Simon Baker; orchestrations and vocal arrangements, Legrand; video, Spooky; production stage manager, Jane Semark. Opened March 22, 2011. Reviewed March 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

With: Laura Brydon, Gareth Charlton, Aki Omoshaybi, Matt Willman


The Arts Desk, London:

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

by Matt Wolf

Zut alors! A gifted English theatre artist, Emma Rice, comes a serious Gallic cropper with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a stage musical adaptation of the through-sung 1964 movie that only succeeds in making the recent, prematurely departed Love Story look by comparison like Sweeney Todd. Telling a tale of stupefying banality with po-faced ponderousness and little wit, Rice throws at the material all manner of visual fillips and idiosyncrasies, adding in a narrator (Meow Meow's commendably game Maitresse) for good measure. But the danger with making much ado about nothing is that you risk more fully exposing the emptiness at the core: the theatre, far from abhorring a vacuum, tends to lay one bare.

The success of Jacques Demy's movie itself offers testament to the enduring appeal in some quarters of a narrative so faible that a strong wind might snap it in two, were it not largely for the alternately shimmering and over-insistent score from Michel Legrand, whose "I Will Wait For You" is here reprised so many times that it casts the theme and variation-happy Andrew Lloyd Webber as a comparative model of restraint.

A young couple of no particular interest beyond the fact that Guy, the bloke, smells of petrol - well, he does work in a garage - meet only to part when he goes off to fight in Algeria: an assignment paid the most desultory of stage time; this is no Flare Path. The years pass, the affectless Genevieve (Carly Bawden, inheriting Catherine Deneuve's screen role), has Guy's baby, marries someone different and wealthier, and, by show's end, several people have died. As the Maitresse herself puts it, "c'est la vie," which doesn't make for especially rich philosophising as and when la vie comes to a firm arrêt.

That neither death seems embedded in the narrative beyond allowing an easy exit from it is just one the problems exacerbated here by the abiding sexlessness of a show ostensibly about passion that is acted by both fresh-faced leads in disconcertingly remote terms. Surely, Genevieve's admission that she "will fade and crumble like an autumn leaf" demands some chink in the emotional armour; Bawden (pictured below with Durand) is a cool, unyielding customer throughout. Andrew Durand's Guy gets to slip in and out of a matelot, but his take on the role is hard and charmless well before the character has reached that point, and their briefly glimpsed, first-act carnal encounter is too perfunctory to carry the rest of the story before it.

Whereas Rice's wondrous Brief Encounter for Kneehigh unleashed the emotionalism behind the celebrated British stiff upper lip, making the director a hot Broadway property in the process, her take on the featherweight Umbrellas seems perverse, to say the least. The chorus does well propping up co-star Meow Meow, in the time-honored fashion that a similar bevy of boys might extend to, say, Liza Minnelli, who as it happens was in smiling evidence in the first row of the circle on press night. (Pressing question: while in town, is Minnelli going to see End of the Rainbow? The Wizard of Oz?). But what is the point of deploying all number of people to simply turn a chair around or to supply or remove props? One might as well ponder the casting of the youthful, robust-seeming Dominic Marsh as Guy's fatalistically ageing aunt. To quote one of the many banners unfurled during the evening: "Pourquoi"?

Lez Brotherston's design looks at first as if it would be more hospitable to Stomp, his toy-town vision of Cherbourg - France's equivalent, we're told, to Hull (!) - lifting off the stage to make way for a portable erector set of skeletally imagined locations; the inevitable "tabac" sign is rarely out of view. Bringing a crisply English air to an entirely faux-French affair, Joanna Riding does a nice line in disdain as Genevieve's aspirational scold of a mum, and it's lovely to find the best Julie Jordan in my experience of Carousel back on a London stage. (All credit, too, to Rice and co. for giving musical director Nigel Lilley visible pride of place in an age when conductors are all too often sequestered well away from or beneath the stage.)

And there's no ignoring the inimitable Meow Meow, who cuts quite a figure as both sex kitten and comedienne, chanteuse extraordinaire (her smoky rendition of "Sans Toi" separates the second and third acts) and agile cut-up who at the start climbs her way over and across the front stalls rather like Roberto Benigni on Oscar night ca. 1999. The devil-may-care Australian is both this production's greatest asset and also, in a way, all wrong. Demanding from the audience massive applause for her cleavage and a glass of red wine to boot, this Maitresse would surely put her own boot into such twee and tepid fare - especially when she's got Madame JoJo's and the like just minutes from the theatre's stage door.


The Guardian:

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

by Michael Billington

"Charmingly attenuated" was how the New Yorker's Pauline Kael described the original 1964 Jacques Demy movie. Suspiciously thin would be my verdict on this stage version adapted and directed by Emma Rice for Kneehigh. The Michel Legrand score still offers its fitful pleasures, and the bittersweet ending is retained; but it seems an oddly gratuitous translation of a highly successful film into theatrical terms.

Rice is faithful to the story: Genevieve, a naive teenager, falling for Guy, a Cherbourg garagiste; and then, when he is drafted into the Algerian war, being ardently wooed by a rich jeweller. But, one has to ask, what exactly is gained by the stage transfer?

Rice heightens aspects such as the jealous pangs felt by Genevieve's mum, who has her own eyes on the jeweller's assets. Lest we miss the fact this is an essentially French story, Rice has also imported a roguish compere in the shape of a cabaret diva called Meow Meow, and adds a chorus of matelots in striped vests. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky she stopped short of an itinerant onion seller.

What is lost are the very things that made the film so original. One is the way in which the fluid camera movement matched the seamless recitative of the Legrand score: take that away, and you are left with a show that, with the exception of I Will Wait for You, seems strangely lacking in musical or dramatic highlights. The other missing ingredient is the candy-coloured artifice of the film, in which even the wallpaper matched the characters' costumes.

Watching the stage version is like seeing a Technicolor film rendered in black and white: Lez Brotherston's set, with its partitioned steel structures, seems determined to evoke the reality of Cherbourg, whereas the point of the story is that it is a romantic fairytale.

The performances themselves are fine. Carly Bawden conveys Genevieve's innocence, Andrew Durand shows Guy plausibly embittered by both the war and his lover's desertion, and Joanna Riding as Genevieve's mum has the right flighty desperation. Nigel Lilley's musical direction is tireless. And there are one or two striking images, such as that of a lovelorn Guy marooned in the midst of the Algerian conflict. But when you recall how ingeniously Kneehigh interwove film and live action in Brief Encounter, this seems a strangely prosaic attempt to capture the elusive poetry of the Demy original.
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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In#2
Posted: 3/23/11 at 11:34am
Hope this show gets good reviews, deserves them, as Emma Rice direction is fantastic.

Haven't got time to read reviews until I get back to London, same with Priscilla and Mormon, can someone please put up if the show was rave or pan for me?

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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In#2
Posted: 3/23/11 at 12:11pm
Not too bad.
Some of them are a bit picky but on the whole OK
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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In#3
Posted: 3/23/11 at 2:33pm
Did we read the same reviews?!
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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In#4
Posted: 3/23/11 at 3:11pm
The Times

*** (out of 5)

Ah, Cherbourg in the 1950s! A grey port town, edged with neon and damp cobbles: a place where — as our hostess says, whirling her fishnet legs aloft in the arms of some passing sailors — people come in on the tide and are carried away down the tracks. She scolds us for being “Engleesh, keeping feelings under your bowler ’at”, then prowls off to be a silent presence in the story’s background.
This is the Australian chanteuse and cabaret crowd-surfer, Meow Meow: brought in by Emma Rice, of Kneehigh, to frame a re-creation of the Jacques Demy film that has made audiences cry since 1964. Geneviève and Guy’s love is doomed by the Algerian War, untimely pregnancy and marrying other people: yet my eyes were dry until, in an entr’acte, Meow Meow delivered an epic emotional rendering of the Michel Legrand song Sans toi.
It is she, too, who at the sad ending holds up a sign reading “C’est la vie”. I could have done with more of that: cheek, a cynical shrug. Her one song packs twice the punch of the main story: otherwise the only convincingly passionate moments are Geneviève’s soaring I will wait for you (Carly Bawden, a lovely clear voice) and the fury of the garagiste when Guy (Andrew Durand) fails to check a customer’s oil-levels.
After Kneehigh’s fabulous Brief Encounter I expected inventive, fearless playfulness: new life springing from an old film in energetic theatrical form. Deprived of close-up and long-shot , theatre must convey emotion in different ways. Here it falters. In the first act, neatly choreographed matelots rearrange not only props but people, and it is hard to feel the intimacy of lovers when they are being whisked from bollard to bollard. It is a relief when later Geneviève’s mother (Joanna Riding) crossly motions the helpful seafarers away and exits unaided.
Cynthia Erivo is touching as the nurse who longs for Guy, but I have no idea why Aunt Elise is a bloke. All the singers — except Bawden — need a more generous sound balance: the eight-piece band often made the score intrusive. But Lez Brotherston’s set is enchanting,with doll’s-house streets, gantries and a long ramp to slither down. Young love is consummated on it too, which is a bit worrying. Dangerous, I’d say, to unbutton at the top of what only moments before proved to be quite a fast slide. The fact that this crossed my mind indicates a certain emotional malfunction. Must be my bowler ’at.

Libby Purves

My take on the reviews I've read so far would be mixed to negative - I'm surprised that Meow Meow only gets the one number - the producers must be kicking themselves as she get some of the best notices.
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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In#5
Posted: 3/24/11 at 2:28pm
This one just not selling itself to me; can't help thinking this is destined to have a short West End life The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In
Updated On: 3/25/11 at 02:28 PM
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The Umbrellas Are Up -The Reviews Are In#6
Posted: 3/24/11 at 8:59pm
thank good gods of theatre for meow meow was my thought
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I saw this on the 21st (the night b4 I flew to New York) and I loved it. A wonderful score and a beautiful production with really inventive, innovative direction. It will be a crime if this has to close early. It's a class above a great many shows enjoying lengthy runs in the West End.