Imagine This - Reviews

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Imagine This - Reviews #1
Posted: 11/19/08 at 9:06pm
The Guardian - Negative 2 stars
Michael Billington

Warsaw ghetto, the musical? Sorry, it's just too hard to imagine



They said it couldn't be done: a musical about the Warsaw ghetto. And, now that I've seen it, I know that they were right.

If this show ultimately fails, it is not for want of trying, but because of the discrepancy between form and content: the romantic sentiment and uplift inherent in the musical sit uneasily with a story of not just heroic resistance but starvation, suffering and the death of more than 100,000 Polish Jews.

What we see is a show within a show. The frame is a ghetto theatre company, run by patriarchal Daniel Warshowsky. As the situation worsens, they put on a musical about Masada, the fortress where 960 Jewish zealots committed suicide in AD73 rather than surrender to the Romans. Gradually, the stories begin to overlap, leading the ghetto actors to choose death over freedom. Rejecting the chance of escape to Zurich, they opt to warn their audience of the certainty they will be dispatched to Treblinka.

In attempting to dovetail the stories, Glenn Berenbeim's book creates more problems than it solves. It not only depends on a grotesquely improbable love affair between Tamar, daughter of the Masada leader, and a Roman general. The basic premise also beggars belief - it is hard to credit the Nazis would sanction a show about Masada even though they are assured, "It's got singing, dancing and all the Jews die in the end." And the musical, far from the rough-and-ready spectacle you would expect with minimal resources, turns out to be a surprisingly well-equipped show up to West End standards.

But the disjunction between intention and achievement is most apparent in Shuki Levy's music and David Goldsmith's lyrics. Neither make any clear distinction between the world of the ghetto and Masada, nor do they deploy, as you might expect, distinctive Polish folk rhythms. Instead we are in the pap world of internationalised pop, where the ill-matched Masada lovers sing "Let me drown in your embrace or I die". And the title number, which aims to express the visionary hopes of persecuted peoples, comes up with nothing better than "Imagine hard enough and soon it will be so."

The best one can say is Timothy Sheader stages the grisly event with fluidity. Peter Polycarpou lends the actor-manager and Masada leader a certain stoic dignity, and Leila Benn Harris and Simon Gleeson do all they can as the unlikely love interest. But there are moments, such as a perky comic number preceding the Masada suicide, that leave one grinding one's teeth in despair. I don't doubt the good intentions of all concerned, but the talent is simply not up to the task.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #2
Posted: 11/19/08 at 9:11pm
Variety - Negative with praise for the set, lighting and hard working cast

Criticizing "Holocaust," playwright Dennis Potter dismissed the argument that the 1978 miniseries was moving. If you couldn't make the murder of 6 million Jews moving, he retorted, you shouldn't be working in television. "Imagine This," the heartfelt new musical set during the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto, is no different. The inevitable final scenes of Timothy Sheader's skilled, uncynical production have both restraint and power, but not enough to overcome the preceding obstacles thrown up by its writers' handling of the highly sensitive -- and hard-to-sell -- subject.

Book writer Glenn Berenbeim has saddled the proceedings with a difficult double structure: It's a tuner-within-a-tuner.

Set amid the Jewish ghetto's barely tolerated theater troupe, the story takes place largely on the night in 1942 before they're shipped out to what they believe is a sunny labor camp. The group's director Daniel (a quietly touching Peter Polycarpou) persuades them that, as a gesture of hope, they should stage a musical about Masada, the besieged hill fortress where, in year 70, a Jewish community of 960 refugees held 10,000 Roman soldiers at bay before committing collective suicide.

Plot parallels abound, and not just in the links between Romans and Germans wielding fatal power over the oppressed.

Quick-witted Daniel has saved and hidden non-Jewish political firebrand Adam (Simon Gleeson) among his actors. Daniel's previously dutiful daughter Rebecca (Leila Benn Harris) and Adam fall in love, a development made plain when Rebecca, now acting as defiant Jewish girl Tamar, sings "When He Looked in My Eyes" about the handsome Roman general played, yes, by Adam.

So far, so "West Side Story." But that show's meshing of book, music and lyrics is so tight that when the hero and heroine fall for each other in a mere six lines of dialogue, auds believe them because the dramatic setup is so vivid and the writing so distinctive. Not so here.

For all the good intentions, tension barely surfaces all night. The problem is not just that almost everyone knows the ultimate ending but that the schematic and predictable writing barely elicits a single surprise.

With two plots to populate, an entirely committed cast struggles to lift their roles beyond stock types of the cowardly clown, the actress who'll sell herself to keep a fur coat, the suffering wife. None but Daniel, however, is afforded stage time sufficient to allow auds to connect with and care for them.

Writing problems extend to the score. Even though one character sings ironically of "a penchant for schmaltz," David Goldsmith's lyrics are largely free of it. But, like the music by Israeli composer Shuki Levy, they lack the spark of individuality.

Levy is most at home supplying power ballads of love and defiance. But for all their carefully repeated chord patterns, or rather because of them, they feel generic. His use of wistful regret is not exactly a distant cousin to "Sunrise, Sunset" from the superior "Fiddler on the Roof," while his minor key uplift moments echo "Close Every Door" from "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

That the songs sometimes hit home is largely due to Chris Walker's strong orchestrations for a 14-piece band and, particularly, the richness of the multipart vocal arrangements; this is definitely a show at its best when ditching individual hackneyed characters to focus on the entire community.

Tim Mitchell's immensely versatile and evocative lighting works wonders with Eugene Lee's unchanging but arresting set of a dilapidated train shed. Helmer Sheader also encourages Liam Steel's boldly stylized choreography to escape the literal confines of the script. Yet the earnest attempt at scale is the show's undoing.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the need for the bombast of a hit musical and the opening number that introduces us to a sweetly struggling theater troupe with almost no resources. The resulting Masada musical they stage has such wildly overblown production values and sentiments that the evening tips over into being "Les Misbegotten."

Sadly, we've been here before, and better. Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 movie "To Be or Not to Be," another actors-defy-the-Nazis-drama, scored highly by daring to be genuinely funny. More pertinently, Joshua Sobol's 1984 play "Ghetto" used documentary evidence and songs from the Vilna ghetto to tell an almost identical but more powerful tale.

The sincerity of the tragic climax and its, for some, tear-jerking, hopeful coda may attract audiences eager to honor Jewish history. But even those able to overlook its longueurs and weaknesses are being asked to watch a feel-bad show just as a recession starts to bite.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #2
Posted: 11/19/08 at 9:20pm
The Times - Negative/Pan 2 stars

Imagine This at the New London Theatre
Benedict Nightingale

Imagine this? That’s the title of a show that involves Jewish actors performing an inspiring play in the Warsaw Ghetto; but it also comes across as a mix of command and plea. And, sorry, no can do. Last night Glenn Berenbeim’s book began by making me feel my imagination might take fire, only to douse it with the sort of formulaic nonsense it has resisted a zillion times before.

When the Nazis are brutalising Peter Polycarpou’s Daniel and his troupe beneath the broken glass, grim brickwork and iron stairways of Eugene Lee’s set, there’s a promising sense of reality in the murky air. And the idea of these actors presenting a play about Masada, the redoubt where zealots committed mass suicide after the destruction of Jerusalem, is refreshingly bold.

But I should have been warned by lines such as (to Daniel): “In a ghetto full of misery only you can come down with a bad case of optimism.”

That clunkiness never goes and it’s accompanied by a major loss of nerve on everyone’s part.

Soon we get none-too-tasteful comic relief in the form of a Christian slave called Pompey from Pompeii: just before being cheerfully crucified he sings a patter song about Jupiter being no Zeus and Aphrodite being flighty. And, worse, the love that inevitably burgeons between Leila Benn Harris as Daniel’s daughter and Simon Gleeson as the ghetto fighter he’s hiding is replicated in the play-within-the-play.

Gleeson becomes the very earnest Roman general ordered by Caesar (“go back to Judaea or I will crush you like a grape”) to destroy Masada. But his heart already belongs to Harris’s pretty Tamar, who has given him a rose and so convinced him that “what was once a cursed race has taken on a human face”.

I won’t tell you how this turns out, only that it comes with a lot of stuff about dark eyes burning through me and how deep eyes somehow knew me. The lyricist, David Goldsmith, may have the chutzpah to rhyme nature with nomenclature, but he can be pretty slushy too.

Similarly, Shuki Levy’s score can handle the sad or upbeat, notably in a soaring title song that claims that only imagination can free the oppressed. But it never has the minor-key harshness the situation demands.

And what of the number involving undulating belly dancers and prancing Roman soldiers?

That’s something nobody should have imagined.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #3
Posted: 11/20/08 at 6:12am
One Star from What's On Stage. Will word of mouth overrule the critics?
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #4
Posted: 11/20/08 at 6:33am
I dont think word of mouth is strong enough. Everyone I know who has seen it has positive stuff to say, but no one is raving about it or saying its a must see. Act 1 needs re-writing is the general view and it doesnt tackle the subject matter well.

I think the producers have shot themselves in the foot by not offering discounts, especially in preview time. As I understand it the majority of audience members have been industry people in on comps
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #5
Posted: 11/20/08 at 6:36am
I think I'll go back to bed!
ooouch
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #6
Posted: 11/20/08 at 6:37am
Negative from Charles Spencer

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/arts/2008/11/20/btimagine120.xml

Quite a balanced review but the conclusion is that it's essentially a bit of Holo-Porn.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #7
Posted: 11/20/08 at 6:42am
"As I understand it the majority of audience members have been industry people in on comps "

I got in on comps in exchange for doing a survey after, which I gladly filled out. The thing that impressed me is that the creatives knew where people may be having issues (the placement and tone of humour, distinction in characters between the play within a play and "reality" etc.) and it seemed like everybody was on top of things. I am annoyed that the camp fellow is still in - I put down that the character was problematic.

I still liked it overall, and my companion for the evening (who's even more jaded than I am) thought it was excellent.

And let's have some pity for Bernard Lloyd who must have the worst luck in landing musicals...
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #8
Posted: 11/20/08 at 6:43am
Sister is that you saying Holo-Porn or him? lol
I'm not sure if Dewynters will put that on the flier reprint!
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #9
Posted: 11/20/08 at 7:03am
MDF - Charles is a little more tasteful

'It was that fine director Peter Hall who invented the shocking phrase "bumming a ride on the Holocaust" to describe shows and films like this, the glibbest and most suspect way of endowing second-rate art with an air of moral significance.'

and concludes with

'and for all the strengths of its execution, Imagine This must finally be judged a manipulative and morally dubious show. In the present harsh economic climate, however, it is unlikely to trouble the West End for long.'


Which in the interests of brevity I concluded as Holo-Porn. However if Dewynters would like to attribute it to Sister George, I'll be more than happy to pad it out into a full quote......
"I tend to think if god wanted us to believe in him, he'd exist" Linda Smith
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #10
Posted: 11/20/08 at 7:37am
NdeJ excuses the production team but goes for the writers in a negative 2*

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/theatre/show-23354491-details/Imagine+This/showReview.do?reviewId=23590038


So what's next for the New London?

"I tend to think if god wanted us to believe in him, he'd exist" Linda Smith
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #11
Posted: 11/20/08 at 7:46am
Black Christmas!

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re: Imagine This - Reviews #12
Posted: 11/20/08 at 7:46am
I think i may go 2mrw night or Saturday just incase...you know........incase

I'm also thinking there wont be a flier reprint!
Updated On: 11/20/08 at 07:46 AM
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #13
Posted: 11/20/08 at 8:18am
I saw it in Plymouth last year and, though it had promise, it was pretty much a train wreck of a book. It seems from these reviews that the creative team have not attempted the major rewrite that the Plymouth staging cried out for.
THEATRE 2019: ASPECTS OF LOVE**** FRANKENSTEIN (Paris)**** AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE**** COMPANY***** [title of show]**** CAN CAN*** THE CEREAL CAFE**** BAD GIRLS**** RAGS***** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** FOLLIES***** ROMANCE ROMANCE**** THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES*** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** QUEEN OF THE MIST**** SIX** THE PRICE***** MAGGIE MAY **** CALENDAR GIRLS** MAN OF LA MANCHA**** WAITRESS***** FANNY AND STELLA***
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #14
Posted: 11/20/08 at 8:25am
Bob: The impression I have is that they did a major rewrite, as a poster on the Whingers board talks about taking 40 minutes to get to the first song, a dog, and other things which were gone by London previews. Perhaps what they needed was a second out of town to fine tune before coming into the West End.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #15
Posted: 11/20/08 at 8:31am
The set is getting great reviews which is nothing less than I expected from the designer. Sounds like he's gone for the huge warehouse effect again as for Drury Lanes original 'Sweeney Todd'.
I'm going for the sets if nothing else.
Bob, i remember your comments after you saw it last year and its sounds like they didnt' listen to you!!!
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #16
Posted: 11/20/08 at 10:01am
Black Christmas - Hehe that's very good! I may well steal and I shan't credit.....
"I tend to think if god wanted us to believe in him, he'd exist" Linda Smith
Updated On: 11/20/08 at 10:01 AM
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #17
Posted: 11/20/08 at 10:11am
If people are wondering what to put into the New London and we're fantasising freely, I wonder if Tanz der Vampire would fit the auditorium space.

And yes, I know that MDF hates the building and wants it knocked down. I'm starting to really love the main auditorium, though the rest of front of house could do with a rebuild...
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #18
Posted: 11/20/08 at 10:22am
I feel so bad for all involved...

I haven't seen it (live in Amsterdam...) but the sounds and sights on their website actually made me look forward to it....
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #19
Posted: 11/20/08 at 10:27am
re: Imagine This - Reviews

LOL My god! I cant believe you just wrote that just as I open the thread to write this....

Part of the struggle to see a show at the New London such as 'Gone With The Wind' and 'Imagine This' is the building itself. Each time I know I have to go there (I also walk past it most days) is the very though of entering that building itself. You walk thru the door past a box office that looks like an NCP car park pay box. Then you go up a ridiculous escalator as if shopping in John Lewis or some shopping mall to find yourself in a very spacious foyer that reminds you of Stanstead airport.
Once inside the revolutionary auditorium your faced with decor straight from the Odeon Leicester Sq circa 1985 (i remember it well!). To cap all that you don't get to see a decent show sitting there, you get 'Gone The Wind or an over rated, over long RSPCA cat show!

The Winter Garden should still be there!

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re: Imagine This - Reviews #20
Posted: 11/20/08 at 10:56am
"Once inside the revolutionary auditorium your faced with decor straight from the Odeon Leicester Sq circa 1985"

Well it *was* a building put up in the 70's...

Seriously, I do like the auditorium area. The fact that it's only two levels like the Dominion makes it feel extremely intimate compared to other similarly sized venues like the Novello and the seats are actually comfortable and have leg room. I haven't had a chance to give it a serious look in terms of what the grid and the flyspace look like, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be impressive.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #21
Posted: 11/20/08 at 11:01am
i was really hoping this was gonna be a *** show, to keep it going for a bit, im just waiting for the discounts now, cause i really do want to go see this.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #22
Posted: 11/20/08 at 11:10am
The main reason I've avoided it is I hate the new london, nothing here is making me want to try, at least GWTW had the sheer comedy value.
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #23
Posted: 11/20/08 at 11:48am
"The impression I have is that they did a major rewrite, as a poster on the Whingers board talks about taking 40 minutes to get to the first song, a dog, and other things which were gone by London previews. Perhaps what they needed was a second out of town to fine tune before coming into the West End."

Okay, so it seems they have tried to rework things - but from the comments in the reviews, they did not tackle the essential flaw of the Plymouth production. It was just unbelievably corny - until the last five minutes it was totally devoid of any genuine power or emotion, which is pretty hard to fail to achieve considering the subject matter. It also seems that the "prancing Romans" in the Masada section are still there!

I guess I need to go see it again to see whether there are any serious improvements - but I'm loathe to spend £50 to possibly suffer more of the embarrassing schmaltz I saw last time.
THEATRE 2019: ASPECTS OF LOVE**** FRANKENSTEIN (Paris)**** AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE**** COMPANY***** [title of show]**** CAN CAN*** THE CEREAL CAFE**** BAD GIRLS**** RAGS***** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** FOLLIES***** ROMANCE ROMANCE**** THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES*** LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE***** QUEEN OF THE MIST**** SIX** THE PRICE***** MAGGIE MAY **** CALENDAR GIRLS** MAN OF LA MANCHA**** WAITRESS***** FANNY AND STELLA***
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re: Imagine This - Reviews #24
Posted: 11/20/08 at 11:54am
Bob there's no way now you'll pay £50 -£60 top in London by the way- for this show now. Pop by the TKTS and it will be there for all shows now.