Electrifying and Giddy
The New York Times July 2017
Review by Matt Wolf
A London Musical With Energy to Burn, and Two Without It
LONDON — When’s the last time it felt as if an entire theater were about to levitate? That experience — electrifying and giddy and guaranteed to tap into every playgoer’s inner rock god — can be had through Aug. 22 at the capacious Coliseum, where the Jim Steinman musical “Bat Out of Hell” is all but blasting an adoring audience out of their seats. Count me among the adorers.
As it happens, I’m not one of those who can recite every lyric of the vaunted Meat Loaf album of the same name, which was released 40 years ago and set songs like “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” into orbit. Two more “Bat” albums followed.
But if the blissful overdrive of Jay Scheib’s production can affect even a relative outlier, no wonder many around me looked bereft once the curtain came down. After so sustained an adrenaline rush, it’s not easy returning to what passes these days for life’s calm.
There’s nothing sedate about the propulsive power of Mr. Steinman’s portrait of literally ageless anomie, in which our forever bare-chested hero, Strat (the mighty Andrew Polec), is doomed to an eternity of being 18: Think Peter Pan meets Peter Frampton, in a dystopian police state ruled over by the volatile Falco. The feral-voiced occupant of that role, Rob Fowler, follows Mr. Polec’s lead in discarding his shirt whenever the story — and the decibel levels — dictate.
Sure, the dialogue tends toward the “our whole lives have been screwed up” school of rhetoric, as one might expect from an enterprise that walks a commendable knife edge between utter seriousness and a knowing wink at the histrionics of it all. But the tale of Strat’s unbridled love for Falco’s daughter, Raven (Christina Bennington), is played, “Romeo and Juliet” style, as if the youngsters’ lives depended on it, which in their gun-wielding society maybe they do.
The cast to a full-throated man and woman give it their all and more, and it’s been a long time at a musical since I’ve encountered diction this good. A special shout-out, should anyone in attendance have any lungs left, is surely due Sharon Sexton in the choice supporting role of Raven’s mother, Sloane. She gets to ask the defining question of the night: “If you don’t go over the top, how are you going to see what’s on the other side?”
If only “The Wind in the Willows” possessed even a smidgen of the energy that sends “Bat Out of Hell” into the stratosphere.
Instead, this latest retelling of Kenneth Grahame’s perennially popular 1908 tale of Mr. Toad, Ratty and their anthropomorphized chums has taken up inert occupancy of the London Palladium, another of the city’s largest playhouses (through Sept. 2). The director is Rachel Kavanaugh, who will be at the helm of two BBC Proms concert performances next month of “Oklahoma!,” with an intriguing cast set to include Robert Fairchild, late of “ An American in Paris” on Broadway and in London, as Will Parker.
One merely has to bring up Grahame’s novel and a certain sector of British society swoons. I’m referring not least to those who remember the glorious National Theater version of the story from 1990, a defining achievement for the playwright-director team of Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner.
That adaptation found delicious crosscurrents of feeling, not to mention all sorts of sly commentary on male bonding, in the riverside antics of the time-honored characters. This time, the role of Toad has been handed to Rufus Hound, who plays him as a self-glorifying speed demon possessed of so little charm that the hymn to friendship underpinning the piece makes no sense whatsoever. Who would want anything more to do with this vainglorious braggart than is necessary?
The show’s featherweight book is by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), and the score by Anthony Drewe and George Stiles at least pays passing homage to the insurrectionary spirit of Mr. Fellowes’s (far superior) “School of Rock” with the rebellious second-act opener, “We’re Taking Over the Hall.”
Peter McKintosh’s set has a sort of Vorticist pizazz, and I liked the sweet assemblage of wassailing mice that suggest the passage of the seasons.
And yet, it’s rare to encounter a musical on this scale with so little to offer once it has cashed in on a nostalgic title. At one point, some onstage graffiti reads “Weazelz rule!” Let’s hope the children in attendance throughout the summer don’t try that spelling when they return to class.
“Yank! A World War II Love Story” at least has something on its mind: the difficulties of being gay and of coming out during that conflict. But the New York-spawned musical from a dozen years ago struggles to justify its exclamation point, at least if the director James Baker’s wearyingly earnest London premiere is any gauge. (Like “Bat Out of Hell,” the show, at the Charing Cross Theater through Aug. 19, preceded its London run with a Manchester engagement.)
Scott Hunter brings an open-faced guilelessness to the role of Stu, a serviceman who falls hard for a fellow conscript, Mitch (Andy Coxon), whose intentions aren’t initially all that easy to read. But pretty much everything about the narrative feels pro forma and makes one yearn for even a scintilla of the dash and wit of, say, Peter Nichols’s thematically comparable “Privates on Parade.”
The score by the brothers Joseph and David Zellnik, the latter of whom also wrote the book, is so busy nodding in the direction of other, greater talents that its pastiche qualities soon pall. The affinities in the lyrics include the songs of Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the musical styles of the period get a dutiful workout. Only during a first-act duet called “Click,” though, does the material snap to life, abetted by a tap routine that fairly bursts with enthusiasm, as Artie (Chris Kiely), an older photojournalist, reassures Stu that he is far from alone in his same-sex leanings.
One is aware at every turn of the heartfelt intentions, and I don’t doubt that “Yank!” probably fares better when the cast don’t seem so at odds with the accents. Only the two male leads sound fully comfortable in their parts. The less said about the supposed Italian in their ranks the better.
The problem may also be a result of the admirable British stage tradition, from Terence Rattigan through Kevin Elyot, of exploring suppressed sexuality, next to which “Yank!” feels not a little naïve. As for rhyming “swarthy” with “friend of Dorothy,” that just about passes muster, but it’s as if all involved had settled for the second-best option and were still waiting for inspiration to strike.