Theater Reviews for London’s West End: The night of the iguana & The Lehman trilogy

The goal, Covid willing — which it wasn’t — was for me to be in London this January of 2022, writing brand new posts. Instead, I’m catching up on the backload of half written ones that were waiting to be finished. Yes, I know, I’m seriously behind in these blog posts, as I’m writing this 2019 one over two years after the fact  …. Remember when we used to tell ourselves that if only we had a few weeks off with nothing to do how we’d catch up on all those tasks we never got to… yah it wasn’t that….

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One of the great joys of the London stage is that at some point or another, like broadway, the great and renowned actors of the screen will want to tread the boards, and this is where they often do it… but at a way that offers far more affordable ticket prices than in what you’d pay in NYC (let’s hear it for government subsidy of the arts!). A while back I talked about the play Sweat, which I saw in London in 2019 starring a lesser known but highly recognizable actress of American movies and TV, Martha Plimpton.

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While she may not be as well known as others, she represents the modern generation of a Hollywood royalty family that stretches back to the 1930’s.

In this post I’m going to talk about two other plays I saw in London back in the summer of 2019 starring famous actors that till then I’d only ever seen on the screen.

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On August 21 of 2019 I went to see Clive Own play the leading role in the classic Tennessee Williams stage play Night of the Iguana (later made into a film staring Richard BurtonAva Gardner, and Deborah Kerr)

E471B7B9-DBDE-451C-8957-02929837B7D3.jpgAnyway, Clive Owen… drool. Granted, he’s not one of my favorite actors but he has always had a sort of bad boy smoldering sexuality that is undeniable, and this was a great play for him to be in… because the lead calls for just that sort of character.

Overall the play was good, his performance was VERY good … although there were a few places in the show where I guess he got distracted or something because he dropped out of character and resorted to just delivering lines (what’s referred to in the business — I have more than a few professional friends who work in it — as phoning it in) but for the most part he was so good that I was able to forget I was watching a play, and instead felt I was watching events as they happened.

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When you first came in to find your seats there was a soundtrack of jungle noises playing in the background and all around us, and there was no fire curtain hiding the stage. Initially I thought that who ever was in charge of the stage design required a pat on the back, although I ultimately decided it wasn’t quite as amazing as they seemed to think it was (I’ll get to that later). The stage held a handful of broken down huts which we soon learned were hotel rooms in a jungle atmosphere, that was supposed to be located up on a mountainside overlooking the ocean. Those steps leading up from the orchestra pit, in the picture above, was how new characters, who had supposedly arrived by boat climbed up the side of the mountain from the beach to said hotel …. and we who sat in the ‘house’ were supposed to be the ocean view they spent most of their time looking out at when not looking at each other…

Before the show started, as those of you who read all my theater posts know that I regularly do, I was taking photos of the empty stage from the vantage of my seat — to show where I was seated and a sense of the theater space, when staff stopped me saying it was “protected”(??). Thing is, it was exactly the same stage shown in the advertising images located out in front of the theater… If my concern was the set design rather than where my seat was relative to the stage, I could have just taken photos of those ads … so I found this prohibition needless, and a bit bizarre (kind of like worrying about your daughters chastity when she’s already pregnant). Not to mention their whole approach of dealing with it was just “unfriendly.” There wasn’t anything all that AMAZING or innovative about the set, other than the fake rock cliff towards the back of the stage… in fact it reminded me a GREAT DEAL of the Louisiana part of Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney … so really nothing innovative of worthy of trying to protect. (And I wasn’t the only one they tried to stop… staff was running around and yelling at a bunch of different people who had taken out their cell phones to take a snap.)

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Anyway, As you can tell from the above photo my seat was VERY good, 7th row almost dead center relative to the stage… and… looking up you can see ….

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I was about a row or two in front of the balcony overhang, so there was no reverb issues with the sound as it bounced around hard surfaces. And this really good ticket was purchased last minute — as in the day before — at a discount from the Txts booth in Leicester Square that I’ve spoken about REPEATEDLY.

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Right before intermission a rain storm broke out as part of the show (the story being located in the tropics), and rather than it just being sound and light effects, there was actual rain falling all over the stage. And I’m not talking just a line of water at the back of the stage either … Clive Owen stood IN it and got drenched by it (yes objectification was real — did I not mention DROOL and how sexy he is) … during intermission I walked up to the stage and you could hear the water dripping off it… not sure how they pull that off without water damage to the stage or folks slipping…. THAT would be interesting to know about but there was nothing visible from the house to answer that question….

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The Next show I saw is one that I’m HAPPY to say is one of the first NYC productions to be reopening in the time of Covid — a limited run that will then travel to L.A. and then on to San Francisco…. and I STRONGLY suggest buying tickets for it if you can.

This was, The National Theater’s production of The Lehman Trilogy. Yep its about THOSE Lehmans, the three brothers who came to America to find their fortune and ended up creating the Lehman Brothers firm, the investment bank that became one of the leaders of the financial world, until it ultimately collapsed, and almost took the entire global economy with it….

 —– Tangent on the collapse of Lehman Brothers
As a former business school professor I think it’s important to note that the collapse happened after the three generations of family control had been handed over to a corporate bureaucracy. Anyone with an understanding of successful multigenerational family owned companies knows that this is a regular process. Companies of this sort are created by an individual — or as in this case a group of siblings, who then usually pass control onto their children. This only happens after he/or she, or they, have personally trained this next generation over the course of their childhoods to takeover the business… usually having them do odd jobs of increasing importance up through their adulthoods that are intended to prepare them and imbue within them a deeply understood awareness of how and why the business is successful. This 2nd generation however tends to not then go on to train their own children as deeply in the ways of the business — often because they resented what their own parents forced them to go through — and instead allow the kids to choose for themselves if they want to be involved — which usually they don’t… and these kids even if one or two of them DOES show interest, by the 3rd generation opt to hand over control to business school types — folks who almost never spent a day working in any factory, let alone choosing to train up individuals who came up through the ranks of THAT company — sending over talented employees off to business school for instance, with the understanding that they were being prepared for management positions (and even if they were they might not have the sort of FAMILY kinship required to keep them in the fold once so invested in). Instead, the heirs of the fortune tend to be disinterested, and prefer to just reap the benefits of the family money and hand over full control to business school graduates with no personal investment in the future prosperity of the company — and once that happens it’s fairly rare for the company to continue to be what it once was, so that at that point decrease of influence to the point of collapse becomes commonplace.  —– end of tangent

That said, the play is not about that collapse and how or why it happened, rather it’s about family, tradition, and legacy, and as such is far more Universal and meaningful. Because the brothers were Jewish immigrants to the United States, recently arrived from Eastern Europe, it helps to bring more depth to the story if you know a little bit about what those traditions are…. although it’s not obligatory. While watching the show I found myself explaining things to the girl seated next to me who was Asian and had no idea why they kept doing things like reaching up to place a kiss on a doorpost, or broke into some Hebrew (praying).

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My cousin, who used to work for one of the major theatrical charities in London, the Mousetrap foundation — they use the profits from London’s longest running hit (excluding a gap for Covid, it’s been playing nonstop since 1952), to introduce school groups from lower income parts of town to the joys of live theater, and as such she continues to stay up to date on what the best shows are in town, and she strongly suggested this one (although she warned they might be fully sold out). As such, I so wanted to see it that I did something I almost never do, and bought the tickets full price… (I tried to get them at TXTs but they laughed at me. I had to buy it at the theater’s box office, and was able to find a good single seat a few weeks out, the week they were due to close).

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I was about in the 5th row, in the center of the row

This left me worried at the time because the day before I was supposed to go London was in the low 90’s F (33.9ºC)  and the day I was scheduled to go was supposed to be as bad if not worse (in fact that day London and Orlando Florida were having the SAME WEATHER, that’s just WRONG). Thank you global warming …

This might not seem like a big deal to average American Theater goer, but the theaters in London, for the most part are NOT BUILT for hot days — especially the older ones — They have limited if any ventilation and most do NOT have any air conditioning. I am one of those people who is great when the temp is in the 60º’s but suffers horribly in anything above 75º — and these theaters with the lights and the people can heat up into the high 80º’s on a hot day; as such, I am incapable of ‘enjoying’ myself in an overheated room… especially ones with no ventilation… and these old historic theaters in London fall into that category. Normally, I buy tickets a day or so in advance, and know what the weather forecast will be, but in this case I had to buy it over two weeks in advance, so there was no way to know.

I took the tube to get there and that had been like a freaking oven, and then I was running late so I had to run to get to the theater, all of which left me radiating heat. So I was SERIOUSLY worried that the heat in the theater would make me feel so sick that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the show, so I was thrilled to discover that the Piccadilly Theatre in London has air-conditioning! Not only that but it was set to keep the room comfortably cool.  I could hear the system going on and off, and every once in a while the room would heat up just enough that I would start to feel uncomfortable, only to hear the fans comeback on and feel the temperature drop just enough for me to stay focused on the show instead of the sickening heat. (Unlike US theaters, they never over did it so that you wished you’d brought a sweater to the theater in the middle of summer.)

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I can’t remember why, but for some reason I was running really late, and was worried they wouldn’t let me in — British theaters can be sticklers about late comers especially if you were sitting front and center like I was going to be — as always I got a GOOD ticket, that put me just off center and maybe 7 rows from the state, but to my luck …. when I arrived there was a huge line of people standing outside waiting to pick up their tickets –even though the play was supposed to have already started, so I was just damn lucky. I arrived so late however that I wasn’t able to do my normal photo of me holding my ticket and showing the stage in front of me; the photo above of me in front of the theater was from after the show was over — hence why it was already dark. Again a photo I would normally do BEFORE the show started.

The Play is based on a Novel, by Italian author Stefano Massini, available in translation

All that said…. This was quite possibly one of the very best most amazing plays I’ve EVER seen in my 58 odd years of regularly attending the theater!!!! It was an acting Tour De Force … all of the 185 roles were played by three British character actors, excluding the final scene when the family no longer controlled the company and suddenly there’s a collection of faces we’d not seen before… Let me repeat that almost ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FIVE separate roles, including men and women, which up until the final scene of the play are performed, by only THREE MEN …. and every single role is clear and distinct. If you’ve never respected the title of character actor, you will now. These are not movie stars who are basically the same character in every film or TV show you’ve ever seen them in, these are ACTORS. (This is why saying you need to be gay to play gay is kind of problematic, and diminishes the craft of acting… actually obliterates it. Keep going in that direction and from now on no one will have to develop their craft because you’ll have to be the thing in order to be allowed to play the thing.)

Imelda Staunton, Adrian Lester, Damian Lewis and more at The Lehman Trilogy  West End premiere | WhatsOnStage
Left to right: Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley   That said, this is NOT my Image, borrowed from: https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/imelda-staunton-adrian-lester-damian-lewis-lehman_49127.html

So the famous actors I got to see were: (left to right) Ben Miles, to be honest this guy sinks into his characters so fully that I totally didn’t recognize him till I checked his imdb. He’s one of those British Actors that Americans are less familiar with. Of all the shows he was in, I think we in the states would most easily recognize him as having played the part of Peter Townsend, the boyfriend of Princess Margaret in Netflix’s international hit, The Crown), that she was having an affair with, and who when he left his wife the corporation kept finding excuses to keep her from marrying him, until he finally gave up and married someone else.

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Simon Russell Beale (the guy in the middle & below) tends to show up in the sort of historical stuff the BBC is best known for, Americans would best know him as having been on the Showtime series Penny Dreadful and as the Baker’s father in the star studded movie version of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods, with Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick.

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The actor to the right is probably the one most Americans will most easily recognize, although odds are you never knew his name. The man has been in a LOT of things, He’s currently the Archbishop in Hulu’s The Great, about Russia’s Cathrine the Great; He provides the voice of Pogo (the talking chimp) in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, he played Elliott Schwartz in the classic show Breaking Bad, was Nigel Nesbitt in the series Suits (best known as Meghan Markle’s claim to fame before she married Prince Harry), along with a bunch of other roles in popular shows and movies. In fact in the Lehman Brothers Adam Godley did a one character in a scene towards the middle of the show that I will never be able to forget and I wish I could hit the rewind to see over and over and figure out how he did it; the man aged right in front of us from young to a wizened corpse on the table, and did it so believably that the audience couldn’t but break into a standing ovation in the middle of the show.

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Anyway, if you ever have a chance to see this show, I strongly suggest it, even more if you’re lucky enough to see it with these specific actors.

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London’s West End production of: Waitress (good, but not better than the movie)

Waitress has, since the movie version first came out in 2007, been one of my very favorite films — as in I bought the DVD and have watched it repeatedly. So when I heard that someone had revamped it as a musical I was both hopeful and skeptical. Back in its good old days, Broadway would turn books into plays, which then might be turned into musicals; nowadays its successful movies that tend to get the musical treatment. When I saw that it was playing in London (and pretty much daily available at a discount at the TXTS booth) I knew I had to see it.

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During this trip I saw more than a few shows that were based on movies… which seems to be the new broadway trend …. and for the most part while they’re all enjoyable… in pretty much every case … with the possible exception of maybe the production of Disney’s the Lion king … I think it’s safe to say that you should probably consider saving your money…

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For me, London is kind of like a second hometown to me. It was my dad’s hometown, and we used to spend most of summers there until I was about 12 years old…  and always for me, London has always been about going to the theater! My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three. So rather than posting a lot about seeing the town my posts from here are for the most about the shows I’ve seen. The second show I saw this trip saw: Waitress, a musical remake of one of very favorite films (I own it on DVD and have watched it repeatedly)…. but that said, while it’s a cute piece of fluff… the movie was MUCH better…

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That said … first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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Kind of a cute thing: restaurant order slips were used for patron’s feedback after the show

In the movie starred Keri Russell as the waitress the show centers on, who is dreaming of trying to escape a horrible marriage, who finds solace, self esteem — and a possible exit strategy — in her love of and brilliance at inventing pie recipes.

[Going MASSIVELY off topic here… but bear with me]

Russell, for those who don’t know her, began her career as a child actor, and was one of the many members of The Mickey Mouse Club ensemble during the 1989 to 1994 years (alongside other such stars of today as: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, etc.). However, she is to this day most highly identified, not for that but rather, with her breakout title character in the US TV show Felicity, (which played from 1998 — 2002, 4 seasons, just like 4 years of university) a coming of age story about a top student who had her whole life planned out for her by her parents, and in an act of rebellion she at the last minute refuses to attend Stanford U. as a premed, in California, and instead chases cross country after a high school crush who is going to University in New York City, who when she gets there turns out to not even know her name. So of course the following four seasons were all about her growing up and finding herself, until she finally leaves University and begins an adult life. [If you do watch the TV show, pay close attention to the side characters. Whoever the casting director was, this person had a keen eye for talent; there’s a LOT of actors who would go on to be famous who had their first tiny roles in this Felicity.]

In it Russell became almost more famous for her hair than her acting, which based on the scuttlebutt of the day, if it is to be believed, bugged her to no end. At the time there were constant gossip stories coming out about how much she was wanting to be considered a serious actress, and hated the superficial fixation on her hair rather than her acting, to the extent that while the official story was that the producers came to her about cutting it… the leaked gossip was all about how she in fact had BEGGED the producers to allow her character to change her look.

This resulted in something of a NATIONAL SCANDAL if you can believe, and a bit of a dive in the ratings comparable only to the effect on Veronica Lake‘s career in WWII when she changed her signature peek-a-boo hairstyle in support of the war effort.

I’ve looked, and if you follow Russell’s relationship with her hair, since Felicity (1998– 2002), she’s never worn it natural again [link includes a hairstylist talking about how the first thing you down when working with Russell is to straighten her hair], all of which tends to support the leaked versions over the official ones (Russell hates her own hair) … To this day she’s ALWAYS straightens it. Seriously, am including LOTS of clips of her on camera and her curls are at the minimum relaxed in every clip; and its her refusal to wear it natural that in my opinion is what continues to make it a topic of discussion 17 years later. In the Waitress role (2007), a role that to be honest wasn’t ALL that different from her Felicity role — in fact she’s pretty much type cast (the sweet but super serious girl next door who’s seriously lost and trying to find herself), if you look at her hair you can sort of see a compromised semi straightened look. And if you look at all her roles between 2002 and 2013, she had a heck of a time shaking her Felicity type casting.

That said, its a look and character you’ll almost NEVER see in the role that currently has made her famous again, the long running FX spy thriller (2013-2018), which has won 18 Emmy nominations and four Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Dramatic Series award nominations for its writing (this is a GREAT SHOW, definitely a must see)… where Russell plays one of the co-leads of the The Americans, two deep cover Soviet KGB officers who pose as happily married couple living in the Virginia suburbs (near D.C.) by day while working as Russian operatives at night.

[Note in this 2019 Youtube compilation of her interviews for a famous US morning show, the editors STILL in 2019 focus on discussions of her hair and her Felicity character!!]

Her Felicity/Waitress character is almost completely absent from her role of Elizabeth (Nadezhda) Jennings, as in she only shows up in scenes of the character’s early life in Russia before she was trained to be a spy.  Russell’s character’s husband, Philip Jennings (whose Russian name is Mikhail, but goes by Mischa); in this new show is played by Matthew Rhys – who in real life is Welsh (with a thick accent) and is now Russell’s real life husband – they became involved (2014) and then married (2016) during filming

Returning to the film version of Waitress:

Alongside Russel was a woefully miscast Nathan Fillion in the role the obstetrician her Waitress character goes too when to her horror she discovers she’s pregnant. Their both married, but find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other and begin a torrid affair. Or at least that’s the story of Waitress. While I love Fillion, he just wasn’t right for that role, at least not when cast with Russell. In order for the story to really work, his character and Russell’s needed to have overwhelming sexual chemistry that was palpable even on screen, even if their sex scenes were supposed to be funny verging on ridiculous … but they just didn’t have that, so it all felt horribly forced. But for Russell’s performance, she was perfect in the role, the movie might have not done anywhere near as well.

[That said Fillion was PERFECT as Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds on the cult TV show Firefly along its followup film Serenity,– a character which made him a nerd G-d!!!! Although cancelled after only one season there’s isn’t a nerd I know who has not watched it so many times that they have bits of it memorized.

One of the show’s major problems was the TV executives couldn’t figure out how to pigeon hole it. They sold it as drama, Notice the really dark feel of the preview above, when in fact had more of a dark sardonic comedic feel to it, along with a real sense of a tight knit and loving family among the crew-members of the ship — all of whom were led by Fillion’s character.

Like I said it was such a cult favorite that they were able to get the funding for the big budget film called Serenity, which finally put some closure on the story lines. Unlike Russell who seems to have spent a lifetime trying to escape Felicity, Fillion has described Firefly as the best acting job he ever had. He is also known to non-nerds as the title character Richard Castle, a modern day version of his Mal character, on the long running TV show Castle — which offered up A LOT of inside jokes for Firefly fans who all realized he was playing the same character again, just to prove that point of what a cult classic it was and how much Fillion loved that role.]

—> RETURNING TO THE LONDON PRODUCTION!!!!!

Initially part of what drew me to wanting to see the stage show in London was the fact that it was starring Katharine McPhee in the title role — a woman was the runner up on the 5th season of one of my favorite shows, American Idol,

who went on to be central character of another of my favorite shows, the ensemble series Smash (about the making of a fictional Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe),

where she plays an unknown… the epitome of the sweet and modest ingenue, who through sheer talent and stage presence becomes the co-lead in a musical when the producers ultimately can’t choose between a more experienced actress and the ingenue (spoiler: it’s a predicament they ultimately resolve by using BOTH actresses — who we come to love — to play different aspects of Marilyn — the character she created for the screen vs her internal more human reality)

HOWEVER, McPhee was only playing the lead during my first three weeks in London, a period where I was busy with stuff like getting re-acclimatized to being in London after many years — I have this weird relationship with rapid transit systems where it seems to take me a few weeks of being in a place before I’m willing to use them, and was focused on MUST do tasks, like renewing my British passport, catching up with family, etc., before want to do ones…

… BUT by the time I finally dragged my ass down to the TXTS booth the first time, her final performance in the role was already over — and when she left so did most of the other leads (in the video above). I’m someone who watches TMZ‘s podcast nightly (if it starts off with the Kardashians I’m asleep in minutes), so I knew that McPhee had quit the show in order to marry one of the world’s most powerful music producers, David Foster (who’s a good 34 years older than her) — they literally got married like the next week (it was all over the gossip news). So I didn’t get to see her on stage after all…. other than via the above videos.

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That said, when I first got into the theater, all excited to see the show, the level of ‘kitschy’ things going on in the waiting area for the show was kind of overwhelming, there were the aforementioned restaurant customer order slips displayed with comments from former patrons of the show

 

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And at the obligatory bar where there’s normally a variety of snacks and drinks, they had mini pies in glass jars for sale… I tried the chocolate and salted caramel pot which the girl working the counter said was the favorite of the staff… but I thought it was actually pretty nasty tasting… very super sweet and chemicals even though the ingredients promised it was all natural (except for the Oreo cookie bits)

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And then once inside the auditorium the fire-curtain had been designed to look like a cherry pie lattice and along each side of the stage were those rotating pie displays like you see at diners (imagine them rotating). Like I said, sort of kitschy overload.

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That said, my day of show purchased tickets offered me amazing seats, three rows from the stage and smack in the middle of the auditorium. The show was, as I said before, not AS good as the movie (although I think the guy cast the lead’s love interest was a way better choice than Fillion had been) but that said it was a fun little piece of fluff with a few good songs.

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At the end of the show they did something I had not seen before or since, they had staff members standing at the edges of the stage actually TELLING us we could go ahead and take photos of the standing ovations.  Other shows do NOT allow it, and some will even try to stop you from taking pictures of the stage before the show has even started…

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And then after the show was over, they provided an even MORE opportunities for taking photos as we were leaving, with staff posing as waiters at a diner alongside us… and … as you can see in the photo, were explicitly asking us to PLEASE post those photos to social media after we had gone home. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f46.jpg

All that said, while it was a good time… I’m sorry to say that if you LOVED the movie you’ll probably enjoy the musical, but I doubt you’ll love it. If on the other hand you’ve NEVER seen the movie (and hold it in a warm fuzzy place in your heart), than you might enjoy the musical more than I did.

London’s National Theater’s reimagining of the play “Top Girls”

Top Girls is a play in four acts written by Caryl Churchill who is considered by some to be the UK’s leading socialist-feminist playwright. Her works tend to explore topics such as gender construction (a topic that I’ve spent a lot of time teaching), sexual politics (a political theory named after a book that is obligatory reading for anyone studying feminism) and abuses of power. The production I saw was put on the London’s National Theater, and took some research to try to understand because of choices made by the director that resulted in confusion for people (like myself and my cousin) who had no knowledge of the play in advance.

First produced in 1982, and is set in 1980’s Britain, it is the type of show that tends to be done in smaller venues — or in US parlance, it’s the sort of off off broadway type of show that is intentionally NOT intended to be commercial, and as such in general will only appeal to hard core theater aficionados who like their shows to have a political message, and the actors performing the parts.

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Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I advise everyone to check out the Txts booth in Leicester Square as a matter of course. One of the exceptions to this rule is anything put on by the National Theater. Their tickets should be purchased either online or from their box office, because they’re already government subsidized and are never discounted further.

Sadly, I completely forgot to take any photos for this play or of the theater… not even my obligatory one of me holding the ticket. There are however no shortage of press release images of the production on google (follow this link). In my defense, at the time I was suffering a serious case of the dizzies, was staying at my cousin’s (from my dad’s side) place way out the suburbs, when a cousin from my mom’s side informed me she was in London and suggested I buy tickets for this play and we could meet up there. I knew NOTHING about the show going in. Because of the dizzies, going there alone from his place out in the suburbs was not in the cards, so I convinced him to come along and he drove. As luck would have it, my other cousin was nowhere to be seen, and didn’t bother returning any of my txts till well after the show when we were well on our way back home.

The first scene of the play I found quite compelling. It involves the central character of the play — a modern British woman, Marlene, who’s just been promoted to the head of her office at a job placement agency, who is throwing herself a celebratory dinner party and has invited as her guests famous women of antiquity. (One is forced to wonder if maybe she has no real life friends to turn to because she’s been so focused on her work.) So not only did the play delve into issues of gender construction and feminist issues, but did so on a backdrop of women from different points of history, and different cultures… so RIGHT up my alley so to speak.

Her first guest to arrive is Isabella Bird, a woman out of history that would be familiar to most of Churchill’s British audience members, as they’re most likely the sort of highly cultured and educated sort who watch history shows on the BBC and probably attended University (like I said, off off broadway). This second character in effect is setting the scene for all of the following characters that might be less familiar to the show’s audience. For those who don’t know her (lord knows I did not, but my British cousin claimed he sort of remembered who she was) Bird was an independent woman traveller, writer and photographer from 18th century England. She was a prolific travel writer with 28 titles to her name, which include: The Englishwoman in America (1856) — her first hit book which was based on all of the letters she’d written home about her travels, and was followed by other like works such as Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Travels of a Lady in the Interior of Japan (1879), and Among the Tibetans (1894) — that were again based on her letters home. Most of Bird’s titles are still in print, and her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is even available as an Audiobook! This tells you relevant her works still are. Since her death, she’s had numerous biographies written about her, and has even has a series of Japanese manga about her called Isabella Bird in Wonderland, which focuses on her visit to Japan.

Her arrival in the play is shortly followed by the arrival of another historical figure, who is much more obscure, Lady Nijo, one of the Japanese Emperor’s concubines from 1271 to 1283, who later became a nun and wrote her autobiography. The book wasn’t a hit but had historical value, and as such one remaining copy (a 17th century printing) was discovered in the Emperor’s family library in 1940 and then republished under the titles The Confessions of Lady Nijo and also Lady Nijo’s own story; the candid diary of a thirteenth-century Japanese imperial concubine.  I searched Amazon and found these both of these titles still available for sale there, but no one biography.

The third guest was one I HAD heard of, Pope Joan. YES, you heard me, Pope JOAN (we don’t know what her actual name was)…  While the church denies that she ever existed, and to this day many historians discount her as myth, her story is well known and her possible existence helps to explain some weird things. Such as, there’s a VERY odd part of the Pope’s swearing in process — the existence of which makes no sense whatsoever, UNLESS she had existed. The story is that a woman fell in love with a priest, and was convinced by him to dress as a man and to join the church during the Middle Ages, so that they could stay together. Apparently she was so smart and capable, that she managed to rise to the top position (top girls anyone?), but had the bad luck to go into labor in the middle of religious procession. According to the character in the play, the robes helped hide her condition and folks just assumed she/he’d gotten fat. Her gender now discovered she either died in labor or was put to death, the play opted for killed. As a result, the whole path of that procession has been changed to avoid the street where she supposedly went into labor (one thing explained).  But the oh so odd part of the popes ritual swearing it helps explain, is that he has to sit on a contraption like a toilet seat with no bowl underneath, while he has his genitals inspected, to make sure they’re there… and more importantly, are of the right sort. Many people believe she was Pope John XX, which explains why this title is sometimes referred to as the missing pope (there’s nothing about that pope in the books, but the church has come up with a rationalization for the discrepancy)…

The fourth guest to arrive is, Dull Gret (also known as Mad Meg), a woman from Flemish folklore, who doesn’t have much to say, which makes sense as she’s a character from a 1563 oil-on-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel (the elder). In fact his painting of her, Dulle Griet, is one of his most famous works. Here she is depicted as a woman who is leading an army of other women in an attack on hell itself.

The final guest is another character from European folklore, Patient Griselda.  She was first written about by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his famous and influential work (I had to read it for a history class, it actually helped to spark a revolution) The Decameron. The story is by our perspective horrific. All British audience member should be somewhat familiar with her tale as one of the books Boccaccio’s work helped to influence was Chaucer‘s famous work, The Canterbury Tales, where she also appears. The basic story is that she’s a lower class woman married to an upper class man, attracted to her beauty, who over the years puts her through a series of horrific and mentally abusive tests of her patience and devotion to him… all of which she passes. At the end, her sufferings are rewarded. (It’s enough to make a modern woman gag.)

Once the dinner is over we are taken to the employment agency where Marlene works, and we meet her co-workers and some of the girls who are there applying for jobs. This scene is so incredibly different that it seemed like we were almost in a completely different play. It felt VERY disconnected. Later, after me and my cousin got home, I started researching the play and learned that in the original version, all the new characters that are introduced were SUPPOSED to have been played by the same actresses who had done the previous characters.

At this point the curtain comes down and the audience is released for an intermission. When we returned the next act, which at first seems to have nothing to do with what came before, and as such feels utterly disjointed. It’s two girls talking. And therein lays the problem with this production… Initially it was written so that the women who played the historical characters are then ‘re-cast’ into the modern day as other characters, and the fact that it’s the same actresses playing them helps to link the characters of the women we met before into these new modern day characters… Marlene is the only character that stays the same through the play.

In the later scenes we learn she is completely disconnected from her family. She and her sister no longer speak, and her sister’s child is biologically Marlene’s, who she had abandoned in order to become a “Top Girl.” All of which helps to explain the focused determination that got her there, but how that success had a cost in her personal relationships… which may be why when it was time to celebrate her achievement, her only companions were women from books and history.

However, because this production chose to expand the number of actors used, all of that subtext got lost. Both my cousin and I, who had never seen the original productions and knew nothing about the show going in, left the theater more than a bit confused. We debated it’s meaning the whole trek home to his place, and the next morning again over our breakfast. So if the point was to make us think, it was successful… but we both found ourselves independently going on to the internet to try to comprehend what we had just seen, because it was FAR from self evident based on the production.

To that end, while doing additional research for this article I found a BBC online University video that includes not just the entire play, but a preamble discussing it and an interview with the playwright. The downside of this video is that you don’t really get to enjoy the play and then hear a discussion of it, rather the ‘instructor’ inserts commentary right over the actors speeches…. which are hard enough to make out as one of Churchill’s favorite techniques is to use over-speaking…  multiple actors talking at once (the fact that she has the Japanese character doing this as well shows how little she understood Japanese culture, in my opinion).

I then found THIS 2nd rendition of it on Youtube, put on by a theater group in Seoul South Korea made up entirely of English speaking expats, of the ENTIRE play… all two hours of it.

But in this case it was recorded in a very low tech manner, so that you’ll need to strain to hear the actors … again.

Theater in London’s West End, The production of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Sweat” and accessibility issues in the Gielgud Theatre

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). One of the many shows I saw this year was, Sweat (2017, Pulitzer Prize Winner) staring Martha Plimpton of the Carradine theatrical royalty family (getting to see your favorite actors live on stage is always an added treat).

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So… I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again … first rule of London theater is, as taught to me by my parents… unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase). This show for instance had great reviews, but I was able to get the tickets at a discounted price, even buying them 2 days in advance.

Sweat: The Play — GREAT play, but in a bad theater space for anyone with mobility or hearing impairments 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f27.jpgSweat, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was my first non-musical this trip. Its a fictional play based around economic dynamics in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011, when the United States Census Bureau, declared that because of the loss of heavy industry to offshoring, it had become one of the poorest cities in America. It is a show that is both funny, and highly disturbing.

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I was looking forward to seeing it in large part because it was a chance to see Martha Plimpton, live on stage. I’d had the good luck to meet her (as in have an actual conversation with, back in 2006 while sitting on a tram at Disneyland waiting to go back to the parking structure — YUP, once again at a Disney park, there’s a trend here), and seriously enjoyed a lot of her large and small screen roles, but this was going to be the first time to see her on stage. That said, she did NOT let me down… granted, its the sort of role she tends to get cast into fairly regularly, a course working class girl or woman — so she’s had plenty of practice. This typecasting is ironic as she’s third generation acting royalty; her paternal grandfather was one of the best known character actors in Hollywood starting back in the 1930’s, the GREAT John Carradine. He was one of John Ford‘s go to actors, but was also in classics like the Grapes of Wrath and the Ten Commandments). Her dad is Keith Carradine (whose IMDB of roles in major films is as long as your arm) even those she chooses to go by the less known last name of her mother,  Shelley Plimpton (who is also a well respected actress in her own right) — probably to be better able to try to stand on her own merits. And, even her uncles, Robert Carradine, who was best known for his  Revenge of the Nerds series of movies, and the late David Carradine, who was best known for his lead role in the 1970’s TV classic Kung Fu, (and his ignominious death by autoerotic asphyxiation in a Bangkok hotel room’s closet in 2009) are/were both well known working actors. Even her aunt, Ever Carradine, is one of those actresses you instantly recognize even if you can not name her, and currently can be seen in Hulu’s major hit, The Handmaid’s TaleSo, like I said, Acting royalty.

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I won’t spoil the play for you other than to say its got the kind of juicy roles in it actors love, and even though I tend to prefer comedies or musicals over serious plays with a political message, and a really disturbing ending.  I genuinely enjoyed and was moved by the performances. I was lucky because the play (which has bounced around a bit) was in the middle of a six week scheduled run at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. Even though it was was very well reviewed, I suppose its serious nature turned away most London tourists, and as such I was able to get pretty good tickets at a discount. HOWEVER when I got there I found that the salesperson had screwed up a bit… I’m always clear about wanting to be in the stalls in FRONT of the balcony-overhang. When I got there I found I was well behind it, towards the back of the stalls. I HATE this because there’s almost always a slight reverb effect as the actors voices bounce off the walls, and you often end up listening to sound from speakers in addition to the actual sound from them… so I complained (the advantage of arriving to the theater early). I was HOPING they’d move me up in the stalls (there were plenty of better empty seats) but the Manager said if I wanted I could move to the balcony where they had some open first row tickets (at same price point), so I did that.

Two things about the theater the play was being shown in … Firstly… like a lot of old things in London, while the Gielgud is very beautiful, it’s also a complete disaster for anyone with severe mobility issues. While the UK has disability rights legislation on the books, implementing them has been a major issue as a result of the historic nature of most of the buildings. This one, for instance, was built back in 1906. It was originally called the Hicks theater, and then the Globe, before receiving its current name in 1994.

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There are stairs everywhere, not an elevator in sight (there might be some backstage)… and they’ve NOT installed ANY ramps — not even where they reasonably could have, and GET THIS… the disabled bathroom is just through the doorway in the picture above, and you have to negotiate THREE steps to get to it… like I said, NO RAMPS … While there is a ground level door off to the side of the theater… even if you in through those side doors you STILL have to negotiate stairs to get to the handicapped bathroom!!! It’s absolutely imbecilic, and handicapped are relegated to the balcony as the stalls demand you negotiate a lot of stairs. The most recent refurbishment … when I assume the aforementioned bathroom was installed was in 2008, so you would THINK they’d have come up with a better work around for the disabled, but I guess not.

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That said, while the theater offered a sound system for those with hearing issues, the sound coming out of it was actually WORSE than the sound from the stage. The Actors in the show aren’t wearing microphones, so they’ve got those hidden around the stage, and by the time the actors voices reach them, they’re distorted by reverb far worse than what you hear live.

Come From Away: The Musical based on the happier events of 9/11 … LOVED IT!!!!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The third show I saw was possibly my favorite. I LOVED Come from Away!!! Honestly I saw a LOT of theater during this trip and this was my favorite show so far. I loved it so much that I not only bought the entire album (and listened to it a few times) but I went on to  social media and told all my friends they HAD to see it, and am considering seeing it a second time.

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If I can’t see it again in London I MIGHT even try see it in Toronto (where it’s also showing as an extended stay because — well how many hit musicals are about Canadians?) if I can swing a trip up there. The show was originally a conceived of by the Associate Dean of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. He contacted a husband and wife writing team who had already done a show he knew of, and sent them to Gander, Newfoundland, where a ten year reunion was about to take place for the 7,000 airline passengers — who had been diverted there during the events of 9/11 (because US airspace had been closed to all commercial traffic) — and the locals who hosted them on a moments notice.

The intent was to interview them, collect their real life stories and from it to construct a show about the what happened during 9/11 from a different point of view, a more uplifting one. (The above video is the writing team and the Dean talking about what they created and why.) The show was first produced as a college production, but then was quickly picked up various small but influential theater groups, working up the food chain so to speak. However, before it opened on Broadway on March 12, 2017, and became a critical and box office success, the cast and crew brought the show to Gander itself.

Come from Away came to the London stage in February of 2019… and I saw it in July of that year.

With only a few exceptions all the actors in the above performance were the same ones that I saw. As this next video shows, the show which only won one Tony award, after being nominated for seven, including Best Musical in New York, the show went on to win FOUR Olivier Awards for its London production.

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My ticket, which was purchased the day of show was pretty spectacular… I was in fact almost sitting TOO close, but it was wonderful. As luck would have it two Canadians were sitting besides me, and since I’ve spent more than few months in Canada at this point, we were able to jointly laugh at a lot of insider jokes that you won’t quite get if you don’t know Canada.

While I loved pretty much every song in the show, although hands down my favorite one was this one (again the video shows same actress I saw perform it)

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

London West End’s production of: Matilda, the Musical – not my favorite

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). Matilda is a show I’ve been wanting to see for a while, so I was excited to see discount tickets available there. Its based on the Ron Dahl classic children’s novel, I’ve read it more than once, and the songs were written Tim Minchin who I’m a huge fan of and have actually written about before, AND its award nominations and wins are as long as your arm… so I was seriously looking forward to this…. but … not so much, sadly.

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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So, like I said, the second show I saw was Matilda, a hit broadway show based on the Ron Dahl story — that was also made into a movie — of a scary brilliant little girl born into a family that that places no value on being educated, especially with regards to women. Matilda not only has taught herself to read by the time she’s able to walk and talk, but by the time she’s old enough to attend school she’s already reading Dickens and Tolstoy in the unabridged versions. I really wanted to see this show because the music was written by one of my favorite comedic singers, Tim Minchin, who wrote the song I referenced in my other post about the Loud Fence in Ballarat (a protest against the Church’s sexual abuse scandal).

All of that said, I none the less found myself getting a bit bored and irritated while watching this show… It does have some VERY good songs… good enough that I downloaded them (the good ones) from iTunes, in particular I loved this song:

but on average I wasn’t thrilled by the rest of the show (quite a let down because like I said, huge Tim Minchin fan). This song for instance really didn’t do it for me, even though it is in fact better (in my opinion) than some of the other ones….

That said what really annoyed me the most was when the show went completely off book, creating a new storyline that didn’t fit and added little to the story — which is kind of a children’s classic. This was a series of vignettes of Matilda making up a story for her favorite librarian. In fact the ONLY justification for it I could think of was that MAYBE they were concerned about the child employment laws and how many minutes the child actors (other than Matilda — I have got to think there’s some special case written into the law for the leading character) would be on stage.

London’s West End production of the “BOOK OF MORMON: The Musical” — Totally worth it!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The first show I saw this summer was the Book of Mormon, a show I’ve been wanting to see for years and have watched as much of it as I could find on YouTube… not to mention listened to the album.

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So… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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The First show I attended this summer was Book of Mormon, a show that I think pretty much everyone has heard of already… its been on stage nonstop since 2011, and was written by the same group of guys who do the cartoon series South Park. This of course was a show that at this point I’d listened to the album a few times and seen so many clips of bits and pieces of the show already… such as the following

… that I knew pretty much what I was paying for well in advance, but… all that said, I STILL wanted the experience of seeing it live on stage (because there’s no substitute to the energy of a live performance.

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MAJOR theater girl SQEEEE! 2017

That and I have (ever so briefly) MET the actor who played one of the lead characters in the original broadway performance of BOM a few years ago…The picture above is me at Epcot in 2017, where I had the mind blowing experience of recognizing these two HUGE stars of the Broadway stage as they walked right past me (oh my G-d! is that? It can’t be… IT IS!!!). On the left is Andrew Rannells, who played one of the aforementioned leads in the original cast of Book of Mormon (the guy singing in the video above), and on my right is Christian Borle.
[Slightly off topic: but if you don’t recognize him, Borle (the guy on my right), is a two-time Tony Award winner and is actually the bigger star by far. He is probably best known to non-Broadway nerds for the TV show Smash … [Note: if you watch the video pay note to Katherine Mcphee, the central girl in this video, as she’ll come up when I discuss the show Waitress]

where he played the long time writing partner of the character played by Debra Messing. Also I have to flex my theater nerd knowledge by mentioning Borle is also the ex-husband of Sutton Foster who is possibly the BIGGEST star on Broadway these days, as well as the lead in her own hit TV show, Youngerwhich was just renewed for its 6th season. (Borle actually had a small part on her show playing a romantic prospect)

Rannells (the other guy in the photo, and more on topic) has been nominated for, but has not yet won his Tony. (I really enjoyed his recent small but pivotal role in the movie A Simple Favor, with fellow theater nerd Anna Kendrick). All that said, Borle only allowed the picture of the three of us to be taken on condition that I didn’t post it to the internet for at least one year. This made me sad, but it was a request I found utterly reasonable as stars have stalkers and people posting real time photos of meeting stars to the internet can lead said wackos right to them. ]

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Returning to the Book of Mormon, in spite of buying the tickets THAT DAY, I managed to swing tickets in the stalls in row F (6th row), just a bit off the center of the stage. And although it wasn’t discounted, it way cheaper than it would have been in the states. I really liked how they made the edges of the stage look a bit like the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake, which I had the pleasure of visiting back when I was in my 30’s (for some reason I don’t have any pics of it). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f3b.jpg

One of the funniest things about Book of Mormon is how they are able to mock the Church of Latter Day Saints without having to tell any lies about them. They really do believe this stuff (that said none of it is any more ridiculous than any other religious beliefs, if you really think about it). That said, the show really lived up to my expectations and there were all sorts of nuances to the show I had missed because the record albums and the clips I had seen don’t cover the WHOLE show… bits and pieces are always missing unless you see it live.

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One of the “cool” things about the British Theater, pun intended, is at intermission they ALWAYS bring out little things of ice cream in multiple flavors that you can eat in your seats rather than being forced to finish it down in the lounge. This place also had water in recyclable and resealable cans, which I thought was pretty good.

Nzar Khoury Guest House & Airbnb, Acre, Israel

If you’re ever in the historic town of Acre, Israel (it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited ones on the planet) and looking for a place to spend the night that is nothing fancy, but clean and HIGHLY affordable, look no farther than Nazar Khoury’s Guest House. I stayed here for almost a full month, and LOVED IT. If you want to book with him you can either call him directly (see number below), or use Booking.com, Agoda, or Airbnb (like I did — you may need to be signed into your Airbnb account in order to see that link, I’m not sure).  That said, while he has four different rooms available, his place is so much more affordable than the other places in town, that he tends to be full almost continuously (or at least was while I was there). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_de83

Be warned, this is NOT a fancy hotel, with elevators and bell boys, but rather his family home that he grew up in, which he has converted himself in order to accommodate guests. He runs it himself (the guy in image above) and for the most part does a pretty good job of it … If you stay here you’ll be getting an authentic experience of how the locals live.

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His home, which is located about four floors up, has a patio that overlooks the mediterranean ocean and the old Ottoman built seawallramparts of this historic, and once militarily strategic town.

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The wall is currently being renovated; I was hoping they’d leave this long enough for me to get a shot of the sun setting in the middle of it, but no luck, it was only there for a few hours.

It is an almost idyllic place to sit and enjoy the ocean. While there you can also get to know some of his other guests (I met more than few people that way) as you all watch the setting sun while nibbling on the free munchies he provides.

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This picture (above) was taken at around sunset — as you can tell by the golden color of the stones, and if you look up towards the Nzar Khoury sign, you’ll spot some guests, particularly the guy in the black shirt, talking to each other while enjoying said it from the patio — next to him was in fact his wife (who was distracting him from the view).

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The moon, just moments after the sunset

The great part about having stayed at the Guest House for almost a month was how many different sunsets I was able to watch… no two ever exactly the same

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From his home you can easily see Acre’s famous lighthouse, and Haifa across the bay.

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On VERY clear days you can just make out the second holiest Bahá’í temple in the world, known as the Shrine of the Báb, it’ll look like a vertical strip from the top of the of the mountain to the bottom, with one very large building in the middle of it. I know all about the Bahá’í because one of their temples isn’t far from the home where I grew up, north of Chicago. But like I said, you can only see it on VERY clear days… otherwise the fog and or smog (depending on the color — fog is white, not brown) will block you from seeing it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ba6.jpg

Just to the right of the lighthouse is the remains of a submerged crusader castle. On days when the wind is low and the water is still, you can just make out the walls of the various rooms of the building…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_df48.jpgon other days you’ll see fishermen (who aren’t actually supposed to be there, but the police don’t stop them) fishing either off the exterior wall of that castle, or netting up fish caught in the pools they create.

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Getting to his place is however NOT the easiest thing for people with mobility issues (it is NOT wheelchair accessible). The image above is the first set of stairs you’ll need to climb. These were built by the ottoman controlled Acre and were built more to be comfortable for horses pulling carts, then they were for humans. That said, the built-in ramps would have been a lot more helpful if they were filled in (so to speak). If you try pulling a suitcase up them, or a cart, the wheels will constantly slip off to one side or the other. (I’ve not seen anyone even TRY to negotiate them with a wheel chair.)

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The Stairway and Church’s doorway, decorated for the wedding

Nzar’s home — which is built upon the remains of a Crusader Church — is just next door to the St. Andrew’s Church (Greek Catholic), which is accessed from the parking lot by that same stairway. So, if you’re lucky, as I was, from his balcony you’ll be able to watch an Arab wedding party ceremoniously lead the bride to the altar.

At the top of the stairs you make a hard left (if you go right you see the church’s front door which is usually locked) and you’ll see the big metal door that marks his entrance

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The guest house’s  doorway and staircase

Push it open (it’s never locked)… be careful not to pull the handle (sometimes it’ll come off)… and you’ll see a very uninviting steep staircase that’s about 2 stories high with a banister that is just a rusty pipe bolted to the wall… that wiggles a bit if you lean on it (so don’t if you don’t absolutely need to). That said, while I was there a 90-year-old gray-haired grandmother with a seriously bent back put me to shame on those stairs.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2b6d.jpgOnce inside you’ll see an apartment with VERY high ceilings. These are traditional to the region, and act as a sort of natural air conditioning system, as the heat rises above your head, and the cold drops to floor level. That said, no two spaces are on the same level. All the bedrooms are a step up to a place where you can leave your shoes, and then another step up to the bedroom area… the en suite bathrooms are yet another step up.

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The skylight viewed from above

My bedroom, where I stayed, has a skylight (image of it from the building’s roof)… but it’s currently the only one like that does. Unfortunately there were no way to block that light… so I ended up having to go to sleep earlier than normal in preparation for an 8am wake up (after a 6 am one, at which point I covered my head with a pillow)

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The setting sun as viewed through the doorway to the patio

At night, Nzar lights up his sign, so you can still easily see it from the parking lot below. IF you’re in one of the rooms that lines the back alley, as I was, and pop your head out the window, you’ll an large number of swallows (who you can watch at around sunset feasting on the mosquitos, G-d bless them), hanging out on the electrical and telephone wires that line the way.

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That said, I WARN YOU… they wake up really easily from things like the flash on your camera; and if awoken, they will fly around like crazy idiots for the next hour or so, chirping noisily. DO NOT WAKE UP THE SWALLOWS. That said, if you’re there during Ramadan, as I was, the wake up call before sunrise to allow muslims a chance to have breakfast, is ALSO going to wake the birds… you’ve been warned (ear plugs are your friend, as is a pillow over your head).

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Me, blogging while sitting on the patio on an overcast day

How to eat during Ramadan in an Arab town, such as Acre (Akko/Acco), Israel

This month is the first time in my life I’ve spent Ramadan in an Arab town. I’m SO naive about these things that I didn’t even THINK about that when planning this trip.

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  1. First thing to remember is that while Arabs are of two predominant religious groups, Muslim AND Christian. The first keeps Ramadan, the second does NOT…
  2. … and not all sects of those two major groups are alike. While Bahá’í and Druze are both, historically, offshoots of Islam, the Bahá’ís DO keep Ramadan but the Durūz/Druzim [transliterated Arabic & Hebrew spellings for the plural] do NOT …
  3. Christian owned restaurants tend to hire mostly Christian workers (friends and family), and are in retrospect easy to spot because they’re the ones that offer beer and wine options on the menu.
  4. Muslim owned places do NOT have beer or wine on the menu.
    *Noting this distinction in advance will tell you which of your favorite eateries are likely to be open or not
  5. And of course, Acco being in Israel, there are a handful of Kosher places in town… that hire Jewish workers and as such will be open: This includes the VERY expensive Uri Buri (which will demand reservations), which has won all sorts of culinary awards, is considered to be one of the best resturants in Israel, and while it has shellfish on the menu is also set up to cook Kosher food. (Warning: its “French” style, so after a full meal here, you’re going to want to go out to eat)
  6. That said, NO restaurant can afford to be closed for one month every year!!!
    According to my Airbnb host (a Xtian who has lived here his whole life) the first THREE days of Ramadan is when it’s an issue. Employers give their muslim workers that much time to acclimate into the pattern of NOT eating during the day, and then will open back up for business because there’s a tourist market that has to be served.or of course you can load up the fridge in advance and feed yourself… something I neglected to do…

A poignant celebration of Fireworks over the Australia’s Sydney Harbor bridge, as viewed from my Airbnb….

So, yet another of my bucket list items has been checked off, although not at all in the way I had imagined. I have seen a fireworks display over the Sydney Harbor with the bridge and the archetypal Opera House in the background with my own eyes.

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It was totally unexpected… I was lying in bed in Sydney Australia, getting over a bad cold I’d been fighting — starting just 3 days after my arrival (so I probably picked it up during my flight), and my traveling mate for this trip had gone out with an old friend of his (he’s originally from Sydney) to a party. So I was not in the best of moods… stuck in bed, missing a party … etc.,

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To pass the time, as I was lying in bed, I was yet again watching the movie that won the 2016, Academy Award for best picture, “Spotlight.” For those who don’t know it…it is a movie about how the Boston Globe in 2001, had exposed the sexual abuse scandal that is still rocking the Catholic Church today. They had followed up on a theory of a psychological researcher — who had argued that 50% of Catholic priests were sexual activity and that of those, about 6% were pedophiles. According to him, this was not because they were attracted to children, but rather because male children from rough neighborhoods and broken homes (in particular) were the least likely to admit to the abuse.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f60.jpgGoing on that researcher’s assessment (which would have meant about 90 pedophiles within the total population of Boston Priests) the Globe’s journalists were able, through extensive legwork, and by reading between the lines of church records — to uncover that while only one pedophile priest was currently in the news, in fact 87 of them were currently being bounced around the parishes of Boston; all of this being part of a methodical & institutionalized attempt on the part of the Catholic Church to protect itself rather than its children.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f66.jpgOnce their research was published, over 1000 Boston area victims — knowing they were no longer alone — stepped forward, and ultimately 249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse JUST within the Boston Archdiocese. The Globe’s finding, had world-wide repercussions, effectively opening a can of worms as all Catholic communities, one by one, in a domino effect began to publicly address this cancer within the Catholic church… a phenomena which we are still dealing with almost 20 years later.

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In fact, the REASON I was watching this movie, for maybe the third time, was that just two days before all of Australia had been a twitter, literally twittering — and facebooking, etc., over the fact that Cardinal George Pell (who is referred to by multiple sources as the third-most-powerful Vatican official) had FINALLY been “convicted of all charges that he sexually molested two choirboys in Australia in the late 1990s. (Pell, 77, has been the Vatican’s chief financial officer in recent years; he earlier was the archbishop of Sydney and of Melbourne.)

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1f5e.jpgI’ve talked about Pell before…  Almost a year ago I was in Australia, in Ballarat, a town just outside of Melbourne, which is epicenter of the abuse scandal here (I was staying with a woman I had befriended via Facebook years before). At the time I had blogged about “Ballarat’s loud fence: Civil protest against the church in Australia” and had included an amazing song written and performed by the inimitable Tim Minchin, ‘Come home (Cardinal Pell)’ … a song he had penned in an afternoon. (I admit I have since developed a bit of a crush on this guy… he is a genius.)

At the time, as far as I knew, Pell was only thought to have been actively involved in the coverup, but as this week’s court case proved, he was also sexually abusing boys himself.

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So this was a story that while was of HUGE interest to the Australian public, it was NOT being covered by the local press. In fact, the Judge on the case had instituted a media gag order on its outcome. As such, the Herald Sun Newspaper of Melbourne’s front page rather than covering the results, showed in large letters the word CENSURED followed by, “The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians [The Australian State within which Melbourne and Ballarat reside],” but, that said “The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news. But trust us. It’s a story you deserve to read.” The gag was so tight that even foreign press, for fear of legal repercussions, were blocking Australian readers from seeing what they’d written about the case. I learned about it because my Ballarat friend was reaching out via Facebook to her friends abroad to see if THEY could read trustworthy media sources talking about the case, and tell her what those articles had said.

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Anyway,  at this point you’re probably asking yourself, “WHY in fuck’s sake is Rebecca going on about Cardinal Pell in a blog post about a fireworks display over the Sydney Harbor?!” Well… when I saw the display I had NO IDEA why they were happening. My Aussie friend hadn’t known they were going to happen, I’d had no warning. So part of my brain sort of assumed that MAYBE … if this wasn’t due to some corporate event… just maybe they were in celebration of outcome of the court case.

Talking about it the next day with another Aussie native, apparently there’s a yearly TV show here in celebration of the Christmas Holidays that has something to do with caroling… and always includes fireworks over the bay that part of the program, and she though this was for that… but I couldn’t find anything on-line to confirm it… so I like to think that this was in celebration of the conviction… to paraphrase the country western song…  it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.