Waterloo East Theatre, London – until 18 July 2021
By complete contrast to the openings of Prince of Egypt at the West End’s gigantic Dominion Theatre and Hairspray at the London Coliseum, one of London’s largest theatres, I recently visited the tiny Waterloo East Theatre. Tucked under a railway arch in Brad Street, a block over from Waterloo station, this was where just three actors and a solitary pianist made sheer musical theatre magic for 70 ecstatic minutes. The scale may be altogether more modest, but I enjoyed it every bit as much as I did Hairspray.
Some great things come in very small packages, and Maltby and Shire’s 1977 Off-Broadway revue has long been one of them. I actually saw a production of this show a year or so after its New York premiere in my native South Africa when I was a teenager; and I’ve been in love with this sophisticated, polished song cycle about adult relationships ever since. Of course, I couldn’t possibly have related to the songs as fully as I understand their bittersweet odes to spent romantic obsessions, but boy, do they resonate painfully today.
‘I Don’t Remember Christmas’ is particularly brutal in its bitter recall around a relationship that ran aground:
It was good to know I could grow
unaccustomed to your face
cause I don’t remember Easter
or the rainy day we met
did we really have some good times?
come on tell me I forget
Did I think that you were springtime?
it’s all vanished in the blue
cause I don’t remember Christmas
and I don’t remember you.
Noel Sullivan, former member of the pop band Hear’say (brought together by the reality TV show Popstars a full 20 years ago) is now 40 and has left those days far behind him; he duly brings an appropriately zesty lived experience to the number too.
This is not a revue for new drama school grads, but people who sing with more long-time experience; and there’s a wounded yet feisty attack to Nikki Bentley (above left) — a power-voiced alumni of Wicked — as she sings possibly the revue’s single most powerfully haunting number, “What About Today?”
I know if I just wait
The sun will shine some day
And when it does the weather
will be fine someday
And while the skies I
search for tomorrow
Stay the same shade of gray
What about, yes, what about, today?
‘Till Nirvana comes, What about today?
‘Till Messiah comes, What about today?
‘Till the mountains move and oceans part
And angels sing and life can start
What about, yes, what about today?
Gina Murray completes the trio with a gentle maturity as she performs a wonderful comedy number Crossword Puzzle, in which she reflects on her lonely solo journey completing the weekly Sunday Times puzzle alone:
“If I weren’t so dumb, I’d be spending this Sunday in a church hearing wedding chimes,
And I’d never remember there was a puzzle in the Sunday Times.”
These are just a sprinkling of examples of the myriad musical gems in this show, first seen off-Broadway in 1977, and now nearly 45 years later, still as musically memorable and witty as ever. In fact I’d go as far to say that every one is a winner — albeit often about life’s losses — and it is especially ecstatic in moments when the three outstanding vocalists voices are blended, in exquisite songs like “Travel”, “A New Life Coming’ and ‘I Hear Bells”.
As staged with an effortless, unfussy sheen by director and Waterloo East founder Gerald Armin, with delicately unobtrusive musical direction from Inga Davis-Rutter, the show resonates with echoes of other seminal musical masterpieces of the 70s like A Chorus Line (‘One Step’ owes something to ‘One’), Follies (‘Hey there fans’ could be swapped out for that show’s ‘Buddy’s Blues’) and Hello, Dolly! from the decade before (whose ‘Before the Parade Passes by’ is echoed in “Watching the Parade Go By’). But it is also a delicate and unflashy old-fashioned pleasure all of its own.
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