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First Nighter: London Looks at the Scarily Contemporary '30s With 'Top Hat,' 'Sweeney Todd,' 'The Sunshine Boys'

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Theater-goers arriving in London in the next few weeks for the Olympics -- or just for theater-going -- will come up against a fascinating cultural phenomenon in at least three theaters. It's the sound of Olympics extravagance clashing with economic austerity. On the local stages, it's manifested in a hard-to-ignore backward glance at the '30s -- arguably the last time global finances were in such disarray.

The most obvious example is the adaptation by Matthew White and Howard Jacques of the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers piece of silver-screen fluff, Top Hat, at the Aldwych. The resulting stage souffle is just that and perhaps even more than an avid and suspicious Astaire-Rogers fanatic (such as this writer) might expect.

The dance flick -- filmed in black-and-white but in glorious color here, thanks to Hildegard Bechtler's style moderne sets and Jon Morrell's high-fashion costumes -- was made in the RKO movie studio, of course. So there was no worry about retaining understudies for Astaire and Rogers. Who'd need them?

But if the celluloid legends had required a pair of stand-by terper-tappers, Tom Chambers, who plays the stage Jerry Travers. and Summer Strallen, the stage Dale Tremont, would have been perfectly acceptable. In the slim story that hangs on protracted mistaken identity in New York, London and Venice, Strallen with her acid air and blond wig even resembles Rogers. Chambers warbles with a touch of Astaire's slightly nasal quality and undeniably has twinkling toes.

Both Chambers and Strallen dance, sing and act with flair, and it's okay if they don't quite have the breathless charisma of their distinguished predecessors. They have enough, as they step their way through Bill Deamer's choreography. Deamer has watched closely the (primarily) Hermes Pan and Astaire routines but hasn't followed them precisely. This might bother some adherents. For instance, he's eschewed the one-by-one mowing down of the male chorus that Astaire pulled off with such nonchalance during his version of "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails."

Speaking of the truly superb Irving Berlin score -- certainly the strongest overt reason for the current undertaking -- it's been added to with selections like "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" and "Let's Face the Music and Dance," both from Follow the Fleet. All of the Berlin material as well as the sophisticatedly goofy dialogue are performed at one point or another with aplomb under co-adapter White's direction by Chambers, Strallen, Martin Ball in the Edward Everett Horton role, Vivien Parry in the Helen Broderick role, Stephen Boswell in the Eric Blore role and a truly wacky Ricardo Afonso in the Erik Rhodes role.

A last word on the subject: Strallen has a higher kick than Rogers ever demonstrated. At times, Strallen's long legs -- one raised, one planted firmly on the floor -- describe an awe-inspiring unbroken line.

When Sweeney Todd was introduced in 1979, director Harold Prince, librettist Hugh Wheeler and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim imagined it unfolding with inevitable tragic bent in a grimy industrial-age London. Jonathan Kent's revival at the Adelphi -- a masterwork of a masterwork, if ever there was one -- has been updated to the '30s when men and women by necessity dressed in drab clothes, the women had marcelled hair and desperation was rampant.

Placing the action later does nothing to undercut the cynicism of vengeful barber Todd (Michael Ball, in a breath-taking ratcheting up of his already vaunted reputation), who relishes slicing the throats of unsuspecting patrons -- as abetted by meat-pie purveying Mrs. Lovett (Imelda Staunton, who handily lifts the ante on her already outstanding career). Their tandem work on Sondheim's surpassingly brilliant "A Little Priest" is the highlight in a score that only grows more powerful as it ages.

It could even be said -- as the homicidal pair carry out their bloody skullduggery in Anthony Ward's storeys-high metal scaffolding and within Mark Henderson's tenebrous lighting -- that Kent improves on Prince. At the end of the first outing, Prince had the chorus come to the edge of the stage where they pointed at the audience as a gang of potential Sweeneys. It was an easy -- and contrived -- observation, reducing the opus at the final seconds to a cheap charade. Kent does away with the finger-pointing, and as a result, concludes his Sweeney Todd on as high a level as serious musicals have ever achieved or are ever likely to achieve.

Neil Simon placed The Sunshine Boys, now at the Savoy, in 1972, more or less in the year it bowed on Broadway. Nonetheless, the action is about harking back. The boys of the title are Willie Clark (Danny DeVito, working the ticket-buyers as if tickling them with feathers) and Al Lewis (Richard Griffiths, who knows how to get a laugh when playing with dry humor). They're a team of adored vaudeville headliners uncomfortably reunited for a television special on comedy after they'd quit each other 11 years earlier.

Their heyday, however, was the '30s. Indeed, Simon specifically mentions the year 1934 in the script as well as having Willie reminisce about the days of Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor et al to nephew Ben Silverman (Adam Levy, more than holding his own with his wacky elders), an agent saddled with finding work for his uncle while caring for the relentless curmudgeon in every other way.

For his play, Simon wasn't interested to do much more than set the two men against each other -- Al to poke Willie in the chest as he habitually did in the old days, Willie to push Al's buttons with his sour responses to everything the two tried, and all on Hildegard Bechtler's vision of the shabby hotel suite in which Clark subsists. To begin his second act, the much celebrated playwright even has Lewis and Clark revive their Dr. Kronkheit routine, a version of the "Dr. Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient" sketch the real-life Smith and Dale made famous.

No one is going to make a case for The Sunshine Boys being in the top five comedies of all time, but with DeVito and Griffiths giving their combined master class in how it's done, Levy blustering skillfully and Johnnie Fiori as a registered nurse who won't allow nonsense, no one leaves the premises dissatisfied. More than that, attendees have gotten their money's worth from the backward glance at those troubled, buoyant '30s.

Some might say the three retrospective studies add up to no more than coincidence -- and never forget the long-running Chicago revival -- but I maintain that at the very least they're an unconscious response offered by a few dozen crafty theater folks to these parlous times.