THE BLOG
11/07/2014 03:57 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

First Nighter: London Gets Musicalized With Sunny Afternoon, Made in Dagenham, Shakespeare in Love"

Because jukebox musicals by definition have marquee-name value, they're not likely any time soon to stop playing -- and costing much more than 25 or 50 cents a selection. The latest is Sunny Afternoon, at the Harold Pinter, which is about Ray Davies and the Kinks and, more to the point, is the only jukebox musical I know that alternates reprising hit tunes with a focus on depression and strife.

The depression is what afflicts Ray Davies (the extremely good John Dagleish) almost from the time he was a teenage fronting the Muswell Hill band that shortly became internationally famous and, rather than buoy him, plunged him further into despair.

The strife is the friction, not to say animosity, between and among band members Pete Quaife (Ned Derrington), Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) and Dave Davies (George Maguire, also highly effective), with whom Ray had the most troubled relationship.

Strife of a different strain arises from the band's relationship with Eddie Kassner (Ben Caplan), their first manager, as well as with a nearly disastrous United States tour where they run into union troubles that eventually result in their being banned from further touring. Their possible savior turned out to be Allen Klein (Philip Bird), whose reputation as a finagler was probably worse than Kassner's.

With a libretto by Joe Penhall, from the autobiographical information Ray Davies's supplied, the production has been constructed as a heightened version of the compromised good times the band experienced. At times, the impression is that what's on view is Davies's exaggerated perception of how he's being treated -- with the depiction of just about every American and the Jewish Kassner and Klein as unflattering stereotypes.

But those who know the Kinks story in more detail than it's presented insist it was far worse. That suggests the rock saga been slightly bowdlerized for musical adaptation. For instance, Penhall only includes Davies first wife Rasa (Lillie Flynn), which implies there has been only one.

Setting aside how far worse the Kinks got on with the world around them -- for a stronger taste of that, check out Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One -- their parabolic fortunes are packaged in a rousing manner with director Edward Hall and choreographer Adam Cooper ringing as much pizzazz as they can on a relatively small stage that set designer Miriam Buether surrounds with multiple amplifiers and then, for the American tour sequence, with parts of the American flag.

Nevertheless, Kinks fans need never fear that they won't get the chance to come dancing. Though "Come Dancing" isn't in the score, "Lola" is, and audience members are encouraged to rave along with it. They do, while undoubtedly reckoning they've gotten their money's worth.

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If the musical Made in Dagenham, at the Adelphi and based from the movie of the same name, could be described as Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich meet The Pajama Game, you'd have to say the three aren't instantly fast friends.

In the run-up to the opening, librettist Richard Bean (King Charles III, One Man, Two Govnurs,) and director Rupert Goold (King Charles III, Enron, Earthquakes in London) talked about having little experience with musicals -- Goold cutting his tuner teeth on last year's American Psycho. They spoke about it with seeming pride, as if their lack would keep them from falling back on formulaic treatments.

Now that Made in Dagenham is here, it appears that Bean and Goold could have stood owning a broader background. What they've manufactured -- the word manufactured" deliberately chosen, since much of the action takes place in a Ford factory -- is at most a so-so product honoring a very important actual story.

As in the film, women workers, led by Rita O'Grady (Gemma Arterton in a forthright singing debut), struck in 1968 for equal pay with men. They had right on their side, of course, but the sacrifices demanded challenged them severely -- in Rita's instance, a serious rift in her marriage to Eddie (Adrian Der Gregorian) and strained budgets in the case of others.

The argument can be made that any material has musical potential, but the right craftsmen must handle it. Not the case in this case. The songs by composer David Arnold and Richard Thomas are, for the most part, mediocre, the kind that make their point as they pass but are then quickly forgotten. The best is "In an Ideal World," and is forcibly delivered by Sophie-Louise Dann as Barbara Castle. (And yes, Harold Wilson shows up often, as played jovially by Mark Hadfield, if not entirely in synch with his record.)

Because Made in Dagenham has a cast of actors and singers first and dancers perhaps last, choreographer Aletta Collins doesn't stage dances as we know them. Instead, she turns the numbers into drilled movements that give the effect that they're successive variations on the Electric Slide.

Set and costume designer Bunny Christie is the one who works at the musical level. Her sets--with car seats moving on pulleys high above and moving walls of stylized auto parts--confirm that patrons are getting their money's worth.

As in Sunny Afternoon, the United States comes in for heavy satire. The American within this proscenium is rampaging Ford rep Tooley (Steve Furst), a cowboy-hat-wearing Texan who suspects every English man or woman is a socialist or communist and who knows every Englishman is homosexual.

That this remains amusing to local audiences is an unfortunate signal to Americans of how the rest of the world regards the land of the free and the home of the brave. (Like Sunny Afternoon, it's not likely Made in Dagenham will travel to New York City any time soon, not without ameliorating work being done.)

Along with a song that includes the iambic septameter lyric "We want to send a rocket up the ass of Henry Ford," there's a closing anthem, led by Rita O'Grady, called "Stand Up." She's calling for solidarity, but this theatrical ploy is also a shameless demand for a standing ovation. Songwriters Arnold and Thomas may not realize that the close of "Kinky Boots," not yet brought here, is an anthem called "Raise You Up," that insists on the same response. It's cheap, and getting cheaper.

At the opening night curtain call, four of the real and triumphant Dagenham women strikers joined in. Now there's something worth standing up for.

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You can't beat a combination of romance, humor, music and charm, and that's what Lee Hall has marvelously whipped together from the Marc Norman-Tom Stoppard Shakespeare in Love screenplay.

Declan Donnellan has directed the delectable English pudding, at the Noel Coward, with a set by Nick Ormerod that conjures the historic Rose Theater as well as the Globe and features so much Elizabethan-esque music by Paddy Cunneen played on period instruments that the enterprise is only just this side of a full-blown musical.

Once again, but on the boards this time--and certainly made gloriously theatrical--the hearty and heady action has William Shakespeare (Tom Bateman) preparing a new play about a fellow named Romeo. He falls for Viola de Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen), when she auditions in male drag. Will is married, of course, to Anna Hathaway, though he claims the union has grown stale. This does create a problem solved in a melancholy fashion by fade-out.

Norman, Stoppard and Hall insert all manner of other quirks as they have characters continually spout lines that show up in many of the Bard's plays. Furthermore, it's the authors' idea that Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (David Oakes) hadn't so far quite written Shakespeare's plays for him, but he's certainly amusingly portrayed as coming up with all the inspirations for them.

Shakespeare in Love is chockfull of everything that makes a play worth seeing. The (is it?) 28 players are to a man and woman bright and funny--and that includes Anna Carteret as Elizabeth I, to whom "Vivat Regina" is frequently serenaded. (The size of the cast may be what keeps it from being quickly imported to Manhattan.) Ormerod's costumes are sumptuous, as are Jane Gibson's choreography, Neil Austin's lighting and Simon Baker's sound.

If there's anything wrong with Shakespeare in Love--where we learn Viola de Lesseps is the lady behind, at the very least, the writing of Romeo and Juliet as well as Twelfth Night--I didn't notice it. You won't either.