A friend who specializes in the history of alchemy came down to London on Wednesday to see Ben Jonson's The Alchemist with me. It's a dense, sarcastic story of three people who team up to fleece the gullible out of as much as they can. Subtle claims to be a doctor, on the verge of discoverying the philosophers' stone, should only his supplies be underwritten just a little longer. Face brings in the customers to the home of his absent master, the home where he's helped Subtle to set up shop. Doll is a prostitute, and acts as their all-purpose female extra, playing the part of a Talmudic scholar or the Fairy Queen.
It was a solid production. Accents were used to help distinguish the characters that Subtle played; the Glaswegian one was the only one which lost me. (Although I also struggled with the accent of the public school lad trying to act gangsta.) In all other respects, though, the use of accents was an inspired way to help distinguish the array of disguises. I was particularly impressed with the set. Our seats were way up in the back corner, but I never felt that the set or the staging was working against my viewpoint. The house was staged in an open cube, with staircases running down the back and into alleys beyond, all secondary stage spaces. Costuming was done with a modern touch, but effective.
The pacing of the overall play caught me by surprise. I'm used to ending which rush into a final cumulation of suspense. This unfurled its leaves slowly and surely, with some of the denouement I expected arriving a good half-act earlier than I expected. Still, satisfying to the end.
After a while, I began to wonder if Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was even going to have an intermission. I hadn't checked in advance. (Programs were UKP 7!) My seat was growing mighty uncomfortable, and the plot had already passed by two big group dramatic showpieces without pausing for a break between acts. It wasn't exactly that the musical was dull, so much as I didn't know quite where it was going. But it's fair to say I wasn't riveted.
The musical begins with Adam, the oldest of seven brothers living out in the woods, going in to town to pick up the usual round of supplies - oh, and a bride, while he's there. Millie falls for his enthusiasm for her cooking and how kindly he beats up one of her drunken flirts, and marries him that day. Only, little thing, he hasn't happened to mention that back at home, he has six younger brothers and he only got married to have a woman around to do the cooking and cleaning. Millie's furious, but is determined to make the best of it - she'll clean up those boys and train them to dance and treat women right - just in time for the next month's social where they can go court girls of their own and hopefully move out of the house in the process. Only then Adam intervenes... and the boys are convinced to kidnap their innamorati.
Don't get me wrong - it was mostly fun. I really like musicals, and this was a reassuringly perky one with big, rousing dance numbers and catchy songs still stuck in my head a day later. But there were problems: unless the theater was absolutely quiet - no music, no other character chatters - I could hardly decipher a word of what the main male character, Adam, said. The problem may have been in a British actor doing an American accent. Regardless, I was frustrated by missing what I was guessing were plot points. Furthermore, I had no sympathy at all for Adam's character. As an actor, he had no real chemistry with the female lead, Millie. As a written character, he's extremely misogynistic. And to add to it, I just couldn't buy the character's final, pivotal change-of-heart. C'mon - the guy's had something like three songs about how "all women are the same" and he shouldn't have gotten married, he should have hired a girl to help out. After all that, how am I going to buy him falling in love after all, especially without much of a song to prove himself?
Many of the songs were lovely - a gorgeous trio in the first act - and many were bright and happy and catchy. But others were lugubrious. Adam's one-verse number about what a tough life he's lived was just crying out for Millie to have a chance at an equivalent verse later on in the show. But there was no such symmetry.
But on to the good: this cast has energy! They threw themselves around the stage, bouncing off of the ground, leaping over tables, doing flips over boxes. They danced and sang lustily and fought and laughed, and even through the fixed grins of showbiz happiness or "grin-and-bear-it" smiles, they really did look like they were having fun up there. The female lead was a fine singer - clear and strong, and I could understand her every word. Once the crowd of boys got over their initial wildmen hairdos, they transformed into gallants with just enough depth to be believable in both their development and in their romancing. The set was functionally versatile and the orchestra did a fine job.
It was enjoyable enough, but based on reviews I've read since seeing the musical, perhaps I would enjoy the original movie even more.
I did have a personal revelation, however, courtesy of it. With all the brightly colored musical versions of nineteenth-century out-West dress, I realized where a certain portion of my clothing sense came from - exactly those. The stock Wild West musical outfits the women wear, functional enough for chopping wood and scrubbing floors, dramatic enough for twirling around in life's regular musical numbers.