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West End musicals enthrall audiences

By Rito Asilo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 19:40:00 04/18/2008

Filed Under: Entertainment (general), Theatre

MANILA, Philippines?On our trip to the United Kingdom last month, the stage musicals and straight plays we watched?about 20 of them?revealed a noticeable trend we didn?t see when we visited London some years ago: Multimedia was being incorporated more and more into the storytelling. From the West End to the fringe theater circuits, some 90 productions?a third of them musicals?were on view:

The soul-stirring finale of the latest staging of ?Cabaret? at the Lyric Theatre moved us. The scene showed naked Jewish characters huddled close together as they quivered in fear just before they were shoved inside the Nazis? gas chambers!

Gratuitous nudity

However, we found the production?s ?unhealthy serving? of nudity gratuitous. (Interestingly, the ?Cabaret? program showed a photo of the actress who originated the role of the iconic Sally Bowles in 1968: Judi Dench!)

An ingenious fusion of terpsichorean skill, pop music, physical theater and film, Zoo Nation?s exuberantly inventive ?Into the Hoods? gives Stephen Sondheim?s ?Into the Woods? a hip-hop tweaking: Two schoolchildren lose their way in the hoods?an urban tenement called Ruff Endz Estate?and find themselves in the company of the vinyl-spinning DJ Spinderella, the two-timing babe-magnet Prince, sexy rapper MC Rap-on-Zel, singer Lil Red, talent manager Wolf, music producer Jaxx, and the drug-dealing Giant. In exchange for a ride home, the kids are tasked by the Landlord to find four items: An i-Pod as white as milk, a hoodie as red as blood, a weave as yellow as corn, and trainers as pure as gold!

If it?s spectacle you?re looking for, it?s hard to beat the three-act musical version of J.R.R. Tolkien?s Middle Earth saga, ?The Lord of the Rings.? The performances were disappointingly cartoonish, but the soaring music?a mixture of New Age, World Music and pop jazz?and production design were stunning and jaw-droppingly magical!

Social commentary

High camp and social commentary (racial integration versus segregation) beautifully merge in ?Hairspray,? which follows the story of a full-bodied but highly-talented teenage girl, who becomes a celebrity overnight after she lands a spot on a popular musical-variety TV show in the the racially turbulent ?60s. The evening we watched, the audience couldn?t get enough of the magnificent Michael Ball, who played Edna Turnblad (played by John Travolta in Adam Shankman?s film version), the mother of the musical?s feisty protagonist, Tracy (Leanne Jones).

Our favorite productions, in order of preference, were Elton John and Lee Hall?s magnificent ?Billy Elliot,? about a gifted village boy who trades his boxing gloves for ballet shoes, and Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman?s ?Wicked,? which re-imagines L. Frank Baum?s ?The Wizard of Oz,? revealing the ?true? story of Elphaba (Kerry Ellis), the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda (Dianne Pilkington), the White Witch, and the real identities of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow?before they meet Dorothy!

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