A few years ago, the college-aged daughter of friends of mine informed me that she goes to the theater for fun. Nothing more. I disagreed. Theater can be fun, but a person should attend theater to become educated, to illuminate aspects of life and clarify our emotional responses to the various worlds in which we live. In the past month, I have been on a theater spree in London and New York City, seeking out plays and musical shows which range from lovely bits of fluff to full-blown political and humanist statements. The musical shows offered the kind of fun my young friend craved, but also managed to touch upon more weighty themes.
The revival of the Beverley Cross-David Heneker musical HALF A SIXPENCE is a standout piece of fluff, although one could certainly point to its morality messages. Based on the H.G. Wells novel KIPPS: THE STORY OF A SIMPLE SOUL, the show was rewritten for it revival by none other than Julian Fellowes. It premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre last year and since then has been enjoying a healthy run in London’s West End. Fellowes has updated the show’s book to appeal to the mindsets of current theater goers. Basically, the story follows Kipps, a goodhearted but poor young man from long-ago rural England, who becomes a drudge in a nasty rich man’s shop, but soon acquires a huge inheritance. In the mix, Kipps also acquires a high-born sweetheart but never loses his feelings for the girl he left back home. Fellowes never oversteps in his update so the show retains a quaint feel. HALF A SIXPENCE originally was produced in 1963 as a vehicle for pop star Tommy Steele. For decades, Steele was considered the essential ingredient to a successful production of the show in London, on Broadway, and onscreen, and so it is a wondrous feat that the folks putting together the current production were able to find an exciting young actor who could sing, dance, play the banjo, and demonstrate a sense of rube innocence that does not imply a lack of intelligence. His name is Charlie Stemp, a relative newcomer to West End theater who has a disarming smile and enough charm and talent to make a fine career.
Many musicals are able to combine the fun factor with comments on the human condition. One is KINKY BOOTS, based on the film of a few years ago. No wonder that this musical is so popular wherever it plays—London, Broadway, or at our own Proctors! The songs by Cindi Lauper are energetic and engaging, but it is the story that begs our attention. It is a tale of a shoe factory on the brink of collapse that is attempted to be rescued by the young man who inherits it and the drag queen he asks for help. KINKY BOOTS’ important message is not about shoes; it is about becoming the person you were meant to be, and that is a message that cannot be downplayed. KINKY BOOTS is a striking entertainment. It is great fun, as well as a gateway to a more liberal take on life.
BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES is a new play by Inua Ellams which recently was presented at the intimate Dorfman venue at London’s National Theatre. It consists of brief scenes which take place mainly at a string of barber shops in various cities of Africa. The play is loosely structured and offers what are at first a confusing flow of anecdotes, a rich output of African music, and situations which disappear almost as soon as they appear. While a plot may not be clear in a conventional manner, the banter, dance steps, and music flow with grace and beauty, and by the end, the play does make a lot of sense and has both political and humanist viewpoints. Before the show and even right after the show actually has begun, the cast members interact with the audience. A very sweet young actor took my hand and held it for a couple minutes as he discussed having me make an appointment for a haircut. I was taken aback at first, not realizing the show was starting and he was in character, and then I was very pleased to be brought into the spirit of this theater event in such a personal way. BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES closed its summer run but reopens in late November at the Dorfman.
Sure, musicals can be pure fun, mindless pieces of fluff, but often there is substance to the stories they tell. You know how it is. At times I want to have a healthy salad and unsweetened ice tea. Other times, I just want to gobble up a double-scoop mint chocolate chip ice cream cone. And sometimes I only am content with a three-course meal including dessert. So it is with musical theater!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.