Opening night; MJ the Musical – review

<span>‘She wins our sympathy from the start’: Sheridan Smith as Broadway star Myrtle in Opening Night.</span><span>Photo: Jan Versweyveld</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ 339fed9939f7″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ 39fed9939f7″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=‘She wins our sympathy from the start’: Sheridan Smith as Broadway star Myrtle in Opening Night.Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Ivo van Hove is a director who gives his audience the illusion of privileged access – the thrill of showing his work; that even behind-the-scenes actions are sometimes shared. This reaches its climax in Opening night, based on John Cassavetes’ Spellbinder of a Film (1977), which Van Hove first adapted for the stage in 2006 and has now been re-edited in a new musical version by the American-Canadian singer-songwriter and composer Rufus Wainwright. At first glance, this is a perfect vehicle for the Belgian director (who is also responsible for the book) and for his gifted designer Jan Versweyveld, because it is a story in which rehearsals dominate.

Just before the show starts, you peer through scarlet gauze – a non-security curtain – into the secret life of the theater: mirrors in the dressing room framed with lights, a bouquet of wine-dark roses, long tables at which the company sits. And seeing through becomes the name of the game. Opening night is about seeing the reality behind a play, attending rehearsals and understanding the protesting actor at the heart of the drama. It could be seen as a chaotic, feminine companion piece to Sam Mendes’ brilliant and decorative exploration of the subject in last year’s edition. The motive and the cue.

Sheridan Smith plays Broadway star Myrtle – knowingly being a double Olivier Award-winning star who has had her own struggles with fame. Wisely, she doesn’t try to compete with the film’s blonde diva, Gena Rowlands – her darker hair itself a statement of intent – ​​but she wins our sympathy from the start. I was particularly struck by her eloquent breathlessness, as if Myrtle could never quite trust her voice not to misbehave. The play within the play, The Second Woman, is about a woman of a certain age. Myrtle rebels against the nothingness of the role, calling it “alien” and refreshingly asserting that “age is not interesting.”

As Jackson, Myles Frost has all the moves, and his feet slide across the floor like it’s smooth butter

The idea of ​​the “second wife” also permeates Myrtle’s real life, when a teenage fan asks for her autograph and is killed almost immediately afterwards by a passing car. Myrtle becomes obsessed with the dead girl. She applies NANCY lipstick to the mirror in her dressing room, and Nancy comes back to haunt her. In the film, Nancy is a disturbed and disturbing alter ego. In the musical she convinces more as a warm whirlwind of an imaginary friend, miraculously played by the Israeli actor Shira Haas with a beautiful smile and searching voice, a little seraph in torn denim.

Interrogating the subject of aging in a musical is not new (remember Follies). But in the film, Cassavetes develops his themes in a clear, painful and unmediated way, while in this musical there are distractions that entangle the story and make the psychological development more difficult to follow.

Part of the problem is that songs have to work overtime to reveal the story. And while Wainwright’s music is enjoyable – jazzy, leaning toward melancholy, big on the horns and easy on the ears – the lyrics are rarely adequate. Words often shrivel under the spotlight. Take the mysteriously flat ‘Do you want to know why I got married?/ Just ask the trees in the garden/ They have the answers, I say.’ Or: “The world is broken/My heart is open.” It is not so much the non-rhyme that bothers us so much as the underdeveloped vagueness, a text that lacks the will to live.

Related: ‘It’s so close to the bone’: Sheridan Smith on her very public meltdown – and reliving it on stage

But the cast is first class. Sarah, author of The Second Woman, is played superbly by Nicola Hughes, even if it remains unclear why exactly she has to stick to the figure she has created for the stage. Benjamin Walker is also excellent as Maurice, ex-husband and protagonist, his body language expressing a relaxation bordering on contempt. Hadley Fraser as the show’s director, Manny, is plausible in his smug masculinity.

We alternately look at what is happening on stage and what is projected on a large screen behind it. Every night, Sheridan Smith is filmed again as he storms into the theater. And every evening the audience is filmed as it flows into the foyer. Towards the end of the show we are presented with the arresting images, which prove more compelling than they should be: when the audience becomes the show, something else must have been lost along the way. Opening night is tempting. It bewilders, seduces and overwhelms – one almost hit.

We are rehearsing again with MJ, a musical about Michael Jackson – a success in its current Broadway version, which premiered in 2022. Set in London, several talented actors at different ages play the king of pop, but it’s the older Jackson, Myles Frost, from the original show, who stands out. In the signature black fedora with the brim pulled down, he has Jackson’s unearthly grace, the little boy in the man always evident. He has all the moves and his feet slide across the floor like it’s smooth butter. His speaking voice is spot on: soft, playful, melancholic. His singing voice is far from ideal and sometimes seems on autopilot. But he is sparklingly elegant in Billie Jean’s remastering – complete with suitcase, black sequined jacket and sparkling glove – and his Thriller is exciting, as it should be. The virtuoso choreographer Christopher Wheeldon also directs.

What is most apparent when he is not performing is that this Jackson, as sometimes in life, has the appearance of a victim – an air of sloppy apology, as if he knew that some facts about his life were likely to work against him to work. How should he tell his story? Playwright Lynn Nottage takes on the difficult challenge with an expertly edited version (accusations of pedophilia off-screen). She uses the familiar device of a visiting reporter to hold the story together, while Wheeldon gloriously transforms journalism into a profession more vibrant than any hack would recognize, with a swinging press conference and an interview in which Jackson’s reactions are dance moves. are. ‘But is that so? perfect?” Jackson wonders at the end, to which, even though this is a fantastic show, the answer should be, “No.”

Star ratings (out of five)
Opening night ★★★★
MJ ★★★★

Leave a Comment