Fantasy a star on London stages


In London over the holidays, I took in three musicals that reinforced one of the most magical tenets of theater - that the stage is, above all, a place of imagination.

All three musicals happen to have forebears in the cinema. Two - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins - started out as movies aimed at children (both, coincidentally, also have scores by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman). Interestingly, however, it was the darkest and most adult of the three shows - a revival of Grand Hotel, a musical about desperation in 1928 Berlin - in which the imagination truly took flight. No flying car or airborne nanny could match it.

The chief reason for this is that at the gutsy little Donmar Warehouse theater, Grand Hotel director Michael Grandage, choreographer Adam Cooper and designer Christopher Oram stuck to the wise principle that less is more and created stirring imagery on an almost bare stage. In contrast, in the glitzy West End productions of Chitty Chitty and Poppins, no expense was spared in creating special effects that hew as closely as possible to those on the screen.

A few examples of the stage pictures created in each show prove how a less literal approach can be more aesthetically effective. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, due on Broadway in March, bears the high-falutin' subtitle: "The most FANTASMAGORICAL stage musical in the history of everything!" It's directed by Adrian Noble (former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and choreographed by Gillian Lynne (Cats). The plot - about two children, their inventor father, his flying car and the evil rulers of "Vulgaria" who are determined to get the car - improves on and is blessedly more compact than the meandering 1968 movie. But it still hinges on the eponymous automobile.

As designed by Anthony Ward, the vehicle is a humdinger that rises up and over the audience; it even earns its own curtain call. Whether the car or some other effect was at fault, "technical problems" caused a 15-minute delay in the second act of the performance I attended. If the problem hadn't been rectified, the performance probably wouldn't have continued. That's because the specificity of the scenic effects leaves almost no room for the wonderful element of "make believe" - a lack all the more regrettable in a musical for and about children.

Director Richard Eyre (former artistic director of the Royal National Theatre), co-director and choreographer Matthew Bourne and designer Bob Crowley bring a higher level of artistry to Mary Poppins, London's biggest new hit. This is evident from the opening image, which simply shows cast members silhouetted against a blue background. When the lights come up on Mary's crony, Bert, the chimney sweep, it's as if a three-dimensional figure has popped out of a two-dimensional page.

Sure, Mary Poppins (pert Laura Michelle Kelly) flies, and pretty spectacularly in the final scene. But the main accomplishment of the world's most famous fictional nanny is that she teaches her selfish young charges to appreciate everything and everyone around them - from park statuary to a beggar selling birdseed. She opens their minds as well as their hearts. Indeed, I came away from this delightful musical thinking that, in a way, Mary Poppins could be seen as a realistic story in which the fanciful events are exploits of the imagination encouraged by mind-broadening Mary.

In Grand Hotel (score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional material by Maury Yeston; book by Luther Davis), the knack for seeing more than is actually there reaches fruition in a style both striking and sophisticated. Consider just one image that recurs throughout the production: Four hotel staffers stand sideways in a pinwheel formation, their right arms extended at shoulder height and their right hands touching in the center. As they move in a circular fashion, they become the hotel's revolving door. But something interesting and eerie happens whenever a hotel guest goes through the door. The guest joins the formation, standing at a 90-degree angle to one of the staff, and with a chill, you realize how easily this innocent image could be transformed into a swastika.

Through subtlety and suggestion, the formation reinforces the repeated lyric that "people come, people go," but also hints that, desperate as the characters' lives may be - the pregnant, unwed typist; the dying bookkeeper; the debt-ridden baron; the over-the-hill ballerina (American actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) - life in Berlin will soon be more frightening than they can imagine. Beautiful in its simplicity, the image is also indicative of the inventiveness and freshness that characterize the entire show - a production that uses a minimalist approach to maximum effect and reminds us that the best theater exercises the imagination not only of its creators, but of the audience as well.

'Getting Dressed'

As part of the events accompanying the new exhibit What's in the Wardrobe?: Getting Dressed in Early Maryland at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood House, 3400 N. Charles St., actress Cherie Weinert will perform Caroline's Debut. The piece is a dramatization of the letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, a Belgian immigrant whose family built the estate of Riversdale, outside Washington, at the turn of the 19th century. The letters include descriptions of European clothing that Calvert ordered for her oldest daughter's debut.

Caroline's Debut will be performed at 6 p.m. tomorrow and 2 p.m. Saturday, and will be followed by an illustrated talk by Kristina Haugland, a curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art about clothing and undergarments in the Federal period. Admission is $25 and reservations are required. Call 410-516-6710.

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