From the very opening number, whereby we were instructed: "Please don't fart. There is very little air and this is art", we just knew we were in for a good evening. And so it was, indeed - as a little gang of us huddled into the teensy-tiny confines of the fabulous Jermyn Street Theatre in Mayfair last Friday for not just any old show, but the première of a Stephen Sondheim musical!
The Frogs is not the best-known of the modern-day Master's work, of course. It began as a short art-house-piece way back in 1974, for which Mr Sondheim had merely been asked by its "creator" Burt Shevelove (who "freely adapted" it from Aristophanes, of all obscure sources) to contribute a few songs. It was not a huge success even in those experimental times, despite its semi-aquatic staging (in a swimming baths!), and despite the presence in the chorus of a couple of young gals who were definitely destined for greater things - Miss Sigourney Weaver and Miss Meryl Streep! However, that other theatrical maestro Mr Nathan Lane had other ideas, when he "even more freely" re-worked it (with the collaboration of Mr S, who wrote more songs for it) back in 2004...
We had no water in our theatre of course, but we did have a fabulous cast with fabulous voices, energetic choreography, a (very) quirky storyline and even quirkier score (typically Sondheim: hints of Brecht & Weill, hints of Gershwin and even of Lerner & Loewe in places; lots of staccato and overlapping harmonies) to entertain us. That doyenne of all things arty, Miss Libby Purves [recently treated like shit by the BBC as they axed her Midweek Radio 4 programme after 33 years] (writing in her Theatre Cat blog) has the lowdown:
Here’s the god Dionysus, deprived of his Noël Coward smoking jacket and unconvincingly disguised as Herakles in a lion skin. He’s having a panic attack on a ferry across the Styx while a chorus of marauding frogs sings a menacing staccato and Charon the ferryman sleeps off a spliff. The frogs represent apathetic conformity – “Brek-kek-kek-kek! Brek-kek-kek-kek! Whaddya care the world’s a wreck? Leave ’em alone, send ’em a check, sit in the sun and what the heck?”.
But as the God of theatre, our hero is on a quest to bring back a great playwright – George Bernard Shaw of all people – to improve the world with questioning.For the record, nobody left halfway through the show when we went. Nobody farted to my knowledge, either. In fact the audience was generally, as we were, enraptured.
There are many fingers in this mad frog pie. Aristophanes, the Ancient Greek playwright who wrote, for the feast of Lenaia, about a journey into Hades to bring back the dead Euripides. Then Burt Shevelove who updated it to include Shaw and Shakespeare in debate, and Stephen Sondheim who wrote the music and lyrics, and had it performed in the unfriendly acoustic of the Yale swimming pool. Now add Nathan Lane, who fell for it as if for “a little homely rescue dog”, messed about and wrote new bits. And here it is at the ever-adventurous Jermyn.
Rarely have I been in a more Marmite show. A couple left furiously at the interval, not getting it at all: another woman rhapsodised in the interval expressing surprise that they didn’t adore it like her, then unaccountably picked up her many bags and left ten minutes in making the rest of the row stand up for her. Me, entrancedly amused mainly by the Sondheim lyrics, I stayed and enjoyed the character of Pluto the underworld king as a leather queen with a whip, the assorted choruses, and the very funny advent of Martin Dickinson as George Bernard Shaw himself, pompous, emitting his famous epigrams and excoriating the frivolity of Shakespeare and his "Purple patches on borrowed rags".
Dionysius holds it together, the affable Michael Matus alternately alarmed, determined, and nicely gushy as the top Shaw fanboy, praising his “gravity of subject and levity of manner”, which actually describes this whole show quite nicely. The duel of quotations between Shaw and Shakespeare is wonderful, with quite the right winner.
So I enjoyed it, crazy as it is, and the music – piano, woodwind, trumpet and cello, is beautifully Sondheim, and Grace Wessels directs with cheerful speed. It feels more like a clever college romp than anything else, but it is a romp composed by a genius, an eloquent wise clown. For Sondheimites, it has the buzz. Or croak.
Like Miss Purves, we loved the interplay between the somewhat effete Dionysus (god of drama and of wine) and his slightly-nerdy slave Xanthias (George Rae) that holds the story together (with some funny throwaway lines such as “Viagra - the god of perseverance”), the humour of the dominatrix Pluto (Emma Ralston) complete with Cage Aux Folles-style fan-dancers, the hilarious Beetlejuice-esque Charon (Jonathan Wadey), and the sheer camp effect of the ensemble cast playing not only the central Greek Chorus roles but also myriad other characters (Chris McGuigan plays both the macho Herakles and a handmaiden to Persephone(!), Martin Dickinson plays Shaw, Nigel Pilkington Shakespeare, Li-Tong Hsu plays "Virilla" the highly-sexed Amazon, and Bernadette Bangura is Dionysus' love Ariadne).
There is a lot to take in in this show, and it certainly is unlike anything else in Sondheim's repertoire (aside from the fact that some of the "hooks" herein sound somewhat familiar to anyone who may have seen his much later Into The Woods). It is definitely not like anything else currently showing in the West End. And for that, we are somewhat thankful.
The Frogs at the Jermyn Street Theatre is now completely sold out, and closes on Saturday 8th April. However, it is definitely worthy of a run at a bigger (not too big, hopefully) West End Theatre, fingers crossed.