All / Originally Posted on Skirt / Reviews

Too Close to the Stage

While I was in London last week I went to see two pieces of theatre.  Actually, I went to see a matinee and an evening show in the same day.  That’s like having a box of chocolates and eating both layers all in one sitting.  Also, I should warn you now that I’m definitely going to reveal essential plot points of both the things I saw, so if you don’t want to know, go read one of my many zombie-themed entries instead.

Anyway, I went to see La Bete because it has David Hyde Pierce in it (Niles of Frasier fame), though I had no familiarity with the play.  Let me tell you, if you are anywhere near London and you even remotely have the slightest fondness for theatre, stop what you are doing RIGHT NOW and go book tickets.  Nothing I can say could ever do it justice so I will simply relate the facts: it’s set in 17th-century France, written in iambic pentameter by American playwright David Hirson, and it’s about…ultimately it’s about the conflict between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’.  It isn’t particularly subtle on this point, but it is thigh-slappingly hilarious, so that’s okay.

There is sadness also.  Unable to reconcile arts highbrow and lowbrow, it is easy to become fossilized in your views and exiled from what you love in the process.  At the end of the play (see, told you) the character Elomire, played by David Hyde Pierce, chooses exile from the court over having to work with the street entertainer that the princess insists should be part of the court’s theatre troupe.  I felt it was a personal exile also–Elomire is taking leave of the favor and good graces of his princess to face a dark and uncertain future.  Was there hope?  I was left wondering if Elomire ever regains her esteem, ever returns to the patronage of the court.  Or if, indeed, he wants to at all.

By pure happenstance, just at the moment where the troupe was discussing the possibility of giving up their comfortable life at court to go back on the road as a traveling repertory company, sleeping in barns and braving the wind, it began to rain so hard outside that we could hear it like a waterfall over the theatre.  The atmosphere that sound added was priceless, and if it had come at any other moment in the play it would have been a distracting noise bearing no relation to what was happening onstage.  Moments like that…they sustain the imagination.

I hadn’t intended to see Love Never Dies, the sequel to Phantom of the Opera.  I’d thought about it, and then chosen La Bete instead because I could get better seats for the same price (and…David Hyde Pierce!!)  But I spoke to my parents that afternoon and they reminded me that they had gone to see Phantom on one of their first trips to London.  Apparently they were standing in line waiting for tickets and somebody came along from the box office to ask if there were any parties of two in the queue.  He only had a handwritten note, not tickets, so they were suspicious at first.  However, after checking with the box office, all was well and the seats were good.  They still talk about the chandelier.

By the time I called the central ticketing office it was too late–they said the theatre might still have tickets but I’d have to go in person to find out.  I hied myself down to the Adelphi, running up the Strand as curtain time approached (while I’m at it, did I mention I visited Drury Lane on this trip, as on all trips to London?  And that I hummed the Muffin Man tune?  You sort of have to do it, don’t you?)

When I arrived, out of breath, and asked to book a seat on the lowish end of the price scale, they told me that the front row tickets had been discounted for that evening’s performance.  Did I want to sit in the front row?

A few minutes later I was peering obtrusively into the orchestra pit.  Front-row seating isn’t always the best, actually–this particular production involves a lot of lying on the floor at crucial moments, meaning you’re either left watching the actors’ wigs bobbing about or, like me, waving at the little orchestra-mans (and ladies.)  I also had the great privilege of watching a clarinetist fall asleep in his chair during the interval.

Phantom II: The Opera Redux is indeed a great spectacle full of amazing costumes, fabulous sets, great new songs, and some seriously cool puppetry.  Being so close to the orchestra pit, I was able to nab the conductor afterwards and ask how one of the onstage musical instrument/puppets worked (he prevaricated a bit, but still, that was fun.)  There is even a bit of belly dancing for interested parties–a genuine feature of Coney Island in its early days.  (They aren’t very authentically dressed though–films of dancers who worked there at the time show them wearing almost Victorian-style dresses.  But they can’t be expected to cater to every belly dance researcher that comes along I suppose.)

The one great disappointment was that the score, though referring at times to the original, doesn’t have even a little space for those instantly recognizable chords.  You know the ones.  DAAH! Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah…dah-dah-dah-dah-DAAH!  Even so, that was the theme that whirled in my head as I wended my way home.  When I wasn’t busy puzzling on the meaning of the new central aria, that is: “Love never dies!  Love never alters!  Hearts may get broken, but love goes on”?  What on earth does THAT mean?  I’m sure I don’t know, but I can tell you I cried when it was sung.  I blame it on sitting too close to the stage.

Originally published on