Musicals of Various Shapes and Sizes Arrive on London Stages


LONDON — For proof that theatrical lightning can indeed strike twice, consider the happy case of “Dear Evan Hansen.” The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical has opened in London at the Noël Coward Theater, introducing us to yet another newcomer with genuine talent. This time, the title role is played by 21-year-old Sam Tutty, a recent drama school graduate, who is more than capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the show’s previous leading men.

Ben Platt originated the role on Broadway, earning a Tony Award before moving into the worlds of TV and film. It’s too early to tell where the director Michael Greif’s production will lead Tutty. (Marcus Harman, his alternate, plays the anxious Evan at certain performances.) But in a show predicated on the galloping effect of a lie, it certainly helps to have a central performer who communicates an unerring truth.

Taking up a West End perch just minutes away from familiar Broadway titles like “Come From Away” and “Waitress,” “Dear Evan Hansen” furthers the feeling that there is no need for Londoners to travel to New York to see a show; chances are, soon it will be over here.

There’s similarly little reason to doubt the ability of the round-faced, emotionally open Tutty to find his own way into the potentially tic-laden part of Evan, whose path toward self-discovery comes at the human cost of the suicide of a classmate, Connor (Doug Colling), whose spectral presence is important to the show from beyond the grave. Despite Evan barely knowing Connor, the labyrinthine shifts in Steven Levenson’s book, which also won a Tony, bring him directly into the orbit of Connor’s grieving parents, roles beautifully taken here by Lauren Ward and Rupert Young.

The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul trades heavily on anthemic appeals to self-assertion that echo “This Is Me,” their Oscar-nominated song from the movie “The Greatest Showman.” And if that sometimes results in an on-the-nose earnestness at odds with the English preference for irony, Tutty silences any objections with a direct appeal to the heart: the tears he elicits from the audience are honestly earned.

“Dear Evan Hansen” has the increasingly rare musical theater virtue of being a true original, which is to say based neither on a movie nor on the back catalog of a music industry titan. That’s more than can be said for “& Juliet,” which tethers the chart-topping output of the Swedish pop producer and songwriter Max Martin to “Romeo and Juliet,” and so ponders what might happen were Juliet able to live to see another day.

Short answer: Juliet would end up a self-empowered heroine given to lung-busting covers of songs by Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande, to name just a few of the pop stars for whom Martin has penned or produced career-identifying hits over the years.

The show is directed by Luke Sheppard, who previously shepherded “In the Heights” to London, and looks set to run at the Shaftesbury Theater for as long as a vocal demographic can be found to roar in approval to such songs as “Roar.” (That one, you may recall, was a major hit for Katy Perry.) Far from succumbing to a premature death, this Juliet lives on to quickly discover that her beloved Romeo was in fact an unrepentant cad and that she possesses a self that is worth finding, to co-opt the psychological discourse trafficked by “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Some will take pleasure in hearing nearly 30 proven hits repurposed to suit the occasion, the score of “& Juliet” including one new number, “One More Try,” that has been recorded separately by the English performer Jessie J.

Others may ask for rather more than a cumbersome attempt to pen a show-within-a-show that nods structurally toward “Kiss Me, Kate.” Someone really does remark in passing, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” and William Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, are on hand throughout the show as sparring partners in the style of Fred and Lilli from that earlier Cole Porter classic. Elsewhere, you may wince afresh when the likable Oliver Tompsett, playing a hipster-looking Shakespeare, says near the end, “There will never be another Anne Hathaway” — before stealing a knowing glance at the audience.

Miriam-Teak Lee’s ebullient Juliet is seen departing Verona for Paris, which is to say the city, not the dreary swain handpicked for her by her parents. Once there, she falls in with a diverse sexual and social landscape that includes something (or someone) for all tastes, from the nonbinary May (Arun Blair-Mangat, a vocal powerhouse) to Juliet’s ever-sassy nurse (Melanie La Barrie), who falls under the renewed spell of Lance (David Bedella, the American performer here sporting a faux-Gallic accent).

A little of this, to be honest, went a very long way, but I confess to hardly being the preferred demographic for a show that clearly wants to rival the Broadway-bound “Six” in the pop-anthem sweepstakes, while reminding us of another musical steeped in Scandinavian talent (“Mamma Mia!”) that began modestly and, well, look where it is now.

Coming in comparatively under the radar is the most ravishing musical entry of the season, “Ghost Quartet.” This version of the Dave Malloy musical seen in New York in 2014 christens a new theater, the Boulevard, whose intimacy only emphasizes the barnlike nature of so many Broadway and West End musical houses.

The setting turns out to be ideally suited to Bill Buckhurst’s stylish production in which a cast of four, including the 2019 Olivier nominee Zubin Varla, play various instruments while making their way through a 90-minute song cycle that is divided into four parts, as if one were watching an album unfold onstage.

What does it all mean? “Ghost Quartet” resists precise explication even as it folds the likes of Thelonious Monk, “Arabian Nights” and Edgar Allan Poe into a shimmering aural collage that comes with a shot of whiskey for those who want it. Ghosts do indeed figure here and there, alongside a spoken need “to let the dead be dead,” but however haunted the landscape, “Ghost Quartet” casts its own singular, truly vital spell.

Dear Evan Hansen. Directed by Michael Greif. Noël Coward Theater, open-ended run.

& Juliet. Directed by Luke Sheppard. Shaftesbury Theater, open-ended run.

Ghost Quartet. Directed by Bill Buckhurst. Boulevard Theater, through Jan. 4.


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