Musical theatre: Oh what a circus, oh what a show

Moments That Made The Year: `Jesus Christ Superstar' has improved with age, and only a saintly `Thoedora' could better it. By Edward Seckerson

Saints, swans, a Seventies superstar. And the unmistakable sound of Ibsen's Nora shutting that door behind her. Broadway once tried its hand at a musical version of A Doll's House. All doors slammed fairly sharpish on that one. There are no songs in Anthony Page's revelatory production at the Playhouse Theatre. Just a very free adaptation of a very great play from Frank McGuinness, and the female performance of the year from Janet McTeer. I cannot even begin to imagine the energy, physical and mental, required to keep Torvald's "little woman" (and McTeer is anything but) in her place. The frightening thing about her dizzying Nora is the extent to which she has been swallowed up by the role expected of her. It's hard, not to say exhausting, to watch her flap, fret, and simper her way to that final scene.

Speaking of final scenes, the rather significant one at the close of Jesus Christ Superstar is more moving and more truthful than one would ever have thought possible of a show long since consigned to the scrapbook of post-hippy hip. But that's because the Australian director Gale Edwards takes it as she finds it, and finds it as she takes it. And she takes it a whole lot further than Jim Sharman's original production did. It's a dynamic second coming played out in truly operatic fashion under the searching cross-beams of David Hersey's stunning lighting. John Napier has excavated an eye-catching Roman arena from the ruins of Henry Irving's newly refurbished Lyceum Theatre, and a high-octane cast make no apologies whatsoever for the youthful indiscretions of Messieurs Rice and Lloyd Webber. In the case of the latter, no apologies are necessary. This sweet, soulful, fractured, quirky, gutsy score is of its time, for sure. It's just that its time is, so far, 25 years on and counting.

Someone should get Gale Edwards into an opera house. And fast. It won't be the Royal Opera House, of course. Come July, there won't be one. Can anyone tell us what's going on? I know of one major international conductor who's been booked for The Barber of Seville but doesn't know where. Perhaps he never will. But back to 1996. Actually, Jesus Christ Superstar might well have been my opera (or "music theatre") production of the year, had it not been for the saintly Theodora at Glyndebourne. She was quite something. Partly on account of one George Frideric Handel, whose score - one achingly beautiful number after another - is among his unsung finest (the conductor William Christie subsequently got into all kinds of trouble for gilding the period lily with all manner of delicious instrumental embellishments), but also thanks to three vintage performances from Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt (a Handel stylist rivalled only by our own Ann Murray), and the astonishing American counter-tenor David Daniels. The production, from that ageing young turk, Peter Sellars, was predictably despised in some quarters. Small misgivings apart, I thought it beautiful and dignified. For those who still decry opera in English because "it sounds silly and you don't hear the words anyway", there was sign language. In keeping with Baroque practice, Sellars has lately adopted hand gesture as an extension of feeling and sense. And it made perfect sense in Theodora: a universal language for a universal faith.

In case you hadn't heard, it's official: London's West End currently houses the longest-running dance production of all time. And it's a success born of Matthew Bourne's Adventures in Motion Pictures company. Swan Lake is capturing everyone's imagination: balletomanes, balletophobics, traditionalists and revisionists alike. Word of mouth is filling the Piccadilly Theatre. Punters are going back for a second and third time.

Why? Because, despite being dubbed "the gay Swan Lake", Bourne's funny and heartfelt re-imagining of this enduring classic touches everyone. It's about loneliness, isolation, desire, the dream of perfect love and the nightmare of imperfect reality. "Do not feed the swans" reads the sign. But the little old lady with her bag of crumbs does not heed it. And the unloved prince, newly awakened, freed, transported, deluded by the swan of his dreams, hugs and kisses her. Talk about irrigating the tear ducts in readiness for Act 2.

But, I can hear you asking, "Never mind all this snivelling, what about the issues, the trends?" The only trend I care about is the one about there not being a trend. But, if I must, the BBC's Henry Wood Proms have been "trendy" for 101 years and have only now won the trust to be - and to go on being - the most adventurous classical music festival anywhere in the world. They broke all box-office records this year. Now there's a trend to encourage.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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