Paradise Found, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
This new musical stinks to high heaven
Friday 28 May 2010
Poor old Mandy Patinkin. America's highest-pitched tenor picked a stinker for his British musical debut when, some 20 years ago, he starred in the Chichester premiere of Born Again, a badly misconceived version of Ionesco's Rhinoceros.
Lightning, it seems, has failed to strike twice, for he now returns in a brand new show which far surpasses that earlier piece in comprehensive stinker-dom. Why? Has it been his lifelong ambition – and we're talking here about his tessitura rather than his testosterone – to play a eunuch?
The creative team on Paradise Found are showbiz royalty. It's co-directed at the Menier by Hal (Cabaret, epoch-making Sondheim premieres) Prince and Susan (The Producers, Crazy for You) Stroman, with a book by Olivier Award-winning dramatist Richard Nelson. But they seem to have taken leave of their collective senses. From that point of view, perhaps Paradise Found should be renamed "Marbles Lost", rather than the other alternative that keeps springing to mind: "Purgatory Endured".
The show is loosely adapted from the 1939 novel The Tale of the 1002nd Night, by the Austrian-Jewish author Joseph Roth. Written during his enforced exile in Paris, it combines his characteristic feel for displaced lives in the turmoil of social change with a more conservative nostalgia for the departed world of the Hapsburgs, as it tells the story of the comic visit to Vienna of the girl-hungry Shah of Persia and its ultimately desolate fall-out.
But Paradise Found can't muster enough cultural curiosity to have a point of view about Vienna or anything else. Everyone's a funny foreigner here in a show that for three-quarters of its course is like some unholy collision between "Carry on up the Danube" and Kismet, before a gear change into dippy despair, followed by a blatantly gimcrack happy ending.
Kismet, you'll recall, relied for its score on "borrowings" from Borodin. Paradise Found sustains itself on the waltzes and theatre works of Johann Strauss, unattractively orchestrated here by Jonathan Tunick. You could call it a glorified juke-box musical, if it weren't for the original and largely woeful lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh.
Patinkin bleats and whinnies at the top of his vertiginous register and beyond. Adopting a cloying expression of sweet, ingenuous wonder and scurrying artlessly about the stage, this hands-on habitué of a harem back home is nonetheless the wide-eyed gooseberry at the sexual hanky-panky in Vienna and the nervy co-conspirator in a plot whereby the Shah, having undiplomatically got the hots for the Empress, is tricked into congress with a regally disguised whore (Mizzi). Shuler Hensley is good as the Baron who is reduced to exile and ruin by this escapade, as we see in the coda that fast-forwards to 15 years later. To survive, the Baron is forced to tread the boards as a pretend-eunuch in a hack re-run of the story. But as the tale was a travesty the first time round, the depth of his self-hating degradation hits you with less than due force.
Between them, Prince and Stroman boast so many awards that their shelves must be severely congested. The one consolation they can take from the failure of this flagrant Broadway-tryout here in cheaper Britain is that it won't leave them with any storage problems in their display cabinets.
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