Sound Advice Reviews
Two musicals from London, based on true incidents:
Giddy, gloriously garrulous, clever, and irreverent: those are the operative words for describing Operation Mincemeat, a hit musical playing on the West End. It's based on an actual complicated scheme carried out by the British during World War II to plant false evidence for the enemy to discover and cause them to move their troops away from the area the Allies want to attack. In the all-too-real world, there's no denying the truth that "war is hell," but–armed with dark humor and a light touch–talented satirists and performers can concoct heaven-sent hilarity. As with the actual plan and this kind of goal for entertainment, mission accomplished.
The writing team of David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson, and Zoë Roberts, known collectively as SpitLip, have created a madcap version of history. Five barnstorming actors play a wide variety of roles, some gender switched. They are Claire-Marie Hall, Jak Malone, and three of the four writers (Hagan is the exception, but he plays three instruments in the band). The score is highly caffeinated, with music and lyrics often zooming along at dizzying speed as frantic characters brainstorm, argue, worry, and second-guess things, with whirlwinds of words and wit. The wacky wisecracks and spiffy rhymes in the verbiage stew are so delicious that it makes me not mind the rarer instances of my usual pet peeve: false rhymes. (And I chalk up a few as possible differences between British and American pronunciation.) The eclectic score cheekily ignores period-appropriateness, with flashes of anachronisms and mixing genres, so there are echoes or pastiche of pop from this century and frolicsome fare that plunges into the perkiness of frothy musicals of the 1920s and '30s.
The frenzy begins with the self-congratulatory "Born to Lead," with Natasha Hodgson as naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu. The desire to defeat the Nazis inspires all kinds of proposed plans to dispose of Hitler and gain ground, and to cunningly convince the enemy armies that Sicily is not the planned place the Allied forces will try to take over. (It is.) After a series of roller coaster rides, the detail-by-detail (and all true) elements of a deception are conceptualized: procuring the unclaimed corpse of a homeless man, dressing it in uniform and putting manufactured letters with false information about a "planned" attack in a briefcase with the body, which gets dumped where the plotters predict it will all fall into hands of Germans, who prepare for a battle elsewhere and leave Sicily unguarded.
The almost relentless mayhem (meticulous war plans revamped as freewheeling farce) is relieved a couple of times. There is robust encouragement to keep spirits up (not truly calm, but relatively so), and a surprisingly emotional song called "Dear Bill," when Jak Malone sings the contents of a fictitious person's love letter and his character, without intending to, unintentionally draws on personal sad experiences. Many of the brash songs are group numbers and the chemistry is combustive. The very stuffed feast-like doings (exhausting in an exhilarating way) end up with what's titled "A Glitzy Finale," wherein some songs are reprised and Operation Mincemeat concludes triumphantly. It's an unlikely but very likable and loopy affair.
We followers of musical theatre have been charmed by female characters named Annie before. There is that titular red-headed little orphan looking for a sunnier tomorrow, the gal from the Oklahoma area who has trouble saying "No" to suitors, and the real-life Miss Oakley who got her gun. Now we can also be charmed as we meet another Annie, who also actually existed: Annie Londonderry, the first woman to make a round-the-world trip by bicycle in the mid-1890s (allowing for some underreported mileage as a passenger by boat or train). Her saga, Ride, is a fun musical ride that recounts her adventures, real and embellished. (Research and references in the show indicate that the lady often stretched the truth or supplied her own alternative facts.)
The attractive songs by Jack WIlliams and Freya Catrin Smith (also the bookwriter) are mostly on the lively side, with attitude and humor, informed by the championing of women as feisty and competent, challenging the traditional societal roles of the times. But it's breezy rather than preachy. The score is entertainingly sung by a talented cast of two, with characterful lyrics and energized melodies that are often rollickingly rhythmic, suggesting the accelerating speed and circular pedaling of bicycling.
Having grown from a shorter version, Ride ran in its current form in London last year (in a production that was filmed and streamed and is an online offering at Broadway On Demand) and is back this summer on stage in the London area with a string of performances that ends this Saturday, and another that begins the following week and goes through August 12.
Liv Andrusier plays Annie with irrepressible zip (excepting for the change-of-pace sorrowful memories of the woman's earlier times). Here and there, some vocals in the most intense moments become kind of piercing, but, arguably, it is appropriate to the glee or passion of the moment. The thick Boston accent and swagger add to the personality and panache as the character's sassy self-confidence, pluck and perseverance (or, in a word, chutzpah) drive most of the proceedings. Detailing her colorful, articulate summaries of her adventures is motivated by her need to convince those who run a newspaper to take her on as a columnist.
In the smaller role, Yuki Sutton makes the character of Martha, a secretary, endearing as the shy (and then increasingly spirited) woman who'd been reading about the bicycle feat. She's pulled into the storytelling duties, including taking on the roles of people Annie had met.
The episodic proceedings begin with high-spirited hyperbole as Annie promises that her experiences make for "The World's Greatest Story." She's pushy in a way that pulls us in rather than making us pull away. Mocking men's smug assessments of women's potential, she goes on to tell about "The Wager" that set things in motion–literally–for the 15-month trek by bicycle. Prevailing thought is that such a daunting assignment would be something a woman would be unlikely to handle with just handlebars and wheels and the enticement of fame and cash upon completion to depend on. Wanna bet?
There's no overture or other instrumental track, but the singing of the 12 songs that whiz by is fortified by the musical direction of pianist Sam Young. Presented originally with a three-piece band, orchestrations played by an all-women's ensemble flesh things out richly.
The number that most impressed me, before and after research that let me learn more about the loose relationship Miss Londonderry (not her real surname) had with the truth, is "Everybody Loves a Little Lie." It glibly offers excuses for distracting the public with a showy charade, analogous to the logic advanced in the song "Razzle Dazzle" from Chicago. And we are given reason to believe that, if and when the lady is confronted with inconsistencies or improbable incidents, the champion bicyclist would stand firm rather than backpedal.
Ride is ostensibly about one person's specific two-wheel journey, but it also lets us come along for the ride for an individual's journey through hardships and defying society's expectations for women at the end of the 19th century.