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Review Round-up: Critics Unmoved by Marguerite?

Oscar and Grammy Award-winning French composer Michel Legrand’s new musical Marguerite celebrated its opening night last night (20 May 2008, previews from 7 May) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (See Also Today’s WOS TV). The world premiere is the last in Jonathan Kent’s three-production season at the West End venue, where it continues until 1 November (See News, 30 Jan 2008).

The passionate love story stars Ruthie Henshall in the title role, Julian Ovenden as Armand and Alexander Hanson as Otto. Based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel La Dame aux Camellias, Marguerite relocates the action to the Second World War. Marguerite is the notorious mistress of high-ranking German officer Otto; Armand is the young musician, half her age, who falls obsessively in love with her. Their love story is played out against the background of Occupied Paris.

The show has music by Michel Legrand and a book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg (whose previous collaborations include Les Miserables and Miss Saigon) and Jonathan Kent. The English lyrics are written by Herbert Kretzmer, from the original French lyrics by Boublil.

Ruthie Henshall’s many West End and Broadway credits include Chicago, The Woman in White, Crazy for You, Peggy Sue Got Married and Les Miserables. Henshall told Whatsonstage.com recently that she's enjoying the challenge of creating a new role: “Being in a world premiere is unique because you come in on the first floor. The writers are here all day.” (See Features, 12 May 2008).

The 16-strong cast also features Annalene Beechey, Matt Cross, Simon Thomas and Don Gallagher, who are joined by Mark Carroll, Keiron Crook, James Doherty, Siubhan Harrison, Jon-Paul Hevey, Julia Nagle, Duncan Smith, Gay Soper, Phillip Sutton and Lucy Williamson. The musical is designed by Paul Brown, with lighting by Mark Henderson, sound by Paul Groothuis and choreography by Arthur Pita. Marguerite is presented by Marguerite Productions, the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company and Bob Boyett.

Overnight critics were, on the whole, underwhelmed by Marguerite and particularly Michel Legrand’s “eclectic” but “curiously bland” score. While most acknowledged that a “plodding competence” was evident, overall they found at best “efficient” and at worst a “serious disappointment”. Ruthie Henshall’s “dynamic” performance received praise, but most felt she was let down by “workaday material” and a “flaccid” characterisation that left critics unmoved by her title character’s death. Amongst things “to savour” was Paul Brown’s mirrored set and the attempt to tackle “serious moral questions”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “Julian Ovenden’s dominating personality and sex appeal are slightly scuppered by the fact that he looks more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than Brad Pitt. But he plays the keyboards very well and sings his head off. Next problem: the music by Michel Legrand has plenty of sweep and loads of lushness, and some neat and lilting jazz rhythms, but it’s short on theatrical melody and curiously bland … The show completes the bold three-production season under the direction of Jonathan Kent and is expensively designed by Paul Brown with lots of fin de siècle mirrors, dry ice, sliding panels, a revolve and a front cloth of Henshall’s overblown pretty face blinking enigmatically at the audience … This story has been cooked up – there is nothing much inspired or inevitable about it – by the Les Miserables authors Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, as well as the director Kent, with lyrics by Les Mis veteran Herbert Kretzmer that do their job very well. But the sound system is tinny … and the violence of torture, sexual envy and retribution gratuitously attached and unlikely to appeal to Haymarket audiences.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Why should we sympathise with a collaborator? That question haunted me through this new Michel Legrand musical inspired by La Dame aux camélias and set during the German occupation of Paris. It is highly efficient, visually deft, and moves rapidly; but the death of its mythic heroine left me stonily unmoved … The book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and director Jonathan Kent seems to be a nifty update of Dumas but glosses over a vital ingredient in the original. We warm to Dumas' Marguerite not just because she is consumptive but because she makes an heroic sacrifice. The musical's Marguerite, however, simply seems an opportunist who, as Armand shrewdly says, 'screws your little pianist in the afternoon and runs home to your German general' … If you can accept a musical with a less-than-sympathetic heroine, then there are things to savour. Legrand's eclectic score ranges from a pointillist Sondheim-style starter to Forties jazz, romantic ballads and rousing ensembles … Kent's fast-moving production also boasts a clever set by Paul Brown framing the action in a seductively mirrored salon. Ruthie Henshall, passionate in red velvet, is a dynamic Marguerite even if there is little hint of vulnerability. Julian Ovenden looks appropriately anguished as Armand, and Alexander Hanson, having duped the Nazis in The Sound of Music, now finds himself playing a poker-backed German officer. The show brings the Haymarket season to an impressively-staged climax.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Henshall and Ovenden are pretty impressive in both the acting and the singing departments. She can be haughty but also broken, forlorn, poignant. He manages to be intense without being sententious and rapturous without seeming wet. And how refreshing to hear voices that cope with every note in songs which, as composed by Michel Legrand and accoutred with plain, bold lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, soar and dive in often hummable ways. Yet I found myself unmoved when Henshall’s Marguerite, by now as fragile and pale as any trad TB victim, leaves her pianist, her Paris and the planet. Why? Well, I think it’s because the tension in Kent’s production is to be found more in the subplot than in Marguerite and Armand’s doomed affair. Boublil and Schönberg have provided Armand with a sister, Annalene Beechey’s Annette, who gets involved in the Resistance. Moreover, they’ve given that sister a lover, Simon Thomas’ Lucien, who is a Jew … And their pains and perils matter more than what happens between the love-birds in an attic … somewhere near Sacré-Coeur. Actually, the most interesting character is Otto, who veers from love of Marguerite to a dangerous bitterness at her coldness, from Nazi denunciations of 'coloured music' to officer-class honour, from near-rapist to self-hating gentleman. What’s needed here is music that reflects his angry, agonised contradictions, but this time the composer fails us — leaving us with a decent, enjoyable but not exactly thrilling show.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars)– “Ruthie Henshall’s emotionally frigid Marguerite never discovers much of a nagging conscience. La Dame, the poignant consumptive lover, no longer engages sympathy as a Nazi moll who mixes in anti-semitic high society. Jonathan Kent’s engaging production is reinforced by Paul Brown’s atmospheric evocation of grand Paris rooms, with silver-framed, mirrored windows and burnished gold panelling. The songs … tend to come at you with endless, yearning strings, melancholic keyboard musings on passion and rare Sondheimian flashes. The creators of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg … have left musical matters to Michel Legrand and his score lacks the Boublil/Schonberg sub-operatic flair … Marguerite manages to make war, Nazis and collusion serve too much as a desultory, dramatic backdrop to the musical’s romancing — until the shocking, murderous finale … This courtesan for unexplained reasons has decided to throw in her lot with Alexander Hanson’s cold but smitten Nazi general. Henshall’s 20th-century Marguerite sings in a powerful but not very distinct voice. She lacks voluptuousness, remaining more than a bit prim and forever lukewarm … The musical, both its book and music, did not greatly captivate me, but I was impressed by the way it raises serious moral questions.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “I wish I could summon up more enthusiasm for Marguerite, but the best I can manage … is one of those weary shrugs of Gallic indifference … Coming from the creators of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, and with a score by the multiple Oscar and Grammy award-winning Michel Legrand, it's a serious disappointment … Every hit musical I can think of has some ingredient X, some sudden touch of magic, that lifts it from the ruck. Here a plodding competence prevails … There's no real tension in the writing, while the characterisation is flaccid in the extreme. But if you think the book is trite, wait until you have heard the lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, with their wearily predictable rhymes and almost heroic absence of wit … Legrand's music is agreeable enough, with lots of soupy love songs, but there is remarkably little variety in a show dominated by lugubrious balladry. The evening is saved from complete mediocrity by Paul Brown's beautiful palace-of-mirrors design and the plucky performers. Ruthie Henshall, a truly great star of musical theatre, somehow proves both poignant and sexy in the title role despite being lumbered with such workaday material … Alexander Hanson … is memorably sinister as Marguerite's German protector, and rugged Julian Ovenden will doubtless set female hearts aflutter as the juvenile love interest. Nevertheless, I'd far rather have spent the evening watching repeats of the immortal 'Allo 'Allo. Listen very carefully. I will say this only once. Your money would be better spent elsewhere.”

      - by Kate Jackson

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