Marguerite Review

It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that for a musical to succeed, you need to have a leading man or woman (preferably both) for whom you can root. The only exception I can think of is Sweeney Todd – and even that show was never the popular success of, say, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s blockbusters.

One of the numerous problems with Marguerite, the new Boublil/Schonberg musical, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and music by Michel Legrand, is that its titular heroine (Ruthie Henshall) is a loose-living opportunist, who, during France’s occupation by the Nazis, has an affair with a Nazi general called Otto (Alexander Hanson), not because she loves him but because of the nylon stockings and other gifts his status provides.

In the original story by Alexandre Dumas of which this is just one more variation, Marguerite was a courtesan who sacrifices her genuine love for a well-connected young man when her lover’s father persuades her to end the affair or risk ruining his son’s life and reputation.

This time round she’s a middle-aged singer who, despite her involvement with Otto, falls for Armand (Julian Ovenden) a handsome young pianist whose sister Annette (Annalene Beechey) works for the resistance. Needless to say, the ordure hits the fan. Armand becomes a hunted man, his sister is tortured by the Gestapo, he shoots Otto at close range and goes into hiding.

As soon as the war is over, Marguerite, now seen as a collaborator, is physically abused and humiliated by the same Parisian ‘friends’ who benefited from her affair with Otto. She dies from some unspecified condition as the curtain falls. Doom and gloom prevail without a single laugh to leaven the bleakness of it all. And there wasn’t a moist eye in the house.

Blame this on an ill-conceived book by Messrs Boublil, Schonberg and Jonathan Kent, who also directed. The authors totally fail to make you care for any of the two-dimensional characters, the sub-plot is marginally more interesting than the central romance, and a sense of deja vu seeps miasma-like through the show’s two short acts.

Michel Legrand has written some potentially attractive tunes but what we have is a collection of songs (mainly ballads) rather than a fully integrated score. His melodies, as pretty as they are, never rise to the kind of sweeping climax Andrew Lloyd Webber is so good at concocting, and, consequently, fail to invite applause. A big mistake, this.

Herbert Kretzmer’s elegant, thoroughly professional lyrics do their best to advance what little plot there is, but I wish I’d heard more of them in the duets and trios.

Kent’s direction is workmanlike, though his decision to begin the curtain calls without a single note of music until Ruthie Henshall appears for the final call is not only insulting to the rest of the cast, but just bad theatre. With so downbeat an ending, surely you’d immediately want to raise the audience’s sagging spirits with some upbeat music?

As Marguerite, Henshall gives her all. She sings well and is clearly committed to the role. But it’s a cold performance that never engages your sympathy. And while there’s not much to like or admire about her character, one should at least feel some compassion for her. Julian Ovenden sings well and looks good – but the role allows him to do little more than mope, which he does effectively enough. The best performance is Alexander Hanson’s Otto. The part is an elongated cliché, but at least he covers it in flesh and bones.

The undisputed success of this work in- progress is Paul Brown’s smokey, visually striking set, whose stylish, opulence contrasts dramatically with the murky existence of the show’s leading character, her fetid involvement with her Nazi admirer, and her drab, unfulfilled romance with Armand.

It’s one thing removing the ‘comedy’ from musical comedy. Trouble is, Boublil, Schonberg and Kent, in attempting to write a musical with gravitas, haven’t found anything to replace it with.

Haymarket Theatre.

CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.


Date: 24 June 2008
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2 thoughts on “Marguerite Review”

  1. My partner and I loved it. Admittedly, Marguerite is emotionally intense and tragic rather than lighthearted frippery. Admittedly, it does not have rousing, sugary, Webber-type numbers. What it does have is emotional authenticity and complexity, combined with some lovely, haunting music and excellent singing. Perhaps the quality of the singing has improved since the previous reviews but it certainly seemed to us vastly more professional than that in most other musicals in town. Ruthie Henshall was, sadly, the one weakness in an otherwise wonderful cast. Special mention must be made of the stand-in Armand, Lincoln Stone, who sang beautifully, acted passionately and basically stole the show. We wish him every success for the future.

  2. peter macleod-miller

    “Book Marguerite Now-this can’t last …” Shouted a Daily Mail review and how right they were .When we were instantly upgraded on ticket collection we refused to hear the warning bells but they were ringing in everyone’s ears by the finale and the half hearted polite applause couldn’t drown them out .

    The hackneyed storyline, even the aped “Boheme” ending didn’t have the chimps screaming as much as the astounding lack of vocal talent of the visually perfect leading lady Ruthie Henshall.,and even the Traviata overtones in no way prepared the listener for the unnerving unsteadiness of pitch that had the audience in a continual “brace” position when it became clear that the cockpit had lost all contact with the control tower in a musical sense although the rest of the crew were singing valiantly to land the show safely, with a special bravery award to Julian Ovenden for his duets and honourable mention the restraint of the audience who did not storm the stage with tuning forks and pitch pipes despite considerable temptation .

    When you consider the plight of the host of excellent unemployed singers in London and this very shabby musical offering and stack it against the hopes of a precious night at the theatre in a week of economic pessimism and the misleading or at least outdated reviews that influence the theatre going public it seems that the public , musicians and music are being short-changed . Everything a west end musical should be “ bawled one in house review , tonight’s applause placed it definitely in the Dead end category

    Rev Canon Peter Macleod-Miller

    The rectory

    Barrow

    Suffolk IP29 5BA

    fr_peter@btopenworld.com

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