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A CurtainUp London Review
Once you can accept the satirical, sexual romp that is Joseph Roth's Tale of the 1002nd Night and relax to the fabulous tunes of Johann Strauss, you will have a thoroughly enjoyable evening. You also mustn't mind the sexual innuendo and quite a lot of lewd suggestive comedy. You would have a lot of complex and risqué explaining to do if you take the children.
The unusual aspect of the launch for this all-American musical is the choice of venue, David Babani's Menier Chocolate Factory might seem to all intents and purposes a small fringe venue in Southwark. That is unless you have been reading the theatrical press and realise that the Chocolate Factory is a musical giant. You would have read about the 15 Tony nominations this producing theatre gained this year for its Broadway transfers, La Cage Aux Folles and A Little Night Music. The stage is wide but everyone in the audience of only 155 seats is no more than a few feet away from the cast and this is a big lavishly costumed and propped musical.
It is Mandy Pantikin's gentle portrayal of the Shah's Chief Eunuch that made the evening for me. His wistful romanticism is of course all he has left after the loss of desire and his ability to join in the sexual shenanigans. His songs are often about loss and longing or his fondness for romantic literature of his signature song "Perfect Love". Then there is Shuler Hensley, as the romantic lead, the Baron, with his riches to rags story as he is offered a revolver to end things honourably, but misses. John McMaster plays the rather doddery Shah of Persia, the man with 100 wives and 500 children who has lost his ability in the bedroom department.
When the question is asked at the beginning of the play as to when the Shah last slept with any of his wives, the Chief Eunuch whisks out his pocket sized abacus, tweaks the beads and tells us, 100 days! In need of a serious boost to his sex life, on the Peacock Throne, the Shah consults with his Grand Vizier (George Lee Andrews) and sets off on a European tour in search of new women who can inspire an erection. When they get to Vienna, which is actually probably an American theme park version of Vienna, they find everyone is having affairs with everyone else in a most un-Persian way where they just marry their mistresses. The Shah spots the woman who can arouse him but she turns out to be the off limits Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a serious diplomatic incident might ensue. The Chief Eunuch and the Baron engineer a stratagem and taking a very pretty prostitute Mizzi (Kate Baldwin), dressing her in imperial finery and doing a quick makeover job on the brothel (palatial cardboard cut outs) and turning the lights down really low, the Shah is able to consummate the supposed union of two empires.
Mizzi is rewarded with a string of pearls but Frau Matzer (Judy Kaye) the brothel madame takes her cut. We meet some of the other citizens of Vienna, a collection of doctors, mayors and tarts, and another of the Baron's paramours, the Soap Manufacturer's wife (Nancy Opel) who has a very complicated sex life with all the comings and goings in her bedroom. She lets out the story of the secret encounter with the Shah, leading to disgrace for the Baron for having told her. A scene in a restaurant called The Bat (yes, you got it, Die Fledermaus) has some raunchy dancing to entertain the guests. There are moments too of high camp comedy like when the Eunuch is helping her dress fast, he adjusts the Soap Manufacturer's Wife's stockings and garters by turning completely her upside down as if she is a mannequin with no sign of titillation from the eunuch. The set uses black and red in the brothel with red velvet sofas and restaurant and the marble like shiny walls change to imperial purple as the location demands and the lighting allows.
Fifteen years later we see who has reached the top of the pile and who has moved socially downwards through lavish expenditure, misplaced generosity and debt. They meet in an atmospheric Viennese café where they all read broadsheet newspapers on poles, this scene staged nicely. Frau Matzer, who accepts the penniless Baron's offer to buy her half a gugelhupf, is running not a brothel, but something only slightly more respectable, a theatre! Mizzi is rescued from debtor's prison to play, alongside her reduced circumstance Baron in the burlesque comedy The Shah and his Viennese Bride based on the incident. The Baron is now symbolically acting the part of the Eunuch. Visiting Vienna once more now in a wonderful Wildean wig is the eunuch. He is now a businessman, an entrepreneur, dressed in a suit and swapping Persian hand knotted rugs for Viennese lace.
The singing to these lushly, familiar waltzes has clarity and Ellen Fitzhugh's lyrics are witty and bawdy. Kate Baldwin is very pretty as Mizzi, sings sweetly and the often morose Baron, Shuler Hensley, gets to sing with her the duets "Feeling Good" about sexual highs, and "What Are They?" in the prison where Mizzi manages to look lovely in sackcloth. Mandy Patinkin as the Eunuch sings "Without Desire" about his displacement activities of making preserves and jams, and hats off to the lyricist for getting the words "mandatory abstinence" into a song! There are perceptive songs about women with insecurities about their appearance "Faces Like Flowers" which has them applying cosmetics and later "How Could You Know" about the speed at which gossip travels in Vienna, as well as those soulful, reflective numbers when he talks about the public perception of eunuchs as clowns which Mandy Patinkin acts and sings so well, often giving us a trace of the Eunuch's falsetto and poignancy.
This musical may not be exactly my idea of a discovered paradise but it's as much fun as a Viennese Theme Park ride to the music of Strauss.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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