Tuesday, September 06, 2016

London Road: The Not Really Verbatim Musical

Sometimes innovative musical theater swings for the fences and knocks the ball out of the part, as happened with Hamilton. Other times, maybe you really just need to see it on stage. Presumably, that must be the case for Alecky Blythe’s “verbatim” musical dramatizing the Ipswich community response to the arrest and prosecution of a serial killer in their midst. Verbatim in this context means the word-for-word transcriptions of interviews and media reports as they were spoken, but duly manipulated to make the speakers sound as petty and narrow-minded as possible. The good people of Ipswich endure another media feeding frenzy in Rufus Norris’s adaptation of London Road (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Before the Ipswich Ripper case, the London Road area was a respectable working class neighborhood with middle class pretensions (Brexit country). It used to be the sort of place you could feel safe raising a family, but the construction of a new stadium changed traffic patterns and brought street walkers into the residential district (literally right in front of their homes). Longtime denizens understandably resented the intrusion, which inevitably colored their response to the brutal murders. Blythe and co-lyricist Adam Cork clearly took pains to cherry pick every “had it coming to them” quote, doing their best to cast the residents as callous moralizers. That is an easy position to take if you live in a coop on Central Park West or a tony flat in the Barbican district. However, anyone who has worried about property values as they worked like a mule to pay their mortgage will take a more forgiving view.

One thing is certain. London Road confirms the greatness of songwriters like Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, and Dorothy Fields, because it proves memorable lyrics do not “just happen.” Frankly, none of the verbatim libretto rings with either profundity or musicality. Nor is there any natural rhythm to the stray extracts Cork set to music, which gives them all a rather plodding sameness. Good luck trying to hum any of these selections. They are also completely unfair to the neighborhood residents. How would like your awkward words of greeting at a community board meeting set to music and repeated dozens of times over, in the most unflattering manner possible? That’s exactly what happens to poor Julie, the chair, played by Olivia Colman at her iciest.

Throughout London Road, Norris never shows any of the murders or even a whisker on the back of the murderer Steve Wright’s neck. Ironically, that leads to a weird moral equivalency, in which the “good riddances” of Julie and company are as bad or worse than Wright’s murderers, because at least he wasn’t too snobby to mix with his victims. Arguably, this is the most off-key musical since Bialystock & Bloom produced Springtime for Hitler. Not recommended, not even for the novelty cameo of Tom Hardy as a singing cabbie, London Road opens this Friday (9/9) in New York, at the Village East.