- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

LONDON — Actor-manager Charles Wyndham convened a group of theater pro-fessionals at the Hyde Park Hotel on Feb. 20, 1908, to organize an association of producers, theater owners and managers of the major commercial and grant-aided theaters in central London. It was the birth of the city’s famous West End theater district.

It was not the birth of London theater. That honor goes to the city’s first playhouse, the Theatre (1576), the first home of Shakespeare’s theatrical company, whose dismantled timbers later were used to build the original Globe Theatre.

As keeper of the theatrical London flame, the Society of London Theatres (SOLT), as it is known 100 years later, has initiated a year of celebratory centennial events. On the last Sunday of every month until September, for instance, a new Theatreland Walking Tour concentrates on a century of theatrical luminaries, from Wyndham to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mac kintosh.

It may be coincidence, but historical characters seem to be center stage this season. “Never So Good,” in which Jeremy Irons made his National Theatre debut, presents a parade of towering political figures - Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower - who move through British history from World War I to the Suez Canal crisis.

Max Reinhardt, Austrian impresario and a founder of the Salzburg Festival, is the focus of “Afterlife” by Michael Frayn. Writer Joan Didion turned her memoir about her husband’s sudden death, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” into a one-woman play, with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role.

This season’s hot play is “God of Carnage,” a hilarious one-act, four-character drama about two couples facing off over an altercation between their sons. A smart script by Yasmina Reza, author of the megahit “Art,” plus a superb cast headed by Ralph Fiennes and a memorable tour-de-farce theme put “God of Carnage” at the top of a don’t-miss list.

As usual, musicals, old and new, dominate the West End, with several notable London-grown hits. “Dirty Dancing,” based on the movie, came to town in 2006 and has been packing them in ever since. It feels like a well-amped ‘60s Catskills resort, more glitzy than rustic, with groaner Borscht Circuit jokes, and, amid mambos and cha-chas, a boffo number, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Even before the play opens, the largely bursting-into-puberty audience starts shrieking, reaching a crescendo when Johnny and Baby get together and at virtually every scene thereafter. Cheering and whooping, they are actually half the fun of the fast-moving show.

Another major new London-grown musical is “Marguerite,” from the folks who brought us “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” (music by Michel Legrand; book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Jonathan Kent; and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer).

Based on Alexandre Dumas’ romantic novel “La Dame aux Camelias,” it takes place during World War II in occupied Paris, with Marguerite, the mistress of a German officer, and Armand, a young jazz musician. Ruthie Henshall, an award-winning West End and Broadway actress with an exquisite, clear voice, is Marguerite. The score is lovely, the singing superb. The imaginative production evokes Paris in the ‘40s, and it has the most gorgeous costumes.

A big ticket, at least with Americans, is “Gone With the Wind,” Trevor Nunn’s production of Margaret Mitchell’s quintessentially American story. London critics seemed to vie for the cleverest put-downs (“Frankly, my dear, it’s a damn long night,” wrote Charles Spencer in the London Telegraph) but the unkind reviews have the benefit of lowering expectations, so the 3 1/2-hour show won’t seem so long.

With American actress Jill Paice and U.K. pop star Darius Danesh as Scarlett and Rhett, the casting, dialogue, and costumes are so faithful to the original movie, you’ll think you’re seeing Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

A big, open stage works well enough as Tara, Atlanta in its social life, Atlanta in the war, and every other scene, large and small, some of them actually moving. The slaves have all the best numbers (and voices) and one rousing gospel number, “On the Wings of a Dove,” brings the house down.

Mr. Webber and Mr. Mac kintosh know how to stir up theatrical hoopla, so you would be forgiven if you thought their new musical, “Oliver!” already had opened. Actually, it is scheduled for mid-January, and while Fagin already has been cast (Rowan Atkinson), the roles of Oliver and Nancy will be the winners of a televised talent search on BBC’s reality show “I’d Do Anything.”

Despite reality TV casting, the roll call of major marquee names this centennial year is dazzling. In addition to Mr. Irons, Miss Redgrave and Mr. Fiennes, Simon Russell Beale, a great talent not as well known to Americans as he deserves, is appearing in George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” and is upcoming in “A Slight Ache,” an early Harold Pinter play.

To add to the dazzle, the Donmar Warehouse, which usually mounts its innovative productions in a small space, launches a star-studded program at Wyndham’s larger West End theater in September with Kenneth Branagh in Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” Derek Jacobi in “Twelfth Night,” Judi Dench in “Madame de Sade,” and Jude Law as Hamlet.

Shakespeare, still a London staple, is having a superb summer at Shakespeare’s Globe, the replica of the original Elizabethan theater. This year, four plays celebrate the Bard’s “glorious unruly diversity,” as artistic director Dominic Dromgoole described the season: tragedy in “King Lear,” inventive comedy in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the sitcom in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and satire in “Timon of Athens.”

“King Lear” opened to raves for a penetrating production that captures the humanity and humor in this darkest play and for David Calder’s tender, anguished Lear. The costumes are Jacobean, the music played on ancient instruments, the swordplay deft and agile.

A stagehand cranks a circular wooden wind machine to create the howling storm, while groundlings stand in the yard in front of the stage, inches away from Lear. Shakespeare himself would have felt right at home.

Here’s to the next hundred years of West End theater.

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