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This is a gem of a production of a new show from off Broadway which has the honor of opening a great new addition to the London theater scene.
The new Boulevard Theatre is built on the site of the legendary Raymond’s Revuebar, a notorious Soho haunt which for many decades specialized in “erotic entertainments”. Many forget that it also housed comedy and served as the original home to the renowned Comic Strip. This reviewer recalls chatting with a then totally unknown Eddie Izzard here before a late-night show once. He was doing the door, the coats and acting as MC for a stand-up night.
The whole area has recently undergone major gentrification and what has emerged Phoenix like from the ashes of Walker’s Court is a striking new Art Deco-inspired circular performance space. The seats are plush, and it has an intimacy which will make it perfect not just for its ambitious planned program of plays, which are already scheduled, but also for an enhanced program of late night cabarets, comedy shows and jazz which will really revive this patch.
Ghost Quartet itself is a strikingly inventive song cycle, on the theme of ghost stories, which draws inspiration from a rich tapestry of work encompassing the Arabian Nights, Edgar Allan Poe and Grimms’ fairy tales. It’s all woven together in 23 songs which stylistically run the gamut from gospel to honky-tonk, folk ballads, electro-pop and jazz. It’s an ambitious piece but soars because of the sheer quality of the singing and playing here.
Dave Malloy created it all for off Broadway initially involving himself and three friends who were at the time cast members in his own Tony nominated hit Broadway show Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. It was written specifically for performers who can double up as instrumentalists. There is no narrative line and they wittily emphasize this point by announcing track numbers before each song.
Such an exercise demands great music, which it has, but also an extremely talented cast who can master a range of instruments, have great vocal range, can pull off some exquisite close harmony numbers and basically come in with the confidence you gain from years of solid musical theater work. He gets all that with this cast.
Zubin Varla, as commanding as ever, leads on the piano and even channels some Theolonius Monk. Niccolò Curradi on cello has a twinkle in his eye which would make an audience pregnant and the two female leads Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon are both vocally mesmerizing. A thread about sisters and other female pairings runs through some of the songs and their chemistry here is perfect.
Directing the show is Bill Buckhurst whose claim to fame was taking a similar chamber approach to Sweeney Todd and staging that in a pie and mash shop in Tooting, no less. Word of its brilliance spread and soon it was off West End and then off Broadway where it became a phenomenon winning numerous awards and breaking records. Being a master of slimmed-down staging and scoring he was the perfect match for this material. David Gregory’s sound design too deserves special mention here.
Buckhurst exploits the warm intimacy of this space perfectly be it through having the cast distribute glasses of fine Scotch malt to the audience during an ode to whiskey or roping them in to enhance the percussion section. The 90-minute piece ends on a theatrical note which is both witty and devilish and it leaves the audience bereft and wanting more.