Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

'Viva Forever!' or Maybe Not ; the Spice Girls Musical Really, Really Arrives; 2 One-Acts Enliven National

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

'Viva Forever!' or Maybe Not ; the Spice Girls Musical Really, Really Arrives; 2 One-Acts Enliven National

Article excerpt

The much-discussed Spice Girls tribute musical arrives on stage with much froth. At the National, two Alan Bennett one-acts are much needed grace notes.

Here's one of the more polite questions that occurred to me midway through "Viva Forever!," the show scored to the back catalog of the Spice Girls that brought a limp year for new musicals (that's to say, 2012) to a sputtering halt: When is the production actually going to start?

To be sure, the director Paul Garrington's staging had already been creaking along for an hour or so by the time the query popped into my head. But whereas some misbegotten shows do a self-evident crash-and-burn -- or announce their ill-advised intentions with perverse gusto -- "Viva Forever!" on opening night arrived at the halfway point as if everyone involved were, figuratively speaking, still waiting in the wings.

It wasn't until curtain down that it became apparent that here was no epic "so-bad-it's-good" clunker on the order of "Which Witch" or "King," to cite two flop musicals of old that in their day also played the Piccadilly Theatre. Instead, this thematic follow-up to "Mamma Mia!," the ongoing Abba-fueled phenomenon with which "Viva Forever!" shares several creative personnel, starting with the producer Judy Craymer, is in essence a small, sad show trapped inside the inevitably bludgeoning amount of hype.

Not that the Spice Girls themselves feature live in the show in any way. Yes, the glammed-up gals were on hand at the pre-Christmas premiere and took to the stage at the close of the performance for a photo opportunity marked out by the apparently unyielding sullenness of Posh Spice (aka Victoria Beckham), who seemed to regard her erstwhile colleagues with the level of enthusiasm Macbeth reserves for the ghost of Banquo.

But for all the gathering talk over time about a piece that has been some while in the making (and, in fact, shed an initial director, the Tony-winning Marianne Elliott, very early on), the finished product seems bewilderingly inchoate. It's as if all involved never got beyond the phase of thrashing out ideas on a napkin over a drink or two.

As it happens, alcohol might help soften resistance to a narrative that comes with its own degree of leglessness, to co-opt a wonderful British synonym for the state of inebriation in which one or another of the characters in "Viva Forever!" at various points find themselves.

Those familiar with "Mamma Mia!," which after the success not just of the stage musical but of its 2008 film adaptation must be sizable swaths of the globe, will recognize this show's central dynamic. Here once again is a single mother locked in tetchy if eventually loving combat with her daughter, both of whom will impart easily digested life lessons on the way to the preordained megamix finale.

It helps, I suppose, that the pop ballad "Mama" is among the 20- plus Spice Girls numbers folded with varying degrees of finesse into Jennifer Saunders's surprisingly half-hearted script. But whereas "Mamma Mia!" takes place on a Greek island, thereby allowing for glimpses of sun and sea to go with an often scantily clad ensemble, "Viva Forever!" shifts between a houseboat in Camden Town in north London and the shallower byways of the reality-television industry.

Viva (Hannah-Jane Kamen), you have to understand, likes solidarity and girl power as much as the next fame-happy 19-year- old, but what is she to do when offered the opportunity to break away from her girl-group chums and go it alone, egged on by the vampy talent show judge, Simone, who becomes her mentor?

In that senior role, the dark-eyed Sally Dexter offers a caricature of a caricature, though "Viva Forever!" on Ms. Dexter's resume surely widens a breadth of work that includes the Royal Shakespeare Company and the original cast of the Patrick Marber play, "Closer. …

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