(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/26; Photo: Sheridan Smith in Opening Night.  Photograph: Jan Versweyveld.)

Gielgud Theatre, London
Smith plays a Broadway star in the midst of a mental crisis in Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright’s glittering and extravagantly original musical adaptation of the Cassavetes film

John Cassavetes’ 1977 film about a Broadway star in crisis might seem a natural fit for a stage adaptation. Then again, there is the risk of theatrical navel-gazing, and with its melange of gothicism, midlife angst and thespy drama, an odd narrative arc to navigate.

To throw songs into the mix – composed by Rufus Wainwright in his first foray into musical theatre – and swap the glacial queenliness of Gena Rowlands, who played troubled superstar Myrtle in the film, for the insuppressibly likable Sheridan Smith, might have been a step too far. Even for a writer-director with as much appetite for high-wire risk as Ivo van Hove.

Yet Opening Night is an extravagantly original production, every bit as eccentric as the film but also its own alchemical creation, more vivacious in this musical incarnation.

The trope of the brittle older woman in crisis is well worn, and Myrtle – an ageing alcoholic actor in meltdown over playing an even more ageing actor on stage – sits squarely alongside Blanche DuBois and Norma Desmond. We follow her as she is stalked by the ghost of a dead young fan, Nancy (Shira Haas), and contends with the desolations of stardom as well as the controlling men around her: Manny (Hadley Fraser), the play-within-the-play’s director who goes from charmer to bully in seconds; producer David (John Marquez); and former lover Maurice (Benjamin Walker).

But there is counterintuitive casting in Smith, who does not strive for Rowlands’ unreachability or dangerous magnetism. Instead her Myrtle has an earthbound glamour and a celebrity honed from hard graft, it seems, with a Brooklyn accent combined with a touch of Elizabeth Taylor. Smith brings vulnerability, even flecks of comedy, and makes Myrtle’s crisis modern, relatable – that of a woman wanting to age on her own terms.

There is compassionate treatment of the drama’s other midlife women too, from scriptwriter Sarah (Nicola Hughes, absolutely arresting) to Manny’s longsuffering wife Dorothy (Amy Lennox), who ruminate marital disappointment or menopausal hot flushes with disgruntled strength.

A film crew follow the fictive play’s rehearsals in a Broadway theatre, and a back screen gestures towards their captured footage. Jan Versweyveld’s set has a central sheer red curtain that captures the razzle of the theatre but also implicates our culture of celebrity voyeurism. There are many moving parts on stage, yet none of it feels like a churn.

The screen magnifies characters so we see their bloodshot eyes and tears. When Myrtle turns up drunk at the stage door on opening night, the screen shows her staggering at the back of the Gielgud theatre itself, a thrilling coup de hi-tech theatre which resembles the walk-about in Jamie Lloyd’s recent Sunset Boulevard but services the story better here. (Smith has said it attracts the passing crowd every night.)

The warmth of the production is counterintuitive too. Its tone is almost upbeat, but without clashing against Myrtle’s core anguish. Much of that is down to Wainwright’s slowly gorgeous music. The early songs have a springy, Chorus Line sound while later ones are full-bodied and tender with an edge of the operatic, bringing heat and intimacy to the drama.

Songs such as Meet Me at the Start, in which Myrtle confesses her love to Maurice, open up the show’s heart, while the soaring Ready for Battle, marking Myrtle’s comeback, turns her from a woman falling apart to one soldiering on, and raises hairs.

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