Since being re-branded The Other Palace Theatre in February and re-opening with a blazingly original new production of Michael John LaChiusa's short-lived Broadway musical The Wild Party, the former St James has been making headway with its project to become a major home for the development (or re-development) of new musicals. Just this week a studio reading of Heathers (a musical version of the 1988 film that was seen off-Broadway in 2014) sold out its entire run.
So what is going on upstairs in the main house? Is La Strada an attempt to rehabilitate the famous Broadway flop musical version of Fellini's 1954 film masterpiece that opened and closed on the same night in December 1969 (and lost its investors a then-massive $650,000, the equivalent of almost £4.5 million today)? The New York Times critic Clive Barnes complained of it, "The book is weak, and the music and lyrics by Lionel Bart are undistinguished to the point of Muzak-like oblivion." The show is remembered today, if at all, for providing Bernadette Peters with her first leading Broadway role, with Barnes saying of her performance, "In a different show the birdlike and croaky Bernadette Peters would have become a star overnight."
Actually, no: its an entirely new show, and -- despite a prodigious amount of music running through it -- not really a musical at all. Songs are not used to advance the action; rather, music and snatches of song underscore it throughout. So it may not exactly sit with the new mission of the theatre, though it does provide a bold pointer for how music can become integral to a show.
It is directed by Sally Cookson, whose work and working methods of devising theatre with her company, are gaining great traction now with her stage version of Jane Eyre seen at the National soon to tour the UK and Peter Pan produced at the National last Christmas. But those are both classic works of literature; a classic work of cinema is a different proposition, as it already has a visual language of its own.
Yet Cookson and her company magnificently conjure a fresh and dynamic vision that re-tells this haunting story of a young woman's enslavement to a street and circus performer on its own terms. On a stage of bare wooden boards, a beautifully atmospheric world is conjured with the simplest of resources: an onstage band, a few crates and some tyres are all it takes.
As played by the tiny but terrific Audrey Brisson, Gelsomina's journey is heartbreakingly charted, as she is bullied by strongman Zampano (Stuart Goodwin), a man who makes his money by freeing himself from iron chains, but who chains her emotionally and financially. When a circus fool and acrobat (Bart Soroczynski) enters their lives, the stage is set for a confrontation that may finally free her.
The show, meanwhile, banishes all memories of that ill-fated 1969 Broadway version, and creates its own spellbinding reality.
La Strada tickets are on sale to 8 July 2017.