Composer Richard Taylor once said to me that in his opinion there should be as many different words for musical theatre as the Eskimos have for snow. This sentiment, calling for a wide and diverse understanding of the possibilities of musical theatre remained with me throughout director Sally Cookson's creatively poignant new musical adaptation of La Strada, which has been brought to the stage from the iconic Fellini film of the same name. Grappling to find the appropriate words to describe this sensitive and bittersweet new musical it evokes an undeniable spirit that not only highlights the possibilities of musical theatre as a form but also progresses and shapes our understanding of the unlocked potential in musical storytelling.
Although it takes a while to settle into its chosen form as your brain adjusts to the method of musical storytelling that remains gloriously understated and mildly apologetic, Cookson's production weaves a careful and steady visual picture that slowly absorbs the audience rather than startle them straight out of the gate. Unlike most musicals which aim to grab you by the collar from the off it unpacks its delights gradually with ultimate faith in its material and presentation that draws you further in and softly enchants with its careful beauty.
Fellini's film acts as a basis rather than a blueprint which allows the piece to expand in style and substance as the overall aesthetic becomes as important as plot and narrative drive. Whilst it remains quietly cinematic in style the adventure element of the story works in synthesis with the self discovery, opening a small window into Fellini's world without aggressively pushing a dramatic choice or moral. Gelsomina, a compliant and likeable figure is sold by her mother to a travelling showman Zampano for 10,000 lira in order to escape a life of desperation. Zampano takes her under his somewhat aggressive wing and introduces her to the economics of the travelling life, helping her hone and find a desirable craft. Their relationship remains nervous until Gelsomina discovers the life and colour of the circus and through her relationship with a mischievous tightrope-walker her spirit lifts and she begins to realise her full potential.
Much of the artistry in Gelsomina's journey comes from Audrey Brisson's tender and acquiescent portrayal that blends a Charlie Chaplin-like manner with that of a wide-eyed absorbing clown. Her mannered walk, slight voice and piercing soprano beautifully evoke the spirit of the whole production that manages to feel both distant and inviting almost simultaneously. Cookson allows us to see the world through her eyes and for all the deprivation that the period suggests, the slight colour and wonder with which she discovers the escapism of the circus tent breeds a unfathomable joy that manages to warm the entire stage.
There's careful support from Stuart Goodwin's intimidating and commanding Zampano that would benefit from some further development to help us unlock his emotionally conflicted persona. Bullish and rogue he cuts apart from the ethereal ensemble that make up the many characters throughout their journey, balanced effectively by the impish Fool played with great skill by Bart Soroczynski, bringing the circus nature of the piece to life with ample dexterity and gentle wit.
As a narrative the piece could develop a sense of urgency as the stakes never fully feel high enough. Whilst this matches the understated tone of the production it does reduce our emotional capacity to invest in the otherwise linear narrative. I found myself moved by the artistry of the stagecraft and the telling of the story rather than the story itself; some synergy between the two would allow a greater resolve and payoff. At times the efficiency of a traditional bookwriter is lost with much of the script being created from the rehearsal room shows in its delivery, but this gives the production breathing room and no doubt area for further development.
Benji Bower's score remains filmic through themes and diegetic music that doesn't allow characters to sing their feelings but instead paint an appropriate canvass for such feelings to be displayed. Stunningly presented by the talented cast of actor-musicians it blends folk and a melancholy authentic sound that creates atmosphere rather than drive plot or character development whilst always remaining truly integral to the production.
Cookson and movement director Cameron Carver offer a masterclass of stagecraft and theatrical ingenuity that moves effortlessly from one stunning visual to the next without ever feeling showy or flamboyant. The overall atmosphere and spirit of Fellini's work is beautifully mastered which creates a quietly affecting and hauntingly beautiful piece of total theatre.
La Strada runs at The Richmond Theatre until 4 March, before a UK tour and run at The Other Palace in London from 30 May to 8 July 2017.
La Strada Tickets are now on sale