The week in theatre: Opening Night; MJ the Musical – review

<span>‘She wins our sympathy from the start’: Sheridan Smith as Broadway star Myrtle in Opening Night.</span><span>Photograph: Jan Versweyveld</span>
‘She wins our sympathy from the start’: Sheridan Smith as Broadway star Myrtle in Opening Night.Photograph: Jan Versweyveld

Ivo van Hove is a director who gives his audiences the illusion of privileged access – the thrilling sense that he is showing his workings; that even behind-the-scenes actions are sometimes shared. This reaches its climax in Opening Night, based on John Cassavetes’s spellbinder of a film (1977), which Van Hove first adapted for the stage in 2006 and is now revisiting in a new musical version by the American-Canadian singer-songwriter and composer Rufus Wainwright. On the face of it, this is a perfect vehicle for the Belgian director (who is also responsible for the book), and for his gifted designer, Jan Versweyveld, because it is a narrative in which rehearsals dominate.

Moments before the show gets going, you see through scarlet gauze – a non-safety curtain – into the secret life of theatre: dressing room mirrors framed in lights, a bouquet of wine-dark roses, long tables at which the company sits. And seeing through becomes the name of the game. Opening Night is about seeing through to the reality behind a play, witnessing rehearsals, understanding the protesting actor at the heart of the drama. It could be seen as a chaotic, feminine companion piece to Sam Mendes’s brilliant and decorous exploration of the subject in last year’s The Motive and the Cue.

Sheridan Smith plays the Broadway star Myrtle – knowingly cast in that she is a double Olivier award-winning star who has had her own struggles with fame. Wisely, she does not attempt to compete with the film’s blond diva, Gena Rowlands – her darker hair in itself a statement of intent – but she wins our sympathy from the start. I was struck, in particular, by her eloquent breathlessness, as if Myrtle could never quite trust her voice not to misbehave. The play within the play, The Second Woman, is about a woman of a certain age. Myrtle revolts against the nothingness of the role, pronouncing it “alien” and claiming, refreshingly, that “age isn’t interesting”.

As Jackson, Myles Frost has all the moves, and his feet slide along the floor as if it were slippery butter

The idea of the “second woman” enters Myrtle’s actual life too, when a teenage fan asks for her autograph and is, almost immediately afterwards, killed by a passing car. Myrtle becomes obsessed with the dead girl. She lipsticks NANCY on her dressing room mirror, and Nancy comes back to haunt her. In the film, Nancy is a disturbed and disturbing alter ego. In the musical, she convinces more as a warm whirlwind of an imaginary friend, miraculously played by the Israeli actor Shira Haas with a beautiful smile and searching voice, a tiny seraph in ripped denim.

Interrogating the subject of getting older in a musical is not new (think of Follies). But in the film, Cassavetes develops his themes in a clear, painful and unmediated way, while in this musical there are distractions so that the narrative gets snarled up and psychological development is harder to follow.

The problem is partly that songs have to overwork to reveal the story. And although Wainwright’s music is enjoyable – jazzy, tending towards melancholy, big on brass and easy on the ear – the lyrics are seldom up to the job. Often, words shrivel under the limelight. Take the puzzlingly flat “You wanna know why I got married?/ Just ask the trees in the garden/ They’ve got the answers, I say.” Or: “The world is broken/ My heart is open.” It is not the non-rhyme that bothers so much as the underdeveloped vagueness, a lyric that lacks the will to live.

Related: ‘It’s so close to the bone’: Sheridan Smith on her very public meltdown – and reliving it on stage

But the cast is first-rate. Sarah, writer of The Second Woman, is played splendidly by Nicola Hughes, even if it remains unclear as to exactly why she should hang on defiantly to the cipher she has created for the stage. Benjamin Walker is excellent, too, as Maurice, ex-husband and leading man, his body language speaking of a relaxation bordering on contempt. Hadley Fraser as the show’s director, Manny, is plausible in his complacent masculinity.

We alternate between watching what happens on stage and what is projected on to a huge screen behind it. Every night, Sheridan Smith is filmed afresh, lurching into the theatre. And every night, the audience is filmed, filing into the foyer. Towards the end of the show we get to see the arresting footage, which turns out to be more compelling than it should be: when the audience becomes the show, something else must have got lost en route. Opening Night is tantalising. It bewilders, beguiles and overpowers – an almost hit.

We are back in rehearsals again with MJ, a musical about Michael Jackson – a success in its current Broadway version, which premiered in 2022. In London, several talented actors play the king of pop at different ages, but it’s the older Jackson, Myles Frost, from the original show, who stands out. In signature black fedora with brim pulled down, he has Jackson’s unearthly grace, the little boy always evident in the man. He has all the moves, and his feet slide along the floor as if it were slippery butter. His speaking voice is spot-on: soft, fey, wistful. His singing voice is less than ideal and sometimes seems on automatic pilot. But he is scintillatingly elegant in the remastering of Billie Jean – complete with suitcase, sequined black jacket and sparkling glove – and his Thriller is thrilling, as it needs to be. The virtuoso choreographer Christopher Wheeldon also directs.

What comes over most strongly, when not performing, is that this Jackson, as sometimes in life, has the look of a victim – an air of straggly apology, as though he knew some facts about his life were likely to tell against him. How to tell his story? Playwright Lynn Nottage meets the dicey challenge with a skilfully edited version (accusations of paedophilia out of the frame). She employs the familiar device of a visiting reporter to hold the narrative together while Wheeldon gloriously converts journalism into a profession livelier than any hack would recognise, with a boogying press conference and an interview in which Jackson’s responses are dance moves. “But is it perfect?” Jackson asks himself at the end, to which, although this is a fab show, the answer would have to be: “No.”

Star ratings (out of five)
Opening Night ★★★★
MJ ★★★★