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‘Opening Night’ Review: Sheridan Smith’s Turn Cannot Save Ivo Van Hove and Rufus Wainwright’s Monotonous Musical Adaptation

At the start of the second half of Ivo Van Hove’s production of his own musical version of John Cassavetes’ ultra-Seventies backstager “Opening Night” — with music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright — the words “the aftermath” (in fashionable lower case) appear on the large screen that dominates the stage. The trouble is, the preceding storytelling has been so muddy, and the emotional temperature of the staging so leadenly unchanging, that audiences may well be asking, “The aftermath of what?”

Following the movie on which it’s based, the show follows the onstage/offstage life of Myrtle (Sheridan Smith), a leading actress who is as terrified of ageing as she is of the demands placed upon her as a star. She’s returning to Broadway in an experimental play and we watch her creating and navigating disasters everywhere from her dressing room to the rehearsal space, all the way up to opening night.

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But where Cassavetes artfully constructed Myrtle and built an intriguing blur between what is happening in her head and in the play being rehearsed, the blur here topples into a mess. Some of the fault for that is due to the decision to add an onstage crew, supposedly filming a documentary about the show and whose fierce close-up work is splashed on the screen.

One can, of course, weave multiple plot strands together to surreal but emotionally dazzling effect. But that requires a directorial clarity that’s lacking here, and the underwritten book and unfocused staging means the combination merely blurs. We’re insufficiently engaged to care. Even the early, pivotal death of Myrtle’s desperate young fan, Nancy (Shira Haas), who crucially comes back to haunt her, fails to register properly.

Given Van Hove’s rightly garlanded “A View from the Bridge” to his more controversial “West Side Story” and a flatlined “All About Eve” in London — asking for a literal, straightforward approach from the director is, for better and worse, pointless. But while productions like his successful take on “Network” used cameras and screen to visceral effect, repeating similar tricks at the expense of welding the audience to the material feels, at best, enervating.

Most problematically, the video work completely pulls focus. The actors are robbed of agency in the space since watching faces in tight, hard close-up (wildly unflattering when singing) is always going to be more attention-grabbing than watching them on the stage.

Nor is that lack of focus helped by the unchanging, cluttered set design which predominantly doubles as dressing-room and rehearsal space. And though it feels literal-minded to point this out, we keep being told we’re watching previews but Van Hove bafflingly leaves the director (underused Hadley Fraser), writer and creative team sitting on the side as if in the rehearsal room.

Wainwright famously recreated Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert and his first opera was entitled “Prima Donna,” so he’s absolutely no stranger to divadom. He will have spotted that there’s huge musical theater potential in a drama about a leading lady’s crippling self-doubt, the business of performance, and internal feelings vs. outward show. But his work here feels unshapely, too reflective and, crucially, unedited.

Typically writing his own excellent orchestrations, he provides effective underscoring from the Ravel-like opening strands to the punchy percussion and guitar of the desperate climactic sequence, but his meandering songs neither build nor guide the listener with any dramatic shape. Nor are his lyrics his finest work: Witness the oft-repeated “You gotta make magic out of tragic.”

Smith, an actor with a strong fan base who has been very public about her past demons with regard to her theatrical behavior (she famously exited Sonia Friedman’s 2016 revival of “Funny Girl” in a storm of bad publicity), is cunning casting. She’s game and the least of the show’s problems. She handles both music and character with dedication, and repeatedly seeing her tear-stained face in close-up shows how seriously she takes the role. But, as with all the characters, her material lacks the depth to allow her to shine. Van Hove is many things, but the least of them is a playwright.

As the onstage producer, John Marquez comes off best with a suddenly poignant number which turns sour. But like most of the characters, he’s merely functional. Most bizarre of all, having presented an evening of unremitting angst, a bizarrely amateurish “We’ve all been in a musical!” curtain-call is inexplicably added. That, if little else, will linger in the memory.

Late in the proceedings, Myrtle cries “This is so theatrical!” If only. What it certainly isn’t is dramatic.

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