The American premiere of the British musical “London Road” seems to pull off the impossible. The mesmerizing but highly complex score requires singers and musicians who can manage its intricate rhythms with precision yet still act their songs in the guise of the mostly-lower-middle-class English city dwellers they portray. Director Elizabeth Margolius’ cast has mastered the accents and affects of their characters so that, to this American at least, they seemed spot-on. Early in the show Anne Sheridan Smith, always a wonderful singer and actress, appears as a woman with a hard-to-wear stiff upper lip. There’s a brief bit of dialogue and a song about the garden competition that is organized to bring some normalcy to a neighborhood that was deeply shaken by the murders of five women sex workers. Smith is so deeply in character in voice and body that one wonders how the rest of the cast can complete the community as convincingly, and for the length of a show. They do.
In nearly any other musical, the verisimilitude might not matter as much, but the book and song lyrics in “London Road” are crafted from recorded interviews conducted in Ipswich along the blocks near the house where the murderer, Steve Wright, slaughtered his victims. The characters are far from glamorous, and the work depends on them not coming across as cartoons. This musical is not that kind of entertainment. The elements that might have been played up, such as the details of the crime, the gross dereliction of duty by city and law enforcement officials who didn’t have the time or energy to heed the early warning signs in a declining part of town, and the media sensationalism are present, but not in the spotlight. Instead, the show focuses on the anxieties and fight for justice and normalcy among the neighbors. One common trope about musicals is that the songs begin when plain talk fails. The music in “London Road” rarely stops because words alone—especially words muted by English polite endurance—are at utter failure. It’s an unusual stage work and unusually powerful, too.
Each cast member takes on multiple roles with aplomb. Among the many other standouts are Leslie Ann Sheppard, Rengin Altay, Christina Gorman, Steve Peebles, Linda Reiter, and Steven Schaeffer. The superb pit orchestra is under the baton of Andra Velis Simon. Another triumph of the show is the costume design by Austin Winter who also must have put in a Herculean effort to master all that British frump.
There is a movie version of “London Road,” which I am glad I had not seen before this fine staging. My guess is that it suits the stage better than the screen. Congratulations to Shattered Globe for landing the premiere and doing such an ace job.
“London Road,” Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773)975-8150, sgtheatre.org. Through June 11.