A special report on London theater -- EW reviews British stagings of ''Some Girl(s),'' ''Mary Poppins,'' ''Billy Elliot,'' and more

July 08, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

A special report on London theater

SOME GIRL(S) It’s telling that Neil LaBute calls his main character Man. Like his name, Man is vague, generic, unfeeling — and so is the play he inhabits. When the soon-to-be-married guy (David Schwimmer, underplaying nicely) calls on four bitter ex-girlfriends, we expect bile, mutiny, and fiery rages; instead we get halfhearted stings (”I’ll bet hurt is your number one by-product”) and lame one-liners. Since when does the take-no-prisoners playwright let his characters — and audiences — off so easily? (011 44 870 890 1105) C+Melissa Rose Bernardo

MARY POPPINS What works in this Disney adaptation of the 1964 film, including magical stagecraft and mesmerizing choreography by Brit ballet bard Matthew Bourne, works very well indeed. What doesn’t is a saggy first act that dawdles on new numbers like an existential ode to domestic discontent whose chorus actually begins ”Being Mrs. Banks. . . .” Title nanny Laura Michelle Kelly may not be ”practically perfect in every way,” but she nails the slightly arch tone of P.L. Travers’ book and creates a Jung-at-heart heroine. (011 44 870 850 9191) BThom Geier

BILLY ELLIOT The elements that make this a first-rate stage musical version of Stephen Daldry’s 2000 film also render it unfriendly to Broadway. Elton John’s score is notably mature, but draws more on folk, protest songs, and music-hall traditions than on his pop roots. The show, set during the 1984 miners’ strike in northeast England (the program includes a glossary to decipher regional dialogue), boasts a neo-socialist political agenda, unapologetically skewering Maggie Thatcher. And the ballet-dancing preteen hero, played by one of three hypertalented actors performing in rotation, spouts the F-word repeatedly. But while the particulars may be off-putting to American audiences, the theatrical catharsis achieved by a small-town boy earning his moment in the spotlight is blissfully universal. (011 44 870 895 5577) A-TG

DEATH OF A SALESMAN In 1999, Robert Falls’ Broadway revival feted the 50th anniversary of what’s arguably the greatest of the great American plays. This remounting is an unofficial tribute to playwright Arthur Miller, who passed on in February. Brian Dennehy reprises his rafter-shaking turn as Willy Loman — ”a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine” — and Brit Clare Higgins is a stellar Linda. Falls has called Salesman ”a gift,” and we’re only too obliged to receive. (011 44 870 890 1107) A-MRB

GUYS AND DOLLS Moulin Rouge proved Ewan McGregor could sing, but who thought he could do it live eight times a week? The sweet-voiced tenor is all swagger and sparkle as gangster-with-a-soft-streak Sky Masterson. This spot-on, sellout — and, one hopes, Broadway-bound — revival plays up the laughs in Frank Loesser’s musical-comedy classic, particularly Jenna Russell’s loose-limbed turn as Sky’s evangelizing love interest, Sarah. Heck, she almost manages to upstage Ally McBeal‘s Jane Krakowski, whose cold-suffering perpetual fiancée Adelaide deservedly remains the show’s most beloved shtick figure. (011 44 870 060 0123) ATG

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