We were in the "Walnut Street Theatre" in downtown Philadelphia and a visit to the oldest theatre in America would be incomplete without watching an actual performance on its stage. We had no confirmed reservation and fell back upon the "Standby" ticketing system, which provides seats in case confirmed seat ticket holders do not show up before the doors to the auditorium close, for whatever reasons. The show time was 8 PM and we were asked to wait in the lobby. Just before the show was about to commence, we were allowed entry and advised to take the nearest available seats. To our luck, we found excellent seats which may not have probably been available had we reserved in advance.
The play for the day was a musical, titled "Aspects of Love", based on a novel by David Garnett. It is a romantic musical filled with passion, love and loss across three generations of a family and their companions, and is set against the background of 1940's France and Italy. Alex Dillingham, a young student traveling through France, falls in love with the alluring actress Rose Vibert. As the pair embark on a passionate affair, the unexpected arrival of Alex's uncle changes their lives forever. This is a love story spanning twenty years binding six people and three generations as they come to appreciate that "love changes everything." Andrew Lloyd Webber's soaring melodies touch our heart and make this an enjoyable musical evening.
The play unfolds in a total of 38 scenes, 21 before the intermission and 17 thereafter. The places are Paris, a small theatre and a cafe in Montpelier in Southern France, Pau again in France, Venice, a military camp in Malaya, and in two Railway stations, inside a Railway compartment, a Circus, A Registry Office for Marriages, Back stage of a Grand Theatre in Paris and a Vineyard in Pau, besides inside a house in Pau. The total impact of the play was highlighted by the use of the stage and arrangement of the sets, in pace with the movement of the story. The moving stage area was perfectly and fully used to show the change in locations without any loss of time. Though the action shifted from one place or location to the other, there were no interruptions and wastage of time. By the time one scene is completed, arrangement for the next set is completed behind the stage and the rotating movement of the stage brings the other part of the stage to the front, before the actors move and enter from the other side. In most of the drama we see, much of the effect is left to the imagination of the audience and the stage does not show the physical evidence of the time and place. Here the actual items were physically present and together with the light effects and projection of slides took the audience to the time and place of action itself. A subtle use of the projectors, optimum use stage space and the sets with appropriate lighting provided the total impact as if the action is actually happening in the location being mentioned as well as in the time period in which the action is said to be taking place.
One of the scenes was in a Cafe in Montpelier immediately after a scene in a small theatre. Just as the theatre scene ended, the rotating stage moved and there was a cafe ready with a mini bar with all the liquor bottles and glassware of different shapes and sizes, four tables as they use in a bistro, in its original Parisian incarnation of a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting. As the main players went on with their actions on one of the tables, there was continuous action on the other three tables as well, with guests being given the Menu, waiters taking orders, wine and food being served, guests eating and drinking and bills being presented and paid. If any spectator is watching the other tables only, ignoring the main characters, it was a bistro at regular and brisk business. The other players like the customers and waiters moved in and out unobtrusively and without affecting the movement of the main characters. There were three bedroom scenes in the play and there were in actual three different full size cots, a wooden double cot with a bed and accessories, a steel double cot with accessories and a bed and a child's bed for the child artiste. In a Green Room scene, there was a regular big mirror, all the make up material and an actual ten feet tall wardrobe with three to four dozen different dresses in them! When a person had to enter a room, the entry was through a 15 feet high decorated door as we see in Paris and Europe. The Circus scene was full with men, women and children holding balloons, a juggler with his hat-trick show, two artistes making jumping scenes and a full range balloon shooting outfit with rifles for shooting balloons and toys and stuffed rabbits being given away as prizes. A scene for serving breakfast actually consisted of a servant bring in a breakfast tray with regular breakfast items and coffee pots. The railway station scene brought the full effect of Gare Du Nord station in Paris by a subtle projection of the ceilings of the station and other fittings giving an impression that we are actually revisiting the station.
The total effect of all the above has a considerable impact on the viewer and enhances the experience. It is possible to bring any effect in a movie, but considering the limitations of space and time available to a drama troupe, the effort was a display of dramatic excellence at its best.
Among the forthcoming plays this season are "The King and I" (remember the film by the same name with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr), "The Mousetrap" and two other musicals. We did enjoy every moment of our visit to the "Walnut Street Theatre" as well as the show "Aspects of Love".