Even if you’re not familiar with David Lean’s 1946 movie melodrama Brief Encounter, you will find yourself caught up in writer-director Emma Rice’s brilliantly reconceived stage adaptation, now playing at Broadway’s Studio 54 following a successful run last winter at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. (EW's original review). Despite playing in a much-larger theater, the show loses nothing of its considerable wit or charm.
The show is set in 1930s England and charts the brief love affair between middle-aged housewife Laura (Hannah Yelland, both forthright and touching) and married doctor Alec (a solid Tristan Sturrock). But Rice has restructured Noël Coward’s original story and amplified it with musical numbers (the songs come from the Coward songbook, naturally). Rice also provides a fresh take on a romance usually noted for its stiff-upper-lip restraint: She downplays the melodrama (and the Rachmaninoff of the Lean film) and heightens the comedy and the role of minor characters.
As befits what is now a musical comedy, we also get parallel couples: In addition to Laura and Alec, we meet gawky tea girl Beryl (a delightful Dorothy Atkinson) and her cigarette-boy beau Stanley (Gabriel Ebert), and Beryl’s lusty boss, Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), and dispatcher Albert (Joseph Alessi, who also plays Laura’s second-fiddle husband). Laura and Alec thus serve as straight-man foils for all the human comedy that surrounds them. The effect is to mitigate the potential sappiness of the material.
The narrative speeds merrily along, aided by some wickedly smart stagecraft from Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre of Cornwall. Neil Murray’s costumes and versatile set smartly lay out the scene, from suburban home to railway station. And Gemma Carrinton and Jon Driscoll’s projections cleverly bridge the gap between stage and screen (the characters literally leap through a screen on the stage, then appear as figures on the film projections). These technical innovations would mean nothing if Rice and her spot-on cast were not serving the story. And that they do. This show is still a pip.
And don’t rush out the door after the curtain call. The fun continues in the back of the auditorium as the show’s on-stage ensemble perform a series of decidedly modern tunes in period style (playing banjo, ukulele, stand-up bass, and spoons). You’ve never heard Journey’s ”Don’t Stop Believin”’ or Sister Sledge’s ”We Are Family” in quite the same way. A-
(Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212.719.1300)