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October 1, 2010

TT: They can't dance (don't ask them)

My second drama column in this morning's Wall Street Journal, which appears in the Greater New York section, is a review of the Broadway transfer of The Pitmen Painters. Very much to my surprise, I liked it. Here's an excerpt.

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If you flipped over "Billy Elliot," then the Manhattan Theatre Club is clearly hoping that you'll do a double backflip for "The Pitmen Painters," a new play by Lee Hall, who wrote the book for the hit musical about an English coal miner's son who becomes a ballet dancer. This time around, Mr. Hall has given us a fictionalized version of the real-life story of the Ashington Group of Unprofessional Artists, a bunch of Depression-era miners who took a course in art appreciation and subsequently became famous painters (though only briefly so--they're forgotten today) while continuing to dig coal. The difference is that nobody in "The Pitmen Painters" wears toe shoes or lifts his voice in song to express the heartfelt hope that Margaret Thatcher will fry in hell. Otherwise, the two shows are strikingly similar, both being political tearjerkers that are deeply rooted in the labyrinthine peculiarities of the British class system. In fact, there's only one significant difference between them: "The Pitmen Painters" is good.

deluge.jpgNot great, you understand, so don't be fooled by the near-hysterical quotes from London's critical corps that have been trotted out as sucker bait for Manhattan theatergoers. Stripped of the finger-wagging socialist sermonizing that spoils the last ten minutes of the play, "The Pitmen Painters" is a "Full Monty"-type commercial comedy about five working-class blokes with inch-thick accents ("We just want to knaa aboot proper art") who turn out to be smarter, nobler and more talented than Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly), the well-meaning but unconsciously patronizing university man who deigns to introduce them to the joys of painting. But if you don't mind going along with Mr. Hall and the accomplished ensemble cast that executes his well-worn tricks, you'll find "The Pitmen Painters" to be both entertaining and touching--as well as unexpectedly intelligent whenever the characters discuss the art form that has changed their lives....

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The print version of the Journal's Greater New York section only appears in copies of the paper published in the New York area, but the complete contents of the section are available on line, and you can read my review of The Pitmen Painters by going here.

Posted October 1, 2010 12:00 AM

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