Monthly Archives: March 2017

An American in Paris (Dominion Theatre)

The poster and publicity for this present it as ‘a new musical’, but that might surprise the Gershwins, who wrote this parade of songs (some from the 1951 film, some from other sources) which move along the story of Jerry Mulligan – here played by alternate Ashley Day in his debut in the role – and Lise Dassin, played by Leanne Cope, who also did the role on Broadway.

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He’s a soldier who stays in Paris after the Nazi occupation has been routed to become an artist, as idealistic Americans often do.  He keeps seeing pretty Lise and falls hard for her, knowing it cannot just be coincidence.  Soon they start meeting by the Seine, but she doesn’t want to discuss her past or personal circumstances.

Abrasive Adam Hochberg (David Seadon-Young) is the piano player and the commentator on the action, and it was fun to see him deal with a technical malfunction in the first scene which stopped the show at the big reveal of the video projection: we were soon off again, though, into the busy streets where Nazi sympathisers were still about and idealistic Frenchmen like Henri Baurel saw lucrative futures for them across the Channel.

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Jerry finds a patroness in the ‘international dilettante’ Milo Davenport (Zoë Rainey), a Ginger Rogers-like cougar who likes a lot more than his paintings, while on the periphery Henri’s parents M and Mme Baurel (Julian Forsyth and Jane Asher) worry about their son’s lack of interest in settling down to marriage, and slowly find their shared love of jazz music coming to the fore again.

The leads are required to mix styles from both grand ballet and musical theatre (Day is primarily from the latter, but his moves look stellar enough to me, and he has a glorious toothy smile which makes you warm to the character; Cope is a ballerina but displays a fine singing voice in her solo ‘The Man I Love’), and the show benefits from a talented company of dancers, swings and chorus.

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The sets need to be mentioned: Bob Crowley (formerly with the National and the RSC) is scene and costume designer, and 59 Productions Ltd are responsible for the many projections which conjure up time and place, as well as a feeling of being in a city which celebrates the creative arts.  And the music by George Gershwin with lyrics by brother Ira both feel timeless and a world away, with the friend scene-setting of ‘I Got Rhythm’ rubbing shoulders with Jerry’s solo ‘I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck’ and the four-part ‘For You, For Me, For Everymore’.

A couple of things I would change: ‘Stairway to Paradise’ cries out to be a huge production number with showgirls from the start, and Adam’s part is really reduced (OK, he’s not Oscar Levant who was essentially playing himself in the film, but still) so we lose some of the humour and asides the character could make.  There’s also something of a running joke of Henri being possibly gay which felt forced.

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Christopher Wheeldon directs and choreographs in the old style, and he does brilliantly, using his cast and his orchestrations (by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott, conducted by John Rigby).  This is just a good old-fashioned musical, with great tunes, more than competently performed.

And yes there is a long ballet to the ‘An American in Paris’ suite, full of eye-popping colours and flashy moves, punctuated by some tender pas de deux between Day and Cope.  Elsewhere, there are mirrors and windows, and misunderstandings, and even a Jew in hiding subplot, but the story isn’t really why we’re here.  Superlative.


Shirley Valentine (Richmond Theatre)

Willy Russell’s witty and poignant monologue is currently on its 30th anniversary UK tour, with Jodie Prenger playing the part of the mother and wife who grabs the opportunity to go to Greece for ‘sun, sea and taramasalata’.

When we first meet her she’s preparing a meal of chips and egg for her husband Joe, while talking to the wall and to us about this opportunity to go abroad with her friend Jane, and about her children Malandra and Brian, and her old schoolfriend Marjorie who has grown wealthy travelling the world as a hooker.

Shirley-V-83-700x455Jodie Prenger, photo by Manuel Harlan

Shirley Bradshaw, as she is now, has no time for adventure, and has seen the romance slowly decline from her marriage.  Her daughter takes her for granted, and her son has become something of a dropout (the story about his Nativity play appearance is a hoot).  She wonders where the girl she once was has gone and finds herself, at 42, afraid of ‘the life beyond the wall’.

Act 1 introduces these main characters, plus next-door neighbour, nosy Gillian.  Prenger gives Shirley a believable voice, although her accent wavers now and then.  In her very detailed 80s kitchen, with the dated decor she and Joe painted a lifetime ago when they were in love, splashing each other with paint and then washing it off together in the bath, she confides that she is now ignored and although Joe claims he loves her, he’d hardly notice if she wasn’t there.

By Act 2, she’s got her suitcase packed and is ready for Greece in an eye-poppingly awful hat and suit.  There’s a story about her temptation to buy M&S scanties and shocking Gillian with a tall tale about a lover, which her neighbour believes, dropping off a silk robe for Shirley to wear on holiday.

Shirley-V-122_1000_667Jodie Prenger, photo by Manuel Harlan

Act 3 is in Greece, where Shirley has swapped her wall for a rock to talk to, and has discovered love while skinny dipping with Costas from the local taverna (‘I call him Christopher Columbus’).  It’s a holiday fling, as transient as the dream she has of sitting and drinking wine by the sea, but slowly the confidence returns and Shirley Valentine, as she once was, overshadows Mrs Bradshaw.

There are laugh out loud moments in this clever play (‘Gooey’ being one of them, and the anecdote about the stretch marks another), but I found the ending rather sad in a way, as we guess that Shirley may eventually go back to England and home and family, and go back to the life of cooking for Joe and talking to the wall.  Is her Greek adventure simply a middle-aged fantasy?


Amadeus (National Theatre, Olivier)

This production of Peter Shaffer’s play came to a close last night, but returns to the National in 2018, so don’t despair if you missed out this time.

The Oscar-winning film, made in 1984, might be the version most people know of this play, but that was considerably opened out with some plot points changed.  F Murray Abraham gained a Best Actor win for his performance as Salieri, the Court Composer who wished to remain as immortal as his professional foe, the childish yet supremely gifted Mozart.  Mozart himself was played by Tom Hulce, who gave the role a considered amount of pathos alongside the hyper crudeness of the man.

I mention all this because I rate the film as one of my all-time favourites.  I have seen the play performed before, at the Theatre Royal York, fourteen years ago, with Malcolm Rennie as Salieri and Daniel Hart as Mozart, in a production directed by Tim Luscombe.  Looking back now, it seems the press didn’t think much of it, and it was presented very much as an intimate monologue by a man well aware of his own mediocrity.

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The National’s revival, directed by Michael Longhurst, is a large-scale production which uses the Olivier’s drum revolve as an orchestra pit, presents dance versions of Mozart’s greatest pieces, and suffers from an absolutely ghastly performance from Adam Gillen as the precocious composer who crashes about, pouting, posturing, gurning, and lisping, throughout.  Some may argue this is the part ‘as written’ but it has no colour, no gradients, no balance, and as such is a fatal flaw in the play for me.  You may wish to laugh at Mozart or even cringe at his foul-mouthed excesses, but when the play turns tragic and the final scenes require pathos, I didn’t get any sense of it.

 

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Lucian Msamati plays Salieri, and, some curious accent choices aside (if you’re playing Italian you either play it throughout, or don’t bother), he is very good indeed, whether ingratiating himself with the audience, or raging at the God who has left him with the ambition to achieve fame, but has bestowed only an average talent, destined to be forgotten.

His ravings as an old man, wheelchair-bound, and stating that he killed the great composer Mozart, is not believed, and so in obscurity his name will remain.  I didn’t care for the modern-dress staging of the early scenes, where the orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia, who are wonderful) take selfies on their phones, and Salieri takes a pause to guzzle Krispy Kremes.

But the music – and the set staging for these pieces – can forgive a great deal and elevate a middling and long-winded production into something rather more.  You may agree with Tom Edden’s Joseph II, who complains that there are ‘too many words’, but I guarantee you will be moved by the Kyrie from the Requiem.


Honeymoon in Vegas (London Palladium)

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra presented a special concert version of ‘Honeymoon in Vegas: The Musical’ last night at the London Palladium, conducted by the composer, Jason Robert Brown.

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Based on the 1992 film, this musical teams a rather silly story with an old-fashioned but punchy score from Jason Robert Brown, who also penned the lyrics, which are sometimes clever but now and again straying into the area of corn (a ballad ‘Out of the Sun’ provoked giggles across the auditorium with its SPF references and it didn’t quite hit the funny/touching vibe I suspect the song should have).

The book by Andrew Bergman is slight but keeps the action moving, and even in a concert version, images of Vegas showgirls and parachuting Elvii (a definite showstopping number referencing the stance and vocal inflections of the King) are effortlessly conjured up.

Arthur Darvill’s Jack opens up proceedings with one of those delightful list songs, ‘I Love Betsy’, which references all the things his girlfriend likes (“she likes hockey, no, I swear / she likes guys with thinning hair’) while celebrating his love for her.  He puts the song across well, with good engagement with the audience while acting out the text.  His singing was a nice surprise as well, with an old-timer charm.

Betsy is played by Samantha Barks who is slinky and playful, but stronger in her solo numbers (especially ‘Betsy’s Getting Married’ which sizzles and fizzes) than in her duets with Darvill.  Having said this, the whole cast feel more relaxed and comfortable in their roles and in the concert format as the show progresses, and everyone essentially does a good job.

Gangster sleazeball Tommy, who sees in Betsy a resemblance to his dead wife, is played well by Maxwell Caulfield, who makes up for a lack of singing ability with the right characterisation of a wealthy man who thinks he can buy happiness but eventually knows when he’s been bested – by Betsy!  Rosemary Ashe does her best to steal scenes as the ghost of Jack’s mother, while Simon Lipkin is both the Bublé-like lounge singer and the hip-shaking leader of the flying Elvises. 

This show, directed by Shaun Kerrison, is a lot of fun, with the kind of music that makes you want to tap your feet and click your fingers, while the songs move on the action just as they did in the golden age of stage musicals.

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra, now in its second full year, is packed with excellent musicians who can do anything from put on the jazz to provide a beautiful melody.  Their vision is to have fun with music, and also to develop new professional players, and they do both with aplomb.

Thanks to Premier PR for arranging this night out.


Lost Without Words (National Theatre)

On the look for something a bit different, I went to see ‘Lost Without Words’ yesterday evening.  It’s a co-production between the National Theatre and Improbable, a company who work heavily on improvised pieces.

In this case the actors are a group of veterans all over seventy.  Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh, Georgine Anderson, Anna Calder-Marshall, Tim Preece, and Charles Kay (although he did not appear last night).  They are gently prompted and given suggestions by the directors (Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott) who are on the stage, and there are additional people improvising lighting, sound, and musical accompaniments.

lostforwordsimageTim Preece, Anna Calder-Marshall, Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh.  Photo by Atri Banerjee.

I really liked it.  It ran for an hour and I think we had six different scenes.  The first was a mother and daughter at the beach, eating fish and chips, then swimming (Farleigh and Anderson did this one, with some nice work relating to Anderson’s reappearing walking stick).

Then a ‘game’ where the letter s could not be included, which was played as a father emigrating with work and his daughter worrying about it, with slips from both getting oohs from the audience (Preece and Calder-Marshall).  Following that a piece between two people who have lived together a long time but still find everything interesting, at breakfast (“Marmite toast!”), which turned out to be two sisters plus a ghostly visit from mum when one sister had gone for a lie down (Calder-Marshall and Blakiston, plus Farleigh at the end).

A piece where a couple trade wishes and have the last dance of their lives under a conveniently descending glitterball (Preece and Farleigh).  A group scene for a birthday which ended up hinting at cross-dressing and a lovely line about being allergic to rabbit skin (all five).  And a largely solo piece including a brokenly sung aria about love, with a ghostly husband visiting at the end (Blakiston, and briefly Preece).

It was a joy to watch this group of actors at work in a playful, funny, and ultimately touching piece about relationships, age, and dreams.  It is, apparently, totally unscripted, so there were prompts like “this is called Mum decides to swim for the first time”, “one of you says they feel tired and are going for a lie down, leaving this character alone”, “this is the last dance of their lives”, “you were singing something then and it was lovely, so let it come out”, etc.

It doesn’t feel forced or fake, and is beautifully performed.  I’m assuming each show is unique given the improvising aspect.

It plays until the 18th of March and if this sounds like your kind of thing, do check it out.


Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Gender-bending in Shakespeare is nothing new.  We have had female Hamlets (Frances de La Tour, Maxine Peake), Lears (Kathryn Hunter, Glenda Jackson), Richard IIs (Fiona Shaw), Henry IVs (Harriet Walter), Prosperos (Helen Mirren), and even Horatios and Poloniuses on film.  Last year I saw a gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew with the male roles played by women, and the female roles by men.

Twelfth Night itself has been played by an all-male cast before, and here we have women playing the roles of Malvolia (Malvolio), Feste, and Fabia (Fabian), together with an obviously signposted gay Antonio (Adam Best – his suggested meeting place for Sebastian is a bar which has leather types and a Kinky Boots Lola-lite drag singer).   It gives a freshness to the story of the twins who believe each other lost at sea, and the choice of Viola to assume a male identity as one Cesario, in which guise both Olivia, and Orsino, fall in love with her.

tn1Tamsin Grieg and Doon Mackichan, image by Marc Brenner.

Tamsin Greig is top-billed as Malvolia, who spends most of the early part of the play as a Mrs Danvers-type of overbearing lesbian housekeeper, with a severe hairstyle which befits her station.  As the plot progresses we have a delicious piece of comedy with the letter scene, where she ends up cavorting in the garden’s fountain, a dark interlude where she is imprisoned and tortured by Sir Toby and cohorts, and a final reveal and climb during ‘The Wind and the Rain’.  Greig gives life to the often-thankless role of the steward, and we feel truly sorry for her at the end.

The set design of this production (Soutra Gilmour, James Farncombe, Christopher Shutt) is truly inspired, dominated by two staircases which move and morph, utilising the Olivier’s drum revolve beautifully, and by water features which appear and disappear (the fountain, a swimming pool into which Olivia hauls Cesario, and an eventual fall of rain).  The lighting and the sound are both excellent, from the chandelier which comes down to signpost an opulent living space, to the distant thump of the beatbox to which Toby and his drunken friends carouse while Malvolia watches Olivia sleep.

Orsino (Oliver Chris) is largely played for laughs, although his maturity is signposted by a 40th birthday party scene in which Viola/Cesario first realises her love for him (and he for her/him?).  Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) is a bawdy drunk, but not a Falstaff-like one – he cuts a fine dash in his swimming trunks and in a certain light might even be called attractive.  Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby, who was so memorable as the young Eric Morecambe on television), is a hipster who shows both his active side (raucous dancing moves), and his softer side (hugging the teddy bear Orsino gave to Olivia at the bus stop in the closing scene of the play).

twelfth-night-2017-12Daniel Ezra and Adam Best, image by Marc Brenner.

Viola and Sebastian don’t really look like each other – she’s smaller and slighter – but Tamara Lawrence has a youthful swagger that might pass for a young man trying out his muscles, and Daniel Ezra does well in the scenes with Antonio, and where he recognises his thought-dead sister.  Phoebe Fox is a fine Olivia, nominally in mourning for her brother but given to boogieing when she thinks no one is looking, and her anger at the deception which has cruelly wronged Malvolia feels real.  Niky Wardley is Maria, with her nose and cheeks coloured by red lipstick in the drinking scene, and she’s good.

Imogen Doel is Fabia, Doon Mackichan has the tricky role of Feste, and although she has a great singing voice, the comedy of the part is lost (I don’t think the gender change is a successful one here).  Simon Godwin directs, and this adaptation goes on for three hours, but feels less.

I’d call it a definite success, which brings out the emotional heart of the play as well as the broad comedy underneath.

tn3Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley, image by Marc Brenner.

Twelfth Night runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 13th May 2017.


The Little Foxes, 1941 – ★★★★½

This rarely seen Bette Davis drama is the ultimate study of greed within a family, with the monstrous Regina (Davis) plotting the life and fate of her winsome daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright, making her screen debut).

This story of the old South does not move much from its stage origins – in which Tallulah Bankhead played Regina. It cries out for colour but with Gregg Toland’s camera work and William Wyler’s direction it looks fairly sumptuous as it is.

A fizzing plot keeps this family saga going, and when the estranged and ill man of the house (Herbert Marshall) comes back we can sit back and enjoy a couple of stars at their best.

Davis was Oscar nominated for her turn as the austere, white-faced matriarch plotter, but lost the big prize to Joan Fontaine, who won for Suspicion .

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


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