Category Archives: musicals

DVD audit 2018 – part 1

By no means my entire collection, here is a peek at some of the films and TV series which make up my DVD collection.

Check back for more and for some book shelfies during the next few weeks.


Chess (again), Coliseum Theatre

Now, you may recall that last week we took a visit to see one of my all-time favourite musicals, Chess, and that it was not an entirely enjoyable experience as our upper circle seats were most definitely ‘restricted’ although not sold as such.  The show was fantastic, as I expected, so I took a very rare decision to pay for a more expensive ticket, and revisit the show to see what I was missing.

I’ll talk a bit about pricing at the end of this piece.

The difference between viewing the show from a seat in the upper circle, row J, in the central block, and a seat in the dress circle, row E, at the side, is like night and day.  In the case of this production of Chess, the effect is like watching a completely different show from a design point of view.

Just look at the difference here; last week’s view first, then last night’s view.

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The ENO’s annual musical has become a big event of limited runs: we have had Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel, and now Chess.  These are generally big productions with star names, and for the last two years, they have been fully staged.  None of these were ‘new’ musicals to me, and in fact all have been long-time favourites, and Chess is no exception.

I talked a bit about the casting for Chess last week.  Musical theatre veteran Michael Ball has been cast as the Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky.   Rock singer and musical star from Canada, Tim Howar, is the American champion, Freddie Trumper (an unfortunate surname right now with the current President).  Actress/singer Cassidy Janson, who has led in small musicals and covered in larger ones, is Florence Vassy, Freddie’s second and girlfriend of seven years.  X Factor winner turned musical belter Alexandra Burke is Svetlana Sergievska, the wife of Anatoly and mother of their son Ivan.  Phillip Browne is the Russian second, Molokov, a KGB operative and a sinister bass. Cedric Neal comes from Broadway and a leading role in Motown the Musical to portray The Arbiter, the judge and referee of the Chess Federation tournaments we see.

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In the last post I referred to the casting drama during rehearsals which saw Neal brought in at short notice to take over the role (hard on the voice, but underwritten).  There was an additional event which affected the first preview, when Tim Howar’s wife gave birth to their son Hamish during Act One, which meant the understudy had to take on Act Two (including the big solo number, Pity The Child, and some tricky moments of recitative).  There have also been reports of Michael Ball missing some lines in the Endgame number which has all the principals together for the last time, but no such problem was present last night (although his “Frederick, thank you” in the close of The Deal/No Deal number has now switched to “Freddie”).

So what’s ‘new’ if you are in the lower levels?

First off, there is a platform which comes up during key scenes, and this is located in the pit, where the orchestra is usually based.  Honestly, from the upper circle last week I had no clue this was even there, nor did I realise that some of the chess board set design was made up of steps which allowed some characters to exit quickly or for technicians to nip under the stage to set up the next scene or the video projections.

Second, without a clear view of the front of the stage you miss around half of the choreography of The Soviet Machine, roughly a third of One Night in Bangkok, and you are unable to see the chorus behind the screen in The Story of Chess, or the chorus based under the platform during the chess games.  This does a great disservice to the hard working singers and dancers who deliver the layered melodies and high energy movement the ensemble numbers require.

This time I hardly glanced at the video projections (which are sometimes mirror images of the same scene in close-up, but sometimes seem to be there just so you can see what is going on – for example, in Burke’s two solo numbers, in Janson’s two solo numbers, and -with some synch problems last night – for Howar’s big Act Two number).  I found them distracting in the major duets I Know Him So Well and Mountain Duet, as that by definition requires two people to be shown, and the screens seemed superfluous.

In other places they are used well – the plane arrival in Merano, the fire-breathing dragons in One Night in Bangkok in front of which acrobats and aerial contortionists perform, the chess games (although, rather than 1960s headlines about the space race, it might be fun to show us the actual moves, assuming they are not just random!), and the explanatory pictures about the history of the game and former champions.

Last night I could watch close-up, on the stage itself, what was going on.

I still can’t find any emotional engagement with Svetlana – she appears briefly early on in the show, and then we don’t see her again until the end of Act One, in which we are supposed to empathise with her delivery of Someone Else’s Story.  This song was written for the character of Florence (in the original Broadway production), and still makes more sense, as she finds one relationship collapsing as another begins.

Neither female character is fully drawn, but I find Florence an interesting one.  She is Hungarian-born and living in the US, with a self-centred lover who treats her as an accessory, although she’s fiery in support for him when we first see them.  Why she’s stayed so long, and why she suddenly bails to join with a refugee from a country she hates, is not explored sufficiently, nor the reasons this Russian leaves his family for a new life in the West.   Janson seems to make Florence fluffy in love by the time we get to Heaven Help My Heart, which makes the You and I duet between her and Anatoly bittersweet by its conclusion.  Perhaps the implication is that Freddie’s drinking and coke sniffing had made him less exciting between the sheets than the focused Russian!

Svetlana has another song which opens Act Two, a translation of the Swedish production’s song He Is A Man, He Is A Child, which is a towering ballad for a character we don’t really know.  But without those two songs, it isn’t much of a part, regardless of the engagement the audience would have with her.  Burke does well enough and is very good indeed in Endgame, and she’s a hard woman to return to, for sure.

Michael Ball probably wouldn’t have been my first choice for Anatoly, but with his spectacles and air of concentrated ennui, he does convince – and the songs, Where I Want To Be, Anthem, and the duets previously mentioned, are delivered well, without too much of the vibrato that has characterised his recent collaborations with Alfie Boe.  Hopefully we will see him in some more mature musical roles as time progresses.  Anatoly, though, is a difficult proposition for any actor – he appears emotionless, he hates the West and everything Freddie Trumper represents, then beats him in the championship and steals his girl.  It’s to the credit of the writers and the actor that we still feel some connection with him, and don’t dismiss him as a selfish sot.

Freddie is another conundrum – clearly focused on the game of chess, but highly-strung and feted (and behaving) like a rock star, from the moment he touches down in Merano.  His songs range from massive power force fields like Pity The Child to cynical rap in One Night in Bangkok.  He throws things around and hurts people who get close to him; he is by no means the confident front he puts on.  It’s a tough part because it isn’t the one which gets the natural audience sympathy, but he’s always been my favourite character in Chess, and he’s pitched just right in this, with a redemption arc in The Deal/No Deal which might, despite Florence’s pointed look during the TV interview which opens Endgame, lead to some form of reconciliation for them.

The ensemble numbers are absolutely fine, and well done, and from close-up they were very enjoyable.  The orchestra from the ENO is conducted by John Rigby, and musical director is Anders Eljas, who has been involved with the musical since square one, doing the original orchestrations, and what a glorious sound they make.  As for the ensemble, let’s have a shout out for the pop choir trio Jordan Lee Davies, Sinead Lang and Alexandra Waite-Roberts, and associate choreographer Jo Morris, although all are excellent.

I mentioned the pricing.  The upper circle pricing is £65-80, and the dress circle will cost you over £100 for a ticket.  I hear that there are rush tickets for £25 through TodayTix for weekday performances, so this would seem to be the future of such shows – eye-watering prices for committed fans, and cheap tickets for casual ones.  I find this a worrying trend as a theatre obsessive, and one who nearly always puts hand in pocket for pre-discount prices.  If I visited a show on a cheap ticket or a comp, I would tell you.  It’s a rare occurrence, but if you are in the happy position to not have to plan your visits to a show until the day itself, it’s an option to play the discount lotteries.

Chess continues for another three weeks.

 

 

 

 

 


Chess (Coliseum Theatre)

I love Chess. It’s the concept album I’ve played the most, and I think it has one of the strongest scores in musical theatre.

With music by Bjorn and Benny from ABBA, and lyrics from Tim Rice, it started life in 1984 as a recording, before progressing to the West End stage in 1986.  It ran for four years before going on tour within the UK, and there was also a Broadway production and others, including one in Sweden, which is available on DVD.  A concert version played at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008, also recorded for DVD, and a high camp tour ran in 2010.

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Now the musical returns to London for the first time in nearly thirty years, and in this staging relies heavily on the structure of the original concept album, with the addition of Someone Else’s Story from the Broadway production, The Soviet Machine from the London production, and He is a Man, He is a Child from the Swedish production.

Chess-cast-creatives.-Credit-Frederic-ArandaCast as originally announced: Murray Head, Cassidy Janson, Alexandra Burke, Phillip Browne (Molotov), Michael Ball; with Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and director Laurence Connor. Photo credit: Frederic Aranda.

There was a bit of off-stage drama before rehearsals got going for the new production, with original London cast member Murray Head, cast as The Arbiter at the age of 72, having to leave for personal reasons.  I admit he was a major draw for me when booking, so I was a little sad to hear of his withdrawal, but if you want to see him at the height of his powers, you can find the promo videos of Pity the Child and One Night in Bangkok and the Swedish TV broadcast of the truncated Chess in Concert online.

The story of Chess is both simple (a game of chess between an American and a Russian, West vs East, freedom vs oppression) and complex (the American’s partner and second, Florence, a Hungarian by birth, has a father who disappeared during Soviet occupation; the Russian has a wife, Svetlana, and child back home but walks away from them for the love of the game and asylum in England).

Tim-Howar-Michael-Ball-and-Cedric-Neal-Photography-BrinkhoffMogenburg-700x455Tim Howar and Michael Ball. Photo credit: Brinkoff-Moegenburg.

At the time of the concept and first production, the Iron Curtain was still a reality, and the ‘Red menace’ was still a very real threat to the freedoms of the West.  The West, represented by the brash USA, was seen as materialistic and superficial, while the East was viewed as repressive, inflexible, and unemotional.  When Chess was first conceived, it was a reflection of its times, mixing camp and overblown numbers with political commentary.  It was also a hit album, with at least two huge chart hits (I Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok).

This production casts widely – the Russian (Anatoly) is played by musical veteran Michael Ball, a tad too old for the part but on good form in both acting and singing terms, sporting glasses and an unruffled expression, even when falling in love with Florence.  She is played by Cassidy Janson – we saw her in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical where she impressed with her high octane energy and vulnerablity, qualities which serve her well as Florence, who moves from one chess-playing lover to another and ends up believing “stories like ours / have happy endings”.

The American (Freddie) is Mike and the Mechanics lead singer Tim Howar. I wasn’t familiar with him but he puts across the obnoxious front of the man who is a hurt little child inside, and he has a powerful set of pipes which stop the show with Pity the Child (I understand that earlier performances had issues with pacing due to extended applause for this number, but on the performance last Saturday afternoon the lights cut to black directly afterwards, curtailing any audience appreciation.

Svetlana, not usually a major role, is played by pop singer Alexandra Burke, who has a belt of a voice but limited acting skills.  At the age of 29 she is far too young for her 55-year-old Anatoly, and her drab – but accurate – Soviet costumes have attracted comment from those who probably seek to see her in sparkles.  Aside from one brief scene at the beginning, she does not appear until the end of Act One, when her character is given the song of Someone Else’s Story, which makes much more sense for Florence.

There are several chorus numbers – the opener is The Story of Chess, led by The Arbiter (now played by Cedric Neal, who gives yet another dimension to the complex yet underused role), followed by the tongue in cheek cavorting of Merano.  There are video projections throughout the production, but aside from showing a plane arrival during this number, and a sequence of slick merchandising product during the American cheerleading number, they are mainly utilised to show blow-up film of what is going on before us on stage.

I enjoyed the British Embassy number, which is hopelessly dated, but very funny, and the acrobats, strippers, and pole dancers of Bangkok, with fire, masks, and that cheesy rap.  The orchestra and ensemble singers and dancers do a fabulous job throughout, required to change focus, nationality, and style as the musical progresses.  Everything about this show is huge in scale – everything, that is, except the chess board, which those with long memories may recall was much larger in those early productions.

This is a big, loud, dynamic show which is about as 80s as you can get.  For those of us who grew up with it, it is a little corner of musical theatre heaven.  For those of you not sure, go if you can. It’s like Marmite, so you may hate it – or you may not.  In any case, I would be surprised if a big production is put on in the West End again.

Chess is on a limited engagement at the ENO Coliseum, and closes on the 2nd June 2018.  I am visiting again this weekend, and will update this review after that – I felt that despite the greatness of the show, it cannot be fully appreciated from the poor sightlines of the upper levels, and I look forward to reporting back from a more premium seat at my next visit.


Tina: The Musical (Aldwych Theatre)

You’re probably very familiar with the story of Tina Turner – born Anna Mae Bulloch. She was spotted by Ike Turner when she was a teenager and her distinctive and powerful voice livened up his Revue Band for sixteen years of music success and violent domesticity.

The first act of this musical starts in church, when young Anna Mae already seeks attention. Abandoned by her parents she becomes a cotton picker and grows under the care of her grandmother.

On rejoining her mother and elder sister she runs wild and is practically pushed towards the much more worldly Ike, who grooms her into marriage while resenting her superior talent.

Of course we only have Tina’s word about these early years, and by the end of Act One she’s taken her two boys and made a run for it. There are some musical bits in this half, but the show didn’t come to life for me until Proud Mary.

Act Two sees Tina, ‘knocking forty’ and without a record deal. She’s taken on by a Aussie producer and finds herself on the other side of the world, with a new image, a new partner in marketing whizz Erwin Bach, and eventual super-stardom.

Adrienne Warren is note-perfect as Tina, from teenage years to mature rocker. She has her first chance to show off her pipes on River Deep, Mountain High and comes into her own with vibrant energy in the Simply The Best finale.

Produced by Turner and Bach, this show is close to hagiography, with the story clearly slanted to the infatigable determination of Anna Mae. Young Anna Mae is played by a rotating trio of girls (I think we saw Reya-Nyomi Brown) with their own infectious spirit.

Lorna Gayle is in great voice as GG, Tina’s gran, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith convinces in a tough role as Ike – he gets booed as the villain but he’s a good singer in his own right.

Interestingly, Tina’s solo success comes with a step away from the black community and with the help of whites like Phil Spector, Rhonda Graham, Terry Britten and Roger Davies. Even from David Bowie, who reportedly told the record label they would be mad not to sign her – there’s a moment where I thought he would be introduced but thankfully, no.

A decent show but it could do with a bit of a snip and be warned, it takes a while to warm up. Go for Warren’s performance though – she really is that good.


Knights of the Rose – PR

Knights of the Rose will appear during this year’s West End Live, 16-17 June 2018.

It will star Andy Moss as Gawain.

Romance of the Rose Productions presents:

KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE

A New West End Classic Rock Musical created by Jennifer Marsden

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A TALE OF BETRAYAL, LOVE, BLOODSHED AND REDEMPTION

29th June – 26th August, 2018

Press Night: Thursday 5th July

On sale – 23rd March

The Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB

Romance of the Rose Productions are delighted to announce the world premiere of a new West End musical created by Jennifer Marsden, Knights of the Rose, an epic medieval tale featuring a timeless playlist of classic rock songs. Headlined by five unforgettable Bon Jovi masterpieces and accompanied by much loved songs from Bonnie Tyler, Meatloaf, No Doubt and more, Knights of the Rose finds court at The Arts Theatre from Friday 29th June – Sunday 26th August.

In this epic tale of betrayal, love, bloodshed and redemption, the noble Knights of the Rose must defend their House and their honour. Even as the chivalrous knights return from a glorious victory, a greater threat against the kingdom stirs. As they face the greatest battle of the age and betrayal threatens to tear them apart, can true love and honour triumph?

With rich interwoven literature from Marlowe, Shakespeare and Chaucer mixed with legendary classic rock music; Knights of the Rose is a glorious fusion of popular culture, evocative of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Bat out of Hell’. This high-voltage musical of Shakespearean proportions charges its way into the heart of London on 29th June, for 9 weeks only.

SET LIST INCLUDES:

Blaze Of Glory – Bon Jovi // Blood On Blood – Bon Jovi // Always – Bon Jovi // Bed Of Roses – Bon Jovi // This Is Love, This Is Life – Bon Jovi // Changes – Black Sabbath // Holding Out For A Hero – Bonnie Tyler // Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Bonnie Tyler // Hero – Enrique Iglesias // King Arthur: Third Act – Henry Purcell // The Parting Glass – Irish Folk Song // Is Nothing Sacred – Meatloaf // Marriage Of Figaro: Part 1V – Mozart // Don’t Speak – No Doubt // Addicted To Love – Robert Palmer // Hard Times Of Old England – Steeleye Span // Wherever You Will Go – The Calling // He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother – The Hollies // Pilgrim – Uriah Heep

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE:

Monday – 7.30pm

Tuesday – Off

Wednesday – 7.30pm

Thursday – 3pm/7.30pm

Friday – 7.30pm

Saturday – 3pm/ 7.30pm

Sunday – 4pm

TICKETS:

On sale – 23rd March

Wednesday, Thursday Matinee, Thursday Evening, Sunday and Monday

£55 // £45// £33.50 // £22.50 // £15

Friday, Saturday Matinee, Saturday Evening
£65 // £49.50 // £38.50 // £25 // £20

Box Office: 020 7836 8463 // https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/

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CREATIVES

Jennifer Marsden – Creator // Racky Plews – Director and Choreographer // Diego Pitarch – Designer

Jennifer Marsden – Creator
Creator, Jennifer Marsden, lives in West Sussex with her husband, Tim, and has three grown up children. She is a qualified Barrister and has always had a keen interest in theatre. Jenny began writing over eight years ago and is a member of Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network, and the Inner Temple Inn of Court.

Racky Plews – Director and Choreographer

Racky Plews is trained at Sylvia Young and Arts Educational

Directing and Choreography credits include, Thoroughly Modern Mille (UK Tour), Summer Holiday (UK Tour), American Idiot (West End and UK Tour, winner of Best New Musical in the West End Broadway World Awards, Best Director and Best Choreographer nomination What’s On Stage Awards), Footloose (West End and UK Tour), Vanities (Trafalgar Studios, West End), Guys and Dolls, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Into The Woods (The Gatehouse). Racky’s choreography credits include, Flight (Symphony of the Seas), Columbus (Harmony of the Seas), Respect La Diva (Garrick Theatre, West End), Jekyll and Hyde (UK Tour), Josephine Baker (The Beckett Theatre, New York), Cougar (The Belgrade, Coventry), Lost Boy (Liverpool Playhouse), West End Bares (Jerry Mitchell/MAD Trust), Denise Pearson – The Jackson’s World Tour (UK Arena Tour), Forever Plaid (UK & International Tour), Bare – The Rock Musical (Best Choreography nomination Broadway World), Bernarda Alba, and Once Upon A Mattress (Best Choreography nomination Off West End Awards, The Union Theatre), The 48hour Musicals – The Boy Friend (Her Majesty’s Theatre), Crazy For You, and Me & My Girl (London Palladium).

Diego Pitarch – Designer
Born in Spain, London based Diego Pitarch studied architecture and Interior Design in Valencia, Barcelona and at the E.S.A.G in Paris, where he obtained an award for Scenography. In 2001 he completed his MA in Theatre Design at the Slade School of Art in London. His design for Katya Kabanova placed him amongst the finalists for the Linbury Prize. Since then Diego has created more than 100 designs for plays, musicals, ballets and operas for renowned theatres and producers worldwide. Successes include Sunset Boulevard in London’s West End, Spend, Spend, Spend directed by Craig Revel-Horwood, which won a TMA award for Best Musical in 2009, the 2011 European tour of The Who’s Tommy, the 2013 UK and Ireland tour of Fiddler on the Roof starring Paul Michael Glaser as well as the 2017 touring production of The Addams Family and Crazy for You. In 2015 The production of 1984 designed for the Altes Schauspielhaus in Stuttgart was nominated for the prestigious Faust award.


Tearjerkers in Musical Theatre

There are as many different types of song in MT as there are shows – big belters, ballads, showstoppers, choruses, comic theatricals, and curtain-raisers.

In this post I’ll share some of my favourite sad songs, tearjerkers, items of pathos, musical beauties. This takes in examples from between the world wars through to the present day: I hope I’ve included some of your favourites.

Kern and Hammerstein: in creating Show Boat a couple of classic love songs were launched. ‘You Are Love’ brings Gaylord and Magnolia together, while ‘Bill’ gives Julie a torch song of regret; the use of a turn of the century stage favourite by Charles Harris, ‘After the Ball’, focuses on father and daughter meeting after a separation.

Rodgers and Hart: ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ from Pal Joey. An anthem of awakened feelings from an older lady. ‘My Romance’, from Jumbo, love in the circus. ‘With a Song in my Heart’, which was a film number, not stage, but beautiful.

Rodgers and Hammerstein: ‘Something Wonderful’ and ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ from The King and I, where Anna Leonowens finds purpose in Siam. ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ from Oklahoma, Curly and Laurey’s unsure steps. ‘If I Loved You’ and ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel, where bluff Billy almost softens. ‘Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful’ from Cinderella, done twice for TV before making it to the stage. ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ from South Pacific, when Emile feels he has lost Nellie, who has been ‘carefully taught’ to fear the unknown.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from Jesus Christ Superstar. ‘Other Pleasures’ and ‘Seeing is Believing’ from Aspects of Love, an underrated circle of love and desire. ‘Old Deuteronomy’ from Cats. ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ and ‘The Greatest Star of All’ from Sunset Boulevard. ‘An Unexpected Song’ from Tell Me On a Sunday, just breathtaking.

Stephen Sondheim: ‘Little Lamb’ from Gypsy. ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music. ‘Losing My Mind’ and ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ from Follies. ‘Move On’ from Sunday in the Park With George. ‘Being Alive’ from Company. He has such an eye for the real detail.

Abba musicals: ‘Pity the Child’ and ‘Anthem’ from Chess. ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ from Mamma Mia, mothers and daughters.

Willy Russell: ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’ from Blood Brothers. The tale of twins as alike as two pins.

Richard O’Brien: ‘I’m Going Home’ and ‘Once In Your Life’ from The Rocky Horror Show. Strangely touching.

Gershwin: ‘Summertime’ and ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ from Porgy and Bess. ‘But Not For Me’ from Girl Crazy.

Boublil and Schoenberg: ‘Bring Him Home’, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘I Saw Him Once’ from Les Miserables. ‘The Movie in My Mind’, ‘Bui-Doi’ and ‘I’ll Give My Life for You’ from Miss Saigon. ‘When Will Someone Hear’ and ‘How Many Tears’ from Martin Guerre. Big belters with a lot of heart.

Bernstein: ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Candide. ‘One Hand, One Heart’ and ‘Maria’ from West Side Story.

Ivor Novello: ‘My Dearest Dear’ from The Dancing Years. ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ from Perchance to Dream. Of their time operettas, but beautifully done.

Noel Coward: ‘If Love Were All’ from Bitter Sweet. ‘Matelot’ from Sigh No More.

Peggy Gordon: ‘By My Side’ from Godspell. A beautiful blend of melodic voices.

‘I Don’t Need a Roof’ and ‘Daffodils’ from Big Fish, a new musical with a lot of heart.

Lerner and Loewe: ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady. ‘It’s Almost Like Being in Love’ from Brigadoon. ‘Wand’rin Star’ from Paint Your Wagon. ‘How To Handle a Woman’ and ‘Before I Gaze at You Again’ from Camelot. The title song from ‘Gigi’, as Gaston falls in love. Five musicals which need big ticket revivals.

Irving Berlin: ‘It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow’ from Louisiana Purchase but best known for the version by Vera Lynn. ‘They Say It’s Wonderful’ from Annie Get Your Gun, a sweet pause in a raucous sea of sound.

Jerry Herman: ‘If He Walked Into My Life’ from Mame. ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ from Mack and Mabel. ‘Song on the Sand’ from La Cage Aux Folles. Naked, honest, what ifs.

Bock and Harnick: ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ from Fiddler on the Roof.

What are yours?


Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Set in the round, this tale of the circus’s greatest showman boasts a memorable score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart.

The Menier has turned the bar area into a museum of curiosities ‘on loan from the estate of PT Barnum’, into which ringmaster Dominic Owen kickstarts the show by looking for Tom Thumb – in the auditorium itself there are coloured lightbulbs, posters and a circus ring with a tiny stool and piano.

The original productions of Barnum, starring Michael Crawford and Jim Dale, are renowned for their comic timing, showmanship and stunts. This production is high energy but falls a bit flat in its leading performance; Marcus Brigstocke interacts well with the audience in the second half, but his voice is weak and he looks more like a fish out of water than the centre of attention. If Barnum doesn’t steal the show (although he did make it across the tightrope in one go), then there’s something not quite right.

As the ladies in his life, Laura Pitt-Pulford makes a steely yet touching Chairy, while Celinde Schoenmaker hits the high notes as the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind.

In the ensemble, Owen catches the eye throughout with tumbles and liveliness, Preston and Kelsey Jamieson do lifts and fire work, and the company perform a range of routines from a brass band and tap dancing, to aerial hoops and basic magic tricks (some of which involve the audience at the start).

Recommended even with the central miscasting, director Gordon Greenberg uses the space well and Harry Francis dances with aplomb as Tom Thumb. There’s even a tiny toy train to represent travel and a range of model buildings hoisted on hooks to show location, and ‘a real live elephant’. It’s all rather charming and displays quite an amount of what Barnum describes as ‘humbug’.


Motown (Shaftesbury Theatre)

‘Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street’. Well, it isn’t summer yet but it is time to check out this hagiography about Berry Gordy written by, um, Berry Gordy, in a show he also produced.

Veering between an obsession with Motown star (and Gordy girlfriend) Diana Ross, and the frankly misguided decision to force more than 50 songs into a threadbare narrative, this show only stands on the quality of its songs, which thankfully are good.

There are four big roles and a hard working cast of ensemble and swings who play the rest – at the performance I saw Ashley Samuels was in great voice as Gordy, Kieran McGinn was a bit superfluous as Smokey Robinson (really, all those great songs missing, a waste of this performer’s voice), Lucy St Louis was spirited but no Ross, and Kayi Ushe was the very spirit of Marvin Gaye.

A feelgood jukebox show cluttered with simplistic political commentary about the deaths of President JFK and Dr King, and Vietnam, this show works best when acts are simply allowed to perform (Jay Perry impresses, for example, as both David Ruffin of The Temptations and as Jermaine Jackson), and the medley of dubious 70s acts signed by Gordy really needs to go!

Wigs and stick-on beards are awful, though, and the set is a tad on the cheap side. Ultimately this is a bloated ego trip which doesn’t quite do full justice to the songs (and I would have liked to hear more from Diana Ross as Billie Holiday), and it pales in comparison to other jukebox shows such as ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Sunny Afternoon’.


Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo)

Before I put together this review of the musical which started in Sheffield and which now has a new life in the West End, I tracked down the original documentary on which it is based – Jamie: a drag queen at 16 – and watched the basic story of how gay teenager Jamie Campbell was supported by his mother, family friend Lee, best friend Sam(antha), and drag queen Simon to achieve his dream of having a drag show and of taking that character to the school prom.

Jamie-Campbell-and-John-McCrea-1.-ETAJ-Credit-James-StewartJamie Campbell and John McCrea, photo by James Stewart.

Three years in the making, the musical version takes Jamie (now with the surname New) and his mother Margaret, and the basic plot, as jumping-off points to present a narrative filled with pulsating dance beats, big ballads, and racially diverse characters (Lee, a white woman, is now Ray, an Asian woman, and Sam has become the hijab-wearing Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse, who gives what could be a stereotypical character an interesting slant)).

After watching the documentary it feels a bit of a shame that stage Jamie’s final prom dress is so understated, and you only ever see the famous make-up from the posters just once, as ‘Mimi Me’ struts her stuff on the Legs Eleven stage.

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John McCrea (who I saw last some years ago in The Sound of Music as the eldest Von Trapp boy) totally convinces as the teen who is working through both confusion and confidence, and when his doting mum purchases a dazzling pair of red high heels for his birthday, he walks in them as if he’s been wearing them all his life.

The big production numbers are all set in the schoolroom (‘And You Don’t Even Know It’; ‘Work of Art’; ‘Out of the Darkness’), while the slower songs – Jamie’s ‘The Wall in My Head’ and ‘Ugly in This Ugly World’; and Margaret’s ‘If I Met Myself Again’ and ‘He’s My Boy’ are in the home or elsewhere (maybe in a single spotlight).

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At the performance I saw, Rebecca McKinnis was on as Margaret, and both her acting and singing were superb.  I also enjoyed the lovely and understated performance of Phil Nichol as Hugo/Lolo Chanelle and the ‘out there’ shenanigans of real-life drag queens Alex Anstey and Daniel Jacobs, who perform as Vileda Moppe and Vinegar Strokes respectively out there, and as Laika Virgin and Sandra Bollock here; they are joined by James Gillan, a former Marilyn in the Boy George musical Taboo, and who doesn’t feel out of place.

This is a truly life-affirming musical, with memorable tunes and lyrics by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, and if it is a little corny, and extremely camp, it doesn’t care.  I would have snipped out the bigoted dad, and toned down the pantomime queen teacher, and made Jamie really put himself out there, but these are small quibbles.

The musical is about the importance of being yourself rather than hiding behind what others might want you to be, and that message comes out loud and clear, with the audience accomplices in the claps, cheers and whoops that the cast, the fabulous band, and the book (both funny and tragic) deserve.


Big Fish (The Other Palace)

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Over at the rebranded The Other Palace (formerly St James’ Theatre), something rather magical is going on, with a bit of Broadway pizazz in this show of tall tales, misunderstandings, loss, redemption, daffodils, and fish.

Kelsey Grammer has been imported from the US to make his London stage debut in Andrew Lippa’s musical, itself based on the screenplay for the film (starring Albert Finney) written by John August, itself based on a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Edward Bloom is introduced at his straight-laced son’s wedding, shortly after they’ve been fishing. He’s been cautioned not to share his ‘stories’ or even make a toast, but of course, he doesn’t listen. Quickly, though, we realise that all is not well and that his son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) will have to make sense of the man who he regards as a stranger and who is starting to slip away.

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While Edward slips in and out of consciousness, with his loving wife Sandra (Clare Burt) and new (and pregnant) daughter-in-law Josephine (Frances McNamee) close by, we meet his young self (Jamie Muscato) and follow him on wild adventures with a witch (Landi Oshinowo), a giant (Dean Nolan), and a circus supremo (Forbes Masson), as well as young Sandra (Laura Baldwin). These boast bizarre and big song and dance numbers – often pastiches – while the real-time/life scenes are more of the ballad type. Little Will is present for most of the time, too, and was played by Colby Mulgrew at the performance we saw; he reacts to the fun and the sadness around him and pulls us in.

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The set is simple enough, utilising sound effects and video projections to give us a sense of where we are, when outside the hospital ward.  A lovely act one closer gives us a stage full of daffodils, which were always Sandra’s favourite flowers, although we might not quite believe the story of how the young Edward and Sandra met.

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Some commentators on this show have scoffed at reports of audiences being moved by events as they unfold, but certainly at the evening performance I attended there were quite a few people dabbing their eyes, and rightly so, as the final scenes are deeply moving, and the effectiveness of this has to be laid at the door of director Nigel Harman and star Kelsey Grammer, who is simply superb in both the humorous and tragic scenes, as well as throwing himself into the boisterous song routines.

Incidentally, front row ticket holders may well get a closer encounter with Grammer than you might have bargained for, which was amusing in itself.  There’s some doubling of roles in a hard-working cast, with Oshinowo and Masson portraying two characters, while the smaller roles in ensemble are well-drawn.  The fantasy sequences are great, and Burt is quietly wonderful in a role which might have misfired, as is McNamee. I found Muscato had a lot of charm as young Edward, although it’s hard to think he grew up to turn into Frasier (still Grammer’s best-known role, and despite best efforts he doesn’t quite shake off memories of Seattle’s finest).

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If you want something which is ‘flipping’ marvellous, with a ‘sole’ and a good line in ‘cod’ philosophy, then make your way to The Other Palace for this short run; it is well worth your time and is definitely the ‘plaice’ to be.


Follies (National Theatre, Olivier)

Stephen Sondheim’s bittersweet musical of theatreland gone by has its first major revival in London in years, and the book by James Goldman has now been returned fairly closely to the original plot, with the songs added for the 1987 revival dropped and the likes of ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ and ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ returned to their rightful place.

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The set is a depiction of the decayed and partly demolished Weissman Theatre, where the neon still works but the walls are crumbling, the seats are distressed, and the auditorium is ruined.  For me, the opening scene and prologue takes too long to introduce everyone, but that would be true of every version of this show, and it is certainly touching to see the mature showgirls descend the ‘staircase’ (in reality, a less-than-glamorous fire escape) one last time, while their younger selves move in ghostly sequins and sparkles in from the stage.

This show is very much about those ladies who graced the Weissman Follies between the two World Wars, and although we are more focused on the story of two of them – Sally (Imelda Staunton), and Phyllis (Janie Dee) – we still feel invested in the others, from Carlotta the movie star (Tracie Bennett, done up as Joan Crawford in stern red, and decaying from despair, drink, and dallying with young men who ‘mean nothing’), ageing opera diva Heidi (Josephine Barstow, whose delicate depiction of sad memories of an affair with the boss, Mr Weissman (Gary Raymond, who makes an sobering impact in a nothing part, as lost in time as his girls), is as touching as her faded soprano voice in ‘One Last Kiss’, a duet with her younger self, played by Alison Langer), to the much-married and knowing Hattie (Di Boutcher, who knocks ‘Broadway Baby’ out of the park from the moment she removes her glasses, but who is surely far too young for the part), and the rather sad Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald, with her memories of ‘Paree’).

Staunton has shone in a couple of award-winning Sondheims already – from 2012’s glorious ‘Sweeney Todd’, to 2015’s ‘Gypsy‘.  Further back she was a stunning Miss Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls’, so she has the musical credentials, and as an Oscar Best Actress nominee for ‘Vera Drake’, she is also known as a talented actress.  Both skills serve her well as Sally Plummer, a tiny housewife with a salesman husband, Buddy (Peter Forbes), who is cheating on her, and dreams which have never died for her former lover, Ben (Philip Quast, always a favourite of mine, and I’m delighted to see him back in a leading role), who rejected her for her friend Phyllis (perhaps sensing she would be more acceptable material for a politician’s wife).

follies-national-theatre-r009Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen, Philip Quast – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

This Weissman reunion brings Sally and Ben back together for the first time in thirty years, and in ‘Don’t Look At Me’, Staunton attempts to make a connection which leads Ben to think back to the girl he used to know (Alex Young, who made such an impact in the ENO’s ‘Carousel‘ this summer, as Carrie, and previously in the New London’s ‘Show Boat’), and to look, for a moment, kindly on the disturbed and clingy woman she has become.  When Quast and Staunton duet in ‘Too Many Mornings’, there is a glorious blend of music, memories, and the magic of what could-have-been, however transient that feeling may be.  Staunton may be a little short, height-wise, for the pivotal kiss which she takes as a way out of her boring life with the Buddy she has ceased to see, but we do engage with their relationship from this point on.

Janie Dee’s Phyllis is the textbook example of a rich socialite whose life is totally empty, with a nice house bursting at the seams with ‘the Chagalls and all that’, but lacking love, attention, or the children she so desperately wanted.  She has grown so tired of life, that her ‘Would I Leave You’ is perfectly delivered and completely believable; theirs is a marriage of convenience that doesn’t even feel convenient anymore.  But yet, in the end, she is the one who shows the most strength, and who will, we feel, at least attempt to pick up the pieces.  Her younger shadow is played by the dazzling Zizi Strallen, who has the star quality and energy which must have turned the young Ben’s head while he and Buddy were ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’.

follies-national-theatre-r007Liz Izen, Liz Ewing, Tracie Bennett, Imelda Staunton, Dawn Hope, Janie Dee, Julie Armstrong, Gemma Page – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

Peter Forbes is Buddy, a salesman who is really no good, and who calls anywhere he lays his hat home.  His routine involves going out on the road to shack up with Margie, a bright young thing who idolises him (the character always makes me think of ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Willy Loman, who is stuck in a spiral of not quite reaching the American Dream), and then returning to Sally, who fantasises that in his eyes she’s ‘young and beautiful’.  Their marriage has children, but they have moved away to escape their mother’s neuroses and arguments, so you can imagine the echoes of their empty rooms where the boys once played and fought.

The last section of the show moves from the realism of the crumbling theatre of the past to a fantasy staging of ‘Loveland’, a sequence which I always find problematic, but which brings the young quartet to the fore (as well as Young and Strallen, the young Ben and Buddy are played well by Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig) before moving into the individual follies of each as they are now: Buddy, dealing with a drag depiction of his mixed love-life done in a vaudevillian style; Sally, in a blonde wig and a sumptuous dressing room, ‘losing her mind’; Phyllis, in old and young versions, doing as well as she can to tell us about Lucy and Jessie; and Ben’s Fred Astaire pastiche which collapses into an emotional breakdown.  Although I love ‘Losing My Mind’, and Staunton did it well, this whole sequence remains a problem, and as much as I admire Quast, and he did all he could with the number, the breakdown felt rushed to me, which may well have been a directorial mis-step.

What else?  Bennett channels Judy Garland (again, but beautifully) in the caustic ‘I’m Still Here’.  The mirror number ‘Who’s That Woman’ weirdly has the young chlorines not mirroring their older counterparts, and I felt in this case the Royal Albert Hall concert did this number better (although I did like Dawn Hope’s Stella, and the chance to see Liz Izen’s Deedee in the line-up).  Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are fun, and poignant, as the Whitmans.

This may not be a perfect revival, but it is a great show, and it is rare to see something done on this scale, with so much love and energy – an emotional powerhouse, with eminently hummable tunes.

Do go, and also grab a copy of the fantastic programme, which is full of information, articles, and pictures and can be yours for just a fiver.

 

 


Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

You may recall the jaunty film in which Tommy Steele hopped around with a gor-blimey accent, and this uses many of the songs from it, but with some new lyrics and seven new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  So, confusingly, this is a musical with eleven songs by the original composer and lyricist David Heneker, from a book by Beverley Cross, with a kind-of new book by Julian Fellowes … and of course based on ‘Kipps’, by HG Wells!

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Charlie Stemp is on leave, so Arthur Kipps is currently being played by Sam O’Rourke, whose infectious energy brings the draper’s apprentice who comes into money sharply to life.  His childhood sweetheart Ann, who holds the ‘half a sixpence’ of the opening song, is played by Devon-Elise Johnson, who convinces as a gawky thirteen year-old as well as a growing women fighting her jealousy and irritation as Arthur becomes sideswept by his attraction to posh Helen (Emma Williams).

The toffs are fun, especially in a new number ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’, and Ian Bartholomew offers good comic support as a Dickensian theatrical named Mr Chitterlow.  There is a lot of leaping, swinging and boisterousness, and this is definitely a musical in which you can just sit back and be entertained.

Others worth mentioning – John Foster is a joy as both Kipps’ stodgy employer and Lady Punnet’s butler; while Jane How is very funny indeed as Lady P.  Gerard Carey was better as the photographer in the ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ number than he was as crooked James, and Vivien Parry was all decaying aristocracy as Mrs Walsingham.   Alex Hope as the idealistic socialist Sid and Bethany Huckle as lovestruck Flo were very good, too, and I enjoyed the new duet which gave insight into the feelings both Ann and Flo seem to hold for Arthur.

Running to early September, this is warmly recommended if you want an evening of fun, and if you can get to see O’Rourke have his moment in the spotlight, please do.


42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

This is a big show.  A big big big show which opens with a chorus of 42 pairs of tapping feet as the curtain rises as if to say, top this!


Sheena Easton is still out with the ‘flu, so CJ Johnson is playing the brittle and slightly past-it Dorothy Brock, and she’s a knockout.  The Boulevard of Broken Dreams number is marvellous, and I Only Have Eyes for You is sweet.

As the young juvenile Billy Lawlor, Stuart Neal has bags of energy, and his musical comedy made me think of the great vaudevillian Bert Wheeler, a comic hoofer who also sang and played the eternal youth.

The pivotal role of Peggy Sawyer, who ‘goes out a youngster, but has to come back a star’, only works if the actress has that sprinkling of fairy dust which makes you think she has it, and Clare Halse has the innocence of a Ruby Keeler as well as the steel of a Ginger Rogers.

Tom Lister’s Julian Marsh may well be charmed by this fresh young thing who still believes in her dreams: she makes him less jaded, he makes her more knowing.

Also of note in the leading cast are Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell as writers and low comedians Maggie and Bert.  Howell teams with Emma Caffrey’s Anytime Annie (‘the only time she said no she didn’t hear the question’) for Shuffle Off To Buffalo, while Ivir leads the girls in Go Into Your Dance.

I also like Bruce Montague’s hick millionaire Abner and Graeme Henderson’s dance captain Andy, the former a good comic foil and the latter an accomplished showman.

As for those routines, we get big staircases, a railway station, a mirror which reflects reclining ladies in a sequence which apes the best of Busby Berkeley, chorus lines of high camp and high kicks, beautiful costumes and countless set changes.

The songs are by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, direction by Mark Bramble, and the fabulous orchestra is conducted by Jae Alexander.


Carousel (London Coliseum)

This musical is one of my firm favourites, but the lead casting choices didn’t fill me with joy when they were first announced.  I’m familiar with both Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe as popular singers of mainly operatic fare (although neither have ever sung in a full-length opera), and to me they were hardly the embodiment of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan.

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However, the supporting cast and the spectacular full-staging has been gathering praise despite some lukewarm reviews from both professional and blogging critics, and I do like the score, so I bit the bullet and bought a couple of tickets in the Upper Circle, which were overpriced and allowed fairly awful views and minimal leg room.

The show, though, has some great numbers and the ensemble pieces were well-delivered (‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, ‘Blow High, Blow Low’, ‘What’s The Use of Wond’rin’), with some excellent chorus work and choreography.  Derek Hagen as Jigger, Brenda Edwards as Nettie, and Davide Fienauri as the dancing Carnival Boy need special mention as they lifted the energy and engagement levels whenever they appeared.

Gavin Spokes gives a real comic edge as well as some serious singing class to the role of Mr Snow, while Alex Young is a splendid Carrie, rightly getting warm applause for ‘When I Marry Mr Snow’ and ‘When The Children Are Asleep’.  This last song is a duet between Young and Spokes, who demonstrate the chemistry that is sadly lacking in the big lead duet ‘If I Loved You’, which should pull the audience in to the sudden emotional and deep love between Billy and Julie.

Let’s talk about Katherine Jenkins as Julie.  It’s been reported that as well as company voice coaching she has been receiving private acting lessons, and they have rubbed off as well as can be expected.  However she cannot both sing sweetly and put across the complex emotional range needed for the character, leaving her numbers to be simply very nice to listen to for the melody.  But in Act Two, where she has to engage with her wayward daughter, she’s fairly convincing, and her casting wasn’t the disaster I feared.

Which leaves Alfie Boe as Billy.  Reviews have not been kind, primarily to the wig which has now been replaced with something more in keeping to what a carnival barker might have worn.  His acting has been derided, too, with him being described as ‘a floorboard’, ‘a child pretending to be an adult’, and similar.

It may be the way the role was directed, but his stance is not in the least sexy or smouldering as it should be, and he’s just not convincing, and we don’t really understand what Julie sees in him.  In fact at the start of the big seven-minute Act One closer, ‘Soliloquy’, the way he stood made me think of the actors who taught thick Prince George how to deliver a speech in Blackadder.

The ‘Soliloquy’, though, is the undoubted highlight of the role, and by the end, the strength of the song came through and the effect was rather touching; we did, at last, believe that this man had found the heart within himself on discovering he was to become a father.

The staging though was odd, with the revolving circle which had been used to great effect in the opening ‘Carousel Waltz’ overture to introduce all the character and the show’s name itself, in letters revolving, oddly, backwards.  In the ‘Soliloquy’ Boe spent most of the number alone, as is right and proper for a number in which the character vocalises his thoughts,  but I expected a bit more use of both space and backdrops than we got.

Act Two started with some drama, as we were told that Alfie Boe had been feeling progressively ill during the first act and was unable to continue, leaving understudy Will Barrett to come on and deal with the tricky scenes of Billy’s death, engagement with the Starmarker (Nicholas Lyndhurst, in little more than a cameo), and as an invisible observer to his daughter’s childhood.  It would be hard to judge Barrett’s singing in Act Two as not much is required, but I felt he acted the part better, overall, and had a more believable engagement with Jenkins, as well as with Amy Everett, playing their daughter Louise.

Lonny Price directs, and Josh Rhodes is the choreographer, with David Charles Abell conducting the ENO Orchestra.  And no matter what the publicity says, this is most certainly not a semi-staged musical, there is a full set, costumes and flavour.  I can’t recommend it unreservedly due to the weakness of the two leads, but it is not the dud I thought it would be.


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.


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.


She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

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A delightful revival of the Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical is running on London’s fringe right now, and I heartily recommend it.

You might have come across this story before, in the films ‘The Shop Around The Corner’, ‘In The Good Old Summertime’ or ‘You’ve Got Mail’.  You might have seen the versions shown on television in 1978 and on digital live-streaming last year.

Georg Nowack (played at the performance I saw by understudy Peter Dukes, who was rather good, if a little plain) is an awkward bachelor who serves as one of the sales clerks in the perfumery of Mr Maraczek (Les Dennis, whose decision to use a truly awful accent colours his role) in 1930s Budapest.  He’s been corresponding with an unknown lady after placing an ad in the lonely hearts column, and he’s going to meet her soon for the first time.

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Amalia Balash (a perky Scarlett Strallen, who steals the show with her “Vanilla Ice Cream”) comes to the shop for a job and instantly finds herself at odds with Nowack, and she is also corresponding with a ‘Dear Friend’ which we quickly find out, is her nemesis himself.  In the meantime, Ilona Ritter, a vision of bad hair dye and thick make-up (played with scene-stealing effervescence by Katherine Kingsley, who has a whole library of comic expressions and barely disguised malice) is dating smarmy cad and fellow shop-worker Steven Kodaly (Kingsley’s real-life spouse, Dominic Tighe, who is perfectly hissable) and watching her life slowly slip away.

The main cast is rounded out by Ladislav Sipos (Alastair Brookshaw, playing the twitchy family man who ‘never disagrees’, with aplomb) and a new discovery, Callum Howells as delivery boy Arpad Lazslow, whose “Try Me” is an Act 2 delight.  Norman Pace has joined the cast as Head Waiter, and he’s lots of fun in the restaurant scene, and surprisingly strong-voiced.  I also liked the couple who found romance through reading: “Victor!”  “Hugo!”

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For a fringe production in a small venue, a lot of thought has gone into the revolving sets and production design, and Paul Farnsworth definitely deserves praise for his sparkles, bright colours, and leaf/snow combination indicators of the change of the seasons.  Fine choreography too, and a more-than-decent house band give the fifty-something songs life and breadth (although the repetitive ‘Thank you madam’ refrains could easily be chopped after the first couple of times).  If only the wigs had looked a little more realistic, it would have been quite perfect; but this is a fun little confection that certainly raises a smile in this winter season.

‘She Loves Me’ continues at the Menier until the 4th March 2017.


Disney’s Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre)

 

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On entering the auditorium of the Prince Edward Theatre, the curtain is flying carpet themed, and during the overture you realise this is going to be a show of many, vibrant colours, an Arabian splendour.

‘Aladdin’ was a Disney film from 1992, which notably had Robin Williams firing on all cylinders as the Genie, and here the huge frame and personality of Trevor Dion Nicholas brings this pivotal role to life, as he introduces the setting and the story at the top of the show.

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Aladdin himself, played by Dean John-Wilson, is  a little bland for my taste, although he has the physique and now and then his singing hits the spot (more so in ‘Proud Of Your Boy, a Menken-Ashman song which didn’t get included in the film, than in some of the wilder and more vibrant numbers).  As Princess Jasmine, Jade Ewen (a former Eurovision entrant and Sugababe, although neither are mentioned in her resume) , is good and feisty, but I didn’t sense any real chemistry between her and John-Wilson, while their big duet ‘A Whole New World’ was rather upstaged by the magic carpet they are flying on during the number.

The big spectacle closes Act One, in the catchy and fun ‘Friend Like Me’, in which Nicholas leads a whole troop of dancers doing ballroom, acrobatics, and eventually tap in a cheeky 42nd Street pastiche, all set in a cave lined with gold leaf.  Modest and understated, this isn’t.  As this is a Broadway show brought to the UK, we get lots of references which are uniquely British: in the Genie’s first scene, he pulls out an umbrella with the Union Flag when he is looking for the lamp, there is a call and response routine which uses Bruce Forsyth’s catchphrase, and there is a brief nod to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, as well as a Tommy Cooper joke at the expense of Aladdin’s fez before his transformation into ‘Prince Ali’.

This is a fairytale writ large, with lots of costume changes, magic special effects, and an amusing trio of pals for Aladdin replacing the monkey of the original film.  There are hissable bad guys too, in the shape of the vizier Jafar and his sidekick Iago (who was a bird in the film, I think).  They resemble Paul Daniels and Teller which added to the amusement for me, and they are both absolutely fine within the context of this admittedly thin plot.


The Go-Between (Apollo Theatre)

This new musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood takes its inspiration from the novel by LP Hartley (although many of the audience may be more familiar with the Joseph Losey film which starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and the young Dominic Guard).

This is a story of growing up, of first love, of grown-up ‘games’, of memories, of regrets, and about the stuffiness of the world in which young Leo Colston (‘my real name is Lionel, but don’t tell anyone’) finds himself when he goes to stay with his wealthy schoolmate Marcus and his family (mother, father, brother Dennis, and sister Marian).

We first meet Leo as an old man, fifty years on from his idyllic summer vacation, finding an old chest of memories and treasures in a dusty attic, and the moment of opening brings back the ghosts of the past of the Maudsley family, their servants, their friends, and the farmer Ted Burgess.  The young Leo is from poor stock and is overwhelmed by the convention of his surroundings, standing buttoned up and sweltering in his winter clothes until Marian plans to buy him a more fitting summer garb.

The only full song in the score, ‘Butterfly’, is sung by Crawford as older Leo while young Leo (last night, a marvellous Luka Green) parades his new suit of Lincoln Green, and it is an emotionally soaring moment – the singing might not be in as peak form as in Phantom days, but it fits with the character, and in fact Crawford, always on stage, always seeing when he saw when he was thirteen, and sometimes even interacting directly with his younger self, more and more urgently as act two strides towards the tragic conclusion, carries the show’s heart.

Leo becomes a ‘Mercury’, a messenger boy, a ‘postman’, first innocently taking a verbal message between the injured war veteran Trimingham and the object of his affections, Marian (Gemma Sutton, who previously appeared in ‘Gypsy’), and then, more dangerously, taking letters and messages between Marian at the great Hall and Ted, the tenant farmer who had been previously dismissed as ‘someone we don’t know socially’ by Mrs Maudsley.

The social gulf between Marian and Ted is accentuated even in the early scenes, where the dreadfully snobbish Marcus tells Leo not to leave clothes on the chair, but to throw them on the floor, ‘because that’s what Henry [the servant] is for’.  By the time the honour of the Hall is tested in the ‘gentlemen v tenants’ cricket match we know exactly where both sides stand, and why Leo, bored alone while Marcus is isolated by illness and keen to please the girl he is besotted by, gets embroiled in the forbidden love affair.

The Go-Between

Picture credit: Helen Maybanks.  Samuel Menhinick as Marcus, Luka Green as Leo.

The acting throughout this show is top-notch: Crawford is superb and your eyes might often drift to him, while you wonder what you would say to your own small self where you able to do so.  Sutton is good as the conventional miss who wants to break out from her restrictive dresses and the family tradition which means she cannot marry Ted, but has to marry Hugh Trimingham.

As Trimingham (‘nothing is ever a lady’s fault’), Stephen Carlile is excellent, keeping the stiff upper lip even when it becomes fairly clear he knows what is going on between the furtive lovers, tapping out a cigarette in a servant’s ashtray, and calmly answering Leo’s questions about the fickleness of women. Issy van Randwyck is the frighteningly icy Mrs Maudsley, although she may veer towards the pantomime at times.

The musical accompaniment is from one sole piano, played by Nigel Lilley.  This is supplemented at various points by the cast’s singing voices, which are beautifully arranged and performed, at times with their ‘Remember’ refrain a little reminiscent of ‘A Little Night Music’.   The voices are in Leo’s head but they are also living and breathing the moment he picks out a prop from the chest – his diary, a cricket bat, a ball, a branch of belladonna.

As farmer Ted, Stuart Ward is rough at the edges, but attractive enough to tempt the young Marian who has been surrounded all her life by stuffed shirts and the traditions where the men retreat to their port after dinner, and where she is expected to marry well and without complaint.  Ted offers her an escape from that, but it is an escape that can only be furtive and physical, which Leo starts to realise while remaining confused about the ways grown-ups believe (his discussion with Ted about the meaning of ‘spooning’ is as funny as it is toe-curling).

The Go-Between

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.  Stuart Ward as Ted Burgess.

I liked the lighting in this production, and the way that a limited set became something different – a tailor’s shop, a statue, a farm, a cricket field, a church – often by a resetting of chairs or the use of the cast to provide details such as the straw stack Leo slides down prior to his first meeting with Ted.   This only misfires slightly in the climactic scene where Marian’s secret is discovered, which is ‘revealed’ by the cast pacing around with umbrellas.  The show does take a while to get going, and the pace throughout is probably slower than most other musicals running in the West End, both young and old, but it is definitely worth seeing.

Direction is by Roger Haines, and design by Michael Pavelka, Tim Lutkin, and Matt McKenzie.

Thanks to Theatre Bloggers and Stage Door for providing the tickets.

 

 


Show Boat (New London Theatre)

Captain Andy’s Show Boat, the Cotton Blossom, has come to town in Daniel Evans’ fabulous production (fresh from Sheffield), and the classic socre by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II sounds as a sharp and as tuneful as ever.  There’s plenty of wit and life in this production, which has a small but hard-working cast, with some notably outstanding work from Sandra Marvin (Queenie), Rebecca Trehearn (Julie), Emmanuel Kojo (Joe) and Alex Young (Ellie May Chipley).

Young Magnolia Hawks (Gina Beck) lives on the Cotton Blossom with her parents, and while the Captain (Malcolm Sinclair) lives for showbusiness, mother Parthy (Lucy Briers) sees herself a cut above the river rats and players she has been living alongside for years, and wants something better for her daughter.  Magnolia wants nothing more than to be a leading lady, and to fall in love, and when Gaylord Ravenal (Chris Peluso) turns up, all charm in his sharp suit, she finds the latter, and in a powerful sequence where Julie has to leave the show boat, finds she suddenly has the chance to become the star.

This musical premiered in the USA in 1927, and was the first modern musical to move away from the conventions of vaudeville and operetta; it also dealt with racial issues with a vibrant mixed cast.  If you’ve seen the 1936 film with the feted bass singer Paul Robeson as Joe you will know that any singer has big shoes to fill with ‘Old Man River’, but Kojo is excellent here in both that huge number and (a delight to see) the fun duet with Queenie which was written for the film, ‘Ah Still Suits Me’.

Go on, have a look at that number as it appeared in the film, here:

Julie La Verne is a tragic figure, which Trehearn catches very well.  Her exuberance leading the kitchen staff in the negro song ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine’ gives way in the second half to her touching delivery of ‘Bill’ (not an original song for the show, it was written by Kern with PG Wodehouse back in 1917 for another production, but never used).

Here’s Trehearn performing the number:

Julie gives two big chances to Magnolia, making her the kindest heart on the river.  Magnolia and Gay fall in love as they play opposite each other (they have first felt attraction through ‘Make Believe’ at their first meeting), and although they have a child and settle in Chicago, his gambling and drinking is his downfall, and she is left to make her own way in the world.

The Trocadero scene loses something here by having no sense of a packed New Year’s Eve: instead, actors playing waiters and punters are scattered through the auditorium, giving us a sense of being the exclusive audience there as 1899 gives way to 1900.  Beck’s singing of ‘After the Ball’ is eventually gutsy and triumphant, and the song remains sentimental enough to bring a tear to the eye, but it doesn’t touch the sequence )one of my favourites) in the 1952 film.

Beck reminded me very much of Irene Dunne (the 1936 Magnolia) in her acting, she is a mischievous little flirt in her innocence and a regal miss in her poverty.  It’s a strong performance; while Peluso is excellent as Gay and in fine voice.  Leo Roberts plays Steven Baker and Jim Greene (in the later role resembling the early talkie singer, John Boles, which was interesting, if a little distracting!).  As the Hawks’ senior, Sinclair is an excellent Andy, winking connivingly at the audience as he gets one over on his wife, while Briers is a marvellous Parthy, steering the part away from the comic shrew she is so often reduced to.

The second half, following the chimes for the new century, fast-forwards through nearly thirty years before we meet the aged Joe and Queenie, and she leads the chorus in a blistering version of the feel-good ‘Hey Feller!’.  It’s a problematic ending, but there is no true reconciliation between the returning Gay and the strong Magnolia, who has raised their daughter alone.  The hurt and the distance was well conveyed, and if the adult Kim runs to forgive her father, the mother might find it much harder.

Here’s Gay and Magnolia in happier times, courtesy of the 1951 film, and that first duet of ‘Make Believe’:

Go and see this show if at all possible.  It is closing in August, and it is probably one of the best shows in town right now.  It will make you smile, tap your feet, and maybe even cry just a little.  Not bad for a musical which is approaching its ninetieth birthday.


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