Thriller Live (Lyric Theatre)

Thriller Live is coming to the end of a long residency in the West End, and last night I was invited to review Peter Andre’s first night in the guest star slot. He’s no stranger to the show, having appeared at its 4,000th performance celebration. I have never seen this show before, and I’m a casual Michael Jackson fan.

It’s important to state from the off that Thriller Live is in no way a traditional musical. There’s no plot or storyline, no acting characterisation or character development. I’m not sure it can even be classed as a jukebox musical like Beautiful, Jersey Boys or Sunny Afternoon – rather, I would describe it as a slick tribute concert crowd-pleaser presenting the music of the late Michael Jackson.

Seven singers, including Andre, interpret Jackson’s wide song catalogue from his Rockin Robin days (Ishaan Raithatha portrayed the boy Michael) as one of the Jackson 5 to his attempts to get involved in wider political and environmental issues in Earth Song. Vocal stand-outs last night were mean moonwalker Florivaldo Mossi (Billie Jean, Thriller) and long-time cast members John Moabi and Vivienne Ekwulugo (I Just Can’t Stop Loving You), but the effect of changing voices in a relentless parade of songs with the bare minimum of narration was a bit jarring for me.

I found the sequences which kept close to the original choreography and spectacle (Smooth Criminal, Billie Jean, Thriller) worked better than those which tried to do something different. However, with only one image of the actual MJ seen during the whole show, his presence was sorely missing throughout: a hole in the heart of this stylish but shallow show. I would have also welcomed a mix of songs across Jackson’s career rather than a rather slavish chronological approach, as this led the first act to drag a little.

Thriller Live

Thriller Live was once renowned for getting audiences on their feet and keeping them there, but these days it’s harder to retain that energy level. The dancers are all very good – a couple (Deavion Brown and dance captain Lauren Gore) are exceptional – and the stage tech including a bank of LED screens is effective, but any pop concert worth its salt does similar -or even beyond – these days.

When Jackson died in June 2009, Thriller Live was in its first year. It has become a place of celebration and pilgrimage for fans to some degree, which has contributed to its longevity. As such it is no surprise to learn that the tragedy and controversy of his life is not addressed, nor his changing appearance (unless having so many vocalists is an unconscious nod to this). Thriller Live is a sanitised celebration of the King of Pop.

Peter Andre’s fans were out in force and he did perform well: vocally sharp, a good mover with a sizable dollop of charm. His The Way You Make Me Feel, highlighted so much in the pre-show publicity, upped the ante, and his delicate performance of Human Nature was lovely. He injects the show with a bit of new blood and is a pro at pulling the audience in: Man in the Mirror was a particular highlight.

Peter Andre in Thriller Live! Photo credit Betty Zapata

The band are excellent, even tackling the iconic basslines and guitar solo of Beat It with aplomb. Once Thriller Live has its break from the London stage and goes on tour, it may regain the freshness it currently lacks. Having said that, a lively audience did seem to appreciate the effort put on stage in this lengthy show, and there are nuggets here and there that remain enjoyable – I did like the rainbow inclusivity of act one closer Can You Feel It.

A bit less reverence to the subject, and a bit more fire in the routines may go a long way to getting past the fact that this is in effect an expensive imitation of Jackson’s work without Jackson, and without much substance. It’s a very flash and very sophisticated party piece, and it’s fine as a piece of entertainment, but musicals have undoubtedly moved on in the last ten years.

You can book for Thriller Live in the West End here. Peter Andre appears until 22 December; further guest artists are to be announced.

Photo credits: Thriller Live

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& Juliet (Shaftesbury Theatre)

There’s a jukebox on stage playing Max Martin instrumentals, and the speakers are buzzing with life. The stage is colourful and covered with London-specific graffiti, and William Shakespeare (Ivan de Freitas at this performance, having a ball) is the hottest writer on the planet. As this musical starts, he’s letting everyone know about the ending to his new play, Romeo and Juliet, and everyone just feels a bit let down.

Enter Anne Hathaway, who wants to re-write, and we’re into this new world where Juliet, kneeling at her lover’s tomb, stands and walks and gets on with her life. Shoehorning popular songs, even those by the same composer, into a musical is not always a good idea (remember the disaster of Knights of the Rose), but if it is done tongue-in-cheek to some extent, with an element of fun, and with some tightly drawn characters, it can work.

Here, the use of Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys hits really blends in with this tale of star-crossed young lovers and this brave new world in which Juliet finds herself. The familiarity means the audience automatically connects with the tunes, and the storyline is strong enough to move this musical out of the “jukebox” category.

Tim Mahendran and Miriam Teak-Lee in & Juliet
Tim Mahendran and Miriam Teak-Lee in & Juliet

Just as the original Romeo had two pals, our Juliet has two, the gender-fluid May and the sparky April (Hathaway inserts herself into her version of this tale). Together with the Nurse, who has secrets hidden in her own past which will be revealed as we watch, they head to – where else? – Paris! This is a high-energy piece of theatre, with songs such as Oops I Did It Again, I Kissed a Girl, and Roar fitting in perfectly to move the plot along.

Miriam Teak-Lee is a real find as Juliet, developing from a scared and grieving teenager to a confident woman unafraid to make her own choices. Her singing is superb, and she dominates her scenes when she is on stage. As May, Arun Blair-Mangat is sassy and touching as the youngster who is exploring both self and sexuality, and Cassidy Janson is fun and frothy as the frustrated Anne and the scatty April.

In Paris, it isn’t all about young love: Melanie La Barrie’s Nurse and David Bedella’s Lance reignite their spark in an amusing couple of vignettes (she’s a tigress, and he’s game for a laugh), and even the bickering Shakespeares start to find some common ground. For Juliet, life is anything but simple, and in Tim Mahendran’s Frankie there’s an element of comic camaderie to contrast with the charmless, childish and petulant Romeo (an effective Jordan Luke Gage) when he finally appears.

Arun Blair-Mangat in & Juliet
Arun Blair-Mangat in & Juliet

I’ve rarely seen a set design as sharply suited to a show as Soutra Gilmour’s, which has a revolve, a rising and falling dias, and lots of other surprises which evoke a variety of different settings. Paloma Young’s costumes are beautiful, from April/Anne’s corset to May’s delicate crown, and Juliet’s array of quick changes. Luke Sheppard directs a large company with flair, and Jennifer Weber’s choreography is ably interpreted. The sound design by Gareth Owen is incredible, with not a note out of place and every song catching the mood perfectly.

I feel that this feel-good musical will have (and should have) a long life in the West End, and it definitely deserves to be celebrated as one of the best musicals to hit London in quite a while. It is flashy and fast-moving, and even has a spoof boy-band, but it finds time for the quiet moments in the Romeo and Juliet story, too, and just a dash of realism. If the ending might not be what everyone is hoping for, as least as Juliet says, I Want It That Way.

Image credits – Johan Persson.

Oi Frog and Friends (Lyric Theatre)

Based upon the picture books by Kes Gray and Jim Field, Oi Frog and Friends brings the various species of pupil at Sittingbottom School for Animals to rhyming life in this delightful and charming piece of children’s theatre.

Created for the stage by Emma Earle, Zoe Squire, Luke Bateman and Richy Hughes, this family musical extravaganza has much for preschoolers and above and their parents to enjoy, and even solo reviewers delving into their family-friendly souls.

We first meet Cat, who is a purrrfect prefect, managing the book of rules that dictates mules sit on stools, hares sit on chairs, and so on. When Frog joins the school as the new boy, he finds sitting on a log isn’t quite for him, and this is where the problems begin.

John Winchester as Frog
John Winchester as Frog

With vibrant performances, clever and inventive puppetry, catchy songs, and a lot of audience participation to keep children interested as well as getting them to embrace new words, Oi Frog is a hit from the first scene, with in-jokes for adults including spoof ads and a Meerkat TV reporter which reminds you of Kermit’s stint behind the roving mike on Sesame Street.

As characters as diverse as a fox, an ostrich, a whale, a gnu, and a partying cheetah, Simon Yadoo displays a diverse set of voices and characters in the cast. John Winchester works hard to give a voice, a personality and an infectious laugh to the power-hungry Frog, plagued by rhyme all the time.

As Cat, Lucy Tuck is suitably supercilious and even recounts her days in the Stunt Cat TV show, where she risks her nine lives. She is determined to make her final life count by climbing to defeat the megalomaniac Frog, navigating a lot of scatalogical jokes about smells, farts and bottoms along the way.

John Winchester as Frog, Simon Yadoo as Cheetah
John Winchester as Frog, Simon Yadoo as Cheetah

The moral of this riotous tale: not all animals have a rhyme and in the end, just sit where you like! A gloriously colourful tale, with genuinely creative props, costume and choreography, and a sense of fun and camaderie with a young audience, Oi Frog should form an essential part of your family Christmas.

Oi Frog and Friends is directed by Emma Earle, with songs composed by Luke Bateman and written by Richy Hughes. It continues at the Lyric Theatre until 5 January (except for 25-26 December and 1 January) in morning performances. Book tickets at the Nimax website.

It will also enjoy a short run from 11-12 February at The Beck Theatre in Hayes.

Photo credits – Pamela Raith

Ghost Quartet (Boulevard Theatre)

For my second Dave Malloy musical this year, I took myself into Soho to the former home of the Raymond Revue Bar, and to the theatre launched by his granddaughter, Fawn James. Ghost Quartet is the first production to launch the season helmed by the Boulevard Theatre’s artistic director Rachel Edwards.

While I admired Preludes over at the Southwark Playhouse, I didn’t really like it, and yet I both admire and like Ghost Quartet. Best approached as a concept album than with any expectation of a linear storyline, this musical is presented to us as a set of sides and tracks, as in the old vinyl days. Each track moves interconnected stories forward, but it can be confusing trying to keep up with who’s who and what period of time we are in.

The music is a mix of country folk and avant garde, with the four actor-musicians (Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla) playing a range of instruments from a melodic piano to discordant percussion. The songs are both haunting and disturbing, often both together, and there are moments of total darkness (save for the odd emergency lights which stand for stars) and bright, warm moments such as the ode to various types of whisky and friendship.

Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon
Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon

Ghost Quartet takes elements from many myths and stories which have been passed down, from The Twa Sisters through Edgar Allen Poe to the Arabian Nights. The characters blend into each other and time is meaningless (at one point a character says to another “do you remember when” and is told “I don’t think that has happened yet”). The new space at the Boulevard is somewhat claustrophobic but the staging in the round works well with this piece, as audience members are encouraged to join in the music, have a drink, and ultimately take charge of the stage during the last number.

Unlikes Preludes, which kept the audience at arms length, while detailing every aspect of the story unfolding in front of them, Ghost Quartet keeps its audience guessing and makes them work hard to stay involved in what’s going on. Clever lighting (Emma Chapman), sound design (David Gregory) and musical direction (Benjamin Cox) keeps the heightened atmosphere going, and the four actors have a chemistry between them that allows them to be believable in short vignettes which bring their characters together.

I admired Varla’s performance earlier in the year at Equus, and he displays a very different aspect of his skill-set here, proving to be a fine pianist when channelling the work of Thelonious Monk, who may or not be present in the space as a ghost. Bawden is delicate and ethereal as Rose and Roxie, children who are affected by spirit visitations, while Memon’s vocal range and distorted microphone gives her characters a sense of horror and abandon. Curradi is less intense, but brings a wide range of instruments together to weave an effective soundscape.

Zubin Varla
Zubin Varla

Dave Malloy’s score, text and lyrics pull you into the show and the songs are of the type that reward mutiple listens: from the opening number I Don’t Know they are toe-tapping and inclusive. Subway has a sense of the macabre, Starchild of innocence, The Telescope of chance, Tango Dancer of passion, and Soldier and Rose of regret. This is a complex show that can be pieced together like a jigsaw, or shaken in the air to see where the shapes fall.

Directed by Bill Buckhurst and designed by Simon Kenny, with movement direction by Georgina Lamb (exploring places, spaces, and characters), Ghost Quartet continues at the Boulevard Theatre in Soho until 4 January. I’d heartily recommend you go and see it if you can; it’s a new kind of musical in a beautiful and flexible new theatre space.

Photo credits Marc Brenner.

Battersea Bardot (workshop, BFI Southbank)

In the first of what is hoped to be a series of collaborations with new British musicals created for the stage at the BFI, Battersea Bardot brings the story of actress Carol White to life in the person of versatile singer/actress Lizzii Hills. The title comes from the nickname given to her by the media, equating her with the French sexpot actress of the late 1950s.

Carol White (1943-1991) was born in Putney, Hammersmith, the daughter of a scrapyard merchant. Starting in talent contests as a child, she had her first uncredited film role at the age of eight (in Kind Hearts and Coronets), and her first credited film role in Circus Friends in 1956. Her peak years were between 1966 (the year she starred in the television film directed by Ken Loach, Cathy Comes Home) and 1969 (when she tried to make it in Hollywood, and her career floundered as she became “just another blonde”).

It’s New Year’s Eve 1969 when we first meet Carol in Battersea Bardot, after a brief opener with the emergency call which prefigured her death at the age of 48. She’s drinking heavily and waiting for the arrival of her American producer boyfriend Paul (presumably Paul Burke, an actor whose wife did indeed attempt suicide because of her husband’s affair with White) to the posh London suburban home she has hardly lived in.

Poster image for Battersea Bardot
Poster image for Battersea Bardot

Through Ewen Moore’s songs and passages of dialogue, we find Carol White’s life and loves dissected and presented through her own vodka-sodden reminisces. The dreams of success, the early marriage (to one-time pop singer Mike King, father of her two children), the first film roles, the wild promiscuity which led her to throw herself at multiple men in positions of power, the fame which came too quickly and faded all too soon.

The men in her life seem to define Carol: her father, who called her “his pocket Venus”; her uncle who had rough hands and stale breath; her husband (only one mentioned, she had three in her short life); the relationships with Peter Sellers, Adam Faith, Oliver Reed (she spiked his drink in a Putney launderette, and mentions him a lot), Frank Sinatra; the producer who signed her to a Hollywood contract then cancelled it when her films started to fail. There is no mention of her mother, or female co-stars, or friends. Even her children are both male, appearing with her in Cathy Come Home.

Moore’s songs are catchy enough, from the title Battersea Bardot through to slow pieces reflecting on “the summer I spent with Sinatra” and upbeat songs like the one about the Peter Pan talent contest. Lizzii Hills resembles White in passing, and she makes the actress both likeable and pathetic, especially when the story reveals stories of abuse and mistreatment, hidden under a veneer of “the queen of 1969”. A thirst for fame led White to make poor business decisions and leave the husband and children she loved, for the bright lights of Tinseltown and Vegas, and the lure of money.

Carol White
Carol White

There are moments of honesty in the narrative that reveal the naivete behind the girl who has now been largely forgotten, or left as a footnote in British movie history. On Cathy Come Home, “after Ken [Loach] called cut, I was still shaking”; on Never Let Go (“I had three male co-stars, and I slept with all of them”); on Paul (“did I know he was married? yes, but so was I. It was what you did, part of the game”); on her own personality (“they called me the wild one”).

Some facts have been tweaked for dramatic effect – she did not really take much of a break from films to have her children, and a nine-year gap between films alluded to removes what I think was one of her best (if difficult) roles in The Squeeze from the narrative. It’s also unclear whether Frank Sinatra would have really wanted to marry a second woman thirty years his junior so soon after seperating from Mia Farrow, so this “best time in her life” may have been a bit of wish-fulfillment.

Portrait of Carol White
Portrait of Carol White

Ralph Bogard directed this ninety-minute piece, in which composer Moore accompanied Hills, whose superlative performance (she never leaves the stage) brought one of the quintessential faces of 1960s London back to life. I left humming some of the songs and wanting to search through my DVD collection to reacquaint myself with many of White’s performances.

There’s a quirky ending, too, in which 1969 Carol watches as the ashes of 1991 Carol are brought back to England by parcel post on a plane, and child Carol watches from her father’s scrapyard where she waves to the jets passing overhead. This is almost a frame from a film, itself, and brings us full circle, marrying the stage show we have just experienced with the woman visible on the screen in her 51 credits (including Poor Cow, I’ll Never Forget What’s-Is-Name, The Fixer, Dulcima, and Made).

The journey for this show is just beginning, and I hope to see it further down the line when it becomes largely in scale and scope. Battersea Bardot was performed at the Studio at BFI Southbank on 29 November, as part of the BFI Musicals season.

Her Way (work in progress, John Thaw Studio)

Utilising music, multimedia, a couple of puppets and a female God who drinks just a bit too much, Her Way finished its brief run at the Actors Centre last night as part of the Motherhood(s) Season of new writing.

The company of seven portray God and her nemesis Luci (Lucifer/Satan), Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the Left and Right Hands of God. The last two strut like minor gangsters, in command of the Almighty phonelines, but its clear they are far from the power behind Herself.

After an odd start, in which a performer playing a video game on her phone is virtually obliterated (if you’re going to have some audience interaction, do it more than this, or reduce it and get on with the story), we meet Adam, First Man and President of a world he doesn’t quite understand.

Adam, with Brian the Lion and Sam the Sheep
Adam, with Brian the Lion and Sam the Sheep

Not until Eve arrives, sexy and sarcastic in a tight PVC skirt, letting loose the proverbial and literal snake in the bed (“do you think it would alarm it/if I put it in your armpit”, sings a nonplussed Adam) and dismissing God’s cohorts.

The songs sometimes explode into fully-fledged song and dance moments, sometimes something more reflective. There’s more than one earworm in a score which definitely has real potential, and one song, Dead Meat, sung by Brian the puppet lion, is a quirky exploration of how the First Humans became carnivore.

Equating the genesis of the world with Trumpism, though, needs further exploration, and the final number of the night, In God We Trust, seemed to stutter to and end without really saying much. There’s a lot to explore about female potential and male power, and Her Way certainly has the legs to do it.

God with her Left and Right Hands
God with her Left and Right Hands

Cast members are Vivian Belosky (Eve, as in “Christmas”), Judith Von Orelli (who makes a marvellous tipsy and pissed-off God), Paul Brayward (the glowing Right Hand), Brian Raftery (Cain and Brian), Louisa Swanson (Left Hand and the devious Luci, “yeah, the wings don’t work”), Jess Peet (Abel, Gabriel and Sam the Sheep), Kieran Stallard (Adam and MD).

Directed by Becky Harrison, this musical is inventive and funny, and even as a work in progress with a lot of further work to do, it was the perfect antidote to a draining and complex play earlier in the day.

In a pre-show preamble, Belosky told us that Her Way should return at another venue in 2020. My advice is to keep an eye on this one: it has the makings of something rather special and fun to add to the fringe scene.

Photos courtesy of @@HerWay_Musical.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (Chiswick Playhouse)

Yesterday I was invited to the former Tabard Theatre to see a new version of the second-longest running musical Off-Broadway, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. The auditorium hasn’t changed but this show is rather more ambitious than previously seen here.

Updated to include references to Tinder, Grindr, Netflix and, very topically, Pizza Express, this musical covers a range of relationships from the awkwardness of first dates to first child, middle-age parents to happy singletons, married dotage to awkward widowhood.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/loureviews.blog/2019/11/18/i-do-i-do-upstairs-at-the-gatehouse/amp/
Naomi Slights, Dominic Hodson, Laura Johnson in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

The cast of four handle the different characterisations and couplings well, and the single piano accompaniment – if a little strident at times – is very effective. With a book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts, this musical brings all forms of love, loss and life to the fore. Similar in time and scope to I Do! I Do! (although that follows the same couple through life), it works on its familiar situations which cause conspiratorial laughs from the audience.

All four were excellent and did justice to an interesting and varied score. George Rae’s touching gay widower finding new romance at a funeral and husband of three decades finding peace with his Guardian-reading wife. Laura Johnson’s perennial bridesmaid and over-caring new mum. Hodson’s dinner-party bore and passively-aggressive dad. Naomi Slights’s bubbling tennis champ and frustrated wife who has no time for passion: all worked well.

George Rae in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
George Rae in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

I can’t really comment on the technical aspects of the production as the lights failed after twenty minutes and the rest of the show was performed in one setting, but this and the slight break that proceeded it was handled well by all concerned, especially Naomi Slights who had to scene change, dance, and guide a couple who had nipped down to the bar back to their seats!

The one aspect of an otherwise delightful and thoughtful show which does look dated are the bookend scenes, where the cast sing of Adam and Eve and the foibles of men and women. This feels as if it belongs elsewhere, but it’s a small quibble when the rest of Charlotte Westenra’s production is so fresh and entertaining.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change continues at the Chiswick Playhouse (just round the corner from Turnham Green station) until 30 November.

Photo credits: Savannah Photographic.

I Do! I Do! (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

A musical version of the 1951 play The Four Poster, this revival of the show by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (first seen in 1966) is simply staged but winningly performed.

Agnes (Gemma Maclean) and Michael (Ben Morris) are young, idealistic, and dressing for their wedding when we first meet them. In love, with the world ahead of them, wondering at what lies ahead, sizing up each other.

Through a cycle of songs over the next 90 minutes or so, we follow them through their honeymoon, becoming parents, irritation with each other’s habits, infidelity, coping with teenage children, working through their dreams and regrets, and finally leaving an empty nest.

Agnes and Michael in I Do! I Do!
Agnes and Michael in I Do! I Do!

Upstairs at the Gatehouse boasts a large stage area flanked by seats on three sides. The economy of I Do! I Do! requires minimal musical accompaniment, in this case pianist and MD Henry Brennan, who adds flourishes and detached amusement as the events onstage unfold.

This is a traditional musical score for two people, and each song has the right amount of sparkle: I particularly enjoyed spiky duet Nobody’s Perfect and the wife’s solo Flaming Agnes, but the whole score is melodic, memorable, and moves the plot along.

I Love My Wife and The Father of the Bride are solos for Michael at different stages in his life: one sweet, one sardonic. When The Kids Get Married talks of all the dreams an older married couple still have of what they never did, and will never do.

Michael and Agnes in I Do! I Do!
Michael and Agnes in I Do! I Do!

I liked the acknowledgement now and then that the Gatehouse is a relatively small space, with a very close audience, as Michael seeks some ego boosting for his novel writing and has a throwaway line the morning after his wedding night.

Agnes is the most complex of the two, at first settling for the roles destined for her as wife, mother and shopper, eventually as time progressing wanting something that defines her as herself. The years have changed her, but Michael proves to stay the same, right down to “chewing” in his sleep.

This lively and welcome revival of a minor American classic ran at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 16 November 2019, directed by Joseph Hodges and designed by Emily Bestow (set) and Joseph Ed Thomas (lighting).

Photo credits by Kevin Ralph.

Mary Poppins (Prince Edward Theatre)

The world’s favourite, “practically perfect” nanny returns to London in this revival of Mary Poppins, a hybrid of the much-loved 1964 film, the books of PL Travers, and some new material from writer Julian Fellowes with songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

The Sherman brothers songs from the Disney screen version have been cut back – big set pieces Chim Chim Che-ree/Step in Time, Let’s Go Fly a Kite, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious survive the scissors, plus a snatch of A Spoonful of Sugar, but favourites such as the ceiling tea party and the bank choral piece are gone.

In their place are Mrs Corry’s sweet shop, with shining gingerbread stars, and a terrifying couple of scenes – Mr Banks’s old nanny, Miss Andrew proves to be a mirror of The Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch, and the discarded toys take over the nursery in Playing the Game.

Promotional poster for Mary Poppins

Mrs Banks no longer marches for women’s suffrage, but regrets leaving the stage behind for respectable society; the kitchen proves a riot on the eve of a dinner party; and instead of a run on the bank, a couple of contrasting investments cause Banks to fall out of favour and become increasingly dischevelled.

In casting Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp as Mary and Bert, Richard Eyre’s production adds a firm but fair portrayal of the nanny who has an understated arrival but a spectacular exit, and a sense of cheeky fun in the chap who has “learned every trade”.

Joseph Millson as Banks needs a little more backbone and amplification, but he sings well enough and gives a sense of the conventially repressed Victorian male, eventually proving to be rather touching as he remembers how to be a father.

Mary, Bert, and company
Mary, Bert, and company

Amy Griffiths is sparkling as the showgirl who is coming to terms with Being Mrs Banks, and Imogen Bourn’s Jane and Joseph Duffy’s Michael are fine as the children. She’s a bit more temperamental than the Disney version, and he’s a terror, but their sense of wonder is lovely.

Claire Moore is so good as the gorgon Miss Andrew you have to like her, while Malinda Parris has infectious charm as the witch who has the power to recall the past. Add in Petula Clark’s haunting bit as the Bird Woman (happy birthday, as she turned 87 yesterday), and you have a decent team of leads.

Then there’s the magic. Flying, tricks, illusions, all of which hark back to the innocence of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. With a fantastic automated set from Bob Crowley, strong lighting by Hugh Vanstone, acrobatic statues, and a vibrant musical accompaniment conducted by Graham Hurman, Mary Poppins will keep you smiling.

The Banks family in Mary Poppins
The Banks family in Mary Poppins

It does have to be said that there were still some slight sound issues last night, as reported during previews, and I hope these can be addressed soon: they are not enough to detract from the enjoyment of the show, but still enough not to go unmentioned.

In all, this is a marevellous and enjoyable show which can be enjoyed by those new to Poppins and fans of the classic film alike. It is currently playing at the Prince Edward until the end of March 2020.

Photo credits Johan Persson.

Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

This has been running in London for two years, and arrived with a great fanfare after Broadway success and Tony wins. It’s still being advertised as “the room where it happens”, but is it really all that?

This is my first visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, which has been described as the greatest musical ever made. (Spoiler: it isn’t). Money has clearly been poured into this production by the bucketload, and it shows. Everything is slick. The lighting, the sets, the music, the choreography.

The theatre, although cramped in the cheaper seats, has been sensitively renovated, and the show is clearly selling well to tourists from outside the UK, and repeat visitors. It seems to be popular amongst younger audiences, perhaps because of a reliance on modern music forms like hip-hop, which represent roughly 50% of the score.

The truth is, I just didn’t care about Alexander Hamilton, so when he faces adversity like blackmail, family bereavement and a Salieri-Mozart type relationship with “your villain” Aaron Burr, I find it hard to get emotionally involved.

Alexsnder Hamilton and company
Alexsnder Hamilton and company

The cast work hard – I liked Sufiso Mazibuko as Burr (great voice throughout) and Rachelle Ann Go as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, in particular – but the lack of a central character to click with weakened the piece as a whole. Light relief from King George III (Gavin Spokes) was fun but frankly out of place, and Angelica (Sharon Rose), who saw Hamilton first but let her sister marry him, was well acted.

Musically, Hamilton doesn’t know where to put itself. The hip-hop opening, the rap trash talk over the Constitution, the comic number with a catchy refrain for the King, and more traditionally melodic musical numbers sat uneasily together, and made the show as a whole drag badly in places.

Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy
Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy

Photos by Matthew Murphy. Hamilton continues at the Victoria Palace.

Please note that the paperless ticketing system currently in operation comes to an end in early December, from which time tickets will be posted out. I’m told by a staff member at the Victoria Palace this will increase ticket touting but, be sensible if you want to see Hamilton. Prices range between £30-200, so there is something for everyone, and the view from the grand circle is absolutely fine

Kelli O’Hara (Cadogan Hall)

The latest in the season of Broadway performers brought over to showcase their takents at Cadogan Hall, Kelli O’Hara (last seen here in The King and I) proves to be adept at the Great American Songbook, opera and even a bit of country rock.

With a five piece band – four of which “I only met yesterday”, O’Hara presents a carefully chosen set of songs, beginning with I Have Dreamed (Tuptim and Lun Tha duet) and ending with Edith Piaf’s immortal La Vie en Rose.

She boasts an impressive vocal range and an emotional maturity which brings songs such as This Nearly Was Mine (Emile’s solo from South Pacific) and The Light in the Piazza (Clara’s song from the musical of the same name) into sharp focus, making them real and moving.

Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O’Hara

In contrast, OHara returned squarely to her Oklahoma roots in a riotous song about a country star who can’t make it in the opera, until her child decides to prematurely scramble into the world, that is, making his mother hit the high notes and utter “some cuss words”.

Elsewhere we had a couple of Sondheim songs: What More Do I Need (from Saturday Night) and Finishing The Hat (from Sunday in the Park with George). We heard of Nellie Forbush’s “wonderful guy” (South Pacific), and about Getting to Know You (The King and I).

To Build a Home, from The Bridges of Madison County, seemed to click and fly much more than it did with Jenna Russell’s exaggerated accent at the Menier earlier this year; I may need to give the musical another listen.

KelliO'Hara in The King and I
KelliO’Hara in The King and I

Equally charming was a “mashup” of the Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun and Charlie Chaplin’s sentimental composition Smile, which O’Hara dedicated to her son. Every mention of her husband Greg, himself a songwriter and musician, and their two children, felt joyous.

O’Hara is s fine singer who makes even the highest soprano notes feel effortless – in songs like Lerner and Loewe’s I Could Have Danced All Night (My Fair Lady) and He Loves Me (from She Loves Me) her sense of playful fun comes through, too.

Black is the Color of My Voice / Soul Sessions (Watermans Arts Centre)

Apphia Campbell’s play inspired by the life of Nina Simone returns to the London stage with a one-off performance at the Watermans in Brentford, under their Friday Nights Live umbrella.

The character we see on stage is not exactly Simone, although the songs sung are associated with her, including Mississippi Goddamn and I Put a Spell on You (written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose version we hear played on a taped selection of songs covered by Simone, before the show starts). This lady becomes “Mina Bordeaux”, changing her name for the same reasons as Simone, to protect her church family from the association with “the Devil’s music”.

Campbell, in hair wrap and pulling items from a battered suitcase, pulls us into Mina/Nina’s world, imitiating her Bible-thumping mother, reinacting the classical concert where her parents were evicted from their prime “whites-only” seats, girlishly gushing over innocent love letters from her first boyfriend, recounting the vicious assault from the man who became her husband.

In song, she is no imitator but rather a celebrator of the woman who has clearly given her inspiration to become a singer and an activist (her follow-up show, Woke, is far more concerned with matters of race). The title of the play, Black is the Color of My Voice, both references the fact that she, Campbell, and Simone are both black women, but also the gentle Scots folk song which Simone made part of her regular repertoire in 1959.

Mina is a precocious talent, playing piano from the age of three, and dreaming of playing Carnegie Hall as a concert pianist. The fame she seeks comes with the civil rights movement and her songs of protest, fighting for the visibility of “my people” in the shadow of the speeches of Martin Luther King.

Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux
Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux

Soul Sessions, which has sometimes been performed together with the preceding play, was included in yesterday’s ticket as the second half of a double bill. Campbell returns to the stage in a long red gown and pearl necklace, engaging the audience in chat and delivering a range of Simone songs (accompanied by her pianist Tim Shaw).

With “I Loves You, Porgy” (Gershwin), “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (Donaldson and Kahn), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (written for her, but better known here for the hit version by The Animals), “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” (MacDermot/Ragni/Rado), there is a flick of recognition and even some singing along – but the power of both Simone’s words and Campbell’s performance comes through in “Four Women” before the inevitable encore of the anthemic “Feeling Good” (Newley and Bricusse) which Simone truly made her own.

Soul Sessions is largely playful and teasing, stripped back to a sleek presentation by this confident performer who has even “forgotten my shoes”. It’s a relief in a way after the draining play we saw in the first half, a contrast to the hard life we have witnessed. I highly recommend both shows (which run at 70 minutes and 50 minutes respectively), but they can clearly stand on their own.

Apphia Campbell
Apphia Campbell

Reputation (The Other Palace, Studio)

“It’s plagiarism with rhythm, and there’s nothing better than a good … Reputation.”

We are in mid-1930s Hollywood, where hot-shot writer Freddy Larceny (Jeremy Seacomb) churns out successful screenplays for the big studios. Larceny is a legal term for theft, of course, so the musical is already setting the character up as the bad guy.

Over in a Paris college, Michelle Grant (Maddy Banks, so good earlier in the year in Closer to Heaven, and memorable here as the girl with a plot and a dream) gets hold of a copy of Variety and a route to potential fame.

Company of Reputation
Company of Reputation

When the dastardly Larceny steals her story, Michelle isn’t going to let it go, which brings romance into the plot with the arrival of law whizz Archie Bright (Ed Wade, who displays an enviable singing range in “I Knew” but sports an incongruous hairstyle for the period).

Reputation is undoubtedly corny (with the odd clunky rhyme: “Clark Gable and Errol Flynn/standing there when I walk in”), mostly fun, and somewhat sexist, with Larceny literally putting his feet on an adoring female crawling on the floor in one scene.

Secomb’s portrayal of Freddy Larceny is overpowering and somewhat reminiscent of Applegate, the devil figure in Damn Yankees, with a dash of the Astaire hat-tip in the number “Don’t Mess With Freddy”. He’s there as the unreliable narrator in a way, but also to add a snip of devious charm.

With twenty-five songs, including a torch song for a chanteuse not unlike Josephine Baker (“Raindrops”, sung in French and English by the sultry Priscille Grace), and a bedroom gush for the girls (“My Prince Charming”, with pillows and dancing which made me think of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Oklahoma), this feels like a love letter to movie musicals.

Jeremy Secomb as Freddy and company of Reputation
Jeremy Secomb as Freddy and company of Reputation

Although the final third stretches incredulity – a patter song for Cory Peterson’s judge doesn’t quite come off, and the reveal of a certain secret feels straight off the pulp fiction page – we all love a happy ending, and we all like to hiss the villain.

The Oscar for Best Original Story was last presented in 1956, which suggests that Hollywood has devalued the Michelle Grants of this world over the years, while the Larcenys (“I taught Cagney to say ‘you dirty rat'”) prosper.

Still, the dreamworld of 30s Tinseltown comes across in a good-looking production, with strong support from Lauren Ingram as the “supportive best friend”, plus Charlie Dennis, Eleanor Tollan and Ashleigh Cavanagh.

Maddy Banks as Michelle and company of Reputation
Maddy Banks as Michelle and company of Reputation

Oddly, choreographer Tamsyn Salter has a featured role but isn’t mentioned on the cast page of the programme: she seems to be there just to guide the deportment number “Laydeez” that opens Act Two, with an accent that veers into comic territory like the madame in The Boy Friend.

There are also strange character omissions: Archie’s invisible friend Tom, who Ingram’s Mary sees as a potential romantic partner; tough lawyer Jackson; and the figure who alters the course of Michelle’s case. These seem to hint at underwriting rather than conscious artistic decisions, and Tom in particular seems a loss to the plot and Mary’s own trajectory.

Reputation has music and lyrics by Alick Glass, and is co-authored by Alick and Suzanne Glass. Warren Wills (who plays lively piano along with an uncredited double bassist) directs the show, and Nick Richings designed the atmospheric lighting, with washes of colour, spotlights, and rotating projection.

This new musical will leave you with a smile on your face, and it certainly entertains: more so if you love the films and songs of the 30s, as I do. A general audience may find it somewhat fluffy and simplistic for our modern world – but you can decide for yourself as Reputation continues in the Studio downstairs at The Other Palace until 14 November.

Photo credits Donato.

Terror at the Sweetshop – staged reading (The Other Palace Studio)

This will not be a full review as a staged reading cannot be evaluated in the same way as a full show, but I was interested enough to go along to The Other Palace this weekend to see the first performance of the musical Terror at the Sweet Shop, composed by Gavin Brock, written by Nichola Rivers, and directed by Andrew Keanes.

It was said to be a funny, edgy, family musical, based on the much-loved book by Lawrence Prestidge, and this was the first time the full libretto was to be performed. I was in!

The staging is simple – the cast (seven adults, five children) on chairs with script folders in hand, a handful of props and movements giving a sense of sets including the titular sweet shop, the homes of two of the children, the school, and so on. There’s a pianist (MD Rebecca Grant) and a speaker which amplifies the music.

Oscar (an impish and lively Jack Meredith) is being followed by a mysterious cat (a slinky Paul Keating, last seen in Little Miss Sunshine) who acts as a sometime narrator for the action. With a mother who is too wrapped up in yoga and well-being to notice him (Claire-Marie Hall), Oscar finds his fun and sugar fix every day at three at the sweet shop.

Together with his friends – Emma, Reece (Josiah Choto), Ishy (Etienne Ragoo, who has a fun song about being a nerd), and the flatulent Mikey – Oscar is determinded to solve the puzzle of where Mr McNulty from the shop has gone, and to get rid of the cackling witch Miss Primrose (Eva Polycarpou, note perfect, and in role contrast with the last time I saw her in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin).

Cast and creatives of Terror at the Sweetshop
Cast and creatives of Terror at the Sweetshop. Image courtesy Facebook.

Shakil Hussain portrays both Ishy’s workaholic father and the Elvis-like headteacher, who wears leathers and reaches for his guitar in school breaks. He’s a lot of fun. Steve Furst is touching as Emma’s distracted dad, and there’s a nice duet for him and Claire-Marie Hall as Oscar’s ditzy mum which lifts the musical from a run of (admittently funny) fart jokes. To wrap up the adult cast, Reece’s lovey-dovey parents are played by Newton Matthews and Tanisha Spring, who do well in the dance numbers and get an in-joke towards the end.

Terror at the Sweet Shop proves to be a lot of fun, with the talented children in the cast easily matching the adults in the cast. All have their chance to shine: but I must mention Jasmine Sakyiama, who portrays the confusion of Emma, a child dealing with the loss of one parent and the crippling grief of another very well; and Aaron Gelkoff, who I saw earlier in the year in Caroline or Change, who hits the comedy head-on as Mikey. As for Meredith, his Oscar was the perfect pivot point for the story and the camaderie between him and the other young cast members was obvious.

I look forward to seeing where Brock, Keates and team take this show next. Given we saw the results of just a week of development, it was witty, sharp, complex and well-performed. A success, I’d say.

Friendsical (Ashcroft Playhouse)

“No one told you life was gonna be this way”. So goes the theme tune of a thousand repeats since the Gellers, Bings, Tribbianis, Buffays and Greens left Central Perk.

Now in the final week of its 2019 tour, this parody musical, taking gentle aim at the characters and plotlines of long-running US sitcom Friends proves to be more successful in fits and starts than as a whole.

I’d expect a parody to take the inspiration and run with it, and the moments which hit that expectation do well. It isn’t just regurgitation or imitation, there needs to be something more: the huge coffee cups in Central Perk and the recurring steps out of the scene are a good start.

The portrayals of Ross (likeable dork, essayed well by Jamie-Lee Morgan), Chandler (eternal loser with mannerisms perfectly imitated by Thomas Mitchells), Monica (manaical cleaning and nervous energy from Sarah Goggin), Gunther (love-lorn and quietly sardonic, Duncan Burt) and Janice (of the braying laugh, Rebecca Withers) are definite highlights.

The songs by Miranda Lawson and Barrie Bignold are funny in fits and starts but the sound at the Ashcroft (which is also extremely chilly) felt a little muted and muddy, and some lyrics were lost.

A routine around Game Night, with buzzers, was amusing, and Ross and Rachel’s duet “You’re Over Me, When Were You Under Me?” plays well, but Joey’s comparison of seduction to ice cream just made me like him less.

You also need sn encyclopedic knowledge of the original show: if you do, you’ll recognise bits and pieces that will make you amused, but you may also long for the originals of some of the characters (Joey, in particular, just didn’t gel for me, despite Jordan Fox’s best efforts).

Friendsical is so called because it is a musical based on Friends, which is undoubtedly true – but I’m not sure that even with the character traits of the six friends and those on the periphery heightened just enough to send them up, this isn’t just a copy of some of the TV show’s best bits, with added song and dance.

With another Friends parody musical announced for the UK, and a 2020 return planned for Friendsical, this is a franchise that shows no sign of slowing down.

Now, where’s that remote? I wonder which vintage episode is on TV tonight?

Photos by Dale Wightman.

Great musical film stars

The BFI Southbank has a new season of film musicals running from October – January, which is accompanied by screenings across the country, at the Waterloo IMAX, and in the Mediatheque.

For several months I have been assembling a list of film musicals on my Letterboxd account, now numbering over 7,000 titles, of which I have seen approx 55%. I consider myself a huge fan of the genre, and have quite a wide definition of what a “musical” is.

This post will introduce you to fifty names you may wish to check out – I will not be talking about Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Doris Day or Barbra Streisand, but I will mention some names from the Golden Age of Cinema (1929-1969) from a range of studios, countries, and styles.

There are many more, and I wish you fun in your own voyage of discovery.

Child stars

Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Jane Withers, Bobby Breen, Mitzi Green
From top left, clockwise: Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Bobby Breen, Mitzi Green, Deanna Durbin

Shirley Temple. Perhaps the ultimate movie moppet, Temple was a triple threat from a tot, singing, acting, and dancing. Avoid the colourised versions of her classic films, but The Little Princess is a good starting point.

Deanna Durbin. With an operatic singing voice, an earnest manner, and a liking for wearing boleros, Durbin was a teenage sensation, usually causing bother in the nicest of ways. Try Three Smart Girls.

Jane Withers. Once the highest grossing star at Fox, Withers was a cute little imp with a winning personality and a lot of pluck, who could handle comedy as expertly as a song. Meet Withers in Paddy O’Day.

Bobby Breen. An acquired taste for sure, but Breen headed up a number of films for RKO as a boy soprano. By sixteen he had left the screen but catch him in Rainbow on the River.

Mitzi Green. Starting on stage and in films at a young age with an old head, she had a knowing style when singing her songs, and could do impersonations as well. Have a look at Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round.

Crooners

Bing Crosby. You may well know Crosby from his many million-selling records, from his Christmas shows for TV, or that final duet with Bowie. But you can appreciate the king of the crooners in two goes at Anything Goes, for a start, first opposite the wonderful Ethel Merman, then the perky Mitzi Gaynor.

Rudy Vallee. The first modern “pop star” to gain a teen following, Vallee’s appeal may look quaint now, but he made an early impact in The Vagabond Lover, and held on in films for another forty years.

Dick Powell. Juvenile lead of numerous Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s, often opposite dancer Ruby Keeler, Powell can be best appreciated in Gold Diggers of 1933 (showing on 1, 4 and 9 November at BFI Southbank) and later in life became a good actor in more hard-boiled fare.

Operetta

Richard Tauber, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy, Lily Pons, Grace Moore
From top left, clockwise, Richard Tauber, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Grace Moore, Lily Pons

Richard Tauber. Austrian-born tenor and actor who worked extensively in Britain. Well known for his recordings of romantic songs from the operatic canon, you can get an idea of his appeal in Heart’s Desire.

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Bracketed together due to their successful series of films at MGM, this pair were known as the “singing sweethearts” and hugely popular in the late 1930s. My favourite of their films is Sweethearts. Macdonald also worked well with Maurice Chevalier in the early 1930s: see Love Me Tonight, and Eddy had a hit opposite Rise Stevens in The Chocolate Soldier.

Lily Pons. Pons came from the Met Opera and although she appeared in just four films, displayed a winning personality and beautiful vocals. Try That Girl from Paris.

Grace Moore, the “Tennessee nightingale”, worked on Broadway and at the Met, and was the first opera diva to succeed on screen in the sound era. Have a look at When You’re in Love, where Moore also demonstrates a flair for comedy.

Torch singers

Helen Morgan. Although Morgan’s story was allegedly told on screen some years after her death, she is often unjustly passed over. A great actress as well as a singer, she can be seen at her best in Applause.

Romantic heroes

Ramon Navarro. Navarro had been a Latin lover in the silent era, but with a pleasant singing voice he transitioned well into the age of musicals. His films are rarely screened today, but still stand up well and retain their entertainment value. You can judge for yourself in Devil-May-Care.

John Boles. With a career of close to thirty years, Boles did well in early Hollywood musicals and transitioned into supporting roles. A veteran of stage and screen, he’s seen at his most effective in Rio Rita.

Musical comedy

Cicely Courtneidge, Wheeler and Woolsey, Marjorie White, Lupino Lane, Judy Canova
From top left, clockwise, Cicely Courtneidge, Marjorie White, Lupino Lane, Judy Canova, Wheeler and Woolsey

Cicely Courtneidge. Gangly and amusing, and quite the queen of British musical comedy in the 1930s, often playing opposite her husband Jack Hulbert. A hard working comedienne, she worked for years in both musical comedy and music hall before switching to non-muiscal roles later in life. There’s only one song in Me and Marlborough, but it’s delightful.

Wheeler and Woolsey. RKOs biggest money-spinners in the early talkies, musical comics Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey came from vaudeville into films when Rio Rita was brought to the screen, and were retained for a series of titles of variable quality, especially once their risque humour was curtailed after 1935. I would recommend starting with Diplomaniacs.

Marjorie White. A performer who shone brightly for a very short time, she gives a kick to any film she appears in, and was a vibrant screen personality. You may enjoy her in a supporting role in Sunny Side Up.

Judy Canova. Often seen as a country bumpkin character, she could sing, act, cavort and yodel. A major star for Poverty Row studio Republic, her films are always enjoyable and now and again she is allowed to showcase a song which isn’t purely there for comic effect. I liked her in Untamed Heiress.

The Lupino family. Whether Stanley, Barry, Wallace, Ida or Lupino Lane, this British family came from the stage to liven up early musical comedies, and Ida went on to star and direct in films in the US. Spot Lane in The Love Parade.

Sweethearts

From top left, clockwise, Alice Faye, Marion Davies, Janet Gaynor
From top left, clockwise, Alice Faye, Marion Davies, Janet Gaynor

Marion Davies. Often derided theae days for her supposed inspiration for the terrible singer in Citizen Kane, she was not only a gifted comedian but also a fine singer who was often utilised badly in films which just didn’t suit her. I enjoyed her in The Floradora Girl.

Janet Gaynor. The sweetheart of the silent films moved seamlessly into talkies, despite having quite a thin voice. Personality won the day, and she also preceded Judy Garland as Esther/Vicki in the 1937 version of A Star is Born. Have a look at Adorable.

Alice Faye. One of Fox’s most glamorous blondes, she shone in biopics and early musicals in which she was very much the focus. Try an early title from her career, 365 Days in Hollywood.

English stars

From left, clockwise, Jessie Matthews in First a Girl, Gracie Fields, George Formby
From left, clockwise, Jessie Matthews in First a Girl, Gracie Fields, George Formby

Jessie Matthews. One of the greatest pre-war stars, she moved effortlessly from the stage to screen in a run of ingenue roles. Later she appeared on American screens as the mother of tom thumb, but catch her at her peak in First a Girl, showing at the BFI Southbank on 12 December.

Gracie Fields. Our Gracie was one of the biggest earners of the 1930s and a huge worldwide success. Usually portraying working-class women with hearts of gold, she was far from glamorous but remained the “poor girl made good”. You can see her gift for comedy and sense her appeal in Sally in Our Alley. You can also see Queen of Hearts on 9 Nov at the BFI Southbank.

George Formby. With his ukulele, toothy grin, and “little stick of Blackpool rock”, he entertained pre-war and wartime audiences with a solid run of musical comedies. Always the same character, with slightly bawdy songs, he proved a brilliant entertainer at the time when the nation needed a laugh. Try Keep Your Seats, Please.

Dancers and ice-skaters

Sonja Henie. From the Olympics to the silver screen, impish Henje shone in a series of ice ballets. Try her first one, One in a Million.

Joan Crawford. Before her emotional dramas and horror flicks, she’d been a talented flapper and chorus girl. Have a look at this aspect of her work in Dancing Lady where she is partnered by none other than Fred Astaire.

Vera Hruba Ralston. Republic’s skater queen, who endured a lot of jibes because she was married to the boss of the studio, Herbert Yates. A vivacious and talented figure skater, she was the big earner for the biggest name on Poverty Row. Take a look at Lake Placid Serenade.

Ann Miller. Hitting the screen at just thirteen years old, she was the definition of a trouper, all teeth and legs and a dazzling presence on the dance floor. Catch her in Kiss Me Kate (almost literally, if you are watching in 3D, as you can at the BFI on 9 December).

Cyd Charisse. Astaire called her “beautiful dynamite” and I can only agree. At her best in a primarily dance role, she is unforgettable in Singin’ in the Rain and does well in Garbo’s old role in Silk Stockings.

Marge and Gower Champion. Marge has just celebrated her centenary, and she made a winning pair with her then husband during the 1950s, even reaching above the title status on a couple of titles. Their best work for me, though, was in supporting roles in Show Boat.

Actor-singers

Rex Harrison. Known for his patter-singing, has to be on the list for his starring role as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, a role he created on the stage. You can see this film at BFI Imax on 11 November. He was also seen in the leading role in Doctor Dolittle.

Anthony Newley. A talented composer, performer and actor, he was even a formative influence on the young David Bowie. Also featured in Doctor Dolittle, he is showcased particularly well in Idol on Parade, and was fun in a Dickens musical on the screen, Mr Quilp.

Bobby-soxers

Top, Annette and Frankie, bottom left Sandra Dee, bottom right, Connie Francis
Top, Annette and Frankie, bottom left Sandra Dee, bottom right, Connie Francis

Sandra Dee. Perhaps remembered now for the 50s prototype made fun of in Grease, she was a teen sensation as Tammy and Gidget, but her career declined in the 60s. I recommend I’d Rather Be Rich.

Connie Francis. Pop star of the 50s with a golden voice, she first made films as a vocal dubber for the likes of Tuesday Weld, but appeared on screen herself in a handful of films starting with Follow The Boys.

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. This pair livened up a run of “beach movies” of variable quality during the 1950s. Always firmly tongue in cheek, and always fun, they can be enjoyed in any of their collaborations, although I quite like Beach Blanket Bingo.

International

From top left, clockwise, Carmen Miranda, Marika Rokk, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Carlos Gardel
From top left, clockwise, Carmen Miranda, Marika Rokk, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Carlos Gardel

Carmen Miranda. The sparkling “lady with the tutti-frutti” hat could hardly be contained on the screen, with a sunny and snappy personality. I enjoy watching her in The Gang’s All Here.

Carlos Gardel. The hero of the tango and a legend in Argentina, a singer of sentimental songs. A run of early talkies came to an end with his death in 1935, but the films are very entertaining and his voice is easy and charming. You might take a look at The Lights of Buenos Aires.

Marika Rokk. A Hungarian singer who gained huge prominence in Nazi Germany (and was likely to be a secret spy for the KGB), but continued to work in films into the early 1960s. A pretty and alluring coquette, she can be seen at her best in Hello, Janine!

Marlene Dietrich. A German in Hollywood, she came to fame in the iconic The Blue Angel then lit up many dramatic 1930s films with her exotic allure and deep-voiced vocals. My favourite remains Morocco.

Maurice Chevalier. Quite different to the traditional American musical leads, he brought Gallic charm and a cheeky wink to a range of early talkies, returning to US screens again in later life in Gigi. Catch him in style in The Merry Widow.

Originals

From left, clockwise, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Esther Wiliams, Al Jolson
From left, clockwise, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Esther Wiliams, Al Jolson

Sophie Tucker. The last “Red Hot Mama” worked steadily for years on stage but made rare screen appearances. This powerful singer’s early work is lost but she is in Broadway Melody of 1938, and with a new film just released about her, attention may start to be paid to her again.

Fanny Brice. You may know here from Barbra Streisand’s portrayal in Funny Girl, but the real Brice was a true vaudevillian, starting in the Ziegfeld Follies. To see her at her best on screen is difficult, but I like her work in Be Yourself.

Al Jolson. Forever immortalised for being the first performer to sing in a feature film, “Jolie”s style is almost too big to be contained on screen but he is undoubtedly up there with the greats. You have to start with The Jazz Singer.

Esther Williams. Hollywood’s “Princess Mermaid”. In a series of high-budget MGM pictures, Williams swam in proposterous water ballets which have to be seen to be believed. Her personality was sunny and her films were a perfect form of post-war escapism. Perhaps at her best in Bathing Beauty.

Confident women

From top left, clockwise, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie van Doren
From top left, clockwise, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Mamie van Doren, Jayne Mansfield

Mae West. Renowed for her quips, sexual confidence, and earthy writing, West is best appreciated in the pre-Code era before her wings were clipped and her films made more palatable to family audiences. Check her out in I’m No Angel.

Marilyn Monroe. A breathy blonde who needs little introduction, she starred in a range of films where she often sneaked in a song, as well as more traditional musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Jayne Mansfield. Often derided for her large bosoms and cartoon personality, Mansfield was in fact a clever manipulator of her short-lived fame. She is well known for some films around the birth of the rock ‘n roll era, but you can also catch her comic charm in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.

Mamie van Doren. Often found in college and teen exploitation films, van Doren was a straight-talking sexpot who livens up even the most low-budget material. She is the last surviving blonde bombshell from the 1950s. Try Untamed Youth.

Soho Cinders (Charing Cross Theatre)

There have been many interpretations of the fairy tale of Cinderella: from Disney animation to dramatic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, from panto to porn. It is a rags to riches tale which retains a certain timelessness.

Soho Cinders, by Anthony Stiles and George Drewe, boasts a remarkable score which has sharply observed comedy and moments of extreme pathos in this edgy Cinderella of politics, money, the press and the requisite musical happy ending.

Luke Bayer and Millie O'Connell in Soho Cinders
Luke Bayer and Millie O’Connell in Soho Cinders

Robbie (Luke Bayer) has lost his mother and is thrown unceremoniously into the street by his dreadful stepsisters (Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman), who claim ownership of both his flat and business – a launderette he runs with best friend and “Soho hag”, Velcro (Millie O’Connell). We’re in Old Compton Street, where there’s still a strip club, but places “that used to be no-go are now mixed”.

Needing both money and affection he responds to attention from a wealthy businessman (Chris Coleman) and a conflicted Mayoral candidate (Lewis Asquith), playing the former for company and falling in love with the latter. By the end of act one, when plotlines have led him, in a Prada suit, to a society function, Robbie is about to blow everyone’s world apart.

The Charing Cross traverse stage now seems to be a permanent feature, and works well for the big ensemble numbers and even quiet solo pieces. The balcony is used sparingly, and aside from a couple of questionable blocking decisions which affect sightlines, the stage is well utilised throughout with a simple but functional set by Justin Williams.

Luke Bayer and Lewis Asquith in Soho Cinders
Luke Bayer and Lewis Asquith in Soho Cinders

I have a reservation or two around the depiction of bisexuality, which seems rather simplistic, but the transposition of traditional Cinderella characters and tropes is cleverly subverted, with the closeted Lord something of a twisted Fairy Godmother, the ugly sisters wanting their “fifteen minutes of fame … like Gemma Collins”, and the politician standing for the Prince (right down to his name).

Bayer proves a superb Cinders, balancing an “out” cockyness with tender vulnerability, and his solo number “They Don’t Make Glass Slippers” was one of the vocal and emotional highlights of the piece. His easy chemistry with Asquith makes their hidden romance as “intimate strangers” believable, and he’s fun in scenes with O’Connell.

As the spurned fiancee of Prince, Tori Hargreaves constantly impresses, and her duet with O’Connell, “Let Him Go”, gives both characters a solid background and purpose. Hargreaves proves to be the good fairy who brings a sprinkle of happiness to all around her in true storytime style.

The press and the ugly stepsisters in Soho Cinders
The press and the ugly stepsisters in Soho Cinders

The narration, which sets up and describes each scene, works both for and against Soho Cinders: for when it supports the fairy tale conventions of “once upon a time”, but against when it either slows the action with interruptions or feels like a conceit for a work in progress. Ultimately I found it a distraction.

Soho Cinders is a satiric swipe at media speak, the fickleness of fame, and the truth of romance: songs like “It’s Hard To Tell” feel well-observed in this age of gender queerness, and “Spin” gives an insight into carefully-crafted media deception. However, it is the songs which slot into traditional musical style which get the audience humming along. “Who’s That Boy” and “You Shall Go To The Ball” are especially effective.

The musical may hsve tired slightly from its quick debut in 2011, but it is well-performed and directed (by Will Keith). The lighting by Jack Weir, with blue and pink walls of colour, is both pretty and clever, and adds to the vibrancy of its Soho setting.

Soho Cinders is a welcome addition to the London theatre scene and continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 21 December 2019. Book at https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/soho-cinders.

Photo credits Pamela Raith.

Zombies the Musical – showcase at The Other Palace

You may recall I ran an interview with Daryl Griffith, writer and creator of Zombies the Musical, earlier in the week.

I was also asked along to a showcase matinee for industry people, which ran alongside the three public performances. As it was a showcase – limited props, etc – this won’t be a review, but just a few thoughts on what I found to be a very funny show with definite potential.

Cast of Zombies the Musical - via Instagram
Cast of Zombies the Musical – via Instagram

The songs have musical cues which hark back to many influences: I was reminded of Little Shop of Horrors, Spamalot, Grease and “Beauty School Drop Out”, and in the frankness of some of the filthiest innuendoes to hit a stage, The Book of Morman.

The score is excellent, and in the performers I found that Joanna Woodward as Emily particularly stood out, especially in her solo number “I Have A Tingle”. She’s in love with the self-centred boss Gerald (Stephen Rahman-Hughes) but there are a couple of twists, one involving a lab explosion and a rush of zombie attacks.

There’s a lot of potential for this show to either stay small-budget and cultish (using those screens to tell us what we might see if there was more money), or to go much bigger and flashier, getting those location scenes and big dance numbers in.

Cast of Zombies the Musical - via Instagram
Cast of Zombies the Musical – via Instagram

I was left amused and impressed by what was achieved in a short run of rehearsal by a talented cast, and if a couple of things don’t yet work – the explosion was a bit confusing, and a duet in zomboid voices wasn’t quite there – there’s much to recommend it. Oscar the mortuary’s Igor figure (Joshua Tonks) and his sparkly tights, for one.

If and when this is developed into a full show, you may well love it. Now and again I thought about Eugenius, which had so much success in The Other Palace’s full-sized theatre, and even the humble beginnings of the Rocky Horror phenomenon.

With a bit of love and polish, Zombies the Musical might yet join the ranks of the cult classic.

Big the Musical (Dominion Theatre)

Big was one of the success stories in 80s cinema, making a huge star of Tom Hanks and his little boy becomes a man story.

Now the film becomes a musical, and is currently in residence at the huge Dominion Theatre. Not being officially invited to review this, and baulking somewhat at the higher priced tickets (where you can what’s going on), I booked myself on the very back row.

This was my view, which wasn’t bad, but if I didn’t know who was on stage, I’d be none the wiser. As I said, the Dominion is huge.

On to the show. It has fairly big name stars, with Jay McGuiness, Kimberley Walsh, Wendi Peters and Matthew Kelly in the cast. They are all very good indeed, with McGuiness and Kelly striving to catch the fun in the piece, and Peters providing a touching moment on her absent son’s birthday.

Jay McGuiness and Marthew Kelly in Big - the Musical
Jay McGuiness and Marthew Kelly in Big – the Musical

What it doesn’t have, really, are memorable songs, or any sense of pacing. The much-lauded piano sequence raises a smile but it comes in too early and lacks that showstopping factor, and sadly the first half comes almost to a stop despite everyone’s best efforts.

The second half becomes problematic when Josh (still a 13 year old boy, in a man’s body) takes up with Susan (Walsh) and becomes sexually involved. This feels unsettling in a family musical which sells toys in the shop and has a wishing machine of its own.

Ensemble of Big - the Musical
Ensemble of Big – the Musical

The good points are few and far between: McGuiness finding with horror he now has body hair and a post-pubersent body is exactly how a teen might react; the carnival game’s genie is animated well and is fairly horrific; the dance at the Christmas party has a touch of energy; and Josh’s final transition scene leaves a lump in the throat, as he leaves Susan in the rain to run back to his home, bed, Mom and life.

Big – the Musical just doesn’t have the wow factor, and at times is plain boring. It could easily lose an hour off a bloated running time and needs to be less confused about its audience. It also needs to utilise its child performers more – Jamie O’Connor as young Josh at the matinee I saw, and especially Jobe Hart as Billy.

Joby Hart and Jay McGuiness in Big - the Musical
Joby Hart and Jay McGuiness in Big – the Musical

Ultimately I wished for more oomph and pizazz, The wishing sequence and the auditorium flooded with stars promised it, but otherwise all was lost. Even the revolving stage started to disappoint – the toy shop worker dance, for example, could have used it better, and in one scene, cast members were seen wandering to the back of the revolve for the next scene set-up!

David Shire and Richard Maltby wrote music and lyrics for Big – the Musical, which continues at the Dominion until 2 November 2019. Shop around for some very good discounts.

Photo credits: Alastair Muir

Zombies: the Musical (interview and preview)

Zombies: the Musical is running at The Other Palace in showcase form until 19 October.

It is “an irreverent, comedic tale about an experiment gone wrong and an undying search for love. Featuring catchy tunes and cheeky lyrics, the songs will infect your brain and plague your head long after the show is over.” With hints of Frankenstein, Little Shop of Horrors, and even Romeo and Juliet, this promises to be an entertaining evening!

It is written by Daryl Griffith, who has agreed to answer some questions for this feature.

Daryl Griffith, writer of Zombies: the Musical

First of all, congratulations on getting Zombies ready to showcase at The Other Palace: I can’t wait to see it!

DG: Scary though it is, we’re all really looking forward to performing it. It’s been such a long time getting to this point, that it will be fantastic to experience the show in a theatre, and feel that, for this milestone, we have actually arrived. 

There’s been a lot of interesting horror musicals recently. Why this one now, and what makes it stand out from the crowd?

DG: Whilst strictly speaking I suppose this is a horror musical, at its heart it is a comedy, but more importantly, a love story.  I’ve always found zombies very funny, and was a huge fan of Shaun of the Dead, so when I decided to write a comedic musical, something involving zombies was the obvious choice. In terms of standing out, I feel that I have a talent for writing melody, and have been told that I have produced many catchy tunes for this musical. I also have a rather “naughty” sense of humour (I loved The Book of Mormon) and I’m afraid that I have given in to that somewhat, in both the script and the song lyrics.

Tell me a bit about how Zombies has evolved from idea to musical showcase. How long has it taken, and have there been any major highs and lows along the way?

DG: I had the initial idea of a zombie love story a couple of years ago, wrote a few songs, and pitched it to Bradley Farmer (the Executive Producer, and Publisher), who liked what he heard, and encouraged me to finish writing the rest of the songs. From there I then put together a script, did a few really small-scale workshops and followed that up with a table read featuring friends active in a couple local am-dram troupes. That was really useful, as it helped me hone the script and make a few tweaks regarding pacing and dramatic balance.

Next, we managed to get some talented young singers to put a video together of five of the songs. We were also very fortunate in getting Jodie Jacobs and Alex Spinney to perform the songs on this video, which we then used to persuade The Other Palace to allow us to put on the showcase. There have been many highs, the most exciting of which was hearing my songs performed for the very first time. There haven’t been any lows as such, but this whole period leading up to the showcase has been very stressful.

When you are doing something on a limited budget, you can only afford to hire people for the jobs you really can’t do yourself, which means a very steep learning curve…! And, given I wanted to pay the actors a decent fee for this project, you can’t have an extended rehearsal period either. We cast the parts in mid/late September and rehearsed for just over a week before opening night, though most of the cast had their scripts and songs a bit before that.

What should audiences expect who come along to see the current version of Zombies?

DG: Being a showcase, there is only limited staging and costumes. The cast play up to four different characters and are mostly differentiated with appropriate props. However, we will be performing all of the songs and all of the script. We are also using a cue card system, on a big screen, in order to help the audience better understand the various scenes and things we can’t show properly. However, as the show doesn’t rely on flashing scenery or spectacular effects, but only on good music, and (hopefully) a funny script, I think it will still be a good night out for anyone who attends. 

What have been your major influences in developing the show?

DG: As previously mentioned, I am a fan of The Book of Mormon, but I also love The Producers. I am drawn to the irreverent sense of humour in both of those shows. As a child, and then growing up, I loved all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, as well as many others, like My Fair Lady, Grease and Little Shop of Horrors. Musically, I think the eclectic group of styles in Zombies uses elements from all of those wonderful musicals.

Zombies poster

I love the publicity campaign that has been plaguing us across social media to get Zombies out there: how did that evolve?

DG: With the work I do with my publisher (2nd Foundation Music) we produce many videos, often with a humorous twist, so doing the same for Zombies was a natural progression. I know that I always love “behind the scenes” videos and blogs, so we thought that others would probably like them as well, and hopefully attract enough interest to eventually be able to take Zombies to the next level.

You’re been involved with the English National Ballet as well as several TV projects. Has a stage musical been a natural progression or quite a segue?

DG: It’s seems a bit of a side swerve, but it combines all the things I love about theatre: music, singing, drama and (eventually) dance. Having worked on many projects with many people and companies, I have always been part of someone else’s vision, so this is a chance, for a change, to work with people who are helping me to create my own vision. I’m sure that lots of other people will understand when I say that writing a musical is something I’ve wanted to do for a long while, but finding the time has been difficult. However, with the support and encouragement from Bradley, and many other members of my team, I finally managed to set aside enough time to start, write and complete this musical.

What about your cast and fellow creatives – how have all the pieces fitted together to make this project work?

DG: We have a great cast, but rehearsals didn’t commence until 7th October, but they quickly gelled and have developed into a formidable team. However, in my own team I have a fantastic Technical Director, Stage Manager, and people dealing with props and marketing, so have been able to offload some of the work, and stress, onto others..! We have been preparing music and demos for the cast for many weeks, in order to help them learn the show quickly. We have also sorted out click tracks, printed the music and recorded the backing tracks for the band, done lighting design charts, and organised some rudimentary blocking for the cast (so that they know when to get on and off the stage). Hopefully all the pieces should fit together like a well-designed jigsaw.

Any advice to budding musical creators out there?

DG: From my experiences so far there are three things that stand out:

Make sure that you know what you’re trying to say in your piece. If an idea is angst ridden, and depressing, don’t try to squash it into something that it obviously isn’t.

Be efficient. If you want people to support you, make their lives as easy as possible.

Do take constructive criticism, but believe in yourself. You will soon learn whose opinion to trust, and who is just trying to score points off you.

Finally, Zombies looks to have the makings of a fan/cult favourite. What should its fans be called?

DG: How about Zombonis?

My thanks to Daryl for his time and very interesting answers! I will be visiting Zombies on 18 October. You can book your tickets at https://lwtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/daryl-griffiths-zombies-the-musical/.