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Tag Archives: musicals

Once On This Island (Southwark Playhouse)

I believe this is my first show from the British Theatre Academy, one of a portfolio of five they are presenting in their summer season.

Once On This Island is a musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) and is described on the flyer as “a captivating calypso-flavoured re-telling of The Little Mermaid fairy tale”.

Once On This Island

Directed and choreographed by Lee Proud, this production presents a vibrant young company to tell the story of the peasant orphan Ti Moune and her romance with a rich boy.

The stage of the Southwark Playhouse’s Large space is fully utilised with every inch brought into play with sound, colour, dancing and dynamic storytelling. The floor is decorated with island maps, and there are ribbons, shakers, tyres, boxes and ladders utilised at various points to suggest a change in location.

Chrissie Bhima in Once On This Island

Matthew Chandler founded the British Theatre Academy to provide access to professional training for under-23s of all socioeconomic backgrounds, an ethos which seems echoed by the dedication and professionalism of the performers in this show.

It is hard to single out performers in such a small and tight-knit ensemble, and in fact the company as a whole has received a well-deserved Offies nomination, but Chrissie Bhima shines as Ti Moune, and several ensemble players caught the eye (sadly the programme does not team names with photographs, so I cannot credit them specifically).

Once On This Island

I enjoyed the tricky and layered harmonies, the joyous atmosphere in the performance space, and the cultural richness of myth and legend depicted in Once On This Island, especially the spirit of Carnival in this week of the Notting Hill festivities.

The show continues until 31 August at the Southwark Playhouse.

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Queen of the Mist (Charing Cross Theatre)

The story of Anna Edson Taylor and her successful attempt to cross Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901 has always fascinated me, so when an opportunity arose to see the musical based on her story I had to see it.

Mrs Taylor (there’s no hint of a husband) is first shown living with her sister, where she lives beyond her means and longs for adventure (and money). Seeing a gap in the market and feeling she has science behind her, she seeks to do what no woman – or man – has done before: to go over the Falls and survive.

Trudi Camilleri in Queen of the Mist

Michael John LaChiusa has created a score which in twenty songs weaves a harmonic narrative which works well in songs such as Anna’s There Is Greatness In Me in act one, or The Green (about the motivation of all public speakers to earn money) in act two.

Trudi Camilleri leads the cast with a set of pipes to rival the great Ethel Merman in a barn-storming turn that dominates proceedings. She convinces both as the selfish and arrogant adventuter, and the sad old woman facing destitution by the close of the show.

Trudi Camilleri and Will Arundel in Queen of the Mist

In a strong first half interesting relationships are explored between Anna and her straightlaced sister Jane (Emily Juler), and Anna and her showboating manager Frank Russell (Will Arundel, with whom Camilleri displays a cordial and warm frisson of friendship which suits both characters).

After the stunt/experiment is concluded, though, I found the second act a little indulgent and uneven, with one scene and number (Million Dollar Momma) adding little to the plot. Knowing that Anna survives removes any sense of tension and even the talk of an eroticised tiger doesn’t quite keep the pace moving, nor the reappearance of President McKinley’s assassin from act one, now a ghost.

Trudi Camilleri and Emna Ralston in Queen of the Mist

The stage is in traverse with audience seating on each side, the sides of the set crammed with shelves of bric-a-brac and everyday detritus, with balconies holding the band (led by Connor Fogel) on one side, and the cast coming together on occasion to harmonise on the other.

Although this configuration can often work well, especially to suggest claustrophobia (such as in the interior of a barrel), the choice by director Dom O’Hanlon to stage songs back and forth between audience sides led to long stretches looking at the back of actors’ heads as they sang, which I found a little frustrating.

The beauty of this production is in the exquisite lighting design of Beth Gupwell, the period costumes of Lemington Ridley, and in the performance of the dynamic Camilleri and some of her supporting cast (Andrew Carter has a rolling bass as deep as the waters; Tom Blackmore – who also acts well as the nervous young soldier – has a fine tenor voice; Emma Ralston is a versatile alto).

Andrew Carter in Queen of the Mist

I would personally trim the second act just a little and concentrate on Mrs Taylor’s great achievement, which remains notable even if money was her main motivator. I found myself craving more of this dynamic woman’s story long after Queen of the Mist ended.

Queen of the Mist continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 5 October 2019 and tickets can be purchased at https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/queen-of-the-mist. Photo credits by Stephen Russell.


The Bridges of Madison County (Menier Chocolate Factory)

The 1995 film is one of my all-time favourites, with an easy and passionate chemistry between stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.

Now, under the direction of Trevor Nunn (who was in the house last night), the musical version by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman has set up shop at the Menier Chocolate Factory with Jenna Russell as Francesca and Edward Baker-Duly as Robert.

Jenna Russell and Edward Baker-Duly in The Bridges of Madison County

This story of middle-aged soulmates finding each other too late and for too short a time has lush melodies, but lacks the passionate aspects of the tale and clogs the show with too much extraneous material such as Francesca’s family at the fair, Robert’s waitress ex-wife, and a totally unnecessary opener to act two which has the feel of a country hoedown.

The Bridges of Madison County should sink or swim on the relationship between the Italian housewife who feels taken for granted and the freewheeling photographer who finds himself lost in her driveway: you don’t need anything else.

Gillian Kirkpatrick and Paul F Monaghan in The Bridges of Madison County

The songs are good, here and there, although I felt Russell struggled now and then with both the accent and some of the range. She also, sadly, lacked the yearning and emotion which should be present in Francesca, even we see in flashback how an early personal tragedy pushes her into a marriage of convenience.

Baker-Duly does better as Robert, although his portrayal is rather one-note, a bit cocky and far too like EE’s Kevin Bacon in his straggly hair and ever-present smile. He feels more calculating than conflicted, and I didn’t really engage with him until his final solo number.

Although there is undoubted talent in the character parts – Gillian Kirkpatrick as nosy neighbour Marge, Shanay Holmes as the ex-wife Marian who sings in her waitress uniform, Paul F Monaghan in fine blues voice as Charlie – the show still needs a judicious trim from 2 hours 45.

Jenna Russell and Edward Baker-Duly in The Bridgesof Madison County

The set, by Jon Bausor, is far too complex, busy, and given to distracting noises at changeover and during quieter moments. It also requires half the audience to look over their shoulders for some scenes. Better, when you see through the clutter and the projections, is Tim Lutkin’s understated lighting design, full of warm purples and passionate reds.

Edward Baker-Duly in The Bridges of Madison County

Curious, too, was the absence of music in Francesca’s house. A woman of her ability to feel would not be content with just the weather report! I also felt the loss of key scenes between the leading couple that would make us care a bit more.

Ultimately, I wasn’t sure why this material has gone from novel and film to a stage musical. Nunn has form with the musicalisation of novels for the stage, but The Bridges of Madison County has more of the notorious 2008 production of Gone With The Wind about it than the mighty Les Mis.

The Bridges of Madison County continues at Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 September. Photo credits by Johan Persson.


The View UpStairs (Soho Theatre)

The first European production of Max Vernon’s musical comes to Soho, and provides a story of time travel, understanding, companionship, community, hope, and catastrophe against the backdrop of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans (which was also referenced as part of the past of the lead character in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down The Stream, which I saw earlier this year).

In the dilapidated ruins of the upstairs bar, left vacant for too long, we see first see Buddy (John Partridge) light up the first of many cigarettes, before launching into song and then into the shadows. Instagram celebrity fashionisto Wes (Tyrone Huntley) arrives with the realtor to sign the deal on the place, but he struggles to see its potential.

John Partridge as Buddy
John Partridge as Buddy

While taking photos for his feed, the rest of the cast hover in the part-darkness, ghostly reflections of a time gone by, and eventually, Wes finds himself catapulted back from 2019 into the age of payphones, bath-houses, bell-bottoms, and gay invisibility.

The power in the play is that each character is given their chance to shine – Buddy, the pianist with a wife and children at home, with his period-perfect glasses and kerchief; Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer), the butch with an Afro who rules her domain behind the bar; Willie (Cedric Neal), the “old queen” who once shone at the Ballet Russes because of his legs; Freddy (Garry Lee), the quiet construction worker turned drag queen with a dress made from curtains and a cardboard cock shooting out glitter; Freddy’s mother, Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), whose dreams of coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico did not involve helping her son with his make-up; and Patrick (Andy Mientus), the teenage hustler.

The twin peaks of brotherhood and ostracisation are represented by the placid Jesus-loving Richard (Joseph Prouse) and angry, homeless outcast Dale (Declan Bennett), whose scenes underline the bond between the UpStairs patrons and their knife-edge relationship with others just outside that circle (the telling scene with the cop (Derek Hagen) who is quickly paid off to allow everyone to stay safe and keep their reputations intact is a good example of how the UpStairs Lounge is in its own little bubble, just as Wes is in his online space in 2019).

The company of The View UpStairs
The company of The View UpStairs

Wes’s presence clearly allows Vernon to bring in issues beyond those understood in 1973 – so not just hate crimes, gay-bashing, abuse, but the spectre of AIDS and the victory – of sorts – of becoming more accepted by some sections of society. Wes is a shallow and vain individual defined only by his followers and likes, but he slowly comes to understand the value of friendship and fellowship by interacting with each patron of the club. He also falls in love, perhaps for the first time, with Patrick, leading to some moving scenes between the two young men, reflecting on the differences in courtship and hook-ups across the forty-year time-gap.

The characters are of course, fictional, although the basic facts of the arson attack on the UpStairs are not – there was a man who visited each week, and was closeted, his family only discovering the truth when his body was found fused to that of his boyfriend; there was a house pianist (in fact two, Bud and David, both perished in the fire); there was a mother called Inez; and there was a man who burned to death trapped by the window bars, his body remaining there for a day afterwards, the church reverend who had led the service of hope and belonging earlier that evening.

The View UpStairs has catchy songs, both for ensemble and solo performers, and it has humour as well as political nous and moments that will make you gasp or find yourself in tears. The fire itself is evoked by lighting and movement, then by Patrick filling in the details as the final ghost standing in Wes’s new commercial space, the space which is finally filled with the images time and custom had forgotten for all those years.

Tyrone Huntley as Wes and Andy Mientus as Patrick
Tyrone Huntley as Wes and Andy Mientus as Patrick

This is a remarkable musical, with no mis-steps from any of the cast (Partridge, Neal, Huntley and Lee excel, but everyone is very good), and a fine house band led by musical director Bob Broad. Jonathan O’Boyle directs (and with some audience members on the stage as if they are non-player characters in the space that may be challenging), and Fabian Aloise choreographs a brilliant set of sequences which utilise the chairs, bar and every inch of the compact stage.

The View UpStairs continues at the Soho Theatre until 24 August 2019. I got an early-bird discounted ticket for the second row, but there are good sightlines across the space wherever you choose to sit.

Photo credits Darren Bell.


Merrily We Roll Along (Linbury Studio, LAMDA)

A trip to Barons Court to see a Sondheim musical in LAMDA’s Summer Season was just the ticket this week, although I regret that I missed the chance to see two student productions of Merrily We Roll Along (the Guildhall School presented it at their Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican earlier this month, and it passed me by).

William Robinson, Mercedes Assad, Scarlett Courtney, Olivia Le Anderson, Stuart Thompson and Chloe McClay

William Robinson, Mercedes Assad, Scarlett Courtney, Olivia Le Anderson, Stuart Thompson and Chloe McClay

Still, it is a musical I haven’t seen live at all, so I really looked forward to see what LAMDA’s graduating class had done with it.

Merrily We Roll Along was a failure on its first appearance, a rare misstep for Sondheim and director Hal Prince – over the years, though, many of its songs have had multiple recordings by major artists and regular revivals have made it an affectionately regarded, if minor musical.

Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson, Ryan Burch, Scarlett Courtney and Esme Scarborough

Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson, Ryan Burch, Scarlett Courtney and Esme Scarborough

This “class of 2019” are a talented bunch – in leading roles we have Colm Gleeson (Frank, arrogance personified at the start, idealistic at the end), Sam Stafford (Charlie, sweet in Good Thing Going), Esme Scarborough (Mary, the glue that binds the Old Friends), Scarlett Courtney (Beth, spiky yet fragile in Not a Day Goes By), Chloe McClay (Gussie, the vamp) and Ryan Burch (Joe, whose plot trajectory is in reverse of Frank’s), and they are very good indeed.

Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson and Mercedes Assad

Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson and Mercedes Assad

On the fringes in smaller parts are Stuart Thompson (who was awarded the Sondheim Society Performer of the Year for 2019), Liam King (fun as Beth’s southern dad), Mercedes Assad (a fiery TV anchor), and Olivia Le Anderson (the unfortunate Meg in the first scene).

Joshua Eldridge-Smith, Michael Kosko, Ell Potter (fun, briefly, as Charlie’s wife Evelyn), Ivan du Pontavice, and William Robinson form the rest of the company, all gifted in voice and movement.

Company of Merrily We Roll Along

Company of Merrily We Roll Along

Based on a 1930s play which used the same reverse chronology, Sondheim’s musical (and George Furth’s book) takes us from 1976 back to 1957, to see how the choices of Franklin Shephard shaped his life and made him the Hollywood success we see at the opening party.

Far more effective than a straightforward rise and fall story, it closes with perhaps the best-known song fron the production, It’s Our Time, which resonates both with the young characters we see here and the actors at the start of their careers.

Directed by Caroline Leslie, designed by Mila Sanders, and accompanied on solo piano and occasional percussion by Joe Beighton – all LAMDA staff members – this is an enjoyable piece which has its final performances today.

I look forward to seeing what this group of performers do in their future engagements.


Bare: a Pop Opera (The Vaults)

To reach The Vaults performance space you venture down the graffiti tunnel at Leake Street, then into one of the arches and through an unsteady route to the bar.

Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera

Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera

Bare: a Pop Opera isn’t on in the theatre, but instead in an extension of the bar space with a long stage in the shape of a T. From my section, the ‘red’ seats (the perks of the press), there isn’t much turning required to see everything, but the cheaper ‘yellow’ section must miss bits or see a lot of backs of heads.

So, settling down on a plastic chair with the rumble of trains passing from Waterloo, the set I see is simple – religious paintings, chairs, a tree. The lights are purple, there are church chants. We’re in a Catholic school with teenagers about to graduate – Peter, Jason, Ivy, Matt, Nadia and others.

Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason

Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason

Over the next two and a half hours we watch them pray, party, fall in love, struggle with their identities, and eventually deal with the catastrophe of a loss they can only just comprehend.

Songs (by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo) and scenes stand out – Nadia, a little large, who wants to be pretty (she is, reminding me of Mama Cass); Peter, trying to confide in his mum over the phone (“his father will die … where was the warning?”); Matt, who loves Ivy, but she looks right through him: Ivy, outwardly confident but “only a girl”; and Jason, our Romeo who wants things “best kept secret”.

Lizzie Emery as Ivy

Lizzie Emery as Ivy

There’s the sister, too (Stacy Francis), appearing in a dream like a Supreme as the Virgin Mary, then reminding Peter that as conflicted and ashamed as he may be for loving another boy, “God don’t make no trash”. The priest is less helpful, preaching doctrine that it is best “not to question”.

This show has had a long genesis – it debuted in 2000 in Los Angeles and eventually evolved into Bare: the Musical in 2012. The original version, which we see here at The Vaults, feels timeless, without the clutter of social media or the opening out of the book.

Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy

Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy

Bare: a Pop Opera is almost completely sung-through, with more than thirty songs of different types. For me, the second act was stronger with less ensemble numbers (the sound in the venue is a problem with multiple singers), but there are fine performances throughout.

The use of Romeo and Juliet as a framing device, the end-of-term play, gives a chance for the Queen Mab speech to be incorporated, and the suicide by poison, this time for the love of a boy.

Romeo and Juliet sequence

Romeo and Juliet sequence

Parallels with Spring Awakening feel inevitable, but I feel that had a more focused book throughout (although Bare, with its tree and pictures of children who struggled too long with their sexuality and perceptions of others, has the more emotional ending).

Julie Atherton’s direction makes the most of the stage space available – although there is at least one scene change that drags – and in the cast there are several young names to watch: Daniel Mark Shand (Peter), Georgie Lovatt (Nadia), Tom Hier (Matt) especially impressed me, but the whole cast are good.

Bare: a Pop Opera continues at The Vaults until 4 August.

Photo credits – Tom Grace.


The Light in the Piazza (Royal Festival Hall)

A hybrid of opera and musical theatre, The Light in the Piazza is based on an old Hollywood film and sets a complex love story among the ruins and sites of Florence.

The Royal Festival Hall isn’t known for staging musicals, and it is easy to see why – with no flies, wings or ubiquitous revolve, opportunities for set and staging are limited, and the hall is best utilised for classical concerts or semi-staged operas.

Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza

Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza

Here, the set is dominated by a huge plaster statue of a headless naked man’s bottom, and a cut-down snippet of set with a staircase, doors, archway, and a small space which is utilised for anything from a hotel room, art gallery and church to a tourist square, pavement cafe and briefly, Rome.

The cast is headed by opera superstar Renee Fleming as protective mum Margaret – I felt she didn’t quite fit her character early on but her singing was wonderful and as the character softened and we had an insight into her dead marriage back home (telling and brief scenes from Malcolm Sinclair) we warmed to her.

Renee Fleming

Renee Fleming

Dove Cameron plays Clara, mid-twenties and emotionally underdeveloped due to a childhood trauma (it felt for ages that the problem may have been terminal illness, as Margaret’s explanation to the audience comes late). Cameron is best known for her work for Disney, including the Descendants film series. Her high soprano didn’t quite click for me, but she acted well in a difficult role, depicting a girl finding romantic love for the first time.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

Rob Houchen, a new name to me, is Fabrizio, the Florentine who falls so head over heels for Clara he sings an impassioned aria about her – in Italian! He has a glorious voice, although in his scenes he is saddled with speaking in broken English.

Alex Jennings plays his father, with better English due to his work with American authorities during the war. He’s an urbane shop owner with a wife (Marie McLaughlin) stereotypical Italian until she breaks the fourth wall in act two to tell us what her family are talking about in scenes which verge on comedy, and older son (Liam Tarne) who neglects his flighty wife (the scene-stealing Celinde Schoenmaker).

Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen

Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen

The score, by Adam Guettel, is not that memorable, sadly, but is performed well – including solos for Fleming, Cameron, and Houchen, and duets for Fleming/Cameron, Cameron/Houchen and even Fleming/Jennings. The orchestra of Opera North do well, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, even if they over-dominate that vast stage.

View from front stalls.

View from front stalls.

The Light in the Piazza feels swamped in such a large space, even with the top level closed. I was lucky enough to secure my seat for half the price, but could have paid a lot less. Pricing this as a top-flight West End show when it is effectively a semi-staging feels too ambitious, and show would surely have more emotional impact in a more intimate space.

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.

From my seat in the front stalls I did feel engaged and involved, but in the back row the experience would be very different. Kudos to director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones for bringing a bit of Italian magic to this cavernous stage, although the ensemble were limited to bits of movement and dancing on that staircase.

Production photo credits Dewynter.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Southwark Playhouse)

This new Celtic folk musical by Jethro Compton (who also directs) and Darren Clark is currently running in the Southwark Playhouse’s Little, with a cast of five actor-musicians bringing F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to life.

Benjamin Button is born to Roger and Mary in 1919, appearing as a fully-formed seventy year-old man asking his father for a smoke. He is represented by a decrepit puppet with spookily lifelike legs.

The cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mother can’t cope and finds her end from the cliffs. Father hides his ageing son in the attic, confident he will die soon, but Benjamin gets younger, stronger and sharper by the day.

When an unlocked door gives the sixty year-old Benjamin the “little bit of life” he craves, he’s down the pub for “just beer”, meeting the barmaid, Elowen, who becomes the love of his life.

James Marlowe and company

James Marlowe and company

Weaving the story of “the backwards man” with the folk tradition, and a constant reminder of the days, minutes, seconds that have passed gives the piece heart and humour, and James Marlowe’s performance of a Benjamin who gets more youthful as those around him age – at 40 he is the same age as his wife, at 24 the same age as his son – is believable and touching.

The Cornwall sea is ever-present, with the cliffs, the ships, the walks, a letter in a bottle, a family tragedy, all taking place during Benjamin’s seven decades of life.

James Marlowe and Philippa Hogg

James Marlowe and Philippa Hogg

Space, too, with his assurance that a man will one day walk on the moon. And a white shawl, wore on a wedding day, to nurse children, to die in, to become the blanket for a baby in his last few days.

The small cast – as well as Marlowe, we have Matthew Burne, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg – evoke a variety of situations and characters (including two chains of events that change Benjamin’s life forever). The puppets of old Benjamin, his children, and the child Benjamin do not appear realistic, but nevertheless are full of life.

Joey Hickman

Joey Hickman

The lighting and smoke evoke the Cornish coast, and a broken clock reminds us of the vagaries of time. Stage and lighting design by Schonlatern, costumes by Cecilia Trano, and sound by Michael Woods all add to the effect.

At two and a half hours, this musical is a deeply engrossing, charming and moving piece of whimsical storytelling. A gem which will surely have a further life beyond this short run.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs until the 8 June. Photo credits Jethro Compton Productions.


The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales Theatre)

From the writers of South Park amd Avenue Q comes this irreverent and long-running musical, which has been in residence in London since 2013.

After the jaunty opening number, “Hello”, which includes the Mormon brand of smiles, faith, and eternal optimism, Elders Price and Cunningham are paired up and sent on their mission to Uganda.

This is resolutely un-PC stuff – even before the men board the plane someone dresses up to “sing like an African” in the style of The Lion King, and in residence, the villagers have a song to cope with their famine, disease, and pedophilia, which translates as “F*** You, God”.

Jesus doesn’t escape, either, with his blonde ringlets and white robe, stopping off on the days between Crucifixion and Resurrection to leave the third instalment of the Bible with a doomed people in the USA.

With a glittery song and dance number for the gay Mormon leader and his henchman, and a very sexualised baptism, this show does not shy away from the intent to shock; and a liberal scattering of expletives of the f and c word varieties seems primed to offend.

Still, this is very funny stuff, and in the leading Elders it has men you can root for – Price is self-centred and obsessed with Orlando, Cunningham is a sci-fi fanatic whose interpretation of the titular book stretches to including hobbits, the Starship Enterprise, and a tall tale involving the healing property of frogs.

The songs are all set to Broadway-style tunes, and range from solos for Price (“Mostly Me” and “I Believe”), Cunningham (“Man Up”) and the African girl whose name gets mangled as Jon Bon Jovi, Nutella, Neutrogena and No Deal Brexit (“Salt Lake City”) to the big ensemble numbers and even a show within a show (shades of Tuptim’s effort in The King and I).

If you are not easily offended, this show is a comic riot, well-performed and unapologetically filthy. The orchestra works hard, and the set design, although deceptively simple, manages to bring together a host of locations, including a bad taste version of Hell.

The Book of Mormon continues to run at the Prince of Wales. Judging by the enthusiastic reception it received at yesterday’s show, it won’t be closing any time soon.

Photo credits Johan Persson.


The King and I (Opera House, Manchester)

It was a pleasure to revisit Bartlett Sher’s revival of this superlative period musical after seeing it at the London Palladium last summer.

Here we have a cast change and in particular, a very different portrayal of the King of Siam who wishes to modernise. I saw Ken Watanabe play the role in London and he was abrasive and sizzling with frustration at the gap between his ability and his ambition.

In the tour, Jose Llana makes a playful, and likeable monarch, finding his match in Annalene Beechey’s modern “Mrs Anna”, who has no time for court customs of “grovelling like a toad” and who proclaims a woman to be the equal of a man in importance and intelligence.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score remains sharp, moving and vibrant, with opportunities for Cezarah Bonner (a dignified Lady Thiang, who completely accepts the natural order of things), Kamm Kunaree (a sweet-voiced Tuptim, slave bride from Burma who “loves another man”), and Aaron Teoh (the Crown Prince who perfectly evokes the transition from proud and imperious boy to a man who will achieve what his father has not).

The book may be lengthy and at times, out of step with the times, but with strong female roles, adorable children, and that joyous “Shall We Dance” number (as well as copious chances for sniffles), it certainly ticks the boxes for entertainment.

The King and I runs in Manchester until 11 May, before continuing on its tour.


The Mix: Musicals! A bowl full of London theatre buzz #3

Welcome to the third edition of The Mix. This month I’m taking a look at the musical genre, and which productions are around over the next few months. Hopefully you will find something that will appeal from these selections, taken from across London’s theatreland.

Friendsical, Ute Lemper as Marlene, The Magnificent Music Hall, Fanny and Stella, Six, Little Miss Sunshine
Friendsical, Ute Lemper as Marlene, The Magnificent Music Hall, Fanny and Stella, Six, Little Miss Sunshine

Six the Musical continues at the Arts Theatre throughout 2019.

Fanny and Stella runs from 8 May – 2 Jun at Above the Stag. It is a play with songs by Glenn Chandler, music by Charles Miller, and it is directed by Steven Dexter.

At Alexandra Palace Theatre, The Magnificent Music Hall on 30 October brings a touch of The Good Old Days to London.

Over at Arcola Theatre in Dalston, Little Miss Sunshine ends on 11 May and Ute Lemper portrays Marlene Dietrich for a week in Rendezvous with Marlene from 14-19 May.

Ashcroft Playhouse at Fairfield Halls welcomes Angela’s Ashes from 24 September – 5 October, then Friendsical from 28 October – 2 November.

Jesus Christ Superstar, The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken, Yvette, Lipstick on Your Collar
Jesus Christ Superstar, The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken, Yvette, Lipstick on Your Collar

Barbican has Jesus Christ Superstar from 4 July – 24 August.

Battersea Arts Centre has We’ve Got Each Other, a Bon Jovi musical, from 16 – 18 May.

The Beck in Hayes has Lipstick on Your Collar: the 50s and 60s Musical on 11 May, and the Beck Theatre Summer Youth Project brings The Wizard of Oz to life from 22 – 24 August.

Bloomsbury Theatre‘s Performance Lab puts on Kurt Weill’s The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken on 4 May.

The Bridewell Theatre has A Little Night Music from 7 – 11 May (Geoids Musical Theatre), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying from 15 – 25 May (Sedos), and HMS Pinafore from 5 – 8 June (Grosvenor Light Opera Company).

The Bush Theatre has Yvette, a new play with songs by Urielle Klein-Mekongo from 14 May – 4 June.

Drone, Home, Welcome to the UK, Amour
Drone, Home, Welcome to the UK, Amour

The Camden People’s Theatre, now in its 25th year, presents Drone, a live jam of sounds, visuals and poetry on the 2 May.

The Canal Cafe Theatre in Little Venice has a collection of new musical writing, Home, on 4 May.

Charing Cross Theatre has Amour, by Michael Legrand and Jeremy Sams, in residence from 2 May – 20 July.

Over at the Cockpit, Edgware Road, Borderline bring their satiric, humorous and musical show Welcome to the UK to the stage from 11 – 12 June.

Hot Crisps, Sweet Charity, The Marvelous Wondrettes, Three Emos
Hot Crisps, Sweet Charity, The Marvelous Wondrettes, Three Emos

The Donmar Warehouse continues to blaze a trail for the classic musical with Sweet Charity, until the 8 June.

The Etcetera in Camden hosts a night of sketches and songs with Hot Crisps on 14 – 15 May.

Upstairs at the Gatehouse says goodbye to the Marvelous Wonderettes on the 12 May but they reappear at the Theatre Royal Windsor from 16 – 25 May.

At the Greenwich Theatre Our House (a Mountview production) runs from the 26 April – 4 May, Smashing Mirrors Productions stop off with Three Emos on 12 May, and David Wood’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea visits from 26 – 28 May.

The Astonishing Singing Fish, Partenope, Blues in the Night, Vulvarine, Dead Dog in a Suitcase
The Astonishing Singing Fish, Partenope, Blues in the Night, Vulvarine, Dead Dog in a Suitcase

At the Jack Studio Theatre, Flying Dutchman showcase The Astonishing Singing Fish from 30 April – 4 May.

Jacksons Lane in North London welcomes Hampstead Garden Opera in a new production of Handel’s Partenope, a “sly take on opera seria”, from 17 – 26 May.

The Kiln Theatre welcomes a very busy Sharon D Clarke (fresh from the Young Vic’s Death of a Salesman), together with Clive Rowe in Blues in the Night, from 18 July – 7 September.

At the King’s Head, HMS Pinafore continues until the 11 May, and then The Worst Little Warehouse in London runs from 21 – 26 May. In the summer, Vulvarine: The Musical arrives from the Edinburgh Fringe and runs from 11 June – 6 July, with Tickle: The Musical running from 14 – 26 October.

The London Coliseum has another high-profile musical with Man of La Mancha, which runs for six weeks from 26 April. The leading male roles are played by Kelsey Grammer and Peter Polycarpou, and the leading female role is shared by Danielle de Niese and Cassidy Janson.

The Lyric Hammersmith presents Kneehigh Theatre and Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) from 21 May – 15 June.

Operation Mincemeat, Evita, Pilgrims, Sexy Lamp, Broken Wings
Operation Mincemeat, Evita, Pilgrims, Sexy Lamp, Broken Wings

At the New Diorama, SpitLip (a new musical theatre collaboration between three members of comedy troupe Kill the Beast, and glam-punk composer Felix Hagan) “mix Singin’ in the Rain with Strangers on a Train” in Operation Mincemeat, which runs from 14 May – 15 June.

The New Wimbledon Theatre is home to Amelie: the Musical from the 22 – 25 May, before the show tours across the UK and in Dublin.

The Omnibus Theatre in Clapham presents Sexy Lamp, a one-woman comedy with songs, from 9 – 11 May.

In Regent’s Park, the Open Air Theatre‘s big summer musical is a revival of Evita, which runs from 2 August – 21 September.

The Orange Tree in Richmond has Elinor Cook’s new play Pilgrims, which mixes folk songs, war and women, from 5 – 11 August.

The Other Palace welcomes a workshop performance of Broken Wings this Sunday, Kath Haling’s new musical Sunshine runs in the Studio on 21 May, 200 Years Later – Jane Austen’s Sanditon goes rock in the Studio on 26 July, and a major revival of Falsettos opens on the 30 August.

Fame, Pelleas and Melisande, Side Show, The Rocky Horror Show
Fame, Pelleas and Melisande, Side Show, The Rocky Horror Show

The Peacock plays host to a revival of Fame from 11 September – 19 October.

The Playground, Latimer Road, presents Opera on the Move’s Pelleas et Melisande on 8 and 10 May.

Ealing’s Questors Theatre will have Gloc Musical Theatre’s production of Side Show (about the Siamese twins the Hilton Sisters) from 15 – 18 May in the Playhouse, and The Brit Youth Theatre’s production of High School Musical from 21 – 25 May in the Studio.

Richmond Theatre showcases Les Musicals on 10 May, and welcomes back cult favourite The Rocky Horror Show from 25 – 30 November.

At the Rose Theatre, Kingston, Stagecoach presents The Sound of Music from 16 – 17 August. Friendsical stops off between the 9 – 14 September, and Six brings the Tudor Queens into residence from the 12 – 16 November.

The Song Project, Ubu, The View UpStairs, Soho Cinders
The Song Project, Ubu, The View UpStairs, Soho Cinders

The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court presents The Song Project, a collaboration between nine artists, with co-creators Chloe Lamford, Wende, Isobel Waller-Bridge and Imogen Knight, and words by EV Crowe, Sabrina Mahfouz, Somalia Seaton, Stef Smith and Debris Stevenson. It runs from the 12 – 15 June.

Kneehigh show up at Shoreditch Town Hall between 5 – 21 December with Ubu: a sing-along satire.

The Soho Theatre presents Max Vernon’s new musical The View UpStairs, “a rainbow rollercoaster” inspired by the true story of the 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. It runs from 18 July – 24 August.

The Southwark Playhouse is currently playing host to Ain’t Misbehavin’, which runs until 1 June. Alongside that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the film, runs from 15 May – 8 June, and The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Bridge Company, and the British Theatre Academy present What Was Left (15 – 29 June) and My Son Pinocchio (26 July – 14 August) respectively.

At the Stockwell Playhouse, Stiles and Drewe’s musical Soho Cinders, presented by Artsed Sixth Form Musical Theatre Company, runs between 22 and 23 May.

Noye's Fludde, Summer Street, Dido, Elegies, Seven Deadly Sins
Noye’s Fludde, Summer Street, Dido, Elegies, Seven Deadly Sins

Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde marks the first collaboration between Theatre Royal Stratford East and English National Opera, and runs from 1 – 13 July.

The Unicorn Theatre presents Dido, a reimagining of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, from 11 May – 2 June.

The Union Theatre has a revival of the marvellous Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, which runs from 15 May – 8 June.

Waterloo East plays host to Aussie soap satirical musical Summer Street from 14 May – 2 June.

Meow-Meow and Laura Morera collaborate on a ballet chante by Weill and Brecht, Seven Deadly Sins, which plays at Wilton’s Music Hall on 8 May.

Happy musical theatre travels!


Violet (Charing Cross Theatre)

Following a run of Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline or Change, London is now playing host to the UK premiere of an earlier work written with Brian Crawley, Violet, set on a greyhound bus, some of its stops, and in the memory of its main character.

Matthew Harvey and Kaisa Hammarlund. Photo by Scott Rylander.

Matthew Harvey and Kaisa Hammarlund. Photo by Scott Rylander.

The Charing Cross theatre auditorium has been reconfigured in the round, with a stage revolve and ceiling decoration. In this space Violet (and her younger self) join two soldiers and a rag-bag collection of travellers, across the southern states of the USA.

Violet was disfigured as a child and her faith has driven her to seek out healing from a preacher famous on television. She sees herself as ugly and people she meets comment on her scar, but the audience don’t see it (they see her from within rather than through the pitying eyes of others?).

Matthew Harvey and Kaisa Hammarlund. Photo by Scott Rylander.

Janet Mooney and Kaisa Hammarlund. Photo by Scott Rylander.

Tesori’s score may take a few repeated listens to be fully appreciated, but the ensemble pieces on the bus made me think of the airplane camaderie of Come From Away, with different concerns and overlapping stories.

Kaisa Hammarlund impresses as Violet, who trusts no-one and lives on sarcasm, cunning and nervous energy. In her quest for perfection she engages both soldiers, Monty (Matthew Harvey) and Flick (Jay Marsh) in romance, and makes peace both with herself and the Lord by the end of her travels.

Cast of Violet. Photo by Scott Rylander.

Cast of Violet. Photo by Scott Rylander.

Parallel scenes of card playing and musical memories with Young Violet (Madeleine Sellman at the performance I saw) and Keirom Crook as her father, struggling to raise a child who has the eyes and the smile of her dead mother, are effective.

I also enjoyed Janet Mooney’s dual roles as the fussy old lady on the bus and the hooker in the hotel where Violet is not welcome ‘cos she’s white’.

This musical is passionate, topical and heartwarming, and despite some odd staging decisions from director Shuntaro Fujita, it thrives in this intimate theatre and moves swiftly in an economical 95 minute running time.

Kenneth Avery Clark and cast. Photo by Scott Rylander.

Kenneth Avery Clark and cast. Photo by Scott Rylander.

Violet continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6 April.


Showstopper! The Improvised Musical (The Other Palace)

The Showstoppers have now created more than 1,000 new musicals in their shows; each one unique to its audience, and transient in nature. It’s no surprise to hear that the late Ken Campbell was an early mentor and supporter of the group, as the show does seem to have some of his anarchic spirit around the edges.

Now in its eleventh year, it has had success at the Edinburgh Fringe, on the West End – following the end of The Other Palace run on 16 March it takes up a monthly residence on Mondays at the Lyric – and on Radio 4. The premise is a simple one: a new musical created from suggestions as to setting and style at each show.

Poster for Showstopper!

Of course, we all know that improvision is far from a simple process, which makes it all the more fantastic that what is conjured up at each show is fresh, new, funny, inspired, and entertaining. At the show we saw, the setting was “inside a volcano”, utilising the musical styles of Annie, Oliver!, Dear Evan Hansen, Legally Blonde, and eventually, Waitress, Hamilton, and Heathers as well. The name of this ephemeral show? Burn, Baby, Burn!!!

The cast of this show were a talented bunch: Matthew Cavendish the chap trying to appease the producer on the big red phone, directing and shaping the performance; Jonathan Ainscough (Patrick Hamilton), Pippa Evans (Luigi and his wife), Joshua Jackson (Mark Jones), Philip Pellew (Stuart Jones and Fredopolis), Lauren Shearing (Mrs Hamilton), and Heather Urquhart (Maria) bringing the show to life; Jordan Clarke, Alex Ash and Chloe Potter providing the accompaniment.

The show was inventive, from a “Consider Yourself” style number, a Hamilton-style rap, and a Waitress-style ballad, and characters ranging from Luigi the Italian who decided his life was best served by opening an AirBNB in a volcano, through passionate gay couple the Joneses, the dreadfully formal couple the Hamiltons, and the volcano god “Fredopolis”.

Some of The Showstopper! cast
Some of The Showstopper! cast

What was saw was very accomplished, from a group clearly thinking, quickly, on their feet, and for those familiar with the styles of the various musicals (I haven’t seen or heard DEH yet, but I now have a flavour of it!), this was a delicious piece of parody.

I’d definitely recommend this for a light night out. The audience can feel complicit in the creation of what they are seeing, the actors (each show features up to seven from the ensemble) and musicians can get a workout, and everyone will have a fun time.


Chita Rivera (Cadogan Hall)

Part of the Cadogan Hall Broadway series, we were treated yesterday to a visit to London by an icon of musical royalty, Chita Rivera.

Now 86 years old, she created the roles of Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, toured in Sweet Charity, and appeared in London in Bye Bye Birdie and Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

Old enough to have known the likes of Bernstein, Fosse and Kander & Ebb, she performed a diverse set of numbers punctuated by stories of her road to success.

Her voice isn’t what it was – although in A Boy Like That, All That Jazz, Jacques Brel’s Carousel and a number from Kander & Ebb’s final show The Visit it comes to life with hints of the vibrancy she must have shown fifty or sixty years ago.

Head to toe in red from her earrings to high-heeled shoes, ‘Chi’ is still every inch a star, with knowing asides and dance moves.

Her set is full of lesser-known numbers from the likes of The Rink, Sweet Charity, Seventh Heaven (in which Chita sings not just the part of Fifi but also Camille and Cosette!), and Bye Bye Birdie (assisted by Tim Flavin on one song, Rosie).

Enjoyable, if only to see an original star in action – there are fewer of them by the year, but this one shows no signs of slipping into retirement just yet.

Photo credits – Laura Marie Duncan.


Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre)

All I knew about this show on arrival was that it was a musical inspired in some way by the events on 9/11. I hadn’t heard any of the score, or seen any production photos, so it was a complete blind buy based on the success this show has had across the pond (and the fact it was available in the Get Into London Theatre promotion helped, too).

Come from Away cast. Via London Theatre.
Come from Away cast. Via London Theatre.

In the town of Gander, on the island of Newfoundland, off the shores of Canada, a small community of a few thousand people get on with the business of life. There’s a bus strike. The Mayor, who doesn’t drink, nevertheless gets all his gossip from the local pub. There’s a new reporter in town, a girl called Janice. There’s a school, a sports hall.

Then news that 6, then 11, then 20, then 30, then 38 planes are being diverted out of American airspace. A national emergency, bringing so many passengers the town’s population doubles that day. Men, women, children. A group headed for Disneyland. An Englishman headed for a conference. Wives, mothers. Christians, Jews, Muslims.

The town rises to the challenge. Shopping trips are made, food is prepared, phones are provided, clothes are donated. “There’s a candle in the window, and the kettle’s always on”, goes the refrain, and so it proves. Disputes are put aside; the hockey match space becomes a giant walk-in refrigerator. Passengers who hardly spoke to each other en route find common ground, or common emnity (the suspicion against the Muslim passengers is not glossed over).

The cast of Come From Away. Via Playbill.
The cast of Come From Away. Via Playbill.

Based on a true story, the show fleshes out some stories – the awkward romance of Nick and Diane, Hannah’s hopeless desperation in trying to find news of her firefighter son, Beverley the air captain who can’t compute the “thing I love being used as a bomb”, the two gay Kevins – and finds time for others like Ali the award-winning Muslim cook, Bob the nervous man who finds peace in the friendly environs of Gander, Bonnie who cares for the animals left on board the abandoned planes, Claude the tenacious mayor, Janice the reporter, Beulah the mother hen, the elderly Jew who has never breathed a word about his faith to anyone.

With a cast of twelve playing multiple parts, you’ll see the same actors as Newfoundlanders and refugees, as the confident and the faint of heart, and all this is realised in a simple set and just a shade of change in costume or accent. It’s a very intensive play with most actors on stage throughout, and if there were a couple of microphone drop-outs during the show, that’s nothing that can’t be easily fixed. Evoking a sense of time and place is far more important, and this is done without apparent effort, from the bar to the confines of a plane, to the schoolroom where hundreds sleep on the floor to the top of the Rock.

All the cast are exceptional and hard-working – Clive Carter (Claude), Mary Doherty (Bonnie), David Shannon (Kevin T), Jonathan Andrew Hume (Kevin J/Ali), Rachel Tucker (Beverley), Cat Shannon (Hannah), Robert Hands (Nick), Helen Hobson (Diane), Nathanael Campbell (Bob), Emma Salvo (Janice), Harry Morrison (Oz), and at the performance I saw, Chiara Baronti (Beulah).

The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein runs from Irish whimsey and humour through to sweet ballads, and evokes just the right balance of laugh out loud amusement (the bar scene, the cardiologists) and moments of emotional engagement (Prayer, Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere).

I laughed, I cried. I invested in each and every character which is a tribute to the writers, the performers, and the director Christopher Ashley. The lively band quite rightly had their own curtain call which got the audience to its feet – if they hadn’t already risen for the cast – and sent us out on a high.

Come from Away poster
Come from Away poster

And what’s a “Come From Away“? It’s anyone who comes from outside the island, but by the time we left (and thanks to the little badges we could pick up at the door), I think we could all say “I am an islander”. This is a musical with heart and soul. Running initially until September, I’d highly recommend you give it a go.

Watch the trailer for the West End production of Come From Awayhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQfLH5v4ljc.


Six (Arts Theatre)

In what has already been termed a triumphant return to the London stage (the current run has literally just started and has been given a year-long extension), Six comes back to the Arts Theatre with new actresses in the parts of Henry VIII’s six wives (“Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”).

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss created this show as a student production at Cambridge, and later wowed audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their mission, as stated in the programme, is not just to rehabilitate the six Queens, but to anchor their stories in the modern world, and to let the women tell their stories without being “too earnest or sincere”.

Jane, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine of Aragon, Katharine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Jane, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine of Aragon, Katharine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

With a backing band of four, (“Ladies in Waiting” – Arlene McNaught, Alice Angliss, Amy Shaw, Terri De Marco), the six take their places with an opening ensemble number to confirm which is which, before entering into a contest to see who suffered the most, by telling their personal stories in catchy song.

The ensuing concert – Divorced, Beheaded, Live! – allows each Queen to come to the forefront with the others performing back-up functions; sometimes in high-energy dance format, sometimes in ballad form.

It’s hard to single out a song, or a performance. Some are stronger earworms, but some are stronger stories. The current six – Jarneia Richard-Noel, Millie O’Connell, Natalie Paris, Alexia McIntosh, Aimie Atkinson and Maiya Quansah-Breed – are all terrific, hard-working, likeable performers.

Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard. Photo by Colin Penn
Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard. Photo by Colin Penn

Catherine of Aragon’s “no way” when jettisoned to a nunnery and exile following 25 years of marriage and 5 miscarriages has the power you would expect from the woman who put up with so much for so long, shipped from her home country to marry first one brother then another when the first one died.

Anne Boleyn’s Essex girl “sorry/not sorry” is a girl power rant for the Netflix generation with liberal usage of text speak, but showing the exploited young girl underneath. History shows that Anne was playing a game with the King which led to his obsession and her imprisonment, and it is no wonder she may have got bored, used purely as a young baby farm.

Jane Seymour shows herself to be a devoted wife and mother, who doesn’t talk back, and who’s only regret is that she didn’t live to see her son (that sickly son, remember, who didn’t rule for long and was overshadowed by the sisters his father had disinherited). Jane, who had served her predecessor Queen and who stood with Henry waiting for the signal that her head had gone, freeing her to be wife number three.

Anne of Cleves, often dismissed as dull and ugly, is badass and sexy (“you said I didn’t look like my profile picture”), and happy in her riches and her freedom. She reclaims herself from being the boring and the irrelevant one and gets the measure of her horny husband.

Katharine Howard is the pop tart exploited from teenage years, with men who pursue her and “all you want to do is touch me, squeeze me, can’t get enough, see”. She was married at seventeen and dead at nineteen, her crime having been abused by opportunistic men no different than her ageing husband. Even Thomas Culpeper, who is usually thought to be her true love, is shown to have exploited her and put them both in danger.

Catherine Parr, the survivor, who writes a letter she never sends to the man she truly loves, who wishes she had not caught the eye of the King who just needs a nursemaid to end his days. The contestant who is a “Prot-est-ant”, who claims “I don’t need your love” but marries four times because life for a Tudor woman dictates it, and eventually goes like Jane, dead in childbirth with the son of the man she had to give up for Henry.

Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

The contest unravels when the Queens realise they can detach themselves from just being known as Henry’s wives, stop trying to outdo each other, and assert themselves in their own revised histories and reformation (“you can try but I’m unbreakable”), and we feel we have got to know these ladies just that little bit better.

This is a glittery, fun and feminist musical, full of puns, dance moves, and sass. Even Tudor obsessives (and I’m one, having read and seen just about everything on the topic from straight history to television adaptation to romantic fiction) can find something new to ponder about.

And by the end, it is Henry who is invisible, as his wives re-identify themselves as Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Katherine, and Cathy, rather than by their proximity to the throne.

Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

At just eighty minutes without an interval, this show can easily be slotted in to your theatre-going, and I’d recommend it to musical fans, to those who love their history to be a bit irreverent, and to women who want to see good stories told.

Six continues at the Arts Theatre until January 2020.


Dreamgirls (Savoy)

Now coming to the end of a two and a bit year run, Dreamgirls remains a spectacle with numerous set and costume changes, and a killer of a first act closer in “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which at this performance Marisha Wallace delivered with devastating style and emotion. That girl can sing!

Marisha Wallace in Dreamgirls. Photo by
Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

This story feels a bit like the real-life one of The Supremes, in which one of the trio becomes pre-eminent over the others. In Dreamgirls, Effie White, larger than life in voice and body, sings lead until pushy Curtis, their new manager, decides to trade her in personally and professionally for one of the back-up girls, Deena.

In the meantime, third girl Lorelle is content to remain as back-up and as girlfriend to married showman Jimmy Early, who has a definite Little Richard vibe going on. Over time, the rechristened Dreams cross over into the white market, leaving Effie by the wayside until the (inevitable) comeback.

Dreamgirls poster
Dreamgirls poster

There’s not a great storyline here, and that act one closing declaration of courage, love, and resilience, doesn’t make much sense when the character singing it goes into semi-retirement for seven years before act two, but there are some great musical moments and in Wallace, Brennyn Lark (Deena), Asmeret Ghebremichael (Lorelle), Joe Aaron Reid (Curtis) and Tosh Wanogha-Maud (Jimmy) there are some charismatic and talented performers on display.

Henry Krieger’s score is on point to the period, and Casey Nicholaw directs with more than an nod to Michael Bennett’s original work, given the latter’s prominent credit in the programme. There have been snips and changes evident if you’re familiar with the Jennifer Hudson/Beyonce film, but this show retains a high energy and entertainment value to the end.


Plays and musicals coming up on loureviews in 2019

2019 looks as if it will be another great year for theatre productions!

Here are some I am looking forward to reporting back on:

Musicals

Plays

What are your choices?

 


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!

Sixpence-New-Artwork

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.


The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre)

This new translation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill has been polarising audiences at the National Theatre, but it is a vibrant and lively production, entertaining and bawdy, and – some diction issues aside – a well-sung musical black comedy.  I’m pleased to report that Weill’s music has definitely stood the test of time.

Rory Kinnear (showing versatility with fairly successful vocal work) is Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife, who carries round a large blade and dispatches people who cause him trouble.  He marries Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig, last seen in the dreadful wonder.land, much better here) for her brains and to get one over on her gangster dad and her horny mum. But is his chequered past about to catch up with him?

threepennyopera

This production, by Rufus Norris, uses a translation by Simon Stephens which focuses on a run of profanity and the ‘filthy language’ promised in the National’s publicity, alongside the ‘immoral behaviour’ which includes Mackie and Polly making their first appearance in coitus which being lowered down from the flies on a crescent moon.

Brechtian theatre shows all the nuts and bolts of the stage, and this production doesn’t disappoint, with lights, ropes, and a busy set of steps, paper doors, and liberal use of the National’s drum revolve, all contributing to the overall effect.

There are some aspects of this musical that are muddled: Haydn Gwynne’s Mrs Peachum using a fire extinguisher to mimic vomiting after a heavy night, all of Sharon Small’s songs as heavily Scots-accented Jenny, some of the lyric changes, the gay angle, and Peachum’s wig, but they are generally overshadowed by successful innovations, including Paule Constable’s lighting design.

Debbie Kurup does well as a feisty and aggressive Lucy Brown, and George Ikediashi is a camp balladeer, but Peter de Jersey disappoints in the duet with Kinnear (‘A Soldier’s Return’) and I struggled with one of Mackie’s gang being severely disabled and almost played for laughs.

Edit: I would like to expand on my final sentence following a comment I have received on Twitter, specifically honing in on the fact I had a problem following the speech of the member of the cast with cerebral palsy (his name is Jamie Beddard, and he plays the member of Mackie’s gang called ‘The Shadow’).

The Telegraph’s review claims that this casting was inspired and makes the audience implicit in Macheath’s eventual frustration and mockery, but for me this didn’t work.  I was frustrated enough with not being able to follow the lyrics at times without having to decipher a speech impairment as well; nonetheless, Beddard did well and was particularly amusing in the black scene where Polly, the new bride, seems in danger of a nasty assault from the gang.

I am afraid, though, that I felt this particular piece of casting was a stunt which did not work in the context of the whole musical, and it weakened the fabric of a show which was already not entirely successful, by overbalancing scenes and musical numbers with an additional burden on an audience who were already dealing with an assault on the senses from the revised lyrics and situations, and could do nothing but react with uncomfortable laughter.  I hope this makes my comment clearer.

 


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