Category Archives: musical

Phat Lot of Seuss

HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS – The Musical

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2019

 

Dr Seuss’s Christmas classic is given the Broadway treatment in this vibrant musical version by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) with music by Mel Marvin.  As the years pass, I feel a growing affinity with the Grinch, a hermit-like, curmudgeonly Scrooge of a creature who begrudges the simple townsfolk their seasonal cheer.  He is the Anti-Santa, entering people’s homes and taking stuff away – although even I stop short of burglary.

John Lee Beatty’s set design draws heavily on the Seuss illustrations, with their off-kilter, pen-and-ink style.  Robert Morgan’s costumes follow suit, padded to alter the shape of the actors, especially those playing the Whos, the peculiar race of Christmas worshippers.  Add to the mix Ben Cracknell’s luscious lighting design, and you have a weird and wonderful world straight out of a storybook.  Production values certainly are high – just look at the size of the chorus!

Steve Fortune is Old Max, formerly the Grinch’s dog.  He is our narrator, our link to the past.  Fortune has a strong and pleasant baritone, which he gets to demonstrate in his rendition of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch – a song from an animated TV version of years ago.  The song is more well-known in the States than over here, so later, an audience singalong doesn’t really come off.

Playing Young Max is Matt Terry, last seen as a lion in Madagascar.  Terry seems to be carving out a career playing animals in musicals, and why not?  He is excellent at it, and this show gives him chance to show off his movement skills, even with his padded costume, and his vocal talents.

Holly Dale Spencer shines as Mama Who, with a fine singing voice, and a quirky way of moving.  There is a touch of mania in her eyes that is just delicious.  Together with Alan Pearson as Papa Who, and Karen Ascoe’s Grandma (in a towering pink wig like a dollop of ice cream) and David Bardsley (a sprightly Grandpa), there is a lovely quartet as the adults prepare the house on Christmas Eve.  The score is rich, and very Broadway, with catchy tunes and Sondheimesque phrasing.

Tiny Isla Gie almost steals the show as cute-as-a-button Cindy Lou Who, who interrupts the Grinch’s housebreaking.  She holds her own in a hugely impressive performance, like Shirley Temple with an edge.  Matt August’s direction allows a satirical touch so that things never get too saccharine or cloying.  The show delivers its message that Christmas is not about consumerism and brand names but those with whom you share it.

Now to the Grinch himself.  Edward Baker-Duly is just magnificent.  He makes the role his own with some cartoony reactions and some masterful showmanship.  One of a Kind is an old-fashioned showstopper.  This is a villain to be cherished and enjoyed – and I enjoy his throwaway topical references.

This crazy, stylish, funny and tuneful show has heart and is a welcome alternative to all the versions of A Christmas Carol that are out there.  It will get you in the feels; it even melted this cold-hearted Grinch of a reviewer.

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Act of Remembrance

POPPYFIELDS The Musical

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th November, 2019

 

This new show from Dreamworks Productions arrives in Birmingham in good time for Remembrance Sunday.  After four years of centenary commemorations, when the First World War was at the forefront of our minds, it is important to keep the ball rolling 101 years since the Armistice, and 102 and 103… you get what I’m saying.  The trick is, with a glut of material out there, to present ideas in a new way while at the same time respecting the reality and meeting audience expectations.  It’s a big ask.

John Howard’s script focusses on a love story between mild-mannered man of principle from the working class with the daughter of the local gentry, a star-cross’d lovers deal with the class divide like a trench between them.  He, our protagonist, glories in the unlikely name of Tommy Gunn, and no matter how many times he is beaten to a pulp by warmongering peers, he is adamant he will not harm his fellow man.  She, our leading lady, Elizabeth, is involved in the movement for women’s suffrage and is not shy to speak out against her snooty, authoritarian father (David Wright, who later doubles as a German captive).  There’s a subplot about Tommy’s best mate Freddie getting his lady-friend Maisie up the duff, leading to a hasty wedding, before, wouldn’t you know it, the lads are conscripted and sent off “on ‘oliday to Flanders”.

There is everything you expect: white feathers, lovers parting, underage conscripts, write-every-day, and over-by-Christmas, delivered with conviction by the mainly young cast.  As Tommy, Tom Scott shows us the courage of a man going against the tide to stick to his morals, contrasting with his nervousness of chatting to a girl for the first time.  Daniella Williams’s Elizabeth has fire in her belly, a modern woman ahead of her time.  Jack Henderson brings humour and immense appeal as Freddie, while Jodie Welch’s Maisie is endearing – there is a duet at their wedding which is especially effective.

There is some excellent character work from Derek Willis, first as bleating army officer Carruthers, and later as good-humoured Welshman Taffy in the trenches.  Alex Tompkinson makes an impression as Harry, a fourteen-year-old who lies his way into the war; likewise Ellie Pugh as Tommy’s sister Tilly attempting to enlist disguised as a boy; and I also enjoy Molly Jane Cheesman as Tommy’s mum – especially in her spat with Emily Walker as Lady Victoria.  The strong cast bring the material to life beyond the scope of its clichés.

The score, however, is a weakness of the production.  If you’re going to use contemporary arrangements and pop-style singing, you have to be consistent.  The modern sound will link the period story to the present, showing that people then are just like people now, so we can identify with their losses.  Here though, new songs in a modern idiom are uneasy bedfellows with more traditional-sounding numbers, including standard tunes like Men Of Harlech (a rousing rendition by the Suffragettes) and the almost obligatory Pack Up Your Troubles.  It is the older-sounding songs that come over best and give authenticity to the piece.  There is no defining ‘voice’ to the music, probably due to the long list of songwriters credited in the programme.

Also, there are scenes crying out for songs.  The Gunn family get one, to establish their cheery working-class deprivation; the Fitzgeralds in the big house don’t.  The scene where the lads enlist could be set to music… This is a musical that needs more music, and music that has a consistent sound.  And it’s a shame because the dramatic side of proceedings delivers some hugely powerful moments.  We are given the humanity of the characters – they are more than mindboggling statistics – and the rousing finale goes beyond the fictional community singing about their boys, to all of us in the real world and the debt we all owe.

As it stands, the show has potential.  To realise it, it needs to pick a musical style and run with it.  Personally, I prefer the period-style numbers; the others are, dare I say it, too ‘poppy’.

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The Glory of Gloria

ON YOUR FEET!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 4th September, 2019

 

This biographical show tells the story of Gloria Estefan’s rise to fame, from humble beginnings as a Cuban immigrant living in Miami to world-renowned music star.  As far as stories go, it’s pretty straightforward: girl meets musician boy, she fronts his band, they make records, overcome the prejudices of the music industry, hit the big time… It seems quite an easy ride with very little conflict.  There’s some argy-bargy with her mother, who is supposedly envious of her daughter’s career having lost out on her own big chance…

As the show goes on, you come to think, the plot is not the point here.  The point is the performance.  It’s an absolute party of a production right from curtain up.  The energy blasts from the stage and does not let up.  It’s bright and breezy, colourful and cheery, and we are reminded how many hits she (and the Miami Sound Machine, who hardly feature) had.  Dr Beat, 1-2-3, Anything For You…

Heading the cast is Philippa Stefani as Gloria and she is, well, glorious, bringing a Cinderella quality to the role, as Gloria (quickly) overcomes her initial shyness, learns to stand up for herself, and conquer the world.  Stefani is paired with George Ioannides as husband-mentor-business manager Emilio Estefan, a passionate advocate of Gloria’s music, a charming, handsome presence, with some ‘amusing’ linguistic blunders.

Also strong is Madalena Alberto as Gloria’s strident, stubborn mother, and there is fine comic character acting from Karen Mann as Gloria’s abuela, Consuela.  (There is a bilingual aspect to the dialogue, with Spanish phrases translated into English, a bit like Dora The Explorer.)   Robert Oliver also makes an impact as record executive Phil, who overcomes his reluctance when the money starts rolling in.

The bus crash that almost ended it all for Gloria leads to the emotional heart of the piece, not so much her brave fight back to full mobility, but the reappearance of her estranged mother at the hospital.  A flashback scene to Cuba, before the family fled to the US, attempts to add a bit of depth and historical context, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

On the whole, this is light-hearted, easy-going, undemanding fare.  The book, by Alexander Dinelaris, contains some amusing exchanges, and keeps the action zipping along from hit to hit.  Inevitably, the show is at its best during the musical numbers.  The Latin arrangements are infectious, the singing and dancing are top notch – although I find some of the male vocalists a bit shouty.  This is proper feelgood stuff, a surge of sunshine in these benighted times.  The Rhythm is Going To Get You is not an empty threat.  You will get off your arse and on your feet.

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Philippa Stefani and George Ioannides as the Estefans (Photo: Birmingham Hippodrome)

 


Gang Show

WEST SIDE STORY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 29th August, 2019

 

For the first time in its illustrious 120-year history, Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre is producing its own youth-group musical.  The Bernstein-Sondheim masterpiece is an ambitious choice but it is soon clear that the cast of 40+ young people is more than up for the challenge.

Director-choreographer Matt Hawksworth harnesses the abundance of talent so that it showcases the considerable strengths of the performers, while ensuring creative decisions keep the power of the material to the fore.  It does get off to a bit of a bitty start, though, with some pre-show milling around while the audience comes in, when a clean opening would have more impact, but once the show gets properly underway, and the action is properly focussed, it’s a compelling, emotional piece of theatre.

Matthew Pandya makes an impact as Jets-leader Riff, brimming with attitude.  Fellow gang member Action (Brook Jenkins) comes into his own for Gee Officer Krupke.  In the Sharks, Gibsa Bah is an imposing Bernardo, with Carter Smith on good form as his lieutenant Chino.

Ruby Hewitt’s Anita is remarkable: humorous, sassy, worldly, warm-hearted, vulnerable, in a hugely satisfying portrayal.  There is also some fine character work from Hannah Swingler as drugstore proprietor Doc, despairing at the conduct of the hoodlums.

The show, of course, pivots on its main couple.  Kamilla Fernandes is a knock-out as Maria, going from sweetness and innocence to embittered fury and emotional devastation by the conclusion of the story’s tragic events.  Her scenes with Hewitt’s Anita are where the dialogue really comes to life.  At other points, the quickfire lines of Arthur Laurents’s arcane slang, get a bit lost, especially in large group scenes: the acting needs to be as taut as the singing and the choreography.

The evening belongs, though, to an absolutely stellar performance from sixteen-year-old Alex Cook as Tony.  His two big solos in the first act are goosebump-inducing marvels, as Cook demonstrates perfect control of his voice and his thorough understanding of the character’s mind.  The skill on display is staggering, and the emotional punch of the playing earns him a round of applause that stops the show.

What comes across as much as the talent and energy of the cast, is the power of the material.  Shakespeare’s plot, translated to 1950s New York, is rife with issues still prevalent to this day: knife crime, the disaffection of youth, divisions in society, anti-immigrant prejudices… and the sumptuous score of Leonard Bernstein coupled with the wit and mastery of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, reminding us why West Side Story is one of the greatest musicals of all time.   An excellent choice, yielding a potent production.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 120 years for the next one.

Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cooke Credit Olivia Ahmadi

Two stars are born: Kamilla Fernandes and Alex Cook (Photo: Olivia Ahmadi)


Brolly Good Show

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Thursday 22nd August, 2019

 

Once a year, the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham city centre becomes a nurturing ground for young talent with its Stage Experience scheme.  This year the production is the stage musical version of the sublime Hollywood movie musical – it’s a big ask and, as ever, the young performers do more than acquit themselves.  It’s staggering to think how much they achieve in so brief a rehearsal period; it’s thanks to director-choreographer Pollyann Tanner who waves a theatrical wand (or cracks a theatrical whip!) to marshal her company of one hundred and one performers into shape.  Every single one of them performs with commitment, energy and discipline.  Unfortunately, there is no space to list them all here.

Leading the cast is Ben Tanner as silent-movie star Don Lockwood, who shows very quickly he can croon and hoof impressively, bringing warmth to the role.  As his best buddy Cosmo, Sam Rogers has a kind of manic humour that hits more than it misses, while Isabella Kibble is spot on as love interest Kathy Selden, even though it takes me a while to get used to Kathy as a blonde.  When these three get together to perform Good Morning, all the elements align to make this number the highlight of the show for me – it’s just about perfect.

Jessica Walton shines as the villainous Lina Lamont, complete with tortuous accent and monstrous ego, and there is fine support from Thom Lambert as Roscoe Dexter and Jarrad Heath as studio boss R. F. Simpson – although he could do with greying up a little to distinguish him from the other young males.

As we have come to expect, the production/chorus numbers, though densely populated, are beautifully sung.  Special mention goes to Jack Smyth for his assured vocals in Beautiful Girl.  While there is much to marvel at in the organisation and execution of a production of this scale (the costume demands alone are mind-boggling), the show is also a lot of fun and enjoyable in itself.  The specially filmed clips of the silent movies are hilarious, and the title song, with its obligatory rainfall, makes quite a splash.

On the whole, the accents are fine and the pacing works very well.  There are occasions when the dialogue could be crisper, but it would be churlish of me to hold this against them.  Yet again Stage Experience has produced dazzling results, has given a multitude of young people invaluable experience onstage and off, and above all, has given the audience an evening of quality entertainment.

Singin' in the Rain

Gene puddle: Ben Tanner as Don Lockwood (Photo: Sam Bagnall)

 

 

 

 


Long Haired Love-In

HAIR

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd July, 2019

 

I saw this 50th anniversary production of the notorious musical when it was on at The Vaults in London and so I am delighted to be able to catch it again as the show does the rounds up and down the country.  The main difference is the touring show is an altogether less immersive affair, with only the punters in the front stalls drawing the actors’ attention, whether they want to or not!

It starts with the voice of Trump, the Draft Dodger-in-Chief himself, thereby linking the events of the story with the present day.  Very loosely, the show relates the story of friends Berger and Claude, offering insights into the counter-culture hippy life of the late 1960s.  In 1967, the show was deemed shocking, with joints smoked on stage, nudity, bad fucking language, and all the rest of it.  Society and the media have caught up with Hair since then but it is not entirely relegated to the realms of the period piece.  Sad but true, the social issues and concerns of half a century ago are still with us, flaring up like a persistent strain of herpes: racism, homophobia, nuclear arms, war…

Jonathan O’Boyle’s lively production loses something in immersiveness on tour, but none of the energy and vigour.  Galt Macdermot’s score with lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, has given us some standards (Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine) but the show is jam-packed with strong melodies and eloquent words.

Jake Quickenden is quick to charm us with his playful, cocky Berger, and is the first to engage audience members in proceedings.  Quickenden Is an assured presence with a good voice and he brings out the humour of the role.  Going Down is superbly done.  Paul Wilkins’s Claude, torn between dropping out and doing his duty, is an appealing figure.  His rendition of I Got Life bursts with exuberance and is a definite highlight of the evening.  Daisy Wood-Davies is a fine Sheila, and there’s a hilarious turn from Tom Bales as Margaret Mead.  Marcus Collins has his moments to shine as Hud while Bradley Judge’s Woof is fun, getting up to all sorts with a poster of Mick Jagger.

The entire company is in great voice, executing William Whelton’s choreography with infectious energy.  Many striking images arise, particularly during Claude’s second-act hallucination sequence, in which sacred cows from American history are lampooned.  The chorus march toward us and are shot in the head, one by one.  A blue sheet covers the fallen… O’Boyle and Whelton ensure it’s not just dancing around here, augmenting the storytelling of Ragni and Rado’s sometimes scant book.  The music is performed live by the onstage band, directed by Gareth Bretherton, creating a rich, and sometimes loud, palette of sound.

Fun, pertinent and sometimes beautiful, Hair still has something to say about the world we live in and the way we live in it.  I adored it all over again.

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Paul Wilkins (Photo: Johan Persson)


French Kissing

AMELIE The Musical

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 22nd July, 2019

 

Based on the acclaimed French film of 2001, this new musical (and English) version with its romanticised vision of Paris is in Birmingham this week.  Although the story includes historical details (mainly concerning the Princess of Wales) this Paris is a highly stylised, mythical place, where anything (including singing goldfish and giant fig men) can and does happen.  Our protagonist is Amélie, a young woman whose sheltered upbringing has made it nigh on impossible to form a loving relationship with a bloke.  She devotes her life to helping others anonymously and it all goes rather well until handsome Nino enters the mix…

Madeleine Girling’s elegantly versatile two-tier set is the backdrop for the action: a ticket office serves as a confessional, the pianos become café display cabinets, and so on, with Amélie repeatedly ascending to her flat on the upper level, Mary Poppins-like with the aid of a lampshade.  The stage is populated by the other characters – the cast all double roles and play musical instruments, to the extent that at some points the main action is crowded out by the hustle and bustle of the musicians.  It all sounds great, the playing and the singing are fine, I just wish some of them would clear off every once in a while to give the story more space, and to give certain scenes sharper focus.

In the title role, Audrey Brisson gives a phenomenal performance, augmenting Amélie ’s otherness with her physicality.  Movements and gestures are sharp and precise, her timing is immaculate, and her singing is strong and sweet.  Her native French accent is not as pronounced as the phoney French accents of the  rest of the cast; I would have preferred English accents, like a dubbed version of the film – the musical arrangements and the art deco scenery are more than enough to ground the story in Parisienne colour.

Danny Mac is perfectly dreamy as Nino.  Mac is steadily becoming one of our most dependable musical theatre stars.  His singing has warmth and range, and he makes a charismatic figure, but there are a few moments when the accent intrudes a little.

The main action of the story takes a while to get going: the first act is heavy with back-story and exposition, and so this lightweight story with folk-tale elements suffers from a running time that feels overlong, and while I find the staging inventive and charming on the whole, director Michael Fentiman keeps his stage too busy for me to engage with the action completely.  There is a strong Emma Rice feel to the proceedings with the onstage actor-musicians and the delightful puppetry, yet the show’s most powerful moment takes place in complete silence.

A confection of a show, where the whimsicality of the story is offset by the wistfulness of the score, Amélie the Musical is perhaps not for all tastes.  I find it a little cluttered but its heart is definitely in the right place.

Pamela Raith Photography

Charming: Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac (Pamela Raith Photography)