Category Archives: musical

Ooh, you are lawful…

LEGALLY BLONDE – The Musical

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May 2022

Stratford Musical Theatre Company turn their talented hands to the musical adaptation of the well-known Reese Witherspoon comedy film, in a vibrant production at the Play House, a venue that is more suited to bands and stand-up comedians.  And so the staging tonight is minimal, leaving the floor free for the large chorus to occupy – director Georgie Wood has drilled her cast to maximum efficiency for getting things on and getting things off again, so the piece runs like clockwork.

It’s the story of Elle Woods who, dumped by her egotistic boyfriend, follows him to Harvard Law School in hot pink and hot pursuit, as though getting a law degree will win the chump back… Elle is faced with prejudice because of her looks and demeanour but she overcomes obstacles to prove she is top of the class, and hey, you don’t need a man to make you happy… The show’s message seems to be about not judging books by their covers and breaking down stereotypes, which is a pertinent point to make: to be one’s authentic self.  Why then, does writer Heather Hach tarnish the piece with homophobic representations of LGBTQ+ people, who don’t get a chance to demonstrate they are more than the effeminate, posing, skipping fairies we are subjected to here?  Signs, I think, of the material exceeding its show-by date.  I cringe throughout the song Gay Or European which goes against the positive stereotype-busting message of the rest of it.

Leading the cast as the titular blonde Elle Woods, Vanessa Gravestock delivers an engaging, impressive performance, balancing the dumb-blonde looks with Elle’s innate intelligence.  She’s an appealing presence with the star quality required by the role.

Other highlights (because she’s blonde!) include Christopher Dobson as the tough-talking Professor, effortlessly exuding his dominance and high status;  Casey McKernan amuses as Elle’s cocksure ex Warner; Ian Meikle endears himself as mild-mannered love interest Emmett; Katie Merrygold is stonkingly good as Elle’s new BFF, Paulette Buonufonte; and Oliver Payne makes a scene-stealing appearance as delivery man Kyle.

It doesn’t matter what the cast does though, because any time a dog is brought on, it immediately upstages everyone else!  And I can’t help wondering if the situation is stressful for the animals.

The chorus is great, filling the space with energy and performing Julie Bedlow-Howard’s lively choreography.  In particular, a cheerleading number is splendid.

The singing too is all the more impressive when you realise the singers can’t see musical director James Suckling and the band, who are walled up behind the backdrop!

Unfortunately, there are missed lighting and sound cues, and this is not opening night where you can excuse a few hitches.  Microphone coverage is patchy.  It feels like the show could have done with at least one more technical rehearsal to make these elements of the production as sharp as the rest of it.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In the pink! Vanessa Gravestock front and centre as Elle Woods (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)

Jacob’s Cracker

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th April 2022

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s first (and best) musical is on the road again in this refurbished production by director Laurence Connor.  There are a few interesting changes, most of which work brilliantly.  Firstly, the use of children.  Liberated from the usual choir corral, the kids come and go, singing and dancing along with the other performers.  Connor also uses kids in character roles: the younger brothers, for example, complete with comedy beards.  This serves as a reminder that the piece was originally conceived as a school play.

Another big change is the expansion of the role of the Narrator.  The mighty Alexandra Burke leads us through the story, with charm, good humour, and above all, that marvellous voice.   Connor also has her don a comedy beard to portray the patriarch Jacob.  Burke does a good job but I miss the old man.  At the show’s climactic point, the father-and-son reunion is therefore diluted, robbing the show of its emotional kicker.  Oh, well.  Burke also takes on the role of seductress Mrs Potiphar – surely there are guidelines about making a pregnant actor work so hard! – She is clearly having a lot of fun in this show, and she handles the crowd like a boss.

As Joseph, rising star Jac Yarrow is instantly appealing, with his boy-next-door good looks, powerful vocals, and broad shoulders.  His Close Every Door  stirs the blood.

Beardless, singleton Joseph is coded as different from his hirsute and married brothers, who soon tire of their father’s favouritism, Jacob’s encouragement of Joseph’s flamboyance —  he may as well wrap the kid in a Pride flag – so they plot to get rid.  This gives us the marvellous country-and-western number, One More Angel In Heaven, complete with a culture-clashing Hebrew hoedown.  The joy of this musical, for me, is Lloyd Webber’s shameless use of pastiche, cobbling different styles of popular music together in his richest, most fun score.

It’s a short show still, having been extended over the years from its school hall origins.  To give it a decent runtime, we get reprises and prolonged dance sequences.  I prefer a leaner version, where we don’t hear the same song twice.

Featuring as the Pharaoh is national treasure, former pop-and-soap star Jason Donovan.  Incredibly, it’s been thirty years since he donned a mullet and a loincloth to give us his pop-oriented Joseph (while Yarrow’s is more musical theatre) and it’s a treat to see him as the King, incorporating Elvisisms into his performance.  Donovan is golden, and there is much love for him in the room, a considerable amount of it coming from me.

The highlight of the second act is the brothers’ French song, Those Canaan Days, a wonderfully camp staging complete with a can-can.  All the dance routines bring a smile.  Joann M Hunter’s exuberant choreography and the cast’s tireless efforts give us much to enjoy, even if it’s chiefly to extend the running time.  The show has more padding than a drag queen’s bra, sacrificing dramatic impact in favour of fun.  But, hey, it IS fun, and fun seems to be this production’s watchword, and there’s nothing wrong with fun.

Yarrow is great, Donovan is marvellous, but if I’m being honest as coconuts, the show belongs to the indefatigable Alexandra Burke in a winning performance that demonstrates her comedic skills as much as her rich, tingle-inducing voice.

A bright and colourful, tuneful treat.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆☆

Musical Theatre gold: Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Go with the Flo

COMING TO ENGLAND

The Rep, Birmingham, Monday 4th April 2022

Much-loved TV presenter and now baroness Floella Benjamin wrote a book about her early life, telling how she and her family came to this country and what happened when they got here.  That book has now been dramatized by prolific children’s playwright David Wood in this musical retelling, taking us back to Trinidad where it all began.  There’s an idyllic tone to these early scenes, in a poor-but-happy kind of way, as Floella and her siblings learn British history at school and sing songs of the empire.  They consider themselves British.  They have a rude awakening coming…

Leading the ensemble cast is Paula Kay as Floella, our narrator, in a captivating performance.  Kay carries the show with an irrepressible portrayal of the presenter as a young girl, and she is ably supported by Yazmin Belo as big sister Sandra, Tarik Frimpong, Jay Marsh, and Dale Mathurin as brothers Roy, Ellington, and Lester.   Kojo Kamara’s Dardie, Floella’s father, plays a lovely saxophone (Mr Benjamin harboured ambitions to be a musician); and Bree Smith exudes warm-heartedness and wisdom as Marmie, the mother – the show is very much a tribute to Floella’s mum, and all those brave women like her.

Upon arrival, the family finds the streets of London are paved with bigots, but despite the harsh reception, they put down roots and begin to make something of themselves.  There is a strong message running throughout: keep smiling, winners smile.

The show touches on Benjamin’s experiences but strangely absent is a scene tackling how she got into television.  The second act opens with an a capella rendition of the theme to Play School and Paula Kay cajoles us into participating in If You’re Happy and You Know It.  And we do, because it’s fun.  But the show keeps something of this patronising tone to the end, exhorting us to shout out and clap, as if we are still young viewers.

Many of the songs you will have heard before.  Island in the Sun, Brown Girl in the Ring… the reggae/calypso flavours of the music provide an irresistible carnival atmosphere, matched by the colourful costumes and giant butterfly props.  Kay treats us to a beautiful rendition of Smile.  Throughout, the ensemble singing is lovely, and there is energetic choreography by director Omar F Okai.

It all breezes along pleasantly, with only passing clouds to mar the experience: the ugly face of racial hatred and prejudice rears up now and then, but Floella learns to smile through it and is indeed an excellent role model.

This colourful, exuberant production is more than the biography of a remarkable public figure.  It is also a lesson in social history, with a message of hope and empowerment for the future.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Paula Kay IS Floella Benjamin. Photo: Geraint Lewis

Oldies and Goodies

DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS – Bringing On Back The Good Times

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st March 2022

The third instalment of the trilogy but it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the other two.  It really doesn’t.  This one is set vaguely in the 1960s, beginning in St Mungo’s Youth Club in Essex and travelling as far afield as Butlin’s in Bognor Regis, before taking in a selection contest for the Eurovision Song Contest, complete with Kenneth Williams hosting.  Well, a cast member doing a cracking impersonation!

Norman and the Conquests get their big break – summer season in a holiday camp, but guitarist Bobby is more concerned about his girlfriend Laura doing a stint in Torquay.  Norman’s womanising causes friction, so to speak, with his wife Sue.  And Laura momentarily thinks Bobby is at it with Donna, the fitness tutor.  But this is a jukebox musical.  Plot and character development are sacrificed in favour of bunging in as many songs as possible.  Any hint of conflict is soon overcome, and any throwaway line could lead to a full-on production number.  Some of the cues are less tenuous than others, but I do find myself wondering from time to time, ‘why are they singing this now?’

The songs that work best are the ones the characters perform, rather than those that are meant to express their emotional state.  There are quite a few standout numbers: Hang On Sloopy (featuring some killer guitar by Joe Sterling); an a capella rendition of Blue Moon; Laura’s You Don’t Own Me; Mony Mony

David Ribi and Elizabeth Carter make an appealing couple as Bobby and Laura, their harmonising in duets is lovely.  Alastair Hill is suitably predatory as the womanising Norman.  Lauren Anderson-Oakley as his neglected Mrs performs a couple of good numbers but like Ray, band manager and hair dresser (David Luke, also a fine vocalist), has very little to do in this plot that’s thinner than a wafer’s ghost.

Veteran artiste Mark Wynter plays Laura’s manager, later appearing as himself to do a medley of hits including Venus in Blue Jeans, proving he can still carry a tune and move it with the youngsters in the company.  There is supporting character work from Mike Lloyd as holiday club manager and authority figure  Percy Churchill, who also plays a mean trombone, and David Benson as Bobby’s dad, keen to land him a job in the motor trade.    Benson is also responsible for the wonderful Kenneth Williams scene – it’s great to hear the old Crepe Suzette song again.

The script by Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran has a sprinkling of good jokes, bordering on the seaside postcard, but they know we know the dialogue is just an excuse to cue up the next song.  The set, by designer Sean Cavanagh consists of posters and advertisements from popular culture, with illuminated signage denoting changes of location.  The costumes and Carole Todd’s lively choreography serve up the period, while Bill Kenwright’s direction keeps the performers at the forefront.  The cast sing and play instruments live and sound great.

This kind of thing is not really my cup of Horlicks, but it’s cosy, feel-good stuff that’s not going to tax anyone’s intellect, and it’s a fine way to spend an evening in the company of a talented cast, being reminded of some absolute bangers.

Foot-tapping, hand-clapping fun that delivers exactly what it promises without pretension or posturing.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

David Ribi and Elizabeth Carter

Band of Brothers

THE OSMONDS – A New Musical

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 15th March 2022

Some bands find their back catalogues turned into jukebox musicals.  Others have their life stories dramatized with their own music forming the score to the show.  This new musical about The Osmond Brothers falls into the latter category.  The rags-to-riches storyline is well and truly in place, and you know that sooner or later, the wheels are going to come off.  But will it be drink, drugs, sickness, or even a plane crash that will take the shine off world-wide fame and put the strain on the artists’ personal lives?

Jay Osmond himself has provided the story, formalised into the show’s book by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison.  Onstage Jay (Alex Lodge) narrates the story, from early childhood success as a barbershop quartet on The Andy Williams Show to global acclaim, and the multitudes of screaming fans not seen since The Beatles split up.  Alex Lodge is personable and good-humoured; as Jay he is said to be the ‘glue’ in the family, and he also keeps the show together, in an excellent performance.  We see events unfold through Jay’s eyes, giving the show a ring of authenticity, and a more personal feel.

As the brothers, Ryan Anderson imbues Merrill Osmond with vulnerability; Jamie Chatterton gets across Alan Osmond’s stern leadership; Joseph Peacock’s Donny Osmond, complete with purple cap, sings like an angel about Puppy Love; and Danny Nattrass’s Wayne Osmond also gets his moment to shine in a later, more poignant scene.  Georgia Lennon channels Marie Osmond (the girl one) to perfection; and Austin Riley’s turn as Little Jimmy is absolutely spot on. The young boys who portray the brothers early on are also phenomenal and bring the house down.

Ruling the roost is Charlie Allen as strict disciplinarian father, George Osmond, while Nicole Bryan’s mother Olive brings a warmer style of parenting.  Allen is superb, making George more than a barking bully, a strong man, motivated by love, albeit in a militaristic fashion!

The entire family group go flat out to recreate the spirit of the era, the hit songs, the singing… aided in no small way by Bill Deamer’s 1970s-informed choreography.  Shaun Kerrison’s direction puts the performances at the forefront.  By the time we get to the drama of the second act (the wheels coming off the family business) we have come to love these incarnations of the characters. 

Lucy Osborne’s colourful costume designs evoke the spirit of the age: those white suits, the colours ascribed to each brother… while her set economically evokes tv studios, concert stages, and the family home.

The hits keep coming: One Bad Apple, Let Me In, Going Home, Love Me For A Reason… and, of course, Crazy Horses.  People of a certain age are awash with the nostalgia of it all, but even if you’ve come along and never heard of The Osmonds (how?) you will be swept along by the sheer energy of the staging, the perfection of the harmonies, the irresistible melodies of songs that have stood the test of time, performed here by a flawless cast and a top-notch live band.

There is a lot of humour too, and some touching moments of drama as tensions within the family reach breaking point.  There’s a glorious moment where Jay is introduced to a fan who wrote endless letters thirty years ago, which sums up our experience of the show.  Well, mine anyway.  I was fortunate enough to meet the real Jay Osmond during the interval, and I did my level best not to keel over in a faint.

A joyous, exuberant and heart-warming show, chronicling a moment of popular culture – well, fifty years in the business, and then some!   Ultimately, it’s a testament to what The Osmonds did best, and that’s entertainment. Musical theatre has got a second show about Mormons, and this one’s a party!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Photo: Pamela Raith

Beauty and More Beauty

Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 9th March 2022

Disney’s best musical is back, touring stages across the country in this revamped production that pulls out all the stops to impress.  New sets and costumes dazzle and delight while remaining faithful to the original animated film, and all in service of the story.  For example, the wolf attacks are represented here by some rather scary animations, rather than the dancers in furry headpieces and leg warmers of yesteryear!  This is a production that uses bang up-to-date theatrical technology to deliver the goods, and boy, does it deliver!

Leading the cast in this performance is Grace Swaby-Moore as bookish, beautiful Belle, whose voice soars with clarity and purity befitting her character.  She is more than matched by Shaq Taylor as the Beast, who manages to be intimidating, funny, and sympathetic all at once.  He too has a rich singing voice, and his solo to close the first act is stirring stuff.  It’s genuinely heart-warming to watch these two fall in love.  I might be a little in love with Shaq Taylor, I freely admit.

A superb supporting cast keep the entertainment levels consistently at ten.  Tom Senior’s vain and posturing Gaston is a hoot, forming a hilarious double-act with diminutive sidekick Le Fou, played by Louis Stockil, who is like a living cartoon character with energetic physical comedy and facial expressions that are purely delightful.

Gavin Lee’s louche Lumiere with his deadpan French accent is perfect — no one can hold a candle to him! — while Nigel Richards’s tightly wound Cogsworth is as charming as he is overwrought.  Samantha Bagley’s Madame, half-woman, half-armoire, is a marvellously funny piece of character work.  Sam Bailey’s gorblimey Mrs Potts the teapot, is sweet; her rendition of the title song while the title characters dance is a goosebumps moment I will never forget.

There are massive production numbers:  Be Our Guest is a Busby Berkeley fever dream that brings the house down.  Gaston is exhilarating.  And the solo numbers are to die for.  And you never feel as though the songs are getting in the way of the story.  In fact, everything you see and hear is in service of the storytelling, which is what Disney does best. It’s fantastic to have a sizeable live orchestra playing the melodious, atmospheric score, under the baton of MD Jonathan Gill. It’s not every production that can afford such extravagance.

You can be as cynical as you like about the Disney money-making machine throwing money at the stage to make more money, but it’s the material that makes the show a classic.  Chiefly the score by Alan Menken and the lyrics by the late Howard Ashman.  This pair also created Little Shop Of Horrors, and brought their musical theatre sensibilities to the animated film.  Therefore it’s a good fit for a stage adaptation, rather than being a story with some songs bunged in.  There is a message about not judging by appearances but this is never forced or overemphasised.

The fairy tale magic is in full-force tonight, and it still gets me right in the feels no matter how many times I see it and it’s a real treat to fall under its upgraded spell.  This funny, beautiful, exciting, romantic, spectacular and uplifting production is just what we need.  Like Belle’s beloved books, the show takes us away from our present woes.  I’m afraid it’s a case where five stars don’t seem like nearly enough.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The clock, the pot, and the candlestick: Nigel Richards, Sam Bailey, and Gavin Lee (Photo: Johan Persson © Disney

Neverland Side Story

BAT OUT OF HELL

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th January, 2022

The mighty Jim Steinman’s contribution to the jukebox musical genre strings together songs made famous by Meat Loaf, Steinman himself, and even Celine Dion.  Each number is a mini rock opera in itself, but Steinman’s plot borrows heavily from Romeo & Juliet and also Peter Pan & Wendy, I kid you not.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where chemical warfare has mutated some of the population into eternal 18-year-olds, (The ‘Lost’) who are very much the have-nots in this society, and the haves, represented by bigwig Falco and his family, their building towering over the landscape.  Lost boy Strat falls for Falco’s daughter, Raven, and their relationship gives rise to conflict.  There’s a nurse character too – Joelle Moses’s Zahara – and there’s also a Tink(erbell) whose jealousy of Strat/Peter and Raven/Wendy’s relationship leads to a betrayal, with Falco/Capulet/Captain Hook bent on destruction of the Lost (Boys).  Curiously, Steinman’s song, Lost Boys and Golden Girls is absent from the score…

As leading man Strat, Glenn Adamson is a firecracker of energy with a powerful rock voice.  He has a tendency to take his top off, Iggy Pop-style (something which Meat Loaf never did).  Also strong is Martha Kirby’s Raven.  Her rendition of Heaven Can Wait is superb.  Unfortunately, the staging dilutes its impact.  Much of the action is performed to camera and projected onto screens built into the set, and so, rather than having Kirby singing directly to the audience, she stands in an interior portion of the set facing away; yes, we can see her clearly on the screen, but the device serves to keep us at a remove from the emotional power of the song.

The live camera feed sometimes lends a rock video aspect to proceedings.  At others, it’s a bit like reality TV.  Mostly though, it’s intrusive and distracting, an example of the production getting in its own way, which happens now and then.

That apart, there is a lot to enjoy.  The singing is top notch from everyone in this exuberant ensemble.  Highlights for me include Joelle Moses and James Chisholm’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  Later, their Dead Ringer For Love generates a party atmosphere.  Martha Kirby’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now is impressively emotive.  This power ballad becomes a delicate quartet when Adamson joins in, along with Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as Raven’s parents. Fowler and Sexton deliver the disillusionment and bitterness of the failing marriage of Falco and Sloane.  Fowler is hugely enjoyable as the villainous patriarch, and he too is prone to getting his top off.  Iggy Pop has a lot to answer for.  Sexton’s Sloane starts off amusingly sloshed, but the characterisation is not without vulnerabilities and depths.

The absolute pinnacle of the show is the title track, which brings the first act to a stunning climax.  Staged and sung to perfection, this is quintessential Steinman, big and brash, and heartfelt and overblown, and just sensational.

The dialogue is melodramatic and is declaimed in a heightened style.  It could do with more laughs, but Steinman’s anthemic tunes and the gothic poetry of his lyrics prove irresistible and more than compensate for the shortcomings of the script.  It’s rousing stuff and the cast sing their heads off, with energy that’s more infectious than a covid variant.  Steinman was a genius as a songwriter and this searing, soaring show reminds us unequivocally of that.

☆☆☆☆

Glenn Adamson as Strat and Martha Kirby as Raven (Photo: Chris Davis)

Seasoned Performers

JERSEY BOYS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th December, 2021

There are lots of biographical shows charting the rise of music stars, rags-to-riches tales of incredible talents and the subsequent ravages of fame.  What sets Jersey Boys a cut above is the handling of the material.  Telling the story of Frankie Valli and the group that was to become The Four Seasons, the show is divided into four acts, each narrated by a member of the group.  The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice doesn’t gloss over the murkier aspects of the boys’ lives—the criminal activity, the womanising, the links to organised crime—nor does it shy away from gritty language.  Tough guys talking tough.  The group could just as easily be called The Four-Letter Words.

We begin in Spring, narrated by Dalton Wood as Tommy DeVito, the character who brings the group together (and will ultimately pull them apart).  Wood is great in the part, with a likeable quality that offsets Tommy’s questionable behaviour.  We meet young Frankie Valli, an innocent in a den of thieves, played by the exceptional Michael Pickering, who really hits the high notes.  My Eyes Adored You is just lovely.

Summer shows the band achieving chart success.  The guys recreate the distinctive sounds and the hits keep coming.  Sherry Baby, Big Girls Don’t Cry…and we’re reminded of just how great these songs are, and how they have become part of the fabric of popular culture.  This act is narrated by Blair Gibson as songwriter Bob Gaudio, an innocent misfit among the hard-nosed boys from Jersey, whose presence gives rise to friction.  Gaudio’s talent is undeniable and Gibson gets his social awkwardness across as well as his genius.

Unfortunately, we return after the interval to hear that Michael Pickering is unable to continue; the role of Frankie will be played by Luke Suri, with whom Pickering shares the part.  And while it’s a shame not to get to see Pickering’s Frankie mature and complete his arc (Get well soon, Mike!) it means we get to see both actors’ versions.  Curiously, it works.  Like in The Crown when they swap actors to play the Queen getting older! 

Autumn shows Frankie as older and more careworn.  Played by someone else, it’s more striking how the music business has changed him!!  This act is narrated by Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths), deep-voiced and laconic with a fixation on hotel towels—There is a rich vein of humour amid the drama and Griffiths is the funniest.  The cracks are starting to appear, with Tommy’s exorbitant debts putting everyone in jeopardy.

Finally, Winter, narrated by Frankie, depicting Valli’s greatest personal tragedy.  The hits never stop coming.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You brings the house down.  Luke Suri is phenomenal.

At the very end, the original group members reunite to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a kind of rebirth to follow Winter.  And of course, we’re all up on our feet and loving it.

An uplifting show with a dark underbelly, this is a proper grown-up musical, intelligently structured, superbly written, and executed to perfection by a top-notch cast. 

☆☆☆☆☆

Blair Gibson, Dalton Wood, Michael Pickering, and Lewis Griffiths (Photo: Birgit & Ralf Brinkoff)

Piece of Work

9 To 5

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th November, 2021

Colin Higgins’s 1980 film came out when the world of work was very different.  The story of three secretaries who take on their sexist boss and change working conditions within a corporation now plays out like a period piece.  One of the film’s stars, Dolly Parton, provides the songs for this stage musical adaptation, introduces the action and gives a bit of narration via video.  Video Dolly even sings the opening number, the famous title song, with the entire company joining in.  It’s a rousing start and the best song in it.

Things soon slow down as characters are introduced.  And they each must get their solo, slowing down the action.  The women’s revenge fantasies about their sleazy boss become reality and what should be fast-paced farce is hampered by more songs and soul-searching.

Leading the cast is Louise Redknapp, flexing her comedy chops as Violet, the most straight-laced of the trio.  Redknapp is in good voice and gives an assured performance while Stephanie Chandos’s Doralee Rhodes inevitably channels Dolly P, to amusing effect.  Funniest of the three is Vivian Panka as new girl Judy, whose sweetness and naivete are swept aside when events get out of control.  When all three sing together, the harmonies are wonderful.  It sounds like Redknapp has found herself another girl band!

As the sleazeball Mr Hart for this performance, Richard Taylor Woods is deliciously abhorrent, although perhaps he’s too fit for the role. Give Hart a beer belly and a combover to make him thoroughly repugnant, I say! This would certainly heighten the contrast between Hart and Violet’s handsome love interest, Joe (Russell Dickson).

Julia J Nagle is in excellent form in a show-stealing portrayal of the sexually frustrated office snitch Roz, with a hilarious song about her lust for the boss.  It’s a pity Roz is exiled for most of the second act. 

But no matter how expertly the musical numbers are staged and how energetically they are performed by the hugely talented cast, what we get is a stop-start farce with some very funny scenes, interrupted by introspective songs that are tonally at odds with the comedy.  What it has to say about sexual equality and harassment in the workplace has been, largely, overtaken by the real world, so the piece is no longer a clarion call.  The women resort to kidnap to get their way, reminding us that many of our rights have been fought for by direct, often criminal, action.  Think of the Suffragettes.  And Stonewall.

Not every film has to be adapted into a musical.  This one would work just as well, if not better, as a play.

★★★

On the job: Sean Needham and Stephanie Chandos (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)

Magic with Knobs On

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th November, 2021

Fifty years after its release, the Disney film gets a stage adaptation, and I approach it curious to see how certain key scenes will be performed (the underwater scene, the football match, the flying bed…)  From the off, you can see we are in safe and creative hands.  The show opens with an extended dumbshow sequence, detailing the wartime experience of the Rawlins children and their evacuation to the countryside… Hold on a minute: orphans evacuated to go and live with an eccentric, and end up having magical adventures….  Isn’t that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

In this case, the eccentric who takes in the children is apprentice witch, Eglantine Price, who has learned her spells from a correspondence course.  Price is played by a superb Dianne Pilkington, who makes the role her own — there’s not a trace of Angela Lansbury to her portrayal.  An early scene when she attempts to fly on her mail-order broomstick while singing is especially funny.  Pilkington is excellent throughout.

Members of the chorus bring on and take off pieces of scenery, items of furniture and props.  The action is constantly flowing, with physical theatre helping to create effects like the bobbing along under the beautiful briny.  Cinematic effects are translated to stage magic, with illusions and puppetry coming to the fore, so that characters can be turned into rabbits and so on.  Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison really flex their creative muscles to deliver the magic, in this inventive and delightful piece of storytelling.

Most of the songs from the film are here; ‘The Age of Not Believing’ remains one of the Sherman Brothers’ loveliest songs, and there are new songs by Neil Bartram which have a strong Sherman Brothers feel to them.  Brian Hill’s book gives us the key plot points, with only a few alterations.  On the whole, it works brilliantly, but I find it begins to sag in the second act.  An example is Professor Browne (a splendid Charles Brunton) singing new number, ‘It’s Now’ in which he steels himself to take action, but only succeeds in slowing the action down!   Hill also gives the story a different ending.  I won’t say what it is but if you’ve seen the film version of another Sherman Brothers musical (the one about the flying car) you’ll know how this one pans out.

The underwater scene is there, tick box.  Obviously, the football match doesn’t happen, but I would like more animals populating the island.  And the bed is a marvel.  There are many moments when you think ‘That’s clever’ and ask, ‘How are they doing that?’ — the show is as much about the magic of theatre as anything else (like turning to your imagination to get you through the tough times).

A hard-working chorus keeps things moving, including the wonderful puppets, And there is also some amusing character work from Susannah Van Den Berg as Mrs Mason and Jacqui Dubois as Mrs Hobday.  Conor O’Hara, as eldest child Charlie, has a gorblimey accent but it’s not as strong as the one in the film so don’t worry.  O’Hara has a powerful singing voice and delivers the emotional punch Brian Hill gives him.  Charlie’s siblings (played, I think, by Isabella Bucknell and Haydn Court at this performance.  Correct me if I’m incorrect!) also give assured performances.

It’s a magical night out for the family even if it does run a bit long, past younger ones’ bedtimes.   It’s high-quality fun that will engage your imagination and touch your heartstrings, but not pluck them out!

★★★★

Giving it some stick: Dianne Pilkington as Eglantine Price. Photo Credit: Johan Persson/