Tag Archives: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Dreamy

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd July, 2019

 

The only problem with this show, the first collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is its brevity.  Having start out as a 20-minute piece for a school assembly, the running time has been expanded by the addition of new songs in order to reach a more conventional length for a night out at the theatre.  Some of the additions add little more than repetition.  We get previews of songs before they appear in the storyline.  We get reprises and reprises.  Joseph’s coat begins to feel like a padded jacket.

But beneath the padding, there is the kernel of brilliance.  Rice’s witty lyrics and Lloyd Webber’s score of many colours are at their finest here.  Name another Lloyd Webber show that has such a range of melodies.  Answers on a postcard, please.

The show hinges on its leading man and here, in Jaymi Hensley, it has one of the best I’ve seen.   Hensley’s vocals are richly textured and infused with emotion.  His Close Every Door is breath-taking – it’s the show’s best number and, mercifully, is not reprised to death.  Hensley’s acting matches the quality of his singing.  He is expressive and funny, his reactions fleshing out the part: some Josephs can be arrogant and smug; Hensley combines strength with vulnerability.  He also looks great in the loincloth.

As the narrator, Trina Hill is at her best when belting out, rock-star style.  At times she is swamped by the action and you wonder where her voice is coming from.  Andrew Geater’s Pharaoh replicates Elvis’s intonations – to the point of losing a little clarity.  Even Joseph has to ask him to repeat himself.  Geater pulls it off through energy and commitment.  (At the time of the original production, Elvis was very much still in the building, and the show pastiched popular music genres of the day.  Now its references may be dated, and its satire diminished but it’s still a lot of fun.)

Henry Metcalfe is not only a dignified Jacob and an elegant Potiphar, he also choreographed the production.  With new moves by Gary Lloyd, the dancing is slick, sharp and funny too.  The pas de deux in Those Canaan Days is as impressive as it is anachronistic.  Mrs Potiphar (Amber Kennedy) is a glamorous cougar, stalking her prey.  It’s the anachronisms that make the show endearing and somehow timeless.  The French ballad, the cowboy song, the calypso.  This show is bonkers.  Some might say post-modern.

Among the lyrical and musical wittiness, the power of the story comes through.  The reunion scenes have the power to move – director Bill Kenwright wisely includes moments of silence as events impact on the characters, and Hensley’s Any Dream Will Do, when it is performed in the context of the story, is a tear-jerker.

This production does the material justice, with a superlative ensemble of brothers, wives, and a highly disciplined children’s choir.  But it’s Hensley’s star that shines brightest.

Dreamy.

Jaymi Hensley (Joseph) - Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - UK Tour (096_96A0754) - Pamela Raith Photography

Dreamboat: Jaymi Hensley as Joseph (Pamela Raith Photography)

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Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals.  This is one of the good ones.  Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.  It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir.  Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit.  But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’.   The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase.  I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper.  But that’s me.

As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice.  There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean.  Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones.  Perfection.

As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance.  He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Danny Mac 'Joe Gillis'. Photo by Manuel Harlan (2)

No ordinary Joe: Danny Mac (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive.  Thoroughly convincing.

Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.

Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around.  This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting.  Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma.  The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.

An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it.  Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Ria Jones 'Norma Desmond'. Photo Manuel Harlan (4)

Viva la diva! Ria Jones as Norma Desmond (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 


Fashion Victim

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 18th May, 2016

 

Way, way back, many centuries ago, I appeared in my school’s production of this show, as the Narrator, and so, of all musicals, this is probably the one I know the best.  In fact, it started life as a 20-minute piece for an assembly and has been added to and added to over the years.  Initially the additions were to flesh out the story.  Nowadays it seems the further additions are to extend the running time – perhaps to make people feel they’re getting their money’s worth.  There is an old saying, however, that less is more.

And so we get previews of songs before they crop up in the story, and endless reprises.  At the core though, the show remains a daft, funny and ultimately moving piece of theatre that can still work its magic despite all the padding.  The plot is, of course, a Bible story, an Old Testament tale from which God is absent.  It tells of Jacob, a fertile old man.  Eleven of his sons envy the twelfth.  The camel’s back is broken by the last straw: Jacob gives his favourite the eponymous garment.  The brothers decide to do away with this rival for their father’s affections and end up selling him into slavery.  Joseph rises through the ranks of Egyptian society, via a detour into prison, because of his ability to interpret the puzzling dreams of the rich and famous.  The fashion victim is able to turn the tables on his detractors.

Joe McElderry dazzles as Joseph.  He has never sounded better and when it comes to the acid test for all Josephs, Close Every Door, he nails it.  The song, not the door. I get chills; they multiply.  He looks great too – he can certainly fill a loincloth – apart from one scene when he is dressed like a gold Power Ranger doing Phantom of the Opera.  McElderry is matched, if not surpassed, by a terrific Narrator – soprano Lucy Kay, whose voice ranges from the operatic to power rock.  I can’t remember a better Narrator – me included!

Choreographer Henry Metcalfe appears as Jacob and the rich merchant Potiphar.  His choreography matches the genre of each song, adding to the fun and spectacle.  The chorus of brothers largely act as one – this production doesn’t give them each a wife to dance with, and so there is a distinctly masculine feel and sound to their numbers.  It’s difficult to single them out for praise but Benjamin Beechey makes his mark as eldest son Reuben, especially during Country and Western lament, One More Angel In Heaven; Jamie Jukes stands out as Zebulun; and Marcus Ayton’s Issacher delivers a rousing calypso; Lewis Asquith’s Butler is a curious mixture of Egyptian posturing and upper class twit.  The show requires everyone to be versatile and this lot pull it off with aplomb.  Those Canaan Days, an inexplicably French number, is hilariously melodramatic.

The other big role, that of the Pharaoh, is always a highlight.  Emilianos Stamatakis delivers The King, a Las Vegas Elvis in the white jumpsuit of his prime.  It’s an electrifying performance that is diluted by one-too-many encores and a relatively new song, an interpolation that seems nothing more than an excuse to namedrop as many Presley song titles as possible.  It makes me wonder what the youngest members of the audience get from this, with Elvis less than a current event.  There is much to enjoy in Stamatakis’s rendition at face value, I suppose, but it strikes me the primary school attendees will be more familiar with the Ancient Egyptian iconography in the set design than the works and mannerisms of the King.

A choir of local school children appears – they get their moment in the spotlight for a medley that kicks off the second act.  A great opportunity for them to appear alongside professionals in a high quality production.  The show is colourful, irresistibly and energetic, and is enhanced by plenty of silly business – a singing camel’s head, a bottomless boat, inflatable sheep that don’t always rise to the occasion.  Director Bill Kenwright somehow keeps the whole enterprise fresh, despite its familiarity and its playing-for-time padding.

To my mind, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best piece.  Nowhere else has he used pastiche so effectively and honestly.  The pop tunes, across a range of styles, are matched perfectly by Tim Rice’s witty, very English, lyrics.  All the fun culminates in a simple but moving moment of reconciliation and reunion that gets me every time. The emotional impact sneaks up on you – you’re surprised by how affected you are, and that is why this show works time and time again.

Joe McElderry in Joseph(c)Mark Yeoman (2)

 Joe McElderry displaying his X factor  (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

 

 

 


Don’t Cry For Eva

EVITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 20th August, 2013

There are only three Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals I enjoy: the Joseph one, the Jesus one, and this one.  All three concern an individual who achieves greatness in one way or another, although only the first one ends happily.

Evita is the most ambivalent of the three.  Were it not for the cynical and sarcastic narration of Che, it would be easy to regard the central character as a kind of Lady Diana figure – I believe there are some people who see it as a Cinderella, rags-to-riches tale, but they are missing the point.

It begins in an Argentine cinema.  The screening is interrupted by the announcement of the death of the First Lady.  It’s a “Where were you when Kennedy died?” kind of moment.  (Or “What were you wearing when Versace was shot?”) Cut to the full pomp of a state funeral, complete with Latin incantations.  The blaring discord of Eva’s requiem mass gives us a hint: something is up!  Che steps forward for Oh, What A Circus! framing our perception of Eva from that point on. Marti Pellow looks good if a little gaunt in khaki.  He hits the notes and goes through the motions, but sings without conviction.  He doesn’t believe a word he is singing.  I found him a little too wet, wet, wet for Che’s dry, dry, dry humour.

We meet Eva Duarte in a parochial bar.  A fling with a travelling singer (an appropriately cheesy Nic Gibney) is her ticket to Buenos Aires.  She is a transparent Machiavel, beavering her way to the top. But what is also clear is that Madalena Alberto is a major talent.  Her performance is the engine of this production.  You want to applaud and cheer everything she does but don’t want it to seem like you are condoning Eva’s actions.  She meets Juan Peron and seduces him with I’d Be Surprising Good For You – the show really does have some of Lloyd Webber’s best tunes (even if Magaldi’s Night of a Thousand Stars is a direct rip-off of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom Wine…) As Peron, Mark Heenehan is very strong, keeping on the right side of operatic, bombastic in public and tender in private.  His election promises are attractive (Nationalisation of industries under foreign control, tackling poverty and social injustice) and you think, yes, please, we could do with some of that here.  Of course, it’s all empty talk.  Once in power, the Perons turn out to be like politicians everywhere.  Eva claims her jewels and finery are for everyone – the claims ring as hollow as Cameron’s “all in this together” bullshittery.

The staging is kept simple but is evocative of place and period.  Archways suggest power and permanence, but staircases also feature a great deal, suggesting the climb of Eva’s status.  The choreography supports the design aesthetic: the aristocracy and the military both have elements of the tango in their movements, although clipped and controlled.  There is a sort of musical chairs number in which the military are picked off one by one and led away with sacks over their heads that is especially chilling, reminding me of how much the piece has in common with Cabaret in its depiction of the rise of fascism.  It is Lloyd Webber’s most Brechtian show – but what are we meant to consider? This changes every time I see the show.  This one comes post-Thatcher’s funeral, and Eva’s number Rainbow High reminds me of the shaping and styling our first woman prime minister went through to create her media image.

Eva appears on balcony for Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, the show’s most iconic number, sparkling in a gown like a Disney princess.   In context, you realise it’s all spin and manipulation and I think this is the contemporary message of the show.  Don’t be seduced.  Don’t fall for the spin.  These people are corrupt and do not have your interests at heart.

Her come-uppance is not from political means.  Instead she is toppled from power by that great democrat, Death.  She grows visibly frailer – again a testament to the talent of Alberto – and we are reminded that beneath all the manipulations and machinations, she is a human being after all.  But, as with Thatcher, frailty at the end of life does not excuse the actions perpetrated in good health.  Since the film version, the show includes added song You Must Love Me – it’s a lovely tune but I think gilds the lily somewhat.  We only really need Eva’s Lament for the emotional twist of the knife at the end, in which she cries out to her unborn children to understand what she has done.

A high-quality production, with an excellent company, Evita is always worth seeing, and always provokes different thoughts.  It was gratifying to hear, when we were filing out of the auditorium that people were singing the praises of Madalena Alberto rather than the character she so powerfully portrays.

Image

 


Fandom of the Opera

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 2nd April, 2013

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s money-spinning adaptation of Gaston Le Roux’s gothic pot-boiler from 1910 returns in this new production.  It’s a mixed bag of romance, suspense, pastiche and cod opera, telling the tale of an ingénue in the thrall of a deformed musical genius.  Katie Hall plays Sarah Brightman – sorry, Christine Daaé – the chorine plucked from the ballet troupe for stardom.  She hears a voice and immediately think it’s the ‘angel of music’, as you do, and not some creep perving on her through the dressing room mirror.   Said creep takes her below the opera house on a gondola ride through the mists to his underground lair, presumably in the sewer system of Paris.  In this heady atmosphere, he introduces her to the sensual aspects of music, with some performance-enhancing tips. He is seductive but rather heavy-handed with his organ.

It’s the stuff of melodrama and fairy tale but it takes itself a little too seriously, I find.  The score has some clever nods to classical music (a Mozart pastiche is fun – a high camp Marriage of Figaro sequence) but the title song sticks out like a sore thumb.  It is in desperate need of rearranging to make it fit with the rest of the orchestration.  As the phantom leads Christine to the murky depths we are suddenly blasted with electronic bass beats and rock guitars, yanking us from fin de siècle Paris to 1980s Top of the Pops.  It is incongruous and kills the atmosphere.

The phantom is also known as the ‘opera ghost’ and not only has he been causing ‘accidents’ for many a year, he demands that a particular box is reserved for him and furthermore extorts a hefty cash sum from the managers on a regular basis.  This should have tipped them off from the start; what would a ghost need of money?  Amazingly, this bullying is tolerated.  It escalates into terrorism and murder, as the phantom makes demands on how the productions should be performed.  He’s a nasty piece of work to be sure, but I have no sympathy for the ninnies who put up with this behaviour.  By the end of the first half, when Christine has decided to pair up with dashing and wealthy cipher Raoul, the phantom bleats out his heartache.  I couldn’t care less.  It is only in the second half that we get to hear of some of his back story, and his character is fleshed out a little.  It’s no excuse for his crimes however.  As a tragic figure, the phantom fails to move, in the same way that a Quasimodo or even a King Kong does.  I think the structure of the plot is to blame for this.

Katie Hall is striking as warbler Christine.  Simon Bailey’s Raoul is in good voice but doesn’t have much to do.  He is Jekyll to the phantom’s Hyde, and Christine, having dabbled with the darker side of the human psyche, opts for the respectable.  The phantom awakes her sexuality but she has to grow up and settle down with a decent, duller chap in the end.  Earl Carpenter has a fine musical theatre voice and he certainly gives it some welly but I wonder why the phantom isn’t an operatic tenor; that would make sense given the context.

Angela M Caesar is great fun as scenery-chewing diva Carlotta.  The ensemble looks and sounds fantastic but it is the staging of the production that dominates.  Paul Brown’s set design is a thing of rotating walls and floating stairs, and largely responsible for the atmosphere of the piece.  There is a couple of well-known tunes but far too much recitative that doesn’t lead anywhere.  The most effective music is at the end, in the final trio between Christine and the two men in her life.  Here, Lloyd Webber is not messing about with parody and pastiche but actually pulls off an operatic-style moment of dramatic and emotional power.  It’s a long time coming.

The show is wildly successful, packing people in with many returning to see it time and time again.  If they get something from it, that’s fine, but I find it a rather empty experience.  On the whole, I prefer Lon Chaney’s silent movie version.

phantom of the opera

 


From Slag to Riches

EVITA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 22nd September, 2011

 

It won’t be easy – you’ll think it’s strange – when I try to explain how I feel… that I still like this show after all of these years.

 

It’s a funny one, Evita, by which I mean, peculiar. A biography of Argentina’s most famous woman distilled into a rags-to-riches story that follows the template of so many others.  Perhaps its origins in real history set it apart from the Cinderella archetype – although modern versions of Cinderella-type stories tend to finish not with a happy-ever-after but with the destruction of the heroine, through excess, accident or, as in the case in point, illness.  Think of The Rose and Breaking Glass, two films that came out around the time Evita was first produced.

 

The complexities of Argentine politics in the 1930s and 40s are sketchily presented and it behoves the audience to do the research (check the programme for useful crib notes) or not.  You can let that wash over you and enjoy the dancing, which in this production is very sharp indeed.

 

The problem I always have is with the central character herself.  I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.  To paraphrase a line from another  Rice/Lloyd Webber collaboration, I don’t know how to love her.  Clearly and irrefutably, she is presented as a manipulative slut, sleeping – one might say “beavering” – her way to the top.  Cynical narration from omnipresent narrator, Che, puts us in no doubt of this. She is an unstoppable force, out to get what she wants.  We are kept at a distance from our leading lady.  The emotional weight of the first act comes in the form of “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”, delivered by Sasha Ransley as a young mistress turfed out of Peron’s house as soon as Eva gets her hooks into him. This always strikes me as a bit odd.  One of the best songs in the piece is given to a very minor character.  I suppose she provides a counterpoint to the callous conniving of Eva Duarte, and shows us what happens to girls like her who lack Eva’s drive (and opportunity) to get themselves out of the gutter.   It does provide a moment of contrast from the montages charting Eva’s progression up the ranks, and elicits the first big response of the night from the audience.

 

I would have no problem with an entirely Brechtian production, along the lines of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – the staging allows for it, the libretto cries out for it : “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is a public relations exercise, after all – but at the end, when Evita finally dies, as we knew she would – we are invited to feel sorry for her. Indeed, the woman seated to my right was audibly sobbing.  Perhaps it’s because in those final scenes when Eva is succumbing to cancer, the humanity of the character is at last revealed.  She confronts her mortality and reminds us of our own.   Yet I always find the gear-shift somewhat hard to manage.  Her ghost drifts on stage and laments for the children she never had but then we are returned to the cynicism of the funeral scenes that opened the show.  A media circus.  In a post-Princess Diana world, we recognise the “falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right” and the quasi-apotheosis of a nation’s darling.  For all of her high-profile charity works, Eva Peron was no saint (as far as this show asserts, at any rate).  This is also familiar.  My perception of the show has changed since it first appeared because the world and I have changed, but what else does the show have to tell us today?

 

Peron’s election promises appear very attractive, seeking to improve the lot of the poor and the working class – the direct opposite of that which our current evil regime is dishing out to us.  Of course, Peron couldn’t and/or didn’t deliver on those promises when in power – which is also all too familiar.

 

Abigail Jaye gives us a feisty Eva, perhaps a little shrill at the top of the show, but powerfully expressing the determination and also the vulnerability of the woman.  Mark Powell’s Che was a little too laid back for my liking – no fire in his belly until the embittered waltz-time duet he shares with Eva in the second act.  The chorus is energetic and precise, as snooty aristocrats and peevish soldiers , making the production numbers very enjoyable.  The set – rounded arches, pillars and wrought iron staircases – is flexible enough to represent a variety of locations, emblematically rather than naturalistically.  The colourful costumes suggest the period and the company is fleshed out in crowd scenes by a troupe of local volunteers, a device that works very well.

 

I don’t think I’ll ever hear an Eva sung with the cold precision of the peerless Julie Covington on the original album release, and I always approach the stage show fully aware of that.  What I do hope for is further enlightenment on an undoubtedly fascinating figure from history (I should just read a book, shouldn’t I?) and on why I like the show. Perhaps it’s because it was written back in a time before Lloyd Webber forgot it is acceptable to have more than two decent tunes in a show.