Tag Archives: Birmingham Hippodrome

The Joker is Wild

RIGOLETTO

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th November, 2019

 

Welsh National Opera is back in town and they’ve brought with them this revival of James Macdonald’s 2002 production.  Set in what looks like Nixon-era America, the production gives us the Duke as a womanising, presidential figure, complete with Oval Office – How prescient!  His courtiers are besuited, secret service types, and his jester, the title character, is a lounge-type entertainer in chequered blazer.  Rigoletto’s humour is cruel, of the roasting variety, and it soon lands him in trouble when the butt of his jokes pronounces his curse upon the comic.  The notion of being curse obsesses Rigoletto for the rest of the story – it’s how he views everything that happens from that point, while everyone else is going around enjoying themselves, playing ‘hilarious’ pranks, falling in love, and did I mention the womanising?

David Junghoon Kim is a magnificent Duke, sharp in his tuxedo with a tenor as clear as a bell.  Verdi gives him the best tunes, the most seductive melodic lines – it’s like the Duke’s superpower, or supervillain power, because we have to keep in mind, this chap is the bad guy here.  When he sings with Rigoletto’s daughter, this is not two people falling in love, although he later admits “her modesty almost drove me to virtue”.  He’s a fine one to talk, in that most famous, most jaunty aria, that women are fickle and not to be trusted.  Pot/kettle, mate.  It is this dim view of the ladies that lets him treat them so badly.

Mark S Doss, limping and shuffling around, is superbly plaintive and melodramatic.  It’s not the most enlightened approach to keep your daughter shut indoors but we sense that it comes from deep love for her and a desire to protect her from this environment that treats women as objects for male enjoyment.  Rigoletto’s impassioned plea and his final heart-wrenching grief are powerfully done.  Quite rightly, he gets the hump!

As the daughter, Haegee Lee is quite simply the best Gilda I’ve ever seen.  Innocent yet inquisitive, she has inherited her dad’s sense of the melodramatic, and there’s a naïve nobility in her self-sacrifice for a cad who doesn’t deserve it.  Lee almost steals the show, whether it’s duetting with Doss or Kim, or singing solo.  A towering performance from such a diminutive figure.

There is strong support as ever from the WNO chorus – including offstage when they give voice to the wind during the stormy climactic scene – and from Woytek Gierlach’s burly assassin Sparafucile, a powerful bass that seems to come from his boots, and from Emma Carrington as the assassin’s sister Maddalena, bringing a sleazy touch of humour to proceedings.

Alexander Joel’s baton elicits stirring emotion and a sense of foreboding from the orchestra.  It all comes to a head for a flawless third act of high drama and high emotion.  With a clarity of storytelling, superlative vocal and acting talent, and excellent production values, this is Verdi how he should be presented, a gripping emotional ride that thrills and exhilarates.

Bravo!

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Bear with me: Mark S Doss as Rigoletto (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

 


Skills and Thrills

CIRCUS 1903

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 25th October, 2019

 

One hundred and twenty years ago, the first incarnation of the Hippodrome was a circus (Hippo meaning horse, of course, and drome meaning arena or stadium).  Now, the theatre’s birthday celebrations culminate in this postmodern version of the traditional entertainment form.  In fact, I am surprised by how up-to-date it all is, given the retro title which led me to expect something more in the way of a historical reconstruction, perhaps.

What we get is a succession of traditional acts: balancers, tumblers, high-fliers, hosted by a ringmaster (although there is no ring).  He is ‘Willy Whipsnade’, a charming, older gentleman who exudes warmth, bonhomie and an American accent from behind a stunt moustache of epic proportions.  The production leans toward the other side of the Atlantic in its aesthetic, with its razzmatazz and sideshow.

The first half gives us a stylised look ‘behind the scenes’ with some energetic roustabouts wielding sledgehammers to represent the erecting of the big top.  There are acts, going through their routines, including a couple on a seesaw, The Daring Desafios, a balancing act: The Sensational Mikhail Sozonov – and you wonder what a health-and-safety officer would make of it all.  It’s impressive, death-defying stuff and, unlike on the telly, the jeopardy is almost palpable.  A contortionist (‘Serpentina’ aka Senayet Asefa Amare)  bends your mind as her bottom half runs rings around her own head.  It’s compelling and slightly sickening and yet marvellous all at the same time.

Between acts, our host enlists children from the audience to assist with his magic tricks.  The banter here will be familiar to panto-goers, and Whipsnade is adept at it, quick-thinking and witty.  Of course, the kids deliver the goods in terms of cuteness and surprise.

There’s another balancer, this one going for height, The Great Rokardy Rodriguez, and an aerial duo, the Flying Fredonis (Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevych), a graceful couple whose act is beautiful despite or because of the inherent danger of it.

The first half climaxes with the arrival of a couple of elephants, mother and baby.  Fear not, animal rights supporters; these are puppets, War Horse style, and they are magnificent.   You have to remember it’s the puppeteers you’re applauding rather than the animals!  In 1903, of course, and for a long time after, real animals would have been drafted in to provide ‘entertainment’.  Things have come a long way since then, thank goodness.

The second half is more of a circus proper.  There’s a juggler (the Great Gaston, aka Francois Borie) and a woman who spins hula-hoops while balancing on a ball (Mademoiselle Natalia Leontieva) and they’re great at what they do, but I’m practically gasping for some clowns.  A bit of slapstick to leaven all the jeopardy.

Then comes ‘The Training of Wild Animals’ in which Willy Whipsnade gets five young kids up and introduces them to his baby racoon – another puppet, on a simpler scale!  Not only is it the funniest part of the evening, it’s one of the funniest  of such routines I’ve ever seen.  Whipsnade (to give him his real name, David Williamson) is brilliant at this, and the Hippodrome should snap him up for panto next year.

The Remarkable Risleys close the show with a display of breath-taking acrobatics, where the one uses the other as a prop, spinning him around in the air with his feet.  All the acts are impressive – they have to be – and I clap my hands off in appreciation of this international cast.  But I still would like a custard pie or a bucket of water to complete this circus that overlooks a bit of slosh.

circus

Queenie and Peanut, stealing the show

 

 

 


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)


Glowing Colours

THE COLOR PURPLE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th July, 2019

 

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel of 1982 was brought to the silver screen three years later by Steven Spielberg.  Now it arrives on the Birmingham Hippodrome stage in a brand new production of the Tony award-winning musical, with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.  It’s a landmark production: the first co-production between the Hippodrome and Leicester’s Curve theatre and, for the first time out, it sets the bar impossibly high.

The ticket gives a heads-up that the show ‘contains themes of Rape, Abuse, Incest, Overt Racism and Sexism’ and you wonder how depressed you’re going to be by the curtain call.  It is surprising how many laughs there are in it!  Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, the story tells of the terrible tribulations of Celie (T’Shan Williams) whose wicked stepfather impregnates her twice and takes her newborns away.  Celie is palmed off to abusive widower ‘Mister’ (Ako Mitchell) to serve as wife, mother to his kids, and general dogsbody – little better than a slave, in effect.  Adding to the pain is forced separation from beloved sister Nettie (Danielle Fiamanya) and that’s just the start of Celie’s troubles…

The entire cast excels.  The score is gospel- soul- and jazz-infused, punctuated by some show-stopping numbers.  T’Shan Williams is astonishing, bringing the house down with her solos, without being overly melodramatic in her dramatic scenes.  Her Celie has dignity to make the size of her heart and the indomitability of her spirit.  There are some crowd-pleasing moments of defiance that elicit electrified responses from the audience.  Danielle Fiamanya is warm and passionate as Nettie, and there’s a performance that threatens to steal the show from Karen Mavundukure as the ferocious but hilarious Sofia.  Joanna Francis brings glamour and a touch of the Blues as itinerant singer Shug Avery, and there is humour courtesy of Simon-Anthony Roden’s henpecked Harpo, the perfect contrast to the domineering, bullying male figures of Mister and Pa.  Perola Congo adds to the fun as would-be singer Squeak.

Delroy Brown is perfectly monstrous as the tyrannical stepfather, while Ako Mitchell’s Mister goes through a transformation that demonstrates that old attitudes and behaviours are not written in stone.  There is hope and the possibility of redemption.

Alex Lowde’s walled set with its pair of doll’s-house openings allows a swift and slick change of locations, with superbly realised costumes assisting the passage of the years.  Director Tinuke Craig leavens the dark themes of Walker’s tale with humour, exuberance and vitality, making us care about these characters from the off.  The emotional resolution jerks tears from every eye in the house.   One of the most heart-warming and uplifting theatrical experiences I have had the pleasure to experience.  By the time I leave the building, my hands are the colour red.   Magnificent!

The Color Purple_Karen Mavundukure (Sofia)_Photography by Manuel Harlan

A rare moment of quiet for Karen Mavundukure as Sofia (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 

 


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)


Naked Ambition

CALENDAR GIRLS – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 28th May, 2019

 

First came the calendar, then the film, then the play, and now this musical version.  Original writer Tim Firth has teamed up with Gary ‘Take That’ Barlow to rehash the true story of a group of women whose charity calendar turned heads and raked in the dosh thirty years ago.

If this piece is anything to go by, the Yorkshire village of Knapley is inhabited by a homogenous bunch of deadpan Northern charmers, the women are almost uniformly blonde and the cuddly men are interchangeable.  It’s a bit Stepford Wives, but funny.  There are so many characters it takes a while to get a handle on who they all are.

When Annie’s husband’s cancer treatment fails to save him from the disease, her mates at the local Women’s Institute rally in support.  Best mate Chris (Rebecca Storm) comes up with the idea of a nude calendar – in the best possible taste, of course – and some of the women require more persuasion than others.  It’s a long time coming but the best scene of the night is the taking of the photographs, posed with some carefully placed props: plates of cakes, balls of knitting, all the accoutrements of the WI.  While other scenes are mildly amusing, the photo-shoot is the highlight and brings the house down.  It’s a moment of rejoicing, as the women celebrate body positivity and have a reet good laugh while they do it.  It’s like The Full Monty without the social commentary or the economic imperative.

Sarah Jane Buckley heads the ensemble as the eventually-widowed Annie, a more staid counterpart to her best mate Ruth.  Single parent Sue Devaney has the best singing voice but the Christmas Carol medley she has to belt out is a let-down: it’s just unfunny.  Lesley Joseph is in her element as retired schoolteacher Jessie, supposedly respectable but game for a laugh when the crunch comes.  Lisa Maxwell is suitably cocksure as the surgically enhanced Celia, and Danny Howker has some very funny moments as inexperienced teenager Danny – it’s a strong cast without exception but all the while I’m thinking they would be better served in the straight play version.

Barlow’s songs are serviceable but hardly memorable.  Rather than adding depth to the piece, what they bring is length.  Firth’s script aspires to but doesn’t quite reach the genius of the late, lamented Victoria Wood, using the bathos of domestic details to bring out the emotions of particular moments.  Contemplating her husband’s death, Annie wonders who’ll take her to Tesco and argue about margarines with her.

The heart-warming story survives this treatment, and is still a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but (producers, take note) not every bloody film needs to be turned into a musical.

Calender Girls Tour

The Cast