Tag Archives: Birmingham Hippodrome

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)


Something to Crow About

Motionhouse: NOBODY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 4th February 2022

This latest piece from dance company Motionhouse seeks to externalise the internal.  Our inner voices, represented here by crows, are what keep us apart from others.  Our inner doubts, fears and concerns prevent us from achieving our potential as individuals and as a society.  The show begins with the performers moving like crows, settling on the rooftops of tall buildings in a cityscape projected on the backdrop and on the set.  Then we meet human characters, each of them caught up with their own crow, holding them back, keeping them distracted, and so on.

Above all, the show is a visual feast, as the performers move around an ever-shifting set.  A huge cube frame, when covered in fabric, becomes a building emerging from the background.  The cast physically move this structure around – putting the motion house in Motionhouse, you might say.  Stripped of its fabric, the cube becomes a room, a cage.  The way the performers move and manipulate the frame while they move in, on, and through it, is spellbinding.

The second act begins with swimmers in a stylised ocean, heads, arms, and torsos rising from the cloth, thrashing and flailing around, until one figure rises up, impossibly tall.  This is a turning point.  From now on, the crows are no longer around.  The humans move together, supporting and helping each other to get over obstacles  in the landscape (the cube frame) and creating a sense of shared purpose, harmony and cooperation.  If we don’t listen to our inner voice, the piece appears to say, then we will really get somewhere as a species.  It’s a back-to-basics approach.  The performers are like a tribe of prehistoric humans, and also a giant, multi-headed organism.  The individuals have become parts of the whole, a mass of limbs and heads and trousers.

Of course, one’s inner voice isn’t necessarily negative.  Quite the contrary.  Perhaps the crows could turn into doves or something.

Brimming with ideas, the show doesn’t give you time to absorb and reflect; it’s constantly shifting and changing, presenting each next idea, expressing the next concept, so you get an overall impression of the experience with some moments and images that stick in your mind’s eye – a man drowning in a water tank, for example.  What impresses, perhaps more than the content of the piece, is the proficiency of the performers.  Their circus skills blend in seamlessly with contemporary dance, extending the range of the performers and what is achievable in their storytelling.

Captivating and breath-taking, Nobody has something for everybody.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

See the source image
A murder of crows!

Return of the Slack

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 21st December, 2021

After two years, pantomime is back in Birmingham, with the Hippodrome pulling out all the stops as usual to provide the glitteriest, spangliest, sparkliest show imaginable.  The story of Goldilocks is well-known but too slight to fill a full-length show—the events of the tale are covered here in the time it takes to perform the Donna Summer classic, Hot Stuff!  The rest of the time is largely padding, hung loosely around a scrap of plot about rival circuses.  It is a variety show, when all’s said and done, yet the circus theme allows the inclusion of magicians, tightrope walkers, even stunt motorcycles in the ‘Globe of Speed’, performing feats even more death-defying than the audience members who are not wearing masks.

The show is packed with entertainment, but it takes a while to get going with not one, two, or three but FOUR opening numbers in a row.  Two of these should be cut.  The villain gets a song, setting out his stall, and that’s fair enough, but when the dame’s first appearance is a po-faced ballad about dreams and believing, you long for something funny to happen.

King of Birmingham panto, Matt Slack makes a welcome and overdue return, giving us exactly what we’ve come to expect and what he’s so good at.  He’s Ringo the Ringmaster (although it’s left to Goldilocks to introduce most of the acts!) but really he’s the clown.  His audience-handling is second-to-none, and his physical comedy is hilarious.  There is a sequence of impressions that impresses, and you can see why the Hippodrome gets him back year after year after year, because of the fun and the level of skill he brings.  Bring on next Christmas, when he’ll be giving us his Dick (Whittington, that is).

Top of the bill is superstar and heartthrob, Jason Donovan, making his panto debut as the villainous Count Ramsay of Erinsborough.  Donovan is deliciously evil in the role, dressed like the Child-Catcher, and he’s in great voice.  He proves himself a great sport and clearly has a strong rapport with Slack on and off-stage.  I can’t bring myself to boo him.

Also back is Doreen Tipton, appearing this time as a lazy lion tamer.  Doreen’s deadpan delivery is a hoot, and she has fun in spite of herself.  One of the best dames in the business, Andrew Ryan is Betty Barnum, in a range of outfits of increasing extravagance.  Ryan shines brightest in the comedy moments, displaying perfect timing.  It’s the earnest musical numbers that don’t seem to fit.  Even Be A Clown is a bit dour.

In the title role, Samantha Dorrance is a knockout as a sweet and perky Goldilocks.  The Three Bears I find a little disturbing, with their full-body costumes and human faces.  Considering the quality of the rest of the animals in the show (a marvellous gorilla, and an astonishing elephant…) and the sky-high production values of the rest of it, the Three Bears seem a little short-changed, but they’re performed with verve by Ewan Goddard, Georgia Anderson, and Jessica Daugirda, as Daddy, Mummy, and Baby Bear respectively.  There is also a star turn from Alexia McIntosh as Candy Floss, whose rich vocal stylings lift the musical numbers into something special.

The story, such as it is, is broken-up by circus acts.  Pierre Marchand amazes with his diabolo; The Gemini Sisters on their tightrope; and Phil Hitchcock as the Magical Mysterioso — all are gobsmackingly good, although in a piece that touches on cruelty to animals, I’m dismayed to see live birds used as props.

On the whole, the show provides welcome respite from the grimness of life in Britain at the moment.  There is much to marvel at and more to laugh at.  It’s a crowd-pleasing piece of fun brimming with sauciness and silliness.  You don’t need ten good reasons to see it—Jason Donovan is reason enough for me, and yes, it’s great to have Matt Slack back and at the top of his game.

★★★★

Matt Slack and Jason Donovan (Photo; Birmingham Hippodrome)

Slick and Slack

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 23rd December 2019

 

If you like your pantomimes to come with lashings of glitz, glamour and spectacle, you come to the Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza – and you won’t be disappointed.   This production, originally staged at the London Palladium last Christmas, stints on nothing as it aims to impress.  The key ingredient for a pantomime to work is its cast and here too, we are not sold short.

The show opens with the Magnificent Seven, the dwarfs, who provide the customary exposition in rhyming couplets.  They handle the verse well and have a big impact – it’s a shame then that they disappear from proceedings for quite a while.  And I feel they could be featured more, in comedy routines – they don’t appear to be lacking in talent.

Joe McElderry is the Spirit of the Mirror, a kind of good fairy; he reminds us how great an entertainer he is and, wisely, director Michael Harrison makes good use of him for musical numbers.  McElderry is paired with handsome Prince Harry of Harborne, rising star Jac Yarrow – their voices fit well together, Yarrow’s musical theatre tones blending with McElderry’s pop star vocals.  They are a duo to be reckoned with.  Yarrow is suitably dashing in princely garb but, like many of the characters, has to play the straight man to comic turn ‘Muddles’ a kind of Buttons character, played by the Hippodrome’s resident panto star, Matt Slack.

Slack, returning for his 120th year – oh, wait, am I confusing it with the theatre’s birthday celebrations? –  has an appreciative fan base in Birmingham, and he has plenty of opportunity to showcase his skills: his impressions, his physicality, his daftness, all of which have an underlying wit and intelligence.  Slack is great at what he does, (although I can find him a little overbearing at times), and his shtick invariably goes down well.  There is nothing slack about his professionalism.

Slack’s brilliance comes at a price.  Consummate pantomime dame Andrew Ryan is underused.  Rather than a comic turn in her own right, his Nanny Annie is a sidekick for Muddles’s shenanigans.  Similarly, delightfully deadpan Doreen Tipton is restricted to being part of the troupe and is not given her moment to shine with a song or a monologue or recitation.

Faye Brooks exudes sweetness as the titular princess.  She sings sweetly too – there is a plot twist that works brilliantly, giving her character more oomph.

But for me the undisputed star of the show is the mighty Lesley Joseph as the wicked Queen Dragonella.  A seasoned pro, Joseph pitches the role perfectly, so we find her villainy delectable and her diva-esque ravings high camp.  She is not above making a laughing-stock of herself and she looks fabulous.  The best panto villain I’ve seen this year.

Everything about the show says quality.  The dancers, the costumes, the beautiful set… Britain’s Got Talent’s urban dance act, Flawless crop up as the palace guards, bringing slick moves and also a sense of humour.  Of course, Matt Slack gets in on the act – and it’s one of the show’s funniest and most impressive moments.

All in all, this slick production is as entertaining as you could wish.  All the right ingredients are there – it’s just that some of them are overpowered by the flavour of others.

8-Snow White 11

Yass, Queen! Lesley Joseph rules as Queen Dragonella (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 


Serving Fish

UNFORTUNATE – The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch

The Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 17th December 2019

 

Fat Rascal are back in town with another hilarious new musical.  Following up their hit show Vulvarine and previous Disney parody, a gender-swapped Beauty and the Beast, they turn their merciless attention to another animated classic, Disney’s The Little Mermaid.  Our protagonist is the film’s antagonist, the sea witch herself.  In a Wicked kind of way, the script by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx, gives the villain a back story, and we see the other characters through the prism of her bitterness.  The story then takes us through an extremely funny piss-take of the film.  If you have detailed knowledge of the original work, (as I have) you will appreciate the comic business at play, as moments, some large and some small, are recreated and held up for mockery.

Robyn Grant herself appears as Ursula, looking fabulous in her tentacled frock.  There is more than a hint of Katherine Hepburn to her drawling, high camp performance and the glint never leaves her blue-shadowed eyes.  A liaison with Triton, back when he was a prince, leads to her banishment in the dark waters, but the couple’s mutual attraction never fades.  Triton, now king of the ocean, seeks the sea witch’s help with his wayward daughter, the incredibly thick, Essex-toned Ariel (a brilliant characterisation by Katie Wells).  Ariel falls for upper-class twit of a human, Prince Eric, a dimwit with a silver spoon in his mouth and a flute in his pocket.  Jamie Mawson is terrific as the Prince – the playing is as broad as the humour, but the show is not without its sophistications.

Allie Munro chunters and nags as the crab Sebastian – presented here as Oirish rather than Caribbean, delivering one of the highlights of the score, ‘Under The Waves’.  Later, Sebastian sings about the importance of gaining consent before you kiss the girl – an important message served up in a fun way.  Fat Rascal never lecture but there are lessons for us in all their works.  Steffan Rizzi is in great voice as Triton and everyone is involved in operating some puppet fish and other creatures for additional silliness.  At times it seems like there is more than just five actors in the company.

The film references come as fast as the jokes.  The lyrics, also by Grant and Foxx, are witty and, like the dialogue, are peppered with perfectly placed profanities.  The tunes, by Tim Gilvin, stay just the right side of plagiarism, sending up the Disney hits as well as including some fine showtunes.

It’s light-hearted, filthy fun that will change the way you look at a dinglehopper for good.  Scramble to get a ticket; to miss this marvellously funny work of genius would be, well, unfortunate.

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Squids in! Robyn Grant as Ursula (Photo: Matt Cawrey)

 

 


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.

OYF-1

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)