Tag Archives: Dave Willetts

No Wonder

WONDERLAND

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 6th February, 2017

 

This musical already has a chequered history and now its latest version is on the road, hoping to garner the love of fans of shows like Wicked, perhaps, giving adults fantasy-based plots with grown-up versions of characters we all remember from childhood.   Unlike Wicked, which has strong source material in the books by Gregory Maguire, this Alice is purely the invention of writers Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy.  Their spin on Lewis Carroll is to give us a contemporary setting.  Alice is in her 40s, a divorcee and former teacher, living in a tower block – all well and good until you realise how emotionally immature she is, yearning for a knight to rescue her, desperate to escape into fantasy.

The mighty Kelly Ellis plays Alice, throwing herself into the nonsense of Wonderland as soon as she gets there.  Ellis is an impeccable performer but I can’t take to Alice, no matter how well sung and spiritedly acted she is.  Alice has a daughter, a starchy, matronly teen called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who reminds me of Saffy from Ab Fab – until she goes through the looking glass and then turns into a sassy, sulky child.  Also along for the ride is their neighbour from the tower block, Jack (Stephen Webb) a shy, tongue-tied admirer of Alice who goes through the looking glass and comes out as George Michael, complete with cheesy boy band – the highlight of the first act for me.

The score by Frank Wildhorn is serviceable and the lyrics by Jack Murphy are often witty – when you can hear them.  What brings this show crashing down is the book.  There are half-baked attempts at being profound, asking us to reflect (ha) on the ‘real’ us we see in the mirror.  There are half-arsed attempts at delivering a political message: the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) comes through the looking glass as a power-crazed industrialist, distracted from her quest to overthrow the tyrannical queen.  “That’s how power works” is a constant refrain.  Spoiler: the residents of Wonderland decide they’d rather have a monarchy, with its constant threat of irrational capital punishment.

Wendi Peters is a revelation as the Queen of Hearts, belting out show tunes.  She makes an impression in the first act but then is absent for so long, I forget she’s in it.  Give this woman a tour of Gypsy, for pity’s sake.  I also like Ben Kerr’s March Hare and look forward to seeing him in something else.

Musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts is the White Rabbit – at least the writers have the sense to give him chance to demonstrate his mellifluous tones.  He’s still in great voice but navel-gazing songs about finding yourself and being your own invention always make me want to vomit, whatever the context.  Self-identity is also a theme here, from the Caterpillar’s repeated asking of ‘Who are you?’ (Kayi Ushe is good fun in this role) to Alice’s desire to regress into childhood, rather than face up to grown-up responsibilities and give up on the husband who crushed her emotionally.  Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.

The entire company works hard to sell us this curate’s egg.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography, Grace Smart’s clever costumes, and Andrew Riley’s striking set, all support the likeable performers in the flogging of this dead horse of a story.  Carroll’s Alice is a child trying to make sense of the nonsensical adult world.  This Alice embraces the nonsense as a refuge from reality, but too many of the characters (like Tweedles Dum and Dee) are marginalised as chorus members to have any impact on her journey.

A bright spectacle well-performed but ultimately, I find it’s unsatisfying to take what passes through a rabbit’s hole and roll it in glitter.

kerry-ellis-as-alice-photo-by-paul-coltas

Kerry Ellis as Alice (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 

 

Advertisements

42nd Treat

42nd Street
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 30th October, 2012


Seventy years ago the film appeared as an antidote to the Great Depression. The Cinderella story of the chorus girl who becomes an overnight star is a cliché, to be sure, but the plot is not the point of this new touring production. As in the 1930s, we are invited to escape from our hardships and the economic decline, and spend a couple of hours looking at things through optimistic eyes. Every situation has a sunny side, or so they tell us.

This opulent, extravagant cartoon of a show is a real tonic. Director Mark Bramble handles the heightened world of musical comedy with exactly the right tone. We are never allowed to overlook the artifice of such a world but also the bubble of this world is never punctured: backdrops are painted flat – even the curtain is painted to look like a curtain! In this world, girls tap-dance their way along the street and it’s perfectly natural.

The songs are standards, all tuneful and with witty lyrics: We’re In The Money, Keep Young and Beautiful, Lullaby of Broadway…; the dialogue sparkles and the cast play their roles with larger-than-life gusto – Bruce Montague as rich Texan backer Abner Dillon is a case in point, drawling out his words, just the right side of parody. Dave Willetts is the irascible Broadway producer barking orders and terrorising everyone – but then, with Lullaby of Broadway, we get to hear that smooth singing voice that gives rise to shivers along the spine. James O’Connell’s Billy Lawlor croons “I’m young and healthy” – no argument from me! Graham Hoadly and Carol Ball are an energetic double act – the comic turns of the show-within-the-show – in fact, the entire company infuses the show with such verve, their enthusiasm is irresistible.

Jessica Punch is astounding as wannabe chorine from the sticks whose rise to Broadway fame is somehow inevitable. Fast-talking and even faster-tapping, her Peggy Sawyer is an oddball character, and a force of nature. But for me the highlights are whenever Marti Webb comes on. As past-her-sell-by diva Dorothy Brock, Webb is clearly enjoying herself. She pitches the characterisation just right and when she sings, that clear, steady voice reaches inside you and grabs at your emotions. I Only Have Eyes For You is worth the ticket price alone, but there is also humour within the character, just the right side of send-up.

The choreography – you might quail at the thought of two hours of tap-dancing – never falls short of impressive. Graeme Henderson keeps each number fresh and different, whether its small-scale, sitting at a restaurant table or full-blown, full company covered in sequins on an illuminated staircase. It’s a large company – which is always good to see in a touring production – and rightly so, to give the full Busby Berkeley effect. A mirror suspended over the stage reveals the kaleidoscopic patterns made by the dancers on the floor. They dance on giant coins, they dance as giant flowers – it’s all high camp and a delight from start to finish.

Go and meet those dancing feet. The tireless cast will recharge you as the dank nights of winter draw in.