Tag Archives: Drew McOnie

Hair Tonic

HAIRSPRAY

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 14th December, 2015

 

The irrepressibly feel-good musical comes to Brum for the festive season – an alternative to panto but the story has a lot in common with fairy tales.  Our heroine Tracy Turnblad longs to go to the ball (in this case, become a dancer on The Corny Collins TV Show), there’s a wicked witch (racist TV producer Velma) and a handsome Prince Charming (Link Larkin).  Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book captures the essence of the John Waters original film, while composer Mark Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s lyrics are clever, complex and witty.  Shaiman’s tunes are all memorable, drawing on the styles of the era.  It’s 1962 in Baltimore and society is segregated.  Until Tracy Turnblad comes along…

As the ever-optimistic, single-minded idealist, Freya Sutton knocks your socks off.  Her Tracy is an unstoppable force and instantly likeable, as she waves hello to rats, drunkards and flashers on her way to school.  Her mother, Edna (Tony Maudsley) has self-esteem issues – Maudsley is spot on as a gruff-speaking Edna, gradually coming out of her shell and learning to love herself for who she is.  Partnered by a sprightly Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur, the pair stop the show with their duet, You’re Timeless To Me.  Duncan’s Wilbur is a mass of energy himself (much is made of the disparity in size between wife and husband) making the role his own – Tracy must get her vivaciousness and sense of social justice from somewhere.  Duncan’s characterisation shows us exactly where.

Brenda Edwards brings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle with the soulful anthem I Know Where I’ve Been, in the show’s goosebumps moment; while Claire Sweeney’s elegantly vile and villainous Velma is a lot of fun – daughter Amber (Lauren Stroud) is the petulant, immature version.  Monique Young gets laughs as Tracy’s awkward friend Penny.  She embarks on an interracial relationship with dynamic Seaweed (an excellent Dex Lee) bringing the political thrust of the show to a personal level.  Jon Tsouras is cheesily good as TV host Corny Collins and Ashley Gilmour makes an appealing Link.  They are all supported by a superb ensemble of vibrant youngsters – although special mention must go to Adam Price and Tracey Penn who reappear in a range of ‘authority figure’ roles, from school teacher to prison guard.

The energy coming off the stage is infectious, thanks in no small part to the exuberant choreography by Drew McOnie.  Director Paul Kerryson lets the social issues emerge without browbeating us, although when Motormouth sings she prays to her god and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr appears on the TV screen, it’s a little on the nose.  My favourite number, I Can Hear The Bells, is splendidly staged, charting Tracy and Link’s entire relationship even though she has only just met him, in a swirl of teenage naivety and romanticism.

The show’s message about tolerance of others and acceptance of self still rings true.  Hairspray will have you laughing and clapping along but it will also prick your conscience and remind you that the struggle goes on.  You only have to look from Velma to Donald Trump to realise we are still plagued by blondes with ridiculous hairdos spouting hateful and divisive nonsense.

The cast of Hairspray. Credit Ellie Kurttz (1).jpg

Freya Sutton takes centre stage as Tracy (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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Oh, What A Beautiful Show!

OKLAHOMA!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 30th June, 2015

 

Having seen this production earlier in the tour, it was an absolute treat to be given the chance to see it again. I loved everything about it the first time and my love is renewed and redoubled to catch it a second time.

The material, of course, is sublime. Richard Rodgers’s melodic score, Oscar Hammerstein II’s witty book and lyrics, blend to create sumptuous entertainment, and this high quality production from Music & Lyrics and Northampton’s Derngate Theatre serves this classic supremely well.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh evokes both period and place, sending up, like Hammerstein does, the charmingly parochial attitudes (cf Kansas City) creating a community with its own moral values. She brings out the humour of the script and has her superlative company play it with heart as big as all outdoors.

Unofficial matriarch Aunt Eller rules the roost in a stonking performance by Belinda Lang, hard-boiled with a soft centre. Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is feisty and bold, with a sweet but powerful singing voice. From the off, Laurey bickers with cowboy Curly – in a homespun Beatrice and Benedick way – and we know they are made for each other. As for Curly – well – you fall in love with Ashley Day as soon as his voice announces, clear as bell, what kind of morning it is. Day has the matinee idol good looks, the irreverent attitude, heart-on-his-sleeve, good humour. He sings like an angel in a cowboy hat.

A rival for Laurey’s affections, although a non-starter, is live-in farm hand Jud Fry – a towering performance from Nic Greenshields. His operatic bass blends well with Curly’s tenor for the ironic duet, Pore Jud Is Daid.   He is a barely contained mass of menace, a dark presence in this otherwise idyllic land. Kavanaugh balances the comedy with tension: Pore Jud is volatile enough to explode at any second.

Gary Wilmot is in his element as itinerant peddler Ali Hakim, delivering more than ribbons and other fripperies on his rounds. Wilmot’s comic timing is flawless – the jokes and business still play fresh. Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie, a girl of distractable virtue, is a belter, in terms of selling her big number I Cain’t Say No, and in characterisation. It’s a dream of a cast, supported by an excellent chorus, including great character work from Kara Lane as Gertie Cummings and Simon Anthony, appearing in this performance as Will Parker.

During the interval I hear some purist complaining that the cylindrical hay bales with and on which the cowboys dance come from a later, mechanised age. “They should be haystacks!” he moans, balefully.  I think he’s looking for something to criticise and is clutching at straws.  I’d rather sacrifice agricultural accuracy for theatrical expediency: Drew McOnie’s spectacular and exuberant  choreography would miss those bales terribly.

If you can overlook the hay issue, and most people seem able to, this is a truly wonderful production of a masterpiece, the pinnacle of its genre. Sometimes humanity gets things right and produces a perfect classic. Mozart did it with Don Giovanni, Walt Disney did it with Pinocchio. And Rodgers and Hammerstein did it with Oklahoma! This is popular art that speaks to us on many levels, through solid storytelling and life-affirming values.

The tour has just six weeks left to run. I urge you to catch it if you can.

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Better than OK!

OKLAHOMA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 4th March, 2015

 

This revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical is just about flawless. From the moment the overture begins, you know you’re in for a good time as we’re reminded of the wealth of good tunes that lies ahead. The curtain rises on Francis O’Connor’s rather monochromatic set, all horizontal planks like a big ol’ barn. In fact, instead of the great outdoors and wide open spaces, the set boxes the characters in. They have a restricted world view, out there in the sticks – as evidenced in the song “Kansas City” where even the most basic advancements in technology and infrastructure are greeted as marvels of the modern age. Colour is brought to the production by O’Connor’s evocative costumes and by some beautiful lighting design by Tim Mitchell.

Populating this set is an energetic and lively chorus just brimming with yee-hah spirit. Drew McOnie’s choreography is in keeping with the period (early 1900s), the place (the wild frontier) and seems fresh and original, all at once.

Belinda Lang is Aunt Eller, a crotchety matriarch (all the other females seem to be nubile young women) with a no-nonsense approach and a dry sense of humour. She embodies the pioneer spirit, hard-working, wise and willing to embrace change and challenge. Lang is magnificent in this less-than-glamorous role.

Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is sweet and spunky – her bickering scenes and duets with Curly are highlights – of a show that is almost all highlights! Lucy May Barker as the promiscuous Ado Annie delivers a flawless rendition of “I Cain’t Say No!” – her characterisation is both naïve and calculating. James O’Connell is her beau Will Parker, an appealing hunk and an excellent dancer. Their troubled romance is a counterpoint to the main plot, the relationship between Laurey, Curly and brooding farmhand Jud Fry.

As Fry, Nic Greenshields is all menace, using his stature and build to terrify us, keeping his outbursts of temper to a minimum. He also has a resounding baritone voice – a worthy villain! Scenes in Jud’s smoke house of porn are exceptionally creepy.

Big name casting for this tour is veteran star Gary Wilmot who is ideally cast as itinerant pedlar Ali Hakim. Wilmot has Hakim’s sardonic humour down pat and, of course, can deliver a show tune apparently effortlessly. Value for money, indeed.

But for me, the show is all about Curly. Here, Ashley Day is perfect. Tall, handsome, with a voice to make you swoon, he balances Curly’s cocky humour and his all-out decency. You can’t help falling for him.  In fact, I’d better change the subject or people will say I’m in love.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh delivers comedy and drama, allowing the tones of Rodgers’s score to inform the show’s moods and Hammerstein’s delightful lyrics to come to the fore. There is genuine tension in the climactic knife fight (directed by Christopher D Hunt) – even if you know the outcome already.

This top-quality show has it all, and you can’t help leaving the theatre with a grin on your face and warmth in your heart. This touring production reminds us why the show is a classic – staged and performed by exuberant, irresistible talent.

Short and Curly - Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Short and Curly – Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)