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.
Dreamboat: Jaymi Hensley as Joseph (Pamela Raith Photography)
Leave a comment | tags: Amber Kennedy, Andrew Geater, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bill Kenwright, Birmingham, Birmingham Hippodrome, Elvis Presley, Gary Lloyd, Henry Metcalfe, Jaymi Hensley, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, review, Tim Rice, Trina Hill | posted in musical, Review, Theatre Review
THIS IS ELVIS
New Alexandra Theatre, Monday 19th March, 2018
This new musical is not the usual fare, in that we don’t get the rags-to-riches rise of the protagonist. When the show begins, Elvis Presley is already the biggest star in the world but, after a decade of making questionable movies, he’s planning a comeback concert on live television. Nerves are running high, the King’s self-esteem is at a low point and the time he is spending at work is putting a strain on his marriage to Priscilla. Around him, his entourage of ‘friends’ discuss his plans and problems, like sycophants at a royal court. Among them are Presley’s best friends, Joe Exposition (sorry, Esposito) played tonight by Ben Stratton, and Charlie Hodge (Mark Pearce). The dialogue, by Philip Norman, is clunky, heavily laden with factoids, telling us things rather than showing us; it’s a relief when these ‘dramatic’ interludes give way to the songs. We are not allowed to meet the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, nor Mrs Presley herself – Both of these interesting characters are restricted to telephone calls, and we don’t even get to hear their side. The show misses out on a couple of humdinger scenes by keeping these sources of conflict off-stage.
The second half is given over to a recreation of a Las Vegas show. Seeing it in context – we’ve glimpsed the King’s drug abuse, his self-doubt, his loneliness – makes what follows all the more remarkable. As the man himself is the phenomenal Steve Michaels, who has Presley down pat: the voice, the mannerisms, the moves, in an uncanny performance that brings Elvis into the building. So many highlights, including Suspicious Minds, It’s Now or Never, Are You Lonesome Tonight?…
The entourage from the first half form the backing band, a taut combo, augmented by a trio of backing vocalists, Sweet Inspirations (Chevone Stewart, Katrina May, and Misha Malcolm). Together they are terrific, creating an authentic sound. But it is frontman Michaels who grabs us by the pelvis and, channelling the King, gets our blood pumping and our hands clapping. And so what starts out as a ropey dramatic reconstruction culminates in an hour-long tribute act that is irresistible and exhilarating. The King is not dead; he has been reincarnated.
This is Steve Michaels (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Leave a comment | tags: Ben Stratton, Chevone Stewart, Elvis Presley, Katrina May, Mark Pearce, Misha Malcolm, New Alexandra Theatre, review, Steve Michaels, This is Elvis | posted in Theatre Review
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 24th October, 2016
“On December 4, 1956, one man brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to play together for the first and only time. His name was Sam Phillips… the place was Sun Records… That night they made rock ‘n’ roll history.”
The above caption sets the scene for a dramatic reconstruction of that historic meeting and an excuse to play a lot of old songs! Set in the recording studio in which the aforementioned artistes cut their first hits, the play is a jukebox musical of sorts, as well as a biography. Above all, it’s a tribute concert to four icons of American popular music.
Jason Donovan is Phillips, our narrator – since when is pop heartthrob Donovan the senior member of any cast?! Where does the time go?! – and as he welcomes the men back to Sun Records, he shows us, in brief flashback scenes how he first encountered each one. Donovan’s Dukes of Hazzard accent is in keeping with the setting and he still looks great. He doesn’t get to sing, though.
We meet Jerry Lee Lewis, a young and talented piano player and something of a loudmouth. Martin Kaye dazzles with his piano-playing and amuses with his irrepressible characterisation. Lewis rubs Carl Perkins (Matthew Wycliffe) up the wrong way, giving rise to most of the tension of the piece – and also a good deal of the humour in the form of some ‘banterous’ put-downs from both parties. Wycliffe is absolutely excellent as Perkins, and he can’t half play a mean gee-tah. Robbie Durham’s Johnny Cash brings a deeper voice to the ensemble and Ross William Wild’s Elvis Presley is vocally outstanding. The hits keep coming: Blue Suede Shoes, Great Balls of Fire – but a standout moment for me is when Elvis’s girlfriend of the time, Dyanne (Katie Ray) treats us to a rendition of Peggy Lee’s Fever.
The plot is wafer-thin and the script, riddled with funny lines, is peppered with nostalgic references (back when gas was 25 cents) and dramatic irony (we know Elvis will return to Vegas). It’s also rather poignant when the foursome pose for the famous snapshot – we know what’s ahead for them, the tragedies that await them as well as their successes.
Supported by James Swinnerton on bass and Ben Cullingworth on drums, the cast, playing and singing live, generate a lot of energy that proves irresistible. It’s a feel-good show that gets your toes tapping from the get-go and dancing along before the finish. Each of the four stars is superbly represented by this talented cast, who create an authentic sound and remind us why rock ‘n’ roll was such a revolutionary sound when it first emerged.
Keep your feet off his footwear: Matthew Wycliffe as Carl ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ Perkins
Leave a comment | tags: Ben Cullingworth, Birmingham Hippodrome, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, James Swinnerton, Jason Donovan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Katie Ray, Martin Kaye, Matthew Wycliffe, Million Dollar Quartet, review, Robbie Durham, Ross William Wild, Sam Phillips | posted in Theatre Review
LOVE ME TENDER
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 24th August, 2015
This jukebox musical, inspired by and including songs made famous by Elvis Presley, turns out to be the epitome of the genre. No one is more delighted than I. There is even a jukebox on stage.
What sets this one apart from the others doing the rounds is its sense of humour. It knows it is froth and doesn’t take itself at all seriously. The plot borrows heavily from shows like Footloose and Hairspray but also from Shakespearean rom-coms, Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Almost everyone in it is a star-crossed lover, with their heart set on the wrong person. Complications mount up until the final scene, and there are lots of laughs along the way, killer songs that just keep coming, and boundless energy from a lively and talented chorus.
Ben Lewis is guitar-playing roustabout Chad who rocks up in a nameless Midwest town; he’s part-Elvis, part-Fonz with his jukebox-mending magical touch, and there is also more than a hint of Johnny Bravo. He falls for the local museum curator (Kate Tydman) but it is Natalie (Laura Tebbutt) the local mechanic who sets her sight on him – to the extent that she dresses up as a guitar-playing roustabout in order to spend time hanging out with him. Chad finds Ed strangely alluring, and so does the museum curator in scenes that resemble Olivia and Viola, and Viola and Orsino. It’s all silly fun, played with verve by the young leads, and there is an amusing turn by Mark Anderson as Dennis, a nerd in love with Natalie…
A subplot involving interracial couple Lorraine (an excellent Aretha Ayeh) and Dean (an appealing Felix Mosse) hints at a darker world beyond the town’s limits, but the show doesn’t dwell on such unpleasantness. Their rendition of It’s Now or Never is a comic highlight, hilariously staged by director/choreographer Karen Bruce.
Bruce keeps the action fluid, using a versatile, stylised set (by Morgan Large) and a plethora of amusing props and ideas. Sian Reeves stalks around like a crab with a loudhailer as puritanical Mayor Matilda, the nominal villain of the piece – you may know what’s coming but it’s fun seeing it happen. Shaun Williamson is in great form as Natalie’s dad, Jim, a lonely widower; his singing voice is perfect for Elvis numbers and he uses his physicality to comic effect.
But it is Mica Paris who takes the honours as sassy bar owner Sylvia. Her delivery of sardonic one-liners is spot on and, of course, her singing is stupendous. I got chills, they’re multiplying – oops, wrong show.
Love Me Tender is non-stop entertainment, proper feel-good fun from start to roof-raising finish.
Mica Paris and Shaun Williamson (Photo: Johan Persson)
Leave a comment | tags: Aretha Ayah, Ben Lewis, Birmingham, Elvis Presley, Felix Mosse, Karen Bruce, Kate Tydman, Laura Tebbutt, Love Me Tender, Mark Anderson, Mica Paris, Morgan Large, New Alexandra Theatre, review, Shaun Williamson, Sian Reeves | posted in Theatre Review
COOKING WITH ELVIS
Derby Theatre, Tuesday 30th April, 2013
Derby Theatre puts itself on the theatrical map with this production of Lea Hall’s raucous black comedy, the theatre’s first home-produced show. The venue has a history of excellence in its produced work (I remember some superb Sondheims, astonishing Ayckbourns, and a gem of a Treasure Island) but with the recent chequered past now firmly behind it, the place will go from strength to strength if the quality of this production is anything to go by.
The action takes place in a suburban house, gloriously depicted in Hayley Grindle’s two-storey set: a living room and kitchen with stairs leading up to a landing and a teenager’s bedroom. The teenager is Jill, our narrator and scene-announcer for the evening. Played with verve by Laura Elsworthy, Jill is a 14 year-old with an interest in cookery that borders on obsession. She despairs of her English teacher mother, who glams herself up and brings home strange men to satisfy her sexual needs. Polly Lister is ‘Mam’, a plain-speaking bully, masking her guilt and vulnerability with mouthing-off and heavy drinking. The strange man she brings home at the start of the play is Stuart (Adam Barlow) who works in a cake factory. Within seconds she has ordered him to strip to his underpants – this is no subtle comedy of manners, but an in-your-face sex comedy with graphic scenes and colourful language. It is absolutely hilarious.
Why does Mam bring these creatures home? The answer is painfully present in the shape of her paralysed husband. Brain-damaged in a car accident, Dad can do nothing for himself, and has to be brought on and (nudge, wink) brought off. It’s a sobering portrayal from Jack Lord but then – and this lifts the piece out of the macabre – Dad has a nifty line in Elvis Presley impersonation. He springs from his chair to link and underscore scenes with songs of The King in a range of impressive outfits. Jack Lord is nothing short of sublime.
Mark Babych pitches the tone just right and directs his excellent quartet to keep energy levels high and the characterisations just short of caricature. This kind of farcical, rather outré plot requires a broad style of playing, but also we have to accept and go along with these characters for the ride or else it would just descend into prurience and bad taste. Adam Barlow’s Stuart is sweet – for a drip – and he becomes both predator and prey as he worms his way under the table (well, on top of it!); Polly Lister is fierce and brittle, but the evening belongs to Laura Elsworthy as the young girl who goes through a rite of passage in less than ideal circumstances, guiding us from scene to scene and setting the tone for the entire piece.
The play is a kind of mash-up of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle in terms of content and delivery, and yet has a charm of its own. Beyond the foul language and the sex on the dining table, there is real heart to the piece, and a mother and daughter who both experience a healing. Life’s not about the tragedies, Jill concludes, it’s about the tiny moments that keep us going in the dark, the smiles.
By the curtain call, you will be grinning and clapping along to Jack Lord’s closing number. You may even be on your feet and joining in the party. It is shows of this calibre that keep us going in the dark.
Polly Lister gets to grips with Adam Barlow
1 Comment | tags: Adam Barlow, Cooking With Elvis, Derby Theatre, Elvis Presley, Hayley Grindle, Jack Lord, Laura Elsworthy, Lee Hall, Mark Babych, Polly Lister, review | posted in Theatre Review