Tag Archives: Irving Berlin

Movie Musical

THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 15th October, 2015

 

It is commonplace these days to adapt popular films for the stage, often as musicals. Here the 1957 Ealing Comedy (which starred Peter Sellars and Margaret Rutherford) gets the jukebox musical treatment but all the songs are written by the great Irving Berlin. Standards like Blue Skies and What’ll I Do flesh out the action of this utterly charming period piece.

Struggling screenwriter Matthew Spencer (Haydn Oakley) inherits a cinema in a provincial town. The place is on its uppers, thanks to the underhand tricks of the owners of rival cinema, the Grand. Spencer and his wife Jean (Laura Pitt-Pulford) plan to tart up their picture house in order to get a better offer from the rivals, Albert and Ethel Hardcastle. But the Spencers soon find themselves emotionally attached to the old place and the Hardcastles have a fight on their hands.

It’s all good, clean fun, steeped in the sepia tones of nostalgia and brought to life by a likeable and energetic ensemble. Haydn Oakley is a rich-throated crooner but the superb Laura Pitt-Pulford steals the limelight – her solos are showstoppers and a treat for the ears. Matthew Crowe is delightful as camp solicitor-turned-drag-artiste Robin Carter and Ricky Butt is suitably booable as the snooty and conniving Ethel. Sam O’Rourke’s naïve Tom, a walking encyclopedia of cinematic trivia and the Hardcastles’ lovely daughter Marlene (Christina Bennington) bring the house down with Steppin’ Out With My Baby, in which Lee Proud’s choreography brings to mind the wonderful Gene Kelly.

Liza Goddard brings comedy and melancholy as Mrs Fazackerlee, former silent movie pianist, while Brian Capron (having abandoned teaching woodwork at Grange Hill comp) manages to be both scruffy and dashing as drunken projectionist Percy Quill. Musical Director Mark Aspinall and the rest of his sextet play sublimely the irresistible jazz arrangements and swing rhythms of the superior-quality score. David Woodhead’s set evokes the shabby grandeur of the picture house, enhanced by atmospheric lighting designed by Howard Hudson.

Director Thom Southerland captures the innocence of the era, delivering a feel-good piece that’s all warm and cosy like slipping into a warm bath.  It’s sweet, funny and charming, an unadulterated delight.  And there’s nothing wrong with that for a great night out at the theatre. You may also read more into it, if you’re that way inclined. The piece reeks of ‘British values’ in the best possible sense: fair play and rooting for the underdog, decency, loyalty and pulling together in the face of underhand tactics and dirty tricks.  The villains of the piece are those who seek to make profits by whatever means they deem necessary – and that’s something worth keeping in mind in these days under a government inebriated by the will to privatise everything they can get their mitts on.

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The Whole Shooting Match

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 1st July 2014

 

Irving Berlin’s classic musical is given a fresh makeover in this touring production.

Herbert and Dorothy Fields’s script still crackles with funny one-liners but new additions by Peter Stone give the show a slightly Brechtian feel, with the theatricality of the production laid bare, and scenes announced as they are set up.  It’s like a palatable version of Chicago – here the characters have at least one redeeming quality if they’re not out-and-out lovable.    The score contains standards everyone knows: There’s No Business Like Show Business is a gem of an opening number and recurring motif, and Anything You Can Do is a comic highlight.

Set in Buffalo Bill’s Big Top, the story of the rivalry and romance between Frank Butler (Jason Donovan) and Annie Oakley (Emma Williams) is played out, with only crates and cases for scenery, and the band and other cast members on stage throughout.  Billowing red and white striped cloths evoke the circus tent, but rather than alienating us, these devices draw us in.

Norman Pace looks hale and hearty as Southern gentleman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody – in his white suit and goatee you expect him to crack out the fried chicken at any second.  Jason Donovan looks great in Butler’s clothes (he should wear them all the while – when he’s not in his Joseph loincloth, of course!) and his characterisation works well.  I feel he lacks the vocal power at times to match Butler’s blowhard posturing – although I did hear his mic crackle a couple of times, so perhaps that explains it.

Lorna Want and Yiftach Mizrahi are charming as young lovers in a mixed-race subplot, and as Want’s elder showgirl sister Dolly, Kara Lane struts around splendidly as the show’s nominal villain.  There is strong character support from Dermot Canavan as hotel owner Wilson and Cody’ rival showman Pawnee Bill, while Ed Currie towers over the proceedings as a dignified but funny Sitting Bull.

The show belongs, though, to Emma Williams’s Annie Oakley.  From her entrance as a scruffy, cross-dressing trapper/hunter to her transformation into a star through the magic and machinations of show business, she is superb.  Her characterisation is broad but it works beautifully and her singing voice is by far the best in the company.  You admire the performer and care for the character in this vibrant and engaging treatment of a heart-warming, old school musical that hits every target.

 

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Emma Williams, Jason Donovan and Norman Pace


Old Hat

TOP HAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 5th September, 2011

 

This brand-new stage adaptation of the 1935 Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film has quality running through it like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock.  Lavish, art deco sets (thirty scene changes!) sumptuous costume design, a large company on the stage and an equally large orchestra underneath it.  Money has been spent on this production to an extent rarely seen in a show that’s touring the provinces.

 

The plot, like something P G Wodehouse might have scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet, is paper-thin and the characters are a bit one-note – unlike the score.  Irving Berlin’s back catalogue has been raided to beef up the set list (there are only five songs in the original movie) and it plays like a “Best of” tribute show.

 

There is nothing overtly political about the show – other than its very existence.  In times of economic hardship, the masses seek out glamour and fluff for entertainment, as a means of temporary escape from the struggles and despondency of everyday life.  That Top Hat is donned again in this day and age, when belts are tight and the world is going to hell in a Tesco trolley is a true sign of the times.

 

But does it work?  It is joyously and unabashedly old-fashioned.  The script is riddled with jokes cornier than even I would post on Twitter.  The only note of cynicism is reserved for a running commentary on the estate of marriage.  Gradually, the show wins you over.  The second act, set in Venice, is far more fun than the first, as silliness and high camp are given full rein.   One learns to sit back and watch it un-ironically and accept it for what it is: an upmarket Christmas cracker, with groan-inducing humour and a bit of tinsel around your paper crown.

 

 

For me it was the songs, those glorious songs, that kept me hooked.  The two leads never quite manage to dazzle in the same way as Fred & Ginger, and how could they? But the melodies and the 1930s arrangements are indeed sublime. Irving Berlin may not have been as consistent a lyrical genius as Cole Porter, but he didn’t half churn out some classics. “Cheek To Cheek” is one of the best songs ever written, and its performance, suitably crooned and hoofed by Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen was for me the highlight of this glittering soufflé of a show.