Tag Archives: Michael Stewart

Tapping Into Joy

42nd STREET

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, Saturday 10th November, 2018

 

Originally a novel and then a movie to bring light to the darkness of the Great Depression, this triumphant stage adaptation is irresistible fun.  It takes the escapism of the American dream to Broadway, in this showbiz musical about the staging of a Broadway musical.  Talented but gauche chorine, Peggy Sawyer, gets her big break when the star of the show gets a little break – to her ankle – and so a star is born.  Because anyone can make it, if they are talented, work hard, and have a generous helping of luck.  So the American myth goes, anyway.

From the raising of the curtain, revealing a host of dancing feet, the show exhilarates and delights.  The production numbers are on the grand scale – this must be the largest chorus in town – the songs are standards and the script by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is wryly witty.  In short, the show is an unadulterated joy.

As the lucky, plucky chorine, Clare Halse is spectacularly good, tap-dancing like a machine gun and singing like an angel.  She is more than a match for her predecessor, the mighty Bonnie Langford, giving a masterclass in musical theatre as egotistical diva Dorothy Brock.  Langford is star quality personified, and this is a return to her roots after her dowdy and emotional stint in EastEndersEmmerdale’s Tom Lister barks and throws his weight around as producer Julian Marsh; he has a good singing voice on him too.  Yes, the roles are cliched, but these three bring credibility to the scantiness of their characters’ development.

It’s an absolute treat to see romantic lead Ashley Day (for whom I have a pure and boundless love), in his element here as the cheesy, cocky Billy Lawlor, moving with grace, acting with humour and crooning like a dreamboat.

Bruce Montague waddles on and off in a broadly played comic turn as the show’s financer, Abner Dillon.  Jasna Ivir and Christopher Howell provide plenty of laughs as the show’s writers and comic duo.

The show would be nothing, though, without the impressive machine that is the chorus, a multitude of individuals who come together and move as one in breath-taking routines.  The timing is flawless, the choreography (by Randy Skinner) is both energising and exhausting to behold.  Tap-dancing always thrills me but this display goes above and beyond!

In these times of the prolonged agonies of the Austerity lie, and the uncertainties of impending Brexit, this production is a real tonic, sheer entertainment to make a song and dance about – if you can afford a ticket, of course!

ashley day 42nd Street

The wonderful Ashley Day and some of the boys

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Tapping Into Talent

42nd STREET

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 13th August, 2015

Stage Experience is an intensive two-week programme in which youngsters from across the region rehearse a full-scale production and have it fit for public consumption in a proper theatre. Hot on the heels of last year’s rip-roaring success, Footloose, comes this toe-tapping classic musical, where the score (by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) is better known with standard following standard. Also, the book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is a lot of fun, bubbling with witty one-liners and amusing incidents. But does the young cast, like leading lady Peggy Sawyer herself, rise to the challenge of learning a show in no time at all and, in the process, make a star of herself?

You betcha!

From the opening, when the curtain rises to reveal a dense forest of legs all moving in step, and the rat-a-tat of tap shoes beats a tattoo, you know you are in for an exhilarating experience. There is something wonderful about tap-dancing but to see and hear it en masse is something else. And this is just the opening number!

Out of the hundred and ten performers – all of whom act with discipline and focus – individuals emerge. Mollie-Anna Riley is appropriately superior as the diva Dorothy Brock. Katie Gladwin impresses as the show’s ‘writer’ Maggie, with a mature performance that belies her young years and lack of previous experience. Matt Pidgeon is hypnotically good as tenor and head hoofer Billy Lawlor – this boy can dance and has a singing voice in keeping with the period of the piece. There is strong support from Kieran Palmer as Dorothy’s love interest, Pat Denning, Nicholas Jones as choreographer Andy Lee, and Chris Johnstone as Bert.

As the chorus girl getting her big break, Caprice Lane shines – despite a ropey wig – to bring out Peggy Sawyer’s talent, drive and clumsiness. We know, because of plot reasons, she’s going to succeed, but we still root for her just the same. Lane’s tap-dancing is second-to-none and she imbues the character with charm and humour.

The incomparable Mark Shaun Walsh plays Julian Marsh, the authoritarian director of the show-within-the-show. The accent is spot on – we expect nothing less – but Walsh portrays the tension of the character through his posture and delivery. We have to wait until well into the second act to be treated to his West End-quality singing voice, for the iconic Lullaby of Broadway. He also closes the show with a solo rendition of the title song and it gives you chills. This young man ought to have a stellar career ahead of him.

The show is a lot of fun – amusing material superbly presented. The stage can seem a little crowded at times, with the huge chorus crammed onto the apron, but the sea of bodies on the full stage is a spectacle in itself. Apart from the plethora of dodgy blonde wigs and a few missed microphone cues, everything is of such high quality, you’d think they’d been working on it since the curtain came down on their previous production.

Director and choreographer Pollyann Tanner works her magic once more and brings out the best in her enthusiastic and talented crowd. I’m already looking forward to next year’s offering.

42


The Circus of Life

BARNUM

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 29th January, 2015

Coleman and Stewart’s 1980 musical is back on the road, given the kind of treatment you might expect of a Kander & Ebb.   Stylised staging suggests the circus ring – the arena in which events in the life of showman Phineas T Barnum will take place. A chorus of supple and talented performers display impressive circus skills – they sing well and dance well; it’s good to see a company of this size touring the provinces. Their energy is infectious.

But I’m afraid the show doesn’t pack the punch it thinks it does. With very few characters, it boils down to a portrait of Barnum’s marriage, including an affair with Swedish nightingale, Jenny Lind. For me, the style of presentation keeps me at too much of a distance to care much at all.

There is nothing I can say against the performers. British showman Brian Conley is a perfect fit as the eponymous American showman. His own personality comes through – especially when interacting with the audience. “It’s a puppet,” some wag shouts as soon as Conley appears. “Not tonight,” he drawls. He is completely in control – and if force of personality were not enough, he has acquired a range of skills hitherto unseen: he conjures flowers, he eats fire and so on. He walks a tightrope, literally and metaphorically, between his wife and his mistress.

As the long-suffering but eminently supportive Mrs B, Linzi Hateley is a sweet and calming influence. I would like more solo numbers for her. She contrasts nicely with the ethereal, almost glacial Jenny Lind (Kimberley Blake, who sings like a – well, a nightingale, while being hoist aloft on a perch).

Mikey Jay-Heath is an effervescent Tom Thumb with a firecracker of a musical number, lighting up the stage with razzle dazzle; clever staging plays around with scale most effectively. Similarly, Landi Oshinowo makes her mark as the world’s oldest woman Joice Heth, before appearing as a blues singer, giving the action emotion that perhaps isn’t already present.

It’s a likeable production of a so-so musical. It’s the pizazz and razzamatazz that you enjoy. Like Barnum’s attractions themselves, when you see it for what it is, it’s a humbug. It’s like opening the most fancily wrapped present to find the wrapping is more attractive than the gift.

BARNUM-press-image-February-2014