Tag Archives: musical theatre

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)

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The old razzle dazzle

CHICAGO
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Saturday 19th May, 2012

I’ve seen this Kander and Ebb musical three times now on stage over the years and it still puzzles me. If I didn’t enjoy the score I wouldn’t keep going back. The songs are wonderful, in a Vaudeville style, and the onstage band, dominating the performance space, blare out delight after delight. “All That Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle” are among the highlights.

But…

The musical is based on a play based on a novel based on real-life newspaper reports of notorious women in Chicago in the 1920s. The action takes place largely in a women’s prison although the Spartan set represents a jazz club where the men, bare-chested in skimpy leather waistcoats seem overdressed compared to the women. The style is Brechtian – scenes are announced, cast members interact with the always visible musical director, and there are elements of Kurt Weill present in the music. It always reminds me of Wedekind’s Lulu plays in its portrayal of women degraded by men, whose only outlet is crime and in particular murder.

The cast currently touring features alumni from television soaps. There is Ali Bastian (formerly of The Bill and Hollyoaks) as Roxie Hart, homicidal adulteress hell-bent on becoming famous, demonstrating her terpsichorean aptitude and playing against type very effectively. Tupele Dorgu, who used to squabble in an underwear factory on Coronation Street, is a leggy, brassy Velma Kelly, and by far the best one in the troupe. Stefan Booth (also off of Hollyoaks) as debonair lawyer Billy Flynn, reveals a deep, smooth crooning voice that is very easy on the ear.

But…

Even though the performance is bursting with energy and the material shot through with humour and catchy songs, I can’t help wondering what it’s all about. As a satire on what people will do to achieve celebrity it has been superseded by reality television and (no) talent competitions. The alienation devices do their job. We are kept at a distance from the characters and do not engage with them emotionally. Therefore, we are expected to consider the events played out before us from an intellectual standpoint. This is where my problem lies. On stage, the characters celebrate their lifestyle, revelling in their ability to corrupt and manipulate the legal process and the malleable media. It’s not a good advertisement for the human race. It is all ironic, of course. But what are we meant to think and/or do about it? What message are we meant to come away with? The Leveson Inquiry springs to mind, showing that these attitudes persist in the world today but on the whole I felt like the little boy watching the naked emperor parade by. Please feel free to enlighten me via the comments box.

At the end, the full house was clapping and cheering. So was I. You cannot help but admire such a high quality performance from a talented and energetic company. On the way out, people were talking about the performers but not the content. I was earwigging the conversation of a group of women who got on my train as they compared notes on the show. They’d enjoyed the showing but nothing was said of the telling. With no moments of real impact, emotional or intellectual, Chicago is a string of Vaudeville numbers, linked by a plot that has no real relevance. The lyrics to “Razzle Dazzle” sum it all up for me. When flash takes precedence over substance, you might be momentarily diverted but ultimately unsatisfied.

I don’t think I’ll see it again. It’s nothing to make a song and dance about.


Boys Behaving Badly

OLIVER!
Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 29th March, 2012

Done to death by school and am-dram productions and overly familiar from the film version, Lionel Bart’s Oliver! remains the quintessential British musical – it takes a high quality professional production such as this to remind us of the fact.

It begins in the workhouse. It is dark and grim. The kids are drilled, militarised, and live under a reign of terror. They subsist on meagre gruel and can only dream (and sing) about the kind of fare enjoyed by the elite. But the kids’ spirit is not broken. They push forward one of their number to demand an improvement in their conditions. When Oliver Twist utters the immortal line, “Please, sir, I want some more” he is speaking out against the system and its inadequacies. Of course this is not viewed as a legitimate grievance and the boy is swiftly removed from the situation – he is sold off to anyone who’ll stump up the asking price. There will be no revolution. We follow Oliver and his descent into the criminal underworld although he is largely a cipher. Things happen to him not because of his actions or decisions. The only time Oliver is proactive is when he runs away from the undertakers who bought him – he rejects his ill treatment in their hands. Rather than tacitly accept it, he flees to London and puts himself in danger of his life. From this point on, he is a victim of circumstance and of other people. It’s far from the best role in it and the character can come across as insipid. In the performance I saw, the Oliver (Sebastian Croft) only really showed any spark when he was singing. “Where is Love?” was particularly strong.

Mr Bumble (Jack Edwards) and Widow Corney (Suzie Chard) make a strong impression in their scenes together. At first they are flirtatious, not bothering to disguise their mutual sexual attraction. This is contrasted later when after only two weeks of married life, their antipathy and hatred are just as palpable. They epitomise the spirit of this Cameron Mackintosh production. There is a playful smuttiness to the stage business; the sordid and seamy sides of life are very much in evidence, and it is so refreshing. The show buzzes with an energy that keeps it alive. Some of the numbers are played at a faster tempo than is usual and it works. The production feels fresh but doesn’t take liberties with the source material.

Oliver encounters the Artful Dodger (Max Greisbach – who has nailed the accent but not the delivery. He’s like a tiny William Shatner doing Dick Van Dyke doing EastEnders), who takes him to Fagin, played, I shit you not, by Neil Morrissey.

Yes. Neil Morrissey. Neil. Morrissey.

And he’s bloody good too. Fagin is on the surface a despicable figure, fencing stolen goods, exploiting children for ill-gotten gains. There is no way in hell he would pass a CRB check. His main source of income appears to be the “nose rags” picked from pockets of the well-to-do. All hanky and no panky. Fagin is a parental figure to his gang of boys. The symbiosis is mutually beneficial. The scenes in his den contrast with the state-sanctioned conditions in the workhouse. In Dickens, this is a comment on society, a clarion call. In this musical, it’s all a bit of fun.

Morrissey shines. He looks like Bill Bailey, fallen on hard times and having contracted a wasting disease. He’s in good voice and the characterisation presents a rounded figure. “Reviewing the Situation” is nigh on perfect.

There is only one moment they should cut: Fagin is playing with his jewels, the hoard he has put by for his old age and there is an inevitable in-joke, a reference to Bob the Builder. It’s unnecessary. Morrissey has won us over and proved his mettle long before this point; we don’t need to be reminded of his former “glory”. Soon, the role will be taken over by Brian Conley – I wonder if his “It’s a puppet” catchphrase will somehow be shoehorned in and I shudder.

Samantha Barks is an earthy Nancy, who clings to her abusive boyfriend because he at least brings a sense of stability to her existence. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the character’s willingness to suffer physical and mental abuse, with my latter-day sensibilities and all that, but “As Long As He Needs Me” is the highlight of the show. Barks’s vocal punches you in the gut and tears your heart out. It is stunning.

Evil stalks the stage in the figure of Bill Sikes, (an excellent Iain Fletcher), a sinister psychopathic brute. Stephen Moore is the kindly, upright counterpart, Mr Brownlow, who, thanks to Dickensian plot contrivance, turns out to be Oliver’s grandfather.

The crowd scenes are spectacular and, with choreography by Matthew Bourne, no one hooks their thumbs behind their lapels. The cliché is avoided but our expectations are met and exceeded by this fresh and invigorating look at a well-worn classic show.


Real Depth

SOUTH PACIFIC
Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Tuesday 6th March, 2012


Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1949 musical is currently doing the rounds and retains much of its progressive nature. We may have grown accustomed to the use of swearwords on stage and screen – since Jerry Springer: the Opera, nothing surprises me anymore – but here Bloody Mary’s repetition of “stingy bastards” is at once funny and revealing. The language of the “SeaBees” – tame by today’s standards – gives the script an authenticity; I won’t say “realism” because it’s a musical, for gawd’s sake.

The score is the star. So many of the songs have leached into popular consciousness: “Going To Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, “Happy Talk” and the sublime “Bali Hai” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” Romantic, dramatic and funny, the score lifts the story of American naval forces stationed on a tiny island during World War Two into something to which we can all relate. There is a bit of plot about a behind-enemy-lines mission and a love story between a nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush and a French planter (a man not a flowerbed). The twist is she has a wobble when she discovers he has two kids from his first marriage, and when she realises the deceased first wife was a native of the islands and had dark skin, our sympathies towards her are tested. The show challenges the idea of racism as something innate. The song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” could easily be the anthem for anti-hatred campaigns today. This is a musical with sweeping romance, peril and real depth, much like the eponymous ocean.

As Nellie Forbush, Rebecca Thornhill sings well and presents a likeable character – until her prejudices are revealed. She becomes a more abashed figure as she tries to make amends, befriending the mixed race children when it is presumed their father has been killed. Matthew Cammelle’s Emile De Becque has a rich, deep voice that is like being drowned in dark chocolate. His “Some Enchanted Evening” was a highlight for me. I also took to Loretta Ables Sayre plodding around the stage as Tonkinese opportunist Bloody Mary. She provides most of the comic relief yet her bewilderment at her daughter’s abandonment by the American lieutenant is surprisingly touching. Stand-out in my view is Alex Fearns as irrepressibly cocky wide boy Luther Billis, an energetic and endearing performance: his gravelly voice and brassy demeanour mask his genuine affection for Nellie Forbush.

The final moments of reunion and reconciliation between Nellie and Emile were a little too understated, I found. Tacit acceptance and domesticity didn’t sweep me away in a wave of romance.


Criminally Bland

LEGALLY BLONDE

Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Thursday 29th September, 2011

 

When I heard that a film I didn’t really enjoy had been adapted as a stage musical, I did not break my neck in the rush to get a ticket.  Now the show is well-established in the West End and a touring production is doing the rounds, so I thought I’d give it a go.  Most of the details of the film had long since faded from memory so I was just about coming to it fresh.

 

The plot centres on one woman’s struggle to succeed at snooty Harvard Law School but she faces prejudice and is met with resistance because she has blonde hair and carries a little dog in a bag.  The poor cow.  Her motivation for getting a law degree is merely  so she can follow the prig who dumped her and sit in the same class. Her father agrees to fund this ill-conceived desire for education without so much as a shrug.

 

This is Elle Wood’s struggle.

 

It’s hardly Evita, is it?

 

This is the problem with the musical.  The first half is all about setting her up in class so that she can rapidly rise to the top, using style tips as the answers to legal conundrums. (Conundra?)  And it’s all a bit “meh” and “who cares?”  The score doesn’t help.  Act One is like one endless meandering song, weak on melody and lacking in variety of tone and tempo.  A shrieking choir of sorority girls follows Elle to Harvard, in her mind as a Greek chorus.  The shrillness is unrelenting.

 

But Act Two is like a completely different show.  The songs are punchy and funny.  The action, dominated by a murder trial at which Elle and her classmates are gaining work experience, is lively and hilarious.  There is more fun in two minutes of this second half than in the whole of the first.  The show revels in its own shallowness, almost sending itself up.  If the first half had had more of this spoof quality to it, exaggerating Elle’s blondness into a disability, like being legally blind, then the entire evening would have been very entertaining.

 

Its message (and there is one) is that you can’t take a shower with a new perm.  No, it’s that appearances are important.  They can be deceiving (the dizzy blonde is the most intelligent of the bunch; the witness for the prosecution is really a gay).  That there is no real struggle, no real jeopardy for our heroine doesn’t matter when the show is performed with exuberance and talent.  What is criminal is that the likeable and capable cast only get to shine in half a show.