Tag Archives: musical

Private Moments

YANK!

Charing Cross Theatre, London, Wednesday 16th August, 2017

 

With music by Joseph Zellnik and book and lyrics by David Zellnik, this World War II love story has a timely relevance its creators perhaps did not foresee.  A young man finds a journal in a San Francisco junk shop.  In it he reads the story of journalist Stu (Scott Hunter) who reported for Yank, the army’s in-house magazine during the War – after having met handsome Mitch (Andy Coxon) while undergoing basic training.  The pair strike up a friendship that develops – thanks to long periods without female company – into something more.  Mitch is far from at ease, confused by his love for Stu, and the pair split until events conspire to reunite them and also threaten to finish them off for good.

The pair are so appealing, the playing so tender in contrast with the barrack room banter of the rest of the squad, you can’t help rooting for them.  What these privates do with their privates has to be kept private.  There is also an underlying dread that things will not end happily for these stars-and-stripes-crossed lovers.

Scott Hunter is marvellous as our sensitive and vulnerable narrator, gaining strength in his sense of identity and confidence in his sexuality, while Andy Coxon both looks and sounds bloody gorgeous as hunky heartthrob Mitch (I want one!).

They are supported by a talented and versatile squad, among whom are Kris Marc-Joseph, who adds a touch of humour as Czechowski, Bradley Judge as handsome Italian Rotelli, and Waylon Jacobs impresses as a tough-talking Sarge and as the effeminate, drawling ‘Scarlett’.  Ostensibly the villain of the piece, Lee Dillon-Stuart’s redneck Tennessee is the ugly face (no offence) of homophobia – although, of course, the real baddie is the institutionalised discrimination against gays in the military (and society as a whole).  Sarah-Louise Young appears in all the female roles (there were lesbians in the US army!  Who knew?!) and she gets to knock out some of the show’s finest torch songs.  Chris Kiely is also in great form as photographer Artie, who opens Stu’s eyes (among other things…)

The melodic score is heavily influenced by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with some 1940s touches for added authenticity –  at times the harmonies are very Andrews Sisters.  The lyrics are witty and sophisticated, and the plot engages us emotionally at first and then intellectually.  We must remember those who fought and/or died to preserve our freedom as well as those who paved the way for civil rights.  How depressing then to live in an age when the Bigot-in-Chief at the White House bans trans people from the armed forces!  Homophobic attacks are on the rise.  The fight for equality and against oppressive shitheads continues.

This beautiful, poignant, funny and rousing show touched my heart, drained my tear ducts and made my hands sore from clapping.  A real pleasure to see (thanks to Chris Cuming’s lively choreography) and to hear (take a bow, MD James Cleeve and his unseen band).  Director James Baker balances tension with humour, tenderness with menace, to engage us with this powerful story.  Small in scale yet immense in scope, Yank! is a strong contender for my favourite show of the year.

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Lip service: Andy Coxon and Scott Hunter (Photo: Claire Bilyard)

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Heartache and Hockey Sticks

CRUSH

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 9th September, 2015

 

Set in 1963 this new musical by Maureen Chadwick and Kath Gotts takes us to the world of the all girls’ boarding school. Think Malory Towers and St Trinian’s. Think Bunty. This seam has already been mined theatrically by shows like Daisy Pulls It Off but Big Broad Productions push the envelope further: amid the gym slips, navy knickers and midnight feasts, a schoolgirl crush turns out to be the real thing. Threatened with expulsion for her ‘unnatural’ behaviour in the Art room, Susan Smart runs away to London with Camilla, the object of her affections, only to find that she has set her heart on the wrong girl. Susan is devastated to the point of suicide but a fleeting encounter in a dream sequence set in an underground club for lesbians, shows her life is worth living after all.

It’s a cri du coeur and shot in the arm for any LGBT audience member. Susan is ahead of her time in her resolution to stay true to her heart and reaps the rewards, in true musical tradition, for sticking to her guns. Meanwhile the rest of the school is under duress; the newly appointed headmistress Miss Bleacher is draconian, to say the least, removing Art and team sports from the curriculum. The girls are not there to develop themselves and realise their potential; they are merely breeding stock to produce the future sons of England. And so the play is a battle cry for progressive, rounded education. The girls, led by favourite teacher Miss Austin, seek to overthrow the tyrant and restore the principles of the school’s founder.

It’s great fun and riddled with catchy songs with witty lyrics. What is especially pleasing is the variety within the score, rather than trotting out the same tune over and over. The almost exclusively female cast perform with verve and charm. Stephanie Clift is excellent as the troubled Susan, who may be naïve but her cares are no less heartfelt. Georgia Oldman is great as teacher’s pet and school sneak Brenda, while Brianna Ogunbawo impresses as lovelorn Daimler – she has a solo in the dream sequence that is a definite highlight for me. Sara Crowe is in her element as plucky spinster Miss Austin, while Rosemary Ashe is on top form as the cruel and scary Miss Bleacher. She is a villain we love to hate.

The only male member (!) of the cast is the versatile James Meunier, appearing as a cheeky Cockney chappie of an odd job man, and –another highlight – as female impersonator Marlene (Dietrich, no less) in the fantastical nightclub. Kirsty Malpass is also good fun as substitute Games teacher, Miss Givings – the tap dance with hockey sticks sticks in my memory.

Director Anna Linstrum gets the tone just right and Richard Roe’s choreography offers many delights. It’s a consistently amusing piece, Kath Gotts’s pleasant songs never outstay their welcome, Maureen Chadwick’s book has silliness and a smattering of innuendo, and the lively cast is perfectly charming.  The catchy and varied score is performed by a tight ensemble led by MD Helen Ireland

What lets it down somewhat is the set. Cut-outs represent the school and other pieces of scenery, as though they were illustrations in a novel or a comic of this genre. I get the idea but unfortunately they look like pencil sketches, drab and unfinished. Later scenes in London add colour, supporting the vibrancy of the performers. I think the pencil sketches need inking in at least!

With something to say about the nature and purpose of education as well as the experience of LGBT teenagers, Crush is never preachy or ‘right on’ and deserves a wider audience. The emphasis is on fun and what shines through is a gently mocking affection for the genre that inspired it.

Hurrah!  Sara Crowe leads the girls to battle  (Photo: Robert Day)

Hurrah! Sara Crowe leads the girls to battle (Photo: Robert Day)


Putting the Hit in Hitler

THE PRODUCERS

New Theatre, Oxford, Saturday 4th July, 2015

 

There are many musicals around that originated as films. This is surely the best of such a bunch – mainly because the source material is so good but also because the original writer, Mel Brooks, made the adaptation himself including writing the songs. In his films, Brooks’s songs are invariably parodies but here he gives us a ‘proper’ Broadway score – heavily drenched in humour, of course.

The plot involves hopeless Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Cory English in the role he was born for) who teams up with hyper-neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (stand-up comic Jason Manford – a revelation!) to engineer a surefire misfire of a show in order to make off with a million dollars apiece. They search for the worst script, hire the worst director and raise the funds via Bialystock’s sideline as a gigolo for the old ladies of New York. The show they produce is a ‘gay romp’ about Adolf Hitler. The show is non-stop funny and gives not a hoot for political correctness. And the score is heaving with catchy tunes and witty lyrics.

As Bialystock, English is a powerhouse, hurling himself around the stage. You’ll never see a funnier heart attack. His number about betrayal treats us to a manic, potted recap of the entire show that is a wonder and a joy to behold.

Jason Manford surprises with his characterisation of the tightly wound Bloom and his singing voice. I come away thoroughly impressed; he should do more musical theatre.

As the flamboyant director Roger De Bris, David Bedella is utterly fabulous, camper than all your Christmases come at once, twinkling and striking poses. De Bris’s portrayal of the Fuhrer is an absolute hoot – Brooks is big on mocking Hitler and the Nazis as a strong weapon against Fascism. If we make fun of tyrants we diminish their power. If we hold them up for lampoonery, we undermine their position. The show-within-the show, Springtime For Hitler is a lot of fun. Glittering swastikas and chorines dressed as Panzer tanks are just the icing on the cake of this festival of bad taste.

As crazed playwright Franz Liebkind, our most surreal stand-up Ross Noble makes his musical theatre debut in a high-energy performance that is as hilarious as it is scary. Wildly staring, shouting and stomping, Liebkind is the swivel-eyed right wing lunatic of today, rewriting the past, bullying others into his point of view – the kind of person that deserves only ridicule. Noble is superbly committed to this larger-than-life caricature and I would love to see him tackle other, perhaps subtler roles.

Tiffany Graves’s vowel-mangling Swedish actress, dancer and receptionist Ulla wrings comedy out of every pout, wiggle and demonstration of the splits. What’s funny is the men’s reactions in a comic tradition that goes back to the Ancient Greeks where human foibles, like lust (and greed) are held up for derision.

There is energetic support from a lively and versatile chorus. The laughs keep coming but there is also, in true musical style, a moment of emotional revelation and a happy ending. Brooks celebrates the genre while poking fun. The result is an unalloyed delight.

Jason Manford and Cory English producing the goods (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Jason Manford and Cory English producing the goods (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Conscious Coupling

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 3rd April, 2014

 

It may surprise you to know that this musical originated as a film – the much beloved film – and was later adapted for the stage. I came to it with high expectations – the film remains a constant joy to behold.

It tells the story of Millie who marries in haste and finds herself alone in a remote cabin with her husband’s half a dozen brothers for whom she is expected to cook and clean. It’s like Snow White meets the mountain men. She soon tames them and trains them in social niceties so that they will be suitable marriage material for the girls in the town. Whom they abduct and get holed up with, so to speak, for an entire winter.

A lot of the production gets it right. Thanks to the young and energetic company, the dancing is spectacular, mixing balletic motifs with folksy moves. The dance-off between the brothers and the townsfolk is the highlight of the evening.  As Millie, Helena Blackman has the best voice in the show, combining touches of Maria von Trapp with Annie Oakley. Sam Attwater’s Adam Pontipee doesn’t quite match her for vocal power. He is mucho handsome but isn’t old or domineering enough to convince as the boorish oldest brother.

Of the brothers, Jack Greaves is sweet as Gideon the youngest, while Sam Stones is a little too overbearing as Frank, playing it something like Animal of The Muppet Show. All of them are excellent hoofers – which can be said of the entire company – but some of their accents have more of a drawl than others. The brothers get their shirts off a couple of times – a welcome sight in what is invariably a rather dark set – dark as in dimly lit. We don’t really get an impression of the great Oregon outdoors.

My main grievance is with the adaptation which cuts a couple of Gene De Paul and Johnny Mercer’s best songs entirely. There is no Spring, Spring, Spring or the one about June brides, or When You’re In Love. Instead there are interpolations which don’t measure up. The wonderful Lonesome Polecat is ‘mashed up’ with one of these new numbers and doesn’t work. There is a half-hearted opening number which fails to do for Oregon what Rodgers and Hammerstein did for Oklahoma.

Fortunately, the exuberance of the cast is infectious and keeps you watching and enjoying. It’s an old-fashioned show and uncomplicated entertainment – it’s the latter-day tinkering and additions that let it down.

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Respect Your Elders

THE BOOK OF MORMON

Prince of Wales Theatre, Saturday 2nd November, 2013

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of anarchic animation South Park, have struck another rich vein of subversive humour in this hit musical about missionary work in Africa.  Young Mormon Elders, Price and Cunningham are sent to Uganda for two years to convert the locals.  It’s hardly Price’s first choice – he’d prefer Orlando, Florida – while Cunningham is just happy to be by Price’s side.  Their arrival quickly shows them that Africa is misrepresented by The Lion King, and a village of truculent natives is the least of their problems.  Along the way, Price’s faith is sorely tested, and annoying twerp Cunningham is given the opportunity to ‘man up’.

Despite its hilarious and controversial subject matter (debunking religion, addressing female genital mutilation…) as a musical, the show is very conventional.  The songs are tuneful and the lyrics are witty in a foul-mouthed Disney kind of way.  There is much of the spoof and the pastiche but its delights come from content rather than the form.

Gavin Creel is just about perfect as enthusiastic, egotistic, conceited Elder Price who learns a (very) painful lesson.  His voice is powerful and clear.  When he belts out ‘I believe’ it’s like a clarion call.  Jared Gertner is excellent as Elder Cunningham; insufferable, suffocating, and creepy at first, the elder gains courage in his convictions – albeit with some interpolations from George Lucas and Tolkien thrown in along the way.  Alexia Khadime’s Nabalungi is the heart of the story, longing for a better life; her song about Salt Lake City reminds me of Somewhere That’s Green from Little Shop of Horrors.

There is a chorus of happy, preppy Mormon boys, repressing their negative feelings, and there is a chorus of spirited Ugandans – their re-enactment of the founding of the Mormon religion is a highlight of cross-cultural mash-up, like an explicit and foul-mouthed Uncle Tom’s Cabin from The King & I.  In fact, there are many overt and covert references to other shows and popular culture throughout the evening.

There is strong support from Giles Terera as Mafala Hatimbi, Stephen Ashfield as Elder McKinley, and there is outrageous menace from Chris Jarman as local despot The General.

Good-natured, mocking and irreverent, The Book of Mormon is uplifting and energising.  Think Avenue Q meets Jerry Springer the Opera. There is a message of living well and being kind, without the made-up stories you might find in a book or even a trilogy of science fiction films.

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Act of worship: Jared Gestner idolises Gavin Creel.


Pact Houses

BLOOD BROTHERS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 29th April, 2013

It’s been years since I’ve seen Willy Russell’s incredibly successful musical and I have truly lost count of how many times I’ve seen it overall; so I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with its wit and melodrama.

Very little has changed.  There is a Nolan sister in the female lead as Mrs Johnstone (in this case it was Maureen but I think I’ve seen them all take a turn at least once) and the familiar redbrick terraced houses are still there – and this is because the show still works.  It doesn’t need a remould or touching up.  The sad fact is society has gone backwards to meet it: the social commentary has become piercingly pertinent all over again.

It begins with a rhyming prologue – a trick Willy Russell borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet – in which the whole plot is sketched out, heightening the inevitability of the tragedy to follow.

Mrs Johnstone, abandoned by her husband, struggles to feed her host of children.  They cry out in hunger and it’s no longer a ‘weren’t-times-tough’ kind of vibe.  Child poverty in this country is back in vogue, folks.  But Mrs Johnstone is no scrounger.  Drowning in debt to the catalogue company, she gets a job cleaning for a middle-class couple in a nicer part of town.  Suddenly, superstition comes into play.  An ill-advised and illegal pact between the women is doomed to failure and destruction.  Mrs Johnstone gives up one of her newborn twin sons to the childless Mrs Lyons.  Despite their mothers’ best efforts the boys meet and become friends – they make a pact, unwittingly mixing the blood they already share.

The scenes with the grown-up actors playing kids are what give the piece most of its humour and heart, and what attaches us to the protagonists.  We see the unfairness of their separation and, by extension, the inequalities in society reflected in their different upbringings.  Sean Jones is particularly good as Mickey, from age 7 running around to adulthood depression and desperation.  Daniel Taylor is good and scary as older brother Sammy, suddenly wilting into petulance when his mam insists he goes indoors, and I was particularly impressed by Olivia Sloyan’s Linda who transforms from little girl to teenage temptress to desperate housewife.

Tim Churchill stalks around as a casually malevolent Narrator, the external force commenting on the action and subtly manipulating it.  With superstition a recurring theme, we wonder who he is.  The Devil perhaps…

Maureen Nolan is in excellent voice as chirpy Mrs Johnstone – the explosive denouement still shocks and the final song is as devastating as ever .   Even if you’ve seen it before – and there were many people in the auditorium who keep going back time and time again.  Although it has finally closed in the West End, the show seems to be perennially on tour – you never have to wait long to get another fix of sardonic Scouse humour and witty lyrics, and it continues to do great business wherever it goes.

The Narrator poses the question directly to us: is it superstition or class that is behind the tragedy.  He asks us to look for real-life causes of poverty, injustice and oppression.  The class war is still very much with us and this 28 year old nostalgic story seems bang up-to-date and a little subversive.

Willy Russell’s feel-bad musical celebrates the humanity of the poor – something which is viciously overlooked by today’s coalition government.

Maureen Nolan and Sean Jones

Maureen Nolan and Sean Jones


Pan handling

FINDING NEVERLAND
Curve, Leicester, Wednesday 3rd October, 2012

This brand spanking new musical, fresh out of the box for its world premiere performance, tells the story of playwright J M Barrie and the events that led him to create one of the most enduring stories in popular fiction.
A shipload of money had been spent to bring this show to the stage. Production values are higher than the second star to the right. A lot of money and the latest technology to create a show that looks, sounds and feels old-fashioned – and I mean that in a good way.

From the beginning we are pulled into a world of storybook illustrations from the beginning of the 20th Century. It occurred to me – and it’s not an original thought – that the musical is a fantastical form to begin with – the conventions of bursting into song, of scenery gliding in and out – the characters are already in an enchanted world. So, when we enter the world of J M Barrie’s imagination, things had better be pretty spectacular or we won’t notice the difference.

Spectacular is only the half of it. There is a pirate ship that sails onto the stage to close the first act, that is absolutely beautiful. In fact, Scott Pask’s scenic design and Paul Wills’s costumes are superb, and the video projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington enhance the action rather than distracting from it.

The songs (by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel) reminded me of Robert & Richard Sherman, the brothers who wrote so many wonderful hits for Disney: “When You Believe It” has more than a touch of Mary Poppins about it, and I was also reminded of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang several times before Barrie acquires his first automobile. In context and as a whole, the score is perfectly charming and the lyrics witty and character-revealing, but I wonder if any of the numbers will emerge as stand-alone hits. A musical needs at least one hit song.

The cast is perfect. Julian Ovenden is in fine voice as the naive Barrie, whose imagination is ignited when he meets the Llewellyn-Davies boys in Kensington Park. He strikes up a friendship with their mother, Sylvia (Rosalie Craig – who, like La Traviata, is able to belt out a good refrain while dangerously ill); the four boys are splendid. Harry Polden’s Peter is confident and touching, but all four of them strike the correct balance of charm and amusement.

Rob Ashford’s direction keeps us on the right side of sentimentality, bringing together technical elements and actors’ performances to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. For me the stand-out moment is a Jekyll and Hyde confrontation between Barrie and his darkest creation, Captain Hook (a delicious performance by Oliver Boot). They sing a duet and engage in swordplay in the perfect fusion of the real and the imaginary. It’s a glamorisation of what goes on in a writer’s mind, but brings some verve and vigour to the second act. As Tinkerbell is in the ascendancy, poor Sylvia’s light is dimming. Barrie’s marriage to Mary falls apart (Clare Foster is excellent as the long-suffering wife and music hall star). But while all this happening, something wonderful is being born.

It’s a long time before we see Peter Pan – there’s a pared-down synopsis of the play – and throughout the piece I was wondering if we would see any flying… Of course, we do – I won’t say when it happens but when it does, it’s exactly right.

It’s a dazzling, lavish production, amusing, touching and technically impressive. J M Barrie, presented here as a man-child who never grew up, not only creates his greatest work but also finds emotional fulfilment, a Lost Boy no more.

Judging from the way this Pan is handled, I’d say producer Harvey Weinstein has found gold.