Tag Archives: musical

Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals.  This is one of the good ones.  Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.  It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir.  Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit.  But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’.   The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase.  I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper.  But that’s me.

As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice.  There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean.  Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones.  Perfection.

As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance.  He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Danny Mac 'Joe Gillis'. Photo by Manuel Harlan (2)

No ordinary Joe: Danny Mac (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive.  Thoroughly convincing.

Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.

Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around.  This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting.  Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma.  The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.

An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it.  Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Ria Jones 'Norma Desmond'. Photo Manuel Harlan (4)

Viva la diva! Ria Jones as Norma Desmond (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

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An Absolute Scream

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Garrick Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

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Mel Brooks’s seminal comedy film comes to the West End in this musical adaptation that stitches together the best of the movie with some cracking new material.  Brooks has an ear for a good tune and the score, which he wrote along with the lyrics, is chockful of catchy melodies and sophisticated, witty rhymes.  Brooks’s sense of the inappropriate is also undiminished: a chorus of women sing proudly about their tits, a blind man inflicts pain… Aficionados of the film will not be disappointed and newcomers to the material are in for a wild and wacky treat.

Hadley Fraser stars as Frederick Frankenstein (Fronkensteen) combining good looks with manic intensity, like a matinee idol on crack.  The man is hilarious and has a clear musical-theatre tenor that means he can belt above the chorus.  Like the machinery in his grandfather’s laboratory, we can see the cogs working in Frederick’s mind.  Fraser is expertly matched by Ross Noble as the hunchback Igor.  Noble’s rolling eyes, stooped posture and incessant gurning evoke something of the great Marty Feldman who originated the role, while permitting us to see Noble is a superb comic performer in his own right.  And who knew he could sing so well?

Summer Strallen is effortlessly sublime as Inga, stretching her accent as well as her legs, while Dianne Pilkington is an absolute scream as Frederick’s fiancée Elizabeth.  Everyone is at the top of their game.  There is strong support from Patrick Clancy doubling as Inspector Kemp and the blind hermit; Shuler Hensley’s Monster is the gift that keeps on giving in a towering performance; but the revelation of the piece is Lesley Joseph’s Frau Blucher, surely the role she was born to play.

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She has her knockers but I think Lesley Joseph is great

Highlights?  The show is one big highlight from start to finish.  Putting on the Ritz turns into an all-out production number with the chorus hoofing in Frankenstein boots, brilliantly lit by Ben Cracknell, bringing Hollywood glamour to his palette of old movie spotlights and colour washes.  Beowulf Boritt’s set uses traditional painted backcloths that heighten the theatricality of the piece while hearkening back to the old movie sets.  The atmosphere is perfect.  Director/choreographer Susan Stroman doesn’t miss a trick to bring out every laugh, every campy turn of phrase or reaction, giving us what is quite possibly the funniest musical ever.

The breast jokes betray the show’s 1970s origins but Brooks is right to keep them in – the master of comedy, he knows how to give us a frisson.  There would be something wrong if we approved of everything and this is how Brooks tests us, pushing at our comfort levels, showing us where our boundaries are and, above all, making us laugh out loud and long.

A great big monster hit.

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Hay there! Hadley Fraser and Ross Noble

 

 


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)


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.