Tag Archives: musical

Closing Down Sail

THE LAST SHIP

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018

 

I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself.  The Sting, formerly of The Police.  He who used to dream about blue turtles.  Yes, him!  It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me).  Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage?  The latter, I suspect.

This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome.   There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about.  And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal.  The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.

The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it.  In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references.  The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.

As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like.  His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters.  The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now.  McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments.   Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all.  McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy.  Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.

There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible.  Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.

The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.

Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example).  The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.

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Richard Fleeshman gets to grips with Frances McNamee (Photo: Pamela Raith)

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Hair Bare Bunch

HAIR

The Vaults, London, Thursday 11th January, 2018

 

I am lucky to catch this 50th anniversary production just before it reaches the end of its run and I can only kick myself for not going sooner and allowing time for return visits.  Ground-breaking back in 1967, in terms of sound and format, the show comes across as fresh as a daisy you might wear in your hair.  Members of the ‘Tribe’ make observations of society: civil rights, pollution, war, while the ongoing plot involves handsome Mancunian-wannabe Claude (Robert Metson in fine voice) wondering whether to burn his call-up papers and stay with his hippy friends, chiefly Berger – the excellent, nay perfect, Andy Coxon.  Berger, king of the tribe, is a charismatic figure, sexy, funny – Every time I see Coxon perform I fall in love with him all over again, and that’s before he gets his bum out.

Shekinah McFarlane’s Dionne gets things off to a searing start with her powerful vocals in ‘The Age of Aquarius’; she also plays a mean saxophone later on.  Liam Ross-Mills’s Woof gets carried away with a Mick Jagger poster; Patrick George’s Margaret Mead has fun recruiting an audience member to be her ‘Hubert’ – in fact, everyone gets their moment to stand out: Laura Johnson’s Sheila, Jammy Kasongo’s Hud, Jessie May as barefoot and pregnant Jeanie… The strength of the solo singing is matched by the beauty of the ensemble’s harmonies.  Galt McDermot’s rock-informed score is rich with variety and contrast, while the lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado (and William Shakespeare) range from witty to hard-hitting.  The show is one big highlight.

The cast is not the only thing stripped bare.  The staging is kept minimal, keeping the performers to the fore.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle makes simple but sophisticated use of parachute silk and the occasional prop, keeping us in the Tribe’s trippy world.  An extended tripping sequence is chock-full of striking imagery.  Obviously, the lighting (by Ben M Rogers) helps tremendously with creating atmosphere and a sense of place, but I want to make special mention of the sound design by Calum Robinson and Max Perryment:  aurally, the show is magnificent. Solo voices, ensemble singing, the band and sound effects are all blended to the utmost clarity.  It is a real feast for the ears.

The band, under the musical direction of Gareth Bretherton, is kept behind a fence in an upstage area, but the sound fills the Vaults.  The choreography from William Walton avoids 1960s clichés and exudes an invigorating energy.  The music, the performers, the message, are all irresistible.  The show’s social conscience has resonances with today’s messed-up world just as much as in the 60s.  But beyond all that, it’s an exuberant celebration of life.

Let the sunshine in!  Peace, love and understanding, man.  Etc.

HAir

What a whopper: Andy Coxon’s Berger leads a love-in


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)

 


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.

Blucher

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)