Tag Archives: Pollyann Tanner

Working the Crowd

WEST SIDE STORY

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 25th August, 2017

 

It is a firm fixture of the summer programme: the annual production by Stage Experience involving dozens (and dozens) of kids from the region – and every year I marvel at the process of staging a show of such high quality given a short rehearsal time any hardened professional would baulk at.  This year it’s Bernstein and Sondheim’s classic reworking of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic tale of Tony and Maria who find love on opposite sides of some silly feud, here represented as gangland violence (translated into dance moves).

Elliot Gooch shines as Tony.  Already distancing himself from his gang, The Jets, he finds his adolescent emotions sparked to both love and war as events unfold.  Gooch is stunningly good.  His rendition of ‘Maria’ is enough to raise goosebumps and would work anywhere as an audition piece.  One tip I do have for him, speaking as a former teacher of theatre, is to watch his perfect enunciation of every letter in every word does not get in the way of characterisation.

He is matched by Grace Whyte’s rather operatic Maria.  Her soprano is striking and expressive and furthermore, her Latino accent remains consistent and her passions are utterly credible.

Also excellent is Leah Vassell as Anita, who is more worldly-wise than Maria.  Her musical numbers are highlights, whether she’s satirising life in America or pleading with Maria to stick to her own kind.  She brings humour, and darker emotions after the murder of Bernardo (Javier Aguilera, who moves with easy grace).

Among the Jets, Jordan Ricketts’s Riff makes an impression (before his untimely end!) and also strong is Caven Rimmer as the hot-headed Action.

Once again director Pollyann Tanner has worked miracles.  Her choreography fulfils our expectations of Hal Prince’s original moves and there is balletic beauty by the ton – a difficulty with having a company so large is giving each kid their time in the spotlight; at times, dance sequences look like an amorphous mass of heads and limbs, but when the dancers have space, you can see the skills at play.  Every kid in every crowded corner is thoroughly disciplined and committed.  The levels of focus are astonishing.  Personally, I would have foregone the softening of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ by swamping the stage with what looks like a Persil advert and let the number have its bitter edge.   The assault of Anita is all the more shocking from its stylised presentation, and the show loses none of its ultimate emotional impact when the tragedy reaches its conclusion.

Sadly, the show’s themes of anti-immigration feeling and knife crime still resonate today.  The emotions are timeless but one would have liked society to have moved on from the racism displayed here.  Perhaps, some day… somewhere…

A remarkable achievement by everyone concerned.  My mind boggles to think of the logistics of it all but what matters most to an audience member is the effectiveness of the final product.  Yet again, Stage Experience delivers the goods: an enthralling, entertaining and moving piece of theatre.  Bravo!

west side

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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


Bringing Home The Bacon

FOOTLOOSE

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 21st August, 2014

Familiar from the 1980s Kevin Bacon film, this is the story of Ren whose mother moves him from Chicago to the backwater town of Beaumont, where public dancing is banned by the town council, headed by a closed-minded but charismatic clergyman. Teenage rebellion is not far away, with newcomer Ren as the catalyst.

The New Alexandra’s STAGE EXPERIENCE project is an ambitious undertaking. A cast of 120 (that’s one hundred and twenty) youngsters flock on and off, every one of them giving their utmost. Director/choreographer Pollyann Tanner handles crowds with aplomb and also gets excellent performances from her main players, never for one second losing focus. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Matthew Russell leads the cast as Ren –an assured and skilful performance from this talented fifteen year old. Yes, that’s right: he’s only fifteen. He sings, dances and skips rope all at the same time without slipping a step, missing a note or stopping for breath. Great things must be ahead for this young man.

He is supported by a strong troupe of players. Molly Hope Williams (Ren’s mom) and Aneira Evans (Minister’s wife Vi) give their roles maturity and depth, and can certainly belt out the musical numbers when appropriate. Another belter is Georgia Anderson as preacher’s daughter Ariel (odd that he didn’t give her a Biblical name!), rebellious and misunderstood. Her “Holding Out For A Hero” is a rousing production number.

Outstanding is Nicole Appleby as fast-talking Rusty – she reminds me of Linda Lewis (oops, my age is showing) and her rendition of “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” is a highlight. Callum Connolly’s Willard is a splendid study in character acting, consistent, engaging and rounded. His big number “Mama Says” is a divine moment, slickly interpreted and executed – I have seen professional productions that fall miles short of this quality.

Man of the match for me though is Mark Stuart Walsh as the Reverend. His rich, deep singing voice has power and subtlety, and his characterisation brings warmth and vulnerability to what is essentially the villain’s role.

It’s an exhilarating production; the energy just pours off the stage. I have only one quibble and that’s with the sound – With a stage full of kids singing their heads off, the vocals just drop in the mix and the band overpowers them. This means that some of the big moments are diluted.

When it is revealed that the show has been put together in less than a fortnight, you realise it is more towering an achievement than you first imagined. Everyone else in the business may as well just retire.

Matthew Russell (centre) as Ren

Matthew Russell (centre) as Ren