Tag Archives: Sam Young

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LES MISERABLES – School Edition

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th March, 2018

 

Stratford Musical Theatre Company’s young division tackle the ‘schools version’ of the renowned Boubil & Schonberg musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel – a story that is grimmer than an omnibus edition of EastEnders.  All the scenes and songs are here but the running time is abridged by about half an hour.  It’s an ambitious project but the stripped-down setting works rather well, giving the space entirely to the youthful performers.  Director Judi Walton is to be commended for the discipline and commitment she has instilled in her multitudinous chorus, who get on and off quickly and efficiently and sing really well – and as though they mean it.

There is much to relish from the principal characters.  I’ll reel off some highlights:  Florence Cain’s expressive Fantine displays emotional depth – her ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a knockout.  Elisea Cooper’s Eponine, feeling the pangs of unrequited love, is also strong.  Marius (a fresh-faced Tristan Barford) is excellent – by the time we get to ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’, he can do no wrong in my eyes. Mollie Dibb’s Cosette hits piercing high notes with apparent ease, while Rachel McDonnell’s Madame Thernadier is a just about perfectly pitched piece of musical theatre character acting.  As her husband, Monsieur Thernadier, John Luke Goodman shows promise but needs to ensure his energy levels are consistent throughout his delivery, rather than throwing away some of the gags.  Nathan Woolley makes a rousing Enjolras, while Samuel Littell’s cocky, Cockney Gavroche could put the Artful Dodger to shame.

Heading the cast as bread thief Jan Valjean, Isaac Aston has some powerful moments, ultimately bringing the house down with ‘Bring Him Home’.

All in all, this production is impressively performed but where I have an issue is the speed of it all.  We rattle through the show at a rate of knots; perhaps musical director Sam Young is worried that the pubs might be shut before it’s finished.  The result is that many moments are robbed of their impact.  There is more to musical theatre than hitting the notes and getting the words out.  The characters need time to emote, to think, to react.  Here, they barely get chance to breathe.  And so, for example, Alexander Fox’s Javert is denied his menace and his anguish as he races through his pieces; the death of Eponine also happens too fast… It’s a pity we skip over the surface of the songs when this talented mob of youngsters clearly has the potential for greater emotional depth.

cosette-colour

 

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Camp in the Woods

INTO THE WOODS

Artshouse, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 24th May, 2017

 

Stratford Musical Theatre Company presents an ambitious production of Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated and bitter fairy tale drama – a challenge for performers, whatever their provenance – and here their valiant efforts result in success.

The mash-up of elements familiar from fairy tales is a difficult sing; Sondheim doesn’t make it easy on his singers, but the cast for the most part handle the dissonance and unusual phrasings very well.  Rebecca Walton’s Cinderella is a prime example of the quality of this ensemble, mastering the music as well as delivering a neat characterisation.  Similarly, Pollyanna Noonan’s Little Red Riding Hood is an assured and feisty performance.  She sports a red (what else!) hoody – the whole piece has a charity-shop aesthetic: the setting is contemporary, a refugee camp and the residents are sharing stories, the same stories familiar to us.  A gentle reminder from director Richard Sandle-Keynes that refugees are people just like us.  The action is brought right up to us – it’s like we’re all huddled around a camp fire.  When, in the second act, the characters are cast adrift from their happy-ever-afters and wander in the forest, facing devastation and loss at the hands (well, the feet) of a vengeful giant at large, they are refugees too.  It’s an interesting approach and works well, offering moments of cleverness, for example the climbing of Rapunzel’s hair and the shadows playing on polythene fences amusingly depict dancers at the Prince’s ball and the violent fate of the Big Bad Wolf.

Speaking of whom, Bardia Ghezelbash makes a sinister Wolf, but he needs to take care that his volume doesn’t drop so much it detracts from his characterisation.  Indeed, there are moments throughout the show, where mic cues are not picked up and lines of dialogue and lyric are lost.  David Bolter’s Prince Charming comes alive when he’s singing, and his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Daniel Denton-Harris in a fun and detailed performance) is a definite highlight.   Karen Welsh’s Witch is suitably eccentric and twisted in one of the show’s camper characterisations, and Christopher Dobson’s Baker comes into his own when singing the more mournful moments in the score.

Under the baton of Sam Young, a tight orchestra plays almost throughout the piece, delivering Sondheim’s jaunty, romantic and idiosyncratic music with verve and atmosphere.  If only those damned mics were cued properly!

Patchy bits aside, this is an impressive production: the ensemble singing together sounds especially great.  The star turn comes from Jessica Friend as the Baker’s Wife, an assured, captivating presence with many colours – Friend delights whenever she’s on.

The piece has a timely pertinence: the vengeful giant represents evil in the land, and the play questions our responses to terror.  Do we kill the giant or show forgiveness?

It also points out that happy-ever-afters don’t exist and getting what you want isn’t the end of your problems.  You’re not out of the woods and perhaps you never will be.  We may be grown-ups but that doesn’t stop us from wishing that things were other than they are.

An engaging and entertaining evening, slickly presented and courageous enough to go beyond a cosy and conventional setting.   And I can’t stop thinking of the old joke: Did you find the refugees’ camp?  Some of them, yes.

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The Baker’s Wife (Jessica Friend) discovering it’s not all bad in the woods…