Tag Archives: Stage Experience

Party On!

Stage Experience: BOOGIE NIGHTS

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 23rd August, 2018

 

Every summer about a hundred young people flock to Birmingham and just a fortnight later, they’re performing to packed houses.  It’s the Alex’s annual Stage Experience project, a highlight of the theatre’s calendar.  Previous shows include 42nd Street, Footloose, and West Side Story.  This year the choice is Boogie Nights, a jukebox musical of 1970s hits with a plot so shallow it makes Dreamboats & Petticoats seem like The Cherry Orchard.   This is Saturday Night Fever lite, with characters living for their nights out at the local nightclub, and there’s a party atmosphere long before the performance begins with cast members in the aisles encouraging the audience to get up and dance.

The miracle worker, as ever, is the indefatigable Pollyann Tanner who directs and choreographs her huge cast of youngsters with an assured hand.  It can’t be easy managing such a troupe but the enthusiasm of every member shines through – this lot clearly don’t need cattle-prods to get them to cooperate!  I can’t list them all, so forgive me, chorus, for focussing on the main players.

Leading the cast is Elliot Gooch as Roddy, our narrator.  Gooch has presence and a twinkle in his eye, but Roddy is written in such a way, we can’t be charmed by his throwaway sexism and his selfishness.  Gooch works hard to sell the character to us, but ultimately Roddy is an obnoxious plonker.  As Roddy’s long-term girlfriend Debs, Isabella Kibble positively shines in a flawless performance.  She can handle the London-ish accent superbly and sings like a dream.  Furthermore, she brings credibility to the part and is the emotional centre of the piece.  Kibble is supported by Melissa Huband as best friend Trish, who also sings well and displays spot-on comic timing.

Grace Williams also makes a strong impression as night-club singer Lorraine.  Her duet with Debs (No More Tears/Enough is Enough) is a definite highlight.

Among a colourful array of Seventies costumes, Gibsa Bah looks marvellous as Spencer, strutting on huge platforms with an afro like a black cloud over his head, whose chauvinistic attitudes remind us that the period was not just great pop music and big collars.  Thomas Parkinson adds humour as Roddy’s mate Terry, while handsome Jonah Sercombe has the best male singing voice of the lot – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more from him – but I would advise him not to rush his dialogue, and please, someone get him a wig to hide his on-fleek 2018 hairdo!  There is an excellent performance from Liam Huband as Roddy’s Elvis-worshipping father, Eamon – a strong characterisation, Eamon gets most of the best lines (even if Jon Conway’s script strings together as many old jokes as old songs).

The songs keep coming (and coming) along with gratuitous period references to crank up the nostalgia factor.  A tight ensemble led by Musical Director Chris Newton provides a great sound, and you can’t resist the energy coming off the stage.  More of a party than a play, this show’s delights come from seeing young people giving it their all, rather than getting their teeth into a meatier piece of musical theatre.

boogie

 

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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