Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

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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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…

 


Something Appealing

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 30th May, 2013

 

The plays of ancient Roman Plautus are a cornerstone of Western comedic tradition.  The works have influenced Shakespeare, among others, and more recently have been rediscovered and re-imagined by 20th century writers and dramatists.  In England, we got Up Pompeii with the wonderful Frankie Howerd as the wily slave protagonist.  In the States, composer Stephen Sondheim created the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which although not as riddled with innuendo as its British counterpart, has its fair share of bawdy humour and suggestive jokes.

Tiffany Cawthorne and Keith Harris (not that Keith Harris) direct this colourful and lively production with a hard-working cast that for the most part hits all the right notes.  The show begins with its most well-known number Comedy Tonight! and a sequence of organised chaos as the chorus prepare for the show proper to begin.

Pat Brown and Jo Thackwray’s costume designs are perfect – so is the bright and beautiful set (Phil Parsons and Keith Harris – again, not that Keith Harris). 

Nick Owen is wily slave Pseudolus, desperate to buy his freedom.  In collusion with his master’s son, Hero (Michael Jenkins) he contrives to get the boy the girl of his dreams in exchange for his emancipation.  Owen is thoroughly in charge of all the machinations and consequences, establishing an easy rapport with the audience with his asides, managing to be camp without being effeminate (that is left to the eunuchs!).  Jenkins is adorable as naive young Hero, pulling off with ease some of Sondheim’s not-so-easy solos.

The object of Hero’s infatuation is airhead courtesan Philia – a consistently funny turn from Laura Poyner, with a beautiful singing voice.  She and Jenkins are wholly credible as the young lovers, despite the training she has received that makes her react like a fembot to, um… stimuli.

There is strong support from Toby Davis as Lycus, the proprietor of the house of ill repute, and Dave Rodgers as dirty old man Senex, although perhaps this latter could do with being a little louder in some scenes.  Senex’s wife Domina is a Christine Hamilton of a woman, a self-assured battleaxe played with aplomb by Annie Harris.  Butch braggart Captain Miles Gloriosus is a delight of a characterisation by Tom Fitzpatrick, but the out-and-out star turn comes from James David Knapp as hysterical slave Hysterium.  He makes a strong impression from the start and, as the character becomes embroiled in the increasingly farcical twists and turns of the plot, gets better and better.  It’s a nuanced yet broad performance, perfectly pitched for this type of material.

The action becomes more and more convoluted before descending into moments of pure farce with the cast running on and off in all directions.  It’s a difficult scene but the company keep the energy levels high.  Never less than amusing, and very often laugh-out-loud funny this is an excellent night out, thanks to the strength of the material and the calibre of the company.

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Roman Romance: Hero (Michael Jenkins) getting to grips with Philia (Laura Poyner)


Let Them Entertain You

GYPSY
Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 13th March, 2012


Paul Kerryson’s revival of the Jule Styne/Arthur Laurents 1959 musical continues the run of superb productions at this remarkable venue. With a strong cast and production values to rival any West End production, this is a powerful show, relentless as its central character.

And what a central character! Ostensibly this is a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrated clothing remover, but the action is dominated by the pushiest of pushy stage mothers, Rose (a barnstorming Caroline O’Connor). Rose is an absolute monster, infantilising her daughters in order to keep their tired Vaudeville act doing the rounds, year after year. The young Baby June (played in the show I saw by nine-year-old Hannah Everest) gives a truly nauseating performance, all squeals, splits and baton twirling. I believe we are intended to view the cutesiness from outside and recognise the awfulness of the act. Performers and director keep this distinction clearly drawn: the difference between when the characters are singing as themselves and when they are ‘performing’ their act.

There is a very effective transition from young to older cast achieved through the simple application of a strobe light. Indeed, apart from using back-projections of period newspaper advertisements, blown up huge as ironic counterpoints to the action, this is a very traditional staging, allowing the strength of the story and the performers to shine.

Caroline O’Connor largely makes the part her own although the ghost of Ethel Merman is never far away from her vowel sounds. The monstrousness of Rose, her ambition fuelled by delusion and driven by a sort of Munchausen’s syndrome is her tragic flaw. When meal ticket Baby June elopes with one of the overgrown chorus boys, everyone thinks that’s the end of the act. But not Rose. She turns to neglected and overlooked daughter Louise (Victoria Hamilton-Barrit) and instantly forms a plan to remake the act with her as the star. Heard in context, classic song “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is chilling in its intensity. At the end, Rose storms the stage in a kind of musical breakdown but by the end of the number she has composed herself and is back the same as she always was. It is not like she hasn’t learned anything but she chooses to ignore it and wilfully puts her blinkers back on.

Louise, desperate for affection, attention and keen to please, winds up as a tentative stripper in a burlesque theatre. She subverts her sister’s signature song, “Let Me Entertain You” wringing out the double entendres of Sondheim’s lyrics. She soon takes to stripping like a duck to plucking and becomes rich and famous in no time. Standing up to her mother at last, she shows us how far she has come. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit gives the strongest performance of the lot, from boyish teenager, self-effacing and kind, to the assured and exotic mature woman she becomes, still generous enough in spirit to humour and forgive her overbearing mother.

It’s a dark story, leavened with humour and heart. The supporting players are all very good. The trio of strippers almost steal the show with their number, “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” (which contains the marvellous Stephen Sondheim lyric – If you want to bump it, bump it with a trumpet). The quality of the production never falters. I hope this Gypsy, like other Curve productions before it, will take to the road.