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My third and final out-of-town day-trip, this time to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield for another of my top five musicals, Guys & Dolls, my 9th production / 13th performance. Another treat.

The show is based on a 1930’s story and characters created by writer / journalist Damon Runyon. Nathan Detroit organises a crap (dice) game which moves from place to place whilst dancer Adelaide, his fiancee of 14 years, does everything she can to pin him down to marriage, having told her mother she already is, and invented five children with another on the way as part of the story. Ace gambler Sky Masterson and Chicago gangster Big Jule head into town, and the world of the gamblers and the ailing Salvation Army mission threatened with closure collide, but happiness is just a couple of bets away. Runyon was so fond of the world of these lovable rogues and gamblers that he arranged for his ashes to be scattered on Broadway from a plane!

So what’s this production got going for it? Well, for starters I heard much detail in the orchestrations than I’ve heard before, partly because of new arrangements by Will Stuart, whose superb 14-piece band isn’t buried in a pit, but faces you above the action in a series of decorated ‘rooms’. Matt Flint’s choreography fills the stage with vitality and freshness, with the two Hot Box routines particularly good, and the street-life, Havana club, Luck be a Lady in the sewers and Sit Down you’re Rocking the Boat in the mission all uplifting. At first, I missed the usual Broadway billboards and neon lights in Janet Bird’s set, but her excellent costumes, and Howard Hudson’s terrific lighting, made up for them. Crucible AD Robert Hastie isn’t known for musicals, as his predecessor Daniel Evans was, which makes his staging all the more impressive, achieving the best balance between the comedy and the love stories that I can remember.

Natalie Casey was very impressive as Adelaide, bringing out every bit of her character’s comedy, but with real pathos to her love story, which moved me. Martin Marquez had all the charm and cheek Nathan needs, also melting by the end. I’ve followed Alex Young’s musical theatre career since student productions at RAM and for me her performance as Sarah is one of her career highs. Kadiff Kirwan invests Sky with a suave confidence and again the love story had more feeling than I’m used to seeing. TJ Lloyd was a great Nicely Nicely and Dafydd Emyr was larger than life and positively intimidating as Big Jule.

I’d been to the Crucible before, but not for a musical, and I thought the space was perfect for a big Broadway show like this. We are so lucky to have quality musical theatre productions like this around the country, and my day-trip, including travel, cost about the same as a top price ticket in the West End. Thank you, Sheffield.

Rags

Given the pedigree of its creators (music by Annie’s Charles Strouse, lyrics by Godspell’s Stephen Schwartz and book by Fiddler on the Roof’s Joseph Stein) this musical had a troubled life, surviving only three nights after its Broadway opening. Though there have been excellent drama school productions (I saw it at both GSMD & RAM in recent years), Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre gave it its UK professional premiere, in a revised version with a book by David Thompson, last year, and have now brought it to London, substantially recast.

It’s the story of the American immigrant experience, in this case Jewish refugees fleeing the East European pogroms at the beginning of the 20th Century. Rebecca and Bella meet and bond on a  ship bound for New York. Rebecca and her ten-year-old son David are seeking a new life, Bella is joining her widowed father, who emigrated two years earlier to join his brother. Rebecca is unable to pay her entrance fee on arrival, so Bella persuades her father to vouch for her, then her uncle to house and employ her. From there, their lives are intertwined as they navigate sweat shop exploitation and anti-semitism and get caught up in labour disputes. Rebecca chooses the wrong man whilst Bella chooses a good one.

Bronagh Lagan’s production flows beautifully on a set by Gregor Donnelly defined by suitcases, like the 2016 RAM production, and lines of washing, with excellent costumes underlining the heritage and period. In an ensemble packed with fine performances, Carolyn Maitland shines as Rebecca, with beautiful vocals, passionately delivered. Dave Willetts is on fine form as Avram, Bella’s father, Alex Gibson-Giorgio is excellent as Italian union man Sal, and there’s a terrific performance from a boy actor as David. Two ‘Americans’, played as vaudevillians, pop up regularly to illustrate the ‘welcome’ these immigrants receive and. a four-piece Klezmer band do likewise to emphasise the Jewish roots.

This is the second Hope Mill / Aria Entertainment production I’ve seen in four days. Their march for domination of regional and touring musical theatre continues with five more productions between them in the first half of 2020. Long may it continue.

This is the second of three January day-trips to catch musicals that aren’t scheduled to come to London, this time Hope Mill Manchester’s production of Mame visiting Northampton, a show the UK hasn’t seen since it’s premiere here 50 years ago, which is why I’ve never seen Jerry Herman’s iconic Broadway show.

Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame went from page to stage to screen before this musical adaptation, which was itself later filmed. It revolves around a New York socialite who loves life and likes to party. When her brother dies, her 10-year-old nephew Patrick comes to live with her, and she makes it her job to show him the world, sharing her Bohemian lifestyle. After losing all her money in the Wall Street Crash, she’s lucky enough to meet and fall for rich southerner Beauregard, who marries her and takes her on seemingly endless honeymoon, seeing even more of the world.

Patrick goes to boarding school, where conservative snobbery replaces fun living, and when the honeymoon ends in tragedy, with Beauregard’s death, Mame gets to see how her work has been undone. Patrick is about to marry into the rich but dull & tasteless Upson’s from Connecticut, but she is determined to prevent such a match. The hedonistic first half gives way to a clash of the party animals and the dull New Englanders, providing some sublime comedy.

Herman’s score has some great numbers, with superb orchestrations by Jason Carr, brilliantly played by Alex Parker’s terrific band. His lyrics, and Jerome Lawrence & Robert E Lee’s book, are sharp and witty. It’s scaled down from big Broadway / West End values, but with a cast of eighteen still fills the stage. You can see the dance background in Nick Winston’s slick and stylish direction and Philip Whitcomb’s art deco set and excellent 20’s costumes give it the perfect period feel.

The leading role needs a special actress and Tracie Bennett is perfect for the part, belting out those big numbers and squeezing every ounce of comedy from her dialogue, particularly in her scenes with her best friend, ‘Broadway baby’ Vera, superbly played by Harriett Thorpe. Patrick is a big role for a young actor, but Lochlan White was confident and assured, pulling it off with great aplomb. They are all part of a fine company who do the show proud.

I’ve seen and loved Hello Dolly, La Cage Au Folles and Mack & Mabel, so I’m so glad I finally got to see Herman’s other big show, thanks to Hope Mill, now an important part of the UK’s musical theatre landscape, plus Aria Entertainment and their hosts the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. Next stop Salisbury, then ?????

I’m told this will be Susie McKenna’s last year at the helm of the Hackney panto. I hope there’s someone waiting in the wings, as my theatrical year would not be complete without it. Perhaps that’s why I booked for the first weekend of the New Year, subconsciously banking 2020 already.

This year’s offering is Dick Whittington, who arrives on the Windrush with his cat, to be reunited with his mother, Sarah the Cook. Queen Rat’s mischief of rats includes a straw haired one called Boris, and there’s a very athletic gorilla, and a shipwreck, which provides the opportunity for an underwater scene. Dick, of course, gets to be Mayor, and to marry Alderman Fitzwarren’s daughter Alice. Queen Rat is kept in check by our good fairy Blowbells, and the cat is played by Kat B! Lotte Collette’s design is as captivating as ever, in particular her costumes for Sarah the Cook. The musical standards under Mark Dickman are sky high, with singing way better than just about any other panto.

Clive Rowe’s on great form as Sarah, petrifying every man of a certain age in the front stalls, but this year avoiding humiliating them onstage. Tarinn Callender has bucketloads of charm as Dick, with Hackney regulars Kat B brilliant as Uncle Vincent the Cat and Tony Whittle’s Alderman Fitzwarren playfully ad-libbing with Rowe. Christina Tedders seems to be a new face as Alice, as does Annette McLaughlin as Queen Rat, both excellent, and it’s great to see veteran Sue Kelvin as Fairy Blowbells, looking like she’s having the time of her life flying across the Hackney stage.

It’s impossible not to feel the warmth at Hackney Empire, and I so love being part of it. May it last at least as long as I do.

It’s almost forty years since I first saw this show, in a Broadway revival, and it’s been in my top five musicals ever since, so I was excited to see what this new production by Nikolai Foster, without Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, would be like. The answer is ‘thrilling’.

The story is as timeless as the Shakespeare play on which it’s based, but it seems to resonate more in the UK today, given our struggle with gang culture and knife crime. Even though the setting and period, book and lyrics, remain unchanged, it has a contemporary feel and edgy aesthetic, Ellen Kane’s new choreography contributing greatly to this, which makes it feel very fresh. The design team of Michael Taylor (set), Edd Lindley (costumes) and Guy Hoare (lighting) have respected the period whilst somehow making it feel like now. A luxury fifteen piece band under MD George Dyer do full justice to Bernstein’s brilliant score.

It’s been a great pleasure watching Jamie Muscato grow into such a fine performer and here he is owning one of musical theatre’s great roles, with breathtaking renditions of Something’s Coming, Tonight and Maria. Maria is superbly played and sung by Puerto Rican Adriana Ivelisse, here to study musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, but looking like she doesn’t need to (note to self – RAM student productions in 2020!). Carly Mercedes Dyer is a terrific Anita, leading America with Abigail Climer’s Conesuela and Mireia Mambo’s Rosalia, who both also stand out in I Feel Pretty. Then there’s another fifteen in this superb cast, enhanced by a ‘young company’ of local trainees, who fill the stage, most notably during a rousing, moving Somewhere.

The Curve has been working with the police and the local community on the issues covered in the show (how often do you get a programme note by the Chief Constable?!) which underlines the ongoing relevance of this sixty-year-old show, here feeling like its brand new. Thrilling.

The Duchess of Malfi

I like going to the theatre on New Years Day, the evening is otherwise a bit flat, but maybe a bloody revenge tragedy wasn’t the best choice. It seemed like one minute you’re wishing people a Happy New Year, the next you’re counting the bodies!

The widowed Duchess decides to remarry, to steward Antonio who is below her station, so she tries to keep it secret. Her twin brother Ferdinand and other brother, The Cardinal, find out of course, courtesy of their ‘spy’ Bosolo, and set about having her, the children by her new husband and her companion Cariola murdered, with the help of Bosola and his henchmen. They are both pure evil, Ferdinand driven insane by the events he has instigated. Bosila’s guilt after the murders propels him to turn on the brothers.

John Webster’s 400-year-old play impressed me more in Rebecca Frecknall’s production than it has before. It serves the dialogue particularly well, and is very tense and atmospheric. It’s a very stylised staging, which seems to me to be inspired by Robert Icke’s work in the same theatre. Chloe Lamford’s design has a moving glass gallery centre stage which can be populated, and glass cabinets on either side that contain all of the props. I wasn’t sure about the purpose of the desks on the edges at both sides.

Lydia Wilson is excellent as the Duchess, determined, passionate, full of fight. Bosola is a difficult role, with its emotional twists and turns, but Leo Bill is outstanding. Ferdinand is a tough one too, which Jack Riddiford pulls off with great physicality and emotionality, as does Ieanna Kimbook as Cariola.

It’s very different from Frecknall’s big 2018 hit, Tennessee Williams’ Summer & Smoke, at the same theatre, then transferring, which was one of my favourite revivals that year, but it was a gripping ride and I found myself absorbing every word of Websters rich dialogue.

The Rest of December

Contemporary Music

It took a while for me to get into the cinema relay of the Les Miserables staged concert, largely because it doesn’t really come alive until the prologue of sung dialogue gives way to the first act, but when it got going it was superb. The encores of a handover to the next Javert and four Valejeans from the first to the next were inspired, and very moving.

Rufus & Martha Wainwright’s Not So Silent Night continued their family’s tradition of charity Christmas concerts with lots of guests. At the Royal Festival Hall they included Guy Garvey, Neil Tennent, Chrissie Hynde, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, opera singer Janis Kelly and American actress Martha Plimton, who it turns out is a rather good singer. It proved to be a lovely experience, albeit charmingly shambolic at times.

Opera

I think I’ve only seen Britten’s Death in Venice once before, but then again the night I went was only the 23rd performance at Covent Garden in the 46 years since its premiere, so the opportunity doesn’t come along that often. I’ve never considered it up there with masterpieces like Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but this David McVicar production changed my mind. Mark Padmore was wonderful as Ashenbach, Gerald Finley terrific in no less than seven roles and Leo Dixin danced Tadzio beautifully. It was just about faultless in very way and the full house cheered wildly. Maybe that will encourage The Royal Opera to broaden its programming. We must have had 230 or even 2300 La Traviata’s in the same 46 years.

Classical Music

The LSO Chamber Orchestra Milton Court concert of early music was a freebie for subscribers but it proved much more than that. The orchestra played the Purcell, Handel & Rameau pieces beautifully under the highly enthusiastic Emmanuelle Haim and there were two great soloists too – Lucy Crowe and Reinoud Van Mechelen. Freebie maybe, but a treat nonetheless.

The Sixteen‘s Christmas concert at Cadogan Hall was a delight from start to finish. Normally unaccompanied, this time there was the occasional addition of percussion and harp, the latter absolutely gorgeous. The programme included lots of rare carols, some mediaeval, and ended with Britten’s lovely Ceremony of Carols.

Comedy

I don’t see much stand-up, other than at the Edinburgh Fringe, but made an exception for Jordan Brookes at Soho Theatre after last year’s Edinburgh buzz. I admired the originality and there were superbly funny moments, but it was perhaps too surreal and off-the-wall for me and didn’t really sustain its 70 minutes length.

Film

Knives Out is a whodunit, with its tongue firmly in its cheek, which keeps you guessing, and smiling, until the final scene. I really liked its old-fashioned style and it’s hugely convoluted plot.

Having not read the book, I struggled a bit with the hopping around in time of Little Women, but I eventually succumbed to the charm of a beautifully filmed story.

Art

I went to see Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Rembrandt’s Light exhibition on the morning after an attempted robbery when the gallery had closed, so I had to go back 10 days later to see it without the two paintings that almost got away but are now back with their owners in Paris and Washington. There were some nice pictures and it was well lit – by the man who did Star Wars! – but I have to confess to being a touch underwhelmed. Not a lot of pictures for a high profile exhibition and a lot with subject matter that doesn’t really appeal to me.