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For the second time this month NYMT’s bold ambition and pool of extraordinary young talent produces something very special. This time it’s a new musical (though previously staged in Leeds in 2014) on a huge scale in a vast theatre with a cast of 33, 18 musicians and goodness knows how many behind the scenes – and it’s another timely First World War setting.

Members of a Leeds brass band sign up and soon find themselves in the trenches. Their womenfolk, now working in a munitions factory, decide to use their musical instruments and form a band to keep the tradition going, and to play for them on their return. The show moves between the munitions factory and the battlefield, exploring a lot of themes. There’s the underage recruit who the officers turn a blind eye to, until he appears to desert. An expectant dad becomes one of the first casualties. The band leader persuades his sister to write to a Brummie soldier with no letters from friends or family, which leads to much more. The munitions factory jeopardises the health of the girls, the ‘canaries’ as they were named, after the yellowing of their skin by the munitions. The class divide is evident both at home and in France. Two soldiers walk on eggshells around their attraction for one another. Above all, the callousness of privileged officers sending ordinary men to their inevitable death chills you.

Benjamin Till’s score is superb, full of moving solos and rousing choruses, very much in the style of Howard Goodall, but with more focus in solo numbers. They take a risk ending the first half with a tragedy and at just over three hours it’s a touch long, but it’s an impressive piece of work which deserves a much longer life (just three performances in London) and future productions. Director Hannah Chissick marshals her large cast well, usually keeping everyone on stage as the locations change, rather than wasting time moving people on and off. There’s excellent choreography and movement from Sam Spencer Lane and the musical standards under MD Alex Aitkin are outstanding. I was in awe of the amount of talent on stage and in the pit, many of whom we’ll no doubt be seeing again on professional stages.

A towering achievement.

Crazy For You

This re-working of the Gershwin’s’ 1930 show Girl Crazy came over sixty years later and was a huge hit on both Broadway and in the West End. It was a hit all over again five years ago when the Open Air Theatre mounted it, then transferred it ‘up West’ (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/crazy-for-you). Now this third outing in Newbury’s lovely Watermill Theatre makes it a triple hit.

Ken Ludwig (best known for stage comedies) made significant changes to the original story, a culture clash between the wealth and sophistication of New York City and the somewhat wilder west. In his adaptation, stage-struck Bobby Child, who’s tried and failed to get into the Zangler Follies, is sent by his businesswoman mom to foreclose on a theatre in a Nevada desert town. Theatre owner Everett Baker is a former entertainer who’s deceased wife used to grace the stage with him. Billy falls in love with Everett’s daughter Polly and ships the Follies girls west in an attempt to rescue the theatre and get his girl. His strategy includes impersonating Zangler, which becomes problematic when the real Zangler turns up. In a bizarre but delicious addition, the Fodor’s of travel guide fame (British here, though they weren’t really) turn up to add a third culture to the mix.

The Gershwin’s score has been supplemented by numbers from a handful of their other shows, so the standards count is sky high – Someone To Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It……and the musical standards are high too under Catherine Jayes supervision.  As usual here, the actors double-up as musicians, but the musical quality is so good you’d never know it if your eyes were closed.

The Watermill really does seem like a small-town American theatre, a small shed-like building with the addition of a gold proscenium arch and red curtains by regular designer Diego Pitarch, whose costumes are excellent. This is the first show I’ve seen by their new AD Paul Hart, and his staging is at least a match for all those other lovely summer musicals we’ve seen here. Choreographer Nathan M Wright works wonders in the small space. Watching burly, clumsy cowboys burst into dance alongside showgirls is a delight. There’s a particularly good comic scene where the Zanglers meet, and Tom Chambers climbing of, and dangling from, the balcony had us gasping on more than one occasion.

I wasn’t keen on the West End production of Top Hat, or Chambers performance in it, but here he is outstanding in every respect. Caroline Sheen is lovely as Polly, feisty and tomboyish, melting in the end. With another dozen performers, it’s a big ensemble for a small stage, and a very talented one too.

I do love these summer outings to the Watermill…..

Groundhog Day

When I heard they were going to adapt the film as a musical, I was baffled. How? As it turns out, it’s rather brilliant; bettering the film in so many ways. One of those rare occasions where book, music, lyrics, staging, choreography, design and performance come together to create something very special indeed.

In case you don’t know, it’s the story of sarcastic, arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connors, who visits Punxsutawney PA with novice producer Rita and cameraman Larry to film a live report on Groundhog Day, an annual event when his namesake Phil the groundhog emerges from his winter home. If he can see his shadow they’re in for six more weeks bad weather, if he can’t, its an early spring. What I hadn’t known is that Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney actually exist! They get stuck after a blizzard closes all roads, so Connors is forced to spend a second night in his B&B. When he wakes up next morning, it’s Groundhog Day again, and again, ad infinitum. At first he’s confused, then scared. A hedonistic period is followed by a period of depression and finally he realises he can actually use it to do good.

Daniel Rubin has adapted his own screenplay which, with Tim Minchin’s lyrics, becomes one of the funniest musical comedies I’ve ever seen. Minchin’s songs fit like a glove, whether rousing choruses or gentle ballads. Matthew Warchus’ staging is terrific, flowing along, as light as air, with a lot of help from Peter Darling’s choreography, which is more organic movement than dance numbers. Rob Howell’s design flows too, with technology taking second place to settings created by the performers. Everything just works so well together, with a palpable sense of real teamwork. 

Though it’s his UK stage debut, Andy Karl has bags of musical theatre experience, which shows in his command of both the stage and the material in a brilliant performance in absolutely every respect. Carlyss Peer is excellent as Rita in what appears to be her musical theatre debut! The second act bravely starts with a ballad, which Georgina Hagen as Nancy sings beautifully. You probably wouldn’t recognise many of the names or faces in the rest of this superb ensemble of twenty-one, but as the programme notes testify, it’s one of the most experienced and it shows.

It’s a ridiculously short two-month run (half of which was previews) and rumour has it it’s heading for Broadway before the West End, so it may be a while before you can see it (and for me to see it again).

A huge treat.

This is a comprehensive examination of the complex issues, past and present, facing the ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo, told through its diaspora in London and NGO’s. It’s also surprisingly funny, using black humour to emphasise the tragedy and hopelessness of the situation.

Stef was born on Kenya, the daughter of a white farmer who is now dead. She now lives in the UK, working in government. She’s trying to organise a festival called Congo Voice to raise awareness about the issues facing the country. She insists that one-third of the steering committee comes from the Congolese diaspora in London, the rest made up of representatives of NGO’s plus her ex, a PR man who still carries a torch for her. They go about persuading musicians, poets, writers and photographers to become involved but their planning is jeopardised by London members of a Congolese militant organisation. At the end of the first half, we learn more about Stef’s motivation with a flashback to her brief time in the DRC witnessing the aftermath of an atrocity.

In the second half the plans unravel as virtually everyone pulls out for one reason or another. The whole situation is mired in politics and vested interests, burying the interests of the Congolese people in the conflicting perspectives and priorities of people in London, many of whom have never even been there. Throughout the play there is a ghostly presence that no-one can see, an African dandy, Stef’s conscience. It covers so much ground, from the Portuguese slave trade of the 16th century through Belgian colonisation to dictators past and present. No-one is spared – colonists, Western governments. African neighbours, global businesses, Congolese tribal militia, NGO’s, members of the diaspora themselves and even consumers whose desire for gadgets fuels the trade in rare minerals that itself fuels the violence, particularly on women.

I very much liked Adam Brace’s play, as I did his earlier piece Stovepipe (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/stovepipe), and Michael Longhurst’s excellent production, with a fine cast of just twelve in multiple roles and an on-stage three-piece band. Definitely worth catching.

 

Gareth on the move

Children of Eden

Biblical musicals aren’t really my thing. I’m not at all fond of the Lloyd-Webber / Rice pair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, or Godspell by Stephen Scwartz, who also wrote this (which flopped when it went straight to the West End twenty-five years ago). Somewhat perversely, I prefer it to the other three – all hits – but that may have a lot to do with the chamber scale and high quality of this revival.

Based on the Old Testament Book of Genesis, it tells the stories of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel and Noah, the first two in Act I and the latter in Act II. I thought the score was rather good, as were Schwartz own lyrics, better than his other shows like Godspell, Pippin and Wicked. John Caird’s lucid book provides a cohesive structure. Even for an unbeliever like me, these are good yarns.

The staging (director Christian Durham) choreography (Lucie Pankhurst), design (Kingsley Hall) and lighting (Nic Farman) all come together to create a fresh, energetic and attractive whole. The animals were conjured up brilliantly and the use of umbrellas was very clever. Musical director Inga Davies-Rutter led an excellent quartet with particularly lovely woodwind sounds. It was very pleasing on the eye and ear.

There was a lot of doubling-up in the excellent young cast of eleven performers. I was particularly impressed by Stephen Barry as Adam / Noah and Canadian Natasha O’Brien (in her first UK role) as Eve / Mama Noah. There were other fine leading performances from Guy Woolf as Cain / Japeth, Daniel Miles as Abel / Ham and Nitika Johal as Yonah, and an excellent ensemble. They deserved a medal for getting through with the distraction of a front row of kids consuming an entire sweetshop with their mothers two rows behind necking cans of lager!

A very pleasant surprise, well worth catching.

Show Boat

I’m late to the party with this one, which didn’t turn out to be as much of a party as I was hoping and expecting. Though I accept it is hugely important in the history of musical theatre, it’s very dated and I’m afraid I didn’t think Daniel Evans production did much to breathe new life into it.

It was the first musical as we know them today, the tale of the Hawks family, and in particular daughter Magnolia Hawks, staging shows aboard a boat which moved up and down the Mississippi river to find its audience. Magnolia becomes a leading lady by covering for someone else, falls in love with her leading man and heads for Chicago where they have a daughter, but he lets them down badly and disappears. She returns to her career and then to her home aboard the show boat where they are eventually reconciled many years later.

What was radical at the time was the race and segregation themes, plus alcoholism, gambling and prostitution. This was no song and dancing girls piece. I’ve seen it twice before – the RSC / Opera North at the Palladium around 25 years ago, and a spectacular in-the-round production in the Royal Albert Hall ten years ago – and my recollection is more positive than my impression last night. I can’t help comparing it with the European premiere of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro which I saw just five days ago and which is superior in just about every way – staging, choreography, band and sound in particular. I liked Lez Brotherston’s design, though.

I don’t think it was jaded after four months, in its final fortnight before its early bath, or because there were three understudies in leading roles, as they were all excellent. The reviews had been very positive and the audience reception on the night I went was enthusiastic, so maybe it’s just me……

Extravaganza Macabre

Battersea Arts Centre has responded to its fire last year with enterprise and ingenuity, continuing its work and planning its future rather than mourning its loss. The latest in their exciting new adventure is a open-air theatre in a courtyard hardly anyone knew existed. It’s several stories high, all red brick and white ceramic brick with windows on all sides. They’ve added a false floor with trap doors, a metal gallery with standing places and bench seating and more standing places on the ground floor. It’s atmospheric and intimate and I can’t wait to see more here, but for now the equally enterprising and ingenious Little Bulb are inaugurating it with a delightful spoof Victorian melodrama (in what is of course a Victorian building).

Just three actors (Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway and Alexander Scott, who also devised the show) conjure up the story of a plighted bride and her evil abductor. We also meet maid Bertha and a street urchin (obviously) and his dog. The bride’s father is played by a man plucked from the audience (who moved during the interval, foolishly thinking this would thwart a second act reprise) whilst another audience member gets to bring the rat alive. They move through the space, in and out of doors and windows and trapdoors. They even perform in the window behind the ‘stage’. There’s music, of course, with piano, a trio of horns and bells, and some songs. We played along, hissed and booed and it was great fun.

This is the second small scale Little Bulb show since it’s spectacular Orpheus in the now defunct Grand Hall and I’ve loved them both. I can’t wait for more from the company and more in this terrific new space.

 

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