Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Clingham’

Well, I certainly had to suffer for my art last night, the hottest day of the year in a stifling room above a pub, but All Star Productions managed to make me whoop with joy at their UK première of this 1932 Irving Berlin / Moss Hart musical.

Why on earth has it taken so long to get here? It’s a fun story of a Broadway producer putting on a show, but it’s the depression so he’s run out of gullible investors, until a chance meeting with the wife of the chief of police leads him to persuade the corrupt NYC police to launder the proceeds of their corruption in his show. There’s something of The Producers in this storyline, but it pre-dates the original film of that show by 36 years. The cops, and the chief’s wife, interfere in the show and the producer quits, leaving them to finish off the flop. After the first night, and predictable bad reviews, a cast member suggests spicing it up and it turns into a hit, which brings attention from the FBI.

It hasn’t got much of a book, but it’s good enough for a showcase of some great songs and ends brilliantly with the number Investigation. Though none of the songs are standards in the Berlin way, they’re better than many Broadway musicals and here they are played and sung exceptionally well. Designer Joana Dias has created an impressionistic NYC skyline on the walls of the room with a can of white paint. Some packing crates, wooden chairs and a rack of clothes complete the picture. The costumes are very good and it all looks great. Sally Brooks’ choreography is outstanding, making great use of the limited space to produce uplifting movement. Brendan Matthew’s staging is superb, respecting the period but with enough of its tongue in its cheek to laugh with it. Aaron Clingham’s 4-piece band are as good as ever.

They’ve assembled another crack cast (that man Newsome again). David Anthony and Laurel Dougall are suitably OTT as the chief cop Meshbesher and his wife Myrtle, the comic heart of the piece.  Samuel Haughton takes the acting honours as archetypal Broadway producer Hal Reisman. Joanne Clifton brought the house down as the streetwalker with her Torch Song and Joanna Hughes as Kit sang beautifully. There are also a couple of impressive professional débuts from Lewis Dewar Foley and Kirsten Stark.

Ye Olde Rose & Crown continues to produce outstanding fringe musicals and this is amongst its best. Only three more days to catch it.

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Into the Woods is a challenge for any theatre company, even more so for a fringe company with limited resources and often less experienced performers. So well done Rose & Crown for having the balls – just before the film will hit our screens too.

Sondheim weaves a number of fairytales into one narrative – well known ones like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack & the Beanstalk and less well known ones like Rapunzel and The Baker’s Wife. In order to break the spell that has left his wife barren, the baker has to find a red cloak, yellow hair, white cow and gold slipper, which of course are all available from the other characters, at a price. They get on the wrong side of the giantess after Jack climbs the beanstalk and steals stuff, which means they have to work to rescue the situation – those that remain, anyway. What starts with a light touch gets ever so dark and it ends as a morality tail. It’s a masterpiece of musical theatre.

With what is clearly a shoestring budget, designer Gregor Donnelly has created a surprisingly large playing space in this room above a pub that looks like a children’s adventure playground. It’s amazing what you can do with some pallets, a few ladders, camouflage netting, hessian sacks and a whole load of wood chips. The narrator seems to be a workman and Jack and his mum have become very chavvy. I liked the way Tim McArthur’s staging used this space, even though a far side view wasn’t ideal, with particularly quick and surprising entrances.  Aaron Clingham’s five-piece piano – strings – woodwind ensemble played the score beautifully. The choruses sounded great, but the solo vocals were variable and some of the intricate ensemble pieces were a touch ragged. I missed some of the lyrics because the balance wasn’t ideal from my position near the band – but ideal to hear the quality of the playing.

The show overran significantly – just under three hours – which in a hot space with not particularly comfortable seating didn’t help, but it’s an ambitious undertaking and they just about pulled it off. Whatever I think, the full house roared their approval and they clearly have a well-earned hit on their hands.

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This was the third musical comedy I’d seen in London in eight days. Top price tickets for the other two, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and I Can’t Sing in the West End, are five times as much and though I enjoyed the other two, I can honestly say this was just as much fun. The belated UK premiere of Charles Strouse’s 1966 Broadway show (11 years before he wrote his big hit Annie) is a coup for Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow, and yet another reason to justify this venue’s candidature for musical theatre indispensability.

The baddies in this particular Superman tale are atomic scientist Dr Abner Sedgwick, determined to destroy the world’s iconic goodie in revenge for the lack of respect of other scientists, and Max Mencken, a challenger for the affections of Lois. We also have five acrobatic Ling’s – Fan Po, Tai, Ding Ming Foo and father Ling! – brilliantly choreographed by Kate McPhee, when she wasn’t designing the costumes. Randy Smartnick, when he wasn’t directing, designed an inventive ‘cardboard cut-out’ set of panels that change to become the Daily Planet offices, Sedgwick’s laboratory and all other locations, with an air blower and a doll on a wire giving us flying sequences. The low budget is turned to an advantage by giving us production values to match the tongue-in-cheek tone of the parody.

It’a got some great songs and they are sung really well, accompanied by Aaron Clingham’s excellent quintet behind the stage. Craig Berry as Superman has a commanding presence, a kiss curl, an earnest look and a booming baritone voice. Matthew Ibbotson is a suitably manic baddie (and a dead ringer for The Book of Mormon’s Elder Cunningham, Jared Gertner) and Michelle LaFortune is a lovely Lois. Sarah Kennedy almost steals the show with a terrific performance as put-upon Sydney. There’s great energy and enthusiasm in the whole ensemble which was infectious.

Sadly the run is now over but if there’s any justice it’ll be back. Huge fun on a shoestring.

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It’s hard to believe its 22 years since the London premiere of this Howard Goodall musical set in the Spanish Civil War. It wasn’t revived for ages and has since (I think) only received two other London productions, at the Kings Head & the Landor. Hearing the title song in Ye Olde Rose & Crown’s Goodall compilation Love & War last year fired me up to see it again, so this trip to the northern end of the Victoria line was a must.

The Spanish Civil War has come to and end, Franco is in the process of setting up his Fascist state and the Second World War has just begun. Republican fighter Carlos has returned home with the young British communist Stanley, who has been leading his brigade. Stanley falls in love with Carlos’ daughter Sofia and plans to escape home to Scarborough (!) with her and her parents. Carlos’ comrade Jose and niece Teresa’s intended Pablo remind us how this war divided a nation, communities and families.

Christopher Dingli & Jo Wickham do well playing older as bickering but still in love parents Carlos and Maria, with the latter leading the Act II opener Market Day particularly well. Annie Kirkman is a great Sofia and her duet, Lorca, with Lydia Marcazzo’s Teresa was another highlight. Emanuel Alba and Alexander Barria both bring passion to the opposing roles of Jose & Pablo, handling their respective songs – Long Live Death and Democracy – well. Though Rupert Baldwin acted well, I’m afraid he didn’t rise to the solo vocal challenge that is Song of the English Volunteer, faring better backed by the company in Song of the Brigades.

I liked the immediacy and intimacy of Tim McArthur’s in-the-round (well, in-the-square) staging with no set and just a table and chairs for props; a lot of the action takes place at and around the dinner table after all. Aaron Clingham’s little band sounded great, with a pair of acoustic guitars anchoring the score in Spain and the company numbers were more rousing than you ‘d expect from a cast of seven.

This is a short two-week run and given the limited rehearsal time and resources, they’ve done well. Definitely worth the trip to the far north-east!

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This was written after Ken Hill’s Stratford East original but before Lloyd-Webber’s show, which sadly scuppered its Broadway intentions and quite possibly changed history. Even so, it’s had over 1000 productions worldwide but, astonishingly, this is its London professional premiere – and Maury (Nine, Grand Hotel & Titanic) Yeston & Arthur (Nine) Kopit’s show is rather good.

Of course, it shares the same source in Gaston Leroux’s book, but we get more of the phantom (Eric!)’s history / back story and the music is a nod to French operetta (somewhat appropriately for its late 19th century Parisian setting) rather than ripped off from an obscure Puccini opera set in the wild west! It’s a whole lot less pompous that Lloyd-Webber’s, with some nice tongue-in-cheek touches (this could be the production rather than the show, of course).

This is a room above a pub in Walthamstow, so there’s no multicoloured masquerade, boats sailing on dry ice lakes or falling chandeliers – indeed,the entire budget is probably less than the other one’s chandelier cleaning bill – but it’s a terrific production. This is largely due, as before at Ye Olde Rose & Crown, to sky-high musical standards plus, on this occasion, excellent casting by Ben Newsome (also responsible for One Touch of Venus here last year plus more recently A Class Act & Sleeping Arrangements at the Landor and Rooms at the Finborough).

Kieran Brown is outstanding as the phantom and Aussie Kira Morsley (her UK professional debut?) is a fantastic Christine, with the perfect voice for the part. I loved Pippa Winslow’s Carlotta and there are other fine performances from Andrew Rivera as her husband, Sean Paul Jenkinson as the count also in love with Christine and Tom Murphy as outgoing theatre manager Carriere. They are all supported by a fine ensemble.

I adored MD Aaron Clingham’s arrangements for piano, woodwind and strings and the idea of atmospheric ‘incidental’ music is a very good one. American Dawn Kalani Cowle (it’s a proper United Nations up there in Walthamstow) does a fine job of staging this in such a small space, with clever use of a red curtain across the whole space.

I thought One Touch of Venus was a turning point for this venue, and I think this proves it. Anyone interested in musical theatre should be heading to Walthamstow right now. No excuses.

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The last time I saw this show, it had the resources of Opera North – probably enough to run this fringe venue for a decade – and tickets were four times as much. Big budgets don’t always result in the best shows though and I enjoyed this production a lot more – perhaps the best this enterprising venue has (so far) given.

Kurt Weill’s score only has one real standard – Speak Low – but it’s a consistently good score, and here it’s beautifully played by MD Aaron Clingham on his baby grand (in the room this time, thank goodness!) and beautifully sung (unamplified) by an exceptional cast.

The story is a bit daft. An ancient lost statue of Venus ends up in a New York gallery where it is kissed by a drunken man, comes alive and they fall in love. Rodney is already engaged (bring on dumped fiancée with screechy voice and stroppy mom) so Venus makes her disappear. It takes a farcical turn as Gloria’s mum wants justice and the gods want Venus back.

Sarah June Mills has created an excellent modern art gallery with paintings that are more than they seem. Lydia Milman Schmidt’s staging is excellent and choreographer Rhiannon Faith manages to create a superb second act  ‘ballet’ in this tiny space. The production values are very high for the fringe and a lot higher than we’ve seen at Ye Olde Rose & Crown before.

The ensemble is outstanding and the leads are great. Kendra McMillan is appropriately statuesque and other-worldly as Venus and David Jay-Douglas captures the naivety of lovestruck Rodney. The world of modern art is brilliantly represented by James Wolstenholme’s gallery owner Savory and his protective secretary Molly; a fine performance from Danielle Morris.

Weill was unique amongst the composers of Broadway’s golden age (well, as a man from decadent Berlin escaping the Nazi’s, he would be wouldn’t he!) and his shows are distinctive because they are not formulaic; each one tells a different story differently. We don’t have revivals anywhere near often enough and this outstanding production is very welcome. Don’t miss!

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One of the things I love about London is that 31 years after moving here you can make your first visit to a theatre 20 minutes away from your home that’s been there for 13 of them, buried in residential Camberwell, to see the European Premiere of a musical by a couple of boys from Sydney! 

The Hatpin is based on a 100-year old true story which is hardly typical musical fare – mass infanticide! Amber advertises for a family to look after her illegitimate son so that she can work to keep them both. The Makin family oblige but access soon proves difficult for Amber and suspicions are aroused. She discovers others in a similar position and, with the help of the  employer who has also become her friend, she goes about investigating the facts. She wasn’t expecting to find the horrors she finds and struggles to persuade an inquest of the facts and then a court of the Makin’s guilt. In the second half it becomes very dark indeed – and you discover why it’s called The Hatpin!

The story is told quite well by musical theatre. The production’s physical theatre style (a specialism of director Ricky Dukes) and minimalist design – just costumes, lighting and a lot of stage smoke – work reasonably well. An undistinguished Sondheimesque score by Peter Rutherford, with book and lyrics by James Millar, successfully drives the narrative, but it proves musically too challenging for a cast with limited musical theatre experience, not helped by the vocal imbalance of a company that’s 75% female voices. There were far too many off-key moments and a fair few screechy ones which I’m afraid had me wincing in my seat. MD Aaron Clingham makes his second trip of 2012 south of the river and plays the whole score faultlessly on an electric piano.

Gemma Beaton as Amber and Eleanor Saunders as her employer stand out and veteran Hayward Morse has great presence as Justice Stephen. In my view, many of the remaining 12 were struggling with either acting and /or singing. It’s perhaps unfortunate for this company that I’m seeing them in the same week as the I saw premiere league musicals casts at both The Landor and The Arcola.

Still, the Blue Elephant is a nice space and there was enough to admire to make the trip worthwhile. It’s not a great show, but I think it would have fared better with more musical theatre experience in direction and performance or perhaps the subject matter might make a better play than it does a musical.

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I failed to get to Walthamstow for the first run of this All Star Productions show, so I was delighted when Walthamstow came to me – well, the Landor Theatre in Clapham, anyway. It’s 17 years since we last saw it in London, in a lovely production at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, so it’s a great opportunity to take another look – and in a recession too; a time when it might resonate even more.

Kander and Ebb have of course two iconic shows in their back-catalogue – Cabaret and Chicago. This pre-dates both, a commercial flop when it opened on Broadway in 1965, though it did win a young Lisa Minnelli a Tony award. Not surprising in my book – a Broadway show about workers struggles and the communist party! This revised version hails from 1987. I’m not sure how much it changed, but it did get ‘framed’ by scenes of a workers theatre troupe putting on a show. Since I saw it last, I’ve seen Pins & Needles (revived at the now defunct Cock Tavern a couple of years ago) which I suspect is the only other Broadway show anything like it.

Flora is the catalyst in a co-operative / commune of struggling artists and crafts people in New York City. There’s a jeweller, a dressmaker, a pair of dancers and Harry, like Flora a textile designer. Harry wins the heart of Flora and also wins her for the Communist Party. When she gets a job in a big department store, she starts recruiting behind the backs of the management. Fellow party activist Charlotte seeks to lure Flora away from Harry and persuades the party to protest outside her employer’s store. The lives of 32 of Flora’s co-workers are jeopardized.

Kander and Ebb did select some unusual and brave themes for their shows and this is no exception, but it’s extraordinary that it got to Broadway as they weren’t established names at this point. It’s not a great show, but it is fascinating and there’s some great music and staging possibilities which director Randy Smartnick and choreographer Kate McPhee (doubling as costume designer) fully exploit. They’ve found lots of fun in the story without losing its sociopolitical essence.

There are great set pieces as Charlotte addresses the party, the dancers rehearse for their audition, the workers protest outside the store and a delightful Busby Berkley number to end the first act! Aaron Clingham’s musical direction is outstanding, as always, this time with just piano and double bass. The standard of singing is exceptional.

Heading a fine cast, Katy Baker is superb as Flora – feisty and passionate, yet lovable. This is her first musical; if she’s not in leading roles in the West End soon, I shall be very surprised – one of the most promising musical theatre debuts I’ve ever seen. Ellen Verenieks is excellent as Charlotte, as is Steven Sparling as a stuttering Harry. There wasn’t a fault in the supporting cast and they played to a sparce Sunday matinee audience as if it was opening night.

The Landor should be packed to the rafters, with queues for returns, for important musical theatre work of this quality. You have two more weeks to find out if you agree with me!

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Last year was a good year for fans of Howard Goodall’s musicals, with revivals of The Kissing Dance at Jermyn Street Theatre, an award-winning Hired Man at The Landor and Girlfriends here at Ye Olde Rose & Crown in Walthamstow.   Now this enterprising venue has devised a musical revue showcasing c.30 songs from 8 of Goodall’s 10 musicals. Hearing them all together is conclusive proof that despite the lack of commercial success, he’s still the best British musical theatre composer we’ve had in the last 30 years.

Goodall’s 28-year career has been bookended by his two best shows – The Hired Man in 1984 and Love Story in 2010 – but there are other lovely chamber pieces like Days of Hope, whose title song opens and closes this compilation and is one of the best of the evening. His musical style is uniquely British, with beautiful melodies and excellent lyrics. However, only 3 of the 10 shows got to the West End and 4 didn’t even get to London. This man is seriously under-rated. Can we now have The Winter’s Tale and Two Cities in London please?!

Lydia Milman Schmidt and Aaron Clingham have made a good selection and ordered them well. Sarah Booth’s impressionistic design provides a nice simple setting for the themes of love and war, which do seem to recur in Goodall’s work. The combination of piano (Aaron Clingham) and cello (Maria Rodriguez Reina)  is perfect for this music, though quite why they were located outside the performing area and heard through speakers is beyond me – this is my one quibble!

Jennifer Redson, Terrie-May McNulty, Steven Sparling and Michael Stacey acted the songs, rather than aiming for vocal perfection. This brings out the stories they tell and the emotions they convey and makes them more moving; they brought a tear to my eyes (and theirs!) more than once.

It was a somewhat melancholic evening, but a very beautiful one which proved well worth crossing London for.

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Perhaps it should be renamed ‘Flare Path – The Musical’ to cash in on that play’s recent success; it’s set in an RAF base during the second world war – though that’s just about where the similarity ends. Anyway, a second wish granted – another Howard Goodall revival – so soon after my wish for a Lionel Bart revival.

I was lucky to be working in the North West when this was premiered in Bolton 25 years ago. It was lovely; a worthy follow-up to his first musical, The Hired Man, which I had seen and loved in London two years before. Something happened when it transferred to the West End; it was nowhere near as good, but I couldn’t work out why. Seeing this first London revival at Ye Old Rose & Crown has answered that question – it really is a chamber piece which never belonged in the West End.

It’s a simple story of the love of two women for the same man, set against a backdrop of wartime sorties by the male pilots and parachute making by the girls at the base. There’s a touch of feminism and a nod to conscientious objection, but that’s about it story-wise. Even though it’s not sung-through, there’s not a lot of dialogue. That makes the music seem a bit repetitive and monotonous, lovely though it is. There are nice touches of humour though (Richard Curtis had a hand in it) and the characterisation is good, but I think the lack of depth and the music’s mono-style is its weakness.

The young cast of seven girls and two boys do very well indeed; it’s not an easy score to sing. The three that make up the love triangle – Mark Lawson, Harriet Dobby and Emma Manley – are particularly good. The production has an authentic feel (helped by uniforms with caps, stockings with seams and hairos with buns & copious quantities of hairpins!) and its beautifully sung. The five piece band (an unusual but effective line-up of piano, cello, clarinet, alto sax and trumpet) under MD Aaron Clingham provide lovely accompaniment (after a ragged opening); I didn’t think it over loud as others before me did, but I did sit as far away from the band as I could because I’d heard this!

It’s the musicality of Goodall shows that I love. He writes such good melodies and it all sounds so British; a breath of fresh air in a genre that almost always sounds American. All Star Productions succeed where it matters – musically – and it’s a long-awaited and very welcome revival. Great to see a full house in a room above a pub in Walthamstow on a Sunday afternoon for work like this, too. Well worth the schlep north.

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