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Posts Tagged ‘Ako Mitchell’

How can you not like a musical whose characters include a washing machine, dryer, radio, bus and the moon?! That makes it sound silly, but it certainly isn’t. Tony Kushner’s highly innovative, ground-breaking, partly autobiographical Olivier Award winning show, with an operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, is ten years old, not seen since it’s NT UK premiere, and this is a hugely successful revival at Chichester’s intimate Minerva Theatre.

Caroline is the black maid in the Louisiana household of the Jewish Gellman family. Young Noah’s mum has died and he lives with his dad Stuart, with whom his relationship isn’t strong, his step-mom Rose, who’s trying hard but has yet to be accepted, and grandma and granddad Gellman. He’s fond of Caroline, who seems to spend most of her time in the basement doing a seemingly endless volume of laundry, where her appliances come alive to sing, her radio as an archetypal black girl trio. There’s often money left in trouser pockets and Rose tells Caroline to keep it, to teach the lazy a lesson, but perhaps as charity too.

Outside this world there is a lot going on, notably the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It’s a time of change, represented by Caroline’s friend Dotty who is going to night school to attempt to improve her lot, and her daughter Emmie who challenges the servile, reverential attitudes of Caroline’s generation. We learn how Caroline became a single mom, and how she struggles to bring up Emmie and her two younger brothers on $30 a week. The blending of the personal stories of Noah and Caroline with the social history of the deep south in the sixties is deftly handled and Tesori’s sung-through score is packed full of lovely melodies rather than songs as such.

It’s a fabulous, faultless cast, with people of the calibre of Alex Gaumond and Beverley Klein in relatively minor roles. Nicola Hughes and Abiona Omouna are terrific as Dotty and Emmie respectively. Ako Mitchell, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson are all wonderful in their various non-human, but far from inanimate, roles. Daniel Luniku is sensational as Noah, and there is yet another towering performance from Sharon D Clarke, the second in as many months, as Caroline. She is absolutely perfect for this role, acting of real power and soaring vocals. 

It’s only six month’s since Kushner’s great new play iHo at Hampstead and his masterpiece Angels in America is currently blowing people’s minds at the NT, all three proving his importance to world theatre. Michael Longhurst’s staging of this is masterly, Fly Davies design is brilliant and the musical standards under MD Nigel Lilley are sky high. I left on a high. This is why I go to the theatre. 

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This is a musical based on a poem! Somewhat bizarrely, another musical based on the same poem opened in the same 2010 season in New York. This one, by Michael John LaChiusa, was on Broadway; the other, by Andrew Lippa, ran Off-Broadway. It crosses the Atlantic seven years on to open the newly rebranded The Other Palace, formerly St. James’ Theatre. Given it lasted less than two months over there, I wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away, though more so by the terrific staging and sensational performances than the material..

It’s a slice of roaring twenties decadence. Queenie and Burrs are Vaudeville entertainers who form a stormy, abusive relationship. They throw the wild party of the title, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, resulting in all sorts of sexual activity and depravity. When the party’s over, there are hangovers, regrets and recriminations, before its tragic conclusion. It feels more like a song cycle than a musical (and there are almost forty of them!). Above all, it’s a showcase for the performers.

The story is subservient to the jazz-influenced score. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show with so many showstoppers and so many show-stealing opportunities, distributed evenly so that almost everyone gets their moment. The longer first half doesn’t let up and by the interval I was exhausted; I think I’d have liked more light and shade. This is delivered in the shorter and darker second half with a series of sensational solo turns, many of which bring the house down. 

Soutra Gilmour’s design has a ‘stairway to heaven’ and terrific costumes. Drew McOnie continues his successful transition from choreographer to director / choreographer with a staging that took my breath away and choreography that was positively thrilling. Theo Jamieson’s eight-piece band sounded terrific.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances as they were all stars. John Owen-Jones was in fine acting and vocal form as Burrs, miles away from his usual territory, and Frances Ruffelle was clearly relishing every moment as Queenie. US star Donna McKechnie was a treat in her cameo as Delores. We’re used to scene-stealing turns from Tiffany Graves and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and they deliver yet again. Sebastien Torkia & Steven Serlin make a superb double-act as the budding producers, particularly in their second half comic duet. Casting women as ambisexual brothers Oscar & Phil D’Armano was an inspired idea and Genesis Lynea & Gloria Obianyo are outstanding. Dex Lee and Ako Mitchell are superb as Jackie and Eddie respectively. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.

This exceeded my expectations; it’s rare to see such faultless casting and such a stunning production. Head to Victoria while you have the chance. 

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This Flaherty / Ahrens show, with a book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E L Doctorow, has never really found its place in the musical theatre repertoire in the UK. Maybe it’s a bit too American, and a bit too sentimental. One hundred years on from its setting and 20 years on from it’s creation, in a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, during an equally divided trumped up American election, maybe it’s found its time. It certainly resonated more with me than my three previous productions.

It interweaves the stories if a white liberal New England family with Latvian Jewish immigrant Teteh and his daughter and black singer Coalhouse Walker Jnr, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son, which become entwined almost by accident. Teteh is trying to establish a new life in America, the black couple are trying to survive amidst the racism of the day and the New England family are largely sympathetic to both, standing out from the less welcoming crowd around them. There’s a bunch of historical characters like Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini to add social history to the personal stories. It’s got a great ragtime influenced score, with both choruses and solos shining through.

When Coalhouse is attacked and his girlfriend Sarah murdered by racist Irish fireman Clonkin (somewhat ironic given he too was an immigrant), it unleashes a wave of revenge and rebellion that contrasts with the more peaceful campaigning of black leader Booker T Washington. Our Latvian friend is busy inventing movies, the New England family’s ‘father’ is off exploring the world, ‘mother’ has virtually adopted Sarah’s son and her ‘younger brother’ goes to join Coalhouse’s campaign.

This excellent production by Thom Southerland seemed to me to place more emphasis on the racism and its responses, which gave the show more clarity and focus than I’ve seen before. The twenty-four performers really fill the stage and when they sing in unison it’s a glorious sound. I’m not sure if this team have used the actor-musician format before, but it works very well here, with MD Jordan Li-Smith at one of the two on-stage pianos. I really liked Tom Rogers & Toots Butcher’s barn like design and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are very good indeed.

Anita Louise-Combe is superb as ‘mother’; her second act song Back to Before brought the house down. Ako Mitchell is outstanding as the defiant Coalhouse and Nolan Frederick and Jonathan Stewart invest great passion into Booker T Washington and ‘younger brother’ respectively. Jennifer Saayeng plays Sarah with great dignity and feeling and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Seyi Omooba, who leads the rousing Act I finale. On the night I went ‘little boy’ was superbly played by Ethan Quinn.

The Landor made a great job of it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) but the Open Air Theatre, uncharacteristically, made a bit of a mess of it a year later (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/ragtime-2) This fine production is another jewel in the jewel-laden crown of the Tarento-Southerland team. Don’t miss.

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Has there ever been a musical based on a documentary film before? This 2006 Off-Broadway-to-Broadway show, getting its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse, is based on the film of the same name, a true account of the mother-daughter relationship of Edith & Edith Bouvier Beale, Long Island socialites with connections to the Kennedy’s.

After a brief prologue looking back, the first act is set in 1941, their heyday hosting parties and mixing with the rich and famous. Young Edie is betrothed to the future president’s elder brother Joseph Kennedy (may be true) and her cousins include a young Jaqueline (Kennedy nee Bouvier – definately true). Big Edie’s dad is an eccentric retired major, perhaps even a bit barking. They even have an in-house pianist to accompany Big Edie in her vocal entertainments. Think Philadelphia Story with eccentricity scaled up 10-fold.

In the second half we move forward 32 years to 1973. Mother and daughter are recluses, living with 54 cats in filthy surroundings unable to look after themselves. The press have made the connection with the former first lady and the neighbours protest. Their only friend is a teenage handyman whose motivation is ambiguous and who Big Edie has an unhealthy attraction to.

The difference between the two acts is extraordinary, very much a show in two halves. For me this is its flaw. I can see the necessity of showing their heyday, but a whole act seems to overplay it and rob us of more depth to the story at the heart of the piece – the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship and how they got that way.

That said, there is so much to admire and enjoy that it’s an unmissable evening. Chief amongst this are the performances. Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Southerland must have wet themselves when they secured Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell for the leads; it’s hard to imagine a pair more suited to these roles and they are both sensational. Russell combines pathos with tragi-comedy and quirkiness to give a performance that is a career highlight, even in her illustrious career. Hancock’s stage presence and audience engagement are extraordinary; she completely inhabits the role.

As if that wasn’t enough, Aaron Sidwell follows his brilliant turn in American Idiot with a brilliant pair of performances, as dashing young naval man Joseph Kennedy and the teenager who befriends the ladies, and Rachel Anne Rayham is hugely impressive as Little Edie in 1941. There’s superb support from Billy Boyle as dad / granddad, Jeremy Legat as the pianist and friend and Ako Mitchell as two generations of household staff. I don’t know which pair of girls played the cousins, but they were superb.

The surprisingly big 10-piece band make a lovely sound (and the venue’s former sound problems seem to have gone, as they had in Grand Hotel). Tom Rogers impressive design is a touch cramped in the first act but suitably chlaustrophobic in the second. Thom Southerland’s staging is as good as we’ve come to expect from him.

Southwark Playhouse starting the year on a high. Don’t miss.

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The Park Theatre seems to be finding its feet, and its audience. This was one of two packed shows, and two packed bars, on Saturday night. It was my first visit to the smaller theatre, Park 90, a black box space with seats on three sides. Only two actor-singers, a multi-instrumentalist and two stools, but a very original and powerful play with music.

Klook has a past, but his life takes a positive turn when he meets much younger single mum Vinette in, of all places, a Californian whole-food shop. They fall in love before our very eyes. We follow the relationship as it grows, with feelings laid bare and passion out in the open, learning about their respective pasts. The songs, by Omar (Lyefook) & Anoushka Lucas with lyrics by writer / director Che Walker, are lovely and beautifully sung with either a piano, acoustic guitar or double-base for accompaniment – all three by versatile musician Rio Kai.

There’s a great mood to the piece – film noir meets jazz in a passionate embrace – and there’s an extraordinary chemistry between Ako Mitchell and Sheila Atim. It ends tragically, and this is all the more shocking after an hour of love. It’s soulful and sexy, dramatic and dangerous, and completely original. Every component fits together brilliantly – Walker’s crackling naturalistic dialogue, songs that propel the story forward and performances that feel ever so real.

Do not miss this!

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I rather liked this quirky tongue-in-cheek celebration of a peculiarly American tradition, the high school spelling competition.

The composer William Finn has shown promise for a long time, but failed to fulfil it. I remember seeing the first outing of March of the Falsettos zonks ago and thinking ‘he’ll go far’ – but he hasn’t. In truth, the simplistic formulaic music here shows he hasn’t moved on much, which is perhaps the reason. The show’s success has more to do with a terrific idea, the right theatre with a brilliant design, funny lyrics, a production that fizzes and performances bursting with enthusiasm and energy.

Designer Christopher Oram has turned the Donmar into a school gym with a blue and yellow colour scheme that extends to the letters at the end of the rows of special blue seats and the ‘confetti’ which falls from the rafters. Jamie Lloyd’s staging and Ann Yee’s choreography are just as bright and they’ve teased lovely portraits of archetypal kids from Harry Hepple, Iris Roberts, Chris Carswell, David Fynn, Hayley Gallivan and Maria Lawson. Steve Pemberton and Katherine Kingsley are excellent as the adults as is Ako Mitchell as the helper on community service.

Adding four volunteers from the audience as ‘extras’ is an inspired idea and on the night we went, they were so good I wondered if some of them were actually plants. The way their characters are  ‘invented’ is clever and when one manages to spell a word that was clearly meant to be her exit, it brought the house down.

95 minutes of infectious fun – it won’t change your life, you might struggle to remember it in 10 years, but you probably won’t regret going – and it’s a whole lot better than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg!

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