Posts Tagged ‘Alastair Knights’

This 2001 show by James Valcq & Fred Alley (who died tragically just before its New York première) is based on the 1996 film of the same title. The writers were mentored by Arthur Laurents and the show won the prestigious Richard Rogers Award, presented by a panel that included Lynn Ahrens, Sheldon Harnick and Richard Maltby Jnr, chaired by Stephen Sondheim no less. It’s apparently had c.500 productions worldwide but this appears to be only the second one in the UK and the first professional one and first London one, which is a real puzzle as its such a good show.

Recently released from prison, Percy (a girl) serves her parole in ficticious Gilead, Wisconsin. The local Sheriff, Joe Stutter, finds her a job and home at the titular cafe owned by Hannah. The small town are divided, with Hannah’s nephew Caleb and postmistress and town gossip Effy against and Hannah, Caleb’s wife Shelby and the Sheriff prepared to give her a chance. Hannah has an accident, which prompts her decision to finally get rid of the cafe (which has been on the market for 10 years) and this brings Percy & Shelby close as they get the idea of a competition to find the next owner. We eventually learn the reason for Percy’s imprisonment and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Hannah’s son Eli.

It’s a very good book, with the lyrics providing much to drive the narrative. The score is packed full of great tunes with a real Americana sound, helped by the use of accordion as well as the piano of MD Simon Holt. There are only six major characters, but they are all very well drawn and it’s extremely well plotted. It’s a really well written show, though it starts oddly with a long solo by Percy, A Ring Around the Moon. It soon takes off though and draws you in. The closing numbers of both acts are particularly uplifting.

In addition to a fine show, I was impressed by a uniformly excellent cast with outstanding vocals and mighty fine acting. Belinda Wollaston navigates her character’s journey from edgy ex-con to reformed ex-con extremely well, Hilary Harwood really inhabits the character of Hannah and Natalie Law makes another impressive transformation from dominated Shelby to liberated Shelby. Chris Kiely is every inch the young small town Sheriff and Hans Rye is great as the less sympathetic Caleb. Katie Brennan lightens the evening with a superb characterisation of busy-body Effy. This really is an exceptional cast, mostly new to me.

It’s a minimalist staging (a little too too much so in the first half, with unnecessarily ‘mimed’ coffee pots, cups and suchlike) with no set and just a few props, but the show is good enough to make that irrelevant. The only other work I’ve seen by director Alistair Knights was the Sondheim ‘revue’ Putting it Together and the one-night A Little Night Music, both excellent, and his staging here impressed me again.

Great show, outstanding vocals, fine acting……two more weeks to find out for yourself.

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What a delicious hour of musical theatre for Sondheim fans, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Sondheim Society, who co-produced the show. Based on an idea of the society’s administrator Lynne Chapman, who has been collecting material and ‘incubating’ the show for sixteen years, and staged by London Theatre Workshop at their new base in Fulham, it was both a tribute and a loving parody of the undoubted god of musical theatre.

Presented as a revue, it contained existing songs like Andrew Lippa’s Marshall Levin, Alan Chapman’s Everybody Wants to Be Sondheim and the late Jonathan Larsons homage / riff on Sunday plus excellent new material from Eamonn O’Dwyer, Matt Board and the show’s musical director Alex Parker. It’s set in a rehearsal space where writers, directors and performers step out to give us a song alone, in combination with one or more of the three others or as an ensemble, with terrific accompaniment from MD Alex Parker and excellent staging by Alastair Knights.

Most of all though there are four stunning vocal performances from recent winners and finalists of the society’s annual Student Performer competition. These were faultless star turns from four future stars which completely blew me away. They sang beautifully alone and together they soared. It is rare to see such uniformly fine and faultless performances on any stage and the ovation afforded to Emma Odell, Kris Olsen, Corrine Priest and Jay Worley was richly deserved.

The performance I saw was being recorded, so I hope God gets to see it as he cannot fail to be impressed and moved by this affectionate homage.

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