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Posts Tagged ‘All Star Productions’

All Star Productions last produced this Stephen Sondheim show just four years ago at their regular home in Walthamstow (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/into-the-woods). Now it’s in central London, fully in-the-round at the Cockpit Theatre, substantially re-cast, but essentially the same production.

Director Tim McArthur seems to have extended his contemporary characterisations, some of which work – Towie ugly sisters, Little Red Ridinghood with headphones and Sloane prince’s – but some which don’t – the witch as bag-lady and Jack’s chavy single mum (with such an impenetrable accent I could hardly understand a word she spoke or sang). The first half is meant to smother you in fairytale charm and lull you into a false sense of security, before it turns very dark after the interval; the problem with this interpretation is that it robs you of that, and that’s where it fails.

They’ve kept the adventure playground design aesthetic, albeit with a different designer. Aaron Clingham’s band sounded great, as ever, though there were amplification problems at the performance I attended. The cast is a great combination of young newcomers, like Florence Odumosu as Little Red Ridinghood and Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella, both delightful, and seasoned performers like Michele Moran and Mary Lincoln, who was in the UK premiere in 1990 – a great singer in a virtually non-singing role here! Jo Wickham is excellent as an older Baker’s Wife than we’re used to, Macey Cherrett & Francesca Pim give great turns as Cinderella’s sisters and Ashley Daniels & Michael Duke make a lovely pair of prince’s.

It was only the fifth performance (but after the press night) so it may well improve. There’s much to enjoy; what I saw was flawed, but worth catching nonetheless.

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This 1937 Rogers & Hart musical came three-quarters of the way through their prolific 22 year partnership, straight after On Your Toes, famous for it’s jazz ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. They were clearly still into ‘ballets’ as they inserted one into each act of this show. This is the original version, not the sanitised 1959 version which removed political references and two black characters subjected to racism.

Young Val is abandoned by his parents, off on a Vaudeville tour. As he is under 21, the local sheriff decides he must go to a work farm, but gives him a two-week stay of execution to attempt to put on a charity show with his friends and new girlfriend, who turned up one night when her car broke down! They squabble too much to succeed, so they all end up on the work farm. In a surreal plot twist, a French transatlantic pilot crash lands in Val’s family field which leads to the expectation of a prosperous future. It’s one of the daftest, most contrived plots in musical theatre, but it has a handful of standards including My Fully Valentine and The Lady is a Tramp, which is no doubt what attracts revivals.

Whatever you think of the show, you have to admire the chutzpah of this production. It’s chief strength is the outstanding dancing (choreographer Carole Todd), though the musical standards are as good as we’ve got used to here, but there’s sometimes a bit of a competition between the band, a (very necessary!) giant fan and some of the solo vocals. It’s an excellent energetic young cast, with Jack McCann and Ruth Betteridge very good romantic leads, Ruth making a fine job of both My Funny Valentine and The Lady is a Tramp. Beth Brantley delivers Johnny One Note with gusto. Gus Fielding, Jamie Tait and Alex Okoampa are particularly impressive in the dancing department.

Fine work up in Walthamstow again.

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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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The Scottsboro Boys – Kander & Ebb’s masterpiece at the Young Vic, perfectly staged and performed

American Psycho – 80’s satire gets a musical adaptation and a stunning production at the Almeida

Glasgow Girls – gritty stuff from Scotland in London’s home of grittiness, the Theatre Royal Stratford

Titanic – an underated musical thrillingly staged at Southwark Playhouse

Rooms – A Rock Romance – just as thrilling, but just two people falling in and out of love on a tiny stage

The Committments – a huge stage for Roddy Doyle’s infectious slice of working class Ireland set to soul music. The only West End show in my list!

The Colour Purple – the Menier on fine form in one of a large number of summer highlights for black theatre

One Touch of Venus – a pub theatre in Walthamstow shows Opera North how to do Weill

…and lots of lovely evenings at the Union and the Landor.

 

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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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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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I set out to see as many Sondheim shows as I could in his 80th year. I confined myself to London and managed 10 – 9 staged and 1 in concert – out of his grand total of 15. Given that one has yet to get its UK premiere and one has to be staged in a swimming pool, that’s not bad! Anyway, I decided it was worthy of a few tributes…..

The best West End production was without doubt Into The Woods at The Open Air Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/into-the-woods). Never have a theatre and a show been so made for each other. An honourable mention must go to the Donmar’s Passion (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/passion) which was a great production of my least favourite show.

Best fringe production was Assassins underneath the railway arches at that musicals powerhouse, The Union Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/assassins) sung better than I’ve ever heard it before.

Best Drama School contribution was the Royal Academy of Music with A Little Night Music (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/sondheim-at-the-royal-academy-of-music). Hugely ambitious for a young cast, but it paid off (though their Assassins fared less well).  Unfortunately, RADA’s ambition with Company proved over-ambitious, I’m afraid (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/sondheims-company-rada)

Best amateur production was the NYMT’s extraordinary Sweeney Todd (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/nymt-sweeney-todd) thrillingly staged in a nightclub masquerading as a lunatic asylum.

Gold star for ambition and sheer balls must got to All Star Production’s Follies in Walthamstow (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/follies) – staging Sondheim’s ‘biggest’ show in a room above a pub! Will someone please stage this at Wilton’s Music Hall, it’s London spiritual home…..

Turkey of the year, I’m afraid, to Hornchurch Queens Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-forum). A long trek for little reward.

The biggest surprise was how concert performances could be so so good – the Donmar’s Company and Merrily We Roll Along at the Queens Theatre were both simply breathtaking (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/donmar-warehouse-sondheim-at-80-concerts)

London did Sondheim proud. If only every year could be an 80th year!

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