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Posts Tagged ‘Amanda Minihan’

It’s an unlikely premise for a musical – a bunch of jar heads on a bender the night before deployment in Vietnam! It took a while to prove itself, but prove itself it did. Southwark Playhouse seems to have another hit musical on its hands.

Benj Pasek, Justin Paul & Peter Duncan’s 2012 show is set in San Francisco in 1963, where a group of marines seek out girls for their last night party. It takes a while before we realise that it’s more of a cruel game than a farewell shag. Eddie’s waitress pick-up Rose gives as good as she gets when they’re rumbled, but by now Eddie has fallen in love with her. He rescues the situation with a romantic dinner, though he can hardly suppress his pent up anger at the world. When he leaves with Rose’s address, he promises to keep in touch. The show is framed by scenes of his homecoming in 1967 (this isn’t that clear) and in the second and final one we see his reception, both political and personal. Though I loved the music and Matt Ryan’s direction & Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography, by the interval I wasn’t so sure about the story or where it was going, but it’s nicely sown up in the second half.

It’s not a lot more than a love story, but it has a lovely score which is beautifully played by George Dyer’s largely acoustic six-piece band. The six voices of the marines sound great together and Jamie Muscato is a fine romantic lead as Eddie. Every now and again I find myself blown away by an outstanding performance and here Laura Jane Matthewson makes an extraordinary professional debut as Rose, with gorgeous vocals and a very believable transition from naive girl to feisty woman. More great vocals from Rebecca Trehearn as Marcy and a lovely cameo from Ananda Minihan (straight from playing a wonderful Nettie in the Arcola’s superb Carousel) complete a fine cast, something producer Danielle Tarento is renown for.

Like Southwark Playhouse’s last musical In The Heights, it’s staged with the audience on three sides and a two-story backdrop containing the band and entrances designed by Lee Newby (it’s only towards the end I realised what this represented) and the playing space is used to great effect, particularly in the thrilling ‘dance’ numbers. The sound needs a bit of attention to ensure full audibility of the lyrics throughout the auditorium, but that could be easily solved by press night.

Haven’t booked yet? Why?

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Though we’ve seen rarer Rogers & Hammerstein shows on the fringe (most recently Me & Juliet, State Fair & Pipe Dream), I’m not sure anyone has tackled one of the ‘Big 5’ before (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King & I, The Sound of Music and this). If I had been asked for my opinion, it would be unequivocal ‘avoid’ – these are big Broadway shows that require big resources and a big stage. WRONG! This is an absolute triumph.

This was only their second show, 70 years old next year. moving musical theatre into a new era of realism, with themes never before associated with the form. It’s packed full of wonderful music, but it all goes a bit awry in the second half when it becomes sweet, sickly and a bit preposterous at the gates of heaven. Not here, though, where it becomes a tense musical drama with a moving moral message. Luke Fredericks’ production has not only turned the sentimentality into pathos, but he’s made the ballet an integral part of the show.

Based on an early 20th century Hungarian play, this production has moved the setting forward 50 to 60 years to start around the time of the Great Depression, providing clearer motivation, and ending as the second world war ends (the year it was first staged), more appropriate for its hopeful, uplifting conclusion. Nothing else is changed, but it’s more intimate, involving and moving. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only emotional wreck at curtain call.

The musical standards are sky high. The unamplified voices have a purity to them and don’t have to compete with a largely unamplified band located above and behind. The use of flute, double bass and above all harp brings a beautiful new quality to the music – it’s amazing how much harp accompaniment transforms You’ll Never Walk Alone. Stewart Charlesworth’s design is a miracle of economy and a brilliant use of the space, with versatile mobile metal ‘arcs’, everything from washing to carnival banners to canopies raised high by pulleys and superbly evocative costumes. Lee Proud’s choreography is fresh and often brave and the second act ballet was thrilling.

It’s hard to talk about the performances with anything but a shower of superlatives. Gemma Sutton follows her sultry, sexy turn in Hackney Empire’s Blues in the Night with a wonderful sweet, naive Julie, with Vicki Lee Taylor matching her all the way as best friend Carrie. Tim Rogers brings more passion and a rougher edge to Billy, which makes the second act all the more heart-breaking. Amanda Minihan’s younger Hettie is more of a role model for the girls and the character seems more central in this setting. There isn’t a weak link in this cast, one any producer would die for.

This is the fourth time I’ve seen this show. The first three – NT, West End and most recently Opera North – were very good, but this intimate staging is something else altogether. I’ve seen and enjoyed producer Morphic Graffiti’s first two shows, but this propels them into the premiere league. Why on earth would you want to go to the West End when you can see a show this good for a third of the price?

Missing this makes any lover of musical theatre certifiable!

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There are two things that propel Maria Friedman’s production of this most complicated of Sondheim shows from good to great  – faultless casting (well, she’s a musical theatre actress; it takes one to know one?) and Catherine Jayes terrific 9-piece band.

The show tells the story of composer Franklin Shepherd, his partnership with writer Charley Kringas and his relationships with wife Beth, lover Gussie & friend Mary…..but it tells it backwards from when he’s ‘sold out’ to Hollywood in 1976 to a night on the roof of their NYC apartment block as they begin their careers and as Sputnik is launched, heralding a new world. Chronologically, Frank & Charley start with their own fringe review, get picked up by a Broadway producer to write a musical and break up the partnership on live TV along the way. The producer’s wife, Broadway star Gussie, steals Frank from Beth and we learn that all the time he has been the (unrequited) love of Mary’s life.

In this production, the score really does shine. It doesn’t have showstoppers, but it has some terrific melodies and brilliant bittersweet lyrics with tunes weaving in and out and overlapping in a way only Sondheim can do. It’s the third production of the show I’ve seen, plus the Donmar’s extraordinary concert version as part of Sondheim’s 80th which is still ringing in my ears, but I still saw and heard new things; such is the depth and density of the material. It had a lot to live up to, but it did.

Jenna Russell is cast against type (until the end/beginning) but she’s wonderful as both initially cynical & bitter and  later/earlier excited & naiive Mary. Mark Umbers is superb as Frank, with an agelessness which enables him to be believable over the 20 year span. I didn’t think I knew Damien Humbley, who plays Charley brilliantly, until I read the programme and realised I’d seen and liked him in a handful of shows – he clearly inhabits characters rather than stars in shows. Josefina Gabrielle excels as predatory Gussie, propelled herself from PA to star. Having seen Glyn Kerslake as Frank in Derby in 2007, it was great to see him as Broadway producer Joe here. I thought Clare Foster perfectly captured small-town Beth, more comfortable as wife and mother than in the company of more superficial minor celebs. Amongst a fine supporting company, Martin Callaghan and Amanda Minihan made a much biger impression than the size of their roles.

I was less convinced by Soutra Gilmour’s design, perhaps a bit over-engineered, though in all fairness it does have to become a Californian beach house with pool, TV studio, NYC apartment, apartment roof and townhouse, Broadway theatre and club with side orders of stage door and greenhouse! The costumes (and wigs!) have a big role to play in moving the period back from the mid-70’s to the late 50’s and they do it very well though, perhaps like the set, somewhat  unattractively. 

It’s a big show for a small theatre but they get away with it and for a directorial debut, its hugely impressive. A second visit looks as as if it’s in order……

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