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Posts Tagged ‘Amara Okereke’

In another life as a theatre investor, I lost my shirt (well, actually a wardrobe full of shirts!) on the original West End production of Steven Slater & Duncan Sheik’s ground-breaking show. It arrived from Broadway just 5 days after its production ended its highly successful and profitable two-year run there, garlanded with eight Tony’s and four Drama Desk awards. It previewed at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it played to packed houses, earning more 5* reviews than I’d ever seen before, but it lasted just two months at the Novello, failing to find an audience, despite the reviews and four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. It launched the careers of newcomers including Charlotte Wakefield, Aneurin Barnard and Iwan Rheon, the latter two getting performance Olivier’s of their own. I’ve never really understood its commercial failure; theatre can be a surprising and risky world. So here we are 13 years later with an opportunity to re-evaluate it.

The show is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1890 German expressionist play about adolescence. The teenagers are growing up in a conservative and emotionally repressed world while they are experiencing the angst associated with these years. The issues are, somewhat surprisingly, still relevant today – coming to terms with their sexuality, mental health, suicide and teenage pregnancy – but in a world where they are told babies are delivered by storks, and both parents and teachers are disciplinarians, even bullies. The story, character names and period are unchanged, but feelings are expressed through contemporary music. It’s one of the most audacious ideas in musical theatre, yet somehow it works brilliantly.

When I walked into the auditorium to see ten rows of steps the width of the entire stage, Miriam Buether’s design reminded me of the Open Air Theatre’s semi-staged versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, but the space is used very differently, and more theatrically, in Rupert Goold’s new staging, with great choreography from Lynne Page. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes aren’t all identical school uniforms, as I recall in the original, which allows the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the characters to come through. It’s both more intimate and more ‘in your face’ which gives it a lot more emotional impact. Goold also references the activism of today’s teenagers, without it jarring with the rest of the story.

Raw talent was cast first time around, which gave it great energy and edginess, but here more experienced actors seem able to develop the characters, bringing out more visceral qualities which engage you with what they are experiencing. Laurie Kynaston impressed greatly in The Son, now with a brilliant Melchior he extends his range to include musical theatre. I last saw Amara Okereke play the lead in The Boyfriend, which is about as far as you can get from Wendla, but she’s just as thrilling. Stuart Thompson is terrific as the much troubled Moritz, as is Carly-Sophia Davies as the rebellious Ilse. It’s a great ensemble,who shine in chorus numbers. All of the adult ‘authoritarian’ characters are played by just two actors, Mark Lockyer and, on the night I went, an impressive stand-in by Mali O’Donnell.

A fresh new interpretation of an important contribution to the musical theatre genre. I loved seeing it again in this stunning new production.

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Oh, what a tonic. Sandy Wilson’s pastiche of the 1920’s, written in the 1950’s, sparkles in the 21st Century.

Set in a finishing school in Nice run by Madame Dubonnet, its the tale of Polly and her chums as they prepare for a ball, choosing their costumes, all looking for love. Polly falls for delivery boy Tony when he brings her costume to the school. It seems like a hopeless match, rich girl and poor boy, but they meet on the corniche and agree to go to the ball together as Pierette and Pierrot. Polly’s dad arrives to find that Madame Dubonnet is an old flame. Tony’s parents arrive and we find out he isn’t who he seems. At the ball no less than six couples become engaged.

It’s pure escapist fun with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Bill Deamer’s period choreography is simply fabulous, as light as air, totally uplifting. Paul Farnsworth’s design is gorgeous, particularly his costumes, which are beyond sumptuous in the Act Three ball – from where we were sitting in the front row, you could clearly see the astonishing craftsmanship. MD Simon Beck’s band sound fantastic. Director Matthew White has squeezed every ounce of humour out of this 66-year-old show and made it as fresh and funny as you could wish for. The smile never left my face for the duration.

It’s brilliantly cast, with Amara Okereke & Dylan Mason making a delightful young couple and Janine Dee & Robert Portal a charming older one. Tiffany Graves wows again as Hortense and both Adrian Edmondson & Issy Van Randwyck give great comic cameos, the former not exactly known for musicals. The casting is in fact faultless, and their joy becomes your joy.

An antidote for election blues, but it’s not the sort of production you can only see once, so I’ve already booked to go again as a tonic for my post-election blues.

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This is the second production of this show at Chichester in a decade. Given there have only been two in the West End (originating in Leicester in 1980 and the NT in 1998) in the 70 or so years since it’s UK premiere, that’s quite something. Is there some affinity between Sussex and the state of Oklahoma that I’ve missed?

It was the first of of eleven collaborations between Rogers and Hammerstein during their sixteen years writing together, including the more frequently revived Carousel, South Pacific The King & I and The Sound of Music. It was ground-breaking in so many ways, but now we can look back on their whole career it seems to have somewhat less depth than what followed. Still, how can you resist a hoe-down with some cowboys and their gals and tunes like Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top and the title song, and what other show can boast a song that became a state anthem.

It’s really a simple love story revolving around whether the farmer or the cowboy wins the heart of young farm owner Laurey. Revivals have tended to emphasise the darker side of one suitor’s jealousy and disappointment leading to rage and violence, as they do here. The lack of native American characters or references is a bit glaring, given it’s set on the eve of the statehood of Oklahoma, created from their territory and reservations, but hey, this is 75-year-old musical theatre.

Robert Jones’ set, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes and Mark Henderson’s lighting combine to give it a terrific look, propelling you several thousand miles west and more than a hundred years back in time. There’s a windmill, giant barn doors and plenty of bales of straw. Matt Cole’s athletic choreography takes your breath away and the set pieces and dream ballet are thrilling. It’s a big fifteen piece Chichester band again, this time under MD Nigel Lilley, and they sound great. Director Jeremy Sams is the master at marshalling big resources and making something old feel as fresh as new, as he’s done with other R&H shows, and does again here.

Much of the success of the production is age appropriate casting of early career talent. Hoyle O’Grady, Amara Okereke and Emmanuel Kojo are terrific in the love triangle roles of Curly, Laurey & Jud respectively, all with fine vocals, which is the other key to the show’s success, in just about every role. Isaac Gryn and Bronte Barbe are fine too as the somewhat intellectually challenged Will and Ado Annie, and there’s a brilliantly funny cameo from Scott Karim, who makes much of the role of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who becomes intertwined with them.

As fine a revival as you could wish for. Given that it hasn’t has a West End outing for over twenty years, it would be good to see this one make the 70 mile journey north-east where I for one would be sure to see it again.

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I have to admit that I thought The Hired Man might be overambitious for NYMT, though on reflection I don’t know why as they’d done such a terrific job with Sweeney Todd four years ago. As it turned out it was thrilling and deeply moving in equal measure and an absolute triumph for this young company.

The Hired Man & I have been firm friends for thirty years now, but this is only the seventh staged production I’ve seen – though the third in as many years. Given WWI looms large in the second act the timing of this revival, in this 100th anniversary week of the outbreak of that war, is particularly poignant – something that wasn’t lost on an audience watching young people of a similar age perform last night.

Based on Melvyn Bragg’s epic novel of early 20th century Cumbrian life, we follow the Tallentire family from the land to the mines and the war and back to the land, with much tragedy along the way. It’s also a piece of social history, showing us the hirings of the title, where people bargained with potential employers, the horrors of mining & the beginnings of the union movement and of course the devastation of the first world war. The personal and social stories work seamlessly together and the show takes you on a captivating emotional journey.

Howard Goodall’s score is British through and through, with uplifting melodies and soaring choruses in keeping with both folk and choral traditions. With a cast of over 30, the choruses soared as well as they ever have and there were some lovely solo vocals too. MD Sarah Travis virtually invented the actor-musician approach and it works particularly well here, with a third of the cast doubling up. Dominic Harrison (17 years old!!!) brought great passion and energy to the lead part of John Tallentire and Amara Okereke (also 17!!!) as Emily sang beautifully. I loved Jacques Miche’s interpretation of Isaac and Will Sharma’s characterisation of Seth. Naomi Morris and Charlie Callaghan gave confident and moving performances as the Tallentire children, May and Harry – unlike most of the cast playing at or younger than their ages. Joe Eaton-Kent was an excellent Jackson and seemed way older than his 18 years.

So many of the scenes were handled well in Nikolai Foster’s superb staging, with very physical, muscular choreography from Nick Winston. Matthew Wright’s beautiful evocative set has a broken stone and grass ground, rising up through the hills to the sky. NYMT are lucky to have such a first class production team. The mine, the union meeting and the war scenes were particularly well staged. The St James space was opened up by removing the wings and the front two rows so even with a big cast there was plenty of room to move and for the show to breath.

Another wonderful production of this wonderful show and such an extraordinary achievement for a company in which only two have left their teens. Just two performances left and if you’re reading this on Saturday 16th August 2014 you should be there!

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