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Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Laurents’

It’s almost forty years since I first saw this show, in a Broadway revival, and it’s been in my top five musicals ever since, so I was excited to see what this new production by Nikolai Foster, without Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, would be like. The answer is ‘thrilling’.

The story is as timeless as the Shakespeare play on which it’s based, but it seems to resonate more in the UK today, given our struggle with gang culture and knife crime. Even though the setting and period, book and lyrics, remain unchanged, it has a contemporary feel and edgy aesthetic, Ellen Kane’s new choreography contributing greatly to this, which makes it feel very fresh. The design team of Michael Taylor (set), Edd Lindley (costumes) and Guy Hoare (lighting) have respected the period whilst somehow making it feel like now. A luxury fifteen piece band under MD George Dyer do full justice to Bernstein’s brilliant score.

It’s been a great pleasure watching Jamie Muscato grow into such a fine performer and here he is owning one of musical theatre’s great roles, with breathtaking renditions of Something’s Coming, Tonight and Maria. Maria is superbly played and sung by Puerto Rican Adriana Ivelisse, here to study musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, but looking like she doesn’t need to (note to self – RAM student productions in 2020!). Carly Mercedes Dyer is a terrific Anita, leading America with Abigail Climer’s Conesuela and Mireia Mambo’s Rosalia, who both also stand out in I Feel Pretty. Then there’s another fifteen in this superb cast, enhanced by a ‘young company’ of local trainees, who fill the stage, most notably during a rousing, moving Somewhere.

The Curve has been working with the police and the local community on the issues covered in the show (how often do you get a programme note by the Chief Constable?!) which underlines the ongoing relevance of this sixty-year-old show, here feeling like its brand new. Thrilling.

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This was only the second show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and it was his first flop, running for only 21 performances (12 of which were previews!), though in my view it’s lack of success is more to do with Arthur Laurents’ story / book. It’s a satire about corruption in local government which we last saw here at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations.

The nameless US town is bankrupt and Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (the musical theatre debut of Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production!) and her treasurer, judge and head of police invent a miracle spring to put the town on the map and restore its fortunes, and line their pockets at the same time. They have to stop the lunatics (here called cookies) from the sanatorium (here called the cookie jar – this is 1964!) from visiting, lest the lack of a cure becomes too obvious.

What follows is a romp involving cookies, townspeople and the corrupt gang of four, until they are usurped by another miracle in a nearby town. Nurse Apple, with the help of new doctor Hapgood (who isn’t, as we later find out) try to destroy patient records and set them free, but fail. It’s daft, but not daft enough to be good daft and the score is just OK, though here the choruses shone bright, better than most of the solos and ensembles. Sondheim was learning his craft; it’s the work of a novice, but interesting to see where genius starts.

Phil Willmott has more space at the Union than they did in Jermyn Street and he uses it, most notably during a chase on foot when the numbers appear to swell significantly through clever (and exhausting) staging. Holly Hughes’ choreography is energetic, sometimes frenetic, with tap and ballet thrown in for good measure. I felt the production was a touch ragged and might also have benefited from a little more restraint. There clearly wasn’t much of a design budget!

The stand-out performances for me were Rachel Delooze as the nurse and Oliver Stanley as Hapgood, though in all fairness their roles do allow them to breathe rather more than the others. The rest of the mostly young cast sing and dance their socks off.

Just for Sondheim ‘collectors’, I’d say.

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Musical theatre lovers are very precious about this show. Many consider it the greatest Broadway has seen, but I wouldn’t agree with that (Guys & Dolls and West Side Story, to name but two, would be ahead of it in my list). The only other time I saw it, on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as Mamma Rose 10 years ago, right in the middle of the show a huge man stood up, said ‘well, she ain’t no Ethel Merman’ and stomped out of the theatre. It’s forever associated with Merman and Angela Lansbury, who was London’s first Mamma Rose, and any actress attempting it is very brave indeed.

It’s the archetypal showbiz show and Rose is the archetypal stage mom, pushing her daughters forward relentlessly, regardless of their own wishes. She keeps their kids act way beyond its sell-by date, recycling it with variations on a theme. She loses her youngest and favourite June, who escapes and elopes, only to turn her attention to the elder Louise who she had hitherto virtually ignored. The declining standards of the act and the demise of vaudeville happen simultaneously and they find themselves in burlesque, providing cover for the racier stuff. In her final act of self obsessed determination, she puts Louise on stage as a stripper, renamed Gypsy Rose Lee, the real life person on whose memoirs it’s based.

It’s got a very good score by Jules Styne, with a high quota of standards, a book by Arthur Laurents and terrific lyrics by Stephen Sondheim no less. A bit of a dream team, I’d say. Chichester has matched it with their own creative dream team – director Jonathan Kent (responsible for their stunning Sweeney Todd just three years ago), inventive choreographer Stephen Mear and Designer Anthony Ward (who co-incidentally designed my only other Gypsy – which was itself directed by Sam Mendes!). The band under Nicholas Skilbeck make a thrilling sound; I can still hear that wonderful brass.

Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand brought the house down as strippers who Gotta Get A Gimmick, Lara Pulver plays the transition from second string daughter Louise to star Gypsy Rose Lee superbly and Gemma Sutton is great as favourite daughter June growing up before your very eyes. I was surprised to see Kevin Whately cast as Herbie, but he pulled it off. What can you say about Imelda Staunton? Following a definitive Mrs Lovett with a brilliant down-on-her-luck Boston woman in Good People to this truly commanding performance. I knew she’d act it well, but the vocals were a revelation. She started with a great Some People, ended the first act with a stunning Everything’s Coming Up Roses and ended the show with a deeply emotional Rose’s Turn. She inhabits this single-minded woman, combining humour with an extraordinary range of emotions – whilst singing and dancing! You don’t see many performances that good in a lifetime of theatre-going; thrilling stuff.

London producers are now spoilt for choice – should they transfer Guys & Dolls or this or both? I’d put my money on this for sure – London has to see Dame Imelda’s finest hour.

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The pedigree of the creators of this show is second to none. It was composer Richard Rogers first show after the death of his partner Oscar Hammerstein. It was a return to the role of lyricist only, his third, for Stephen Sondheim, after his first two outings as composer / lyricist. It was writer Arthur Laurents fourth collaboration with Sondheim, including iconic shows like West Side Story and Gypsy. Sadly, it turned out to be probably the weakest work all three ever did.

It’s a flimsy story where American and Italian attitudes to love and life are contrasted. We’re at a pension in Venice where five American tourists are staying – a young couple visiting from their new home in Rome, an older more stereotypical American couple and singleton Leona on the look for love. Laurents’ book is weak, Rogers songs mediocre (and more than a bit twee) and Sondheim’s lyrics lack his trademark wit and fail to sparkle.

I’m not familiar with the work of production company Charles Court, but they appear to specialise in opera, Gilbert & Sullivan operetta and ’boutique’ panto – and it shows. The performance style is too broad, with exaggerated gestures and accents and a lack of any subtlety. The two leads have little chemistry, so their relationship lacked plausibility. Putting the piano / percussion duo centre stage (why percussion?), with just a painted backcloth and a couple of tables and chairs, makes it feel more like a concert than a show.

I remember the 2005 Landor production being better than this, so I have to conclude this production brings out the worst in an already weak show.

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