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Posts Tagged ‘Ashley Stillburn’

French writers Sebastien Lancrenon & Jean-Baptiste Saudray have decamped to more musicals friendly London to mount the world premiere of their first musical. They’ve got themselves a premiere league translator in Ranjit Bolt, the best off-West End director of musicals in Thom Southerland, and the support of the RNIB to tell the true story of the inventor of the Braille language. It has its flaws, somewhat ironically more to do with the production than the writing, but there’s a lot to like.

Louis Braille was a resident in an institution for blind youth where the benevolent director, Doctor Pignier, supported learning but the teacher didn’t (!). He started with a primitive embossed system, but then Captain Barbier de la Serre brought him the ‘night language’ which he developed for communication with his troops and Braille simplified it, initially against the wishes of the Captain, to create the language still used 170 years later. In addition to the opposition of the teacher, they had to deal with his collusion with a sinister eye research doctor and the National Assembly’s disapproval. Though both writers are experienced in music, it appears to be their first musical as such, which makes it an impressive achievement. I liked the score, book and lyrics, but it’s a chamber piece getting a big production, too big I thought. Director Thom Southerland doesn’t seem to have his usual team around him too (except choreographer Lee Proud) and I think this shows.

The stage is dominated by designer Tim Shorthall’s two-story minimalist metal structure which seemed incongruous for a show set in the 19th century. I wasn’t keen on Jonathan Lipman’s costuming either, the sighted all in black and the blind in white with black blindfolds. The look just didn’t feel right for the material. It’s over-orchestrated and over-amplified. It’s at its best when Jack Wolfe’s beautiful voice is allowed to shine with just piano or strings. It sometimes becomes shouty at moments when restraint would serve the material better. Towards the end, when the language is accepted and the doctor and teacher exposed, they switch to storytelling direct to the audience – I wasn’t sure about this at first, but warmed to the idea. It is a fascinating true story and it’s told well.

It’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Jack Wolfe as Braille, with excellent acting to match his terrific vocals.. The vocal standards are high elsewhere too and I liked Lottie Henshall as the Captain’s daughter Rose, Ceili O’Connor as the matron of the institute, Jason Broderick as Gabriel, who spars with Braille before he befriends him, and Ashley Stillburn as the teacher Dufau. The six children were all impressive.

I’d very much like to see it scaled down, but its well worth catching in its present form.

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This musical by Maury Yeston & Peter Stone / Thomas Meehan is a 2011 adaptation of a 1924 Italian play which was filmed twice, in 1934 with Fredric March, and in 1998 as Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. This is its European Premiere, staged by Thom Southerland, who has had great success with Yeston’s Titanic and Grand Hotel.

The Lamberti family have a near miss car accident on the way home from their daughter Grazia’s engagement party. It turns out that Death has prevented Grazia’s demise because he fancies a long weekend in human form, partly to answer the question of why he’s so feared. He takes the form of Russian noble Prince Nikolai Sirki and only Grazia’s dad, the Duke, knows the truth. He falls in love with Grazia and she with him and he’s intent on taking her with him at the end if his holiday, but her dad pleads with him not to, until counter pleas from Grazia.

I struggled to suspend enough disbelief to engage fully with the story, but it’s a gorgeous melodic score. Morgan Large has designed a terrific Italian villa and Jonathan Lipman has created brilliant period costumes. Stylistically, it feels like Sondheim’s A Little Night Music or Passion; very European, very early 20th century. Thom Southerland’s staging is up to his usual impeccable standard, with a forensic attention to detail. The humour surprised but pleased me. Dean Austin’s band sounds as beautiful as the music.

Zoe Doano and Chris Peluso are superb in the leading roles and there’s a fine supporting ensemble. Mark Inscoe has great presence as Duke Lamberti, Ashley Stillburn is excellent as Grazia’s fiancé Corrado, as is James Grant as servant Fidele (who will be promoted to the role of Death / Nikolai during the run!). It’s great to see Gay Soper give such a fine cameo, as Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli (!), close to her 50th year in musical theatre.

I’m not entirely convinced by the premise and the story, but it’s a lovely lush score, it looks gorgeous and the performances are terrific.

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