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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Newsome’

If any further proof were needed that Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow is fast becoming the most ambitious fringe musical theatre venue, with the highest musical standards, here it is. The confidence that Christopher J Orton & Robert Gould, the writers of this superb new musical, sixteen years in the making, already nicknamed the Welsh Les Mis, have placed in the Walthamstow team for its world premiere is richly rewarded with passionate performances and glorious singing.  

Set in the South Wales valleys in 1831, in Merthyr Tydfil to be precise (20 miles from my childhood home in a another valley, though many years later, but that doesn’t make me biased!) it tells the story of the Merthyr Rising and its martyr Dic Penderyn. It was the culmination of years of unrest created by unemployment, wage reductions and price rises. Men can barely feed their families with their wages from the mines and ironworks and things come to a head when they try to organise to present their grievances, adding demands for representation and universal suffrage. At its heart is the personal story of Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) who takes on single mother Angharad and her eight-year-old son Jonathan. The political and and the personal stories eventually converge and we learn of the events leading up to Angharad’s pregnancy. The authorities, encouraged by the mine and ironworks owners, violently put down what they call a revolt. Troops kill innocent protestors and their leader Lewis Lewis and Dic are sentenced to hang.

It’s both an epic story and a very human one and the score is simply superb, full of beautiful melodies and rousing choruses. Aaron Clingham’s orchestrations are beautiful too, with strings and woodwind creating an evocative musical landscape. The singing does full justice to the score. There are too many fine performances to single any out – casting director Benjamin Newsome has found some extraordinary talent again, with a welcome proportion of actual Welsh talent! Director Brendan Matthew, a regular in this venue now, marshals his cast of eighteen very effectively given the space limitations. It’s hard to conjure up mountainsides, churches, mines and family homes in any space, let alone a room above a pub, but designer Joana Dias does very well with limited resources and help from the lighting designer Sky Bembury and costume designer Celestine Healy, though it’s crying out for a bigger space.

It left me as excited as when I first saw Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man over thirty years ago. A truly British musical and a very fine one indeed. I don’t believe for one minute we won’t see more of it and I suspect sometime in the future I will be reminiscing about seeing the world premiere. You have just two weeks to get yourselves to Walthamstow.

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This appears to be the first London production of this Bernstein / Comden & Green musical comedy for thirty years. I think the last one was the the 1986 revival, which featured Maureen Lipman. There was a touring production with Connie Fisher and the Halle Orchestra no less, but the nearest that got to London was Woking, where I went to see it. I’m a bit surprised as it’s really a lot of fun.

Ruth & Eileen are sisters who arrive in Greenwich Village from Ohio intent on making their names, Ruth as a writer and Eileen as a performer. They get a poky, noisy apartment formerly occupied by a prostitute, and soon their circle includes neighbours Helen & Wreck, drugstore manager Frank, their landlord and sometime artist Appopolous, night club owner Valentin, editor Baker, newspaperman Chick and most of the local police, all Irish and all besotted with Eileen, as are Frank, Baker and Chick. They get into scrapes trying to get work, notably with most of the Brazilian navy, but eventually end up with a press card and a cabaret job respectively.

In this production they really play it for laughs, with some pretty broad performances, but it works as it’s not at the expense of the musical standards, which are as high as we’ve come to expect in this fringe venue. MD Aaron Clingham is flying solo at the piano this time, and that works too. There’s some cracking musical staging and choreography from director Tim McArthur and choreographer Ian Pyle, who throw in some Irish dancing by the policemen with Eileen, and some great ensemble work in Christopher Street and The Wrong Note Rag. Can there be another show with a conga in it? and here one which exits the auditorium at the interval, picking up audience members along the way.

Lizzie Wofford (who I first saw six years ago as a brilliant Mrs Lovett in the NYMT’s Sweeney Todd at the Village Underground) and Francesca Benton-Stace are both terrific as Ruth and Eileen respectively, and they have a fine young, enthusiastic, energetic supporting cast (casting by Benjamin Newsome again).

I’ve come to very much enjoy my trips to Walthamstow, and this is no exception. It’s over now, but look out for their next show.

 

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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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You have to hand it to Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty; each of their musicals takes you somewhere completely different. This one sees us in the Deep South in the mid-19th century, before the abolition of slavery. Based on Sherley Anne Williams novel, the central characters of Dessa Rose, a young slave, and Ruth, a Southern belle, tell their story in flashback from a prologue and epilogue in the 1920’s, by which time things have of course changed. It’s a dramatically rich story with an excellent score and, in this production, a stunning ensemble.

Dessa Rose is a young slave on the Steele plantation and Ruth, the same age, is the daughter of the wealthy Carson’s who has been brought up by their slave Mammy. Dessa Is feisty and rebellious and in defending herself against unacceptable treatment finds herself in prison at 16, pregnant and the subject of writer Adam Nehemiah’s research. Ruth marries farmer Bertie who all but abandon’s her, leaving her lonely on the farm. Dessa escapes from prison and becomes the de facto leader of a group of slaves determined to head to the more enlightened west to escape slavery. They find an unlikely refuge with Ruth, who befriends them and aids them in their venture.

It’s a very dense story, in truth a bit too dense – there’s a hell of a lot going on – but it does make for a dramatically rich narrative. The score is up there with their best show, Ragtime, with evocative melodic music and lyrics which drive the story. From the rousing opening chorus of We Are Descended (which also closes the show) it packs in a whole load of good songs and choruses and here they are played and sung beautifully. In a surprising move, Dean Austin’s excellent band is dispersed, with keyboards and cello on stage and winds and violin in the corners of the auditorium. It works aurally, even if you are directly in front of a saxophone!, though it does restrict the already small playing space.

Director Andrew Keates has his work cut out staging it on such a small stage (well, floor) but with much ingenuity he pulls it off. When all 12 are on stage, with the two musicians, the space between audience and actors disappears completely. I think it is crying out for a bigger theatre, though not one so big as to lose the intimacy we get here. They didn’t appear to be using the visible head mic’s so the vocals have a lovely purity to them, though I did lose a few words.

The cast is uniformly excellent (casting by Benjamin Newsome again), all equally good as actors and singers. Both Cynthia Erivo and Cassidy Janson shine in the lead roles. Erivo conveys Dessa’s defiance with great passion and soaring vocals. Janson has more of a journey to make and I loved the way her character aged and her personality changed. She invested a lot of emotion in her performance, also vocally strong, and with an authentic accent. There isn’t a fault in the rest of this stunning cast.

This is my 7th Ahrens & Flaherty show and it’s amongst their best. I’d love to see it in a bigger space, but this European premiere is a huge success – and it’s in the West End at fringe prices! Time to book to go again…..

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From Page to Stage is an excellent initiative promoting new musical theatre. For four weeks at the Landor they will put on two fully staged premieres, three ‘readings’ and a couple of showcase ‘concerts’. This is the first of the two premieres – a musical comedy thriller – and it’s huge fun.

Olivia Thompson (book, lyrics and gamely taking over the role of Verona!) & Chris Whitehead (music) have set their show in the 30’s at the birthday party of British film star Honey Quenelle (in a clever touch, designer Magdalena Iwanska has created eighteen period film posters featuring her). She’s walked out on her latest film and producer Stubby is determined to change her mind. The other guests Include jealous acting rival Verona, Honey’s ex Dickie and her new wife Farmonica, brother Monty and friends / colleagues Hilary & Margot. Butler Hugo and maid Mabel complete the picture.

The first half sets up a murder and the second unravels it in true farcical fashion. Things are not as they seem and it does become a bit convoluted as it progresses. It twists from being a whodunnit to a whodidntdoit and why. It’s a good score with a cocktail of musical styles and both the book and lyrics are very funny indeed. The writers are very lucky to have Robert McWhir direct and there are some inventive touches, including a prologue featuring a building on fire, guests arriving in three ‘cars’ and a blackout scene played with torches.

They are also lucky to have a cast of this quality and experience, assembled by Benjamin Newsome (again), including a delicious comic performance by Kate Brennan as Mabel and a glamorous leading lady in Amelia Adams-Pearce. The second half contains big numbers for Ian Mowat’s Stubby, Keiran Brown’s Hilary and Jenny Gayner’s Farmonica and they all rise to the occasion with gusto. Whitehead plays his own score on the piano, so there’s no hiding place for either composer or writer!

This is a very impressive first full scale musical. It does need a little work, and its running time cut from 2h40m (even the programme said 2h10m), but it must surely get a proper run outside From Page to Stage. Six performances just isn’t enough for such a good show. I can’t remember when I laughed so much at a musical.

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