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Posts Tagged ‘Bronagh Lagan’

This musical theatre adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel by Jason Howard, Allan Knee & Mindi Dickstein is sixteen years old now, though it didn’t get to the UK until four years ago, at that new musical theatre powerhouse The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. That same production now gets its London premiere. I never read the novel, and have only seen one of the handful of stage, opera, TV & film adaptations in my lifetime, but it was only three years ago so I didn’t come to this completely cold.

The little women are sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, living in New England with their mother while their dad is serving as an army chaplain in the American Civil War. Wannabe writer Jo has gone to the big apple to try and get published and each act starts at her lodgings there before the main story back home in flashback. Their neighbour Mr Lawrence and his son and the March’s maiden aunt are important parts of the extended family. Jo hopes to travel with her aunt, but she switches her favours to younger sister Amy and takes her to Europe. Both Meg and Amy get married and Beth becomes seriously ill. It looks like Jo may be left ‘on the shelf’.

The book of the musical seems faithful to the novel, though I thought the two scenes enacting Jo’s latest stories before the flashbacks were a bit ambitious for a small stage. The second half is way more successful than the first, which really needs some cuts and an increase in pace. Like the story, the score took time to gain momentum and both were a bit twee and sentimental for my taste, but it won me over with some lovely tunes, excellent string orchestrations beautifully played by Leo Munby’s band, and Bronagh Lagan’s staging.

It’s a very strong ensemble, showcasing a number of new graduates, with the four sisters – Hana Ichijo, Lydia White, Anastasia Martin & Mary Moore – developing their very different characters extremely well. Savannah Stevenson provides an emotional anchor as Marmee, with particularly fine vocals. The supporting cast are all very good, with Bernadine Pritchett having great fun with Aunt March and Ryan Bennett coming into his own as Professor Bhaer as the role develops.

It needs a bit of work on the first half and it could do with losing 15 minutes or so, but its still well worth seeing in its present form nonetheless, provided you can stomach a bit of quintessentially American sentimentality.

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Given the pedigree of its creators (music by Annie’s Charles Strouse, lyrics by Godspell’s Stephen Schwartz and book by Fiddler on the Roof’s Joseph Stein) this musical had a troubled life, surviving only three nights after its Broadway opening. Though there have been excellent drama school productions (I saw it at both GSMD & RAM in recent years), Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre gave it its UK professional premiere, in a revised version with a book by David Thompson, last year, and have now brought it to London, substantially recast.

It’s the story of the American immigrant experience, in this case Jewish refugees fleeing the East European pogroms at the beginning of the 20th Century. Rebecca and Bella meet and bond on a  ship bound for New York. Rebecca and her ten-year-old son David are seeking a new life, Bella is joining her widowed father, who emigrated two years earlier to join his brother. Rebecca is unable to pay her entrance fee on arrival, so Bella persuades her father to vouch for her, then her uncle to house and employ her. From there, their lives are intertwined as they navigate sweat shop exploitation and anti-semitism and get caught up in labour disputes. Rebecca chooses the wrong man whilst Bella chooses a good one.

Bronagh Lagan’s production flows beautifully on a set by Gregor Donnelly defined by suitcases, like the 2016 RAM production, and lines of washing, with excellent costumes underlining the heritage and period. In an ensemble packed with fine performances, Carolyn Maitland shines as Rebecca, with beautiful vocals, passionately delivered. Dave Willetts is on fine form as Avram, Bella’s father, Alex Gibson-Giorgio is excellent as Italian union man Sal, and there’s a terrific performance from a boy actor as David. Two ‘Americans’, played as vaudevillians, pop up regularly to illustrate the ‘welcome’ these immigrants receive and. a four-piece Klezmer band do likewise to emphasise the Jewish roots.

This is the second Hope Mill / Aria Entertainment production I’ve seen in four days. Their march for domination of regional and touring musical theatre continues with five more productions between them in the first half of 2020. Long may it continue.

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I was lucky to be working in the North-West in the summer of 1986 when this show had it’s world premiere. With the music of Howard Goodall’s first show The Hired Man still ringing in my ears, off I went to Oldham Coliseum. The cast were a bunch of then unknowns, many of who went on to become musical theatre royalty – Maria Friedman, Jenna Russell, Clare Burt, Andrew C Wadsworth….. I loved the show and the following year I was on the Olivier Awards panel when it re-opened the Playhouse Theatre in London, substantially re-cast. I was expecting to lead the campaign to nominate it as Best Musical, but it was a different show and for some reason had nothing like the impact it had in Oldham. I’ve never entirely understood why.

It was 24 years before its second London outing, this time at Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre (in a room above a pub in Walthamstow), and it proved to be a delightful chamber piece. So here we are another three years on and it’s the third in the Union Theatre’s Howard Goodall Season, with a production whose musical standards may well be the best. It sounds gorgeous.

Set in the the second world war in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ten ‘girlfriends’ are carrying out admin duties, parachute packing and tea making. We have just two airmen representing the RAF and one of them is caught in a love triangle with best friends Amy and Louise (the other one is trying hard to get laid). The former is toff Guy and the latter Welsh boy Gareth (co-incidence). Everything is told in song – there’s next to no dialogue – which often makes it feel more of a song cycle than a musical. The lack of a good book is its flaw (according to Goodall, Richard Curtis no less added to his research notes with ‘a rambling inventive script’) but the music is glorious.

The vocals here really are beautiful, in solos and ensembles with overlapping melodies. You don’t often here ten women’s voices in harmony and it’s a lovely sound, but the mens contributions, equally good vocals, provide some necessary colour and contrast. The accompaniment of two keyboards, winds and double bass under MD Freddie Tapner ( a professional debut!) is also excellent. The singers and players all do full justice to Goodall’s score and they look like they are having the time of their lives. Bronagh Lagan’s simple staging, with inventive movement and choreography by Iona Holland, suits the piece well. Nik Corall’s design focuses more on costumes than set and you know you’re in the forties by the girls hairdos alone!

It’s great to see this year’s Sondheim Student Performer Award winner Corrine Priest, who made an excellent contribution to the society’s ‘God’ revue, making such a terrific impression in the leading role like Amy, and Perry Lambert is an equally impressive the other leading lady Lou. Both of the boys, Tom Sterling and Michael Ress (a real Welshman, thankfully!), have exceptional voices and act brilliantly. There isn’t a weak link in this young, hugely talented cast.

Though I missed the first show because of my travels, this has been a fabulous Howard Goodall season, so I will end by placing my order for 2015…….Dear Sasha & Howard, the London premiere of Two Cities, please. Thank you. Love, Gareth.

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In a surprising co-incidence, the second full staging in the enterprising from Page to Stage season turns out to be covering similar ground as The Mistress Contract across the river at the Royal Court. It’s a 75-minute show which ‘illustrates’ the offer of a similar arrangement to 30-something New York girl Tess with the stories of four mistresses from history. It felt like work-in-progress rather than a finished piece; well it is part of a season of work in development after all!

The other mistresses are a 14-year old 12th century Chinese concubine, the mistress of a 16th century French king, an early 20th century New Orleans brothel madam and diarist of sexual exploits Anais Nin. We hear from them all; the trouble is we don’t hear enough from Tess, who seems more like a device for the other stories than a fully fledged character in her own right. I think Beth Blatt needs to flesh out her story and give it more substance.

Jenny Giering’s music is nice, though it lacked variety with just five female voices and a piano (gorgeously played by Caroline Humphris). Bronagh lagan’s staging and Eda Giray’s designs were both effective and elegant. The cast performed the material well; I was particularly impressed by Kara Lane and Nicola Blackman, but I felt Tess was a little under powered.

There’s a full show in there waiting to be brought out, but even as it is, I enjoyed it a lot more than the other one across the river!

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