Posts Tagged ‘Charing Cross Theatre’

Though he’s written more than twenty shows, we haven’t seen many of American playwright Christopher Durang’s plays in London, maybe two? This is my first exposure to his work. It’s his most successful play, winning both the Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Play in 2013. As you can surmise from the title, it references Chekov. This transfer from Bath is delayed because of Covid

Vanya, Sonia & Masha are siblings, named by their amateur thespian parents after characters in Chekov plays. Vanya & Sonia, who was adopted, stayed in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (I’ve been there!) to look after their parents, whilst Masha became a successful actress, though maybe not a particularly good one. She’s been providing a home for the other two, though, for many years. She returns for a society fancy dress party with her toy boy Spike in tow, and some dramatic news about her future plans for the family home and therefore the lives of her brother and sister.

There are many references to Chekov plays and characters over and above the sibling names. Some might find this excludes them, but you don’t need to recognise the references, though it probably helps you admire the writing. Though it covers themes such as climate change and generational disconnection, it’s basically a light comedy that occasionally veres towards farce. There’s also a prophetic cleaning lady who seems to have stepped in from a Greek tragedy – well, she is called Cassandra – and a somewhat underwritten character called Nina who is a fan of Masha, a diversion for Spike and a muse for Vanya.

Janine Dee is great as Masha the actress, who sweeps in and dominates all around her. Rebecca Lacey relishes her sarcy, spikey lines and they hit their target consistently. Michael Moloney is very good at playing the gentle diplomat against his more fiery sisters and comes into his own in a second act monologue. Cassandra has a few scene stealing moments which Sara Powell delivers superbly. There’s little to fault in the staging, design and performance of the piece.

It’s a pleasant evening, but I was struggling to see why it has transferred after mediocre reviews in Bath to the highly competitive theatrical world of London, and even more puzzled that it was once the best play on Broadway. Perhaps the casting there of Durang’s college friend Sigourney Weaver and TV star David Hyde Pierce swayed it. For me it felt more like a night at a regional rep than a London showcase.

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It’s taken 22 years for this Jane Tesori musical to cross the Atlantic. She wrote it with Brian Crawley 7 years before her collaboration with Tony Kushner, Caroline or Change, recently revived and now in the West End, which she followed another 7 years on with a collaboration with Lisa Kron for Fun Home, premiered here last year at the Young Vic, and may yet be West End bound. This is a newer one-act version which was on Broadway in 2014

Scarred in an accident when she was thirteen, the 25-year-old Violet begins a journey by Greyhound bus through four states, across half of America, from Spruce Pine NC via Nashville and Memphis to Tulsa OK. It’s the 60’s and civil rights and the Vietnam war preoccupy the country, but her preoccupation is getting to meet a TV evangelist who claims he can heal. Along the way she is befriended by a woman visiting her son and grandchildren in Nashville and two GI’s, one black and one white, one protective and one predatory, both of whom fall for her as she does them.

It’s a journey of a lot more than the miles travelled, during which we flash back to scenes with her dad as both her older and younger self. Tesori’s score is complex, eclectic Americana, largely sung through, with musical twists and turns which keep you on your toes, but it could have done with less volume to bring out the subtlety and ensure all of the lyrics are audible to everyone.

Morgan Large has brilliantly reconfigured the theatre into an intimate traverse space with a revolve which emphasises the sense of travel. I’ve seen Kaisa Hammarlund in many supporting roles, so its great to see her embrace and rise to the challenge of such a difficult lead role. Jay Marsh & Matthew Harvey are excellent as the GI’s and in a superb supporting cast there’s a terrific turn from Kenneth Avery Clark as the preacher. This is the first Charing Cross Theatre co-production with their new Japanese partners, and director Shuntaro Fujita, an assistant to one of my theatrical hero’s, the late Yukio Ninagawa, makes an assured UK debut.

It has its faults, but it’s an original piece which is well worth catching, Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance alone is worth the ticket price.

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One day someone will develop a computer programme that writes a musical. You’ll be able to use it to give you ninety minutes of catchy tunes, rhyming lyrics and a simple story with goodies, baddies and a happy ending. Until then we have this show.

Set in ancient Greece, we move between the home of the gods on Mount Olympia to Hell, where Zeus & Demeter’s daughter takes a one-way ticket, does some good deeds, marries Hades and gets a free pass home for whenever she wants to see mum. Both the tunes and lyrics are bland. The book is embarrassingly poor. The dancing is choreography-by-numbers.

The writers, Marcus Stevens & Oran Eldor, and director Sarah O’Gleby are all American. The British band and young cast, a number in their professional debuts, try their best, though there was a sense on Friday, with a lean audience, their heart wasn’t really in it. How much had those four star reviewers drunk when they encouraged me to go?

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The 1971 film was a flop, as was the 1980 English language stage adaptation, though the film went on to become a cult hit and turned a profit twelve years later. There was also a French TV adaptation, which itself was adapted for the stage in Canada. It’s been described as a romantic black comedy, the romance being between an eighteen year old boy, with a bit of an obsession about death, and an eccentric 79-year-old woman.

Harold lives with his widowed mother in middle-class American suburbia. She’s a social climber who is set on finding Harold a wife using computer dating. He stages fake suicides and attends real funerals where he meets Maude, an Austrian Countess who lives a Bohemian lifestyle seemingly without money. Cautious at first, Harold is drawn in by her infectious love of life and they become good friends. After rejecting the three suitors his mother introduces, he realises Maude is the love of his life and plans to propose at the 80th birthday party he is planning for her, but she has other plans.

Michael Bruce has added musical accompaniment which the actors play live on instruments including double -bass, cello and accordion, in character, just like those actor-musician musicals, though it isn’t a musical. It gives it the feel of one of those charming French films. Francis O’Conner’s set has an equally lovely other-worldly quality and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are a delight, Harold in seventies style, Maude in Bohemiana and Harold’s mother power dressed.

Sheila Hancock is perfectly cast as Maude, a beautifully judged, delicate performance, as light as air. Bill Milner’s transition from existential angst to love-struck teen is navigated superbly, with real chemistry with Hancock. Rebecca Caine is excellent as the controlling mother and Joanna Hickman is a delight as all three suitors. in an outstanding supporting cast, Samuel Townsend makes a great seal, as well as a cop.

Thom Southerland’s production is as quirky as the material, which is a touch absurd, a bit surreal, but rather captivating. I wasn’t entirely sold on the story but it’s hard to imagine a better production or better performances. Well worth a visit.

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This musical is set in the Second World War, amongst American conscripts in training in Texas and then at the front in the Pacific. Yank! is the title of the military newspaper, part of the effort to keep up morale. The twist in Joseph & David Zellnik’s show is that it’s a gay love story.

Young and naive Stu is at first the butt of jokes in his Company, but is eventually accepted, partly thanks to his protector Mitch. There is an attraction between him and Mitch, and a brief dalliance, but the latter won’t accept his sexuality. Stu is befriended by Yank! gay photographer Artie who gets him a job as his accompanying reporter and introduces him to a thriving but clandestine gay world in the military, but he’s obsessed with Mitch and hatches a plan to visit and report on his old Company. The relationship is briefly rekindled, though Mitch is still uncomfortable. They are seen embracing by a colleague, which risks exposure and seemingly impossible choices.

The score is excellent, but somewhat old-fashioned, and the first half seemed a bit like a gay South Pacific. Then I realised that the style suits the period, and changes as the story gets much deeper in the second half, when it really drew me in and engaged me emotionally. Given that it was inspired by Allan Berube’s book Coming Out Under Fire, I liked the framing of a narrator finding Stu’a journal in a junk shop. James Baker’s staging is hugely impressive, with excellent choreography by Chris Cuming. The musical standards under MD James Cleeve are very high indeed. Scott Hunter and Andy Coxon are both excellent as Stu and Mitch respectively and Sarah-Louise Young is terrific in all the female roles, so many I lost count. What I liked most about the fine ensemble was their complete believability as a company of soldiers of all shapes, sizes and looks.

A lovely show which fits Charing Cross Theatre perfectly. You should go.

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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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This Flaherty / Ahrens show, with a book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E L Doctorow, has never really found its place in the musical theatre repertoire in the UK. Maybe it’s a bit too American, and a bit too sentimental. One hundred years on from its setting and 20 years on from it’s creation, in a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, during an equally divided trumped up American election, maybe it’s found its time. It certainly resonated more with me than my three previous productions.

It interweaves the stories if a white liberal New England family with Latvian Jewish immigrant Teteh and his daughter and black singer Coalhouse Walker Jnr, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son, which become entwined almost by accident. Teteh is trying to establish a new life in America, the black couple are trying to survive amidst the racism of the day and the New England family are largely sympathetic to both, standing out from the less welcoming crowd around them. There’s a bunch of historical characters like Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini to add social history to the personal stories. It’s got a great ragtime influenced score, with both choruses and solos shining through.

When Coalhouse is attacked and his girlfriend Sarah murdered by racist Irish fireman Clonkin (somewhat ironic given he too was an immigrant), it unleashes a wave of revenge and rebellion that contrasts with the more peaceful campaigning of black leader Booker T Washington. Our Latvian friend is busy inventing movies, the New England family’s ‘father’ is off exploring the world, ‘mother’ has virtually adopted Sarah’s son and her ‘younger brother’ goes to join Coalhouse’s campaign.

This excellent production by Thom Southerland seemed to me to place more emphasis on the racism and its responses, which gave the show more clarity and focus than I’ve seen before. The twenty-four performers really fill the stage and when they sing in unison it’s a glorious sound. I’m not sure if this team have used the actor-musician format before, but it works very well here, with MD Jordan Li-Smith at one of the two on-stage pianos. I really liked Tom Rogers & Toots Butcher’s barn like design and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are very good indeed.

Anita Louise-Combe is superb as ‘mother’; her second act song Back to Before brought the house down. Ako Mitchell is outstanding as the defiant Coalhouse and Nolan Frederick and Jonathan Stewart invest great passion into Booker T Washington and ‘younger brother’ respectively. Jennifer Saayeng plays Sarah with great dignity and feeling and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Seyi Omooba, who leads the rousing Act I finale. On the night I went ‘little boy’ was superbly played by Ethan Quinn.

The Landor made a great job of it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) but the Open Air Theatre, uncharacteristically, made a bit of a mess of it a year later (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/ragtime-2) This fine production is another jewel in the jewel-laden crown of the Tarento-Southerland team. Don’t miss.

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Jacques Brel first appeared on my radar when Scott Walker recorded his songs in the late 60’s and he’s been on and off it ever since, but in truth more off than on. I’ve never seen this ‘revue’ before and was struck by how many of the songs were familiar (covers perhaps), how diverse they are and indeed how good.

They are miniature stories that lend themselves to staging, which is what director Andrew Keates has done; a series of little playlets set to music, or rather songs that become playlets. This works well by and large, though occasionally at the expense of the vocals or a touch too busy. The moments where they just sat at the front of the stage were lovely. We’re in a night club, which spills over to the front of the auditorium, with an onstage band on multi-level platforms with lots of different spaces for the singers. There are back projections, a handful of props and lots of costume changes so this is more of a show than a vanilla revue with people on barstools.

All four are singing actors, so they interpret the songs rather than just sing them. Brel songs often come alive more when they’re sung by people who look and sound like they’ve lived life and for this reason I thought Eve Polycarpou’s contributions shone most, but David Burt brought passion and Daniel Boys and Gina Beck enthusiasm and freshness. MD Dean Austin leads an excellent 5-piece band and even gets a turn or two on the vocals (and an opportunity to show off his French).

The evening was marred for me by the man next to us in H3 who started to eat a takeaway meal as the curtain went up (with his fingers – he forgot to pick up a fork) and continued his feast through most of the first half. When he opened a bag of crisps three songs into the second half, as Eve Polycarpou was about to begin Ne Me Quitte Pas, I just had to move. The most extraordinary thing about it was that he appeared to be enjoying the show yet completely oblivious to the way he was spoiling others enjoyment!

The show originated in the US in 1968 and was first seen in London in the early 70’s (my companion saw it then) and has had few revivals since, so this is a rare and welcome opportunity to catch it.


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The conceit of this show by Yiannis Koutsakos, James Oban & James Rottger is that we’re at the opening night of a Britney Spears bio-musical called Oops I Did It Again (with Sheridan Smith as Britney & Michael Ball as her mum!) in the flagship London theatre of a giant corporate chain owned by a larger-than-life impresario; but we’re front of house with the ushers while the show is being played offstage. It’s a clever idea.

Packed full of (up-to-date) musical theatre references and in-jokes (including a cheeky recycling of The West End Whingers re-naming of Love Never Dies as Paint Never Dries), the show follows the fortunes of five wannabe actors and their bullying failed opera singer boss. A gay relationship is threatened as one decides to seek fame in Austria (cue lots of jokes about other places beginning with A) and a straight relationship is formed as pretty boy Stephen falls for new girl Lucy (who has a secret). Starstruck Rosie is obsessed with, well stars – and selfies. It’s all good fun and it’s very well performed by a cast of familiar fringe faces. I particularly like the way they use the characters natural home i.e. the auditorium aisles. It’s stronger lyrically than musically, but the songs are perfectly acceptable.

This is it’s second outing at the Charing Cross Theatre (which seems to have become a second home for fringe musicals, with previous transfers from the Union and the Finborough) after a first showing on the fringe. The last run was as a late-night show and I couldn’t help feeling this might be a better slot – without the superfluous interval in what is only an 80 minute show.
If you like musical theatre, get a group together and have a couple of drinks and you’ll probably enjoy yourselves.

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Well, you have to admire Phil Willmott’s ambition. The starting points for this musical are that the young soldiers in the trenches would have been brought up on Peter Pan and one of them was its creator J M Barrie’s adopted son George (who may have had a copy with him). Though set in the trenches, the show is in reality one long dream sequence involving Peter Pan and other characters from the book. Over-ambitious, perhaps?

There are some excellent songs and for me this is its greatest strength. They are, intentionally, in lots of styles, which didn’t really work for me as it made the show seem a bit of a musical ragbag. The dream includes Music Hall, Parisian clubs and a song about Jungian psychology of dreams (!) and though each were good on their own, they don’t make a cohesive whole. The choruses are particularly good, with the Act One closer a real high.

I liked the look of Philip Lindley’s set, with a Victorian wrought iron colonnade at the back and impressionistic trenches behind, but with this and the band on the left of the stage, it doesn’t leave much room for excellent choreographer Racky Plews to work with. The Finborough has looked less cramped before with more than twelve on stage. I suspect it will open out when it gets to Charing Cross Theatre.

There are some very good performances, most notably Joanna Woodward as Tinker Bell, though some of the less experienced cast members struggled a bit with the big demands of some of Willmott’s songs. I liked the keyboard / cello / clarinet arrangements and the three-piece band were well balanced with the cast.

Even though it was the night after press night it was only the fourth performance and it did feel like work-in-progress. At almost 2.5 hours, it doesn’t really sustain its length. It isn’t always a good idea for a writer to direct his own work; another director might have added some much needed criticality. It will no doubt improve and for once I think Charing Cross Theatre, though less intimate, may prove a better home for it. It’s probably too late to change much during this incarnation, but a rewrite might well bring out a very good musical that I felt was itself lost inside this.

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