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Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Stemp’

The arrival of the story musicals of Rogers & Hammerstein in the 1940’s-50’s seems to have pushed the lighter fare of the Gershwin’s out of the repertoire. Of their original 1920’s-30’s shows, I can only recall London having Lady Be Good at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Open Air Theatre and Of Thee I Sing & Let Them Eat Cake from Opera North at Sadler’s Wells. In their place, we’ve had reworkings and mash-ups from My One and Only in 1983 to Nice Work If You Can Get It in 2012 and the screen-to-stage adaptation of An American in Paris in 2015, but the most successful of these is Crazy For You, based on Girl Crazy. This is my fourth production in nine years.

The East coast meets West coast culture clash is fully exploited for humour by writer / adapter Ken Ludwig; this is one of the funniest of musical comedies. Stagestruck Bobby is sent by his NYC banking family to Deadrock, Nevada (pop. 37) to repossess a theatre. He falls in love with feisty Polly, the theatre owner’s daughter, and sends for his theatre friends to put on a show in their beleaguered theatre. His imposing mother eventually makes it to Deadrock to approve his match and, surprisingly, make her own, so it all ends happily.

Susan Stroman choreographed her late husband Mike Ockrent’s original 1992 production. Her career has since developed as a director / choreographer and we’ve been lucky enough to see her dansical Contact, two Mel Brooks shows – The Producers & Young Frankenstein – and Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys in London. Her work here is masterly in every respect, with terrific designs by Beowulf Boritt and William Ivey Long, and a brilliant band led by MD Alan Williams.

I’ve wanted to see Charlie Stemp in a musical again since his big break in 2016’s Half a Sixpence, also at Chichester. He tops that with a truly star performance, adding a talent for physical comedy to his exceptional dancing, singing and acting skills. Carly Anderson is a great match as Polly, her vocals simply beautiful. In a fine supporting cast that’s too big to namecheck every one, I feel compelled to single out Tom Edden as Zangler, whose drunken scene with Stemp as fake Zangler is one of the funniest pieces of physical comedy I’ve ever seen (well, since Edden’s turn as the waiter in One Man, Two Guvnors anyway).

I’ve seen something like twenty of Chichester’s musicals, either at their home or in the West End – often both! – and this is amongst the best. Musical theatre heaven just 65 miles from home. I’m now waiting with bated breath for a West End transfer.

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This 1963 show was written as a vehicle for Tommy Steele, who also took it to Broadway and starred in the 1967 film. This is a substantial re-working, with a new book by Julian Fellows and new songs from Stiles and Drew. I thought it was a big old-fashioned populist treat!

It’s based on H G Wells semi-autobiographical rags-to-riches-to-rags-to riches-again novel Kipps. Getting a story from the Downton creator where the toffs are the baddies is a bit odd, but it’s a good book. Arthur Kipps is an apprentice draper until he inherits a fortune, falls in love with posh Helen Walsingham, is exploited and left penniless by her brother and mother, realises he doesn’t belong with the toffs and returns to his old world to marry his first love Ann. Working class meets upper class and wins. The characters are all rather stereotypical, but hey its musical theatre. Many of David Heneker’s original songs have been retained, with seven new ones added, including excellent ensemble pieces Look Alive, Back the Right Horse and Pick Out a Simple Tune.

The creation of the two contrasting worlds is brilliantly done by Paul Brown’s set, and even more importantly his superb costumes, and Andrew Wright’s choreography, which is amongst the best I’ve ever seen on any stage, light as air, athletic and witty. Director Rachel Kavanagh presides over this with staging of great flair. Whatever you think of the show, the production is masterly. With great vocals all round and a decent size twelve-piece band, it all sounds wonderful.

Charlie Stemp is a real find. His Arthur has bags full of charm coupled with innocence and naivety. He’s strong vocally and moves superbly. Devon-Elise Johnson and the great Emma Williams make a fine pair of romantic leads as humble Ann and silver-spooned Helen respectively. Arthur’s fellow apprentices Sid, Buggins and Flo are a delight as played by Alex Hope, Sam O’Rourke and Bethany Huckle, with John Conroy the suitably pompous boss Shalford. Vivien Parry, Jane How and Gerard Carey are all excellent as the ladies and gentlemen ‘upstairs’. Chitterlow is an odd character, a bit of an older H G Wells perhaps, but Ian Bartholomew gives another of his fine characterisations. It’s hard to imagine a finer cast.

I thought it was a delight and I predict it will be another big hit for the Chichester musicals machine.

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