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Posts Tagged ‘Cynthia Erivo’

Contemporary Music

Surely Richard Thompson hasn’t ever had a band as good as his current trio? His Royal Festival Hall show was the second time I’d seen them in 2.5 years and they’ve got even better. They were such a tight unit and RT was on fire playing guitar. There were so many highlights, but an acoustic Meet Me On The Ledge and a cover of Hey Joe stood out for me. His daughter Kami and her partner did such a lovely 40-minutes in support you had to forgive the nepotism!

Cynthia Erivo‘s late-night ‘bon voyage’ concert (she’s off to Broadway!) at the Hippodrome was a real treat, with a host of great guests that I wasn’t expecting, including Richard Fleeshman (terrific pianist too!) Robert Dean Wilson, Alison Jiear and Eva Noblezada. The vocals were occasionally too unrestrained, but that’s easily forgiven because of the show’s many highs and the emotion of the occasion. Let’s hope they don’t keep her there!

Opera

The Royal Opera’s Orphee et Eurydice felt more like a staged concert, with the orchestra and choir on stage and no set as such. Hofesh Schecter’s dancers were mostly underutilised, but somehow it proved satisfying overall. Gluck’s music was played and sung beautifully and it was this that mattered most, carrying the evening.

Classical Music

The Bernstein Prom was one of the hottest tickets this year and I failed to get an extra single despite trying almost daily. It turned out to be a real highlight too, a lovely combination of stage and screen works with the emphasis on songs from shows. The John Wilson Orchestra sounded great and the soloists were terrific, with Scarlett Strallen bringing the house down with Glitter & Be Gay. Some say the Proms are dumbing down with populist stuff like this, but that’s tosh – Bernstein is a 20th century titan and his stage and screen works are more than worthy of treatment in this way.

Dance

Lest We Forget was a triumph for English National Ballet; three works marking the centenary of the start of the First World War by three great modern choreographers – Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan.  I feel lucky to have seen the early revival. They were extraordinarily diverse pieces, but all were stunning in both visual imagery and emotional power. One of the most perfect evenings of dance I’ve ever experienced.

I haven’t seen Les Ballets de Trocadero de Monte Carlo for many years and I’d forgotten what fun this all-male company is. The parody of classical ballet is brilliant, but what I realised this time is how skilled they really are as ballet dancers. A hoot.

I gave the Hofesh Shechter Company a second chance as I wasn’t sure after Political Mother, but the barbarians trilogy didn’t convince me I’m afraid. The visual imagery was often striking, but the lack of a cohesive narrative meant that it didn’t sustain its 90 minute running time.

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This is a difficult piece to review for two reasons – the first is that it defies categorisation and the second is that there aren’t enough superlatives available for the performances!

It’s not a musical as there’s no ‘book’. It’s not a concert or a song cycle as they’re more than just songs. I think I’ll just call it a show. It was the first Jason Robert Brown work to be staged, 20 years ago this year. He’s done six musicals since, though we’ve only see three in London – The Last Five Years (recently made it into a film) Parade & 13. He’s had two shows on Broadway in less than two years.

It’s a collection of sixteen songs, each of which tells a story of someone at a turning point in their lives. Every song features a different person (or occasionally persons), time and place and though they aren’t connected as such, they feel as if they belong together. They’re written in a diverse range of styles – pop, gospel, jazz, R&B – but somehow there is a cohesiveness about them. They’re just bloody good songs.

The four performers occupy the same space for all of its unbroken 90 minutes. It has windows as the back wall, behind which is a New York skyline (and band just about visible). In front, there’s an unfinished wall, making it a generic room. They rarely interact, though they often make eye contact. Most songs are solos but there are some sung in permutations of the four. It’s vocal perfection.

Jenna Russell interprets some of her songs, notably the Weill parody Surabaya Santa, with comic flair as well as vocal perfection. Damian Humbley’s voice has great control and a gorgeous tone. Cynthia Erivo sings with such soul and conviction she brought herself and me to tears, in my case tears at the sheer beauty of her voice. Dean John-Wilson adds a youthfulness and edginess to his fine vocals. Daniel A Weiss’ quintet play beautifully and the sound balance (Mike Thacker) ensures you hear every word and every note. It’s always captivating, sometimes mesmerising, and though Adam Lenson’s staging isn’t really necessary for the stories, it somehow contributes on an intuitive level.

You will by now have gathered that I was more than a bit bowled over. Now all I want for Christmas is a recording so that it can fill my living room with beauty as it did the St. James’ Theatre.

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Contemporary Music

West End Recast was an impulsive last-minute punt which proved a treat. The idea is that musical theatre performers sing songs they would never normally get to sing, because they’re the wrong sex, colour, age etc. It was slow to take off, until Nathan Amzi gave us Cassie’s Music & the Mirror from A Chorus Line! This was followed by a stunning Being Alive from Company by Cynthia Erivo (quite possible the best it’s ever been sung), then a brilliant Rose’s Turn (Gypsy) from Nick Holder to end the first half. The second didn’t reach these heights, but there was much to enjoy.

I’ve always thought Damon Albarn was the best (pop) thing to come out of the 90’s and has become someone, like Elvis Costello and David Byrne, who continually reinvents himself and is always open to collaboration and experimentation. Though his Royal Albert Hall show was built around his excellent new solo album, it dipped into other incarnations and included guest appearances from Blur’s Graham Coxon, musicians from Mali, US hip-hop outfit De La Soul, rapper Kano and virtual recluse Brian Eno! Albarn is clearly in a very happy place and this was a very happy concert.

As her brother heads for the middle of the road, Martha Wainwright continues to do concerts that combine eccentricity, fun and beauty, showcasing her extraordinary voice and ability to inhabit her (and others) songs. This Queen Elizabeth Hall concert was good as the Union Chapel outing last August, though this time her son on stage outstayed his welcome. As one of my companions said, it’s hard to concentrate on a song about a man dying of cancer when you’re petrified a 5-year old might be about to electrocute himself!

I was hugely disappointed by John Grant at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, but had hoped that with an orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall he would be a lot better. Well the sound engineer was having none of that. With bass levels at painful vomit-inducing levels and the orchestra often buried in the mush of the mix, this was another disappointment. There were snatches of greatness (when the man at the back with the machines wasn’t producing his electro shit) but on the whole it was great musicianship ruined by a seemingly deaf arsehole.

Opera

My first (of two) concerts in the short Mariinsky Opera residency at the Barbican Hall was the original version of Boris Gudunov. It was good but lacked the sparkle of Gergiev’s work with the LSO. They seemed to be wheeling out a Mariinsky staple for the Nth time and going through the motions.

The contrast provided by the following night’s OAE / Opera Rara concert version of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall couldn’t have been bigger. An orchestra, chorus and six soloists under Sir Mark Elder, all at the the top of their game, polishing a rarely heard opera and producing a musical jewel that shone brighter than Donizetti’s more popular operas. A spontaneous standing ovation is rare at such events, but not for this. Wonderful.

You can always rely on GSMD to give us a rare opera, but you don’t think of Dvorak as rare – productions of his operas are, though. We only ever see one of the eleven he wrote (Rusalka) so it was good to catch his comedy, The Cunning Peasant, in an English translation relocating it to Hardy’s Wessex. It’s a bit derivative of Mozart’s comedies and the first half didn’t grab me, but the second half was great. As always at GSMD, the production values and the performances were excellent.

The ever inventive Les Arts Florissants’ latest project is two short rarely performed Rameau opera-ballets, Daphnis et Egle & La naissance d’Osiris. The seven dancers, six singers and chorus of ten, all costumed, shared the bare Barbican Hall stage in front of the period ensemble, staging them as they would have been staged when they were first performed for the French Court in the eighteenth century. The stories are slight but it sounded gorgeous and this type of performance fascinating.

Glare at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio Theatre was a SciFi opera which I saw less than an hour after the SciFi film Interstellar (below) and it was less than half its length. I admired it more than I enjoyed it, but as modern opera goes, it’s better than most. All four singers trained at GSMD and one, Sky Ingram, blew me away here as she had there.

Dance

It’s been a privilege following the final chapter of Sylvie Guillem‘s career, as she transitioned from classical ballet to contemporary dance and this fourth show (for me) with Akram Khan, Sacred Monsters, at Sadler’s Wells had a biographical twist. The dialogue was a surprise and the shows playfulness was both surprising and delightful. The music was great and the dancing of both mesmerising. In almost exactly six months it’s the farewell show as she retires, wisely, at 50. Real class.

Classical Music

A second outing to the Mariinsky Opera Chorus, but this time on their own, unaccompanied, at GSMD’s new Milton Court Concert Hall for a programme of secular music and folk songs. The acoustic was a bit harsh when they were at full throttle, but the singing was gorgeous and the standard of solos exceptional. If only they smiled more.

The following day, at a lunchtime concert at St. John’s Smith Square, a small group of 10 singers, also unaccompanied, all young enough to be the children of the Mariinsky Chorus (!) made an equally gorgeous sound with music from both ends of a 500-year range. The Erebus Ensemble are an exciting new early music group who also tackle 20th century equivalents like Tavener and Part. Lovely.

Looking at a couple of hundred late teens / early twenties performing Britten’s War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall on Remembrance Sunday was deeply moving. 100 years ago, many of them would have been heading to the trenches and likely death. This added a poignancy to a beautifully sung and played requiem. The standards of the RAM orchestras and the National Youth Choir were astonishing and the three young soloists – a British tenor, a German Baritone & a Moldovan (former USSR) soprano, as Britten intended – were terrific. Not forgetting the excellent children’s choir assembled especially for the occasion. Conductor Marin Alsop’s command of it all was extraordinary.

The Chapel in the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a lovely venue for a choral concert and Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Britten’s St. Nicholas was a great pairing. Interval drinks in Wren’s beautiful refectory and Chelsea Pensioners in their bright red uniforms greeting all adds to the occasion.

A visit to Handel House with the LSO Friends included a short recital in the room where Handel himself held them, with his composition room just next door. The soprano and harpsichordist sounded lovely and it was great to hear music in this historic room.

The fourth and last of the Composers in Love series at St. John’s Concert Hall was Nocturne, a portrait of Chopin. Given the lack of letters left by him and his family, it was biographically sketchier than the others, but musically it was extraordinary and Lucy Parham converted me to Chopin, who hasn’t really been on my musical radar up until now. The readers this time were Alex Jennings and Harriet Walter (subbing for Juliet Stevenson). What a lovely series this has been.

Cabaret

I didn’t quite know what to expect from national treasure Anne Reid in cabaret (with Stefan Bednarczyk) at St. James Studio and I was delighted when it turned out to be the music of unsung musical theatre heroes Comden & Green, interspersed with the story of, and anecdotes from, their lives. Delightful & charming.

Film

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has the most incredible cast, a who’s who of British acting minus the ‘stars’ which would be guaranteed to win BAFTA’s Best Ensemble award (if there was one). Turner’s story is a fascinating one and Leigh’s attention to detail is extraordinary. A towering achievement.

I liked Set Fire to the Stars, about Dylan Thomas’ first US tour, when its American organiser had his work cut out to keep him under control. The US in the 50’s looked great in B&W and the performances, particularly Celyn Jones as Dylan, were very good, but I thought the focus was too much on the US organiser and not enough on Thomas, no doubt because of the star casting of Ethan Hawke.

The Imitation Game is an even better film than I thought it would be. It moves between Alan Turing’s childhood, wartime work and tragic final days and really does illuminate his story. In a terrific cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary.

Even though I go to plays more than three hours long, films of similar length rarely hold my attention and I don’t really know why. Interstellar comes in just under three hours but I was captivated throughout. So so much better than last year’s Galaxy, maybe a touch too sentimental but an absolute must see.

Art

I’ve seen Anselm Keifer works in galleries all over the world, but seeing them all together in the Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition was a bit overwhelming as they are virtually all dark and depressing with his brown-to-black palette. Many (but not all) are great as individual works, but together it’s a different experience. His books were a revelation, but displayed in cases open at one page seemed like a lost curatorial opportunity to me.

Waled Besthty’s installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery is more impressive for its execution than its visual appeal. It’s a whole year’s worth of images created using the cyanotype printing process covering the whole curved wall. You have to take in the overall impact rather than the detail (unless you’ve got a day or two to spare). It’s not the best the Curve has offered, but this space is still indispensable for innovative big scale works.

I’m afraid Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery went right over my head. Apparently, the artists are seeking ‘to address the challenges, conditions and consequences of living in one of the world’s busiest cities in the digital age’. Yeh…..back in the real world next door in the RFH, the annual World Press Photo Exhibition shows us what it’s really like living in cities, countries, the world; a reminder of last year’s events, mostly sad ones this year.

The Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain is a riot of gorgeous colour and a great companion for Mike Leigh’s film (above). It’s a brilliant example of how a man in his 60’s and 70’s can be bursting with creativity and originality. Upstairs in the Turner Prize exhibition there isn’t a painting in sight – it’s all film, slides & photos – I wonder what Turner would think. I hated it. In the Turner Galleries themselves, one room has been given over to Olafur Eliasson’s colour experiments where he tries to create the late Turner palette. The room contains giant circles each with their own colour range. Interesting.

Catching Dreams was the title of this year’s Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees at the Royal Festival Hall and it was as intriguing and inspirational as ever. This must be excellent therapy and great that their work is seen and sold in this way.

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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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Any new musical is a big risk, which is why we don’t get many. Go straight to the West End, into the UK’s highest profile theatre, with a writer, director and choreographer with no musicals credits and a composer with one, and you significantly increase the risk. It’s midway through previews, still being rewritten, with cancellations, lengthened intervals and a half-time abandonment behind it and it’s clearly not ready yet BUT I thought it was great fun and I think they’re going to pull it off.

There’s a great opening scene as we see the ambition of a young Simon (brilliantly played by one of four young actors, I know not which). Then we meet X-Factor hopeful Chenice, her Grandpa and dog Barlow, in the family caravan under a London flyover. She has the back story to end all back stories. Another hopeful, Northern plumber Max, is just passing by. Later, we are introduced to other contestants – Welsh supermarket checkout girl Brenda, Irish duo The Alter Boys, Hunchback and Vladimir. In the first half, its the live auditions and a whistle-stop trip through to the live final which is the focus of the second half, on and off stage.

I liked Steve Brown’s songs (as I liked his score for Spend Spend Spend), lyrically funny with particularly good ‘big numbers’. There’s a somewhat haphazard, anarchic quality to the staging, perhaps because of a lack of readiness, but somehow adding to the fun. There’s a lot of cheeky references, clever parodies and some topicality in Harry Hill’s book and the targets are well and truly sent up, but in a friendly rather than a malicious way. It does lag at times and needs tightening up, but that’s doable. Like The Book of Mormon and The Commitments, it’s a different sort of musical aiming at a different audience and I think it succeeds.

Nigel Harman seemed a bit hesitant as Simon, perhaps because the real Simon was in the audience or perhaps due to his prosthetic teeth and high trousers! Cynthia Erivo certainly can sing, with bells on, and is terrific as Chenice. Alan Morrissey is also in fine voice as loveable Max and Simon Lipkin almost steals the show as Barlow the dog with a crush on Simon. The parts of judges Louis and Jordy (guess!) seemed underwritten to me, but Ashley Knight & Victoria Elliott do their best with what they’re given. Charlie Baker is unrecognisable, and also in fine voice, as Hunchback and I liked both Billy Carter’s camp producer and Simon Bailey’s host Liam, who has a song sung entirely whilst hugging Max!

Designer Es Devlin pulls a lot out of the bag, all of which worked the night I went, but I can see why it takes some breaking in. It’s not as slick as Mormon, but it’s also less cynical and more warm-hearted. If you know what they are parodying and just go for a fun night out, you are unlikely to be disappointed. A full house, the previous night’s aborted performance and the real Simon in the audience probably added a certain frisson, but fun was had regardless.

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I’m late to this show as I double-booked myself early in the run (another senior moment) which sadly means I won’t be able to see it again. The chief reason I’d like to is a set of exceptional performances; with The Amen Corner, Fences, Josephine & I, A Season in the Congo and this, it has been an extraordinary summer for black actors.

In this configuration (audience on three sides, thrust stage) the Menier seems a lot bigger and it appears to open up the show, which never feels cramped, even with all 17 actors on stage. John Doyle’s staging (not with actor-musicians this time) is intimate yet big. The transition from book to film to musical works reasonably well, but it’s the fine set of performances which make it.

Celie’s dad gives away here children so that she can keep home for him. Then he gives away Celie herself to Mister, a misogynistic bully who’d lusted after her sister Nettie but has to make do with her. Nettie disappears to Africa to look after the children of missionaries and Celie befriends feisty Sofia and Shug, both of whom give her the strength to assert herself and take control of her life. This all takes place in early 20th century America and it’s particularly unsympathetic to the black American men of the time.

You can tell it was written by a team more used to pop, TV & film music rather than musical theatre (one of them could probably live off the royalties to the Friends theme forever) as at times you get snatches of incomplete songs rather than fully formed ones, particularly in the first half. It’s a mixture of styles, but there are enough intimate songs and rousing choruses to carry it and it does tell the story well enough.

You cheer on Nicola Hughes and Sophia Nomvete as ballsy Shug and Sofia respectively, fall in love with Abiona Omonua’s Nettie and there’s a lovely trio of local churchwomen (gossips) from Keisha T Fraser, Samantha-Antoinette Smith & Jennifer Saayeng. This is a show written for the girls, but Christopher Colquhoun does well as the deeply unsympathetic Mister, the man you love to hate. Towering above all of these is Cynthia Erivo who gives a career defining star performance as Celie giving her all with heart, soul and guts.

It would be lovely to see this transfer, though that might require a re-casting of the lead role as Erivo’s lined up for the X-Factor musical I Can’t Sing! Now, that’s a contrast if ever I saw one…..

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This show, developed and produced by musicals laboratory Perfect Pitch, shows great promise. For me, it’s more of a song cycle than a fully formed show though, so there’s still work to do I think.

Our eight characters have one thing in common – Covent Garden tube station, and its lift in particular. They include a secretary and her boss, a French teacher, a lap dancer and a ballet dancer and it sort of revolves around a busker. There’s a maybe relationship between boss & secretary, a friendship between the dancers, a professional relationship between the teacher and lap dancer and a lot of chatroom stuff.

Some characters are developed more than others, some hardly at all, in the short 75 minutes we’re with them – and that’s why it feels like work-in-progress. It’s a clever idea, about communication in the modern world, but it isn’t fully formed yet. Modern musicals are all beginning to sound the same to me, and this is no more original than any other – but it’s a good score nonetheless, even if it is a touch formulaic, feeling like it belongs in the genre of ‘modern American chamber musical’ – slick, snappy, soundbites (though it’s not American, obviously!).

The staging is clever though occasionally too frenetic, and the sound sometimes too loud, sweeping away any subtlety. They’ve assembled a very talented cast, though someone of the calibre of Julie Atherton is rather wasted in her under-developed role. I was particularly impressed by Cynthia Erivo and Jonny Fines as the dancers.

The young audience lapped it all up and overall I’m less negative than I may seem. I do hope composer Craig Adams stays with it a while longer and / or continues to develop other musicals as he’s clearly talented.

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