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Posts Tagged ‘Danielle Tarento’

Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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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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Has there ever been a musical based on a documentary film before? This 2006 Off-Broadway-to-Broadway show, getting its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse, is based on the film of the same name, a true account of the mother-daughter relationship of Edith & Edith Bouvier Beale, Long Island socialites with connections to the Kennedy’s.

After a brief prologue looking back, the first act is set in 1941, their heyday hosting parties and mixing with the rich and famous. Young Edie is betrothed to the future president’s elder brother Joseph Kennedy (may be true) and her cousins include a young Jaqueline (Kennedy nee Bouvier – definately true). Big Edie’s dad is an eccentric retired major, perhaps even a bit barking. They even have an in-house pianist to accompany Big Edie in her vocal entertainments. Think Philadelphia Story with eccentricity scaled up 10-fold.

In the second half we move forward 32 years to 1973. Mother and daughter are recluses, living with 54 cats in filthy surroundings unable to look after themselves. The press have made the connection with the former first lady and the neighbours protest. Their only friend is a teenage handyman whose motivation is ambiguous and who Big Edie has an unhealthy attraction to.

The difference between the two acts is extraordinary, very much a show in two halves. For me this is its flaw. I can see the necessity of showing their heyday, but a whole act seems to overplay it and rob us of more depth to the story at the heart of the piece – the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship and how they got that way.

That said, there is so much to admire and enjoy that it’s an unmissable evening. Chief amongst this are the performances. Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Southerland must have wet themselves when they secured Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell for the leads; it’s hard to imagine a pair more suited to these roles and they are both sensational. Russell combines pathos with tragi-comedy and quirkiness to give a performance that is a career highlight, even in her illustrious career. Hancock’s stage presence and audience engagement are extraordinary; she completely inhabits the role.

As if that wasn’t enough, Aaron Sidwell follows his brilliant turn in American Idiot with a brilliant pair of performances, as dashing young naval man Joseph Kennedy and the teenager who befriends the ladies, and Rachel Anne Rayham is hugely impressive as Little Edie in 1941. There’s superb support from Billy Boyle as dad / granddad, Jeremy Legat as the pianist and friend and Ako Mitchell as two generations of household staff. I don’t know which pair of girls played the cousins, but they were superb.

The surprisingly big 10-piece band make a lovely sound (and the venue’s former sound problems seem to have gone, as they had in Grand Hotel). Tom Rogers impressive design is a touch cramped in the first act but suitably chlaustrophobic in the second. Thom Southerland’s staging is as good as we’ve come to expect from him.

Southwark Playhouse starting the year on a high. Don’t miss.

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When I saw the West End première of this show in 1992 I was completely underwhelmed. Part of the problem was that it was staged in the vast Dominion Theatre. I warmed to it when the Donmar revived it in 2004, winning an Olivier award for Best Musical Revival, and again when the Guildhall School of Music & Drama gave it their all just last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/grand-hotel). Now I’m getting positively hot. The producer / director team of Danielle Tarento & Thom Sutherland have another big hit on their hands with this thrilling revival.

It’s a character-driven piece set in a Berlin hotel in the 1920’s. It revolves around a broke Baron, Felix von Gaigern, forced to steal by his criminal creditor. He falls for both fading Russian ballerina Elizaveta and temp secretary Flaemnchen, and befriends dying book-keeper Otto, himself intent on a little bit if luxury on the way out. Otto used to work for Preysing, an unprincipled businessman in the process of engineering a merger for his ailing company, and buying Flaemnchen’s attentions. Felix is also kind to hotel concierge Erik, awaiting news of the birth of his son, much more so than his boss. It’s all presided over by Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, a somewhat mysterious morphine addict, acting as narrator.

The score is a lot better than I remembered and there’s a lot of it (and little dialogue). It unfolds over 105 unbroken minutes on a patterned faux marble floor, with a huge chandelier above and just a few props, in a traverse setting. Lee Newby’s costumes are terrific and Lee Proud’s choreography is superb, miraculous given the space he has to work with. Thom Sutherland’s staging is masterly, overcoming my initial fears that it would be cramped in this space. The Southwark Playhouse often has issues with sound at its musicals, but not here. With a lot of small overhead speakers angled down, Michael Bradley’s string-heavy septet sounds great, and all of the lyrics are clear.

Tarento does her own casting and again she has assembled a truly gifted ensemble. Scott Garnham is terrific as Felix, with particularly fine vocals. I loved both the characterisation and singing of Christine Grimandi, an auspicious British debut for this Italian performer. It’s great to see Valerie Cutko as Elizabeta’s companion / assistant Raffaela, the same role she took over in the original Broadway production. Here David Delve took over the role of the ‘narrator’ Otternschlag at very short notice, but you’d never know it from his confident, commanding performance. There are too many more to mention – another 13 – in this fine cast, except perhaps to say that there are excellent professional debuts from 2015 graduates Jammy Kasongo, Durone Stokes and Leah West.

We are ever so lucky to get work of this quality on the fringe. I think I might have to be greedy and go again…..

 

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This 1979 Jerry Herman show was the third of three flops sandwiched between Hello Dolly & Mame and La Cage aux Folles. The second of the three, Mack & Mabel, was rehabilitated and is now often revived, but this one disappeared until this enterprising European premiere 35 years later. Gold stars to the Finborough Theatre and producer Danielle Tarento for enabling us to see it at last.

It’s based on S N Berman’s 1944 stage play, itself adapted from Franz Werfel, who wrote it after he’d fled to the US, via France, in the 30’s. There seems to be an autobiographical influence on the story. The National Theatre staged the play in 1986 and my recollection is that it was a comedy. This certainly isn’t.

Eternal optimist Jacobowsky is a Polish Jew who has moved around Europe and now finds himself in a France under German occupation. He befriends a Polish colonel, Stjerbinsky, and they begin a journey through France by car, train and boat. Stjerbinsky is trying to get important papers about undercover agents in Poland to the Polish government in exile in England. En route they visit a cafe where they meet Marianne, who joins them. They pair up with a circus, get split up and reunited at a Jewish wedding Jacobowsky is performing, and take refuge in a convent before getting to the port and the boat that will take them to England.

If you know Herman’s other shows, you’ll know this is hardly typical Herman fare and that’s the crux of it – the story doesn’t really work as musical theatre. That said, Director Thom Sutherland and his team have made a good fist of it. Set Designer Phil Lindley’s pop-up book set is ingenious; a giant map of Europe from which other sets fold out. Sophia Simensky has added fine period costumes and Max Pappenheim some great sound effects. Though no doubt driven by the duel needs of economy and space, the twin pianos are perfect for this music. I thought some of the performances were a little tentative, but Alastair Brookshaw and Nic Kyle were very assured as Jacobowsky and Stjerbinsky.

A flawed show, but a good production, and above all a great opportunity to catch such a rarity by a titan of musical theatre.

 

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It’s an unlikely premise for a musical – a bunch of jar heads on a bender the night before deployment in Vietnam! It took a while to prove itself, but prove itself it did. Southwark Playhouse seems to have another hit musical on its hands.

Benj Pasek, Justin Paul & Peter Duncan’s 2012 show is set in San Francisco in 1963, where a group of marines seek out girls for their last night party. It takes a while before we realise that it’s more of a cruel game than a farewell shag. Eddie’s waitress pick-up Rose gives as good as she gets when they’re rumbled, but by now Eddie has fallen in love with her. He rescues the situation with a romantic dinner, though he can hardly suppress his pent up anger at the world. When he leaves with Rose’s address, he promises to keep in touch. The show is framed by scenes of his homecoming in 1967 (this isn’t that clear) and in the second and final one we see his reception, both political and personal. Though I loved the music and Matt Ryan’s direction & Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography, by the interval I wasn’t so sure about the story or where it was going, but it’s nicely sown up in the second half.

It’s not a lot more than a love story, but it has a lovely score which is beautifully played by George Dyer’s largely acoustic six-piece band. The six voices of the marines sound great together and Jamie Muscato is a fine romantic lead as Eddie. Every now and again I find myself blown away by an outstanding performance and here Laura Jane Matthewson makes an extraordinary professional debut as Rose, with gorgeous vocals and a very believable transition from naive girl to feisty woman. More great vocals from Rebecca Trehearn as Marcy and a lovely cameo from Ananda Minihan (straight from playing a wonderful Nettie in the Arcola’s superb Carousel) complete a fine cast, something producer Danielle Tarento is renown for.

Like Southwark Playhouse’s last musical In The Heights, it’s staged with the audience on three sides and a two-story backdrop containing the band and entrances designed by Lee Newby (it’s only towards the end I realised what this represented) and the playing space is used to great effect, particularly in the thrilling ‘dance’ numbers. The sound needs a bit of attention to ensure full audibility of the lyrics throughout the auditorium, but that could be easily solved by press night.

Haven’t booked yet? Why?

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I find it astonishing that the story of the Titanic has such a high-profile, now more than 100 years after its fateful maiden voyage. It’s equally astonishing that it has taken 16 years for this Maury Yeston musical to get a London production (sorry, Bromley, but you are in Kent!). It turns out that, in telling the tragic story, this musical is way better than the somewhat pompous and overblown film and this showcase is long overdue.

It tells the story of the tragedy very well, bringing out the conflict between the owner, the shipbuilder, the captain and other crew members, but it’s even better bringing out the personal stories of the passengers and crew through the ship’s own class system. Third class is full of hopeful immigrants, second class has social-climbing holidaymakers and the rich and famous occupy first class.

Thom Sutherland & Cressida Carre’s staging is simple but clever. I particularly liked the owner’s relentless pressure for speed staged as a series of dinners; the conflict between owner, builder & captain trading blame-laden one liners; the choreographed transfer of ladies into lifeboats and the eventual tilting of the ship. David Woodhead has designed an elevated ship’s deck in front of a metal wall, some movable steps and a handful of props which do everything that’s needed.

Yeston’s score is excellent, especially in the company numbers. It has a pleasingly unBroadway, somewhat British sound and the string-heavy band under Mark Aspinall played gloriously. Andrew Johnson’s sound is amongst the best I’ve ever experienced in musical theatre. Danielle Tarento’s casting is again outstanding and it would be invidious to single anyone out as there are so many fine performances and an ensemble that shines.

When will a commercial producer give Thom Southerland a big West End musical? As this shows, he’s as good as any – and Southwark Playhouse continues its indispensable contribution as a bigger-than-most fringe musical venue.

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