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Posts Tagged ‘David Hunter’

Late to the party again. Sometimes a show doesn’t catch my imagination and stays on the back burner for a while, and so it was with this. A few gaps in my diary and a ticket offer and there I was having my preconceptions confounded by a show nowhere near my American schmaltzy expectations.

It’s based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s film (which I haven’t seen) and revolves around Jenna, a pie-maker / waitress at Joe’s Diner, in an abusive marriage to bully Earl. Her co-worker Becky is carer to her partner and other co-worker, singleton Dawn, has never even had a date. They move between pie-making and serving whilst Becky manages an affair with another co-worker Cal, Dawn is persuaded to use a dating app and finds her soulmate Ogle and Jenna gets an unwanted pregnancy which leads to an unlikely love affair with her married gynaecologist!

What stops the show becoming sentimental is its quirkiness and the inclusion of issues like abuse, infidelity and sickness, yet it’s still very funny. Sara Bareilles’ excellent score has a great mix of ballads and upbeat numbers, very original for musical theatre I thought. Jessie Nelson’s funny, cheeky book makes it zip along. It’s a real feel-good story.

Katharine McPhee is hugely impressive in the lead role of Jenna, with her sidekicks both superb – Laura Baldwin as Dawn and Marisha Wallace (who wowed my as the alternate Effie in Dreamgirls) as Becky. I’ve enjoyed watching David Hunter progress through the fringe to leading roles and here as Dr Pomatter he shows a real flair for comedy too. The sometimes onstage band sound great and Diane Paulus production is extremely slick.

I’ve gone from not sure I want to go to go again!

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The year after I saw the first production of this wonderful show in the West End in 1984 I was interviewed for the Laurence Olivier Awards panel, during which I told them defiantly that 42nd Street was not the Best Musical the previous year, this was. Afterwards I realised the producer of 42nd Street was on the panel, so imagine my surprise when I was appointed. I wanted to think it was because I was right, because I was, but was later told it was because they wanted public panel members who would hold their own amongst the professionals; for once, being opinionated was an advantage!

So here we are in Colchester 28 years later for only my 7th production (including the wonderful reunion concert in 1992) with the last one, a triumph for The Landor, still ringing in my ears (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/the-hired-man). By now I consider it to be the best British musical bar none, though it’s more of a folk opera – not a chorus girl in sight. An adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel, its epic sweep over 23 years from 1898 to 1921 takes us from the land to the mines to the first world war, back to the mines and back to the land. Within this, we have the very personal story of the Tallentire family through happy times of marriage and births to the challenge of infidelity and the tragedy of death.

We start and end at a hiring fair where employers find and bargain with farm workers. Though lured by the higher wages in the mines, and side-tracked by the war, John Tallentire eventually returns to the land. In between, we see the devastation of the great war and the conditions miners had to endure for those extra pennies, leading to the birth of the unions. The social history blends well with the personal story and the superb score, seeped in British choral tradition and folk songs, makes it deeply moving yet uplifting.

Director Daniel Buckroyd’s production evokes the Cumbrian landscape very simply but effectively with platforms and screens bathed in warmth. He has assembled a fine cast which is particularly strong in the choruses. David Hunter brings real feeling to John’s songs and Julie Atherton sings and acts her heart out (I’ve only seen her in modern – mostly American – shows, so it’s great to see her so effective in a ‘period piece’). The musical standards, under MD & pianist Richard Reeday, are outstanding; it sounds like musicians also playing roles, rather than actors playing instruments as we see in Watermill shows. I thought Rachel Gladwin’s harp playing was particularly beautiful.

I saw and enjoyed Buckroyd’s 2008 touring production when it popped in to Greenwich but this is even better. After Greenwich, I emailed the NT’s director and told him to stop neglecting British musical theatre and get over to Greenwich and tell me why this show isn’t in the Cottesloe. To his credit he replied, but all we’ve had since is London Road, another show in a genre of its own. Time for another email, I think!

A lovely production of a lovely show – two more weeks in Colchester, then The Curve in Leicester for another two. Now, where’s the Leicester train timetable…..

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