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Posts Tagged ‘David McMullen’

Has a musical’s title ever misrepresented its content as much as this? You’d be forgiven for expecting an evening of chirpy minstrels and plinky plonk music, but what you get is an ambitious epic piece of American social history set at the beginning of the 20th century – even more ambitious if you decide to stage it at the tiny Landor! But ambition often pays off, as it does here.

Based on E L Doctorow’s book, Terence McNally, Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens have linked the stories of a Latvian Jewish immigrant, a black musician who is the subject of  racist attacks (somewhat ironically by Irish Americans!)  and a white upper middle class New England family. We see how a new immigrant can pursue the American dream and end up a successful Hollywood director, the black community’s uphill struggle for respect in this same society and how a liberal white family lives within extraordinary social upheaval. We also get real people in this cocktail – Henry Ford, J P Morgan (if only he knew what his legacy would become), Houdini and Emma Goldman!

The weaving of these stories is seemless and the tiny space has the effect of increasing the intensity and heightening your emotional involvement with these people’s experiences. It’s helped by a very rousing score, with appropriate period ragtime themes running through, which conveys  passion better than any words alone. Though on occasion the story seems a little contrived, you can’t help but get caught up in the events as they unfold.

Robert McWhir has done a terrific job of staging this here, helped by excellent choreography by Matthew Gould and a clever design from Martin Thomas which maximizes the space for the cast of 23 whilst still signposting the many locations the show takes us to (sometimes using the silhouettes our Latvian immigrant is famous for). George Dyer leads a superb five-piece band and I was delighted the Landor bucked the fringe musical amplification trend because it really didn’t need it.

It’s an excellent ensemble, with stand-out performances from Kurt Kansley and Rosalind James as black couple Coalhouse and Sarah at the centre of the story (Kansley also playing a pretty mean piano!). I also very much liked Louisa Lydell’s mother and David McMullen as her passionately political son. Their committment of the whole cast to telling this story sweeps you away.

This show only had a three-month run in the West End in 2003 (in costume but ‘without decor’ if I remember correctly) but it got 8 Olivier nominations and won one for Maria Friedman. Flaherty and Ahrens have other under-rated musicals waiting for a revival (My Favourite Year please!).

We’re still only three-quarters of the way through 2011, but it’s clearly going to be a vintage year for fringe musicals (this is my 18th!). We’ve had another gem here with The Hired Man just last month, Company & Parade at Southwark Playhouse. Road Show at the Menier, Roar of the Greasepaint at the Finborough, The Kissing Dance at Jermyn Street, A Slice of Saturday Night Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Girlfriends in Walthamstow, Salad Days at the Riverside Studios and On the 20th Century, Fings Aint Wot They Used To Be AND Dames at Sea at the Union. Forget the West End, London’s fringe is buzzing with talent. Another gold star to the Landor; up there with the best of them.

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