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Posts Tagged ‘David Thompson’

Given the pedigree of its creators (music by Annie’s Charles Strouse, lyrics by Godspell’s Stephen Schwartz and book by Fiddler on the Roof’s Joseph Stein) this musical had a troubled life, surviving only three nights after its Broadway opening. Though there have been excellent drama school productions (I saw it at both GSMD & RAM in recent years), Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre gave it its UK professional premiere, in a revised version with a book by David Thompson, last year, and have now brought it to London, substantially recast.

It’s the story of the American immigrant experience, in this case Jewish refugees fleeing the East European pogroms at the beginning of the 20th Century. Rebecca and Bella meet and bond on a  ship bound for New York. Rebecca and her ten-year-old son David are seeking a new life, Bella is joining her widowed father, who emigrated two years earlier to join his brother. Rebecca is unable to pay her entrance fee on arrival, so Bella persuades her father to vouch for her, then her uncle to house and employ her. From there, their lives are intertwined as they navigate sweat shop exploitation and anti-semitism and get caught up in labour disputes. Rebecca chooses the wrong man whilst Bella chooses a good one.

Bronagh Lagan’s production flows beautifully on a set by Gregor Donnelly defined by suitcases, like the 2016 RAM production, and lines of washing, with excellent costumes underlining the heritage and period. In an ensemble packed with fine performances, Carolyn Maitland shines as Rebecca, with beautiful vocals, passionately delivered. Dave Willetts is on fine form as Avram, Bella’s father, Alex Gibson-Giorgio is excellent as Italian union man Sal, and there’s a terrific performance from a boy actor as David. Two ‘Americans’, played as vaudevillians, pop up regularly to illustrate the ‘welcome’ these immigrants receive and. a four-piece Klezmer band do likewise to emphasise the Jewish roots.

This is the second Hope Mill / Aria Entertainment production I’ve seen in four days. Their march for domination of regional and touring musical theatre continues with five more productions between them in the first half of 2020. Long may it continue.

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This 1978 musical is based on Jack Rosenthal’s 1976 TV play of the same name. It seems to me to be an unlikely collaboration – book by Rosenthal himself, the master of gritty realism, a score by conservative Broadway composer Jules Styne (Gypsy and Funny Girl, 20 and 15 years earlier respectively) and Lloyd-Webber’s regular lyricist Don Black! 

The fact it’s taken 37 years to be revived is partly due to Rosenthal’s refusal when he was alive, haunted by his relationship with Styne and his dislike of the Broadway-style production of Martin Charmin (the basis for his play Smash, revived recently at the Menier – https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/smash!). This version is revised by David Thompson, original lyricist Don Black and director Stewart Nicholls, going back to source material and scaling it down, losing a number of extraneous characters.

Elliott Green is 13 and its time for his Bar Mitzva, the Jewish boy-to-man ritual. The first act sees the preparations and panic from mum Rita and back seat resignation by taxi driver dad Victor. Though Elliott is refusing to get his hair cut, everything else is on plan – until Elliott does a runner from the synagogue. In the second act, his whereabouts are leaked by school friend Denise and big sis Lesley persuades him to return home to face the music.

I felt the story might be pared back a bit too much; the second half in particular isn’t meaty enough. Styne’s score is very un-Broadway and very much in keeping with the material and Black’s lyrics are witty. The layout of the theatre results in a wide playing area which had both good and bad points, but I liked the authentic 70’s sensibility of Grace Smart’s design.

It’s great to see Sue Kelvin again and she makes a brilliant archetypal Jewish mom, well matched by Robert Maskell’s Victor. Lara Stubbs as Lesley and Nicholas Corre as her boyfriend Harold share the vocal honours. 13-year-old Adam Bregman steals the show though as Elliott, an assured and confident performance of great charm.

It works well as a chamber piece for eight actors and a 4-piece band, though it’s not as successful a musical adaptation as Rosenthal’s Spend Spend Spend some 20 years later. Despite protestations to the contrary by its creators at the time, I think the show still resonates more with a Jewish audience. 

A gold star to Aria Entertainment for giving us the chance to see it after such a long time.

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