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Posts Tagged ‘David Woodhead’

If I was asked to create a musical writing partnership, I’m not sure I’d put together the writer of sophisticated, clever stuff like Sunday in the Park with George & Into the Woods, James Levine, and the man behind chirpy, quirky shows like The 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the three Falsetto musicals, William Finn, but here they are together, adapting the 2006 hit film of the same name.

Olive is runner-up in the regional Little Miss Sunshine pageant, but gets through to the national final when the winner is disqualified. This necessitates a road-trip for the entire family – mom Sheryl, dad Richard, Grandpa, Uncle Frank and teenage brother Dwayne – from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California. They are beset with problems along the way – car breakdowns, dad’s book deal falling through, the discovery of a condition that will blight Dwayne’s chosen career, a chance meeting with an ex. and his new lover for Frank and something way more serious for grandpa – but they make it.

It’s hard to like a show about an institution you loathe, even if it is sending it up a bit, but its not helped by a fairly pedestrian book and a bland score. The first half in particular fails to engage enough, and the second half makes a customary descent into American musical theatre sentimentality. There’s nothing wrong with Mehmet Ergen’s production, with an excellent design by David Woodhead and some nifty choreography from Anthony Whiteman. I don’t know which of the three Olive’s we had on Tuesday, but she melted hearts on cue. The five leads are uniformly good – Laura Pitt-Pulver, Gabriel Vick, Gary Wilmot, Paul Keating & Sev Keoshgerian – and there are terrific comic turns from Imelda Warren-Green as Linda the bereavement liaison and Miss California.

I just don’t think it was really worth the transatlantic crossing, and why are they serving American cheese at the edgy Arcola anyway?

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This and Follies (which I’m seeing again in three days time) haven’t been my favourite Sondheim shows – I’ve always considered them a bit conventional, even old-fashioned, in comparison with the rest of his work. Well, that was until Saturday. This is another musical theatre triumph for the Watermill in Newbury, unquestionably the best of the four staged productions of the show I’ve seen over 28 years. It looks gorgeous, it sounds great and it’s much wittier.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around three generations of Armfeldt women – actress Desiree, her mother Leonora and daughter Fredrika. Desiree is away on tour much of the time, leaving Fredrika at home to hear her grandmother’s endless tales of liaisons with European nobles. Her ex Fredrik has a new child bride Anne, who he takes to one of her performances. Her current affair is with the pompous military dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. In the second half, they all meet at the Armfeldt home for a weekend house-party where Anne and the Count’s wife Charlotte plot, Fredrik clashes with Carl-Magnus and Fredrik’s son, trainee priest Henrik, declares his love for his step-mother. It all untangles before it ends with three happy couples and a death!

Musically, it’s one long waltz, more delightful here as the actor-musicians sometimes dance with their instruments, including cellos hooked around necks, some serving an additional purpose, such as Fredrik’s trumpet seeming to duel with Carl-Magnus’ clarinet. Watermill regular Sarah Travis has created outstanding arrangements, mostly using strings and woodwind, with the brilliant use of chimes. The book and lyrics shone like never before, much funnier than I remember. David Woodhead’s design is beautiful to look at, a brilliant evocation of time and place and a superb use of the Watermill space. Amongst its delights are the transformation from house to garden as the first half ends. I haven’t seen much of director Paul Foster’s work, but he does an absolutely splendid job here.

The cast is without a weak link. Josefina Gabrielle has great presence as Desiree, her regrets palpable and deeply moving in Send in the Clowns. Dillie Keane is a revelation as Madame Arnfeldt, with an extraordinary ability to convey things like contempt or cheekiness with facial expressions alone. I loved both Alastair Brookshaw and Alex Hammond as Fredrik and Carl-Magnus respectively, one towering over the other, both determined to win. Benedict Salter’s characterisation of Henrik was excellent. Phoebe Fildes as Charlotte transforms well from naive to vengeful, Lucy Keirl is every bit the nervous bride Anne and Tilly-Mae Millbrook is a delight as granddaughter Fredrika.

This may be the definitive revival. Two more weeks to go. Don’t miss it, Sondheim fans.

 

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This is a very impressive and original new British musical by first timers Eamonn O’Dwyer and Rob Gilbert, and in good shape for a first outing.

Both acts start seven years in the past when David, who makes mirrors, dies in an accident in his workshop. His elder daughter Laura witnesses, and may have had a part in, his death.  Seven years on we see a family broken apart. Laura has withdrawn into herself and her relationship with her mother Anna is badly broken. Her younger 15-year-old sister Lily is precocious and promiscuous, to some extent encouraged by her mother, who has turned to drink. They take in lodger Nathan, who is working on an anthology of the poetry of an ancestor, to help pay the bills. All three women are attracted to Nathan and seek a relationship, though of different sorts. David’s ghost drifts in and out, but only appears to Nathan and Anna. Nathan unwittingly acts as the catalyst for the resolution of the family’s dysfunctionality.

It’s very well structured, unfolding like a mystery. O’Dwyer’s score is very attractive and not derivative like many new musicals, though it is vocally challenging and some of the performers sometimes misfire with a touch of harshness, flatness or over singing. It’s beautifully played by a trio of keyboards, cello and reeds under MD David Randall. David Woodhead’s design makes excellent use of both levels of the Arcola space, more so that just about anything else I’ve seen here. Leigh Davies’ sound is also amongst the best I’ve experienced in an amplified fringe musical (maybe you should hire him, Southwark Playhouse?!)

Gillian Kirkpatrick’s Anna is the emotional heart of the piece and she’s excellent. Jamie Muscato is outstanding as Nathan, with superb vocals, a very different role to the one he played in Dogfight but just as impressive. Graham Bickley is David and his musical theatre experience shows, again with particularly fine vocals.

It’s not faultless, but its an impressive first musical and an impressive first outing in an impressive production by Ryan McBryde. Musical theatre aficionados should be sure to catch it in its last two weeks.

 

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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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Bliss. A proper play. The Finborough have done it again and made a timely discovery of a seemingly forgotten 77-year old play and given it a superb production with a crack cast.

Cornelius is a partner in an aluminium trading firm which is facing bankruptcy. The business has been trying to continue its principled style whilst the rest of the world of business has become much more competitive, hard-nosed and ethically dubious.  His partner is away trying to drum up trade (apparently) whilst he runs the office and fends off creditors and endless sales reps (‘travellers’ – I’d almost forgotten the term!) many of whom have turned to selling in desperation during the tough mid-30’s. For good measure, we also have the mystery surrounding what has actually been happening to partner Murrison on the road and unrequited love both by and of Cornelius.

It’s a slow start as the situation and characters are introduced, but when it gets into its stride it draws you in and zips along. Designer David Woodhead has created a brilliant period office environment and Sam Yates staging makes great use of the limited space. The performance style also takes time to settle. I found the acting a bit OTT at first, but I think this is getting used to the behaviours for the period; a rhythm develops and it becomes more realistic.

Cornelius is on stage almost the whole time and Alan Cox has to strike the right note as a benevolent businessman with a sprinkling of naivety without making him a patronising bore; he pulls it off beautifully. Col Farrell seems completely at home as Chief Cashier Biddle from the outset; a lovely performance. There are fourteen other fine performances from 10 actors – too many to mention, but all worthy of it.

The subject matter is right up J B Priestly’s moralistic street, but the parallel between his time and ours is simply extraordinary. Yet again we find the Finborough brings us important revivals whilst others are endlessly re-cycling Shaw, Ibsen & Chekov. A bucketload of theatrical brownie points!

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