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Posts Tagged ‘Dean Austin’

This musical by Maury Yeston & Peter Stone / Thomas Meehan is a 2011 adaptation of a 1924 Italian play which was filmed twice, in 1934 with Fredric March, and in 1998 as Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. This is its European Premiere, staged by Thom Southerland, who has had great success with Yeston’s Titanic and Grand Hotel.

The Lamberti family have a near miss car accident on the way home from their daughter Grazia’s engagement party. It turns out that Death has prevented Grazia’s demise because he fancies a long weekend in human form, partly to answer the question of why he’s so feared. He takes the form of Russian noble Prince Nikolai Sirki and only Grazia’s dad, the Duke, knows the truth. He falls in love with Grazia and she with him and he’s intent on taking her with him at the end if his holiday, but her dad pleads with him not to, until counter pleas from Grazia.

I struggled to suspend enough disbelief to engage fully with the story, but it’s a gorgeous melodic score. Morgan Large has designed a terrific Italian villa and Jonathan Lipman has created brilliant period costumes. Stylistically, it feels like Sondheim’s A Little Night Music or Passion; very European, very early 20th century. Thom Southerland’s staging is up to his usual impeccable standard, with a forensic attention to detail. The humour surprised but pleased me. Dean Austin’s band sounds as beautiful as the music.

Zoe Doano and Chris Peluso are superb in the leading roles and there’s a fine supporting ensemble. Mark Inscoe has great presence as Duke Lamberti, Ashley Stillburn is excellent as Grazia’s fiancé Corrado, as is James Grant as servant Fidele (who will be promoted to the role of Death / Nikolai during the run!). It’s great to see Gay Soper give such a fine cameo, as Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli (!), close to her 50th year in musical theatre.

I’m not entirely convinced by the premise and the story, but it’s a lovely lush score, it looks gorgeous and the performances are terrific.

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Jacques Brel first appeared on my radar when Scott Walker recorded his songs in the late 60’s and he’s been on and off it ever since, but in truth more off than on. I’ve never seen this ‘revue’ before and was struck by how many of the songs were familiar (covers perhaps), how diverse they are and indeed how good.

They are miniature stories that lend themselves to staging, which is what director Andrew Keates has done; a series of little playlets set to music, or rather songs that become playlets. This works well by and large, though occasionally at the expense of the vocals or a touch too busy. The moments where they just sat at the front of the stage were lovely. We’re in a night club, which spills over to the front of the auditorium, with an onstage band on multi-level platforms with lots of different spaces for the singers. There are back projections, a handful of props and lots of costume changes so this is more of a show than a vanilla revue with people on barstools.

All four are singing actors, so they interpret the songs rather than just sing them. Brel songs often come alive more when they’re sung by people who look and sound like they’ve lived life and for this reason I thought Eve Polycarpou’s contributions shone most, but David Burt brought passion and Daniel Boys and Gina Beck enthusiasm and freshness. MD Dean Austin leads an excellent 5-piece band and even gets a turn or two on the vocals (and an opportunity to show off his French).

The evening was marred for me by the man next to us in H3 who started to eat a takeaway meal as the curtain went up (with his fingers – he forgot to pick up a fork) and continued his feast through most of the first half. When he opened a bag of crisps three songs into the second half, as Eve Polycarpou was about to begin Ne Me Quitte Pas, I just had to move. The most extraordinary thing about it was that he appeared to be enjoying the show yet completely oblivious to the way he was spoiling others enjoyment!

The show originated in the US in 1968 and was first seen in London in the early 70’s (my companion saw it then) and has had few revivals since, so this is a rare and welcome opportunity to catch it.

 

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You have to hand it to Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty; each of their musicals takes you somewhere completely different. This one sees us in the Deep South in the mid-19th century, before the abolition of slavery. Based on Sherley Anne Williams novel, the central characters of Dessa Rose, a young slave, and Ruth, a Southern belle, tell their story in flashback from a prologue and epilogue in the 1920’s, by which time things have of course changed. It’s a dramatically rich story with an excellent score and, in this production, a stunning ensemble.

Dessa Rose is a young slave on the Steele plantation and Ruth, the same age, is the daughter of the wealthy Carson’s who has been brought up by their slave Mammy. Dessa Is feisty and rebellious and in defending herself against unacceptable treatment finds herself in prison at 16, pregnant and the subject of writer Adam Nehemiah’s research. Ruth marries farmer Bertie who all but abandon’s her, leaving her lonely on the farm. Dessa escapes from prison and becomes the de facto leader of a group of slaves determined to head to the more enlightened west to escape slavery. They find an unlikely refuge with Ruth, who befriends them and aids them in their venture.

It’s a very dense story, in truth a bit too dense – there’s a hell of a lot going on – but it does make for a dramatically rich narrative. The score is up there with their best show, Ragtime, with evocative melodic music and lyrics which drive the story. From the rousing opening chorus of We Are Descended (which also closes the show) it packs in a whole load of good songs and choruses and here they are played and sung beautifully. In a surprising move, Dean Austin’s excellent band is dispersed, with keyboards and cello on stage and winds and violin in the corners of the auditorium. It works aurally, even if you are directly in front of a saxophone!, though it does restrict the already small playing space.

Director Andrew Keates has his work cut out staging it on such a small stage (well, floor) but with much ingenuity he pulls it off. When all 12 are on stage, with the two musicians, the space between audience and actors disappears completely. I think it is crying out for a bigger theatre, though not one so big as to lose the intimacy we get here. They didn’t appear to be using the visible head mic’s so the vocals have a lovely purity to them, though I did lose a few words.

The cast is uniformly excellent (casting by Benjamin Newsome again), all equally good as actors and singers. Both Cynthia Erivo and Cassidy Janson shine in the lead roles. Erivo conveys Dessa’s defiance with great passion and soaring vocals. Janson has more of a journey to make and I loved the way her character aged and her personality changed. She invested a lot of emotion in her performance, also vocally strong, and with an authentic accent. There isn’t a fault in the rest of this stunning cast.

This is my 7th Ahrens & Flaherty show and it’s amongst their best. I’d love to see it in a bigger space, but this European premiere is a huge success – and it’s in the West End at fringe prices! Time to book to go again…..

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This Frank Wildhorn & Leslie Bricusse show has never had a West End run, though it has toured the UK (I saw it a few years back in Wimbledon with Paul Nicholas in the title role). On Broadway it ran for c.4 years (but never made a profit). It has now been scaled down for the Union Theatre as the first production by Morphic Graffiti with an interesting configuration which limits the performing space but facilitates some clever set changes and dramatic intensity.

There’s little point in telling the story (who doesn’t know it?) which in this production starts by Jekyll seeking approval for his research from an NHS Trust board and ends with what seems like a production line of murders. The score is a little too pompous in a Lloyd-Webberesque way, though there are some nice solo numbers and good choruses. The first half is a bit slow but in the second half, when we get to some serious carnage, it zips along in an excellent staging by Luke Fredericks. It seems like a better show here, which given the resources relative to the touring production, is a big compliment.

I’m sure Stewart Charlesworth’s design budget was miniscule, but what he achieves is highly inventive and suitably atmospheric. With 16 actors playing 18 + characters, it can get a bit cramped, but it moves from hospital to house to street to church to brothel etc. with slick ease (apart from one moment when a mini-revolve stuck). Ben Walden’s projections and Catherine Webb’s lighting made a significant contribution.

After a slightly shaky start, Tim Rogers came into his own as Jekyll / Hyde, bringing a brilliant manic intensity to Hyde in the second act. Joanna Strand as his fiancée and Madalena Alberto as the prostitute both act and sing very well and there is as fine a supporting cast as you’d wish for, with an auspicious professional debut from Anthony Lawrence as Stride. The musical standards are high and I loved the orchestration of keyboards, cello, acoustic guitar and woodwind, which Dean Austin’s band played beautifully.

It’s not a great show, but I’d doubt if it could get a better small-scale production than this one – and an impressive debut for this new company.

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