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Posts Tagged ‘Dean John-Wilson’

Of all the big theatrical openings this year, this much garlanded Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1951 show wasn’t the one I was expecting to disappoint. Despite the sumptuousness of the designs and the vocal perfection of Kelli O’Hara, it left me unengaged and rather cold. We’ve become used to revivals breathing new life into classic musicals, but this one seems afraid to touch, and consequently comes out as overly conservative; the evening felt a bit like a visit to the Museum of Musical Theatre.

Like many of their other shows, it was tackling serious themes. Siam, now Thailand, was an island of independence in colonial Asia (the French take Cambodia during the show!). We see the unacceptable face of colonialism and arrogant superiority of the west to other cultures, but also the unacceptable face of local despots, with their own superiority, over women in particular (cue references to #metoo resonance). Add to the cocktail a feisty British woman and you have a classic R&H recipe. With its exotic setting and glorious score, how can it go wrong?

Well, they seem to have mined deeper into the themes of power, culture clash and feminism, but at the same time broadened the humour; an odd contrast which jarred with me. The pace was often very slow, particularly in the second act play-within-a-play, and it seemed a very long three hours. The lack of chemistry between the King and Anna was the final nail in the coffin. Great sets by Michael Yeargan, gorgeous costumes by Catherine Zuber, cute kids, sweet songs, but no heart.

Kelli O’Hara sang beautifully; Hello, Young Lovers in particular has never sounded better. I liked Jon Chew’s characterisation of the earnest, geeky Crown Prince. Na-Young Jeon and Dean John-Wilson made a fine pair of lovers in Tuptim and Lun Tha. Naoko Mori was excellent as chief wife Lady Thang. I’m afraid I thought Ken Watanabe’s King was a complete caricature, which proved fatal for me. It was good to see a stage full of East Asian actors, though.

I don’t regret going, but for me Bartlett Sher’s production is way too reverential and, as a result, lacked sparkle.

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This is a difficult piece to review for two reasons – the first is that it defies categorisation and the second is that there aren’t enough superlatives available for the performances!

It’s not a musical as there’s no ‘book’. It’s not a concert or a song cycle as they’re more than just songs. I think I’ll just call it a show. It was the first Jason Robert Brown work to be staged, 20 years ago this year. He’s done six musicals since, though we’ve only see three in London – The Last Five Years (recently made it into a film) Parade & 13. He’s had two shows on Broadway in less than two years.

It’s a collection of sixteen songs, each of which tells a story of someone at a turning point in their lives. Every song features a different person (or occasionally persons), time and place and though they aren’t connected as such, they feel as if they belong together. They’re written in a diverse range of styles – pop, gospel, jazz, R&B – but somehow there is a cohesiveness about them. They’re just bloody good songs.

The four performers occupy the same space for all of its unbroken 90 minutes. It has windows as the back wall, behind which is a New York skyline (and band just about visible). In front, there’s an unfinished wall, making it a generic room. They rarely interact, though they often make eye contact. Most songs are solos but there are some sung in permutations of the four. It’s vocal perfection.

Jenna Russell interprets some of her songs, notably the Weill parody Surabaya Santa, with comic flair as well as vocal perfection. Damian Humbley’s voice has great control and a gorgeous tone. Cynthia Erivo sings with such soul and conviction she brought herself and me to tears, in my case tears at the sheer beauty of her voice. Dean John-Wilson adds a youthfulness and edginess to his fine vocals. Daniel A Weiss’ quintet play beautifully and the sound balance (Mike Thacker) ensures you hear every word and every note. It’s always captivating, sometimes mesmerising, and though Adam Lenson’s staging isn’t really necessary for the stories, it somehow contributes on an intuitive level.

You will by now have gathered that I was more than a bit bowled over. Now all I want for Christmas is a recording so that it can fill my living room with beauty as it did the St. James’ Theatre.

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If you’d accompanied me to the Talking Heads concert in Bristol in 1977 and whispered in my ear ‘in 37 years’ time, you’ll be leaving the National Theatre humming the title song of David Byrne’s first musical’, I’d have reacted with disbelief and roared with laughter, but last night I did. Like others of the period (Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson…) Byrne continually re-invents himself, always interestingly and usually successfully, as he has here, with the help of Fatboy Slim. It’s the most original musical I’ve seen since Jerry Springer – The Opera 11 years ago, also at the National Theatre.

I’ve had a soft spot for the Philippines since a business trip there in 1993, 7 years after the People Power Revolution that forms the conclusion of this show. Filipino’s are amongst the world’s most hospitable people and while I was there the wife of our local GM took me on a private tour of the (presidential) Malacanan Palace, where she worked, which by then was more of a museum of excess. I saw the vast collection of shoes (though I didn’t count them) which has become the symbol of the Marcos’ corrupt and oppressive regime.

Byrne tells us Imelda’s story from her troubled youth to exile in 1986 with next to no dialogue and it works very well. He takes his lead from her love of disco and sets it in a modern one, with everything you’d expect in terms of lighting, projections and sound (including a giant mirror ball, obviously). The audience on the dance floor are surrounded by moving platforms and the action takes place absolutely everywhere, including amongst them, some becoming extras in the tale. There’s an eclectic mix of musical styles and most of the songs are short and to the point. Though it’s fast paced, the storytelling doesn’t feel rushed. Perhaps focusing on four main characters – Imelda & Ferdinand, opposition leader and Imelda’s ex Ninoy Aquino (I didn’t know that) and her childhood friend Estrella – helps give it more depth. It struck me how much of her story resembles that of Eva Peron, though this and Evita are poles apart as shows.

Alex Timbers’ staging is completely original, fresh, inventive and exciting; even though I knew beforehand how it was to be staged, I was still unprepared for this. The design team of David Korins, Clint Ramos, Peter Nigrini and Justin Townsend have done a superb job. You’re continually moving your head as the action moves around the space, but it’s so slickly done it just becomes part of the experience. The performances are as fresh and exciting as the staging. Natalie Mendoza is terrific as Imelda, managing to sing very well ‘on the move’ with some extraordinarily quick costume changes (I think she’s got at least two costumes on at any one time!). Both Mark Bautista and Dean John-Wilson are playing older much of the time (I don’t think actors of the appropriate age would have the energy) but their characterisations are very good and they too sing very well. Gia Macuja Atchison has a ‘quieter’ role as Estrella which she plays beautifully, providing welcome contrast and breathing space.

I’m sure someone’s out there scouting for suitable venues to transfer this to after it finishes its run as the opener of the new Dorfman Theatre – opening with a bang and a treat.

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