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Posts Tagged ‘Duncan Sheik’

In another life as a theatre investor, I lost my shirt (well, actually a wardrobe full of shirts!) on the original West End production of Steven Slater & Duncan Sheik’s ground-breaking show. It arrived from Broadway just 5 days after its production ended its highly successful and profitable two-year run there, garlanded with eight Tony’s and four Drama Desk awards. It previewed at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it played to packed houses, earning more 5* reviews than I’d ever seen before, but it lasted just two months at the Novello, failing to find an audience, despite the reviews and four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. It launched the careers of newcomers including Charlotte Wakefield, Aneurin Barnard and Iwan Rheon, the latter two getting performance Olivier’s of their own. I’ve never really understood its commercial failure; theatre can be a surprising and risky world. So here we are 13 years later with an opportunity to re-evaluate it.

The show is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1890 German expressionist play about adolescence. The teenagers are growing up in a conservative and emotionally repressed world while they are experiencing the angst associated with these years. The issues are, somewhat surprisingly, still relevant today – coming to terms with their sexuality, mental health, suicide and teenage pregnancy – but in a world where they are told babies are delivered by storks, and both parents and teachers are disciplinarians, even bullies. The story, character names and period are unchanged, but feelings are expressed through contemporary music. It’s one of the most audacious ideas in musical theatre, yet somehow it works brilliantly.

When I walked into the auditorium to see ten rows of steps the width of the entire stage, Miriam Buether’s design reminded me of the Open Air Theatre’s semi-staged versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, but the space is used very differently, and more theatrically, in Rupert Goold’s new staging, with great choreography from Lynne Page. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes aren’t all identical school uniforms, as I recall in the original, which allows the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the characters to come through. It’s both more intimate and more ‘in your face’ which gives it a lot more emotional impact. Goold also references the activism of today’s teenagers, without it jarring with the rest of the story.

Raw talent was cast first time around, which gave it great energy and edginess, but here more experienced actors seem able to develop the characters, bringing out more visceral qualities which engage you with what they are experiencing. Laurie Kynaston impressed greatly in The Son, now with a brilliant Melchior he extends his range to include musical theatre. I last saw Amara Okereke play the lead in The Boyfriend, which is about as far as you can get from Wendla, but she’s just as thrilling. Stuart Thompson is terrific as the much troubled Moritz, as is Carly-Sophia Davies as the rebellious Ilse. It’s a great ensemble,who shine in chorus numbers. All of the adult ‘authoritarian’ characters are played by just two actors, Mark Lockyer and, on the night I went, an impressive stand-in by Mali O’Donnell.

A fresh new interpretation of an important contribution to the musical theatre genre. I loved seeing it again in this stunning new production.

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This show is written by Duncan Sheik, the man who gave us the ground-breaking musical Spring Awakening, a critical and commercial hit on Broadway, a critical hit but commercial flop in the West End (I should know, I lost a wardrobe full of shirts on it). This comes between that and his excellent musical adaptation of American Psycho at the Almeida Theatre. I therefore had high hopes for this.

Set on the East coast of the USA during the second world war, Lily continues the family tradition of running the lighthouse, a more significant role now that German U-boats are off the coast. Lily’s young nephew Christopher is sent to stay with her, something neither of them are happy with. Christopher is even less happy with the fact his aunt has a Japanese helper, Yasuhiro, as his dad was shot down by a Japanese plane, so he’s pleased when the local sheriff apprehends him in line with US government’s policy regarding nationals of Germany, Italy & Japan. The other two characters are ghosts, apparently of people who died through the negligence of Lily’s ancestors.

It’s a vey slight piece, with undistinguished music, that falls flat and goes nowhere. The best song comes after the curtain call, sung by the ghosts. I liked the way designer Andrew Riley has reconfigured the space and the staging, performances and onstage band were fine. It runs for just 80 minutes, plus a totally unnecessary interval, no doubt for the usual commercial reasons. I just didn’t engage with it at all, and I’m a bit puzzled as to why they’ve bothered to put it on. Oh, and there’s another of those programme notes about it resonating more post-Trump. Yawn…..

 

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In the US, this audacious 2006 musical by Steven Slater & Duncan Sheik, based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, was both a critical and commercial success, running for two years on Broadway. The West End run was as much of a critical success but not a commercial one. It ran for just two months, though it launched the careers of Aneurin Bernard, Charlotte Wakefield, Iwan Rheon, Natasha J Barnes & Lucy May Barker and won four Olivier awards including Beat New Musical and gongs for Bernard and Rheon. It made tens of millions in New York and lost a wardrobe full of shirts in the West End. One of them was mine.

Though a late 19th Century story and rock music shouldn’t really go together, it somehow works, though quite where they got the idea from is beyond me. It’s a story of sexual awakening by repressed teenagers in a strict school with strict parents. It features onstage sex, masturbation and gay kissing (all tastefully done!) and themes including teenage pregnancy, suicide, homosexuality and abortion. While events are staged, feelings are sung, as they take microphones from pockets to belt out a tune. It’s a great score.

LAMDA have been faithful to the original production and the creative inputs are excellent – staging, design and especially choreography and lighting, though I felt the band was underpowered (you need a rock band for a rock musical); this lost it a bit of edge. It’s an excellent ensemble, with a fine Wendla from Katharine Orchard and passionate performances by Colson Dorafshar and Isaiah Ellis as Moritz and Melchior respectively. 

Good to remind myself how good it is and good to see such talent ready to launch their careers like the original cast.

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During the interval I was recollecting overhearing someone in the early 80’s in The City being asked why he drank champagne when he clearly didn’t like it and his answer was ‘because I can’. That’s what I hated about the 80’s. Greed. Consumerism. Superficiality. Materialism. Self-interest. Yuppies. Thatcherism. Most of all I hated the music – electronic mush. So, a black comedy musical thriller which satirises this decade? Yes please!

Patrick Bateman is a great creation, almost everything you hate in one body. Wall Street job. Designer everything. Self-obsessed. Power-crazed. Misogynist. His envy of someone with access to a table he can’t get at the latest restaurant sends him into a rage. Being mistaken for someone else by Mr. Cool is unforgivable. Embarking on a series of gruesome murders is a bit implausible though, but hey this is allegory isn’t it? All of the other characters are brilliant period creations too, yet quite a few are recognisable stereotypes 30 or so years on, a few in the audience as it happens!

No-one could create this world as well as Rupert Goold, with imagination, chutzpah and just the right amount of excess; his staging is masterly. Es Devlin has designed a brilliant white box which allows for smooth scene changes, with twin revolves and a couple of traps and onto which images and designs are projected. Katrina Lindsay’s authentic period costumes are wonderful and even Lynne Page’s witty choreography manages to capture the period. It’s a very clever idea to include a handful of actual 80’s songs in Duncan Sheik’s score, itself a parody of the period and lyrically strong.

Matt Smith doesn’t have a great voice, bit it’s good enough for a psychopath! His acting is great though; manic enough but restrained enough too. In an excellent supporting cast, Susannah Fielding is superb as Bateman’s fiancée, as is Cassandra Compton as his PA. As an ensemble, they are very slick and well-drilled – as is the production as a whole, in fact.

If you haven’t already booked, you’ll probably have to wait for the inevitable West End transfer. The only question is – will this be before or after Broadway?!

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