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Posts Tagged ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

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 was the ninth and last show from the team most famous for Fiddler on the Roof. It had two runs in New York, in 1970 as The Rothschilds and in 1990 in this reworked version, both running over a year. The first garnered nine Tony nominations and won two. This is its UK premiere, with two leads from the 1990 production and both director and designer crossing the Atlantic with it.

It tells the story of the beginning of the Rothschild dynasty, from shopkeeper Mayer Rothschild arriving in Frankfurt, trading old coins with the Prince to whose bankers he becomes agent, until he usurps them to begin his financial empire. He sends his five sons across Europe to collect the Prince’s debts and he underwrites the bonds that fund the war against Napoleon in exchange for a bill of rights for Jews at its successful conclusion. The Prince rats on the deal but when it comes to future transactions, the Rothschilds take the upper hand, the title Baron and begin a successful financial house that continues until the present time. Though it’s the family’s story, the plight of Jews in Europe at this time is the heart of the piece

It’s a fascinating true story. I’m sure the book by Frederic Morton on which it’s based is a good read, and I think it would have made a good play, but I’m not sure a musical is the right form. Jerry Bock’s score is serviceable but rather dull, with a classical crossover style which doesn’t always feel comfortable. Sherman Yellen’s book and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics do tell the tale well, though. The production seemed a bit lifeless, with both design and staging little more than pedestrian, as if they weren’t really confident in the material. In a good cast, I particularly liked Gary Trainor as son Nathan, who heads to London, and Tony Timberlake’s cameos as two contrasting princes.

One to add to my musicals collection, but that’s about it for me.

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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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This is a work of fiction, and if you take it as that, its charming, amusing, clever and well crafted. Some seem to have taken exception to its hijacking of cinematic history which I’m not sure it’s trying to do.

We’re in an East European Jewish village at the turn of the 20th century when Motl returns from the city after the death of his father. Discovering his father’s photographic and early cinematic equipment, he becomes enthralled with the idea of moving pictures and is encouraged and funded by local businessman Jacob to make a film of people in the village. Despite the somewhat critical reception, the idea of a work of fiction is mooted and enthusiasm goes viral as they embark on its making.

Many of the pioneers of early Hollywood were Jews from this part of the world and indeed we do skip forward to 1936 when Motl has changed his name to Maurice and become a successful director, but I don’t think the play is making any claims to present the true origin of cinema as we know it. It does include the genesis of the business model for public exhibition of films and shows technical discoveries like editing, lighting reflectors, the camera dolly and special effects, but it does so with its tongue in its cheek. We have stereotypes like the interfering producer, corner-cutting production accountant, highly strung director and upstaging actors. There are comments from a preview audience (the beginnings of the focus group) and it even hints at the casting couch!

Bob Crowley’s monochrome design cleverly merges live action with film footage, though it only opens up once to reveal the village exteriors (as a film set in 1936) which seems a bit of a shame. It’s a little slow in the first half, but does pick up pace and draws you in. The performances are a bit stereotypical (Fiddler on the Roof – with a fiddler included!) though I really liked Damien Molony as Motl and Lauren O’Neil as the love interest. The other ladies all engage well – Sue Kelvin as Motl’s aunt, Abigail McKern as Jacob’s wife and Alexis Zegerman as his daughter. This isn’t Anthony Sher’s greatest moment, but his somewhat caricatured Jacob does make you smile and laugh.

If you don’t set your sights too high, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours. The Nicholas’s Wright (playwright) and Hytner (director) have done better work, but this is an enjoyable evening nontheless and I’m glad I went.

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