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Posts Tagged ‘Frances Ruffelle’

This is a musical based on a poem! Somewhat bizarrely, another musical based on the same poem opened in the same 2010 season in New York. This one, by Michael John LaChiusa, was on Broadway; the other, by Andrew Lippa, ran Off-Broadway. It crosses the Atlantic seven years on to open the newly rebranded The Other Palace, formerly St. James’ Theatre. Given it lasted less than two months over there, I wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away, though more so by the terrific staging and sensational performances than the material..

It’s a slice of roaring twenties decadence. Queenie and Burrs are Vaudeville entertainers who form a stormy, abusive relationship. They throw the wild party of the title, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, resulting in all sorts of sexual activity and depravity. When the party’s over, there are hangovers, regrets and recriminations, before its tragic conclusion. It feels more like a song cycle than a musical (and there are almost forty of them!). Above all, it’s a showcase for the performers.

The story is subservient to the jazz-influenced score. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show with so many showstoppers and so many show-stealing opportunities, distributed evenly so that almost everyone gets their moment. The longer first half doesn’t let up and by the interval I was exhausted; I think I’d have liked more light and shade. This is delivered in the shorter and darker second half with a series of sensational solo turns, many of which bring the house down. 

Soutra Gilmour’s design has a ‘stairway to heaven’ and terrific costumes. Drew McOnie continues his successful transition from choreographer to director / choreographer with a staging that took my breath away and choreography that was positively thrilling. Theo Jamieson’s eight-piece band sounded terrific.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances as they were all stars. John Owen-Jones was in fine acting and vocal form as Burrs, miles away from his usual territory, and Frances Ruffelle was clearly relishing every moment as Queenie. US star Donna McKechnie was a treat in her cameo as Delores. We’re used to scene-stealing turns from Tiffany Graves and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and they deliver yet again. Sebastien Torkia & Steven Serlin make a superb double-act as the budding producers, particularly in their second half comic duet. Casting women as ambisexual brothers Oscar & Phil D’Armano was an inspired idea and Genesis Lynea & Gloria Obianyo are outstanding. Dex Lee and Ako Mitchell are superb as Jackie and Eddie respectively. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.

This exceeded my expectations; it’s rare to see such faultless casting and such a stunning production. Head to Victoria while you have the chance. 

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The creator of London’s iconic street-finder is as good a subject for a musical as any and better done while we still know what the A-Z is! Staging a brand new musical though is a big risk, but here they’ve put together a lot of creative and performing talent, not least the man behind one of the Menier’s biggest hits, Sunday in the Park with George, Sam Buntrock and musicals stalwart Frances Ruffelle. Somewhat crucially though, the writer Diane Samuels, composer Gwyneth Herbert and leading lady Isy Suttie all have little musical theatre experience – and they seem to have had only two previews. This increases the risk significantly and for me it hasn’t paid off.

When you walk into the theatre you smile at the hundreds of items hanging from the roof – newspapers, suitcases, telephones, street-signs; it’s a lovely design by Klara Zieglerova. We’re told Mrs P’s story from her return to the UK sans husband, getting the idea for the A-Z, it’s development and launch through to its 20th anniversary when she effectively hands over ownership to her employees by setting up a trust. Alongside this we get the story of her relationship with her bullying father and alcoholic mother and their relationship with one another. Unfortunately, this tragic tale sits uncomfortably alongside an otherwise wistful story of an eccentric Brit.

There are other structural issues, notably a lack of clarity about where her father is – London or New York – at any given time and in the positioning of flashbacks to their earlier lives, which are sometimes confusing. The sondheimesque score has too few fully developed songs and lots of snatches and the lyrics are sometimes inaudible despite (or because of?) amplification. At 2h 30m it’s a touch overlong and it came close to losing me altogether before the interval and again before it ended.

Isy Suttie acts well and copes with the moderate vocal demands of her solo parts, but she struggles when she has to sing with others or raise the volume and impact, when she veers off key. The rest of the cast do a good job with their multiple roles and I particularly liked Stuart Matthew Price as her brother Tony and Sidney Livingstone as her right hand man. The band plays the score gently and is well balanced with the vocals.

I think the core issue is that it hasn’t had enough development, rehearsal or try-out. It just doesn’t feel ready to be put before a critical press, though I’m yet to know what they thought. Good idea, lots of talent and craftsmanship but it didn’t really work for me I’m afraid.

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It’s amazing how much biography Pam Gems’ play packs into 2.5 hours; so much, in fact, that sometimes you have to catch your breath. Still, it’s a fascinating life and her songs are extraordinary, so it’s a rewarding if speedy ride.

This is the third time I’ve seen this play with music and it varies little by production; whether that’s faithfulness to the script or no room for directorial concept, I don’t know. Paul Kerryson’s seemed a touch faster paced and a bit cruder (but that might have been a reaction to the lady in front of us who was clearly horrified by its rudeness). The design and staging are simple but effective, as they need to be given the number of scenes, and that puts the story centre stage.

We move c.30 years from the young street singer to the international star’s untimely death. In between, her neediness is manifested in drink, drugs and men; her addictive personality means she can’t get enough of any of them and is herself abused in the process. Somehow she manages to, or maybe because of this she does, produce a catalogue of songs with an emotional depth most songwriters would envy, and perform them with a conviction like each was for one time only.

The success of the play does of course depend on the leading lady and Frances Ruffelle is outstanding as Piaf, both dramatically and musically. In this production, the roles of friend Madelein and colleague Marlene seem further to the fore, and this may well be because Tiffany Graves is simply superb as both. The supporting cast of six men and just one woman play all the other people in her life and do so uniformly well; no weak links here.

It was good to see it again, and good to visit Leicester Curve’s studio space for the first time. I hope the lucky people of Leicester know just how lucky they are – West End quality for half the price.

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Those of us who go to opera have long got used to radical directorial reinvention / reinterpretation. 2011 was a particularly bad year, with Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust (I asked ENO for my money back as I thougth I’d booked for Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust – the composer uncredited in the marketing) followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream relocated from a forest to a boy’s public school! It happens less in theatre – well, except with Shakespeare and other dead writers who can’t answer back – and even less in  musicals. In this case, though, it seems composer Stephen Schwartz hasn’t objected, though I’m not sure he’s seen it!

Director Mitch Sebastian’s ‘big idea’ is to turn it into a video game, which actually isn’t a bad idea. I didn’t think much of this early Schwartz show when I first saw it at the Bridewell Theatre 13 years ago (he went on to write Godspell and Wicked – come to think of it, I don’t think much of those either) so I was up for a radical reinvention / reinterpretation. The production is probably the most visually in-your-face I’ve ever seen. After you enter through the game-player’s bedroom, the stage seems to take up more space than you thought the Menier had and you have to use all of your peripheral vision – and move your head back and fore as if you’re watching a tennis match from the net – to take in as much of the 180 degree staging as you can (it’s impossible to take it all in). The projections by Timothy Bird, often interacting with the performers, are simply extrordinary.

The story concerns the son of Emperor Charles (Charlemagne), his second wife Fastrada, son Pippin and step-son Lewis and in particular to Pippin’s search for purpose and meaning. The problem is the production is a complete mismatch with the predominent musical style (70’s pop-rock) and the story’s period (9th century France) so it’s littered with uncomfortable anachronisms, jarrs frequently and just doesn’t work – and it confirms the view that it isn’t a particularly good show. I have to say though that I have much admiration for the craftsmanship – it’s extraordinarily slick as you move from one open-mouthed moment to another, and another….

Matt Rawle has great presence and a great voice as the Leading Player (another narrator role to follow his Che in the recent revival of Evita). Ian Kelsey and Frances Ruffelle are very good as the king and queen, as is David Page as the step-son, despite the S&M nature of their costumes! Harry Hepple pulls off the difficult transition from naivety to defiance and back to naivety as Pippin. Louise Gold provides a lovely one-song cameo as grandmother Berthe but the introducion of the role seems completely pointless and the song (with audience participation, complete with panto songsheet!) feels like it popped in from the panto down the road for added seasonality. The musical standards are much higher than the quality of the music and Tom Kelly’s band is good, if somewhat loud for such a small venue – this adds to the feeling that you are being bashed over the head relentlessly to compensate for the mediocre material.

I admire the attempt to breathe new life into an ify show, but have to report that for me it failed – and found me asking the same question I’ve asked a few times recently – what on earth is happening to the Menier?

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This is effectively a staged song-cycle of 15 Kurt Weill songs from 6 of his American shows, linked together to tell the story of a relationship between a French chanteuse and an American songwriter.

They are well played and sung by seasoned musical performers Frances Ruffelle and Nigel Richards. There are two tango dancers whose authentic routines are interwoven with the story. The 7-piece band, under James Holmes no less, are superb (and they all even get to do a bit of acting). There’s a stylish design from Chloe Lamford……..

………..but it did absolutely nothing for me! I’m not sure I entirely understand why. It’s more of a sketch than a story. The songs are not Weill’s best. Maybe the slickness and style buries any passion. It  only really came alive three-quarters through its 90 minute uninterrupted length, by which time my mind was wandering.

I admired it, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it, or indeed saw the point of doing it. If you want to put on Weill, why not a chamber version of one of the neglected shows or just a concert? A worthy failure, I’m afraid.

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