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Posts Tagged ‘Gareth Valentine’

I criticised the new London production of The King & I for being conservative and overly reverential; like visiting the Museum of Musical Theatre. Well, this show is 14 years older, but that’s the last thing you’d say about this brilliant revival; it feels freshly minted, with an extraordinary sense of fun and its full of joy.

It’s a quintessentially British story. The trustees of the aristocratic Hareford family have been looking for a male heir born to a working class girl and solicitor Parchester thinks she’s found him, cockney lad Bill Snibson. He’s about as interested in joining the nobility as they are in having him, but the Duchess of Dene is determined to gentrify him and get rid of his girlfriend Sally Smith. Fellow trustee Sir John has a different view. Cue lots of lovely class culture clash involving a lot of toffs and pearly kings and queens.

Sally feels she should leave Bill so that he can inherit the title and all that goes with it, but Bill is having none of it. Sir John decides to gentrify Sally instead. Cue references to Pygmalion (if they were in the original) or perhaps My Fair Lady (if they were added by Stephen Fry for the hugely successful 1985 revival). It works, and Bill and Sally are reunited and wed, as are the Duchess and Sir John. Along the way, we get a brilliant scene where they conjure up the ancestors – tap dancing knights in armour! – a great drunken scene which bonds Bill and Sir John, and sensational ensemble set pieces to end Act I and start Act II.

My recollection of the 1985 London revival, with Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson, which ran twice as long as the original – eight years! – was ‘too twee for me’, but this time it swept me away and my spirits soared. It’s a terrific music hall inspired score by Noel Gay, including the title song, The Sun Has Got His Hat On, Leaning On A Lamppost and of course The Lambeth Walk. The combination of Les Brotherston’s superb design (in particular, his costumes), Alistair David’s light-as-air choreography and Daniel Evans astute direction ensures it sparkles like a diamond, literally some of the time. Gareth Valentine’s arrangements are thrilling and his band sound sensational; he even gets to do a turn at the curtain call.

Matt Lucas is a revelation as Bill. He talent for comedy is well known, but he adds good vocals and sprightly dance to create a classic cheeky cockney. Alex Young is lovely as his intended Sally, whether she’s leading a knees-up or breaking her heart and yours with Once You Lose Your Heart. Caroline Quentin and favourite of mine Clive Rowe are delightful as the Duchess and the Knight. What I love most about this cast is that it’s all shapes, sizes and races whose talent, energy and enthusiasm sweep you away.

I’ve often left Chichester musicals on a high, but this and Half a Sixpence are special because they bring great British shows alive for today. Daniel Evans apparently said he wanted a new lick of paint, well in my book its a thrilling makeover. Don’t even think about not transferring it; London needs it !

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It took me two visits to get to see this right through; on Wednesday, we hadn’t even Gone Courtin’ before rain stopped play. Boy am I glad I went back, on what turned out to be a glorious Friday evening. This is such fun.

They probably didn’t blink an eye at the dubious sexual politics when the film came out in 1954. Some might have been a touch offended by the sexism and misogyny when it hit the stage in 1982. Today it just seems nostalgic for less politically correct times and all in fun!

Adam’s courtship of Milly lasts an implausible five minutes. He’s come to town to do some trade and bags himself a wife while he’s at it. He doesn’t tell her about his six brothers though, so when she finds out their marriage gets off to a rocky start, but Milly soon sets about civilising the uncouth mob, coaching them in courtship and taking them to the town dance where each is fancied by a girl, much to the consternation of the local lads. Girls is sparse in these lands.

Back home’ pining for their new loved ones, Adam suggests that the boys kidnap them. When they return with their hostages, Milly kicks off, resulting in Adam heading off to spend the winter in the hills. By spring, the girls are intent on staying, but the townsfolk turn up with other ideas. A clever ruse ensures the girls get their guys and Adam and Mlliy are reconciled, with an addition to the family, in time for the customary happy ending.

The stage is surrounded by trees (extra ones supplementing the real ones), on which designer Peter Mackintosh has placed two large buildings which transform from town square shops to home & barn brilliantly. Director Rachel Kavanagh uses the auditorium to great effect, with a coup d’theatre in the second half. Gareth Valentine’s new orchestrations are terrific and the band sounds great. It’s lovely to see two favourites like Alex Gaumond and Laura Pitt-Pulford in the lead roles and they both deliver with bells on. The large ensemble is uniformly excellent.

The Open Air Theatre again proves its versatility, turning itself into Oregon for a right old hoedown. Last week. Don’t miss!

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The cleverness of this show is matched by the stylishness of its production. Add in the intimacy of the venue, the faultless casting and a superb design and you have a real treat. Rather a triumph for director Josie Rourke’s first musical.

Stine is a Hollywood scriptwriter creating a Chandleresque piece for control freak producer Buddy Fiddler. His central character is private eye Stone, who gets the case of the missing Kingsley daughter. The show moves from the scriptwriting and production (in colour) to the story within (in B&W) with five of the actors doubling up, with a part in each. The late night jazz score suits this film noir story perfectly and there’s a ‘chorus’, in the Greek as well as the vocal sense, of four singers. It’s staged in front of Robert Jones’ two-tier wall of scripts linked by a spiral staircase with gorgeous period costumes for both sexes. It’s amongst the most stylish things I’ve ever seen.

The excellent book is by Larry Gelbart, creater of MASH and the very funny book for Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It was the Broadway debut for lyricist David Zippel’s, who never produced anything to match these sharp witty lyrics. Cy Coleman’s score is unique in his catalogue that includes Barnum, Sweet Charity and the very underrated On the 20th Century. Though she doesn’t have any musical theatre experience, Josie Rourke is surrounded by seasoned professionals like choreographer Stephen Mear and MD Gareth Valentine.

Hadley Fraser and Tam Mutu are both excellent, and well matched, as Stine and Stone. Rebecca Trehearn and Rosalie Craig provide not one but two scene-stealing turns as PA’s Donna & Oolie and Gabby & Bobbi respectively. Katherine Kelly (Corrie’s Becky) continues to prove there’s life after soaps with lovely sexy characterisations as Carla and Alaura, like Marc Elliott (East Enders Syed) with two fine performances as Munoz & Pancho. Sometime Nancy Samantha Barks is great in her two roles as Avril and Mallory; then there’s Peter Polycarpou, giving yet another brilliant performance in a musical (his fifth in as many years) as producer Buddy. This is exceptional casting.

The only previous West End production of this show, its UK première 21 years ago with Roger Allam as Stone and Henry Goodman as Buddy, was a bit lost on the vast Prince of Wales stage. In the intimacy of the Donmar, with superb staging, production values and performances coming together like this, it proves to be a musical theatre gem.

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For a man who gave us one of the greatest musical productions ever (Guys & Dolls at the NT in 1982 and 1996), Richard Eyre hasn’t directed many musicals. I can only remember two more before this (Mary Poppins & Betty Blue Eyes) and both were great. The question you have to ask after a fourth gem is Why?

There haven’t been many ‘blue collar’ musicals either, so this one, about a labour dispute in the Sleep Tite pyjama factory, is unusual. It hasn’t had many productions (another Why?), the last in London at the indispensable Union Theatre five years ago. With a track record of four musical transfers in the last 2.5 years, I’ll be surprised if this terrific Chichester production doesn’t follow.

The factory is run by tyrant Hasler (an excellent Colin Stinton, who doubles up as the leading lady’s dad) who has employed new superintendent Sid, a go-getter from Chicago, the third in next to no time. His Time & Motion man Vernon (a superb Peter Polycarpou, back for his third Chichester musical in as many years) stalks the shop floor. Union president Prez and union rep Babe are pushing for a 7.5c rise and it looks like they’ll have to strike to get it. Then Babe falls for Sid and it all gets a lot more complicated.

From the opening number, Racing with the Clock, it goes from one showstopper to another. There are a couple of standards – Hey There (You With the Stars in Your Eyes) & Hernando’s Hideaway – but the whole score’s good. We move swiftly and slickly from factory to office to picnic to nightclub to Babe’s home with little time to catch your breath in-between. Designer Tim Hatley puts a two-story building at the back of the space, from which sewing and pressing work stations emerge for the shop floor, desks for the offices and a kitchen for the home. Stephen Mear’s choreography is bright and fresh and with Gareth Valentine in charge of the music it all sounds great.

For a musicals obsessive like me, it’s a bit of a shock to come across a leading man I’m not sure I’ve seen before and Hadley Fraser is simply terrific as Sid, with a particularly fine voice. Joanna Riding is a delight as icy, feisty Babe who melts in the hands of Sid. Alexis Owen-Hobbs is great as secretary Gladys, and Vernon’s unlikely love interest, who follows Hasler everywhere except when she struts her stuff in the Act II opener Steam Heat (with actual steam!) and there’s a delightful cameo from Claire Machin as Sid’s secretary Mabel.

An uplifting delight from start to finish, which benefits from the smaller space if the Minerva Theatre, and well worth the trip south.

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For a lover of musicals, ‘owing to the indisposition of Hannah Waddingham…….’. are amongst the most depressing words in the English language. I was very close to going home, but didn’t. All credit then to her understudy, Carolyn Maitland, for blowing away a lot of my disappointment with an outstanding stand in.

I last saw this show when the RSC brought it to the Old Vic in 1987 during my 15 minutes of fame (well, 12 months, actually) as a member of the Laurence Olivier Awards Panel. When it came to the voting, I was determined that BOTH John Barton and Emil Wolk would share the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award for the gangsters as it would be invidious to choose one. This required a lot of persuasion as it meant another statuette had to be made, but when you only have 15 minutes (12 months) of fame, you can be very persistent and insistent. It wasn’t until 2012 that they did it again, this time for Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller’s role sharing in Frankenstein.

Even though it didn’t seem that dated then, 40 years after it was written, it does now, another 25 years on, but perhaps that’s because Trevor Nunn’s production is a bit conservative and Robert Jones design a bit dated. The choreography of Stephen Mear is about the only thing that seemed fresh. It does fit the Old Vic better than it would probably fit any other theatre though.

Of course, it’s one of the few musicals adapted from Shakespeare . Taming of the Shrew – The Musical; though in all fairness, it weaves in the backstage story of a warring pair of ex’s and the world of American touring theatre in the 40’s.  It may be the only show with a showstopper to open each act – Another Opn’in, Another Show the first and Too Dam Hot the second. Then there’s a third showstopper in Brush Up Your Shakespeare, this time with David Burt and Clive Rowe as the gangsters (they don’t have a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award any more, so that’ll save SOLT a few quid in these tough times).

It’s a fine cast, with Wendy Mae Brown and Jason Pennycooke giving excellent performances in their respective act openers and an excellent Fred / Petruchio from Alex Bourne; someone new to me. The dancing and Gareth Valentine’s great band are what make this production shine most; otherwise it seemed a bit slow (well, Trevor Nunn….) and occasionally flat.

Despite its scale, it’s surprising none of our fringe musical venues have revived it (well, they’ve done some pretty big shows). I think there has only been one (an import from Broadway) in the 25 years since it was last here at the Old Vic, so it is good to see it again (and I may have to return to see Ms Waddingham) but oh how I’d love to have seen it at the Open Air Theatre.

 

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In addition to a staged production of Passion and a couple of talks and discussions, the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 celebrations includes a couple of concert performances of former productions. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too!

The first concert was Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 London premiere cast. This is the show which runs backwards to the time its protagonists first meet. I have very fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of Sondheim’s most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved.

I turned up at the second one – Company – thinking ‘they can’t match that’ and it wasn’t long before my inner voice was saying ‘they will!’ This one was staged at the Donmar in 1995 and they managed to get nine of the original 14 back. In the first half, Anna Francolini brought the house down with Another Hundred People (she’s doing eight performances a week as Maria Callas in Onassis and came here on two of her Sundays off!), as did Sophie Thompson with the incredibly difficult Getting Married Today . In the second half, Haydn Gwynne inhabited rather than just singing Ladies Who Lunch, taking the role originally played by the now sadly departed Sheila Gish, then leading man Adrian Lester put so much emotion and passion into Being Alive that his voice began to break and tears began to flow in the audience; how could this come alive like this in concert?! The band continued after the encore so the audience sang Side By Side again without the cast. Another standing ovation, another unforgettable night.

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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