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Posts Tagged ‘Gay Soper’

I caught the world premiere of Jake Brunger & Pippa Cleary’s musical adaptation of the late Sue Townsend’s book in it’s home town of Leicester just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/the-secret-diary-of-adrian-mole-aged-13-34-the-musical) so it’s good to report that I liked this London premiere even more. In a smaller space, trimmed by 20 minutes, with what seemed like a more unrestrained production and more energetic, infectious performances, it was a lot more fun.

Tom Rogers’ set is an extraordinary use of space, changing quickly from kitchen to bedroom to school and other locations, props turning up from all over the place. Luke Sheppard’s staging seems much more sprightly and the pace never lets up. A year in Adrian’s young life speeds by, through parental separations and reunions, falling in love with Pandora, being bullied by Barry, writing the school nativity play and the Royal Wedding. This is 1981, of course.

Benjamin Lewis is sensational as Adrian; a perfect characterisation with deadpan delivery and superb comic timing. Dean Chisnall has hot-footed it over from Working at Southwark Playhouse and makes a terrific dad, with Kelly Price excellent as mum. John Hopkins turns in a great cameo as neighbour Mr Lucas (and makes a hilarious schoolgirl with gymslip, pigtails and moustache!) and there’s a delightful pair of seniors in Gay Soper’s grandma and Barry James’ Bert Baxter. The whole ensemble seem to be having the time of their lives and it’s infectious.

I will be astonished if this doesn’t transfer, but I hope it isn’t scaled back up too much as it’s simply perfect as it is.

Catch it at the Menier if you can.

 

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This musical by Maury Yeston & Peter Stone / Thomas Meehan is a 2011 adaptation of a 1924 Italian play which was filmed twice, in 1934 with Fredric March, and in 1998 as Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. This is its European Premiere, staged by Thom Southerland, who has had great success with Yeston’s Titanic and Grand Hotel.

The Lamberti family have a near miss car accident on the way home from their daughter Grazia’s engagement party. It turns out that Death has prevented Grazia’s demise because he fancies a long weekend in human form, partly to answer the question of why he’s so feared. He takes the form of Russian noble Prince Nikolai Sirki and only Grazia’s dad, the Duke, knows the truth. He falls in love with Grazia and she with him and he’s intent on taking her with him at the end if his holiday, but her dad pleads with him not to, until counter pleas from Grazia.

I struggled to suspend enough disbelief to engage fully with the story, but it’s a gorgeous melodic score. Morgan Large has designed a terrific Italian villa and Jonathan Lipman has created brilliant period costumes. Stylistically, it feels like Sondheim’s A Little Night Music or Passion; very European, very early 20th century. Thom Southerland’s staging is up to his usual impeccable standard, with a forensic attention to detail. The humour surprised but pleased me. Dean Austin’s band sounds as beautiful as the music.

Zoe Doano and Chris Peluso are superb in the leading roles and there’s a fine supporting ensemble. Mark Inscoe has great presence as Duke Lamberti, Ashley Stillburn is excellent as Grazia’s fiancé Corrado, as is James Grant as servant Fidele (who will be promoted to the role of Death / Nikolai during the run!). It’s great to see Gay Soper give such a fine cameo, as Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli (!), close to her 50th year in musical theatre.

I’m not entirely convinced by the premise and the story, but it’s a lovely lush score, it looks gorgeous and the performances are terrific.

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I can’t help comparing this show with Jules Styne’s other big hit, Gypsy. It’s another quintessentially American showbiz story with a gutsy heroine, and like the recent Chichester Gypsy, this production has a diminutive leading lady with the triple threat – acting, singing and dancing all sensational.

It’s the true story of Fanny Brice, who gets her vaudeville break by being funny and is soon top of the bill at the Ziegfeld Follies. She falls in love with businessman and gambler Nick Arnstein, moves to a mansion on Long Island and starts a family. Nick makes some bad, even dodgy, business decisions and she soon finds herself returning to work and bail him out. It backfires when her attempts to help become secretive, hurting his pride, and when he comes out of prison he doesn’t return to the family home.

It’s a conservative show, which here gets a very conservative production, including the design and the choreography. It’s as if its American director is scared to mess with it. I also don’t think it fits the Menier space well, a big show desperate to break out of this confined space. For once, the venue’s intimacy works against it. I think it will suit The Savoy, where Gypsy was and where this is heading, better.

That said, it has a good score, played to perfection by Alan Williams’ band, and it’s superbly cast. Darius Campbell continues to impress with great presence and a fine voice (here towering over his leading lady). Marilyn Cutts is excellent as Fanny’s mother, no more so than when she’s with her two friends, played superbly by Gay Soper and Valda Aviks. In fact, the more mature members of this cast all shine, with Bruce Montague a wonderful Ziegfeld too. Praise as well for Joel Montague as Fanny’s showbiz chum and dance coach Eddie, another fine performance.

It’s Fanny’s show, of course, and musical theatre lovers and Sheridan Smith fans have been seriously over-excited at the prospect of her in this role and she doesn’t disappoint. When she sings Don’t Rain on My Parade to end Act One you want to punch the air. In the final scene, alone in front of her dressing room mirror, she breaks your heart then breaks out and lifts you up to close the show. Terrific stuff. 2016 Olivier sorted.

Time to book for The Savoy, I think, if only to prove my prediction eight.

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Minutes into the frenetic first scene of this musical farce, memories of seeing the Ken Ludwig play on which it is based 25 years ago in the same theatre came flooding back and the thought ‘what am I doing here?’ went round and round in my head. I hated the play; what made me think it might make a good musical?! Gaudy sets and costumes (a mauve and gold colour scheme! – designer Paul Farnsworth) with flats that wobble and shimmer unintentionally (?), OTT performances, Italian stereotypes with shaddap you face accents, dodgy wigs, mistaken identities and more slamming doors than you’ve seen since the last farce you went to. Yet, somehow I succumbed to its old-fashioned innocent charms and found myself smiling, then giggling, then belly laughing. It turned into a guilty pleasure.

We’re in Cleveland in 1934 awaiting the arrival of Italian superstar tenor Tito Merelli, whose one-night-only performance will rescue the opera house…..provided nothing goes wrong. Of course, it does – he’s late, he’s sick, he likes a drink and forever rows with his wife. The Opera House owner’s daughter is besotted with him, as are his three ex-wives who run the opera guild, the soprano singing Desdemona to his Otello and most of the chorus. Oh, and the shrimps for the post-performance reception are on the turn!

Of course, he can’t perform and prompter Max (the opera house manager’s daughter’s suitor!) pretends to be him. As broad musical comedy morphs into farce in the second act, we get three Otello’s in costume entering and exiting the six doors as is both customary and mandatory in farce. Impersonating the tenor as Otello, manager Henry ends up with the soprano and Max with his daughter. Tito’s wife returns and the denouement unfolds…..

The real reason for seeing this is a full set of fine musical comedy performances and the slickness of the comedy timing. Sophie-Louise Dann makes a terrific American broad / diva and her opera greatest hits ‘mash-up’ is a highlight of the evening. Damian Humbley and Michael Matus are excellent as Max and Tito respectively, with voices good enough to get away with the pseudo operatic demands. It’s great to see fringe favourite Cassidy Janson get a shot at a big role and she doesn’t disappoint as Maggie. Matthew Kelly presides over this as an old pro totally in command of his material. Joanna Riding’s undoubted talents are a bit wasted in the smallish part of the tenor’s wife (for the second time this year in this very theatre, having been wasted in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg immediately before this). Amongst the supporting cast, it’s great to see Gay Soper again.

The only other  musical farce I can recall is Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It doesn’t have a score that good, but Brad Carroll’s music is decent enough, Peter Sham’s book & lyrics are good and the 24 strong cast and 15 piece band get the best out of them. Ian Talbot’s experience as a director and actor with both musicals and comedy means it runs like a well oiled machine and the cast’s enthusiasm is infectious.

It won’t change your life, it’s unlikely to be your highlight of the year, but there are a whole lot of less enjoyable evenings in the West End and for me this one was a pleasant surprise.

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