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Posts Tagged ‘Gemma Sutton’

Suzie McKenna’s sensational revival of this 1980’s Sheldon Epps show, first seen in London in 1987, had a short run at Hackney Empire five years ago. It’s now moved West to the more intimate Kiln Theatre with the wonderful Debbie Kurup joining the cast, and it’s even better.

It’s more of a song cycle than a musical, though its surprising how much characterisation there is, with so little dialogue. The songs themselves tell the stories of The Lady, The Woman, The Girl and The Man who are all in residence in a Chicago hotel, three in their rooms and The Man mostly in the bar, with limited interaction between them. The twenty-six songs are more than just blues but they all come from the same period. They include a lot of numbers by Bessie Smith, with others by Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer and many more. Standards like Lover Man, beautifully sung by Sharon D Clarke, Taking a Chance on Love, Baby Doll and Take It Right Back sit side by side with less well known songs.

The four star performances just blow you away. Sharon D Clarke, within days of her last performance of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, delivers every song with conviction as The Lady looking back at her life. Debbie Kurup inhabits the troubled character of The Woman and delivers her songs such that we feel her pain. There’s a naivety to Gemma Sutton as The Girl, so vulnerable and needy that you want to protect her. Clive Rowe’s worldly wise The Man struts his stuff without a care in the world. They are accompanied by a superb band led by Mark Dickman, and Avgoustos Psillas’ impeccable sound ensures you hear every word and every note.

Robert Jones’ design and Lotte Collett’s gorgeous costumes locate the show firmly in its place and time, with beautiful lighting by Neil,Austin, and Susie McKenna’s direction and Frank Thornton’s choreography use the space to great effect, with the intimacy bringing something extra.

A faultless production with as fine a set of musical performances as you’ll find on any stage. Absolutely unmissable.

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This is the Hackney Empire team’s 20th panto, and my 10th (and second Aladdin). Five of the six leads clock up forty between them, led by Kat B with 15. Designer Lotte Collett clocks up 15 too, and MD Mark Dickman’s on his 9th. The loyalty of the creative team, the performers and the audience speaks volumes. Christmas would not be Christmas without a visit to Hackney. This year it’s a pleasure to have Clive Rowe and Tameka Empson back, as well as the wonderful Gemma Sutton make her debut.

If you were contemplating going ‘up west’ for ‘Disney’s Aladdin’, think again. There’s way more fun in the East End for a lot less money, and now I’ve seen both, I speak from experience. The seats might be plusher, but you won’t be with your panto family like you are in Hackney, and there’s absolutely no chance of Clive Rowe’s Widow Twanky flirting with you at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Given the far east setting, we’re actually in Ha-Ka-Ney with the Empress looking for a wealthy suitor for her daughter Princess Ling Mai, who falls in love with Aladdin, one of laundress Widow Twanky’s two sons, who is poor not wealthy. We’ve got both a genie of the lamp and genie of the ring and of course baddie Abanazar who whisks us all away to colder climes.

Amongst this years treats we have dancing pandas, Gaia the goddess of light, with a blue monkey face (voiced by the sensational Sharon D Clarke no less) and a dragon that will take your breath away. Both genie of the lamp and Aladdin fly. Designer Lotte Collett’s imagination has run riot, particularly with the dame’s costumes and headwear that features everything from washing baskets lines & machines to pagodas.

This year I was particularly impressed by the make-up, especially Kat B’s genie, and above all the musical standards, with fantastic vocals all round. Susie McKenna & Steven Edis’ 20th is vintage Hackney panto, a joy and an unmissable treat.

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It’s eight years since the Menier transferred their superb revival of this show to the West End, so enough time has lapsed for me to want to see it again, though with a tinge of sadness in the week its book writer Neil Simon died. The Watermill’s revival is in its customary actor-musician style, with a touch of updating for good measure.

Based on a Fellini film, the adaptation by Simon, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, tells the story of dance-hall hostess Charity and her search for love. It starts with her being dumped, and almost drowned, by then boyfriend Charlie, before a one-night stand with Italian film star Vittorio and a two-week infatuation with nerdy accountant Oscar. It’s one of the few musical comedies without a happy ending.

The wonderful Gemma Sutton plays Charity with a combination of dippy charm, naivety, gullibility and eternal optimism, more vulnerable than usual, and she’s sensational. Her fellow hostesses try to inject some realism to prevent her exploitation, but her rosy specs are irremovable. Even though they are ‘taxi dancers’ (present day lap dancers), there’s a strong suggestion that ‘clients’ can pay more for additional services, which must have been a bit shocking when it premiered fifty years ago, though its also suggested Charity is more innocent than the rest.

The story seems a bit thinner this time around, particularly in the first half, but the score is packed with great songs – Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This, The Rhythm of Life – and they are sung and played very well. As usual, they work wonders with the small space. Diego Pitarch’s design is all black, white and red, with heart-shaped arches that light up and a small video screen at the back to signpost locations like Central Park. The costumes are more contemporary than 60’s.

The rest of the cast is excellent, with an auspicious professional debut from Alex Cardall as Oscar, and another from Tomi Ogbaro as the bass playing head of the hippy dope-smoking Rhythm of Life Church. In Paul Hart’s production, they all play instruments, in brass-dominant arrangements, and the hostesses as showgirls moving whilst playing saxes and trumpets prove irresistible.

Another treat at the lovely Watermill.

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The West End premiere of this show in 1988 must be one of the shortest runs ever – just over a month – though it did well in Manchester en route to London. The Broadway premiere four years earlier ran longer, but wasn’t a great success, despite the casting of Chita Riviera and Liza Minnelli as mother and daughter Anna and Angel. It fared better in the UK ten years later, in productions in Leicester (Paul Kerryson reviving his 1988 production) and at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Watching this wondrous revival a whole twenty years later, I just can’t fathom why it wasn’t a huge hit. Now it seems as good as any other Kander & Ebb show, and that includes Cabaret and Chicago.

Anna has sold her boardwalk roller-skating rink and the demolition men arrive as she is sorting through her stuff and packing up. Her estranged daughter Angel arrives unexpectedly, horrified at what her mother has done, particularly as she is the co-owner. In a series of expertly crafted and expertly executed flashbacks, we see their relationship unfold from Angel’s birth to that moment. There’s a superb male chorus of six (delightfully named Dino, Lino, Lucky, Benny, Lenny and Tony!) from which other characters step out, including an excellent Stewart Clarke as Angel’s dad Dino, Ross Dawes as her grandfather Lino and Ben Redfern as Anna’s childhood sweetheart Lenny. It’s extraordinary how much story they pack into 120 minutes, interspersed with songs. Terrence McNally’s book is very funny and Kander & Ebb’s music and lyrics are way better than the production history would have you believe, with song after song getting roars of approval from the full house.

It’s great to have Caroline O’Connor back on these shores, beloved of musical theatre fans on three continents. I’d almost forgotten how good she is, in all departments – song, dance, comedy and acting – and here she’s paired with one of the best of the next generation, the hugely talented Gemma Sutton – two star performances indeed. I love the fact that O’Conner has gone from being Dianne Langton’s understudy for Angel in the UK premiere to co-lead as Anna here. Bec Chippendale’s design is an evocative and atmospheric fading structure, poignantly littered with some of her recently deceased dad’s stuff, and there’s a brilliant light feature which somehow brings even more intimacy. Adam Lenson’s staging and Fabian Aloise’s choreography are superb, making great use of the small space; it seemed to go from showstopper to showstopper without pausing for breath, the audience erupting at the end.

A revival this good can’t be seen only once, so as soon as I got home I booked to go back. A hugely underrated show which last night felt like a masterpiece uncovered.

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Baz Luhrmann’s stage to screen to stage show gets it’s UK premiere in Leeds in a new adaptation by Terry Johnson directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. I caught the Australian production in Melbourne 21 months ago and couldn’t resist a trip north to see it on its last day. A very good decision!

Scott Hastings has been groomed as a ballroom dancer since childhood by his mum Shirley and her dancing school partner Les Kendall. They have their eyes on the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship, but his partner Lisa deserts him over his insistence on freestyling. His mum, Les and Federation president Barry Fife are determined to reign him back in, but he’s secretly working with frumpy Fran. She introduces him to her Spanish family, who inject some true Latin spirit into his pasodoble. Barry lies to convince Scott to stick to rules. He relents for a while, until he learns the truth and dances with Fran after all. Crooked Barry gets found out and Scott & Fran triumph and fall in love – and ballroom dancing is liberated from its straight-jacket. It’s a tale of a free spirit seeking to break out of a framework of rules which stifle creativity.

The score is a mash-up of original songs and existing numbers and I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory. It feels like a bit of a rag-bag and I can’t help wondering if a fully original score might feel more cohesive and serve the show better. I thought this production brought out more comedy which, given it has its tongue firmly in its cheek, is a good thing. Soutra Gilmour’s excellent design gives the Quarry Theatre a stage with a revolving metal frame incorporating a proscenium, which actors can climb and occupy. It moves easily from the dance studio to the roof, Fran’s family home and competition venues. Catherine Martin was also responsible for the costumes for the film and the Australian production and they are sensational – a riot of colour and glitter beyond your wildest imagination.

It’s hard to know where to start with the performances; the casting is faultless. Fernando Mira reprises his wonderful Australian performance as Fran’s dad, but the rest are fresh to the UK production. American Sam Lips and our own Gemma Sutton are terrific romantic leads, the former taking dancing honours and the latter vocal honours. Richard Dempsey is a delightfully camp MC, J J Silvers. Tamsin Carroll and Richard Grieve are excellent as Shirley and Les, with Stephen Matthews great as the virtually mute, deadpan dad (until he turns). Julius D’Silva is as oily as they get with his terrific turn as bent dancing federation ‘policeman’ Barry. Eve Polycarpou gives us another of her delightful cameos as Fran’s gran.

It’s a superb feel-good show and this betters the Australian production. It’s West End ready, though it appears to be heading for Toronto. I was very glad I made the trip north.

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I have to confess I’ve never read the L P Hartley novel on which this is based, or seen the film (adapted by the man-most-unlikely Harold Pinter!), or the TV adaptation, or heard the radio play, and obviously not the American stage adaptation or the South African opera! It’s clearly a popular source and now we have the musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood. It has its faults, but on the whole I liked it.

It starts in 62-year-old Leo Colston’s attic, from which we flash back fifty years to the summer holidays of 1900 when as a twelve-year-old he visits the home and family of his more well-to-do school friend Marcus. Marcus’ sister Marian befriends Leo, with the ulterior motive of using him as postman to send messages to her secret bit of rough Ted in the neighbouring farm. Leo obliges (he’s got a bit of a crush on Marian) and gets drawn into a world of intrigue, deceit and lies which has such a profound impact on him he is still affected by it fifty years on.

The show flows beautifully in Roger Haines staging, on a lovely impressionistic set by Michael Pavelka. The score isn’t entirely sung through, but it is sub-operatic, with snatches of recurring melodies and sung dialogue rather than songs. I loved the fact it was played onstage by a grand piano (the excellent Nigel Lilley), which really suited the material. The narrative is very clear (a writer used to writing for children again!) and progresses satisfyingly to its flashback conclusion, a flash forward, then return to the attic. At the interval, after a relatively slow first half, I wasn’t sure about it, but it picked up significantly in the second half and I was glad I went.

Though he is playing a character significantly younger, I thought Michael Crawford did so with great dignity and poignancy, on stage throughout like a ghost, and the boy playing young Leo – Luka Green on the night I went – was terrific. Gemma Sutton and Stuart Ward are superb as the lovers Marian and Ted and Samuel Menhinick as young Marcus was excellent. There were just seven other characters, all played with sensitivity in true ensemble fashion.

Based on the proliferation of offers and the audience size on Tuesday, it looks like its heading for an early bath, which is a shame as it is something fresh and different in the West End – a gentle and rather captivating chamber musical. Catch it while you can.

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Musical theatre lovers are very precious about this show. Many consider it the greatest Broadway has seen, but I wouldn’t agree with that (Guys & Dolls and West Side Story, to name but two, would be ahead of it in my list). The only other time I saw it, on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as Mamma Rose 10 years ago, right in the middle of the show a huge man stood up, said ‘well, she ain’t no Ethel Merman’ and stomped out of the theatre. It’s forever associated with Merman and Angela Lansbury, who was London’s first Mamma Rose, and any actress attempting it is very brave indeed.

It’s the archetypal showbiz show and Rose is the archetypal stage mom, pushing her daughters forward relentlessly, regardless of their own wishes. She keeps their kids act way beyond its sell-by date, recycling it with variations on a theme. She loses her youngest and favourite June, who escapes and elopes, only to turn her attention to the elder Louise who she had hitherto virtually ignored. The declining standards of the act and the demise of vaudeville happen simultaneously and they find themselves in burlesque, providing cover for the racier stuff. In her final act of self obsessed determination, she puts Louise on stage as a stripper, renamed Gypsy Rose Lee, the real life person on whose memoirs it’s based.

It’s got a very good score by Jules Styne, with a high quota of standards, a book by Arthur Laurents and terrific lyrics by Stephen Sondheim no less. A bit of a dream team, I’d say. Chichester has matched it with their own creative dream team – director Jonathan Kent (responsible for their stunning Sweeney Todd just three years ago), inventive choreographer Stephen Mear and Designer Anthony Ward (who co-incidentally designed my only other Gypsy – which was itself directed by Sam Mendes!). The band under Nicholas Skilbeck make a thrilling sound; I can still hear that wonderful brass.

Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand brought the house down as strippers who Gotta Get A Gimmick, Lara Pulver plays the transition from second string daughter Louise to star Gypsy Rose Lee superbly and Gemma Sutton is great as favourite daughter June growing up before your very eyes. I was surprised to see Kevin Whately cast as Herbie, but he pulled it off. What can you say about Imelda Staunton? Following a definitive Mrs Lovett with a brilliant down-on-her-luck Boston woman in Good People to this truly commanding performance. I knew she’d act it well, but the vocals were a revelation. She started with a great Some People, ended the first act with a stunning Everything’s Coming Up Roses and ended the show with a deeply emotional Rose’s Turn. She inhabits this single-minded woman, combining humour with an extraordinary range of emotions – whilst singing and dancing! You don’t see many performances that good in a lifetime of theatre-going; thrilling stuff.

London producers are now spoilt for choice – should they transfer Guys & Dolls or this or both? I’d put my money on this for sure – London has to see Dame Imelda’s finest hour.

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Though we’ve seen rarer Rogers & Hammerstein shows on the fringe (most recently Me & Juliet, State Fair & Pipe Dream), I’m not sure anyone has tackled one of the ‘Big 5’ before (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King & I, The Sound of Music and this). If I had been asked for my opinion, it would be unequivocal ‘avoid’ – these are big Broadway shows that require big resources and a big stage. WRONG! This is an absolute triumph.

This was only their second show, 70 years old next year. moving musical theatre into a new era of realism, with themes never before associated with the form. It’s packed full of wonderful music, but it all goes a bit awry in the second half when it becomes sweet, sickly and a bit preposterous at the gates of heaven. Not here, though, where it becomes a tense musical drama with a moving moral message. Luke Fredericks’ production has not only turned the sentimentality into pathos, but he’s made the ballet an integral part of the show.

Based on an early 20th century Hungarian play, this production has moved the setting forward 50 to 60 years to start around the time of the Great Depression, providing clearer motivation, and ending as the second world war ends (the year it was first staged), more appropriate for its hopeful, uplifting conclusion. Nothing else is changed, but it’s more intimate, involving and moving. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only emotional wreck at curtain call.

The musical standards are sky high. The unamplified voices have a purity to them and don’t have to compete with a largely unamplified band located above and behind. The use of flute, double bass and above all harp brings a beautiful new quality to the music – it’s amazing how much harp accompaniment transforms You’ll Never Walk Alone. Stewart Charlesworth’s design is a miracle of economy and a brilliant use of the space, with versatile mobile metal ‘arcs’, everything from washing to carnival banners to canopies raised high by pulleys and superbly evocative costumes. Lee Proud’s choreography is fresh and often brave and the second act ballet was thrilling.

It’s hard to talk about the performances with anything but a shower of superlatives. Gemma Sutton follows her sultry, sexy turn in Hackney Empire’s Blues in the Night with a wonderful sweet, naive Julie, with Vicki Lee Taylor matching her all the way as best friend Carrie. Tim Rogers brings more passion and a rougher edge to Billy, which makes the second act all the more heart-breaking. Amanda Minihan’s younger Hettie is more of a role model for the girls and the character seems more central in this setting. There isn’t a weak link in this cast, one any producer would die for.

This is the fourth time I’ve seen this show. The first three – NT, West End and most recently Opera North – were very good, but this intimate staging is something else altogether. I’ve seen and enjoyed producer Morphic Graffiti’s first two shows, but this propels them into the premiere league. Why on earth would you want to go to the West End when you can see a show this good for a third of the price?

Missing this makes any lover of musical theatre certifiable!

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As much as I enjoyed this when it was first produced at the Donmar / Piccadilly in 1987 (I was on the Olivier Awards panel that nominated it as Best Musical, though it didn’t win; Sondheim’s Follies did), I wasn’t prepared to be as blown over as I was by this Hackney Empire revival. Sheldon Epps’ show is more semi-staged concert than musical, but I doubt it has ever been better sung or played as it is here. Faultless.

The setting is a Chicago hotel in 1939. Three women, each from a different generation, each with a different story, each with a connection to the man. This is really just a device to link and interweave the wonderful songs of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and others. Each character has their own space on stage – their hotel room, except the man who seems to be permanently in the bar! A couple of mute actor / dancers come on occasionally and interact with the four singers, but it is of course all about the music.

These are songs that you live, full of life experience and feeling, and the four performers all inhabit them like they lived them first, then wrote them. Sharon D Clarke, Clive Rowe, Paulette Ivory and Gemma Sutton are all sensational and superbly matched to their characters and each other. Their interpretation of the songs is extraordinary and I can’t imagine anything better. Mark Dickman’s band sounds wonderful, with the help of some of the best theatre sound I’ve ever experienced by Avgoustos Psillas.

I’ve enjoyed Gemma Sutton in fringe musicals, but here she’s a revelation (taking the role of a young Maria Friedman 27 years ago, so no pressure there then!). I know the work of Paulette Ivory less, but can’t wait to see her again. Sharon D Clarke has wowed me before, most recently in her Olivier Award winning performance in The Amen Corner, but this was the biggest wow. I think I’ve seen almost everything Clive Rowe has done since (and at) GSMD and he never disappoints.

Hackney’s brilliant regular panto team, director Susie McKenna and designer Lotte Collett, prove just as adept at staging premiere league musical theatre. As always at Hackney, the audience and the venue add that extra bit of magic that propels a good evening to greatness. A triumph.

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The Union Theatre’s pre-eminence as the home of  musical theatre continues with this very welcome revival of a preposterous & implausible but delightful & charming 60’s American homage / spoof of the golden age of 30’s film musicals.

In the first act, we’re on the stage of a broadway theatre where final rehearsals are underway for that night’s opening of a show starring the legendary Mona Kent. Stage struck Ruby arrives by bus from Utah and gets to replace the chorus girl whisked away by a rich punter. Newly enlisted sailor and songwriting wannabe Dick (from the same town in Utah!) then turns up and gets a song accepted by predatory Mona and falls in love with Ruby. Fellow sailor Lucky arrives looking for Dick (!) and falls in love with fellow chorus girl Joan. The demolition of the theatre means the show can’t open but the sailors have a plan – and we’ve only been going 50 minutes!

In the second half, the show must go on, so it’s staged on the navy ship, Mona is seasick so Ruby gets her big break and a star is born. We end with the triple wedding of Dick & Ruby, Lucky & Joan and Mona with the ship’s captain, an old flame…..and we’ve only been going another 50 minutes in real-time and only a day in stage time!

It has an excellent score beautifully sung and played well by just two pianos (MD: Richard Bates) and there are some very funny lines. Kirk Jameson’s revival, with excellent choreography from Drew McOnie, is pitch perfect, balancing the tongue-in-cheek parody with romantic charm. They are lucky to have a stunning cast. It’s great to see Rosemary Ashe on the fringe and she’s every inch the Broadway diva with a booming voice and terrific comic timing. Gemma Sutton and Catriana Sandison are both superb as the girls and Daniel Bartlett and Alan Hunter equally superb as the boys. Ian Mowatt and Anthony Wise provide fine comic cameos as the ship’s captain and theatre director respectively. In an outstanding ensemble there’s another Strallen, Sasi (exactly how many are there?!) and two impressive professional debuts from recent Arts Ed graduates Matt Gillett and Joshua Tonks.

It’s a delightful, charing and funny evening that is unmissable for any lover of musical theatre.

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