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Posts Tagged ‘Glyn Kerslake’

There are two things that propel Maria Friedman’s production of this most complicated of Sondheim shows from good to great  – faultless casting (well, she’s a musical theatre actress; it takes one to know one?) and Catherine Jayes terrific 9-piece band.

The show tells the story of composer Franklin Shepherd, his partnership with writer Charley Kringas and his relationships with wife Beth, lover Gussie & friend Mary…..but it tells it backwards from when he’s ‘sold out’ to Hollywood in 1976 to a night on the roof of their NYC apartment block as they begin their careers and as Sputnik is launched, heralding a new world. Chronologically, Frank & Charley start with their own fringe review, get picked up by a Broadway producer to write a musical and break up the partnership on live TV along the way. The producer’s wife, Broadway star Gussie, steals Frank from Beth and we learn that all the time he has been the (unrequited) love of Mary’s life.

In this production, the score really does shine. It doesn’t have showstoppers, but it has some terrific melodies and brilliant bittersweet lyrics with tunes weaving in and out and overlapping in a way only Sondheim can do. It’s the third production of the show I’ve seen, plus the Donmar’s extraordinary concert version as part of Sondheim’s 80th which is still ringing in my ears, but I still saw and heard new things; such is the depth and density of the material. It had a lot to live up to, but it did.

Jenna Russell is cast against type (until the end/beginning) but she’s wonderful as both initially cynical & bitter and  later/earlier excited & naiive Mary. Mark Umbers is superb as Frank, with an agelessness which enables him to be believable over the 20 year span. I didn’t think I knew Damien Humbley, who plays Charley brilliantly, until I read the programme and realised I’d seen and liked him in a handful of shows – he clearly inhabits characters rather than stars in shows. Josefina Gabrielle excels as predatory Gussie, propelled herself from PA to star. Having seen Glyn Kerslake as Frank in Derby in 2007, it was great to see him as Broadway producer Joe here. I thought Clare Foster perfectly captured small-town Beth, more comfortable as wife and mother than in the company of more superficial minor celebs. Amongst a fine supporting company, Martin Callaghan and Amanda Minihan made a much biger impression than the size of their roles.

I was less convinced by Soutra Gilmour’s design, perhaps a bit over-engineered, though in all fairness it does have to become a Californian beach house with pool, TV studio, NYC apartment, apartment roof and townhouse, Broadway theatre and club with side orders of stage door and greenhouse! The costumes (and wigs!) have a big role to play in moving the period back from the mid-70’s to the late 50’s and they do it very well though, perhaps like the set, somewhat  unattractively. 

It’s a big show for a small theatre but they get away with it and for a directorial debut, its hugely impressive. A second visit looks as as if it’s in order……

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I was lucky enough to be passing through Chicago (as one does) when the second incarnation of this show, then named Bounce (it’s first title was Wise Guys), was playing in 2003. It was OK, but seemed a bit slight for Sondheim – a light musical comedy about a con man. Well, this certainly isn’t that show!

From his deathbed, Addison & Wilson Mizner’s father encourages his sons Wilson and Addison to go off and make names for themselves and change the world, as you can only do in the US of A. The story of their attempts to fulfill his wishes start with the Alaska gold rush and ends with a property development in Florida, the idea of which comes from Addison’s new partner (in every sense of the word), rich boy  Hollis Bessemer. In between, the brother’s relationship moves between closeness and antagonism, with Wilson’s con man tendencies and Addison’s relationship with Hollis piling on the pressure.

It had little depth back in 2003 and one was left with a ‘what are you getting at?’ feeling. ‘This is Sondheim; it can’t be as simple as all that’. Following a number of re-writes and productions, and more significantly for me, the fact that it comes after the credit crunch, and we get a show that examines both the American dream and brotherly love. In many ways it resembles Assassins – both in terms of musical style and the fact that both are poking around in the American psyche. This new incarnation does have depth and is now very much a Sondheim show. Thank god he and John Weidman persisted for so long; many would have given up.

John Doyle’s traverse staging has extraordinary pace and intimacy. There’s no set as such, just props piled up at both ends to be brought on when required and a lot of fake money to be thrown around. The 8-piece band under Catherine Jayes play the score superbly. I do think it is musically a bit derivative, though – but of Sondheim himself; there were a number of occasions when I was thinking ‘ I’ve heard that before’.

Michael Jibson and David Badella as the brothers are both absolutely brilliant, with real chemistry between them. Jon Robyns is excellent as Hollis and both Glyn Kerslake and Gillian Bevan make much of the relatively small roles of mama and papa. The tightly knit ensemble of eight play all other characters and constitute a chorus that glides and flows with the story.

It zips along so quickly that I felt I’d not been able to take it all in, so when I got home I booked to go back!

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Lyricist Richard Maltby & composer David Shire aren’t well-known here. They’re songwriters rather than writers of musicals – apart from this compilation of their songs, I think the only show we’ve seen here is Take Flight at the Menier Chocolate Factory a few years back. They may be best known for lyrical contributions to Miss Saigon and Song & Dance (Maltby) and songs for Saturday Night Fever (Shire)….but they write clever, witty and smart songs.

This ‘revue’ contains 24 of them, each of which is a little story – mostly middle-aged middle class angst – and the Landor Theatre is very lucky to have bagged four experienced performers at the top of their game who can do justice to these difficult pieces. Clare Burt, Ria Jones, Michael Cahill and Glyn Kerslake inhabit the characters and situations and bring these stories to sparkling life.

Director Robert McWhir, choreographer Matthew Gould and designers Jason Denvir & Jean Gray have created a stylish setting and elegant staging. There were some terrific moments, amongst them Ria Jones’ comic magic in You Wanna Be My Friend and Miss Byrd and Clare Burt’s deeply moving It’s Never Been That Easy.

I’m not a huge fan of these compilations; I often think they’re a lazy alternative to a proper show, but this one certainly isn’t – it was almost like 24 mini-musicals in a row. Not to be missed!

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A theatre space under the railway arches proved to be a cool place to spend a couple of hours on a sweltering Saturday afternoon and with a cracking Sondheim production thrilling as well as cool.

I’d forgotten this was coming up at the lovely Union Theatre when I booked to see the same show at the Royal Academy of Music less than two weeks ago, so I decided to give it a miss. Then those West End Whingers positively raved so I just had to go! VERY GOOD DECISION.

Sondheim links nine assassinations / attempted assassinations and explores their motivation in a tragi-comic show which had its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992 and I think I’ve seen every London production since. It’s difficult to get the right tone but his one is absolutely spot on. You often feel you’re peering into these people’s souls and feeling their pain. The close proximity of such a small venue (and in my case the front row) helps, but it’s the brilliant acting and singing which really makes this stand out.

Director Michael Strassen has done a remarkable job putting together a cast this good. Glyn Kerslake has huge presence as John Wilkes Booth. Nick Holder’s two monologues as Samuel Byck are riveting. John Barr’s Guiteau has an extraordinary manic quality. Joe Alessi is a passionate Zangara, Adam Jarrell a vulnerable Czolgosz and Paul Callen a nerdy Hinckley who really spooks you when he demonstrates his knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald. I’ve never seen Sarah Jane Moore played as well as Leigh McDonald does here and the crucial chemistry between her and Alison Lardner’s Fromme was  perfect. Nolan Frederick’s lovely bass-barritone voice and stage presence elevates The Balladeer from a narrator to centre stage.

It’s a terrific idea to have the chorus as a modern-day presidential guard – men(and women)-in-black with shades and earpieces – that start their duties as you’re waiting to enter. The small band play the score beautifully with a restraint which allows the actors to  make the most of the songs and in particular the insightful lyrics.

Michael Strassen’s ‘Company’ at the same venue achieved the same as this does – allowing the characters, story and music to shine through, but on this occasion digging into the psychology of these people in a way I’ve never seen before.

An absolute triumph which may well turn out to be the highlight of Mr Sondheim’s 80th.

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