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Posts Tagged ‘Ira Gershwin’

I saw a preview of the Broadway production of this show in 2012, with soon to be West End bound Matthew Broderick and the recent Broadway / West End star of The King & I, Kelli O’Hara. I predicted a big hit, but it only ran for 15 months and never crossed the Atlantic, so its down to Upstairs at the Gatehouse to give us the first London look, as they did with Nine to Five fifteen months ago, which is now getting a West End outing.

It’s actually a Gershwin compilation musical, like Crazy For You, with a fairly daft but funny book by Joe DiPietro based on material by P G Wodehouse & Guy Bolton. It’s the days of prohibition and bootleggers are using the Long Island seaside mansion of Jimmy Winter’s mother to stash their booze while the family aren’t in residence. Twice married Jimmy embarks on a third with Senator Evergreen’s daughter Eileen, an exponent of modern dance, and goes home for his honeymoon, so the bootleggers have to don disguises and pose as staff. From here, just about everyone falls in love with someone so that we have four couplings by the end, almost two-thirds of the characters!

Director John Plews and choreographer Grant Murphy work wonders in the small space and Chris Poon’s band sounds way bigger than a sextet, doing full justice to Gershwin’s songs and incidental music, also pinched from his back catalogue. The score includes standards like Someone to watch over me, Let’s call the whole thing off, ‘S wonderful, Fascinating rhythm and the title song of course. The musical standards are as high as the dancing ones, and you can’t help getting swept away by the energy, enthusiasm and sense of fun.

Alistair So is a real find, an outstanding romantic lead with a great voice. His leading lady was ill, so assistant choreographer Amy Perry stepped in. She obviously knew the dances, but had to learn the songs and carried her script. She’s a performer too and her vocals were excellent. A really triumphant stand-in performance. Charlotte Scally is a hysterical delight as squeaky Eileen, her contemporary dance sequences bringing the house down. Then there are two terrific veterans of musical theatre just as at home on West End stages – David Pendlebury as Cookie and Nova Skipp as the senator’s sister Estonia. It’s as fine a supporting cast as you’d wish for.

It might not have Broadway production values, but I think I had a lot more fun above a pub in Highgate than at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway at a fraction of the price. Try and catch the last few performances if you can.

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It’s less than a year since I last saw this show, a lovely production at the Watermill Newbury, but I so love my July trips to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s end of year musicals that I couldn’t resist, particularly with Martin Connor at the helm. As it turned out, one of my best decisions. I’ve had so many wonderful evenings there, but this might just top the lot. 

When this Gershwin show first appeared twenty-five years ago, it revived a practice started by Handel & his contemporaries in the early 18th century, stealing tunes from other shows to make a better one. This is packed full of some of the Gershwin’s best – Someone To Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It…..woven into a show that pits Broadway against the Wild West with a pair of posh Brits added for good measure.

Failed showman Bobby is sent by his mother, on behalf of the family bank, to foreclose on a theatre in Deadrock Nevada, but instead tries to revive it, while falling in love with owner’s daughter Polly at the same time. Despite getting his friends from the Zangler Follies to come west, with Zangler himself following for reasons of a romantic nature, he fails to find an audience or bag his girl so he returns to New York where he’s given the Zangler Theatre when that defaults. Unbeknown to him, back in Deadrock the show has become a success. He returns and we get our happy ending with three love stories concluding as they should. 

The production values are as good as any West End show, with an excellent design and costumes by Adam Wiltshire. A 33-piece band is a luxury and it did indeed sound luxurious. Luke Thallon is terrific as Bobby with vocals, dancing and acting all outstanding; a star is born, I’d say. Lucie Fletcher is great as the girl growing up in a man’s world; so much so, she took my breathe away when she came on glammed up for the finale. Steffan Cennydd’s excellent turn as the real Zangler shone in the drunk scene with Bobby’s imposter which was a masterclass of both staging and performance. The class of 2017 is one of the best ensembles ever presented at the Guildhall, and that’s saying something.

Such joy to see such talent. Unmissable.

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How many producers and associate producers does it take to get a screen to stage adaptation onto a West End stage? Fifty-one! That’s about the same number as the total of performers and musicians combined. Do they each have their own producer?

Though it is new to the stage this, like the 1951 film on which it is based, recycles Gershwin songs like I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love and But Not For Me from stage musicals Girl Crazy and Lady Be Good 20-30 years before the film, songs from other Gershwin film musicals like Funny Face, plus piano concertos & preludes, rhapsodies and symphonic poems! Gershwin may have been the first real crossover composer and this may well be the ultimate mash-up!

Set at the end of the Second World War in Paris, obviously, it tells the story of two American GI’s who decide to stay, musician Adam Hochberg and artist Jerry Mulligan. Adam’s new Parisian friend Henri Baurel is a wannabe performer expected to continue the family business. His family have protected young Jewish girl Lise Dassin during the occupation and now she seems to feel she owes Henri her heart, though she’s fallen for Jerry (and Adam for her). All three end up involved in a new ballet – Lise dancing, Jerry designing and Adam writing the score, after which Lise is forced to choose and Henri get’s ‘outed’ to his parents.

It pulls all (both) of its punches in the second half with an extraordinary scene where a Paris jazz club transforms into NYC’s Radio City Music Hall and back again, and the ballet itself, though the opening transition from occupation to liberation is brilliantly staged too. I liked the rest, but it didn’t blow me away like the reviews and recommendations predicted. Despite all the exceptional components – good story and great score, Bob Crowley’s modern art inspired design with projections that make scene changes simply flow, Christopher Wheeldon’s light-as-air staging and choreography, a great orchestra under John Rigby (which sounded a lot more than fourteen) and a fine set of performances – it only occasionally swept me away. At times, I felt I was in a musical theatre museum admiring but not emotionally engaged with the show. Some of the French accents were a bit dodgy too!

For a ballet dancer, Robert Fairchild is a damn good singer as well as an exciting dancer; he stole the show for me. Fellow ballet dancer Leanne Cope was terrific too in her mostly dancing role, and David Seadon-Young was excellent as Adam. There’s a lovely cameo from Jane Asher as Henri’s stern mum, looking decades younger than her true age. I can’t fault the show, but it didn’t captivate me as I thought it would. Too big a theatre (and a stuffy one too)? An off night for me? Over-hyped? Who knows?…….but don’t let me put you off.

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Contemporary Music

There was a lot to love about Weimar Cabaret at Cadogan Hall.  The period and the place produced an extraordinarily eclectic collection of original music which gathered together has an eccentric, manic quality. The Australian Chamber Orchestra played brilliantly, in dark suits and trilbies, and Barry Humphries provided insightful and funny commentaries, and sang a song or two with cabaret star Meow Meow, who sang a lot on her own and with a lady violinist from the orchestra. I will never forget her Serenata Erotica! A unique evening.

John Wilson has a large, loyal and attentive following and last year’s brilliant Bernstein Prom propelled us to book for this year’s Gershwin Prom. I was expecting some, if not all of it, to be from Broadway, but it was all Hollywood, and a third of the songs were Ira Gershwin’s lyrics without the then late George Gershwin’s music. The first half disappointed; with little light and shade it was relentlessly showbiz and the sound mix wasn’t great, with strings buried beneath brass. It picked up significantly in the second half though, with better sound, some slower numbers and the ballet from An American in Paris as a closer. Overall, though, a bit too Friday Night is Music Night for me, and a rather expensive one too.

Opera

I’ve never seen anything in the Arcola‘s annual Grimeborn opera festival before but after their brilliant Tosca, very powerful at close quarters, I won’t make that mistake again. In fact, I’ve already booked for another two! The singing was superb and the whole score heroically played on one grand piano, and all for the price of a cinema ticket. Eat your heart out, ENO & RO.

My journey to and from the Arcola Theatre for my second Grimeborn production was more than twice as long as Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely staged 40-minute opera Mozart and Salieri. Composed eighty years before Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus on the same subject, also derived from Pushkin’s play. It was a bit slight for me, though it was well staged and performed. I’ve only seen a few of his fifteen operas and this was more of a collector’s item than anything else.

Grimeborn reached its pinnacle with Opera Alegria’s Mozart Double – an opera he wrote when he was twelve, Bastien & Bastienne (not his first!), which may or may not have been performed at the time, and one from his late career when he was thirty, a satire on opera itself The Impresario. You can hear clearly how he matured, though both operas are good. As they both have dialogue they are technically operettas or singspiel and the settings in this production are contemporary, the libretto updated. The performances were brilliant and it was the most fun I’ve had in 35 years of opera-going.

Cape Town Opera‘s Mandela Trilogy at the Royal Festival Hall was a hit-and-miss affair. It told Madeba’s story in three parts – youth to University, the politicised years centred in Sophiatown and his trial & imprisonment through to his freedom speech on release. I liked the prologue and Parts 1 & 3 by Peter Louis van Dijjk, but though I liked the idea of the Part 2 jazz musical by Mike Campbell, I wasn’t convinced by the contrast its inclusion created. It was semi-staged but from our top price front stalls seats we couldn’t see the singers, which rather marred the experience.

Classical Music

The off-site Prom at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an absolute treat and a triumph. Eleven piece ensemble Arcangelo led by Jonathan Cohen played Shakespeare-inspired music from the late 17th century by candlelight with three brilliant soloists, Katherine Watson, Samuel Bowden & Callum Thorpe, who animated the arias by interacting and moving around the space. Wonderful.

A gorgeous lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall paired viol ensemble Fretwork with vocal ensemble Stile Antico for a programme of 17th century Shakespeare settings (plus a few others) with two brilliant contemporary ones by Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly. A real tonic.

The third Shakespeare themed Prom showcased music for stage and screen, with the first half music by Walton, Finzi, Sullivan and Joby Talbot written for screen and ballet versions of Richard III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale and the second half music for the stage – Bernstein’s West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew and The Boys from Syracuse, a version of The Comedy of Errors by Rogers, Hart and Abbott. I really liked it, more than the Gershwin Prom (with better sound), and conductor Keith Lockhart engaged with the audience unlike most conductors.

European cities usually have a cultural black hole in August, but I managed to find a performance of the rare Cherubini Requiem in C Minor at the Liege Opera House during a short overnight visit. Though I’d never heard it before, it seemed a bit lacklustre – WNO on an off night (we don’t know how lucky we are) – but it was good to hear it, and the theatre was lovely.

Film

Matt Damon didn’t have many lines to learn for Jason Bourne which was all action, exhaustingly so, with an extraordinary car chase at the end that I honestly don’t know how they pulled off. Great fun.

I eventually caught up with the female Ghostbusters remake, which was good fun and technically accomplished, though hardly ground-breaking.

Art

The Liverpool Biennial Festival of Contemporary Art was absolute shite. It was devoid of any beauty, lacking in ingenuity and it all seemed derivative and dated. Fortunately, Tate Liverpool had three good exhibitions – Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms, Maria Lassnig & Ella Kruglyanskya, the latter two artists completely new to me. These, together with the permanent collections at Tate and the Walker and the Peter Blake designed Mersey Ferry, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, redeemed the weekend. I won’t get fooled again!

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson‘s ‘exhibition’ at the Barbican was about as off-the-wall as it gets. The only live part was ten troubadours lounging, strumming and singing – for the whole 8 opening hours! There were records of previous projects, mostly on video, including a 9-screen installation recording a 1-hour concert where each player was in a different room of a house (including the bath!), brass players cruising whilst they played in Venice for six hours every day for six months, a crooner singing the same three words for 30 minutes, band The National singing their song A Lot of Sorrow continuously for six hours, 144 paintings of the same subject in the same place where they both spent six months and four 5-yearly videos of his mother spitting in his face. I rather liked it all!

I managed to catch the exhibition of Francis Townes‘ late 18th century watercolours of Italy on its last day at the British Museum. They were beautiful, though a touch faded and mostly behind glass. He was apparently never accepted by the art establishment, despite his undoubted talent.

The Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition has moved south-east and indoors to Greenwich University and, despite the journey, is better for it. It was the usual high standard but it made me feel less inadequate as, since last year, I’ve done a short photography course, had some coaching and went on some photographic safaris, so next year I think I might enter!

The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern exceeded its expectations bigtime. A hugely comprehensive retrospective which also allowed you to learn about her life through photographs and room descriptions. I’ve always loved her work, now I’m virtually obsessed. I’ll be back!

The exhibition I went to the Photographers’ Gallery to see, as instructed by Time Out (!) – Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity – disappointed, but upstairs there were two floors of Terence Donovan’s wonderful, iconic, mostly black and white 60’s and 70’s photographs in Speed of Light. An unexpected treat.

Colour & Vision at the Natural History Museum sought to explain the evolution of vision in the animal world. It started well, with fascinating fossils in particular, but then threw in the kitchen sink and became overpowering and confusing. Shame.

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This re-working of the Gershwin’s’ 1930 show Girl Crazy came over sixty years later and was a huge hit on both Broadway and in the West End. It was a hit all over again five years ago when the Open Air Theatre mounted it, then transferred it ‘up West’ (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/crazy-for-you). Now this third outing in Newbury’s lovely Watermill Theatre makes it a triple hit.

Ken Ludwig (best known for stage comedies) made significant changes to the original story, a culture clash between the wealth and sophistication of New York City and the somewhat wilder west. In his adaptation, stage-struck Bobby Child, who’s tried and failed to get into the Zangler Follies, is sent by his businesswoman mom to foreclose on a theatre in a Nevada desert town. Theatre owner Everett Baker is a former entertainer who’s deceased wife used to grace the stage with him. Billy falls in love with Everett’s daughter Polly and ships the Follies girls west in an attempt to rescue the theatre and get his girl. His strategy includes impersonating Zangler, which becomes problematic when the real Zangler turns up. In a bizarre but delicious addition, the Fodor’s of travel guide fame (British here, though they weren’t really) turn up to add a third culture to the mix.

The Gershwin’s score has been supplemented by numbers from a handful of their other shows, so the standards count is sky high – Someone To Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It……and the musical standards are high too under Catherine Jayes supervision.  As usual here, the actors double-up as musicians, but the musical quality is so good you’d never know it if your eyes were closed.

The Watermill really does seem like a small-town American theatre, a small shed-like building with the addition of a gold proscenium arch and red curtains by regular designer Diego Pitarch, whose costumes are excellent. This is the first show I’ve seen by their new AD Paul Hart, and his staging is at least a match for all those other lovely summer musicals we’ve seen here. Choreographer Nathan M Wright works wonders in the small space. Watching burly, clumsy cowboys burst into dance alongside showgirls is a delight. There’s a particularly good comic scene where the Zanglers meet, and Tom Chambers climbing of, and dangling from, the balcony had us gasping on more than one occasion.

I wasn’t keen on the West End production of Top Hat, or Chambers performance in it, but here he is outstanding in every respect. Caroline Sheen is lovely as Polly, feisty and tomboyish, melting in the end. With another dozen performers, it’s a big ensemble for a small stage, and a very talented one too.

I do love these summer outings to the Watermill…..

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Even though it’s based on the 1919 novel by P G Wodehouse which became a silent movie the following year, a stage play by Wodehouse with Ian Hay eight years later that was turned into a film musical written by Wodehouse and others, with music by the Gershwin’s, nine years after that in 1937, this is actually a world première! What’s actually new is Jeremy Sams & Robert Hudson’s book and the Gershwin’s back catalogue has been mined for additional songs.

George Bevan is in the process of transferring his Broadway show to the West End and has brought his female star Billie Dore with him. Whilst he’s trying to make changes that the British director and some of the cast are reluctant to make, he meets and falls in love with Maud, Lord Marshmoreton’s daughter, who is betrothed to hapless, star-struck Reggie. George and Billie visit the Marshmoreton castle as tourists where Maud, prone to wander, is imprisoned by her father’s formidable sister Lady Caroline. So begins the rescue of the damsel in distress and the resulting marriage or four. It’s silly stuff but it provides some good comedy and Gershwin tunes (though it has to be said second division Gershwin) and who can resist a song called I’m A Poached Egg!

Christopher Oram’s revolving castle is terrific and his costumes excellent. The staging is traditional, perhaps a little too so, and I wondered if Director / Choreographer Rob Ashford should have delegated the latter to someone else (Stephen Mear, perhaps) to bring some freshness and more sparkle. It’s a great cast, led by Sally Ann Triplett (welcome back!) and Richard Fleeshman, building on his work in Ghost and Urinetown and fast becoming an excellent musicals leading man. Nicholas Farrell is a fine actor but not someone I associate with musicals and I was very pleasantly surprised by his excellent turn as the Lord. I loved Richard Dempsey as Reggie and Desmond Barrit as the butler; both great comic creations. There’s a Strallen of course (Summer, playing Maud) and some lovely turns in smaller roles from Isla Blair as Lady Caroline and David Roberts & Chloe Hart as the cooks, who brought the house down.

Chichester FT has been on such a roll with great musical productions in recent years (Singing in the Rain, Love Story, Sweeney Todd, Pajama Game and last year’s pair of  Gypsy and Guys & Dolls, which between them will spend a year at the Savoy Theatre in London) that good productions like this struggle to live up to their own extraordinarily high standard. Still, it’s summer fun and there’s much to enjoy – and the inspiration for the location of the Lord’s home in the show is apparently close to Chichester and the other location is indeed the Savoy Theatre, so maybe they’ll also move this to the real one and occupy it even longer.

 

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Whenever I see this Gershwin ‘show’ I’m always amazed that it made it to Broadway in the 30’s – an all-black cast, sex, drugs, murder and racism on stage 80 years ago! Every time it’s produced, we get the same debate about whether it’s an opera or a musical – it was probably the first ever ‘crossover’ piece – classical, jazz, blues, spiritual….In both ways, such a ground-breaking show. This is my fourth P&G, after Trevor Nunn’s ‘opera’ at Covent Garden in 1992, his ‘musical’ at the Savoy in 2006, Cape Town Opera’s ‘opera’ here in London in 2012 and now a ‘musical’ again, this time adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks & Diedre L. Murray, at the Open Air Theatre on a gorgeous warm evening that could have been in the American south where its set.

The fishing community of Catfish Row are unsettled by the arrival of Bess, a woman of dubious morals with a drug habit fueled by city boy Sporting Life and her bullying boyfriend Crown, who kills Robbins over the result of a crap game. Disabled Porgy falls for Bess who responds to his overtures, naively thinking Crown is going to let her go. When Jake doesn’t return from fishing in a storm, his wife Clara recklessly goes to find him only to be lost too, leaving their new child an orphan. Bess agrees to turn over a new leaf and bring up their baby, but Crown and Sporting Life have other plans. Porgy deals with Crown, but Sporting Life is still around to scupper Bess’ plans.

The first half is a touch slow and ponderous, despite the presence of gorgeous songs like Summertime and I Got Plenty Of Nothing, but it really takes off in the second half, with more great songs like It Ain’t Necessarily So and much more drama. In this production, the staging of the storm scene is outstanding and Bess’ struggle with drink and drugs realistically played with great sensitivity by Nicola Hughes. It also creates a real sense of a community struggling but surviving by sticking together and supporting one another. The staging of Porgy’s final exit is masterly. Timothy Sheader’s very physical production, with Liam Steel’s stylised movement, are highly effective.

I don’t know why they have imported all three male leads from the US (a co-production?) but they are all good – a positively scary Crown from Phillip Boykin, a slick and slimy Sporting Life from Cedric Neal, and a deeply empathetic Porgy from Rufus Bonds Jr. Sharon D Clark gives us another acting masterclass as Mariah and there are excellent performances from Leon Lopez and Jade Ewen as Jake and Clara and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena. I’m still not sure what to make of designer Katrina Lindsay’s giant metallic cliff backdrop, but as it got dark and Rick Fisher’s lighting made it change colour, which changed the mood, it did look pretty. There’s a decent size 14-piece orchestra, though the sound was sometimes a touch harsh, particularly the first half voocals.

Great to see this landmark show again, feeling very a home in the Open Air Theatre. Not to be missed, I’d say.

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