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Posts Tagged ‘Irving Berlin’

My track record with this Irving Berlin show isn’t great. On Broadway in 1999, Bernadette Peters was too demure and not enough of a tomboy. At the Young Vic in 2009, Richard Jones inventive production, brilliantly re-scored by Jason Carr for four pianos, miscast Jane Horrocks and had dreadful sight lines. In the 2014 touring production, Jason Donovan’s Frank was no match for Emma Williams’ Annie. Well, this revival has none of those problems, and a lot to enjoy.

It’s easy to forget that this is based on the true story of Buffalo Bill’s show which toured, not just in the US but in Europe in the late 19th century, before merging with competitor Pawnee Bill’s show. When we open (with There’s No Business Like Show Business, one of the greatest opening numbers ever), Frank Butler is the show’s star sharpshooter, but young Annie Oakley turns up from nowhere and ends up challenging and usurping him, which rather scuppers their mutual attraction. Annie heads off to Europe, with Chief Sitting Bull now involved with the show, and Frank defects to Pawnee Bill’s show, but when they return triumphant but broke, love eventually wins.

This staging uses Peter Stone’s 1999 revision of Dorothy & Herbert Fields’ original book, making it more politically correct (changing some, but not all, of the racism towards native Americans), adding a romantic sub-plot and a song, but dropping a handful of other songs and making it a play-within-a-play, a feature which I don’t think really works. It was particularly odd when Annie’s brother Jake puts on a headdress and becomes Chief Sitting Bull, initially with script in hand. Kirk Jameson’s production is appropriately costumed, but with limited props, leaving plenty of space for Ste Clough’s excellent choreography. It’s lacks pace occasionally and the band sometimes drown the solos, but otherwise I liked it. The most important thing is that the standard-laden score is very well sung.

I very much liked Gemma Maclean’s Annie, an excellent transition from naïve tomboy to star turn. She’s well matched by Blair Robertson’s Frank, with great presence and great vocals. They are well supported by a cast of thirteen others who shine in the ensembles and choruses.

Good to see it at last without miscast leads and poor sightlines!

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Well, I certainly had to suffer for my art last night, the hottest day of the year in a stifling room above a pub, but All Star Productions managed to make me whoop with joy at their UK première of this 1932 Irving Berlin / Moss Hart musical.

Why on earth has it taken so long to get here? It’s a fun story of a Broadway producer putting on a show, but it’s the depression so he’s run out of gullible investors, until a chance meeting with the wife of the chief of police leads him to persuade the corrupt NYC police to launder the proceeds of their corruption in his show. There’s something of The Producers in this storyline, but it pre-dates the original film of that show by 36 years. The cops, and the chief’s wife, interfere in the show and the producer quits, leaving them to finish off the flop. After the first night, and predictable bad reviews, a cast member suggests spicing it up and it turns into a hit, which brings attention from the FBI.

It hasn’t got much of a book, but it’s good enough for a showcase of some great songs and ends brilliantly with the number Investigation. Though none of the songs are standards in the Berlin way, they’re better than many Broadway musicals and here they are played and sung exceptionally well. Designer Joana Dias has created an impressionistic NYC skyline on the walls of the room with a can of white paint. Some packing crates, wooden chairs and a rack of clothes complete the picture. The costumes are very good and it all looks great. Sally Brooks’ choreography is outstanding, making great use of the limited space to produce uplifting movement. Brendan Matthew’s staging is superb, respecting the period but with enough of its tongue in its cheek to laugh with it. Aaron Clingham’s 4-piece band are as good as ever.

They’ve assembled another crack cast (that man Newsome again). David Anthony and Laurel Dougall are suitably OTT as the chief cop Meshbesher and his wife Myrtle, the comic heart of the piece.  Samuel Haughton takes the acting honours as archetypal Broadway producer Hal Reisman. Joanne Clifton brought the house down as the streetwalker with her Torch Song and Joanna Hughes as Kit sang beautifully. There are also a couple of impressive professional débuts from Lewis Dewar Foley and Kirsten Stark.

Ye Olde Rose & Crown continues to produce outstanding fringe musicals and this is amongst its best. Only three more days to catch it.

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August is wild west musicals month, though you have to go to the home counties to see them! First up is the Annie Get Your Gun tour in Woking; the principle reason for seeing it being Emma Williams’ Annie Oakley.

Irving Berlin’s most famous show is actually based on the true story of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (yes, it was real and it even toured Europe!) and in particular sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Oakley breathes new life into this touring entertainment, though not without ruffling a few feathers, notably erstwhile champion Frank Butler. It may have been the first (and only?) musical to feature an Indian chief (not a native American in 1946). The reason it has survived is a score with one of the best opening numbers ever – There’s No Business Like Show Business – that’s packed full of what are now standards, like The Girl That I Marry, They Say It’s Wonderful and Anything You Can Do.

This is high quality touring fare, directed with great panache by Ian Talbot. Paul Farnsworth’s big top set, with the band onstage, limits the playing space for the 18-strong cast but makes it both more intimate and faster moving, and Lizzi Gee’s inventive choreography turns it into an advantage. I saw the first outing of this version, revised by Peter Shore for Broadway in 1999, with Bernadette Peters (who didn’t really suit the role) and this is a whole lot better.

Emma Williams is simply superb as Annie, making the transition from unknown tomboy to famous entertainer, singing these lovely songs beautifully. She must be the finest West End leading lady without the hit show she so richly deserves – she’s had artistic successes, notably the wonderful Howard Goodall musical Love Story, but she’s never had an artistic AND commercial hit. Someone correct that soon, please. Jason Donovan was either seriously under the weather, which I suspect, or he’s seriously undercast. He seemed to be going through the motions, totally lacking the sparkle of his co-star and singing poorly. To be frank, l was disappointed they didn’t send on his understudy in the second half.

This is West End ready, but somehow I don’t think, in the present climate, it will get the transfer it deserves.

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This is a surprisingly fresh show (given its as old as me!) about a Washington socialite and friend of the president (Trueman) who’s posted as ambassador to an obscure European country and causes diplomatic havoc through her naivety and clumsiness.

It’s a fairly slight romantic comedy where the ambassador ends up with the PM and her aide with the Princess, but the political shenanigans are timeless (there’s even a US election happening at the time, which makes this Union Theatre production rather timely) and there are some nice songs and some good comedy.

It was written by Irving Berlin as a vehicle for Ethel Merman and it’s success does rely on the casting of the lead role, Sally Adams, who has most of the musical numbers and most of the best lines. Lucy Williamson, who I’ve seen a few times before, is a revelation. She commands the stage in a real star performance, delivered in a knowing way as if she’s sharing a private joke with you. She sings well and has great comic timing.

Amongst the other performances I was most impressed by Leo Miles as her aide who sang beautifully and moved with real style. It’s a fine ensemble too and MD Ross Leadbeater plays the whole score on a grand piano. I liked Mark Smith’s more modern choreography (it didn’t jar with the period) and it’s staged by Michael Strassen in his usual uncluttered style relying on three curtains, elegant costumes and fine lighting.

In an echo of an incident I witnessed on Broadway, when a man walked out of Gypsy loudly claiming Bernadette Peters was ‘no Ethel Merman’, another man last night, as he left the theatre, said ‘she doesn’t have the subtlety of Ethel Merman’. Well, I have no comparison, but for me Lucy Williamson claimed the role in a real star performance.

Great to catch a rarely performed show and yet another fine evening at the Union Theatre.

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