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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Tesori’

It’s taken 22 years for this Jane Tesori musical to cross the Atlantic. She wrote it with Brian Crawley 7 years before her collaboration with Tony Kushner, Caroline or Change, recently revived and now in the West End, which she followed another 7 years on with a collaboration with Lisa Kron for Fun Home, premiered here last year at the Young Vic, and may yet be West End bound. This is a newer one-act version which was on Broadway in 2014

Scarred in an accident when she was thirteen, the 25-year-old Violet begins a journey by Greyhound bus through four states, across half of America, from Spruce Pine NC via Nashville and Memphis to Tulsa OK. It’s the 60’s and civil rights and the Vietnam war preoccupy the country, but her preoccupation is getting to meet a TV evangelist who claims he can heal. Along the way she is befriended by a woman visiting her son and grandchildren in Nashville and two GI’s, one black and one white, one protective and one predatory, both of whom fall for her as she does them.

It’s a journey of a lot more than the miles travelled, during which we flash back to scenes with her dad as both her older and younger self. Tesori’s score is complex, eclectic Americana, largely sung through, with musical twists and turns which keep you on your toes, but it could have done with less volume to bring out the subtlety and ensure all of the lyrics are audible to everyone.

Morgan Large has brilliantly reconfigured the theatre into an intimate traverse space with a revolve which emphasises the sense of travel. I’ve seen Kaisa Hammarlund in many supporting roles, so its great to see her embrace and rise to the challenge of such a difficult lead role. Jay Marsh & Matthew Harvey are excellent as the GI’s and in a superb supporting cast there’s a terrific turn from Kenneth Avery Clark as the preacher. This is the first Charing Cross Theatre co-production with their new Japanese partners, and director Shuntaro Fujita, an assistant to one of my theatrical hero’s, the late Yukio Ninagawa, makes an assured UK debut.

It has its faults, but it’s an original piece which is well worth catching, Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance alone is worth the ticket price.

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I’ve had a soft spot for this Howard Ashman / Alan Menken musical since I saw the original London production 35 years ago. It was successfully revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory 12 years ago, heading off on tour afterwards. Now it’s the latest in the Open Air Theatre’s summer musicals, the 31st I think, reinvented by director Maria Aberg and designer Tom Scutt.

Based on Roger Corman’s iconic 1960 b-movie, the musical was an instant hit off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the West End, where it ran for two years. When it was itself made into a film, the budget was 1000 times that of the original (which gave Jack Nicholson his screen debut). You wouldn’t think it was a natural for the leafy green Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but it works. Scutt has built a B&W cartoon New York City, with a riot of colour provided by the characters and the plants of Mushnik’s shop where geeky Seymour breeds Audrey II and is in love with Audrey (I), his fellow shop assistant, who has a sadistic dentist as a boyfriend.

Audrey II becomes a sensation, leading to radio & TV interviews for Seymour and lots of new customers for the shop, but Seymour has been feeding the plant with his own blood and can hardly keep up. He ends up feeding it whole people, starting with Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, as the fame leads to magazine features, TV’s first gardening programme and a plant cutting franchise which sees plants take over America. Audrey II is normally voiced by an offstage actor / singer, but Aberg’s big idea is to bring her alive and onstage in the form of American drag queen Vicky Vox and a handful of assistants, and though a good idea, I didn’t think it really worked. Towards the end, they turned up the excess dial and it became pure fantasy with a stage full of colourful SciFi plants raising the non-existent roof in the finale of Don’t Feed the Plants. With what seemed like an additional song turning it into a bit of a rock concert, the cast invading the auditorium and green pods flying around, the audience went wild and you just had to give in.

It’s very well cast, with Marc Antolin shining as Seymour. I don’t associate Jemima Rooper and Forbes Mason with musical theatre, but they both did a great job as Audrey and Mr Mushnik. Busted’s Matt Willis was excellent as Orin the sadistic dentist, plus four great cameos as TV exec, (female) magazine editor, agent and business guru. Ms Vox was outrageous and cheeky; I’m not sure what the parents of the kids in the audience made of it. The show is famous for it’s chorus of three black girl singers (Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette – get it), an idea Tony Kushner and Jane Tesori stole for Caroline, or Change twenty years later, and Seyi Omoomba, Renee Lamb and Christina Modestou were all great.

I’ve got mixed views really. Part of me missed the nostalgic, b-movie aesthetic and part of me admired the reinvention, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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Last Monday, I visited the Museum of Musical Theatre, seeing the lavish but dated The King & I at the London Palladium. As if the musical theatre gods were intent on contrast, on Friday I visited this fresh, original new musical at the appropriately named Young Vic, and it swept me away.

Alison Bechel writes graphic novels (illustrated rather than graphic in the explicit sense!). Fun Home, though, was a memoir about her life growing up in Pennsylvania with her parents and two brothers, going to college and coming out and the tragic loss of her dad, who unlike her had lived a lie (with his wife’s full knowledge). She acts as a narrator, with her young self and her college self on stage. We see her childhood, tomboyish, playing with her two brothers, both in fear of and in awe of her dad Bruce, who teaches and runs the family business, a Fun(eral) Home. She spends more time with her dad as her mom Helen is an actress. Her arrival in college, realisation that she’s gay and coming out are interwoven.

It’s a deeply moving portrait of a life, expertly adapted by Lisa Kron with lovely music by Jane Tesori. It’s extraordinary how much you can immerse yourself in someone’s life story in just 100 minutes. It took me a short while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but I soon became captivated. It was funny and moving and ever so real, with stylistic and set changes altering its feel and tone. It’s beautifully staged by Sam Gold, with choreography by Danny Mefford which is particularly good at conveying the young kids playfulness. David Zinn’s design constantly surprises you as it morphs, not just to change location, but also to reflect changes in the story.

An unrecognisable Kaisa Hammerland plays Alison looking back, newcomer Eleanor Kane college Alison and, on the night I went, Harriett Turnbull young Alison and all three were terrific; you could really believe they were the same person at different stages of their life. In my head, Zubin Varla is still the RSC’s Romeo – where did all those years go! – but here he’s a middle-aged dad, a very complex character which he plays brilliantly. Helen the mother is by contrast a relatively underwritten part, as the real Helen seems to have been in Alison’s life, but she’s played by Jenna Russell, who can make something wonderful from just about anything.

David Lan’s final four years at the Young Vic have been extraordinary, with A Streetcar Named Desire, A View From the Bridge, Yerma, The Jungle, The Inheritance and surely this going on to continue their lives elsewhere, to be seen by more people. Another thrilling evening in The Cut.

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