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Posts Tagged ‘Jason Robert Brown’

This musical is based on the 1992 debut novel of American writer Robert James Waller. It sold 60 million copies and became one of bestselling books of the 20th Century. He probably couldn’t believe his luck. Clint Eastwood made it into a film three years later, starring himself and Meryl Streep. Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation got to Broadway nine years later, and now has its UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory, for which it has received the whole gamut of stars, from five to one; marmite indeed.

The story revolves around Francesca, who left Naples at the end of the Second World War, following American GI Bud Johnson to the US. In the brilliant opening number she tells us her story from wartime loss of boyfriend Paolo, the sea journey to New York and train across the US to her new life in Winterset, Iowa where she becomes a farmer’s wife, bringing up two children. When we join her there, the family head off to the State Fair in Springfield Illinois, where daughter Carolyn is showing her prize steer. While they’re away she meets and falls for National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, who’s in town to take pictures of those bridges of the title. It’s a sort of mid-west Brief Encounter!

Jon Bausor’s brilliant design seems to enlarge the Menier space, with three huge barn like doors, onto which images are projected, and two revolves moving us from the main location of the family kitchen to the State Fair, a neighbouring home, the fields outside, one of those covered bridges and a truck on the road, though it’s sometimes a bit noisy, during as well as between scenes, with involuntary movements of furniture occasionally comic (oh, and they need to repair the fridge door!). That aside, it’s a truly evocative design matched by Trevor Nunn’s staging, which flows beautifully.

It seems to me that the different views on the show are probably driven by the score and your attitude to love stories. Well, I’m a sucker for the latter (yes, there were tears again) and I think the lush eclectic Americana score is gorgeous, an antidote to the bland formulaic pop of most contemporary musicals. The songs, and there are a lot of them, maybe a few too many, really do propel the story and develop the characters, keeping just the right side of sentimentality, well, until the very end. I liked the way many of the cast get a number that brings their character briefly to the fore, enabling them to showcase their talents, notably Shanay Holmes and Georgia Brown.

Francesca provides yet another career high for Jenna Russell, as a very different character which she inhabits with conviction and authenticity. She’s well matched by Edward Baker-Duly as Robert, the finest performance I’ve seen by this actor, with a Glenn Campbell like velvet voice which so suited the songs. Dale Rapley provides fine support as Bud and there’s a lovely cameo from Gillian Kirkpatrick as neighbour Marge and an auspicious professional stage debut by the appropriately named Maddison Bulleyment as Carolyn.

Well, I’m with the four star gang. A lovely show staged and performed to perfection. Go and make your own mind up

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This 15-year-old two-hander by Jason Robert Brown, a somg cycle rather than a musical, was first seen here at the Menier ten years ago with Damian Humbley & Lara Pulver. I recall being more enthusiatic about it then than I am now.

It tells the story of Jamie and Cathy’s five-year relationship in a series of solo songs, Jamie chronologically and Cathy reverse chronologically, with one duet when their stories intersect at their wedding. They are well-crafted songs, if a touch bland, and they are beautifully sung by Jonathan Bailey and Samantha Barks, though Bailey is more animated and connects more with the audience. The music is played beautifully by the six-piece string-heavy band.

My problem with the show is that I found it impossible to engage with it emotionally and didn’t really care much about the characters or their relationship. Because it is merely songs, there’s little room for the development of characters and this is where it fails. A song cycle has its limits and this is a song cycle. I admired the craftsmanship but it felt cold and clinical. I left the theatre disappointed, I’m afraid.

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This is a difficult piece to review for two reasons – the first is that it defies categorisation and the second is that there aren’t enough superlatives available for the performances!

It’s not a musical as there’s no ‘book’. It’s not a concert or a song cycle as they’re more than just songs. I think I’ll just call it a show. It was the first Jason Robert Brown work to be staged, 20 years ago this year. He’s done six musicals since, though we’ve only see three in London – The Last Five Years (recently made it into a film) Parade & 13. He’s had two shows on Broadway in less than two years.

It’s a collection of sixteen songs, each of which tells a story of someone at a turning point in their lives. Every song features a different person (or occasionally persons), time and place and though they aren’t connected as such, they feel as if they belong together. They’re written in a diverse range of styles – pop, gospel, jazz, R&B – but somehow there is a cohesiveness about them. They’re just bloody good songs.

The four performers occupy the same space for all of its unbroken 90 minutes. It has windows as the back wall, behind which is a New York skyline (and band just about visible). In front, there’s an unfinished wall, making it a generic room. They rarely interact, though they often make eye contact. Most songs are solos but there are some sung in permutations of the four. It’s vocal perfection.

Jenna Russell interprets some of her songs, notably the Weill parody Surabaya Santa, with comic flair as well as vocal perfection. Damian Humbley’s voice has great control and a gorgeous tone. Cynthia Erivo sings with such soul and conviction she brought herself and me to tears, in my case tears at the sheer beauty of her voice. Dean John-Wilson adds a youthfulness and edginess to his fine vocals. Daniel A Weiss’ quintet play beautifully and the sound balance (Mike Thacker) ensures you hear every word and every note. It’s always captivating, sometimes mesmerising, and though Adam Lenson’s staging isn’t really necessary for the stories, it somehow contributes on an intuitive level.

You will by now have gathered that I was more than a bit bowled over. Now all I want for Christmas is a recording so that it can fill my living room with beauty as it did the St. James’ Theatre.

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Yet again, I find myself reflecting on how you can visit a show again and come out with a completely different reaction. Earlier in the Summer I found Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead irritatingly glib, having previously found it clever and entertaining. When I first saw Alfred Uhry & Jason Robert Brown’s show four years ago at the Donmar, even though I’m perfectly comfortable with musicals on serious subjects, the musical form seemed wholly inappropriate for the subject matter and the musical style jarred. Now, having seen Thom Sutherland’s masterly production at Southwark Playhouse, I feel completely differently. Your frame of the mind at the time is so crucial to your response. If you’re in a Mamma Mia mood, however fine the Richard III production is, it just won’t do. If you’re up for a dysfunctional Sam Shepherd mid-west family, there’s no point in going to Priscilla.

Parade tells the true story of the framing a New York Jewish man for murder in Georgia in the early 20th century. The governor makes it clear he needs a conviction and the prosecutor delivers one by dubious means including the coaching of young witnesses. Just when it appears the governor’s review of the case will lead to a reprieve, a hasty hanging is arranged.

On this occasion, I found the music heightened the intensity and emotion of the story and Sutherland’s production grips throughout. Though it’s a tiny space with a traverse staging, it somehow feels epic. It flows seamlessly from scene to scene by having the set at either end of the space and just a handful of props to bring on and off. Wherever you sit, you’re never far away, so you always engage with the characters and the story. John Risebero’s set and costumes are excellent and there’s particularly effective lighting from Howard Hudson.

Yet again, Danielle Tarento’s casting is outstanding. Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford give hugely committed performances in the central roles of Leo & Lucille Frank; Laura’s singing is exceptional. Mark Inscoe has great presence as prosecutor and would-be governor Hugh Dorsey. It’s a tribute to David Haydn that it wasn’t until the end that I realised he’d played three roles including the pivotal ones as governor and newspaperman. Terry Doe follows two fine musical performances at the Finborough, with three fine performances in one evening here. There is also an auspicious London debut from Samuel J Weir, a 2011 graduate. The 7-piece band under Michael Bradley play the score brilliantly.

It’s not without its faults. Though mostly effective, the traverse staging was occasionally irritating, the over-amplification took away some subtlety from the solo vocals and at 2 hours 40 mins it was a little too long. That said, this production turned around my view of the show, won me over and deserved its spontaneous standing ovation.

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