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Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Herman’

This is the second of three January day-trips to catch musicals that aren’t scheduled to come to London, this time Hope Mill Manchester’s production of Mame visiting Northampton, a show the UK hasn’t seen since it’s premiere here 50 years ago, which is why I’ve never seen Jerry Herman’s iconic Broadway show.

Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame went from page to stage to screen before this musical adaptation, which was itself later filmed. It revolves around a New York socialite who loves life and likes to party. When her brother dies, her 10-year-old nephew Patrick comes to live with her, and she makes it her job to show him the world, sharing her Bohemian lifestyle. After losing all her money in the Wall Street Crash, she’s lucky enough to meet and fall for rich southerner Beauregard, who marries her and takes her on seemingly endless honeymoon, seeing even more of the world.

Patrick goes to boarding school, where conservative snobbery replaces fun living, and when the honeymoon ends in tragedy, with Beauregard’s death, Mame gets to see how her work has been undone. Patrick is about to marry into the rich but dull & tasteless Upson’s from Connecticut, but she is determined to prevent such a match. The hedonistic first half gives way to a clash of the party animals and the dull New Englanders, providing some sublime comedy.

Herman’s score has some great numbers, with superb orchestrations by Jason Carr, brilliantly played by Alex Parker’s terrific band. His lyrics, and Jerome Lawrence & Robert E Lee’s book, are sharp and witty. It’s scaled down from big Broadway / West End values, but with a cast of eighteen still fills the stage. You can see the dance background in Nick Winston’s slick and stylish direction and Philip Whitcomb’s art deco set and excellent 20’s costumes give it the perfect period feel.

The leading role needs a special actress and Tracie Bennett is perfect for the part, belting out those big numbers and squeezing every ounce of comedy from her dialogue, particularly in her scenes with her best friend, ‘Broadway baby’ Vera, superbly played by Harriett Thorpe. Patrick is a big role for a young actor, but Lochlan White was confident and assured, pulling it off with great aplomb. They are all part of a fine company who do the show proud.

I’ve seen and loved Hello Dolly, La Cage Au Folles and Mack & Mabel, so I’m so glad I finally got to see Herman’s other big show, thanks to Hope Mill, now an important part of the UK’s musical theatre landscape, plus Aria Entertainment and their hosts the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. Next stop Salisbury, then ?????

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This is more of a rediscovery than a revival, a 1980 musical which may well have remained lost but for the ever enterprising Finborough Theatre and Mercurius. Written by a man in late career, David Heneker, who’d done eight shows before, including Expresso Bongo, Half A Sixpence and Charlie Girl, and another, Warner Brown, in early career, it seems to have been a critical success but a commercial flop.

Like Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel, it’s set in the silent movie era and features real life characters like film-makers D W Griffith and Adolph Zukor of Paramount, actresses Mary Pickford and her friend Lillian Gish and the godfather of silent comedy, Mack Sennett. Over sixteen years, Griffith makes serious epics with Gish and Zukor populist fare with the eternally juvenile Pickford. As it ends, United Artists is born and talkies arrive. The personal relationships are interwoven with the history.

It’s a very good score and the book, in this scaled-down version, is excellent. They’ve reintroduced two songs that never made it to the West End, one which accuses Griffith of racism and the rather chirpier They Don’t Call ‘em Flickers too. MD Harry Haden-Brown plays the score alone on piano, which somehow suits the silent movie aesthetic. Jenny Eastop’s simple production, virtually without decor, allows the show to move and breathe.

I loved Matthew Cavendish’s Sennett, all his work with Mischief Theatre giving him great physical comedy skills, but a great voice too. Sophie Linder-Lee is a delight as Mary Pickford, who’s much more savvy than the girliness would have you believe. Emily Langham’s performance as the more serious and restrained Lillian Gish (who apparently attended the 1980 premiere), somewhat in awe of Griffith, is lovely too. Jonathan Leinmuller has great presence as Griffith, and there are five fine supporting performances, with the MD stepping forward to play a role.

A very worthwhile rediscovery given a fine production. Yet more gold stars for the Finborough.

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This is the first time I’ve seen a ‘big’ production of this Jerry Herman ‘problem’ musical and now I’m struggling to understand what the problem is. Fascinating true life story. Good book (revised by Francine Pascal, the original writer Michael Stewart’s sister). Great songs. I loved it.

The story is framed by scenes where silent movie maker Mack Sennett looks back at his relationship with his leading lady, and love of his life, Mabel Normand. We flash back to learn that he discovered her when she delivered food to his film set (I think this is a departure from the real life story for dramatic purposes) and she immediately begins a successful but punishing career making several ‘two reel’ movies a week. Sennett is forever innovating then milking his ideas – pie-in-the-face, bathing beauties, keystone cops etc. He’s an uncompromising slave-driver who’s ego and pride mean he eventually loses her, and just about everyone else, though he does get her back – but by now she’s lost to drink and drugs. The onset of talkies puts an end to his career as he can’t / won’t embrace the change.

There are only 12 songs but every one is a winner. The overture is terrific, and the opening scene is thrilling, as Mack is surrounded by three screens with his films projected onto them. The screens drop and he turns on the deserted studio lights and we’re back filming a movie, starting our chronological journey forward. The pace doesn’t let up as it moves between New York and Hollywood. Train journeys and boarding a liner are superbly created using projections. There are great set pieces filming movies, stunningly staged keystone cop chases, bathing beauty scenes and a show-stopping tap dance routine. It’s great when it fills the stage but it works well too in more intimate scenes.

Jonathan Church’s production is terrific, with classic period choreography by Stephen Mear. They’ve even brought in those Spymonkey boys to get the physical comedy right. Robert Jones set is excellent, enabling speedy scene changes, with Jon Driscoll’s projections and Howard Harrison’s lighting well integrated. Robert Scott’s big band sounds even bigger than fifteen and the ensemble is as fine as they come. This is the third consecutive role in twice as many tears that Michael Ball has made his own – Mack follows his Olivier award winning Sweeney and Edna! – in what appears to be a mid / late career high. I don’t know why Chichester have, like they did for Barnum, had to import a leading actor from the US again but Rebecca LaChance is indeed very good. Anna Jane Casey, herself a Mabel at the Watermill Newbury (replaced by Janine Dee when it got to the West End) almost steals the show as Lottie.

For me, this up there with the best shows the ‘National Theatre of Musicals’ has done and deserves to follow the others to the West End, if only to prove that either there was never a problem or the problem is solved. I’d certainly go again.

 

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This 1979 Jerry Herman show was the third of three flops sandwiched between Hello Dolly & Mame and La Cage aux Folles. The second of the three, Mack & Mabel, was rehabilitated and is now often revived, but this one disappeared until this enterprising European premiere 35 years later. Gold stars to the Finborough Theatre and producer Danielle Tarento for enabling us to see it at last.

It’s based on S N Berman’s 1944 stage play, itself adapted from Franz Werfel, who wrote it after he’d fled to the US, via France, in the 30’s. There seems to be an autobiographical influence on the story. The National Theatre staged the play in 1986 and my recollection is that it was a comedy. This certainly isn’t.

Eternal optimist Jacobowsky is a Polish Jew who has moved around Europe and now finds himself in a France under German occupation. He befriends a Polish colonel, Stjerbinsky, and they begin a journey through France by car, train and boat. Stjerbinsky is trying to get important papers about undercover agents in Poland to the Polish government in exile in England. En route they visit a cafe where they meet Marianne, who joins them. They pair up with a circus, get split up and reunited at a Jewish wedding Jacobowsky is performing, and take refuge in a convent before getting to the port and the boat that will take them to England.

If you know Herman’s other shows, you’ll know this is hardly typical Herman fare and that’s the crux of it – the story doesn’t really work as musical theatre. That said, Director Thom Sutherland and his team have made a good fist of it. Set Designer Phil Lindley’s pop-up book set is ingenious; a giant map of Europe from which other sets fold out. Sophia Simensky has added fine period costumes and Max Pappenheim some great sound effects. Though no doubt driven by the duel needs of economy and space, the twin pianos are perfect for this music. I thought some of the performances were a little tentative, but Alastair Brookshaw and Nic Kyle were very assured as Jacobowsky and Stjerbinsky.

A flawed show, but a good production, and above all a great opportunity to catch such a rarity by a titan of musical theatre.

 

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We seem to be awash with great musical revivals on the fringe and back at Southwark Playhouse, Thom Sutherland has worked wonders again on this difficult show about Mack Sennett, the master of silent movies, and his on / off relationship with actress Mabel Normand.

The story is told in flashback from the time Sennett is forced to leave his studios. We first see him churning out films at a heck of a pace from his Brooklyn studios, where he comes across the natural talent of Mabel when she delivers a bagel! Keystone studios move to Hollywood ,where their pre-eminence continues, until talkies come on the scene and Sennett refuses to change with the times. This is the backdrop for the story of the pair, both as a working partnership and as a relationship.

The Vault at Southwark Playhouse is the perfect space for a show which largely takes place in film studios and set & costume designer Jason Denvir and lighting designer Howard Hudson have done a great job creating the backstage world and the early 20th century period with a pile of props and machinery at the back which is brought forward and moved around to create many different scenes. The period costumes are excellent and the lighting is hugely atmospheric.

I loved the way the show flowed, with intimate moments drawing you in and big numbers taking your breath away. Lee Proud’s choreography is fresh and often funny and Thom Sutherland’s staging captures the organised chaos of film making but allows the characterisations to shine through. You feel as if you’ve been given an insight into this world of movie making and into the hearts of its protagonists

Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are sensational as Mack and Mabel. Their attraction and relationship are totally believable and they sing beautifully. There’s a fine ‘supporting’ cast of 13, too many to mention but all worthy of it, and a large band of 11 (for the fringe) under Michael Bradley, who do full justice to Jerry Herman’s under-rated score.

This is a very different show to Herman’s hits Hello Dolly and Mame and more like his third hit La Cage Aux Folles in the merging of a unique world with a troubled love story. Despite its lack of commercial success, this production made me think that it’s a better show than the first two in so many ways. We don’t see it that often, and never to my knowledge on this scale, so it’s both an opportunity and a treat!

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