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Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’

I saw this show on Broadway 15 months ago (sorry about the location-dropping!) and was a bit underwhelmed. I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it lived up to the ‘best musical of this century’ hype. It had been running a year at that point. This London clone has been running three months and the first thing that struck me last night was how fresher it seemed – performed with more gusto, energy & enthusiasm.

I’ve never seen South Park or anything else by the show’s creators / writers, so I’m not pre-programmed to their humour. It’s a bit like those Seth Rogan / Judd Apatow films – trying a bit too hard to shock, pushing things a little too far on occasion, hilarious in parts but so relentless that it inevitably lags in others.

I probably don’t need to tell you that it’s about a bunch of newly graduated Mormon missionaries, two of which are sent to Uganda and fail miserably to meet their baptism targets. Most of the humour comes from the clash of cultures and it draws a fine line laughing with /at the Africans. It’s also taking big risks using AIDS (and possible cures) as the butt of a lot of its jokes, one of the things that for me went too far.

It sets up a pace that it’s difficult to sustain, so there are genuinely more laughs than almost any other musical comedy, but that has the effect of making the bits between the laughs seem a lot longer. The music seemed a lot better on second hearing, albeit most of it parodying the genre. It’s particularly good lyrically though. The design is (presumably) a bit of a parody too, but it also makes you smile.

It’s the performances that made this second showing for me. I’d seen and admired Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham on Broadway, but here he was better matched by Gavin Creel’s excellent Elder Price and surrounded by a better ensemble whose sense of fun was infectious. Stephen Ashfield seemed completely at home as Elder McKinley, Alexia Kadime was an excellent Nabulungi (is the running gag about her name new? I don’t remember it) and there were great turns from Giles Terera as Mafala Hatimbi and Chris Jarman as a positively terrifying General.

It is well worth seeing and it does add a lot to the musical comedy cannon (but not ‘most shocking’; a crown still held by Jerry Springer – The Opera). You’ll have a lot of fun as long as you don’t expect ‘the best musical of this century’.

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Well, I’ve been to the Olivier Theatre many times over the last 30 years, but it’s never felt like this. Designer Marina Draghici has done a great job bringing to it the essence of Fela’s Nigerian nightclub with giant banners & projections, corrugated iron and above all colour. You could hear the sound of the extraordinary band before you entered the theatre and when you did, the stage was full of dancers.

Fela’s story is a fascinating one, but its told here as a biographical monologue inside an afrobeat concert. There is really only one character, and that’s the crux of the problem with the show. You learn more about Fela’s life reading the programme and the show just adds the music and dancing – wonderful music and dancing (though in truth it does become a bit monotonous), but music and dancing alone don’t make a fully formed musical.

Sahr Ngaujah’s performance as Fela is mesmerizing, so much so that the talented supporting cast hardly get a look in. The band is absolutely brilliant, helped by  Robert Kaplowitz perfect sound design. There’s much to enjoy and it’s more than a jukebox musical, but there isn’t enough characterisation or narrative depth for a piece of musical theatre. Go for the music, colour and the energy of it all.

It doesn’t really need the NT – it could easily survive in the commercial sector – and the NT doesn’t need it – though this clearly does bring in a new audience, the NT has done much to bring in this audience before. It’s not the first time the Olivier stage has been full of black talent in recent years – Emperor Jones, Death & The Kings Horsemen and Welcome to Thebes. I think their resources would be better used nurturing and showcasing new British musical theatre, which they haven’t done since Jerry Springer – The Opera.

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I couldn’t describe this show better than its own billing –  a ‘Dance Revue’ about shoes! This could so easily fail and come out as tacky showbiz, but in the hands of Jerry Springer – The Opera creator Richard Thomas and inventive choreographer Stephen Mear it’s a whole lot of fun.

Who’d have thought you could come up with so many clever ideas about footwear; here there are some 30 ‘numbers’ including health and safety advice for walking in high heels, how Hush Puppies can help the promiscuous, Imelda Marcos’ infamous obsession with shoes and the worship of everything from Flip Flops to Ug’s to Jimmy Choo’s (but not Crocs!).

The dancing is terrific and the songs are good (with often hysterical lyrics). Tom Pye’s design, with Laura Hopkins costumes and Tim Hope & Gaelle Denis’ projections, is a colourful gaudy feast for the eye. The dancers are hugely talented and the singers top-notch. A small 8-piece band plays as if their lives depended on it.

Not everything works as well as the high spots and they pull more punches in the first half than the second. I found the opening number too much to take in whilst adjusting to a very different type of show and the sound occasionally buried the lyrics (co-lyricist Alethea Wiles), but these are small points because this is something completely different that continually surprises you, makes you smile from start to finish and above all is original and fresh.

A wonderful post-Edinburgh treat to kick-start the autumn season in London.

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