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Posts Tagged ‘John Barr’

It’s 46 years since The Who released Tommy, one of the most ground-breaking albums of the 60’s (or any other decade come to that), the first ‘rock opera’. Like all great music, it still sounds fresh. I loved Pete Townsend & Des McAnuff’s stage musical when it was first staged in London in 1996 and its surprising that we haven’t seen it since. So a bucket-load of brownie points to Guy James (no relation!), Katie Lipson and Ilai Szpiezak for putting on this revival at Greenwich Theatre.

I’m sure everyone knows the story. Tommy is traumatised when he sees his father, unexpectedly returned from the war, kill his mother’s new man and becomes deaf, dumb and blind. He’s persecuted by his Cousin Kevin and interfered with by his Uncle Ernie. Searches for a cure seem hopeless, but one day he does indeed recover all three faculties and at first becomes a bit of a freak show and ultimately a sort of Messiah. It’s an extraordinary score and here its sung brilliantly by a top notch young cast of just ten. It has one of the best closing numbers of a musical – Listening To You – and they do it proud.

Director Michael Strassen, a Union Theatre regular where I’ve seen nine of his productions, uses a two-tier stage with triangular motifs, with most of the cast dressed in white, a handful of props and some striking lighting. I wasn’t convinced by the choreography, which didn’t seem in keeping with the material – too arty farty & balletic and not muscular enough! I also felt the band was too quiet much of the time – it is a rock musical, after all – though somewhat ironically were terrific in the play-out. It was a touch restrained in the first half, though it ended on a high with Pinball Wizzard, but came into its own after the interval.

I very much liked Ashley Birchall’s Tommy, particularly in the later scenes. I loved the characterisations of seedy Uncle Ernie by the excellent John Barr and the odious bully Kevin of Giovanni Spani. There wasn’t really a fault in the casting; the audience gave them a standing ovation on Thursday.

Definitely worth catching one of the last four performances of this rarely revived show with an iconic score.

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I’ve got a very special relationship with this show, having taken a punt on a preview on Broadway in the summer of 2002. I adored it and couldn’t believe it took five years to get to London, though I made up for that by seeing it three times in the West End. I couldn’t resist a trip to Woking to see the UK tour, and now up to The Curve in Leicester for this new production, which just about tops the lot!

Set in Baltimore in 1962, our heroine Tracy Turnblad’s ambition is to become a regular dancer on the Corny Collins Show, modelled on a very real US show of the time. The show’s producer, the odious Velma von Tussle, can’t see beyond her size and in any event nothing is going to get in the way of her daughter Amber. Amber’s partner, heartthrob Link (Glee’s Matthew Morrison on Broadway) finds himself more attracted to Tracy the nastier Amber gets. The show’s token ‘negro night’ adds a segregation theme, which makes the show more than just 60’s retro pastiche and takes us onto the moral high ground. In this production, the discrimination themes have a touch more edge, with videos of Martin Luther King keeping it real, reminding you of the realities of 60’s racism and segregation.

It’s a high-energy, super-fresh (channeling Will i Am now!) production which sweeps you away from the off. Jerry Mitchell’s original choreography is hard to match, but Lee Proud has done a terrific job, with more emphasis on hand movements. Ben Atkinson’s band sounded great and looked good high up at the back of the stage. The Curve’s homegrown designers Paul Moore and Siobahn Boyd have done a magnificent job on the sets and costumes and I thought the lighting of Philip Gladwell was outstanding.

Rebecca Craven’s was a match for all the other Tracy’s, loveable & naive with great moves. Damian Williams’ Edna and Landor Theatre regular John Barr’s Wilbur had great chemistry, with their relative sizes adding something extra and their duet You’re Timeless to Me benefitting from some unplanned corpsing. It’s a long way from smile-free East Enders hard man to permanent-smile song & dance man, but it’s a journey David Witts makes in style, thanks no doubt in part to his NYMT & NYT background (is this really his professional stage debut?!). It’s musical theatre, so the rule ‘one must have a Strallen’ is observed with a terrific comic turn from Zizi as Tracy’s friend Penny.

It’s just as good in the baddie department with a great Velma from Sophie-Louise Dann, Sorelle Marsh as Penny’s mom and Vicki Led Taylor’s delicious spoilt brat Amber. Claudia Kariuki as Motormouth Maybelle brought a welcome restraint to her big Act I closing number Big Blonde & Beautiful and Tyrone Huntley was terrific as her son Seaweed. The ensemble sparkles, making this a cast any producer would die for.

Director Paul Kerryson always delivers, but he exceeds his own standards here. This production proves that our best regional theatres are more than a match for the West End or Broadway and with best seats plus train ticket coming in at lest than tickets only in the West End, musical theatre lovers would be bonkers to miss this treat.

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This is the second time The Landor have staged this unique show about American songwriter Ed Kleban. I’m not sure any other theatre in the UK has staged it even once. Given Kleban was the lyricist of A Chorus Line, which has just been revived at The Palladium, the Landor’s timing is impeccable. Frankly, I think it’s a much better show!

The deceased Kleban arrives at the Schubert Theatre in New York, where A Chorus Line is still running, for his own memorial (brilliant entrance!). The eulogies of his friends take us in flashback to various periods of his life from a mental institution in his late teens to his songwriting classes to Columbia Records, where he was a producer, to the rehearsal room of the only show that he would be remembered for. It’s a life full of anxiety and low self-confidence. The characters are real life people like Marvin Hamlish and Michael Bennett, composer and director respectively of A Chorus Line, and Lehman Engel, the leader of the songwriting workshop.

When he died of cancer, he willed his songs to his friends and fourteen years later they were incorporated into this show about his life. When you hear them, you cannot understand why he hadn’t had a string of hit shows. They are particularly strong lyrically, sharp and witty and in some ways Sondheimesque. When you hear his story though, you can see why he didn’t succeed – his insecurity and fragility getting in the way. It’s a bitter-sweet show which captivated me.

Director Robert McWhir has again assembled a fine cast led by a hugely impressive performance as Kleban by John Barr. McWhir’s staging and Robbie O’Reilly’s nimble choreography are outstanding. James Cleeve’s band play the score beautifully. It gets a touch too sentimental in the end, as American musicals have a habit of doing, but it’s absolutely not to be  missed.

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A theatre space under the railway arches proved to be a cool place to spend a couple of hours on a sweltering Saturday afternoon and with a cracking Sondheim production thrilling as well as cool.

I’d forgotten this was coming up at the lovely Union Theatre when I booked to see the same show at the Royal Academy of Music less than two weeks ago, so I decided to give it a miss. Then those West End Whingers positively raved so I just had to go! VERY GOOD DECISION.

Sondheim links nine assassinations / attempted assassinations and explores their motivation in a tragi-comic show which had its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992 and I think I’ve seen every London production since. It’s difficult to get the right tone but his one is absolutely spot on. You often feel you’re peering into these people’s souls and feeling their pain. The close proximity of such a small venue (and in my case the front row) helps, but it’s the brilliant acting and singing which really makes this stand out.

Director Michael Strassen has done a remarkable job putting together a cast this good. Glyn Kerslake has huge presence as John Wilkes Booth. Nick Holder’s two monologues as Samuel Byck are riveting. John Barr’s Guiteau has an extraordinary manic quality. Joe Alessi is a passionate Zangara, Adam Jarrell a vulnerable Czolgosz and Paul Callen a nerdy Hinckley who really spooks you when he demonstrates his knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald. I’ve never seen Sarah Jane Moore played as well as Leigh McDonald does here and the crucial chemistry between her and Alison Lardner’s Fromme was  perfect. Nolan Frederick’s lovely bass-barritone voice and stage presence elevates The Balladeer from a narrator to centre stage.

It’s a terrific idea to have the chorus as a modern-day presidential guard – men(and women)-in-black with shades and earpieces – that start their duties as you’re waiting to enter. The small band play the score beautifully with a restraint which allows the actors to  make the most of the songs and in particular the insightful lyrics.

Michael Strassen’s ‘Company’ at the same venue achieved the same as this does – allowing the characters, story and music to shine through, but on this occasion digging into the psychology of these people in a way I’ve never seen before.

An absolute triumph which may well turn out to be the highlight of Mr Sondheim’s 80th.

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