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Posts Tagged ‘John Doyle’

I’m late to this show as I double-booked myself early in the run (another senior moment) which sadly means I won’t be able to see it again. The chief reason I’d like to is a set of exceptional performances; with The Amen Corner, Fences, Josephine & I, A Season in the Congo and this, it has been an extraordinary summer for black actors.

In this configuration (audience on three sides, thrust stage) the Menier seems a lot bigger and it appears to open up the show, which never feels cramped, even with all 17 actors on stage. John Doyle’s staging (not with actor-musicians this time) is intimate yet big. The transition from book to film to musical works reasonably well, but it’s the fine set of performances which make it.

Celie’s dad gives away here children so that she can keep home for him. Then he gives away Celie herself to Mister, a misogynistic bully who’d lusted after her sister Nettie but has to make do with her. Nettie disappears to Africa to look after the children of missionaries and Celie befriends feisty Sofia and Shug, both of whom give her the strength to assert herself and take control of her life. This all takes place in early 20th century America and it’s particularly unsympathetic to the black American men of the time.

You can tell it was written by a team more used to pop, TV & film music rather than musical theatre (one of them could probably live off the royalties to the Friends theme forever) as at times you get snatches of incomplete songs rather than fully formed ones, particularly in the first half. It’s a mixture of styles, but there are enough intimate songs and rousing choruses to carry it and it does tell the story well enough.

You cheer on Nicola Hughes and Sophia Nomvete as ballsy Shug and Sofia respectively, fall in love with Abiona Omonua’s Nettie and there’s a lovely trio of local churchwomen (gossips) from Keisha T Fraser, Samantha-Antoinette Smith & Jennifer Saayeng. This is a show written for the girls, but Christopher Colquhoun does well as the deeply unsympathetic Mister, the man you love to hate. Towering above all of these is Cynthia Erivo who gives a career defining star performance as Celie giving her all with heart, soul and guts.

It would be lovely to see this transfer, though that might require a re-casting of the lead role as Erivo’s lined up for the X-Factor musical I Can’t Sing! Now, that’s a contrast if ever I saw one…..

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I revisited this 1986 show a couple of years ago when Craig Revel Horwood, who had by then taken over John Doyle’s mantle as the master of actor-musician musicals at the Watermill Newbury, directed a touring version. This is what I thought of it https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/chess  – more like a staged concert and a bit X-Factor. Still not sure whether it was the production or the show, I couldn’t resist seeing it at fave haunt The Union Theatre where it appears to be their hottest ticket ever as it sold out before opening (the show clearly has its fan base, as the 2008 Royal Albert hall concert showed). 

Almost everything that was wrong about the touring production is right about this production. The design is a simple, elegant and effective and the sound is great. The production values are as good as they’ve ever been at the Union with more lights than you’d need for the average rock concert. It is mostly performed in a square space in front of an audience on three sides and a raised platform on the fourth above and to the side of which we have floating chess squares. It does look a bit cramped when all 16 performers occupy the square, but the space is nevertheless used well.

The ladies fare better than the men. I loved both Sarah Galbraith’s Florence and Natasha J Barnes’ Svetlana (though she was prone to the occasional screech) and Gillian Kilpatrick’s sinister Molokova is excellent. Nadim Naaman is very good as Anatoly, but I’m afraid Tim Oxbrow’s Freddie was vocally harsh and Craig Rhys Barlow’s voice too weak for The Arbiter.

As to the show, well I’m afraid I feel the same as I did last time. The story didn’t engage me emotionally or intellectually, the music’s OK but only OK and at 2h40 mins it outstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes. So, an impressive production by a team new to the Union, but a show that hasn’t passed the test of time and now needs to be packed in the ‘old musicals’ box and returned to the attic.

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I was lucky enough to be passing through Chicago (as one does) when the second incarnation of this show, then named Bounce (it’s first title was Wise Guys), was playing in 2003. It was OK, but seemed a bit slight for Sondheim – a light musical comedy about a con man. Well, this certainly isn’t that show!

From his deathbed, Addison & Wilson Mizner’s father encourages his sons Wilson and Addison to go off and make names for themselves and change the world, as you can only do in the US of A. The story of their attempts to fulfill his wishes start with the Alaska gold rush and ends with a property development in Florida, the idea of which comes from Addison’s new partner (in every sense of the word), rich boy  Hollis Bessemer. In between, the brother’s relationship moves between closeness and antagonism, with Wilson’s con man tendencies and Addison’s relationship with Hollis piling on the pressure.

It had little depth back in 2003 and one was left with a ‘what are you getting at?’ feeling. ‘This is Sondheim; it can’t be as simple as all that’. Following a number of re-writes and productions, and more significantly for me, the fact that it comes after the credit crunch, and we get a show that examines both the American dream and brotherly love. In many ways it resembles Assassins – both in terms of musical style and the fact that both are poking around in the American psyche. This new incarnation does have depth and is now very much a Sondheim show. Thank god he and John Weidman persisted for so long; many would have given up.

John Doyle’s traverse staging has extraordinary pace and intimacy. There’s no set as such, just props piled up at both ends to be brought on when required and a lot of fake money to be thrown around. The 8-piece band under Catherine Jayes play the score superbly. I do think it is musically a bit derivative, though – but of Sondheim himself; there were a number of occasions when I was thinking ‘ I’ve heard that before’.

Michael Jibson and David Badella as the brothers are both absolutely brilliant, with real chemistry between them. Jon Robyns is excellent as Hollis and both Glyn Kerslake and Gillian Bevan make much of the relatively small roles of mama and papa. The tightly knit ensemble of eight play all other characters and constitute a chorus that glides and flows with the story.

It zips along so quickly that I felt I’d not been able to take it all in, so when I got home I booked to go back!

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When his partnership with Andrew Lloyd-Webber ended, Tim Rice collaborated with the boys from ABBA to create this show about chess champions with a cold war political backdrop and plenty of love interest. I saw it, but somehow it has been erased from the memory – I can’t even remember whether I liked it or not! So off to Woking we go to find out……

I’ve loved most of Craig Revel Horwood’s actor-musician productions since he picked up the mantle at The Watermill Newbury from John Doyle. The best of them was 2009’s Spend Spend Spend and I even liked 2010’s Copacobana! They can breathe new life into weak shows like Sunset Boulevard. Here they scale up considerably with an onstage team of 29 and I’m afraid it doesn’t work. Here’s why:

1. The design is very clever, using light panels and projections. The costumes are good, but there are next to no props. With 21 scenes in 16 different locations, you’re given few references to help you follow the story. Apparently, at one point we were in the Temple of the Reclining Buddah in Bangkok; you’d never know it. It feels more like a staged concert than a show.

2. The sound design buries a lot of Tim Rice’s lyrics and given that it’s virtually sung through, that means burying some of the story too. The onstage musicians sound as if they are miming to a backstage band, so distant is the sound. The lead vocals are over-amplified above this, compounding the problem – it seems like they are on The X-Factor singing to a backing track.

3. With the actors doubling up as musicians, the stage is very crowded for most of the show. This is fine in a ‘big’ scene or chorus number, but completely distracting in a more intimate scene.

4. The show is clever, but maybe too clever for its own good. The slickness means you don’t really engage with the characters or their stories. Frankly, I didn’t give a shit about any of them and was completely unengaged and uninvolved – I found myself watching the stagecraft as if I was its producer taking a look at how my show was shaping up, preparing to give notes to the team.

5. For people who wrote some of the most iconic pop songs ever, the score has nothing remotely as good. It’s mostly sub-operatic mush, with I Know Him So Well the only showstopper. Tim Rice’s lyrical trademark is his wit, but there’s little of that too – though some may have got buried in the sound design.

6. The Theatre Royal, Woking isn’t The Watermill Theatre, Newbury!

The seven leads are fine – particularly Shona White as Florence, who sounds uncannily like Elaine Paige (the original Florence). Unfortunately, the production forces them to act and sing with little subtly. The chorus of clearly talented actor-musicians work very hard.

More is less I’m afraid – lots of talent and energy leading to little entertainment.

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Sondheim does Brecht & Weill !

This early (36-year old) Sondheim show was only his third. It would be another six years before he’d produce his first great musical, Company (though the earlier A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was fun, I wouldn’t call it great).

He seemed to be finding his way, trying out things which would later become part of his unique style. It is clearly derivative of Brecht & Weill’s ‘political’  musicals with what seems to be tongue-in-cheek sniping at the then generic Broadway style.

It’s the story of a town mayor who ‘creates’ a miracle in an attempt to breathe life into the local economy. What follows is exploitation, corruption and oppression. There is a charming naivety to it, but in terms of plotting and story-telling, it’s all a bit clumsy. There’s little of the lyrical inventiveness or musical originality which Sondheim was soon to deliver.

Tom Littler’s production makes the best of the material and the cast of 14 double up as musicians in the John Doyle way. I was particularly impressed by Roslaie Craig as the nurse, but felt that Issy van Randwyck was too doll-like as the Mayoress.

It’s an excellent contribution to Sondheim’s 80th year, as a rare opportunity for fans / completists / collectors like me to see the development of someone who was to become the greatest writer of musicals, rather than as a great musical itself.

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