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Posts Tagged ‘John Owen-Jones’

If the nickname ‘The Welsh Les Mis’ hadn’t already been taken by My Land’s Shore (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/my-lands-shore), soon to have its Welsh stage premiere (www.mylandsshoremusical.com), it might be applied to this, though it’s more Les-Mis-meets-Oliver! Whilst half of Wales seemed to be watching rugby at the Millennium Stadium, the other half seemed packed into the Wales Millennium Centre last Saturday afternoon. We travelled from London and the journey was rewarded; there’s much to enjoy here.

It’s set in Cardiff docks at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the busiest port in the world, exporting coal to fuel industry worldwide, run by the world’s richest man, the Marquess of Bute, who lives in Cardiff Castle. It’s a backdrop of child labour, prostitution, the birth of trade unions and suffragettes in one of the world’s first melting pots, nicknamed Tiger Bay by Portuguese sailors. There are several story strands against this backdrop. The Marquess is obsessed with finding his former mistress Mary, who he believes has a son by him. His harbour-master is pursuing shop girl Rowena, but he’s also feeding his boss’ obsession and exploiting the workers and children. African labourer Temba is also attracted to Rowena, and he has a score to settle with O’Rourke.

It’s a blend of fact and fiction, and Michael Williams’ book needs some work to tighten it and shorten it, but it’s a good story for a musical drama. Though Daf James’ score sometimes seems derivative (you can hear echoes of Les Mis, even Sondheim’s Into the Woods) it has some cracking tunes and rousing choruses and we’re in Wales, so the singing is glorious. The producers, writers and directors have lots of experience, but not so much in musical theatre, and I felt they could have done with some help from someone who had, to turn a good show into a great one.

I loved Anna Fleischle’s design, dominated by a ship’s prow with similar metallic screens that move to create different settings, shadows created by Joshua Carr’s lighting often playing on them atmospherically. Melly Still & Max Barton marshal their cast of over 40 very well, though I felt dance was over-used, sometimes inappropriately or incongruously.

John Owen-Jones is a commanding presence as the Marquess, but the part wasn’t really big enough for his talents. Noel Sullivan was hugely impressive as harbour-master O’Rourke, as was recent RWCMD graduate Vikki Bebb as Rowena, both with superb vocals. Dom Hartley-Harris gave a passionate performance as Temba and local girl Suzanne Packer was terrific as Marisha. The show is a co-production with Cape Town Opera in their ongoing partnership with WMC and Busisiwe Ngejane and Luvo Rasemeni as Klondike Ellie and Fezile respectively, both veterans of the wonderful Isango Ensemle, continue in the roles they created in the Cape Town premiere.

Well worth the trip to Wales!

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This is a musical based on a poem! Somewhat bizarrely, another musical based on the same poem opened in the same 2010 season in New York. This one, by Michael John LaChiusa, was on Broadway; the other, by Andrew Lippa, ran Off-Broadway. It crosses the Atlantic seven years on to open the newly rebranded The Other Palace, formerly St. James’ Theatre. Given it lasted less than two months over there, I wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away, though more so by the terrific staging and sensational performances than the material..

It’s a slice of roaring twenties decadence. Queenie and Burrs are Vaudeville entertainers who form a stormy, abusive relationship. They throw the wild party of the title, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, resulting in all sorts of sexual activity and depravity. When the party’s over, there are hangovers, regrets and recriminations, before its tragic conclusion. It feels more like a song cycle than a musical (and there are almost forty of them!). Above all, it’s a showcase for the performers.

The story is subservient to the jazz-influenced score. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show with so many showstoppers and so many show-stealing opportunities, distributed evenly so that almost everyone gets their moment. The longer first half doesn’t let up and by the interval I was exhausted; I think I’d have liked more light and shade. This is delivered in the shorter and darker second half with a series of sensational solo turns, many of which bring the house down. 

Soutra Gilmour’s design has a ‘stairway to heaven’ and terrific costumes. Drew McOnie continues his successful transition from choreographer to director / choreographer with a staging that took my breath away and choreography that was positively thrilling. Theo Jamieson’s eight-piece band sounded terrific.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances as they were all stars. John Owen-Jones was in fine acting and vocal form as Burrs, miles away from his usual territory, and Frances Ruffelle was clearly relishing every moment as Queenie. US star Donna McKechnie was a treat in her cameo as Delores. We’re used to scene-stealing turns from Tiffany Graves and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and they deliver yet again. Sebastien Torkia & Steven Serlin make a superb double-act as the budding producers, particularly in their second half comic duet. Casting women as ambisexual brothers Oscar & Phil D’Armano was an inspired idea and Genesis Lynea & Gloria Obianyo are outstanding. Dex Lee and Ako Mitchell are superb as Jackie and Eddie respectively. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.

This exceeded my expectations; it’s rare to see such faultless casting and such a stunning production. Head to Victoria while you have the chance. 

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I wasn’t going to blog this because I considered it a concert and I confine those to my monthly round-ups (life’s too short!). I changed my mind because it’s more than a concert, I’ve got a lot to say about it and I woke up with it going round in my head. I’ve seen this show more than any other, including Pimlico Opera, The Royal Opera and Opera North (with Welsh National Opera already booked for later this year), but mostly fully staged by theatre companies, latterly Chichester Festival Theatre, the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Harrington’s Pie Shop here in Tooting, now ‘up west’ and I will confess to being a touch biased, though still I think objective.

I was in the US when the original US ‘production’ was aired on PBS, but it was timed for the east coast and I was on the west coast and couldn’t stay awake for the whole thing. It starts as a seemingly straightforward concert with the orchestra on stage and the singers mostly in DJ’s and gowns. In a superbly audacious move, they throw down the scores, overturn the music stands, tear off the formal clothes and generally rough the place up. What follows is semi-staged with a few props, some cleverly purloined from the orchestra, banners from the boxes announcing the location of the scenes and a graffiti backdrop. It works, but it isn’t staged.

One of the chief pleasures is hearing this score from a full orchestra on stage; it does sound brilliant. The chorus too is full throated (sorry!) and by moving around the stage and auditorium it animates the ‘staging’. I’m a huge fan of Bryn Terfel and I’ve seen him as Sweeney before, in another semi-staged production at the Royal Festival Hall. His booming baritone suits the role superbly, though he isn’t as scary as he was closer up at the RFH (or as Scarpia in Tosca) and his operatic style of singing sometimes loses words, as opera singers often do. Emma Thompson proves to be a terrific comic actress, relishing Mrs Lovett’s brilliant lines and lyrics, though I’ve seen better vocal Mrs Lovett’s. It’s great to see Philip Quast again and he’s wonderful as the Judge, as is John Owen-Jones as Pirelli and Katie Hall as Johanna, singing the role beautifully. I’m also a fan of Alex Gaumond, but I thought he was too young and not oily enough as The Beadle, and the Beggar Woman isn’t a role which does justice to Rosalie Craig’s extraordinary musical theatre talent. Matthew Seadon-Yoiung and Jack North were good rather than great as Anthony and Tobias respectively, the later with a very off-putting Rod Stewart wig whilst working for Pirelli!

It was a much-hyped show and the audience reaction was ecstatic, saving the biggest ovation, quite rightly, for Mr Sondheim himself. I’m very glad I went, though I don’t consider it the pinnacle for this show that some do. I wasn’t as scared and I didn’t laugh as much as I did down the road and that’s the one I would return to – and will, fully accepting accusations of bias.

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Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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