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Posts Tagged ‘Jon Robyns’

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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Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have blogs and Twitter, so it’s even more of a miracle that this critic-panned show survived. Those like me who were captivated and fell in love with it called our friends and re-booked to see it again and the rest is history. We had people power then too, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be back at the Barbican where it began 25 years later watching a new touring production.

It’s good to report then that it’s in fine shape and some aspects of the new production have improved upon the original, most notably the scene in the sewers of Paris and the death of Javert. I found the longish prologue a bit clunky, but from the moment the opening music of act one began, the tingling and tension of the muscles returned and by the interval we were cheering the wonderfully uplifting first act finale.

The new staging of directors Laurence Connor & James Powell, with set design by Matt Kinley, does work well – it seems much zippier without feeling rushed or without losing any narrative. I was very impressed by Earl Carpenter’s Javert, Gareth Gates (yes!) Maruis, Jon Robyns’ Enjolras the Thenadier’s of Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot. There was much to admire about the acting performance of Valjean’s understudy Christopher Jacobson, though his vocal’s were a bit hit-and-miss in the upper register. Rosalind James as Eponine let herself down by wandering into pop diva mode occasionally and I’m afraid I found Fantine Madalena Alberto’s voice highly unattractive. I don’t know which kids were playing little Costette and Gavroche, but whoever they were they were terrific. The chorus sounded great and the new orchestrations are so much better than the synth-heavy budget version now at the Queens Theatre.

I do wonder if Cameron Mackintosh been around at the beginning of the 20th century, whether Puccini would have had similar long runs with Madam Butterfly and La Boheme, for this is the musical territory this show occupies. When they write the history of 20th Century musical theatre, this will most certainly be in the top ten, in the top five of dramatic musicals and maybe even…..

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