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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Larson’

Looking at those on stage and in the audience on Tuesday, it was clear Jonathan Larson’s ground-breaking 20-year-old rock opera is being played by and for a new generation, and indeed it felt more like a new show than a revival. This production is grungier and edgier, and probably the better for it.

A modern spin on Puccini’s La Boheme (a melody from which weaves through it), it’s the most emotional of shows and I was surprised at how much it swept me away all over again. The original production opened in 1996 in New York, the first preview on the day after Larson’s death; he never knew the impact it would make. It opened in London two years later; I think I saw it three times. There was a somewhat sanitised ‘remix’ in London ten years ago and here we are now with a 20th Anniversary production. Even though the spectre of AIDS is important to the show, as TB was to Puccini’s, we’re now in a world of living with it rather than dying of it, yet it still seems timeless.

It’s set amongst a young Bohemian artistic community in East Village, New York City at Christmas, centred on the apartment of budding film-maker Mark and musician Roger. They struugle to pay the rent and to stay warm. Their former flatmate Benny is now their unsympathetic landlord. Their gay friend Collins is befriended by drag queen Angel, both HIV positive, and they form a relationship. Their neighbour and exotic dancer Mimi has her eyes on Roger, who is also HIV positive. Mark’s ex Maureen is now in a relationship with Joanne. The story of the relationships is interspersed with the story of their art, the disease and their housing crises.

I call it a rock opera because there is very little dialogue, and because the score propels the story in what in opera is called recitative between the songs. It is a great score and the musical and vocal standards here are very high, not least in the gorgeous second act opener Seasons of Love, which enables those in smaller roles to move briefly into the spotlight. There’s a lot of music to tell a lot of story and the first half is a touch too long, but it’s a pacey production by Bruce Guthrie, with great choreograhy by Lee Proud. Anna Fleischele’s set conveys the fire escape covered apartment blocks of this part of NYC very effectively. All eight leads are excellent, with a stand-out performance by Layton Williams as Angel, and there’s a fine ensemble of another eight in support.

It was great to see it again, to see how much it meant to another generation, and to see it staged with such energy and passion.

 

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What a delicious hour of musical theatre for Sondheim fans, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Sondheim Society, who co-produced the show. Based on an idea of the society’s administrator Lynne Chapman, who has been collecting material and ‘incubating’ the show for sixteen years, and staged by London Theatre Workshop at their new base in Fulham, it was both a tribute and a loving parody of the undoubted god of musical theatre.

Presented as a revue, it contained existing songs like Andrew Lippa’s Marshall Levin, Alan Chapman’s Everybody Wants to Be Sondheim and the late Jonathan Larsons homage / riff on Sunday plus excellent new material from Eamonn O’Dwyer, Matt Board and the show’s musical director Alex Parker. It’s set in a rehearsal space where writers, directors and performers step out to give us a song alone, in combination with one or more of the three others or as an ensemble, with terrific accompaniment from MD Alex Parker and excellent staging by Alastair Knights.

Most of all though there are four stunning vocal performances from recent winners and finalists of the society’s annual Student Performer competition. These were faultless star turns from four future stars which completely blew me away. They sang beautifully alone and together they soared. It is rare to see such uniformly fine and faultless performances on any stage and the ovation afforded to Emma Odell, Kris Olsen, Corrine Priest and Jay Worley was richly deserved.

The performance I saw was being recorded, so I hope God gets to see it as he cannot fail to be impressed and moved by this affectionate homage.

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