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Posts Tagged ‘Jordan Li-Smith’

American writer / composer Dave Malloy is rather prolific – sixteen shows in the last sixteen years – though I think this is the first we’ve seen here in London; not even his multiple Tony award winning Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has crossed the Atlantic yet. This original and inventive work is subtitled A Musical Fantasia Set In The Hypnotised Mind Of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which seems like a good opener for a review!

It takes place towards the end of the three year period of depression which followed the negative reaction to Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897, when he was just 24. He’s visited hypnotherapist Dahl throughout and the show uses these sessions as a starting point for tangential leaps into scenes with his wife Natalya, opera singer friend Chaliapin and a host of famous Russians including Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and Czar Nicholas II.

I liked the idea of having two Rachmaninoff’s, one sitting at the piano playing his music and the other wild and boyish, a bit like Mozart in Amadeus, flitting between scenes expressing what’s inside his head; inner and outer characters. There are original songs, Rachmaninov pieces and hybrids. Even though it’s set in 1900, there are modern references and language which I didn’t think worked particularly well. I did like the idea of having the two keyboard players onstage, Billy Bullivant and MD Jordan Li-Smith, who sounded great.

It’s a rather surreal cocktail which by the interval hadn’t convinced me. The first half closing song, Natalya, and the second half opener, Loop, lifted it, and from then on it was a lot better, and it is a unique piece. Though I have reservations about the material, particularly its structure and unevenness, I have none about Alex Sutton’s excellent production. The design team have done a particularly fine job – Rebecca Brower’s set & costumes, Christopher Nairne’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s sound – and Ste Clough’s choreography is great.

Tom Noyes as Rachmaninoff the pianist makes a sensational professional debut, playing brilliantly throughout, and singing beautifully in the closing number. Keith Ramsey is terrific as Rach, athletic and manic, on stage for most of the show. They have superb support from Rebecca Caine as Dahl, Georgia Louise as Natalya, Norton James as Chaliapan and Steven Serlin as The Master, the Russian famous five.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of Malloy’s work, which won’t take long as, like the proverbial bus, another one comes along next month when Ghost Quartet opens the new Boulevard Theatre.

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American musicals writer Michael John LaCiusa’s subjects are as diverse as Sondheim and Kander & Ebb, though he isn’t in their league. The four I’ve seen include adaptations of Schnitzler and Lorca, the stories of four First Ladies and a hedonistic wild party. This one is based on the true story of Anna Edson Taylor, who rode over Niagara Falls in a barrel! It’s a quirky show, but it gets a fine UK premiere at the Brockley Jack Theatre.

The story starts by visiting a series of widowed Anna’s homes across America, as she tries, and fails, to make a living as a teacher, being evicted from every one, penniless. The Niagara project is her last ditch attempt to make money. She dismisses her critics and detractors and gets her own barrel made. The first half ends tantalisingly, as she is about to plunge.

Act II takes a surprising turn. She’s succeeded in doing something no-one else has achieved, a woman in a world of failed male dare-devils, but she seems disinclined to exploit her notoriety, perhaps because of the psychological impact of her experience. She goes through a series of managers, but fame is a fickle thing and she is soon forgotten.

LaChuisa’s score is very good, seeped in early 20th century Americana, but I did wonder if a separate book writer might have produced a better narrative. I loved the orchestration for keyboards, strings, woodwind and horn and here it’s played by one of the finest ensembles, onstage in period costume, I’ve ever heard at a fringe musical, under MD Jordan Li-Smith. The vocal standards of the seven actors were outstanding too, with an exceptional performance by Trudi Camilleri in the leading role. Dom O’Hanlon’s staging makes great use of the small space, complemented by an excellent design from Tara Usher.

Whatever you think of the show, the production is excellent and it’s good to get the chance to see it here. This was my first visit to Brockley Jack, only seven miles from my home, but it won’t be my last.

 

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I’ve lost count of the number of four-hander chamber musicals / song cycles set in New York (lots!) but this one has music by master songwriter Burt Bacharach. It doesn’t seem to have had many productions since its San Diego premiere six years ago and this short run is its UK premiere.

It works backwards from present day, with former lovers Ben and Molly reflecting on where they went wrong, helped by their younger selves, who act out scenes from their earlier lives and sometimes interact with their older selves. They met in a restaurant where Ben was a pianist / singer and Molly a waitress. They move in together and Molly subsidises Ben’s career, buying him a baby grand piano amongst other things, but the relationship doesn’t go anywhere and they eventually split.

Neither the characterisations nor the story are meaty or interesting enough to sustain a 90-minute musical, I’m afraid. Bacharach’s songs are good, but Sater’s book and lyrics aren’t really good enough. I wasn’t convinced by Ben Richards as older Ben, but I liked the other three performances, especially Aaron Kavanagh as young Ben, who has only just graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, whose singing and acting were both hugely impressive. Jordan Li-Smith leads a nice quartet, but the sound balance between the band and singers could do with improvement.

It felt very much like work-in-progress to me, and on that basis it showed promise. Given a re-write, a lot more could be made of it.

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This Flaherty / Ahrens show, with a book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E L Doctorow, has never really found its place in the musical theatre repertoire in the UK. Maybe it’s a bit too American, and a bit too sentimental. One hundred years on from its setting and 20 years on from it’s creation, in a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, during an equally divided trumped up American election, maybe it’s found its time. It certainly resonated more with me than my three previous productions.

It interweaves the stories if a white liberal New England family with Latvian Jewish immigrant Teteh and his daughter and black singer Coalhouse Walker Jnr, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son, which become entwined almost by accident. Teteh is trying to establish a new life in America, the black couple are trying to survive amidst the racism of the day and the New England family are largely sympathetic to both, standing out from the less welcoming crowd around them. There’s a bunch of historical characters like Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini to add social history to the personal stories. It’s got a great ragtime influenced score, with both choruses and solos shining through.

When Coalhouse is attacked and his girlfriend Sarah murdered by racist Irish fireman Clonkin (somewhat ironic given he too was an immigrant), it unleashes a wave of revenge and rebellion that contrasts with the more peaceful campaigning of black leader Booker T Washington. Our Latvian friend is busy inventing movies, the New England family’s ‘father’ is off exploring the world, ‘mother’ has virtually adopted Sarah’s son and her ‘younger brother’ goes to join Coalhouse’s campaign.

This excellent production by Thom Southerland seemed to me to place more emphasis on the racism and its responses, which gave the show more clarity and focus than I’ve seen before. The twenty-four performers really fill the stage and when they sing in unison it’s a glorious sound. I’m not sure if this team have used the actor-musician format before, but it works very well here, with MD Jordan Li-Smith at one of the two on-stage pianos. I really liked Tom Rogers & Toots Butcher’s barn like design and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are very good indeed.

Anita Louise-Combe is superb as ‘mother’; her second act song Back to Before brought the house down. Ako Mitchell is outstanding as the defiant Coalhouse and Nolan Frederick and Jonathan Stewart invest great passion into Booker T Washington and ‘younger brother’ respectively. Jennifer Saayeng plays Sarah with great dignity and feeling and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Seyi Omooba, who leads the rousing Act I finale. On the night I went ‘little boy’ was superbly played by Ethan Quinn.

The Landor made a great job of it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) but the Open Air Theatre, uncharacteristically, made a bit of a mess of it a year later (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/ragtime-2) This fine production is another jewel in the jewel-laden crown of the Tarento-Southerland team. Don’t miss.

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This musical by Michel Legrand had a short run on Broadway in 2002 and, despite being a commercial flop, managed to get some Tony nominations, including Best Score. A Broadway musical it is not, but a delightful, funny, charming, tuneful chamber musical it is, and the Royal Academy of Music’s British première is both a coup and a triumph.

Based on a short story by Marcel Ayme, and set in early 50’s Paris, the show follows civil servant Dusoleil’s through his very dull life – until he discovers he can walk through walls! – entirely in song; around 40 of them in fact, some quite short. He consults a doctor but doesn’t take the prescribed medication, and does nothing much with his new powers until he gets a nasty new boss on which he exerts revenge. This leads him into a life of crime and he ends up in prison, which of course isn’t much of a problem for a man who can walk through walls. When he escapes he meets Isabelle, abused by her husband, and he uses his powers for clandestine visits to see her. When he gets a headache, he takes the prescribed medication mistakenly for asprin and loses his powers.  When he finally ends up in court, he finds he’s a bit of a folk hero.

The story is immortalised in Paris by a statue, a fact made great use of in the show. The tunes are lovely and Jeremy Sams’ English lyrics are very funny indeed. Director Hannah Chissick’s excellent staging, with a simple monochrome design by Adrian Gee, has a lightness of touch and flow that has a lot to do with the movement of co-director and choreographer Matthew Cole. Jordan Li-Smith’s seven piece band plays the jazz influenced score beautifully and there are some fine voices in the cast of nine led by Chris McGuigan, who navigates Dusoleil’s journey from dull bureaucrat to a man uncomfortable with his powers to a more bold one using them freely. They all deliver in both the vocal and acting departments and once you’re into the unusual rhythm of the piece, you’re drawn in by its charm and humour.

A delightful show and showcase for some outstanding talent that I’m sure we’re going to be seeing much more of.

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