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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Stein’

To be honest, I’m not that fond of this show, but I’m very fond of GSMD’s end-of-year musicals, which combine West End production values with terrific young talent and the biggest and best orchestra you’ll ever hear playing for a musical, and this year is no exception.

By 1964, Rogers & Hammerstein had made it OK to write musicals on serious subjects and Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick & Joseph Stein chose the early 20th Century Russian pogroms for theirs. They’d done five shows before this, but this was their big hit, running on Broadway for almost ten years, in the West End for almost five, made into a successful film in 1971, with countless revivals since, including three in the West End. Though the political background is dark, the story of dairyman Tevye, his wife and five daughters in the village of Anatevka is light, and the contrast doesn’t work for me, with the latter smothering the former. Though there are four numbers in the show which have become standards, I find the score a bit too twee.

Whatever you think of the show, though, Martin Connor’s production is superb, with an excellent design by Adam Wiltshire, great choreography by Joanna Goodwin and a luxurious 28-piece orchestra which sounds glorious under MD Steven Edis. Another outstanding cast is led by Alex James-Cox as Tevye, a hugely impressive performance. I was looking at the news of last year’s graduates in the programme to find they’ve since been at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Old and Young Vic’s, Almeida, Bridge and Chichester theatres, two in the Harry Potter plays plus Game of Thrones and the BBC’s A Very English Scandal. That tells you something about the talent that awaits you at a GSMD show.

Can’t wait to see this lot in my future theatre-going.

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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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This show, based on the Marcel Pagnol & Jean Giono film La Femme du Boulanger, has had a troubled history. The Guys & Dolls boys Frank Loesser & Abe Burrows were originally planning to turn it into a musical in the 50’s, but it never came off. Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) & Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) toured their show around the US in 1976 (with at various times Topol and Patti Lupone in the cast) but it never made it to Broadway. Trevor never-less-than-three-hours Nunn blamed his 1989 West End flop on its length! This is its second London fringe outing in five years and it proves that it’s found its place as a funny, charming chamber musical and for me a better show that either Godspell or Wicked.

A French village without a bakery is unthinkable. They used to be a French law (still is?) protecting the right of every village to a baker. Our nameless one in Provence has been grieving since it lost theirs, but news of the arrival of a new baker lifts their spirits and Aimable and his much younger wife Genevieve are soon in post and bread back on the menu. In our typical village, the priest and the teacher are feuding over an oak tree and the butcher and cafe owner have been feuding so long they no longer know what they’re feuding about and the bickering with, and ill-treatment of, their long-suffering wives is relentless. The Marquis lives with his three ‘nieces’ and his handsome handyman Dominique who falls for Genevieve. When they run away, the baker falls to pieces and the village is without bread once more. In desperation, they send out search parties.

I loved seeing the panic on faces in the audience when it all starts in French, but it soon reverts in English as the cafe owner’s wife Denise begins to narrate the tale. The score is lovely, Schwartz’s lyrics very witty and the atmosphere nostalgique (that’s wistful in French, apparently). It’s not easy to pull off without turning it into a post-war ‘Allo ‘Allo (for younger readers, a dreadful British TV sitcom – which was shown on French TV, dubbed!) but here they have, last night struggling with sweltering conditions on ‘the hottest July day ever!’. The comedy is particularly strong and there are some lovely touches, including appearances by Pom Pom, the baker’s wife’s cat, the smell of bread wafting through the space with the first bake and the butcher forever talking with his mouth full. The ensemble numbers are rousing.

Director Marc Kelly also seems to be responsible for movement and design and all three effectively create an appropriate setting and ambiance for a 1930’s French village. It’s a very good ensemble and it would be invidious to single anyone out.  Kieran Stallard gamely plays the whole score on electric piano.

It’s an impressive show from new kids on the block MKEC Productions and good to see something like this at the Drayton Arms. Now the temperature is dropping, go catch one of the last four performances; who knows when we’ll see it again.

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This 1986 musical with a book by Joseph (Fiddler on the Roof) Stein, lyrics by Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz & music by Charles (Annie) Strouse is a lot better than its post-opening 4-day Broadway run suggests. It provides a drama school like GSMD with 30 roles, lots of different locations to set and a score suitable for a substantial orchestra. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, as that means ambition and challenge, but GSMD pull it off.

The show starts on board a ship full of Russian Jewish refugees bound for New York. Rebecca’s husband, now in New York for five years, has sent for her but fails to meet her at the port. Bella Cohen, who she as befriended on board, and her father Avram vouch for her, enabling her and her son David to enter the US. She lives with the Cohen’s, works in a sweat shop and gets involved with union man Saul. When she eventually finds Nathan some time later, he isn’t the man he was; he’s now one of the oppressors making life hell for sewing machinists like her.

There’s a sub-plot where orthodox Avram seeks to thwart the relationship between Bella and Ben, a romance which started on board ship, and lots of insight into the plight of these poor immigrants. Some funny scenes lighten the mood, notably a Jewish Hamlet, and its at its best in the big numbers which allow the terrific ensemble and orchestra under Stephen Eadis to shine. With a team as good as Martin Connor (director) & Bill Deamer (choreographer), the staging is of course excellent – flowing smoothly from ship to port to tenement to sweat shop to street with a simple but clever two-tier design.

Amongst the individual performances, those that have to play older or younger fare particularly well. Christopher Currie plays old Akram well (despite the dodgy beard!), as does Eva Feiler as Rachel, who befriends him with a view to marriage. Rhys Isaac-Jones does equally well in reverse as young David. Nathan is an unsympathetic character which Alex Large turns you against, as he should, in the same way that Maximilien Seweryn gets all of your empathy as Ben.

A rare chance to see a big Broadway show with the big numbers delivered to thrilling effect.

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