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Posts Tagged ‘Kander & Ebb’

The West End premiere of this show in 1988 must be one of the shortest runs ever – just over a month – though it did well in Manchester en route to London. The Broadway premiere four years earlier ran longer, but wasn’t a great success, despite the casting of Chita Riviera and Liza Minnelli as mother and daughter Anna and Angel. It fared better in the UK ten years later, in productions in Leicester (Paul Kerryson reviving his 1988 production) and at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Watching this wondrous revival a whole twenty years later, I just can’t fathom why it wasn’t a huge hit. Now it seems as good as any other Kander & Ebb show, and that includes Cabaret and Chicago.

Anna has sold her boardwalk roller-skating rink and the demolition men arrive as she is sorting through her stuff and packing up. Her estranged daughter Angel arrives unexpectedly, horrified at what her mother has done, particularly as she is the co-owner. In a series of expertly crafted and expertly executed flashbacks, we see their relationship unfold from Angel’s birth to that moment. There’s a superb male chorus of six (delightfully named Dino, Lino, Lucky, Benny, Lenny and Tony!) from which other characters step out, including an excellent Stewart Clarke as Angel’s dad Dino, Ross Dawes as her grandfather Lino and Ben Redfern as Anna’s childhood sweetheart Lenny. It’s extraordinary how much story they pack into 120 minutes, interspersed with songs. Terrence McNally’s book is very funny and Kander & Ebb’s music and lyrics are way better than the production history would have you believe, with song after song getting roars of approval from the full house.

It’s great to have Caroline O’Connor back on these shores, beloved of musical theatre fans on three continents. I’d almost forgotten how good she is, in all departments – song, dance, comedy and acting – and here she’s paired with one of the best of the next generation, the hugely talented Gemma Sutton – two star performances indeed. I love the fact that O’Conner has gone from being Dianne Langton’s understudy for Angel in the UK premiere to co-lead as Anna here. Bec Chippendale’s design is an evocative and atmospheric fading structure, poignantly littered with some of her recently deceased dad’s stuff, and there’s a brilliant light feature which somehow brings even more intimacy. Adam Lenson’s staging and Fabian Aloise’s choreography are superb, making great use of the small space; it seemed to go from showstopper to showstopper without pausing for breath, the audience erupting at the end.

A revival this good can’t be seen only once, so as soon as I got home I booked to go back. A hugely underrated show which last night felt like a masterpiece uncovered.

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Given that it’s such a milestone in musical theatre, I haven’t seen this Kander & Ebb show anywhere near enough times. I first saw it in Sam Mendes extraordinary Donmar production twenty-five years ago, when they turned the theatre into the Kit Kat club, and last saw it in Rufus Norris’ chilling West End revival 12 years ago. This is the 50th anniversary of its London premiere, in the brand new LAMDA theatre. It’s a tough call for a drama school, particularly one like LAMDA, better known for drama than musical theatre. The result is a bit uneven, but worth seeing.

Writing a show about the rise of the Nazi’s revolving around a decadent Berlin nightclub would be brave now let alone fifty years ago and in Joanna Read’s production they’ve made it dark virtually throughout. For some reason, on this occasion, it struck me that apart from the handful of well-known songs, there are a lot of mediocre ones. Philip Engleheart’s design gives the Kit Kat Club an excellent, original aesthetic. The ending is absolutely chilling, but brilliant. It’s better acted than it is sung, but there’s an excellent five-piece band under Jonathan Williams.

It’s tough for drama school students to play a lot older, but here I thought Helena Antoniou and Scott Gordon did well as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. I liked Dylan La Rocque’s take on the MC, just about the right amount of camp. James Trent was an excellent Clifford and Harry McMullen and Milly Roberts impressed as Ernst Ludwig and Fraulien Kost.

Good to see it again.

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This is a compilation of songs from the shows of Kander & Ebb. They wrote 15 musicals (I’ve only managed to catch 8 of them), the most famous of which are of course Cabaret & Chicago. What makes them unique, in my view, is the diversity of subjects (a bit like Sondheim) and the way they matched musical styles to their subjects. This features songs from the first ten shows plus the now iconic New York, New York and other songs from the same film.

There’s more staging and choreography than such shows normally get and you have to admire the look of Kirk Jameson’s production. There’s an elegance and sophistication to it which makes it stand out from the crowd of similar shows. We’re more used to hearing these songs backed by a band, but the solo piano worked for me, particularly as it allowed it to be refreshingly unamplified. Tom Boucher’s lighting was a key part of the look, but the noisiness of the movement of the spots sometimes detracted.

I’m less familiar with these songs than those of Sondheim, but I’m not sure they stand alone as well. I wasn’t keen on some of the rearrangements, particularly those from Cabaret, and not all songs suited the singer. A multi-lingual NewYork New York was an inspired idea, though. There was some unevenness in performance, though Emma Francis shone throughout. MD & pianist Michael Riley provided fine accompaniment. The five dancers, choreographed by Sam Spencer Lane and most making their professional debuts, animated the songs and turned it into more of a show than a concert.

Kander & Ebb’s body of work is probably second only to Sondheim, though we see a lot less of it. This show provides an excellent opportunity to hear great songs like Arthur in the Afternoon and Sara Lee that you are unlikely to hear elsewhere as well as the handful like All That Jazz and Cabaret that have become standards. Go see for yourself.

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The Scottsboro Boys – Kander & Ebb’s masterpiece at the Young Vic, perfectly staged and performed

American Psycho – 80’s satire gets a musical adaptation and a stunning production at the Almeida

Glasgow Girls – gritty stuff from Scotland in London’s home of grittiness, the Theatre Royal Stratford

Titanic – an underated musical thrillingly staged at Southwark Playhouse

Rooms – A Rock Romance – just as thrilling, but just two people falling in and out of love on a tiny stage

The Committments – a huge stage for Roddy Doyle’s infectious slice of working class Ireland set to soul music. The only West End show in my list!

The Colour Purple – the Menier on fine form in one of a large number of summer highlights for black theatre

One Touch of Venus – a pub theatre in Walthamstow shows Opera North how to do Weill

…and lots of lovely evenings at the Union and the Landor.

 

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I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a piece of musical theatre which packs such an emotional punch. I left the Young Vic completely drained, but absolutely exhilarated at having seen a masterpiece, and a masterclass in staging and performance.

I’ve said before that what I like about Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago…..) is that each show is completely different, and here they use the form of the minstrel show to tell the true story of nine black boys aged 13 to 19 who are wrongly accused and tried for rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. Historically accurate, it covers the period from the alleged crime through the rest of the 30’s when justice evades them and you realise it isn’t about justice at all – no deep south all-white jury will ever free these boys; it’s all about race. The ongoing American north – south divide has never been shown more vividly. It’s being staged here in 2013, somewhat chillingly the same year the Governor of Alabama finally exonerated these boys.

The minstrel form is also used faithfully, but turns it on its head with black actors playing white performers disrespecting African-Americans. There’s a white Interlocutor (MC), brilliantly played with great presence by Julian Glover who is also the governor and judge. Two comic characters, Mr Bones (a superb Colman Domingo, whose one man show so impressed me just last month at the Tricycle) and Mr Tambo ( an equally superb performance by Forrest McClendon) comment on the action and double up as sheriff’s and prison guards. The minstrels are the boys themselves, two of whom (Christian Dante White & James T Lane) also brilliantly play the alleged victims with just hats and handbags and all of whom perform with the sort of commitment and energy which blows you away. Kyle Scatliffe as the boy’s ‘leader’ makes you share his anger, such is the passion of his performance. There’s another character, ‘the lady’ on stage but silent for the whole show, whose significance only becomes clear at the very end (and even more so if you read the programme notes).

It uses a semi-circle of chairs that was apparently the norm at minstrel shows. These chairs then create trains, prison cells and court rooms in a simple but highly effective staging. Susan Stroman, best known here for The Producers, stages and choreographs this stunningly. It starts like any other musical, all song and dance, but becomes ever more chilling and uncomfortable, using this form to serve the story with respect, both shocking and entertaining. Sadly, Fred Ebb didn’t live to see what must be the artistic (if not commercial) pinnacle of the career of these masters of musical theatre.

You may have gathered from the superlative fest above that I cannot recommend this show enough. Don’t go expecting a typical musical. It won’t be comfortable, but you’ll probably leave the theatre as deeply rewarded as I did. A triumph for all involved.

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Yet another Broadway flop becomes a London fringe hit – at the Union Theatre, where this time the capacity audience is just twice the size of the cast and band. Yet another minor Kander & Ebb – the third this year after Flora the Red Menace and Curtains; this one’s a European Premiere too.

They’re in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They territory here – the world of dance marathons. They could go on for weeks, despite the fact they only got 15 minutes break every hour. They were the X-Factor of their day – people desperate for fame, dancing for money, sponsorship and showcases. Along the way, they picked up coins thrown by spectators (as we did last night!) before they became exhausted, some also hallucinating.

This particular story sees MC Mick Hamilton colluding with his (secret) wife Rita Racine to not just win but also get precious exposure with a fake wedding. With no partner minutes before the start, she ends up with airman Bill Kelly. The trouble is she falls for him, Mick pushes her too far and, oh yes, he’s actually dead. I’m not sure if I was supposed to know he was in limbo from the start, but I only got it at the end and that’s where the show failed for me – a daft idea that just doesn’t work. It’s a fairly pedestrian score too, so on the whole not great material for a hit show.

The traverse staging with ballroom stage at one end makes for a lot of poor sight lines (those four pillars all getting in the way this time) but despite this David Shields art deco design with swing doors at the opposite end of the silver draped stage (and art deco touches to the pillars) is superb. There’s too little space for a show that’s all about dance, but despite this Richard Jones’ choreography is sensational. MD Angharad Sanders only has a five-piece band but despite this they make a terrific sound.

Above all, though, it’s the outstanding ensemble that take this unpromising material and make it something special. The four leads are excellent (three real Americans amongst them!) with Ian Knaur as lying cheating bullying Mick, Sarah Galbraith as his put-upon wife, Jay Rincon as her (sadly dead) love interest and most of all Aimie Atkinson’s Shelby Stevens, who brings the house down with her showstopper Everybody’s Girl.

I’m beginning to think that in the right space with a crack creative team and a premiere league cast and band, you can turn just about anything into a hit. Producer and director Paul Taylor-Mills certainly has with this one.

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Yet another very good reason to head to the Landor Theatre in Clapham. I think this is the first professional UK production of Kander & Ebb’s last show; they were responsible for Cabaret & Chicago (and Flora The Red Menace, which transferred here from Walthamstow last month – a show which couldn’t be more different if it tried). When I saw it at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/curtains) I thought it was fun, but not a lot more. In Robert McWhir’s superb production, it proves to be a huge treat.

Before the show has even started, you’re admiring Martin Thomas’ ingenious design. He’s managed to create the proscenium, stage and backstage of a Boston theatre in this tiny space! We’re at a pre-Broadway run of a musical of Robin Hood (set in the wild west, obviously). The leading lady dies at the curtain call; enter stage-struck Lieutenant Cioffi, the centre of our musical comedy whodunnit (hot on the heels of The Mystery of Edwin Drood here a few months back, for which Rupert Holmes also wrote the book, but this is in another league altogether).

We learn why many of the cast are reluctant participants and the spotlight moves from suspect to suspect in proper whodunnit tradition. The Lieutenant pays as much attention to improving the show as he does to finding the murderer and falls in love with a cast member along the way. We get an insight into production, investment and staging of a musical with no stereotype left unturned, as well as a classic whodunnit that keeps the surprise right until the end. There’s even a programme within the programme a la Noises Off.

Buster Skeggs (a lady!)  is great as the producer whose many highlights include a quartet about critics with her investor and writers called What Kind of Man? and Its a Business, which just about sums up commercial theatre in three minutes. Leo Andrew also shines as the composer and, like The Producers, there’s a camp (though less outrageously so) British director, excellently played by Bryan Kennedy. Bronwyn Andrews (from Ireland, not Wales!) is a lovely romantic lead, but the star of the show is Jeremy Legat who is simply terrific as the Lieutenant, in fine voice with an excellent American accent.

What I like most about Kander and Ebb is that every show is completely different. Fred Ebb died before this was completed (as did original book writer Peter Stone – a bit spooky for a murder mystery!) but the book and lyrics are sharp and funny with many laugh-out-loud moments. The score is so much better than I remembered it with some real showstoppers like the opening Wide Open Spaces (even funnier in this space!) ans Show People and solos like the Lieutenant’s Coffee Shop Nights.

It’s hard to believe this show has taken six years to get here, but the Landor have done it proud. A truimph of Olympian proportions for which the creative team, the whole cast of 20 and Michael Webborn’s 5-piece band all deserve a medal! A transfer would be richly deserved, but it’ll probably never be better than it is here, at a third of the price of the West End. Stop reading, start booking!

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