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Posts Tagged ‘Ken Ludwig’

This re-working of the Gershwin’s’ 1930 show Girl Crazy came over sixty years later and was a huge hit on both Broadway and in the West End. It was a hit all over again five years ago when the Open Air Theatre mounted it, then transferred it ‘up West’ (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/crazy-for-you). Now this third outing in Newbury’s lovely Watermill Theatre makes it a triple hit.

Ken Ludwig (best known for stage comedies) made significant changes to the original story, a culture clash between the wealth and sophistication of New York City and the somewhat wilder west. In his adaptation, stage-struck Bobby Child, who’s tried and failed to get into the Zangler Follies, is sent by his businesswoman mom to foreclose on a theatre in a Nevada desert town. Theatre owner Everett Baker is a former entertainer who’s deceased wife used to grace the stage with him. Billy falls in love with Everett’s daughter Polly and ships the Follies girls west in an attempt to rescue the theatre and get his girl. His strategy includes impersonating Zangler, which becomes problematic when the real Zangler turns up. In a bizarre but delicious addition, the Fodor’s of travel guide fame (British here, though they weren’t really) turn up to add a third culture to the mix.

The Gershwin’s score has been supplemented by numbers from a handful of their other shows, so the standards count is sky high – Someone To Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It……and the musical standards are high too under Catherine Jayes supervision.  As usual here, the actors double-up as musicians, but the musical quality is so good you’d never know it if your eyes were closed.

The Watermill really does seem like a small-town American theatre, a small shed-like building with the addition of a gold proscenium arch and red curtains by regular designer Diego Pitarch, whose costumes are excellent. This is the first show I’ve seen by their new AD Paul Hart, and his staging is at least a match for all those other lovely summer musicals we’ve seen here. Choreographer Nathan M Wright works wonders in the small space. Watching burly, clumsy cowboys burst into dance alongside showgirls is a delight. There’s a particularly good comic scene where the Zanglers meet, and Tom Chambers climbing of, and dangling from, the balcony had us gasping on more than one occasion.

I wasn’t keen on the West End production of Top Hat, or Chambers performance in it, but here he is outstanding in every respect. Caroline Sheen is lovely as Polly, feisty and tomboyish, melting in the end. With another dozen performers, it’s a big ensemble for a small stage, and a very talented one too.

I do love these summer outings to the Watermill…..

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Almost twenty years ago, American writer Ken Ludwig (best known for Lend Me A Tenor) and British director Mike Ockrent had the bizarre idea of staging a ‘new’ Gershwin musical. Using Girl Crazy as their starting point they created a new book and added Gershwin songs from elsewhere. Not exactly a ‘jukebox’ musical, but close. They may well have inadvertently given us the best musical the Gershwin’s (n)ever wrote.

Bobby is a banker (there, I’ve said it!) who yearns to be a Broadway boy. To divert him from his attempts to join the Zangler Follies, his haridan of a mother sends him to the Wild West to foreclose on a theatre that has defaulted on its mortgage. Of course, he falls in love with both the theatre and the owner’s daughter and sends for the Follies girls (on their vacation) to stage a show with the local rednecks to rescue the theatre.  Cue lots of east coast  meets wild west culture clash and knowing jokes about how gambling will never catch on in Nevada.

Peter McKintosh has created a terrific set which starts with the neon lights of  Broadway but soon moves to the dusty streets and saloon bars of the old west; a few real horses tied up outside the saloon and you’d think you were there. Timothy Sheader’s staging and Stephen Mear’s choreography sparkle with ingenuity and wit and there’s a fine ensemble of hapless cowboys and pretty chorus girls. It’s packed full of Gershwin tunes, from solo gems like Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You and They Can’t Take that Away From Me to big chorus numbers like the show-stopping I Got Rhythm, which closes the first act leaving you desperate for the second to start. The book is very funny and the drunken scene where the real Zangler and his imposter meet is a comic masterpiece.

Sean Palmer is terrific as Bobby and Clare Foster is delightful in her transition from tomboy to lovestruck girlfriend. David Burt and Harriet Thorpe give us great cameos as Zangler and Bobby’s mum. The band is as big and as brash as it should be when necessary, but plays tunes delicately when needs be.

This season, the OAT has gone from desert island crash site to Hogarthian London to Broadway / the Wild West and all three show have been hits. The new policy of a more varied repertoire is paying off and the space is proving it can just about stage anything. Now all they have to do is replace the caterers! Miss this at your peril.

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Minutes into the frenetic first scene of this musical farce, memories of seeing the Ken Ludwig play on which it is based 25 years ago in the same theatre came flooding back and the thought ‘what am I doing here?’ went round and round in my head. I hated the play; what made me think it might make a good musical?! Gaudy sets and costumes (a mauve and gold colour scheme! – designer Paul Farnsworth) with flats that wobble and shimmer unintentionally (?), OTT performances, Italian stereotypes with shaddap you face accents, dodgy wigs, mistaken identities and more slamming doors than you’ve seen since the last farce you went to. Yet, somehow I succumbed to its old-fashioned innocent charms and found myself smiling, then giggling, then belly laughing. It turned into a guilty pleasure.

We’re in Cleveland in 1934 awaiting the arrival of Italian superstar tenor Tito Merelli, whose one-night-only performance will rescue the opera house…..provided nothing goes wrong. Of course, it does – he’s late, he’s sick, he likes a drink and forever rows with his wife. The Opera House owner’s daughter is besotted with him, as are his three ex-wives who run the opera guild, the soprano singing Desdemona to his Otello and most of the chorus. Oh, and the shrimps for the post-performance reception are on the turn!

Of course, he can’t perform and prompter Max (the opera house manager’s daughter’s suitor!) pretends to be him. As broad musical comedy morphs into farce in the second act, we get three Otello’s in costume entering and exiting the six doors as is both customary and mandatory in farce. Impersonating the tenor as Otello, manager Henry ends up with the soprano and Max with his daughter. Tito’s wife returns and the denouement unfolds…..

The real reason for seeing this is a full set of fine musical comedy performances and the slickness of the comedy timing. Sophie-Louise Dann makes a terrific American broad / diva and her opera greatest hits ‘mash-up’ is a highlight of the evening. Damian Humbley and Michael Matus are excellent as Max and Tito respectively, with voices good enough to get away with the pseudo operatic demands. It’s great to see fringe favourite Cassidy Janson get a shot at a big role and she doesn’t disappoint as Maggie. Matthew Kelly presides over this as an old pro totally in command of his material. Joanna Riding’s undoubted talents are a bit wasted in the smallish part of the tenor’s wife (for the second time this year in this very theatre, having been wasted in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg immediately before this). Amongst the supporting cast, it’s great to see Gay Soper again.

The only other  musical farce I can recall is Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It doesn’t have a score that good, but Brad Carroll’s music is decent enough, Peter Sham’s book & lyrics are good and the 24 strong cast and 15 piece band get the best out of them. Ian Talbot’s experience as a director and actor with both musicals and comedy means it runs like a well oiled machine and the cast’s enthusiasm is infectious.

It won’t change your life, it’s unlikely to be your highlight of the year, but there are a whole lot of less enjoyable evenings in the West End and for me this one was a pleasant surprise.

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