Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Lee Proud’

French writers Sebastien Lancrenon & Jean-Baptiste Saudray have decamped to more musicals friendly London to mount the world premiere of their first musical. They’ve got themselves a premiere league translator in Ranjit Bolt, the best off-West End director of musicals in Thom Southerland, and the support of the RNIB to tell the true story of the inventor of the Braille language. It has its flaws, somewhat ironically more to do with the production than the writing, but there’s a lot to like.

Louis Braille was a resident in an institution for blind youth where the benevolent director, Doctor Pignier, supported learning but the teacher didn’t (!). He started with a primitive embossed system, but then Captain Barbier de la Serre brought him the ‘night language’ which he developed for communication with his troops and Braille simplified it, initially against the wishes of the Captain, to create the language still used 170 years later. In addition to the opposition of the teacher, they had to deal with his collusion with a sinister eye research doctor and the National Assembly’s disapproval. Though both writers are experienced in music, it appears to be their first musical as such, which makes it an impressive achievement. I liked the score, book and lyrics, but it’s a chamber piece getting a big production, too big I thought. Director Thom Southerland doesn’t seem to have his usual team around him too (except choreographer Lee Proud) and I think this shows.

The stage is dominated by designer Tim Shorthall’s two-story minimalist metal structure which seemed incongruous for a show set in the 19th century. I wasn’t keen on Jonathan Lipman’s costuming either, the sighted all in black and the blind in white with black blindfolds. The look just didn’t feel right for the material. It’s over-orchestrated and over-amplified. It’s at its best when Jack Wolfe’s beautiful voice is allowed to shine with just piano or strings. It sometimes becomes shouty at moments when restraint would serve the material better. Towards the end, when the language is accepted and the doctor and teacher exposed, they switch to storytelling direct to the audience – I wasn’t sure about this at first, but warmed to the idea. It is a fascinating true story and it’s told well.

It’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Jack Wolfe as Braille, with excellent acting to match his terrific vocals.. The vocal standards are high elsewhere too and I liked Lottie Henshall as the Captain’s daughter Rose, Ceili O’Connor as the matron of the institute, Jason Broderick as Gabriel, who spars with Braille before he befriends him, and Ashley Stillburn as the teacher Dufau. The six children were all impressive.

I’d very much like to see it scaled down, but its well worth catching in its present form.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

When I saw the West End première of this show in 1992 I was completely underwhelmed. Part of the problem was that it was staged in the vast Dominion Theatre. I warmed to it when the Donmar revived it in 2004, winning an Olivier award for Best Musical Revival, and again when the Guildhall School of Music & Drama gave it their all just last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/grand-hotel). Now I’m getting positively hot. The producer / director team of Danielle Tarento & Thom Sutherland have another big hit on their hands with this thrilling revival.

It’s a character-driven piece set in a Berlin hotel in the 1920’s. It revolves around a broke Baron, Felix von Gaigern, forced to steal by his criminal creditor. He falls for both fading Russian ballerina Elizaveta and temp secretary Flaemnchen, and befriends dying book-keeper Otto, himself intent on a little bit if luxury on the way out. Otto used to work for Preysing, an unprincipled businessman in the process of engineering a merger for his ailing company, and buying Flaemnchen’s attentions. Felix is also kind to hotel concierge Erik, awaiting news of the birth of his son, much more so than his boss. It’s all presided over by Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, a somewhat mysterious morphine addict, acting as narrator.

The score is a lot better than I remembered and there’s a lot of it (and little dialogue). It unfolds over 105 unbroken minutes on a patterned faux marble floor, with a huge chandelier above and just a few props, in a traverse setting. Lee Newby’s costumes are terrific and Lee Proud’s choreography is superb, miraculous given the space he has to work with. Thom Sutherland’s staging is masterly, overcoming my initial fears that it would be cramped in this space. The Southwark Playhouse often has issues with sound at its musicals, but not here. With a lot of small overhead speakers angled down, Michael Bradley’s string-heavy septet sounds great, and all of the lyrics are clear.

Tarento does her own casting and again she has assembled a truly gifted ensemble. Scott Garnham is terrific as Felix, with particularly fine vocals. I loved both the characterisation and singing of Christine Grimandi, an auspicious British debut for this Italian performer. It’s great to see Valerie Cutko as Elizabeta’s companion / assistant Raffaela, the same role she took over in the original Broadway production. Here David Delve took over the role of the ‘narrator’ Otternschlag at very short notice, but you’d never know it from his confident, commanding performance. There are too many more to mention – another 13 – in this fine cast, except perhaps to say that there are excellent professional debuts from 2015 graduates Jammy Kasongo, Durone Stokes and Leah West.

We are ever so lucky to get work of this quality on the fringe. I think I might have to be greedy and go again…..

 

Read Full Post »

Though we’ve seen rarer Rogers & Hammerstein shows on the fringe (most recently Me & Juliet, State Fair & Pipe Dream), I’m not sure anyone has tackled one of the ‘Big 5’ before (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King & I, The Sound of Music and this). If I had been asked for my opinion, it would be unequivocal ‘avoid’ – these are big Broadway shows that require big resources and a big stage. WRONG! This is an absolute triumph.

This was only their second show, 70 years old next year. moving musical theatre into a new era of realism, with themes never before associated with the form. It’s packed full of wonderful music, but it all goes a bit awry in the second half when it becomes sweet, sickly and a bit preposterous at the gates of heaven. Not here, though, where it becomes a tense musical drama with a moving moral message. Luke Fredericks’ production has not only turned the sentimentality into pathos, but he’s made the ballet an integral part of the show.

Based on an early 20th century Hungarian play, this production has moved the setting forward 50 to 60 years to start around the time of the Great Depression, providing clearer motivation, and ending as the second world war ends (the year it was first staged), more appropriate for its hopeful, uplifting conclusion. Nothing else is changed, but it’s more intimate, involving and moving. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only emotional wreck at curtain call.

The musical standards are sky high. The unamplified voices have a purity to them and don’t have to compete with a largely unamplified band located above and behind. The use of flute, double bass and above all harp brings a beautiful new quality to the music – it’s amazing how much harp accompaniment transforms You’ll Never Walk Alone. Stewart Charlesworth’s design is a miracle of economy and a brilliant use of the space, with versatile mobile metal ‘arcs’, everything from washing to carnival banners to canopies raised high by pulleys and superbly evocative costumes. Lee Proud’s choreography is fresh and often brave and the second act ballet was thrilling.

It’s hard to talk about the performances with anything but a shower of superlatives. Gemma Sutton follows her sultry, sexy turn in Hackney Empire’s Blues in the Night with a wonderful sweet, naive Julie, with Vicki Lee Taylor matching her all the way as best friend Carrie. Tim Rogers brings more passion and a rougher edge to Billy, which makes the second act all the more heart-breaking. Amanda Minihan’s younger Hettie is more of a role model for the girls and the character seems more central in this setting. There isn’t a weak link in this cast, one any producer would die for.

This is the fourth time I’ve seen this show. The first three – NT, West End and most recently Opera North – were very good, but this intimate staging is something else altogether. I’ve seen and enjoyed producer Morphic Graffiti’s first two shows, but this propels them into the premiere league. Why on earth would you want to go to the West End when you can see a show this good for a third of the price?

Missing this makes any lover of musical theatre certifiable!

Read Full Post »

I’ve got a very special relationship with this show, having taken a punt on a preview on Broadway in the summer of 2002. I adored it and couldn’t believe it took five years to get to London, though I made up for that by seeing it three times in the West End. I couldn’t resist a trip to Woking to see the UK tour, and now up to The Curve in Leicester for this new production, which just about tops the lot!

Set in Baltimore in 1962, our heroine Tracy Turnblad’s ambition is to become a regular dancer on the Corny Collins Show, modelled on a very real US show of the time. The show’s producer, the odious Velma von Tussle, can’t see beyond her size and in any event nothing is going to get in the way of her daughter Amber. Amber’s partner, heartthrob Link (Glee’s Matthew Morrison on Broadway) finds himself more attracted to Tracy the nastier Amber gets. The show’s token ‘negro night’ adds a segregation theme, which makes the show more than just 60’s retro pastiche and takes us onto the moral high ground. In this production, the discrimination themes have a touch more edge, with videos of Martin Luther King keeping it real, reminding you of the realities of 60’s racism and segregation.

It’s a high-energy, super-fresh (channeling Will i Am now!) production which sweeps you away from the off. Jerry Mitchell’s original choreography is hard to match, but Lee Proud has done a terrific job, with more emphasis on hand movements. Ben Atkinson’s band sounded great and looked good high up at the back of the stage. The Curve’s homegrown designers Paul Moore and Siobahn Boyd have done a magnificent job on the sets and costumes and I thought the lighting of Philip Gladwell was outstanding.

Rebecca Craven’s was a match for all the other Tracy’s, loveable & naive with great moves. Damian Williams’ Edna and Landor Theatre regular John Barr’s Wilbur had great chemistry, with their relative sizes adding something extra and their duet You’re Timeless to Me benefitting from some unplanned corpsing. It’s a long way from smile-free East Enders hard man to permanent-smile song & dance man, but it’s a journey David Witts makes in style, thanks no doubt in part to his NYMT & NYT background (is this really his professional stage debut?!). It’s musical theatre, so the rule ‘one must have a Strallen’ is observed with a terrific comic turn from Zizi as Tracy’s friend Penny.

It’s just as good in the baddie department with a great Velma from Sophie-Louise Dann, Sorelle Marsh as Penny’s mom and Vicki Led Taylor’s delicious spoilt brat Amber. Claudia Kariuki as Motormouth Maybelle brought a welcome restraint to her big Act I closing number Big Blonde & Beautiful and Tyrone Huntley was terrific as her son Seaweed. The ensemble sparkles, making this a cast any producer would die for.

Director Paul Kerryson always delivers, but he exceeds his own standards here. This production proves that our best regional theatres are more than a match for the West End or Broadway and with best seats plus train ticket coming in at lest than tickets only in the West End, musical theatre lovers would be bonkers to miss this treat.

Read Full Post »

Hoxton Hall might be a bit of a schlep for us South West Londoners, but it’s the perfect venue for Morphic Graffiti’s music hall take on Leslie Bricusse’s musical comedy. A surprisingly small hall with a high proscenium stage and two levels of tiny balconies with wrought iron railings held up by thin pillars. Gorgeous.

The musical is ‘framed’ by a music hall show with the cast in period costumes telling us that there’ll be magic, puppets and singalongs. The musical itself opens with a puppet show of the ending of the Reichenbach Falls adventure where both Holmes and Moriarty perish, but we soon meet him back at Baker Street to find he didn’t die at all. After solving a couple of cases, including the disappearance of the House of Commons mace, the evening’s main story starts and Holmes finds himself pursued by a mysterious woman with a big grudge.

It’s tongue-in-cheek fun, made more so by the clever idea of the music hall framing and the appropriateness of the venue. Bricusse’s music, though probably not his best, also suits the idea / setting well. The puppets provided an appropriate prologue, the magic was very good and there were lots more clever touches. I normally prefer small-scale musicals unamplified, but in this high venue with a 5-piece band (including percussion) to the left and in front of the stage, it meant some of the lyrics of solo numbers were lost, though this didn’t really spoil the fun of the evening.

Stepehn Leask as Inspector Lestrade, John Cusworth as Watson and Andrea Miller as Mrs Hudson seemed most at home with the style, though the whole ensemble gave their all and Nathan Jarvis’ band played very well. There’s some sprightly choreography from Lee Proud and Stewart Charlesworth’s design and costumes are terrific. Like their Jekyll & Hyde at the Union Theatre last year, Luke Fredericks staging is inventive and fresh.

Morphic Graffiti have built on an impressive start with Jekyll. They had Bricusse on board for this and have nabbed a Stage One new producer bursary at a very early stage. Definitely a show to catch and definitely a company to watch.

Read Full Post »

A musical comedy set in 30’s London & Paris in the style of the period (Noel Coward, Ivor Novello) but where no-one bats an eyelid at same-sex relationships and marriage! Clever.

American journalist and playboy Casey O’Brien misses the story of Edward & Mrs Simpson, so instead chases the story of the forthcoming marriage of American millionaire Clarence Cutler to British Aristocrat Guy Rose, but in doing so he falls for Guy himself. If this was covert rather than overt, you really could be watching an undiscovered Ivor Novello show.

In addition to scenes in iconic 30’s London locations – the Savoy, The Dorchester – we also go to Paris where Guy’s aunt Josephine, black sheep of the family, is a racy entertainer at Les Folies, where Guy briefly entertains too. Casey gets his man and we end at the wedding.

It’s a great score and a good book and Gene David Kirk’s staging in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre is nothing short of miraculous, as is Lee Proud’s brilliant choreography (including a tap-dancing bell-boy who brings the house down). Alice Walkling’s superb design enables them to create a hotel bedroom, church, restaurant, bar, club, station, dressing room and theatre and occupy them with 13 actors dancing in a space not much bigger than my living room!

Stephen Ashfield is excellent – and in great voice – as Casey, with a realistic American accent that no doubt benefits from his period in Jersey Boys. Ben Kavanagh has superb comic timing and gets more laughs from Clarence’s lines than are probably there on paper. Craig Fletcher makes a great transformation from geek to hunk by just removing his specs and rearranging his hair.

It was written in 1975 by Americans Bill Solly and Donald Ward and ran off-Broadway but not even Wikipedia can shed more light, so a huge thank you to MD Stefan Bednarczyk for buying the record and persisting for 27 years to bring this delightful show to us.

Read Full Post »

We seem to be awash with great musical revivals on the fringe and back at Southwark Playhouse, Thom Sutherland has worked wonders again on this difficult show about Mack Sennett, the master of silent movies, and his on / off relationship with actress Mabel Normand.

The story is told in flashback from the time Sennett is forced to leave his studios. We first see him churning out films at a heck of a pace from his Brooklyn studios, where he comes across the natural talent of Mabel when she delivers a bagel! Keystone studios move to Hollywood ,where their pre-eminence continues, until talkies come on the scene and Sennett refuses to change with the times. This is the backdrop for the story of the pair, both as a working partnership and as a relationship.

The Vault at Southwark Playhouse is the perfect space for a show which largely takes place in film studios and set & costume designer Jason Denvir and lighting designer Howard Hudson have done a great job creating the backstage world and the early 20th century period with a pile of props and machinery at the back which is brought forward and moved around to create many different scenes. The period costumes are excellent and the lighting is hugely atmospheric.

I loved the way the show flowed, with intimate moments drawing you in and big numbers taking your breath away. Lee Proud’s choreography is fresh and often funny and Thom Sutherland’s staging captures the organised chaos of film making but allows the characterisations to shine through. You feel as if you’ve been given an insight into this world of movie making and into the hearts of its protagonists

Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are sensational as Mack and Mabel. Their attraction and relationship are totally believable and they sing beautifully. There’s a fine ‘supporting’ cast of 13, too many to mention but all worthy of it, and a large band of 11 (for the fringe) under Michael Bradley, who do full justice to Jerry Herman’s under-rated score.

This is a very different show to Herman’s hits Hello Dolly and Mame and more like his third hit La Cage Aux Folles in the merging of a unique world with a troubled love story. Despite its lack of commercial success, this production made me think that it’s a better show than the first two in so many ways. We don’t see it that often, and never to my knowledge on this scale, so it’s both an opportunity and a treat!

Read Full Post »

This is one of my Top Ten musicals and quite possibly the greatest musical comedy ever written, so I take every opportunity to see it. I think I’ve seen every London production in the last 30 years, some of them on multiple occasions. I was a little hesitant about this first(?) fringe outing though, as it’s a big show. I thought staging it Upstairs at the Gatehouse, though bigger than many fringe venues, was somewhat challenging. In the end I couldn’t resist and boy am I glad I didn’t!

What director Racky Plews, choreographer Lee Proud and designer Martin Thomas have done in this small space with a cast of 13, a 5-piece band and the budget of a small unfunded theatre is nothing short of miraculous. I have never enjoyed the show more and left the theatre on an extraordinary high. It came alive in the opening scene and never let go until we were shouting and cheering at the end (though we were also cheering during!).

Writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows were lucky enough to have Damon Runyon’s wonderful tales as a starting point. This world of loveable rogues & showgirls juxtaposed with the Salvation Army is made for musical comedy. The show links the stories of  naive showgirl Adelaide & marriage shy Nathan and gambler Sky & missionary Sarah. Nathan has to find a venue for his floating crap game and continue to avoid marriage to Adelaide (who’s told her mother they’ve been married for 12 years and have 5 children!) whilst Sky has to get a Salvation Army officer to dinner in Cuba to win a bet, then deliver 12 sinners to her mission to avoid its closure and win his girl.

Frank Loesser’s lyrics are sharp and funny and his score littered with so many classic songs. Some are showstoppers, notably Luck be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat  (when I went to a 1990 charity performance of Richard Eyre’s NT production, they had to sing this six times before the audience would stop applauding and cheering!) but here even lesser numbers become showstoppers such that you’re on a rollercoaster of fun that just doesn’t stop from start to finish.

The four leads are all superb and really well matched. Amy Bailey makes earnest Sarah’s transition to lovestruck believable and seemless. It doesn’t take long before you’ve fallen for Rebecca Sutherland’s squeaky Adelaide and her numbers with the Hot Box girls are delicious. Jamie Sampson has the right mix of cheeky swagger and charm as Sky and you know you’d have such fun if James Kermack’s hapless Nathan was your friend. They all sing and dance brilliantly.

In a faultless supporting cast, Jos Slovik (who’s been one-to-watch since Spring Awakening) is great as Benny and his duet with Patrick Rufey’s terrific Nicely Nicely in the title song has never been better in my experience. Connor Dowling gives Officer Brannigan a clever, more manic interpretation. Many of the cast double-up so well that I couldn”t always work out which ones were which. Time for another nod to a casting director – a gold star to Ri McDaid-Wren!

They’ve had to be very inventive to stage this so well in a small space with a small cast. The staging of the phone conversations is a hoot and the solution to the problem of delivering 12 souls to the mission (given that 4 of the cast of 13 are ‘missionaries’!) is inspired. There may not be much of an ‘ensemble’ for the Broadway and Havana scenes, but they still thrilled. We move from streets to clubs to missions to sewers swiftly, with some of the scene changes themselves choreographed.

This musical heaven cost 10p a minute – less than a quarter of a West End show and at least 4 times as good as most! There was a spring in my step and a smile on my face all the way down Highgate Hill. If I have a more enjoyable evening of musical theatre this year I shall be a lucky boy indeed.

Read Full Post »