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Posts Tagged ‘Liam Steel’

Every time I see a new production of a Sondheim musical, I think its his best, so here we go again! There hasn’t been a major London production of Company for 22 years, though we have had some fine fringe ones. Director Marianne Elliott’s reinvention, with Sondheim’s approval and involvement, changes 35-year-old New York male singleton Bobby to female Bobbie, the three girlfriends to boyfriends and one couple, Paul & Amy, about to be married after living together forever, have become gay couple Paul & Jamie. It makes a 48-year-old show feel fresh and bang up to date.

It’s Bobbie’s 35th birthday and there’s a surprise party planned. We meet her and her three casual boyfriends and her best friends, five couples who fret about her lack of a long-term relationship whilst making attempts at match-making and harbouring some jealous thoughts about her freedom. She’s at that age where she’s trying to reconcile her love of independence with her mid-thirties body-clock, which is where this production works even better with the change of gender. The normality of a gay marriage is the other change which works in its favour and choosing this particular couple, about to be married with one party having second thoughts, is inspired. Each couple has their own story, and they’re interwoven with Bobbie’s three casual romances and all the issues and pressures of being single in your thirties.

The production is highly inventive, with a terrific design from Bunny Christie. Each song and each scene seems to be a showstopper. The boyfriends trio You Could Drive A Person Crazy was deliciously interpreted by Richard Fleeshman, Matthew Seadon-Young and George Blagden. Individually, Fleeshman shines as airline steward Andy in his bedroom scene with Bobbie where they sing Barcelona, the destination of his forthcoming flight, and Blagden as PJ delivers Another Hundred People superbly. Liam Steel’s choreography comes into its own in the staging of Side By Side / What Would We Do Without You, which becomes a slick series of party games. With Jamie a gay catholic, Getting Married Today rises to new manic / comic heights and Jonathan Bailey brings the house down. Broadway royalty Pattie Lupone sings The Ladies Who Lunch like I’ve never heard it before, fabulously. Left alone on a bare stage, Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie sings Being Alive, the song that is the emotional heart of the piece, and her tears are matched by the audience; she’s wonderful as Bobbie.

As a Sondheim fan, being in a full house that roars its approval is a joy. Watching Patti Lupone leave the stage hugging Rosalie Craig felt like one generation of performers nurturing the next, as Marianne Elliott thrillingly passes on this masterpiece to the next generation too. A triumph for all concerned.

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Opera

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music was an absolute gem with wonderful singing and playing, a superb design, and stunning staging by Liam Steel. Any opera house in the world would be proud to have a production this good in its repertoire.

The Royal Academy of Music inaugurated their lovely new theatre with a brilliant revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight. I’d forgotten how good it was, and here it was superbly played and sung and, like the RCM last week, in a fine production that any opera house would be proud of.

The English Concert have become the go-to company for Handel operas in concert and their take on Rinaldo in the Barbican Hall, his first Italian opera specifically for London, was superb, faultlessly cast and beautifully played (though I could have done without the attempts at semi-staging which seems a bit naff). Handel wrote himself a harpsichord solo for this opera and here the harpsichordist almost stole the show with his thrilling rendition.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder gave a blistering Shostakovich 8th Symphony at another of their Friday lunchtime recitals, with Elder again giving an insightful introduction to the piece. The talent on stage is awe-inspiring and the nurturing by a world class conductor heart-warming.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons Reimagined combined baroque music with a contemporary twist and puppetry to provide a spellbinding 80 minutes by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Another lovely evening in a space that seems to suit absolutely everything!

Britten Sinfonia Voices gave an inspired Easter programme at GSMD’s Milton Court Concert Hall, with choral music spanning more than 400 years, with a few brass pieces as a bonus. The idea of fitting two Stravinsky pieces between movements in a Mozart Mass was particularly inspired.

Dance

Ballet Black’s contrasting double-bill at the Barbican Theatre was a real treat. The Suit was mesmerising, moving and ultimately tragic and A Dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream was cheeky and playful. I need to ensure this company are on my radar permanently.

Film

You Were Never Really Here is a dark and disturbing but original and brilliant film with a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and refreshingly short at 90 minutes!

The Square was 2.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Lured by 5* reviews, it was overlong, slow and a bit of a mess, the satire largely lost or overcooked.

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Sometimes shows don’t cross the Atlantic successfully (either way) and I think this is one of them. It’s quintessentially American, with rather more schmaltz than most Brits can stomach. Though there’s much to like, it falls short of complete success, though it’s fair to say that the audience’s reaction on the night I went was much more positive than the critical reception, so perhaps its a populist rather than critical success. I think I’m more with the critics than the audience.

It’s based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, made into a film by Tim Burton in 2003 (somewhat ironically with Brits Albery Finney and Ewan McGregor as the leading man and his younger self). John August was responsible for the screenplay as he is here for the book, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. It starts at Edward Bloom’s son’s wedding, during which he is taken ill. From his hospital bed, he tells tall tales which are re-enacted as song and dance fantasy sequences. These include a witch, a giant and a werewolf and times in a circus, at war and as a travelling salesman. His son has been hearing these all his life and doesn’t believe any of them, but one day he tracks down his dad’s old school friend Jenny and discovers a true tale he hadn’t been told, which enables them to repair their relationship before Edward dies.

Like Lippa’s The Wild Party at the same venue earlier in the year, the story is subservient to the ‘turns’, so there are some great comic song and dance routines but they don’t really add up to a satisfying musical theatre work. The songs are OK, the comedy broad but fun, but the story sentimental tosh which I found rather pointless, I’m afraid. The lead role isn’t very demanding, but Kelsey Grammer, the main draw here, is likeable and playful. The real work is left to the younger members of the cast, most notably Jamie Muscato as the young Edward and Matthew Seadon-Young as his son Will, amongst the best of the new generation of musical theatre performers and both on fine form. The comic honours belong to Forbes Masson in more than one role.

I liked the intimacy that The Other Palace facilitates, but it’s a big show for that space and it sometimes felt a touch cramped. Given the space, Liam Steel works wonders with the choreography, with a particularly fine sequence for Muscato involving hula hoops. Tom Rogers design, with projections by Duncan McLean, works well and Nigel Harman, relatively new to directing, marshals his resources well. In fact, all of the creative and performing contributions are excellent, it’s the material that lets them down, though I don’t regret going.

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Nothing beats the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park on a lovely summer evening and when the show benefits from the combined imaginations of directors Timothy Sheader & Liam Steel and designer Jon Bausor magic can actually happen. This captivating re-imagining of Peter Pan fits perfectly in the OAT and magic it certainly is.

The story starts in a First World War army hospital. The Llewelyn boys, who inspired J M Barrie, may have been in one. A nurse finds a copy of the book under the pillow of a patient and begins to read it. She becomes Wendy and two of the patients John & Michael Darling and so the adventure begins, as Peter Pan whisks them away to Neverland.

The staging is extraordinary and the characterisations wonderful. Things like beds, bedding and floorboards transform into locations, props and creatures, characters emerge from nowhere and everywhere, Tinkerbell is a fabulous puppet creation and the flying is thrilling. A singer comes and goes with lovely renditions of WWI songs. Before you know it, we’re back in the hospital, packing up at the end if the war, but in between you are captivated by Peter’s adventures with the lost boys amongst the pirates, in a timeless lo-tech marvel.

Hiran Abeysekera is a charming and athletic Peter and Kae Alexander a loving nurse and a delightful Wendy. Beverly Rudd is a great old school hospital matron before she transforms into a hysterically funny Smee. All of the adult actors playing boys are terrific but I had a soft spot for Thomas Pickles’ Slightly. As an ensemble they are much more than the individual performances; a real team of boys and a group of hapless pirates.

I loved every moment of this show, which ended poignantly with much of the audience (well, me, anyway) in tears as the great war ends. It was greeted by a fully justified spontaneous standing ovation. I’ve had countless great evenings at the OAT but none have bettered this. Ends this week, but must surely return next year.

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Whenever I see this Gershwin ‘show’ I’m always amazed that it made it to Broadway in the 30’s – an all-black cast, sex, drugs, murder and racism on stage 80 years ago! Every time it’s produced, we get the same debate about whether it’s an opera or a musical – it was probably the first ever ‘crossover’ piece – classical, jazz, blues, spiritual….In both ways, such a ground-breaking show. This is my fourth P&G, after Trevor Nunn’s ‘opera’ at Covent Garden in 1992, his ‘musical’ at the Savoy in 2006, Cape Town Opera’s ‘opera’ here in London in 2012 and now a ‘musical’ again, this time adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks & Diedre L. Murray, at the Open Air Theatre on a gorgeous warm evening that could have been in the American south where its set.

The fishing community of Catfish Row are unsettled by the arrival of Bess, a woman of dubious morals with a drug habit fueled by city boy Sporting Life and her bullying boyfriend Crown, who kills Robbins over the result of a crap game. Disabled Porgy falls for Bess who responds to his overtures, naively thinking Crown is going to let her go. When Jake doesn’t return from fishing in a storm, his wife Clara recklessly goes to find him only to be lost too, leaving their new child an orphan. Bess agrees to turn over a new leaf and bring up their baby, but Crown and Sporting Life have other plans. Porgy deals with Crown, but Sporting Life is still around to scupper Bess’ plans.

The first half is a touch slow and ponderous, despite the presence of gorgeous songs like Summertime and I Got Plenty Of Nothing, but it really takes off in the second half, with more great songs like It Ain’t Necessarily So and much more drama. In this production, the staging of the storm scene is outstanding and Bess’ struggle with drink and drugs realistically played with great sensitivity by Nicola Hughes. It also creates a real sense of a community struggling but surviving by sticking together and supporting one another. The staging of Porgy’s final exit is masterly. Timothy Sheader’s very physical production, with Liam Steel’s stylised movement, are highly effective.

I don’t know why they have imported all three male leads from the US (a co-production?) but they are all good – a positively scary Crown from Phillip Boykin, a slick and slimy Sporting Life from Cedric Neal, and a deeply empathetic Porgy from Rufus Bonds Jr. Sharon D Clark gives us another acting masterclass as Mariah and there are excellent performances from Leon Lopez and Jade Ewen as Jake and Clara and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena. I’m still not sure what to make of designer Katrina Lindsay’s giant metallic cliff backdrop, but as it got dark and Rick Fisher’s lighting made it change colour, which changed the mood, it did look pretty. There’s a decent size 14-piece orchestra, though the sound was sometimes a touch harsh, particularly the first half voocals.

Great to see this landmark show again, feeling very a home in the Open Air Theatre. Not to be missed, I’d say.

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This is the perfect show to fill Chichester’s temporary ‘Theatre in the Park’. It’s an up-market, comfortable big-top with a great atmosphere and the show’s about 19th century American circus legend Phineas T Barnum. I don’t think it has been seen in the UK since it’s UK premiere 30 years ago and its a lot better than I remembered.

In truth, the story of Barnum’s life has little depth. We follow his relationship with his wife, his fling with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and his business dealings with Brit Julius Goldschmidt and eventual partner James A Bailey, but this is family entertainment and on those terms it succeeds. There’s singing, dancing, acrobatics, clowns and marching bands. Cy Coleman’s music has a lot of numbers you didn’t think you knew and is often rather rousing.

Scott Pask’s design and Paul Willis’ costumes are superb. There’s a two-tier backdrop with the band hidden on the second tier and twin spiral staircases that revolve! Performers enter from the back, the auditorium and down ropes from above. Liam Steel & Andrew Wright’s choreography has people becoming props and doubled-up to play one person. The arrival of a giant elephant is simple but breathtaking and the acrobatics even happen in the auditorium. Director Timothy Sheader, moonlighting from the Open Air Theatre where he has had much musical theatre success, does a cracking job pulling this together into a cohesive entertainment that lifts you up and keeps you on a high.

Given this country is awash with musical theatre talent, I’m not sure why they’ve had to import their Barnum from the US (or his wife from Australia, come to that), but Christopher Fitzgerald is hugely impressive and very hard-working. Walking a tightrope whilst singing a song can be no mean feat. The extraordinarily good-looking, athletic and energetic ensemble is outstanding.

I can’t imagine a better revival or a more appropriate space. With Cameron Mackintosh on board as co-producer, I think we should expect a London outing (bringing the theatre with it when it finishes its time here at the end of September or, with a few changes, Mr Sheader could take it to his Open Air Theatre next summer?). This continues Chichester’s important role in musical theatre. They’ve transferred Singing in the Rain, Sweeney Todd, Love Story & Kiss Me Kate in the last few years, so why not Barnum?

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The Open Air Theatre’s new artistic director, Timothy Sheader, has always made his intentions to move this lovely venue on from it’s long-standing ‘Three Shakespeare’s and  Musical’ formula very clear. Last year he gave us a chilling ‘The Crucible’ which proved how great drama can work in this space. He also seems to be thinking more about what shows suit the venue and last year’s Into The Woods was a perfect choice. Now we have Lord of the Flies doing both – another drama which works well in a space which is nigh on perfect for the play.

The stage is a beach where the remains of a plane crash are strewn – the fusilage spewing luggage and a wing in the trees. There’s an engine in the bushes bordering the beach and another in the auditorium. Smoke still emanates from the wreckage; this crash has just happened. It’s a stunning design by Jon Bausor (who created the extraordinary Kursk at the Young Vic) which uses the space brilliantly. You’re impressed before a word is spoken.

Nigel Williams’ adaptation is a little flawed, mostly because he rushes the first part, getting to the descent into savagery too quickly. Though it might be a little slow for a young audience, showing how the power struggles unfold and the first reaction of children to a world without grown-ups seems to me to be a crucial part of the explanation of the decline. Otherwise it’s faithful to the book, with a little updating such that we can’t be in the second world war (which I think is what William Golding intended) and the arrival of a helicopter rather than a plane at the end, which made more sense.

There is fine acting from a very young company who look every bit the age of their characters. The movement (co-director Liam Steel and fight director Kate Waters) adds much to the effectiveness of the staging. There’s also music and a soundscape by Nick Powell & Mike Walker which makes a big contribution to creating atmosphere and driving the story forward.

I studied the book for something that used to be called ‘O’ level many centuries ago; if only we could have seen a thrilling interpretation like this, I might have done better than my mediocre Grade 4!

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