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Posts Tagged ‘London Coliseum’

I can’t imagine a more exhilarating return to the West End than this, a revival of the 2007 UK premiere by the same creative team (director Jack O’Brien, designers David Rockwell & William Ivey Long and choreographer Jerry Mitchell) with Michael Ball returning to his Olivier Award winning role. Oddly enough, it was amongst the last musicals I saw before lockdown, just as good though in a rather different venue (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2020/03/10/hairspray-HM-prison-bronzefield).

I first fell in love with the show when I took a punt on a Broadway preview almost exactly 19 years ago. This was followed by three visits to the West End run between 2007 and 2009 and a couple of regional outings before last year’s rather unorthodox revival and Sunday’s barnstorming return. I simply adore the 60’s aesthetic, the catchy tunes and witty lyrics of Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, the anti-segregation, body positive and anti-racist messages (book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan) and the sheer loud, brash, colourful, tongue-in-cheekiness of it all.

Nothing much is changed from the UK premiere (there was nothing to fix) but the joy of a bunch of people returning to what they do is infectious. It’s as if they are doing it for the very first time. Lizzie Bea is a match for all those other Tracy’s, and a great tribute to NYT and NYMT. Such is his range that the last time I saw Michael Ball he terrified me as Sweeney Todd (so unrecognisable, people were asking for their money back because they thought he wasn’t in it!), now he’s padded and in drag as Tracy’s mom Edna. Les Dennis clearly delights in playing the loving father / husband Wilbur, a role he too has played before, with his show-stopping duet with Ball, (You’re) Timeless To Me, packed with delicious moments. Rita Simons (East Enders’ Roxy) was a bit of a revelation as baddie Velma and Marisha Wallace wowed as Motormouth Maybelle, as she did in Dreamgirls and Waitress, with I Know Where I’ve Been bringing the house down.

Though attentive and receptive during scenes and numbers, the audience continually erupted between them and the atmosphere in the vast London Coliseum (too vast for this show really) was extraordinary, as if the pent up euphoria after 16 months of musical theatre famine exploded all at once. An absolute joy.

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The first time I saw this Sondheim show was English National Opera’s London premiere at one of the capital’s biggest theatres, the Coliseum. Now here I am 27 years later at the opposite end of the theatre scale at the tiny Union Theatre, which has just 2% of the Coli’s capacity. In between, there have been a few more, most notably a visiting production from Chicago at the Donmar in the round (square) in 2003, which was the best of them all. This show, one of Sondheim’s most ambitious and cleverest, but difficult to pull off, suits more intimate spaces.

It starts in Japan in the mid-19th century; the country has been isolated for 250 years when an American ship turns up demanding an audience with the Emperor. The first half is mostly a description of life in Japan, it’s cultural peculiarities and political intricacies. They find an elegant solution to the American’s demand by finding a stand-in for the Emperor and creating an audience space of mats that can be destroyed afterwards, enabling them to claim the barbarians never set foot on Japanese soil. The show is telling the story from the Japanese perspective and the score has a strong Japanese influence. In truth, this part is too long and too slow, though its imaginative and intriguing with some lovely tunes.

The much shorter second half packs a real punch, starting with Please Hello, a terrific comic number with ambassadors turning up from the US, UK, Holland, Russia and France, all wanting a piece of the trading action. The initial brush-off clearly hasn’t worked. We see the effect of the ‘westernisation’ distilled into just one song, A Bowler Hat, then the backlash distilled into another, Pretty Lady. In the end we jump forward to the present day to see how this all plays out in Next.

Here, the musical standards are high, with Richard Bates band sounding lovely with reeds and cello, and some great singing from a vocally strong cast. Director Michael Strassen applies his trademark minimalist elegance with a simple but evocative design and costumes by Jean Gray. The puppet emperor is indeed a puppet, screens are used to great effect, actors transform quickly from locals to visitors with the addition of sailor collars and the staging is infused with Japanese theatrical motifs. I felt the choreography was sometimes over-elaborate and the performances sometimes too camp, but overall the staging was effective.

In an all-male cast, Ken Christiansen had great presence as the Reciter (narrator) and Ian Mowat was excellent in multiple roles as diverse as geisha Madam and British Admiral. Oli Reynolds was so good as Kayama it’s hard to believe he’s graduating this year, and there were a number of other impressive performances and professional debuts from recent drama school graduates. A very talented ensemble indeed.

It’s great to see this show again (after eleven years!), and great to see it in an intimate space once more.

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