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Posts Tagged ‘Marisha Wallace’

This transfer from the US has been hailed as a radical interpretation of Rogers & Hammerstein’s first show together, eighty years old next year. I saw the NT’s 1998 production and Chichester’s 2019 revival and even though these brought out the darkness, in comparison it is. It seems to me it was always a play with music rather than a musical as such and that’s certainly what we have here.

Chief amongst the reinventions is new orchestration and instrumentation featuring banjo, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, fiddle and accordion, creating a wholly appropriate Americana sound. It’s scaled down for an eight-piece band (plus actor-musician Arthur Darvill) in an onstage pit, and a cast of twelve. It’s more tense, such as in the wedding scene, funnier (just about any scene featuring lovable but dim Will), and above all sexier. When it’s rousing, notably the title number, it’s very rousing. The auditorium looks great, covered in light wood panelling with one wall a sort of sepia landscape mural and gun racks containing 72 guns on the other walls. The playing area is surrounded by party tables at which audience members sit opposite cast members. There are decorations, and later lights, above.

It has its problems, though. The first half lacks pace, two scenes in complete darkness – encounters between Curly & Jud and between Laurey & Jud – are baffling, Laurey’s dream sequence has been moved to open the second half and she’s replaced by a dancer doing freeform to the shows tunes in the style of Jimi Hendrix (this didn’t really work for me) and I found the new ending, at the wedding, before the trial, problematic. That said, the positive innovations outweigh the negatives.

One of the production’s big strengths is excellent casting. Darvill is a bit of a revelation as Curly, with good vocals and a cowboy swagger. Patrick Vaill is a charismatic, brooding presence as Jud. Anoushhka Lucas is terrific as Laurey, with a beautiful voice which does full justice to her songs. Lisa Sadovy has crossed the Thames from her Olivier Award winning performance in Cabaret to give us a fine Aunt Eller. There’s excellent support in the sub-plots, notably Marisha Wallace as Ado Annie, who first wowed me as an ‘alternate’ lead in Dreamgirls and went on to impress in Waitress & the Hairspray revival, James Davis as Will, Stavros Demetraki as Ali and Rebekah Hinds as Gertie, whose laugh is a solo performance in itself.

Despite my misgivings, I admire them for taking such a fresh look and I enjoyed enough of the reinvention to make the visit more than worthwhile. Musicals purists, like those next to us who left at the interval, might not agree, though. Make your own mind up.

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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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Late to the party again. Sometimes a show doesn’t catch my imagination and stays on the back burner for a while, and so it was with this. A few gaps in my diary and a ticket offer and there I was having my preconceptions confounded by a show nowhere near my American schmaltzy expectations.

It’s based on the late Adrienne Shelly’s film (which I haven’t seen) and revolves around Jenna, a pie-maker / waitress at Joe’s Diner, in an abusive marriage to bully Earl. Her co-worker Becky is carer to her partner and other co-worker, singleton Dawn, has never even had a date. They move between pie-making and serving whilst Becky manages an affair with another co-worker Cal, Dawn is persuaded to use a dating app and finds her soulmate Ogle and Jenna gets an unwanted pregnancy which leads to an unlikely love affair with her married gynaecologist!

What stops the show becoming sentimental is its quirkiness and the inclusion of issues like abuse, infidelity and sickness, yet it’s still very funny. Sara Bareilles’ excellent score has a great mix of ballads and upbeat numbers, very original for musical theatre I thought. Jessie Nelson’s funny, cheeky book makes it zip along. It’s a real feel-good story.

Katharine McPhee is hugely impressive in the lead role of Jenna, with her sidekicks both superb – Laura Baldwin as Dawn and Marisha Wallace (who wowed my as the alternate Effie in Dreamgirls) as Becky. I’ve enjoyed watching David Hunter progress through the fringe to leading roles and here as Dr Pomatter he shows a real flair for comedy too. The sometimes onstage band sound great and Diane Paulus production is extremely slick.

I’ve gone from not sure I want to go to go again!

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Another show I wasn’t planning to see, this time because I caught it less than three years ago on my travels in Portland, Oregon. Then I read the reviews…..

It’s the story of a black girl group in the 60’s and 70’s, from talent show to backing singers to R&B chart success to their transfer to the mainstream. Along the way, lead singer Effie is replaced by a slimmer, paler model and eventually quits and manager Curtis gets too big for his boots, transforming from manipulator to bully and losing his lead singer / wife. The girls, and stablemate Jimmy Early, succeed in crossing over to the mainstream, but at the expense of their soul roots. Meanwhile, Effie makes a solo comeback and finds herself in a chart competition with her former group with the same song, but it’s not a fair race thanks to Curtis’ dirty tricks. Though the writers deny it (no doubt concerned about the legal consequences), it appears to be based on the story of The Supremes. With R&B stars now the kings and queens of popular music, it’s easy to forget it was once segregated, in more ways than one, with separate charts and white cover versions outselling the originals. We’ve come a long way.

No disrespect to Portland Center Stage, a fine US regional theatre, but this West End production (it’s London premiere, 35 whole years after Broadway!) is in another league altogether, no doubt partly thanks to a mega-budget . The design team of Tim Hatley (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes) & Hugh Vanstone (lighting) have produced a spectacular look to the show; you get a lot of bling for your ticket price. Casey Nicholaw’s staging and choreography is fresh and exciting; it sparkles like the Swarovski covered curtains and costumes. The cast of 29 and 14-piece band under Nick Finlow rock the foundations of the gorgeous Savoy Theatre, itself a jewel of Art Deco bling.

For the second time this week, I got an alternate and a cover, neither of which you’d spot if you didn’t know it. I refuse to believe Amber Riley is better than her alternate Marisha Wallace, whose powerhouse voice is extraordinary. Candace Furbert was also excellent covering as fellow Dream Lorrell and Denna(!)’s rise from backing singer to lead to ‘Deena and’, wife of Curtis, is extremely well navigated by Liisi LaFontaine . Adam J Bernard is a terrific bundle of energy as Jimmy Early and Joe Aaron Reid a fine voiced baddie as Curtis. I missed the much lauded Tyrone Huntley in the Open Air Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar last year and I left the theatre praying he returns this year; he too was terrific as the girls’ first manager and songwriter C. C. White.

The fourth in my five-day musicals binge, it lives up to the hype and more. The world seems ever so drab when you leave the theatre.

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