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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ball’

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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This is the first time I’ve seen a ‘big’ production of this Jerry Herman ‘problem’ musical and now I’m struggling to understand what the problem is. Fascinating true life story. Good book (revised by Francine Pascal, the original writer Michael Stewart’s sister). Great songs. I loved it.

The story is framed by scenes where silent movie maker Mack Sennett looks back at his relationship with his leading lady, and love of his life, Mabel Normand. We flash back to learn that he discovered her when she delivered food to his film set (I think this is a departure from the real life story for dramatic purposes) and she immediately begins a successful but punishing career making several ‘two reel’ movies a week. Sennett is forever innovating then milking his ideas – pie-in-the-face, bathing beauties, keystone cops etc. He’s an uncompromising slave-driver who’s ego and pride mean he eventually loses her, and just about everyone else, though he does get her back – but by now she’s lost to drink and drugs. The onset of talkies puts an end to his career as he can’t / won’t embrace the change.

There are only 12 songs but every one is a winner. The overture is terrific, and the opening scene is thrilling, as Mack is surrounded by three screens with his films projected onto them. The screens drop and he turns on the deserted studio lights and we’re back filming a movie, starting our chronological journey forward. The pace doesn’t let up as it moves between New York and Hollywood. Train journeys and boarding a liner are superbly created using projections. There are great set pieces filming movies, stunningly staged keystone cop chases, bathing beauty scenes and a show-stopping tap dance routine. It’s great when it fills the stage but it works well too in more intimate scenes.

Jonathan Church’s production is terrific, with classic period choreography by Stephen Mear. They’ve even brought in those Spymonkey boys to get the physical comedy right. Robert Jones set is excellent, enabling speedy scene changes, with Jon Driscoll’s projections and Howard Harrison’s lighting well integrated. Robert Scott’s big band sounds even bigger than fifteen and the ensemble is as fine as they come. This is the third consecutive role in twice as many tears that Michael Ball has made his own – Mack follows his Olivier award winning Sweeney and Edna! – in what appears to be a mid / late career high. I don’t know why Chichester have, like they did for Barnum, had to import a leading actor from the US again but Rebecca LaChance is indeed very good. Anna Jane Casey, herself a Mabel at the Watermill Newbury (replaced by Janine Dee when it got to the West End) almost steals the show as Lottie.

For me, this up there with the best shows the ‘National Theatre of Musicals’ has done and deserves to follow the others to the West End, if only to prove that either there was never a problem or the problem is solved. I’d certainly go again.

 

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The conceit of this show by Yiannis Koutsakos, James Oban & James Rottger is that we’re at the opening night of a Britney Spears bio-musical called Oops I Did It Again (with Sheridan Smith as Britney & Michael Ball as her mum!) in the flagship London theatre of a giant corporate chain owned by a larger-than-life impresario; but we’re front of house with the ushers while the show is being played offstage. It’s a clever idea.

Packed full of (up-to-date) musical theatre references and in-jokes (including a cheeky recycling of The West End Whingers re-naming of Love Never Dies as Paint Never Dries), the show follows the fortunes of five wannabe actors and their bullying failed opera singer boss. A gay relationship is threatened as one decides to seek fame in Austria (cue lots of jokes about other places beginning with A) and a straight relationship is formed as pretty boy Stephen falls for new girl Lucy (who has a secret). Starstruck Rosie is obsessed with, well stars – and selfies. It’s all good fun and it’s very well performed by a cast of familiar fringe faces. I particularly like the way they use the characters natural home i.e. the auditorium aisles. It’s stronger lyrically than musically, but the songs are perfectly acceptable.

This is it’s second outing at the Charing Cross Theatre (which seems to have become a second home for fringe musicals, with previous transfers from the Union and the Finborough) after a first showing on the fringe. The last run was as a late-night show and I couldn’t help feeling this might be a better slot – without the superfluous interval in what is only an 80 minute show.
If you like musical theatre, get a group together and have a couple of drinks and you’ll probably enjoy yourselves.

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This is my tenth Sweeney Todd, but I don’t think I’ve laughed or squirmed so much at any of the others. This is very dark but often very funny, which makes it a great Sweeney.

I’d always thought Imelda Staunton was born to play Mrs Lovett, but boy did she exceed my expectations. She starts as a bit of a naive chancer but soon matches Sweeney’s blood thirstiness as she becomes more and more besotted with him. The real revelation though is Michael Ball’s Sweeney, whose transition from revenger to serial murderer is brilliantly played. Together they are extraordinary.

Jonathan Kent’s production is as dark as they come. I had to turn my head quite often as the blood flowed and the bodies piled up. The black comedy is not lost though; indeed it’s heightened. The duet where Sweeney and Mrs Lovett discuss who might end up in their pies is as good as it gets. Anthony Ward has created a seedy Dickensian London with fencing and caging, a central two-story platform for the barber shop, an elevated gallery and a rather large oven!

All of the supporting roles are well cast. Spring Awakening’s Lucy May Barker continues her impressive stage career with a fine Joanna, Luke Brady is a passionate Anthony and James McConville is the best Tobias I’ve ever seen. John Bowe and Peter Polycarpou both relish their roles as baddies Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford respectively. The musical standards under MD Nicholas Skilbeck are very high, with an excellent 15-piece band and a superb 16-piece ensemble doing full justice to Sondheim’s wonderful score.

This is as fine a Sweeney as you’ll ever see and if it doesn’t end up in the West End before Christmas I shall be very surprised indeed.

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