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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Bradley’

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…..

 

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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!

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Yet again, I find myself reflecting on how you can visit a show again and come out with a completely different reaction. Earlier in the Summer I found Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead irritatingly glib, having previously found it clever and entertaining. When I first saw Alfred Uhry & Jason Robert Brown’s show four years ago at the Donmar, even though I’m perfectly comfortable with musicals on serious subjects, the musical form seemed wholly inappropriate for the subject matter and the musical style jarred. Now, having seen Thom Sutherland’s masterly production at Southwark Playhouse, I feel completely differently. Your frame of the mind at the time is so crucial to your response. If you’re in a Mamma Mia mood, however fine the Richard III production is, it just won’t do. If you’re up for a dysfunctional Sam Shepherd mid-west family, there’s no point in going to Priscilla.

Parade tells the true story of the framing a New York Jewish man for murder in Georgia in the early 20th century. The governor makes it clear he needs a conviction and the prosecutor delivers one by dubious means including the coaching of young witnesses. Just when it appears the governor’s review of the case will lead to a reprieve, a hasty hanging is arranged.

On this occasion, I found the music heightened the intensity and emotion of the story and Sutherland’s production grips throughout. Though it’s a tiny space with a traverse staging, it somehow feels epic. It flows seamlessly from scene to scene by having the set at either end of the space and just a handful of props to bring on and off. Wherever you sit, you’re never far away, so you always engage with the characters and the story. John Risebero’s set and costumes are excellent and there’s particularly effective lighting from Howard Hudson.

Yet again, Danielle Tarento’s casting is outstanding. Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford give hugely committed performances in the central roles of Leo & Lucille Frank; Laura’s singing is exceptional. Mark Inscoe has great presence as prosecutor and would-be governor Hugh Dorsey. It’s a tribute to David Haydn that it wasn’t until the end that I realised he’d played three roles including the pivotal ones as governor and newspaperman. Terry Doe follows two fine musical performances at the Finborough, with three fine performances in one evening here. There is also an auspicious London debut from Samuel J Weir, a 2011 graduate. The 7-piece band under Michael Bradley play the score brilliantly.

It’s not without its faults. Though mostly effective, the traverse staging was occasionally irritating, the over-amplification took away some subtlety from the solo vocals and at 2 hours 40 mins it was a little too long. That said, this production turned around my view of the show, won me over and deserved its spontaneous standing ovation.

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