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Posts Tagged ‘Michael John LaChiusa’

I don’t think London has seen this early Michael John LaChiusa musical since it’s UK premiere at the Bridewell Theatre eighteen years ago. It was the first of the five very diverse shows of his I’ve seen, the latest being Queen of the Mist earlier this year, now transferred to the Charing Cross Theatre.

More song cycle than musical, it’s based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde and consists of ten scenes, or sexual liaisons, each in a different decade of the 20th century (LaChiusa’s innovation) from 1900 to 1999, though not chronologically. One of each pair of characters (‘the nurse’, the writer’ etc) moves from one scene to the next, where they are in a new pairing, in a new decade, so we meet each generic character twice, with ‘the whore’ from the first scene turning up in the last to take us full circle.

Paul Callan’s production is staged in costume but ‘without decor’, so the pressure is on the material, and it doesn’t really come up to the mark. The eclectic score seeks to reflect the period of each scene but in truth the songs aren’t really that memorable. That in turn puts pressure on the performers and its to their credit that much of the time they make it shine more brightly, particularly in the way better second half. Henry Brennan’s trio play the score well, but you do miss some of the lyrics and sung dialogue without amplification.

I liked the idea but it didn’t really go anywhere, and the material wasn’t good enough to make up for that, so more of a curiosity than a satisfying show, I’m afraid.

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American musicals writer Michael John LaCiusa’s subjects are as diverse as Sondheim and Kander & Ebb, though he isn’t in their league. The four I’ve seen include adaptations of Schnitzler and Lorca, the stories of four First Ladies and a hedonistic wild party. This one is based on the true story of Anna Edson Taylor, who rode over Niagara Falls in a barrel! It’s a quirky show, but it gets a fine UK premiere at the Brockley Jack Theatre.

The story starts by visiting a series of widowed Anna’s homes across America, as she tries, and fails, to make a living as a teacher, being evicted from every one, penniless. The Niagara project is her last ditch attempt to make money. She dismisses her critics and detractors and gets her own barrel made. The first half ends tantalisingly, as she is about to plunge.

Act II takes a surprising turn. She’s succeeded in doing something no-one else has achieved, a woman in a world of failed male dare-devils, but she seems disinclined to exploit her notoriety, perhaps because of the psychological impact of her experience. She goes through a series of managers, but fame is a fickle thing and she is soon forgotten.

LaChuisa’s score is very good, seeped in early 20th century Americana, but I did wonder if a separate book writer might have produced a better narrative. I loved the orchestration for keyboards, strings, woodwind and horn and here it’s played by one of the finest ensembles, onstage in period costume, I’ve ever heard at a fringe musical, under MD Jordan Li-Smith. The vocal standards of the seven actors were outstanding too, with an exceptional performance by Trudi Camilleri in the leading role. Dom O’Hanlon’s staging makes great use of the small space, complemented by an excellent design from Tara Usher.

Whatever you think of the show, the production is excellent and it’s good to get the chance to see it here. This was my first visit to Brockley Jack, only seven miles from my home, but it won’t be my last.

 

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This is a musical based on a poem! Somewhat bizarrely, another musical based on the same poem opened in the same 2010 season in New York. This one, by Michael John LaChiusa, was on Broadway; the other, by Andrew Lippa, ran Off-Broadway. It crosses the Atlantic seven years on to open the newly rebranded The Other Palace, formerly St. James’ Theatre. Given it lasted less than two months over there, I wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away, though more so by the terrific staging and sensational performances than the material..

It’s a slice of roaring twenties decadence. Queenie and Burrs are Vaudeville entertainers who form a stormy, abusive relationship. They throw the wild party of the title, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, resulting in all sorts of sexual activity and depravity. When the party’s over, there are hangovers, regrets and recriminations, before its tragic conclusion. It feels more like a song cycle than a musical (and there are almost forty of them!). Above all, it’s a showcase for the performers.

The story is subservient to the jazz-influenced score. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show with so many showstoppers and so many show-stealing opportunities, distributed evenly so that almost everyone gets their moment. The longer first half doesn’t let up and by the interval I was exhausted; I think I’d have liked more light and shade. This is delivered in the shorter and darker second half with a series of sensational solo turns, many of which bring the house down. 

Soutra Gilmour’s design has a ‘stairway to heaven’ and terrific costumes. Drew McOnie continues his successful transition from choreographer to director / choreographer with a staging that took my breath away and choreography that was positively thrilling. Theo Jamieson’s eight-piece band sounded terrific.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances as they were all stars. John Owen-Jones was in fine acting and vocal form as Burrs, miles away from his usual territory, and Frances Ruffelle was clearly relishing every moment as Queenie. US star Donna McKechnie was a treat in her cameo as Delores. We’re used to scene-stealing turns from Tiffany Graves and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and they deliver yet again. Sebastien Torkia & Steven Serlin make a superb double-act as the budding producers, particularly in their second half comic duet. Casting women as ambisexual brothers Oscar & Phil D’Armano was an inspired idea and Genesis Lynea & Gloria Obianyo are outstanding. Dex Lee and Ako Mitchell are superb as Jackie and Eddie respectively. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.

This exceeded my expectations; it’s rare to see such faultless casting and such a stunning production. Head to Victoria while you have the chance. 

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A musical based on Lorca’s intense and very Spanish tragedy was an enticing prospect. Michael John LaChiusa has created a 90 minute one-acter that’s every bit as intense as the play.

We’re in the home of Bernarda, her mother, five daughters and three servants shortly after the death of her husband. Three of the daughters are in love with offstage Pepe – one is betrothed to him, one is having an affair with him and the third just secretly in love with him. The problem with the show (and the play, if I remember correctly) is that it takes 80% of the time to set the scene and just 20% for the tragedy to unfold. There’s a lot of female latin emotion before you get to any action!

Hilary Statts has provided a highly effective design that looks and feels very much 30’s Spain. There’s a superb central performance from Beverley Klein as haridan Bernarda and a fine ensemble in which I was particularly impressed by Ellen O’Grady as housekeeper Poncia, Sophie Juge’s Augustias and Amelia Adams-Pearce as Adela. There’s some excellent choreography from Racky Plews and Katherine Hare’s staging is fine. The band, hidden behind a bank of seats, sounded as if they were in the room next door and much of the subtlety of the strings, guitar and mandolin was lost.

The problem is, I didn’t like the music and I didn’t really like the show! I found myself admiring the production, the acting and the singing, but I wasn’t at all involved with the story. It seems to me that if create a musical from a play, it must be for a reason; frankly, I find this adaptation a bit pointless. We have survived and could continue to survive perfectly well without a musical of Bernarda Alba and that’s the crux of it. I so wish they had found a better show to display such talent.

Of course, it could be another Parade (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/parade), in which case I might be contradicting myself in 4 years time. Watch this space!

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