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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Strassen’

The Union Theatre is opening its new space with a revival of Michael Strassen’s 2012 production of this show by Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey. It was a US Presidential election year then, as it is now, but it feels even more timely. We begin with a quote from Trump, then a few more from current and former presidents before the opening scene where Presidential candidate Reed Chandler, tipped to win, dies on the eve of his anticipated appointment. His widow is determined that there will be a Chandler dynasty, so she goes about grooming reluctant son Cal, with the help of her dead husband’s brother and campaign manager Grahame, with a speedy rise through local and state politics with the White House in their sights. An arranged marriage and a convenient child help, but his lover, cocaine habit and mafia connections don’t.

When they mounted it last time I thought it was better than the Donmar’s world premiere in 1997, and I still do. It’s the same stripped back production ‘without decor’ but there’s some new casting which takes it to another level. I thought Lucy Williamson was sensational as the power obsessed mother Violet, Ken Christiansen was just as good as her crippled brother-in-law Grahame and Madalena Alberto was terrific as the ill-fated mistress Tina. All three are seasoned musical theatre professionals and it shows. Fra Fee did well as Cal, but in truth I didn’t think he suited the role as much as Louis Maskell did last time around. When I saw there was an electric quartet and no vocal amplification I was a bit nervous but the band was restrained and the vocals and lyrics shone through.

The new Union is having a few teething problems, notably with air handling, but I’m sure they’ll be resolved and we can revel in the new space and it’s bar, food and fragrant toilets! If they configure eight rows deep again though, they need to increase the rake as the sightlines are challenging for the short.

I’m very much looking forward to the new Union providing as much enjoyment as the old one, with two more shows already booked!

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It’s 46 years since The Who released Tommy, one of the most ground-breaking albums of the 60’s (or any other decade come to that), the first ‘rock opera’. Like all great music, it still sounds fresh. I loved Pete Townsend & Des McAnuff’s stage musical when it was first staged in London in 1996 and its surprising that we haven’t seen it since. So a bucket-load of brownie points to Guy James (no relation!), Katie Lipson and Ilai Szpiezak for putting on this revival at Greenwich Theatre.

I’m sure everyone knows the story. Tommy is traumatised when he sees his father, unexpectedly returned from the war, kill his mother’s new man and becomes deaf, dumb and blind. He’s persecuted by his Cousin Kevin and interfered with by his Uncle Ernie. Searches for a cure seem hopeless, but one day he does indeed recover all three faculties and at first becomes a bit of a freak show and ultimately a sort of Messiah. It’s an extraordinary score and here its sung brilliantly by a top notch young cast of just ten. It has one of the best closing numbers of a musical – Listening To You – and they do it proud.

Director Michael Strassen, a Union Theatre regular where I’ve seen nine of his productions, uses a two-tier stage with triangular motifs, with most of the cast dressed in white, a handful of props and some striking lighting. I wasn’t convinced by the choreography, which didn’t seem in keeping with the material – too arty farty & balletic and not muscular enough! I also felt the band was too quiet much of the time – it is a rock musical, after all – though somewhat ironically were terrific in the play-out. It was a touch restrained in the first half, though it ended on a high with Pinball Wizzard, but came into its own after the interval.

I very much liked Ashley Birchall’s Tommy, particularly in the later scenes. I loved the characterisations of seedy Uncle Ernie by the excellent John Barr and the odious bully Kevin of Giovanni Spani. There wasn’t really a fault in the casting; the audience gave them a standing ovation on Thursday.

Definitely worth catching one of the last four performances of this rarely revived show with an iconic score.

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After Saturday’s adult fairy tale, Sunday’s new British musical was a fantasy in moledom! I’ve never read William Horwood’s novel of the same name (or the five sequels!) so I came to this musical adaptation cold. It’s set in communities of moles, who have a society which includes a king, some sort of religion based around a stone, a healer and rival factions.

The story begins as King (I think) Mandrake casts out his daughter Rebecca for consorting with someone from another group of moles (there are pasture moles, stone moles and Duncton moles, though I never really got to grip with these different sects). He’s even mean enough to kill her and her babies, though she is healed herself and adopts Bracken’s baby. Rune is the real baddie, who’s out to dispose of any opposition and usurp Mandrake. To be honest, the book by James Peries isn’t at all clear and I never really unravelled the story so there’s little point in me elaborating further.

Mark Carroll’s score fares better, with some nice tunes and choruses, though a little too much sung dialogue for my liking (particularly from Rune). There are moments when it becomes too pompous in a pop opera way, but there are also lovely moments like the duet Moonshine and the chorus Hulver’s Dream.

Whatever you think of the material, you can’t help but be impressed by Michael Strassen’s production. I wasn’t convinced at first by the configuration, with the audience on two sides of a square, bit it quickly made sense. Beautifully lit by Tim Deiling, with a very imaginative design by Jean Gray, the look is great and the movement by Strassen himself outstanding. There were some good vocals, particularly from Oli Reynolds as Cairn, Amelia-Rose Morgan as Rebecca and especially Josh Little as Bracken. The keyboard heavy 5-piece backstage band sounded good.

The second half is better than the first (and began to make sense before it lost me again!) and if the story were made clearer and the first half cut a bit, it would be a much better show. As it is, it’s worth a visit but not a rave.

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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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Having seen this show at long last, I’m flabbergasted this is the first London production since the original almost 40 years ago. The pedigree is extraordinary. Based on Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall’s Billy Liar, book by Dick Clement & Ian la Frenais, music by John Barry & lyrics by Don Black! It ran for two years at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and it’s the show that gave Michael Crawford his big break. …. and it’s a lovely little show.

Billy is a fantasist and a compulsive liar. He works for an undertaker but spends most of his time in his imagined worlds, which include a country of which he is president and a meeting with Marilyn Monroe. He lives with his somewhat intolerant dad, overly tolerant mum and dippy gran. He’s dating three girls at the same time and claims to have an offer of a job in London as a scriptwriter.

Michael Strassen has given us a handful of excellent productions here at the Union Theatre in the last four years or so and his trademark minimalist style again relies on just a few props with good costumes & lighting. It works well, with choreography that is particularly fresh and chirpy. Keith Ramsey is great as Billy, combining a charming cheeky chappie with an other worldly fantasist and an unfulfilled lost soul. Amongst a very impressive supporting cast, Adam Colbeck-Dunn caught my eye as friend / colleague Arthur.

A long-awaited opportunity to catch up with a truly British musical. Though I can see how a bigger stage would bring benefits (though not as large as Drury Lane!) this chamber version is very welcome indeed.

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This is a surprisingly fresh show (given its as old as me!) about a Washington socialite and friend of the president (Trueman) who’s posted as ambassador to an obscure European country and causes diplomatic havoc through her naivety and clumsiness.

It’s a fairly slight romantic comedy where the ambassador ends up with the PM and her aide with the Princess, but the political shenanigans are timeless (there’s even a US election happening at the time, which makes this Union Theatre production rather timely) and there are some nice songs and some good comedy.

It was written by Irving Berlin as a vehicle for Ethel Merman and it’s success does rely on the casting of the lead role, Sally Adams, who has most of the musical numbers and most of the best lines. Lucy Williamson, who I’ve seen a few times before, is a revelation. She commands the stage in a real star performance, delivered in a knowing way as if she’s sharing a private joke with you. She sings well and has great comic timing.

Amongst the other performances I was most impressed by Leo Miles as her aide who sang beautifully and moved with real style. It’s a fine ensemble too and MD Ross Leadbeater plays the whole score on a grand piano. I liked Mark Smith’s more modern choreography (it didn’t jar with the period) and it’s staged by Michael Strassen in his usual uncluttered style relying on three curtains, elegant costumes and fine lighting.

In an echo of an incident I witnessed on Broadway, when a man walked out of Gypsy loudly claiming Bernadette Peters was ‘no Ethel Merman’, another man last night, as he left the theatre, said ‘she doesn’t have the subtlety of Ethel Merman’. Well, I have no comparison, but for me Lucy Williamson claimed the role in a real star performance.

Great to catch a rarely performed show and yet another fine evening at the Union Theatre.

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This American musical had its first production here in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in 1997, directed by Sam Mendes no less and starring a then largely unknown John Barrowman. Writers John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe went on to write the stage musical of The Witches of Eastwick three years later, which got a big scale production in the West End under the auspices of Cameron Mackintosh, but have not done a lot in the 12 years since than.

This revival at the Union Theatre has Michael Strassen at the helm; his recent productions of Company, Assassins, The Bakers Wife and Godspell at the same venue have wowed. He has a knack of creating stylish and slick shows with next to no set, relying on costumes lighting and the odd prop or two, as it is here. It looks terrific, but there’s no set – Neil Gordon’s costumes and Steve Miller’s lighting do it all.

Senator Reed Chandler dies on the eve of becoming president and his widow Violet becomes obsessed with the objective of ensuring her son Cal follows in his footsteps and makes it to the White House. She’s helped by her scheming and spinning brother-in-law Grahame, the architect of Reed’s campaign. Cal follows a fast track trajectory from the forces through City Hall to Governor acquiring a loveless marriage (and child), a mistress or two and a cocaine habit along the way. The family’s unsavory Mafia friends become their downfall as history repeats itself.

This production is brilliantly staged and paced; you’re on the edge of your seat for much of the time. The pop rock score sounds great with a (sadly uncredited) five-pice band under MD Simon Lambert in this snug venue, and outstanding unamplified singing from all involved. The three leads are simply extraordinary – Louis Maskell as son Cal has great presence and a fantastic voice, Liz May Brice convey’s Violet’s ambition, determination and passion superbly and Miles Western is terrific as the machiavellian fixer.

A musical I remember to be OK has scrubbed up great. Maybe it’s found its time now that such scheming and manipulation is more commonplace, or maybe its just a fine cast and creative team on top form. Whatever it is, you have to go!

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I’ve waited over 21 years for a revival of this show, which was a critical success but a commercial flop in the West End in 1989, but Michael Strassen’s production at the Union Theatre was worth the wait. This bumper year of small-scale musical revivals and of the Union Theatre’s pre-eminence continues.

Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz’s show is based on the Marcel Pagnol / Jean Giono film La Femme du Boulanger and it’s the best score he wrote. Here it’s beautifully sung, unamplified, with just piano and cello (and occasional acoustic guitar) under MD Chris Mundy. It so suits the story – delightful, funny, charming & wistful.

A French village is incomplete without its baker (I think there is still a law in France that actually prevents this) and this village has been without one for seven weeks, so withdrawal symptoms are rampant and the inhabitants seriously over-excited when the new baker arrives with his beautiful new young wife. It doesn’t take long before a dashing young man whisks her away and the baker is distraught and unable to  bake. Of course, it all ends happily ever after. It is indeed a slight tale, but frankly it doesn’t really matter.

Michael Matus brilliantly captures the lovestruck naivety of the baker (appropriately named Aimable) and Lisa Stokke the struggle between loyalty and temptation. Matthew Goodgame is as dashing as you’d wish for a lover and there is a terrific partnership from Ian Mowat and Ricky Butt as the bickering cafe owner and his wife and a fine Marquis / Mayor (with three ‘nieces’ in tow!) from Mark Turnbull. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble; a superb supporting cast of twelve.

Though I didn’t really like the painted backdrop, which seemed to me more Munch’s The Scream than the presumably intended Chagall, there is an authentic French village feel created by a handful of props and good costumes but more than anything else by good, somewhat tongue-in-cheek acting. I loved the opening in French, before the cafe owner’s wife as narrator is reminded where she is – it lasted just long enough for panic to set in with some audience members! The staging is excellent – with particularly fluid ensemble movement.

Yet another fine production at the Union. Next stop Texas for The Best Little Whorehouse!

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Just as we were moving on from our hippie phase as the 60’s turned into 70’s, along came a few biblical musicals – two by Andrew Lloyd-Webber & Tim Rice and this one from Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz – which applied a hippie style, perhaps in an attempt to ‘get down with the kids’. Some found them refreshing and others embarassing. I was in the embaressing camp. Forty years have passed and I think we’ve only had one more (major) biblical musical – Children of Eden, also by Schwartz, making it 2-2.

It’s an edited version of the Gospel According to Matthew, so there’s no point in outlining the story. It does have a few good songs, notably Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord and Day by Day, but a lot of mediocre ones. I think Beautiful City was added after the original production; in any event, it’s a mistake to end the show with it as the preceeding Finale is much more powerful.

Director Michael Strassen presented wonderful stripped bear productions of Sondheim’s Company and Assassins at the same theatre, and he applies a similar approach here. Unfortunately, Schwartz isn’t Sondheim. I’ve never been that fond of his music; it’s melodic but lacks variety and subtlety. It often assaults you relentlessly with bland pop tunes in an attempt to beat you into submission. I didn’t even like Wicked. I’m also not a believer. So if you did and / or you are, please don’t rely on my view.

As it happens, I admire the production. They’ve dumped the hippie shit and play it in modern street cloths with no set, leaving the excellent lighting by Steve Miller to create the atmosphere. The opening is great, with lovely lighting effects, the cast dressed in black all waking up and Jesus entering in his crash helmet – this is the Union Theatre, so they couldn’t stretch to a motorbike; if it had been an ALW West End revival, no doubt it would have been a bejewelled Harley Davidson!

Though they occasionally forget how small the space is and begin shouting, resulting in even less subtlety, the singing (and acting) is uniformly good. Billy Cullum is a charismatic Jesus and Davis Brooks does well playing a sympathetic John the Baptist and an unsympathetic Judas. The synthetsised voice of god is a mistake as you can’t understand his message – unless that was the point.

If you’re fond of musicals and this has passed you by or if you’d like to see how it shapes up 40 years on or if you’re a Schwartz fan, this is the place to go. Good production, pity about the show.

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A theatre space under the railway arches proved to be a cool place to spend a couple of hours on a sweltering Saturday afternoon and with a cracking Sondheim production thrilling as well as cool.

I’d forgotten this was coming up at the lovely Union Theatre when I booked to see the same show at the Royal Academy of Music less than two weeks ago, so I decided to give it a miss. Then those West End Whingers positively raved so I just had to go! VERY GOOD DECISION.

Sondheim links nine assassinations / attempted assassinations and explores their motivation in a tragi-comic show which had its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 1992 and I think I’ve seen every London production since. It’s difficult to get the right tone but his one is absolutely spot on. You often feel you’re peering into these people’s souls and feeling their pain. The close proximity of such a small venue (and in my case the front row) helps, but it’s the brilliant acting and singing which really makes this stand out.

Director Michael Strassen has done a remarkable job putting together a cast this good. Glyn Kerslake has huge presence as John Wilkes Booth. Nick Holder’s two monologues as Samuel Byck are riveting. John Barr’s Guiteau has an extraordinary manic quality. Joe Alessi is a passionate Zangara, Adam Jarrell a vulnerable Czolgosz and Paul Callen a nerdy Hinckley who really spooks you when he demonstrates his knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald. I’ve never seen Sarah Jane Moore played as well as Leigh McDonald does here and the crucial chemistry between her and Alison Lardner’s Fromme was  perfect. Nolan Frederick’s lovely bass-barritone voice and stage presence elevates The Balladeer from a narrator to centre stage.

It’s a terrific idea to have the chorus as a modern-day presidential guard – men(and women)-in-black with shades and earpieces – that start their duties as you’re waiting to enter. The small band play the score beautifully with a restraint which allows the actors to  make the most of the songs and in particular the insightful lyrics.

Michael Strassen’s ‘Company’ at the same venue achieved the same as this does – allowing the characters, story and music to shine through, but on this occasion digging into the psychology of these people in a way I’ve never seen before.

An absolute triumph which may well turn out to be the highlight of Mr Sondheim’s 80th.

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