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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Strassen’

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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