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Posts Tagged ‘Nolan Frederick’

This Flaherty / Ahrens show, with a book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E L Doctorow, has never really found its place in the musical theatre repertoire in the UK. Maybe it’s a bit too American, and a bit too sentimental. One hundred years on from its setting and 20 years on from it’s creation, in a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, during an equally divided trumped up American election, maybe it’s found its time. It certainly resonated more with me than my three previous productions.

It interweaves the stories if a white liberal New England family with Latvian Jewish immigrant Teteh and his daughter and black singer Coalhouse Walker Jnr, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son, which become entwined almost by accident. Teteh is trying to establish a new life in America, the black couple are trying to survive amidst the racism of the day and the New England family are largely sympathetic to both, standing out from the less welcoming crowd around them. There’s a bunch of historical characters like Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini to add social history to the personal stories. It’s got a great ragtime influenced score, with both choruses and solos shining through.

When Coalhouse is attacked and his girlfriend Sarah murdered by racist Irish fireman Clonkin (somewhat ironic given he too was an immigrant), it unleashes a wave of revenge and rebellion that contrasts with the more peaceful campaigning of black leader Booker T Washington. Our Latvian friend is busy inventing movies, the New England family’s ‘father’ is off exploring the world, ‘mother’ has virtually adopted Sarah’s son and her ‘younger brother’ goes to join Coalhouse’s campaign.

This excellent production by Thom Southerland seemed to me to place more emphasis on the racism and its responses, which gave the show more clarity and focus than I’ve seen before. The twenty-four performers really fill the stage and when they sing in unison it’s a glorious sound. I’m not sure if this team have used the actor-musician format before, but it works very well here, with MD Jordan Li-Smith at one of the two on-stage pianos. I really liked Tom Rogers & Toots Butcher’s barn like design and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are very good indeed.

Anita Louise-Combe is superb as ‘mother’; her second act song Back to Before brought the house down. Ako Mitchell is outstanding as the defiant Coalhouse and Nolan Frederick and Jonathan Stewart invest great passion into Booker T Washington and ‘younger brother’ respectively. Jennifer Saayeng plays Sarah with great dignity and feeling and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Seyi Omooba, who leads the rousing Act I finale. On the night I went ‘little boy’ was superbly played by Ethan Quinn.

The Landor made a great job of it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) but the Open Air Theatre, uncharacteristically, made a bit of a mess of it a year later (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/ragtime-2) This fine production is another jewel in the jewel-laden crown of the Tarento-Southerland team. Don’t miss.

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This cult musical, which takes a real life event as its starting point, itself started life on the fringe in late 90’s LA. It ran 8 months Off-Broadway 4 years later and had its UK première at West Yorkshire Playhouse 3 years after that. Then they transferred it to the Shaftesbury Theatre, about the best place in the world to kill a show like this! So here it is ten years on in the much more suitable Southwark Playhouse in a new B-movie interpretation, the fourth show by the inventive Morphic Graffiti, in a co-production with Paul Taylor-Mills.

Three teenage friends stumble across Bat Boy in a local cave. He’s virtually naked, with pointed ears and fangs, and moves like an animal. They take him to the Sheriff who in turn takes him to the local vet. He’s not at home, but his wife Meredith takes him in, renames him Edgar and soon takes him under her wings, taming, civilising and mothering him. Her husband, Dr Parker, and the rest of the small-town community of Hope Falls, West Virginia, are less welcoming, not helped by the fact Bat Boy had attacked Ruthie and is now rumoured to have slaughtered a whole herd of cattle. What follows is the battle of the outsider, with the Parker’s leading the opposing sides.

The pop-rock score is a bit inconsistent, veering to more pompous pop-opera as the show progresses, but there are some good songs and a terrific opening sequence to the second half at an evangelical rally, where they attempt to save Bat Boy’s soul. It’s over-long at 2.5 hours, particularly after ‘the big reveal’ when even the most inventive staging can’t cover up the laboured conclusion. The whole thing does however have an appealing tongue-in-cheek quirkiness which saves the day.

Director Luke Fredericks and designer Stewart Charlesworth’s cartoonish production is packed with creativity, with excellent integration of projections (Benjamin Walden) and a huge selection of deliberately dodgy wigs! A couple of short scenes are given over to puppet dolls and the B-movie style is taken to its logical conclusion at the denouement. Clever stuff, with appropriately lo-tech production values. I thought it was too loud a lot of the time, and again at Southwark there were glitches in the sound.

The casting is terrific. Rob Compton is superb as Bat Boy, particularly in the physical stuff when he is discovered. Lauren Ward and Matthew White are outstanding as the Parkers, with particularly fine vocals from both. Simon Bailey excels in multiple roles, bringing the house down as Reverend Hightower in yellow suit and gold collar and shoes! I also loved Andy Rees characterisation of teenage Rick and there’s a brilliant turn from Nolan Frederick as mother nature in a hysterical ‘dream sequence’.

It’s a good rather than great piece, but there’s a lot to enjoy in this revival. A few cuts and a bit of a tone down would make it even better, but it’s the sort of production the show needed and on a much more appropriate scale. Well worth catching.

 

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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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