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Posts Tagged ‘Open Air Theatre Regents Park’

A musical at the Open Air Theatre has been one of my summer institutions for decades. Evita is one of the few Andrew Lloyd-Webber shows I like, I hadn’t seen it for thirteen years and the director and designer are favourites of mine, but it didn’t catch my imagination and I didn’t book early as usual. The reviews suggested it was more of a rock concert and I hadn’t liked a similar treatment of Jesus Christ Superstar, so decision confirmed. Then in its final week, a free evening, sunny days, a few single tickets available, a dose of FOMO and no willpower…….

It’s staged on eight large steps the width of the theatre with the band at the back in a corrugated roofed shed behind a giant EVITA sign. It isn’t long before the smoke and confetti bombs confirm the rock concert aesthetic, later joined by more of the same plus fire and fireworks. Even Fabian Aloise’s quirky, grungy choreography owes more to pop videos that musical theatre. Soutra Gilmour’s design palette goes from funereal black through greys to the Peronist pale blue, with at one point Evita’s white dress spectacularly coloured before our eyes.

Some of this works well, particularly big numbers like the opening Requiem, Act I’s closer A New Argentina, the European visit’s Rainbow Tour & the charity fundraising The Money Keeps Rolling In, but it doesn’t always serve the story well, with some of Tim Rice’s sharp lyrics inaudible. Somewhat ironically, presenting it as a rock concert emphasised how operatic it is, but opera really needs more subtlety and some restraint to go with its spectacle. This is a bit of a one dimensional Evita and I couldn’t help fondly recalling Hal Prince’s ground-breaking original in 1978 and Michael Grandage’s stylish revival in 2006.

I liked the all-shapes-sizes-and-colours ensemble very much, and Alan Williams’ band was simply terrific. Trent Saunders was an excellent Che and Ektor Rivera good as Peron. I felt Samantha Pauly was too shouty as Eva and her vocals sometimes shaky, though in all fairness it was a cool evening (I had a jumper and fleece on) and she was clothed in next to nothing, albeit under bright lights most of the time. I can’t help wondering why all three leads are American when we have many here, some no doubt unemployed, who would jump at and excel in these roles.

I enjoyed it more than Superstar, I respect and admire Jamie Lloyd for taking a fresh look and I don’t regret going, but can we move on from ALW revivals in concert and get back to business as usual please? Ah, Carousel next year – now you’re talking……

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I’ve had a soft spot for this Howard Ashman / Alan Menken musical since I saw the original London production 35 years ago. It was successfully revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory 12 years ago, heading off on tour afterwards. Now it’s the latest in the Open Air Theatre’s summer musicals, the 31st I think, reinvented by director Maria Aberg and designer Tom Scutt.

Based on Roger Corman’s iconic 1960 b-movie, the musical was an instant hit off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the West End, where it ran for two years. When it was itself made into a film, the budget was 1000 times that of the original (which gave Jack Nicholson his screen debut). You wouldn’t think it was a natural for the leafy green Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but it works. Scutt has built a B&W cartoon New York City, with a riot of colour provided by the characters and the plants of Mushnik’s shop where geeky Seymour breeds Audrey II and is in love with Audrey (I), his fellow shop assistant, who has a sadistic dentist as a boyfriend.

Audrey II becomes a sensation, leading to radio & TV interviews for Seymour and lots of new customers for the shop, but Seymour has been feeding the plant with his own blood and can hardly keep up. He ends up feeding it whole people, starting with Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, as the fame leads to magazine features, TV’s first gardening programme and a plant cutting franchise which sees plants take over America. Audrey II is normally voiced by an offstage actor / singer, but Aberg’s big idea is to bring her alive and onstage in the form of American drag queen Vicky Vox and a handful of assistants, and though a good idea, I didn’t think it really worked. Towards the end, they turned up the excess dial and it became pure fantasy with a stage full of colourful SciFi plants raising the non-existent roof in the finale of Don’t Feed the Plants. With what seemed like an additional song turning it into a bit of a rock concert, the cast invading the auditorium and green pods flying around, the audience went wild and you just had to give in.

It’s very well cast, with Marc Antolin shining as Seymour. I don’t associate Jemima Rooper and Forbes Mason with musical theatre, but they both did a great job as Audrey and Mr Mushnik. Busted’s Matt Willis was excellent as Orin the sadistic dentist, plus four great cameos as TV exec, (female) magazine editor, agent and business guru. Ms Vox was outrageous and cheeky; I’m not sure what the parents of the kids in the audience made of it. The show is famous for it’s chorus of three black girl singers (Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette – get it), an idea Tony Kushner and Jane Tesori stole for Caroline, or Change twenty years later, and Seyi Omoomba, Renee Lamb and Christina Modestou were all great.

I’ve got mixed views really. Part of me missed the nostalgic, b-movie aesthetic and part of me admired the reinvention, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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Opera

Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea in the newly refurbished (but you’d hardly notice!) Queen Elizabeth Hall is a pop-opera adaptation of Greek tragedy. It looked good and I liked the choruses, but I struggled with some of the strangulated solo vocals and, at two unbroken hours, it was too long. I always think visiting companies should be warmly received regardless, given they’ve travelled half-way across the world, and thankfully so it was at the QEH.

Mamzer Bastard sees the Royal Opera on walkabout again, this time to Hackney Empire, but probably with the wrong opera, if part of the plan was to engage the local community. There were things to enjoy – beautiful Jewish cantor for the first time in opera, expertly sung, and a cinematic production which made great use of live video – but it’s cultural and musical specificity and inaccessibility robbed it of universal appeal, and the film noir monochrome monotony drained me of energy, I’m afraid.

Rhondda Rips It Up! is WNO’s tribute to Lady Rhondda, an extraordinary woman and suffragette in this centenary year, also visiting Hackney Empire. A mash-up of opera, operetta, music hall and cabaret and great fun, with singalongs and flags to wave. Madeleine Shaw was terrific as Lady R and I even liked Lesley Garrett as the MC!

Britten’s Turn of the Screw saw ENO at the Open Air Theatre, the first ever opera there, on a lovely evening. I thought it worked very well, particularly as the natural light lowered, creating a spooky atmosphere. It was by necessity amplified, but the lovely singing and playing, though not as natural as unamplified, still shone through. There were the usual audience behaviour challenges, this time amplified by the bonkers decision to dish out unnecessary librettos so they could be rustled in unison!

Dance

Xenos at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a one-man dance piece by Akram Khan inspired by the 1.5 million forgotten Indian soldiers lost in the 1st World War. I struggled to understand all of it, but was mesmerised regardless. The design was stunning, the east-meets-west music hypnotic and the movement extraordinary. A privilege to be at Kahn’s last full evening piece as a performer.

Film

I much admired Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, about the last days of Oscar Wilde. It avoided lightening and beautifying what was a very dark period in his life and told it as it was.

Art

The Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery featured an extraordinarily diverse range of works including paintings, posters, linocuts, menu cards, drawings and book illustrations & covers with subjects including animals, people, buildings, landscapes and fantasies. A really underrated 20th century illustrator and a huge treat.

The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG seemed smaller this year, but the quality remained astonishingly high. Next door at the NG, I loved British-American 19th Century artist Thomas Cole’s paintings, though they only made up 40% of the exhibition, padded out with studies & drawings and paintings by those who influenced him and those he influenced (from the NG permanent collection!), which is more than a bit cheeky.

During a short visit to Exeter I went to their superb Royal Albert Museum to catch Pop Art in Print, an excellent V&A touring exhibition which we don’t appear to be getting in London. A fascinating, diverse range of items, very well curated and presented, probably helped by being the only visitor at the time!

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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The weather hasn’t been kind to us this year at the Open Air Theatre. We managed to get through On the Town with delays and shivers, and this one with a thirty minutes unscheduled break in the first half. Though I’m a regular at OAT musicals, I didn’t book for this last year as I’m not that keen on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music (except Evita and his collaboration with Puccini, Phantom of the Opera!) and I’m an unbeliever (though if I was, I might take offence at some scenes). The reviews, awards and friends suggested I’d made a mistake, so we booked for this second run. Though there were things I admired, I think I was right first time.

It tells the story of the last year of Jesus’ life, sung through, more rock opera than musical, a year after The Who started the genre with Tommy. The music seems dated, much more so than other music of the period. The seriousness of the story doesn’t really allow Tim Rice to shine lyrically, with his trademark sharp wit. Timothy Sheader’s production seems more rock concert than musical theatre, returning the show to its first flash Broadway outing rather than following the more restrained London production.

Here we have Tom Scutt’s giant two-story metal structure with a huge fallen cross, something like 300 spotlights and smoke, flares and fire. I found myself admiring the spectacle, but not at all engaged with the story. The singing honours belong to Tyrone Huntly as Judas, who is as sensational, as had been suggested, and as he was in Dreamgirls, and there’s a terrific band under Tom Deering. Drew McConie’s choreography is bold and is the freshest aspect of the show.

Great spectacle, but I went to a musical not a rock concert, so not enough for me I’m afraid.

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It was touch and go at the Open Air Theatre on Tuesday, with the rain continuing until minutes before the start, but apart from a short break to mop the stage it went ahead, and the warmth from the stage just about made up for the chill in the air. OAT continues it’s pre-eminence in musicals revivals with this wonderful production of Bernstein’s rarely performed musical comedy, which I’ve only seen in ENO’s 2005 production, and we all know opera companies rarely do musicals well because they are, well, opera companies.

Three sailors arrive in New York on 24 hours leave, determined to make the most of it. Chip wants to see the sights, but Gabey and Ozzie prefer more hedonistic options. Gabey falls in love with a poster girl on the subway and they set about finding her, splitting up to visit the locations mentioned in the poster. Chip finds Hildy who’s just been fired from her job as a taxi driver and Ozzie finds anthropologist Claire in the Natural History Museum, and eventually Gabey finds his poster girl Ivy at Carnegie Hall. They all plan to meet for a date, but Gabey is stood up by Ivy. He eventually learns where she is from her music teacher and sets off for Coney Island to find her, whilst the others go on a bar crawl that gets seedier as they go.

Betty Comden & Adolf Green’s book and lyrics are much funnier than I remember and Bernstein’s score is better than I remember too, proving to be much more than its most famous songs New York, New York (not THAT one) and Some Other Time, and there’s a fantastic 15-piece band under MD Tom Deering to do it full justice. Drew McOnie’s hugely successful transition from Choreographer to Director / Choreographer continues and his staging of this is thrilling, with the balletic dancing so true to Jerome Robbins simply sensational. Peter McKintosh has designed a three-story set inspired by the opening and closing scenes at the dockyard which transforms into streets, subway trains, taxi, museum, apartment and nightclubs, with gorgeous bright and colourful costumes. When we get to Coney Island, the transformation takes your breath away.

Danny Mac, who plays Gabey, doesn’t have a strong voice, but it has a nice tone, he’s a good actor and his dancing is outstanding. Samuel Edwards is a great Ozzie and Lizzy Connelly a superb Hildy. Jacob Maynard has taken over the role of Chip after Fred Haig’s accident, and I thought he was terrific. Then there are two extraordinary professional debuts from Siena Kelly as Ivy and Miriam-Teak Lee as Claire – wow! The whole ensemble is wonderful and contributes much to an exciting, uplifting evening.

Not the best conditions for an evening at the OAT, but one of the best shows I’ve seen there. Go!

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It’s a while since I’ve been to The Mill at Sunning dinner theatre – their programming of whodunit’s alternating with farce’s isn’t really to my taste – but I couldn’t resist ‘big’ musical High Society in this intimate space, even though it’s less than eighteen months since I saw it in a big space, or perhaps because I had…….

It’s set in the elegant thirties amongst the rich socialites of Long Island. Tracey is about to marry ever-so-dull George, but not before she has an elongated drunken flirt with tabloid photographer spy Mike and has been visited by her ex (and true love) Dexter. Her feisty teenage sister Dinah is determined to reignite her relationship with Dexter and spike the wedding. Her mum is rather pre-occupied with reigniting her relationship with her own ex Seth, a bit of a philanderer, and Uncle Willie chases any woman in sight, but particularly tabloid journalist spy Liz, who’s love for colleague Mike is unrequited. Liz and Mike have been promised the wedding story in exchange for burying the story of Seth’s fling with a dancer. Still with me?

It’s based on the 1939 Hollywood film The Philadelphia Story and started out as a film musical in 1956 before making it to the stage in 1987 in London in a Richard Eyre adaptation (nine years before another stage version on Broadway). The Broadway version had a very successful Ian Talbot production at the Open Air Theatre in 2003, which toured before transferring to the West End, where it only lasted a few months. The latest incarnation was Maria Friedman’s sensational in-the-round production at the Old Vic in 2015. The show’s trump card is Cole Porter’s score-to-die-for with more standards than just about any other show.

Scaled down for a cast of eleven and a three-piece band, it works superbly on this scale. Though it’s occasionally unclear which location we’re in, it’s a simple elegant design by Ryan Light (with great costumes by Natalie Titchener) which enables fast-moving action and scene changes, leaving enough space for director / choreographer Joseph Pitcher’s nifty staging and movement. The musical standards under MD Charlie Ingles are excellent. There isn’t a fault in the casting, with a lovely leading lady in Bethan Nash, a great comic turn from David Delve as Uncle Willie and Kirsty Ingrams’ spirited Dinah.

I love musicals on this scale and this was certainly a treat, and where else can you see a quality musical with a decent two-course meal, coffee and a programme for not much more than £50! On this form, a deserved winner of the 2016 UK Theatre Most Welcoming Theatre Award.

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