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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Callan’

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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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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