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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Farnsworth’

Oh, what a tonic. Sandy Wilson’s pastiche of the 1920’s, written in the 1950’s, sparkles in the 21st Century.

Set in a finishing school in Nice run by Madame Dubonnet, its the tale of Polly and her chums as they prepare for a ball, choosing their costumes, all looking for love. Polly falls for delivery boy Tony when he brings her costume to the school. It seems like a hopeless match, rich girl and poor boy, but they meet on the corniche and agree to go to the ball together as Pierette and Pierrot. Polly’s dad arrives to find that Madame Dubonnet is an old flame. Tony’s parents arrive and we find out he isn’t who he seems. At the ball no less than six couples become engaged.

It’s pure escapist fun with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Bill Deamer’s period choreography is simply fabulous, as light as air, totally uplifting. Paul Farnsworth’s design is gorgeous, particularly his costumes, which are beyond sumptuous in the Act Three ball – from where we were sitting in the front row, you could clearly see the astonishing craftsmanship. MD Simon Beck’s band sound fantastic. Director Matthew White has squeezed every ounce of humour out of this 66-year-old show and made it as fresh and funny as you could wish for. The smile never left my face for the duration.

It’s brilliantly cast, with Amara Okereke & Dylan Mason making a delightful young couple and Janine Dee & Robert Portal a charming older one. Tiffany Graves wows again as Hortense and both Adrian Edmondson & Issy Van Randwyck give great comic cameos, the former not exactly known for musicals. The casting is in fact faultless, and their joy becomes your joy.

An antidote for election blues, but it’s not the sort of production you can only see once, so I’ve already booked to go again as a tonic for my post-election blues.

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Playwright Hugh Whitemore, who died this year, was better known as a TV writer, but between 1977 and 1987 he wrote four outstanding plays, all factually based, of which this was the second. The original West End production 35 years ago starred Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams and ran for almost a year. This first major London revival at the Menier sees their daughter Finty Williams take on her mother’s role.

It’s set in 1960 in the Ruislip home of the Jackson family, a model of suburban ordinariness. Their best friends and neighbours the Krogers are apparently Canadians; the two families are very fond of each another. One day a man called Stewart enters the Jacksons’ lives and persuades them to allow surveillance from their upstairs bedroom. As the surveillance period is lengthened, Stewart feels obliged to feed them information about the reasons for it, until they discover it’s their best friends who are being watched. The highly-strung wife Barbara struggles to reconcile the reality of the warm friendship with the likelihood the Krogers are spies.

The period feel is extraordinary, from Paul Farnsworth’s brilliantly detailed design – the depth of a suburban house the width of the theatre, furniture, fittings and everyday items spot on – to the pitch perfect performances, with behaviour very much of the time. Chris Larkin and Finty Williams play the empathetic Jackson’s, the heart of the play, beautifully and Macy Nyman is terrific as their daughter Julie. Jasper Britton navigates the role of Stewart from gently persuasive to assertively determined extremely well. Tracy-Ann Oberman is excellent as brassy but loving Helen Kroger.

The attention to period detail and suspense does slow the pace, but I felt it just about sustained its length. In many ways its an old-fashioned evening, but Hannah Chissick’s impeccable production brings out all the psychological and emotional impact of this true story and makes it a very worthwhile revival.

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In my experience, you rarely see a show at it’s best on press night – too much pressure – and this one appears to have had a bad one. Well, based on a performance two days later, even though it has its faults, I’m much more positive than the critics.

When I first heard they were going to do it at the Menier, I thought it was an unsuitable venue. I first saw it 35 years ago in the Palladium, then 4 years ago in a big top outside Chichester Festival Theatre, so this is on an entirely different scale. As it turns out, in the round, with a big floor to play on, it combines spectacle and intimacy, and there’s a certain frisson having a man juggling with knives inches away from your face!

It’s a very American story, about a real life showman and proprietor of a circus and ‘museum’, which seem to be more like ‘freak shows’, featuring as they do the world’s oldest woman and tiny Tom Thumb. He goes on to promote (and bed) Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, and later into politics, though not quite as far as President Barnum – this is the late 19th century, not the early 21st! He eventually returns to the circus in partnership with James Bailey to form the very successful Barnum & Bailey.

Cy Coleman’s score has some great tunes, with some particularly good ensemble set pieces such as One Brick at a Time, Come Follow the Band and Join the Circus. It is here we find the real strength of the show, and this production, with a terrific ensemble who can sing and dance and is full of circus skills, some of which take your breath away.

Laura Pitt-Pulford is excellent as Barnum’s wife Chairy and it’s great to see another Corrie exile, Tupele Dorgu, prove to be as good on stage as the small screen. In truth Marcus Brigstocke isn’t a good enough singer or a seasoned enough performer for the role of Barnum, but his likeability means he pulls it off, just, and he stayed on the tightrope the night we went!

I loved Paul Farnsworth’s design, and Gordon Greenberg’s staging and Rebecca Howell’s sensational choreography deliver the spectacle the show needs. There were some sightline issues; we missed a couple of key moments on what appeared to be an elevated platform in front of the band but for us behind a pillar, and a few more short ones high behind us, but overall it was a great use of the Menier space, which in this configuration seemed a lot bigger.

Better than the critics will have you believe and well worth a punt.

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For the second time in a month, I am in awe of a talented team’s ability to breathe new life into a somewhat twee old warhorse. This is as much of a treat as Half a Sixpence.

It’s a love story set in a perfumerie in 1940’s Budapest. Amalia is in love with her pen pal ‘Dear Friend’ who’s closer to home than she thinks. One of the shop’s sales clerks is having an affair with owner Maraczek’s wife. Young delivery boy Arpad is desperate to become a sales clerk. It’s the third adaptation of Hungarian Miklos Laszio’s novel, following a James Stewart film and a Judy Garland film musical, originally staged in London in 1964. They don’t come sweeter than this.

I wasn’t that keen on the 1994 West End revival, in which life imitated art as it brought stars John Gordon Sinclair and Ruthie Henshall together, but I warmed to it in the Landor’s revival last year. Now, like Sixpence, a combination of perfect ingredients – venue, staging & choreography, design, and performances – combine to create what may prove to be the definitive production. There’s a terrific café scene to end Act I, and the second half is full of show-stopping numbers like Arpad’s Try Me, Amalia’s Where’s My Shoe, Georg’s title song and Ilona’s Trip to the Library

Let’s start with Paul Farnsworth’s stunning design, creating a beautiful period parfumerie (with a lot of bottles), with no less than four revolves, that smoothly turns into a cafe, bedroom and the street, and his gorgeous costumes. Rebecca Howell’s chirpy choreography is a delight, especially in the somewhat manic Twelve Days if Christmas. Catherine Jayes’ band plays brilliantly.

The whole cast is terrific, but Scarlett Strallen deserves a special mention, returning to the Menier after her success in Candide, as does Mark Umbers as Georg, returning to the scene of two previous triumphs in Sweet Charity & Merrily We Roll Along, as her love interest. Katherine  Kingsley provides another of her show-stealing turns as Ilona and 17-year-old Callum Howells is an absolute delight as Arpad. It’s staged to perfection by Matthew White, who already has three Menier hits under his belt.

This is an absolutely unmissable seasonal treat.

 

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August is wild west musicals month, though you have to go to the home counties to see them! First up is the Annie Get Your Gun tour in Woking; the principle reason for seeing it being Emma Williams’ Annie Oakley.

Irving Berlin’s most famous show is actually based on the true story of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (yes, it was real and it even toured Europe!) and in particular sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Oakley breathes new life into this touring entertainment, though not without ruffling a few feathers, notably erstwhile champion Frank Butler. It may have been the first (and only?) musical to feature an Indian chief (not a native American in 1946). The reason it has survived is a score with one of the best opening numbers ever – There’s No Business Like Show Business – that’s packed full of what are now standards, like The Girl That I Marry, They Say It’s Wonderful and Anything You Can Do.

This is high quality touring fare, directed with great panache by Ian Talbot. Paul Farnsworth’s big top set, with the band onstage, limits the playing space for the 18-strong cast but makes it both more intimate and faster moving, and Lizzi Gee’s inventive choreography turns it into an advantage. I saw the first outing of this version, revised by Peter Shore for Broadway in 1999, with Bernadette Peters (who didn’t really suit the role) and this is a whole lot better.

Emma Williams is simply superb as Annie, making the transition from unknown tomboy to famous entertainer, singing these lovely songs beautifully. She must be the finest West End leading lady without the hit show she so richly deserves – she’s had artistic successes, notably the wonderful Howard Goodall musical Love Story, but she’s never had an artistic AND commercial hit. Someone correct that soon, please. Jason Donovan was either seriously under the weather, which I suspect, or he’s seriously undercast. He seemed to be going through the motions, totally lacking the sparkle of his co-star and singing poorly. To be frank, l was disappointed they didn’t send on his understudy in the second half.

This is West End ready, but somehow I don’t think, in the present climate, it will get the transfer it deserves.

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I’d only ever seen Candide on a big scale – Scottish Opera at the Old Vic in 1988, the NT in the Olivier in 1999 and the biggest of all, ENO at the ginormous London Coliseum in 2008. So forgive me for a ‘WTF?’ when this operetta was announced as the Menier’s Christmas show.

The theatre’s configuration for this has the audience on four sides with a mezzanine behind them and stage entrances on three sides and this works well (from where we were, but I suspect not for all). There are doors and windows in the mezzanine, with stairs down on two sides. The rest of Paul Farnsworth ‘s clever design is period costumes and the odd prop.

The story of Candide’s adventurous journey from fictitious Westphalia through Holland, Lisbon, Paris, Cadiz, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, mythical Eldorado and Surinam to Venice is completely preposterous, but there’s some lovely music and enough funny business to keep you amused. The four romantic leads are excellent – Fra Fee as Candide, David Thaxton as Maximilian, the lovely Cassidy Janson as Paquette and (under Rule 7 of musical theatre casting, stating that you must have a Strallen) the wonderful Scarlett Strallen.

Unfortunately, they’ve also cast James Dreyfuss as Pangloss and Jackie Clune as Old Lady, neither of whom are up to the roles (particularly when compared with Simon Russell Beale at the NT and Patricia Routledge at the Old Vic!); it undermines rather than ruins it, but its a shame. There’s some good choreography from Adam Cooper no less and good musical standards from the small (for Candide) band of nine under Seann Alderking. Matthew White has staged it with brio and it doesn’t feel its length.

If you go expecting high art, you’ll come out disappointed. If you go expecting musically up-market panto, you’ll have fun. I did.

 

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Minutes into the frenetic first scene of this musical farce, memories of seeing the Ken Ludwig play on which it is based 25 years ago in the same theatre came flooding back and the thought ‘what am I doing here?’ went round and round in my head. I hated the play; what made me think it might make a good musical?! Gaudy sets and costumes (a mauve and gold colour scheme! – designer Paul Farnsworth) with flats that wobble and shimmer unintentionally (?), OTT performances, Italian stereotypes with shaddap you face accents, dodgy wigs, mistaken identities and more slamming doors than you’ve seen since the last farce you went to. Yet, somehow I succumbed to its old-fashioned innocent charms and found myself smiling, then giggling, then belly laughing. It turned into a guilty pleasure.

We’re in Cleveland in 1934 awaiting the arrival of Italian superstar tenor Tito Merelli, whose one-night-only performance will rescue the opera house…..provided nothing goes wrong. Of course, it does – he’s late, he’s sick, he likes a drink and forever rows with his wife. The Opera House owner’s daughter is besotted with him, as are his three ex-wives who run the opera guild, the soprano singing Desdemona to his Otello and most of the chorus. Oh, and the shrimps for the post-performance reception are on the turn!

Of course, he can’t perform and prompter Max (the opera house manager’s daughter’s suitor!) pretends to be him. As broad musical comedy morphs into farce in the second act, we get three Otello’s in costume entering and exiting the six doors as is both customary and mandatory in farce. Impersonating the tenor as Otello, manager Henry ends up with the soprano and Max with his daughter. Tito’s wife returns and the denouement unfolds…..

The real reason for seeing this is a full set of fine musical comedy performances and the slickness of the comedy timing. Sophie-Louise Dann makes a terrific American broad / diva and her opera greatest hits ‘mash-up’ is a highlight of the evening. Damian Humbley and Michael Matus are excellent as Max and Tito respectively, with voices good enough to get away with the pseudo operatic demands. It’s great to see fringe favourite Cassidy Janson get a shot at a big role and she doesn’t disappoint as Maggie. Matthew Kelly presides over this as an old pro totally in command of his material. Joanna Riding’s undoubted talents are a bit wasted in the smallish part of the tenor’s wife (for the second time this year in this very theatre, having been wasted in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg immediately before this). Amongst the supporting cast, it’s great to see Gay Soper again.

The only other  musical farce I can recall is Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It doesn’t have a score that good, but Brad Carroll’s music is decent enough, Peter Sham’s book & lyrics are good and the 24 strong cast and 15 piece band get the best out of them. Ian Talbot’s experience as a director and actor with both musicals and comedy means it runs like a well oiled machine and the cast’s enthusiasm is infectious.

It won’t change your life, it’s unlikely to be your highlight of the year, but there are a whole lot of less enjoyable evenings in the West End and for me this one was a pleasant surprise.

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