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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Foster’

I’ve had a soft spot for this late show by the writers of Cabaret & Chicago since I saw the UK professional premiere at the much missed Landor Theatre in 2012, five years after it first hit Broadway. I’d seen a drama school production at GSMD two years before, when I was somewhat underwhelmed, but at the Landor, in Robert McWhir’s production, it shone, as it does here in Paul Fosters’ touring production on a way bigger scale which has just finished its short unscheduled Christmas visit to the West End and is back on tour in Wimbledon.

The show within the show is a Boston try-out for a musical adaptation of Robin Hood set in Kansas. At the curtain call, the leading lady dies and when Lieutenant Frank Cioffi arrives at the theatre, they learn that it was murder. As he’s concluded the killer must be one of them, everyone involved in the show is confined to the theatre whilst the investigation takes place. They continue to change and rehearse the show ready for Broadway, with the stage struck Lieutenant as involved in this as he is in the murder investigation. Add in a love story, the reunion of an estranged couple, the relationship between a starlet and her mother, a lot about the business of putting on a show and more deaths and you have a musical whodunnit.

I loved the way it moved seamlessly from show to investigation, with John Kandor’s score even better than I remembered, and very sharp and funny lines in Rupert Holmes book and Fred Ebb’s lyrics. It sits well on the huge Wimbledon stage given its a touring production that has to fit theatres of all shapes and sizes – Wimbledon is twice the size of it’s West End home. Alistair David’s choreography and Sarah Travis’ musical arrangements for Alex Beetschen’s excellent nine-piece band play a big part in the success of this production.

It’s superbly cast, led by Jason Manford who really suits the role of the Lieutenant, with the charm to pull off the stagestruck and lovestruck elements, good vocals, and he moves well. Not bad for someone relatively new to musical theatre. I loved Rebecca Lock as theatre producer Carmen Bernstein, clearly relishing her sharp-tongued character, being cruel to be kind to her daughter on the stage, and Samuel Holmes as the British director Christopher Belling whose sarcasm is a match for Carmen’s vitriol; between them they get all the best lines.

Rupert Holmes also wrote the book for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the only other whodunnit musical I know. This one is much more successful and it’s great to see it 5 miles away from where I last saw it, in a theatre ten times the size. It’s now left London, but continues its tour for three more months. Catch it if you can.

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This and Follies (which I’m seeing again in three days time) haven’t been my favourite Sondheim shows – I’ve always considered them a bit conventional, even old-fashioned, in comparison with the rest of his work. Well, that was until Saturday. This is another musical theatre triumph for the Watermill in Newbury, unquestionably the best of the four staged productions of the show I’ve seen over 28 years. It looks gorgeous, it sounds great and it’s much wittier.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around three generations of Armfeldt women – actress Desiree, her mother Leonora and daughter Fredrika. Desiree is away on tour much of the time, leaving Fredrika at home to hear her grandmother’s endless tales of liaisons with European nobles. Her ex Fredrik has a new child bride Anne, who he takes to one of her performances. Her current affair is with the pompous military dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. In the second half, they all meet at the Armfeldt home for a weekend house-party where Anne and the Count’s wife Charlotte plot, Fredrik clashes with Carl-Magnus and Fredrik’s son, trainee priest Henrik, declares his love for his step-mother. It all untangles before it ends with three happy couples and a death!

Musically, it’s one long waltz, more delightful here as the actor-musicians sometimes dance with their instruments, including cellos hooked around necks, some serving an additional purpose, such as Fredrik’s trumpet seeming to duel with Carl-Magnus’ clarinet. Watermill regular Sarah Travis has created outstanding arrangements, mostly using strings and woodwind, with the brilliant use of chimes. The book and lyrics shone like never before, much funnier than I remember. David Woodhead’s design is beautiful to look at, a brilliant evocation of time and place and a superb use of the Watermill space. Amongst its delights are the transformation from house to garden as the first half ends. I haven’t seen much of director Paul Foster’s work, but he does an absolutely splendid job here.

The cast is without a weak link. Josefina Gabrielle has great presence as Desiree, her regrets palpable and deeply moving in Send in the Clowns. Dillie Keane is a revelation as Madame Arnfeldt, with an extraordinary ability to convey things like contempt or cheekiness with facial expressions alone. I loved both Alastair Brookshaw and Alex Hammond as Fredrik and Carl-Magnus respectively, one towering over the other, both determined to win. Benedict Salter’s characterisation of Henrik was excellent. Phoebe Fildes as Charlotte transforms well from naive to vengeful, Lucy Keirl is every bit the nervous bride Anne and Tilly-Mae Millbrook is a delight as granddaughter Fredrika.

This may be the definitive revival. Two more weeks to go. Don’t miss it, Sondheim fans.

 

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The history of this 45-year old show is fascinating. Written by Jules Styne no less, based on an Arnold Bennett book and with Vincent Price & Patricia Routledge leading the original cast, it lost three directors and five librettists en route to Broadway. It closed after a month, though it won a ‘posthumous’ Tony for Routledge.

In this British premiere at the enterprising Union Theatre, it proves to be deeply old-fashioned, but I did succumb to its charms and the opportunity to see it is very welcome. Despite being a big musicals ‘name’, this was one of a lot of Styne shows this musicals lover had never even heard of – some 80% of what he actually wrote!

When a valet dies, the doctor certifying his death thinks he’s Priam Farll, his famous artist employer. At first protesting, Farll soon sees this as a welcome opportunity for anonymity. He marries the valet’s intended (Alice Challice!) and settles in Putney, a part of London seemingly inhabited by chirpy cockneys (!), which is maybe why I kept comparing it with Me & My Girl. Art dealer Clive Oxford and art collector Lady Vale continue to exploit Farll, whose value soars as he is buried in Westminster Abbey and posthumously knighted.

It’s all rather daft, with a somewhat preposterous relationship between Priam & Alice sitting alongside a more plausible satire on the art world. Even The King makes an appearance! The music is a bit sweet for a contemporary audience, though its amusing lyrically (who can resist rhyming museum with dream and lucky with duckie!). Yet, somehow it does win you over – perhaps because Paul Foster’s production has its tongue in its cheek and the cast clearly having a lot of fun is rather infectious.

The two leading ladies, Katy Secombe and Rebecca Caine, are in fine voice. The leading men, James Dinsmore and Michael Hobbs, less so – but it doesn’t really matter. The ensemble is excellent, which makes both the choruses and Matt Flint’s sprightly dances great. In addition to two Secombe’s (brother Andy plays a handful of key roles, including the deceased), there’s a dead ringer for Robbie Williams – Will Keith.

In the first few minutes, I wasn’t convinced I’d make it to the end, but it did win me over. I suspect it might be another 45 years before London sees it again, but I’m glad I did. Now I’m wondering what the other 20 I’ve never heard of are like!

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