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Posts Tagged ‘Penn O’Gara’

The 1953 film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is much better known than this 1949 Jule Styne musical on which it was based. The Broadway show took 13 years to get to London and has only had one revival since then, at the Open Air Theatre 21 years ago, so a revival at the Union Theatre is to be welcomed.

I’ve lost track of how many Broadway shows are set on cruise liners or trains, but here’s another one. Follies dancers Lorelei Lee, from Little Rock Arkansas, and her best friend and chaperone Dorothy Shaw are heading for Paris, a trip funded by Lorelei’s betrothed, button king Gus Esmond Jr., who is planning to join them later. On the journey they meet Mrs Spofford, Philadelphia’s richest woman, who loves a drink, and her son Henry, zipper king Josephus Cage and British toffs Sir Francis and Lady Beekman. On the journey Lorelei flirts with Sir Francis and Henry and Dorothy with a group of Olympic athletes! Lorelei discovers Gus has gone to Little Rock with his dad to check out her background and worries they will uncover her secret. She gets Sir Francis to secretly fund the purchase of his wife’s tiara, makes a play for Josephus and fixes up Dorothy with Henry. When we get to Paris its all French stereotypes, dodgy accents and jokes at their expense. The Beekman’s arrive from London and Gus from Little Rock, later followed by his dad, and the story of buttons and zippers plays out in a night club, ending happily ever after, obviously, with two marriages.

It’s a big show that requires big resources, but the material doesn’t really deserve them. Jule Styne’s score comes to life occasionally (notably during its most famous number, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend) but is mostly undistinguished. Anita Loos & Joseph Fields’ book, based on Loos novel, and Leo Robin’s lyrics are both weak, lacking the wit and sparkle a musical comedy requires. Though I saw the Open Air Theatre’s production, it only became clear this time why it is rarely revived. This production is at its best in the chorus numbers and in Zak Nemorin’s well choreographed set pieces. With just piano and drums it’s a bit underpowered musically, and I wondered if a solo piano might have been better if a bigger band wasn’t possible. Justin Williams and Penn O’Gara’s designs give it a great period look, well lit by Hector Murray. Eighteen is a big cast for the Union, including a handful of very welcome professional stage debuts, and they work hard and enthusiastically. Somewhat ironically, it sparkled most when the bar became the Paris club, as the interval transformed and transferred to the theatre for the second act; elsewhere Sasha Regan’s production lacked oomph, though this may have been partly due to first night nerves.

Good to catch it again, though, despite my reservations about the material.

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It’s taken thirteen years for Arthur Miller’s last play to cross the Atlantic, and on this showing you can’t help wondering why. As if the Finborough Theatre didn’t have enough feathers in its cap, here’s another one for this European premiere of a fascinating play.

Though Miller insisted it was a work of fiction, he is clearly revisiting a period in his life he first did with After the Fall forty years before. His five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe was disintegrating during the filming of The Misfits in 1960, for which Miller wrote the screenplay, and it’s hard not to see this play as based that real-life experience.

We’re on a troubled film set where the leading lady’s behaviour is raising a lot of eyebrows. Famous director Derek Clemson is desperate to complete his film, cinematographer Terry Case anxious she looks right in his shots and Philip Oschner, the producer sent by the company’s new owners, just wants to finish it before his boss closes it down. Actress Kitty’s assistant Edna and coach Flora try and keep her together; they even fly in Flora’s husband Jerome, another coach. Our other character is screenwriter and Kitty’s husband Paul, their marriage breaking down before our eyes.

There are a couple of striking things about the play. The first is that it revolves around a character we never see, and the second is that the third act is made up almost entirely of a series of monologues by all of the characters talking to Kitty through a gap in the doorway of her hotel room. Most of the characters are probably archetypes or ‘composites’, as Miller said, but there are too many parallels between Kitty and Monroe and Phil and himself to make this anything other than an exorcism of a troubled period sixty-five years before, through guilt perhaps.

I much admired Phil Willmott’s staging and the work of design team Isabella Van Braeckel (set), Penn O’Gara (costumes), Rachel Sampley (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound). Oliver Le Sueur creates a totally believable period perfect rookie producer in Philip. Jeremy Drakes, with the help of some specs perhaps, actually looks like Miller and I very much liked his restrained performance. Rachel Handshaw makes much of her role as assistant Edna, embarking on a relationship with producer Philip. Patrick Bailey looks and sounds every bit the down-to-earth cinematographer Terry. Stephen Billington, Nicky Goldie and Tony Wredden complete the picture with fine characterisations.

For a Miller fan like me, this is a huge treat, but it’s a decent play regardless, and a lot better than the other two of the final trio – Mr Peter’s Connections and Resurrection Blues – which I’d recommend to anyone.

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Opera directors regularly take liberties with the work of dead composers, but this isn’t Carmen the opera, and Phil Willmott won’t be the first person to rob Bizet’s grave – Oscar Hammerstein did it for his musical Carmen Jones and Matthew Bourne for his dance piece Car Man. What Willmott has done is create a largely new story, set some 12 years before Prosper Merimee’s novella, on which the book for the opera was based, when Napoleon’s army had taken Spain. It’s inspired by a Goya painting, which appears to have dramatically changed his life. In two highly effective coup d’theatre, they create a tableau of this painting and dramatise the effect on Goya, who is the narrator.

There are elements of Merimee’s  story – the cigarette factory and Carmen herself, now a resistance spy  – but not a bullfight in sight. In essence, it’s the story of a fight for independence, though it sometimes can’t make its mind up if it’s Spain or Catalonia, in recognition of recent events. He’s placed Bizet’s tunes into this story, arranged by Teddy Clements, with new lyrics and book by himself. The recycling of the tunes works well.

Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s design is excellent, as are the costumes of Penn O’Gara and the lighting of Ben Jacobs, and it’s a great use of the Union’s space. There are some thrilling dances choreographed by Adam Haigh, where recordings of Bizet’s orchestral score are used to rousing effect. Otherwise, it was played on piano, with occasional guitar. Rachel Lea-Gray was very good indeed as Carmen, supported by an enthusiastic and passionate cast of sixteen.

I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but there’s much to enjoy here.

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This new musical is based on the true story of a West Country vagrant who fooled ‘society’ into believing her to be an exotic princess. It was the subject of a 1994 film (co-written by John Wells, no less) and a 2012 novel by Catherine Johnson, but I’d never heard of it! It was intended for a big-scale production in Bristol, but that never materialised, so the Finborough Theatre has the privilege of presenting its world premiere.

An Iberian sailor introduces the ‘princess’ to benevolent aristocrats Sir Charles & Lady Elizabeth Worrall. She reminds them of their dear departed daughter and they ‘adopt’ her and introduce her to society. Their destitute nephew Eddie returns from his travels at sea and attempts to decipher her language, in the process of which he falls for her and she for him. His old school chum, now Lord Marlborough, a better catch, also courts her, though his attraction seems to be more lust than love. She is eventually found out and her benefactors humiliated by The Times revelations of the truth. She returns to poverty before finding her escape route.

It’s good subject matter for a musical and Phil Willmott has done a very good job adapting it for the stage, though the opening is a bit muddled as we’re presented with an illustrated ‘lecture’ by Worrall, with scenes played out by his staff. The lecture as narration might work better on its own without the play-within-a-play idea. The shows strongest point is a lovey, tuneful score by Willmott and Mark Collins, here very well sung (though occasionally a touch more vocal restraint by some would have made it even better) with excellent orchestrations played by a trio of keyboards, violin & winds led by MD Freddie Tapner

You can see how it would work on a bigger scale, though it works perfectly well on this scale, with ten performers playing all of the roles. Choreographer Thomas Michael Voss even manages to get some effective dance & movement in this tiny space. The production values are very good, with a simple uncluttered design by Toby Burbridge, making particularly good use of a large mirror and models of houses and ships, and Penn O’Gara’s costumes are excellent. It’s a fine cast without a weak link. Phil Sealey and Sarah Lawn were delightful as the Worrall’s, Christian James made a charming Eddie and Nikita Johal a fine Princess. I was particularly impressed by Oliver Stanley as Marlborough, as close to a baddie as we get in this show.

It’s refreshing to have a new musical whose setting isn’t contemporary, which has more than four characters and which isn’t Sondheimesque! I’m sure this won’t be its last outing, but anyone interested in musical theatre should head for the Finborough in the next two weeks.

 

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