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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Quast’

It’s thirty years since I saw a large-scale production of this show – it’s first, and only, West End outing – though there were three others in quick succession between 2002 and 2010 – a semi-staged version at the Royal Festival Hall, a delightful fringe production at the Landor and another in Walthamstow during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations. Along with A Little Night Music, it’s never been my favourite Sondheim show, though it contains some of his best songs, but just five days after a stunning revival of that other show in Newbury, here we are at the National being blown away by Dominic Cooke’s sensational production, taking us back to the original Broadway version without interval. Now, where did I put my superlatives thesaurus……

It’s a reunion at the New York theatre where the Weismann Follies were between the wars. It’s about to be demolished and the girls of the 30’s and 40’s have been invited back one last time. Nostalgia gives way to regret for lost love and lost opportunities, as the main characters Buddy & Sally and Ben & Phyllis reminisce. There have been follies in their lives as well as Follies in their careers, and we learn how their relationships were formed and how they progressed. All four have the ‘ghosts’ of their former selves onstage, as do ten of the other stars from the past. Interwoven with their story, and ‘character songs’ as Sondheim calls them, we have routines and turns reenacted and a pastiche called Loveland within which all four leads sing of their individual follies.

Imelda Staunton follows her Mrs Lovett, Rose and Martha with another stupendous performance as Sally. It’s wonderful to see Philip Quast again, on fine form too as Ben, and Janine Dee is a terrific acid-tonged Phyllis, a particularly fine dancer as it turns out. Peter Forbes is less of a musicals regular, but he makes a great Buddy. Another piece of surprising but inspired casting is Di Botcher as Hattie, delivering Broadway Baby as if she was. Tracie Bennett takes I’m Still Here hostage with a particularly ballsy rendition, and the duet between opera singers Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as older and younger Heidi is another stand-out moment in a show full of them. Dawn Hope’s Stella gamely leads the veterans in a thrilling tap dancing number with their former selves. The National is saved from prosecution by the musicals police by casting a Strallen, Zizzi, as Young Phyllis. This teally is a stunner of a cast.

Dominic Cooke isn’t known for musicals, but teamed with choreographer Bill Deamer, he’s done a great job, an elegant staging which is brash when it needs to be, at other times restrained and often very moving. Vicki Mortimer has created an atmospheric set and fantastic costumes. The unbroken 130 minutes was packed full of showstoppers and by the time we got to Loveland, I was overwhelmed and deeply moved. I think my previous, less enthusiastic reaction is down to timing. I was too young and too new to Sondheim and wasn’t really ready for this show – until now.

To the 37 performers and 21 musicians on stage, and the 200 production staff, and of course Messrs Sondheim & Goldman, it was worth every second of your time and effort. Unforgettable.

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Continuing my never ending, and I suspect pointless, search to understand Beckett with the Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot at the Barbican Theatre just six weeks after seeing their Endgame in Sydney, also with Hugo Weaving. At three hours, it’s my longest Godot, but it’s also probably the best.

Each production finds something different and this one is funnier and crueler. It’s set in some huge abandoned industrial landscape. Vladimir and Estragon pass the time over two days waiting for Godot, interrupted only by two visits from the blind Pozzo and his dumb ‘slave’ Lucky and two from a boy bringing a message from Godot that he won’t make it until tomorrow. They feel a sense of achievement when they fill time successfully and a sense of hopelessness when they don’t. The attempted diversions are many, but time still drags them down. We see the warmth of companionship and friendship along the way, but pointlessness and despair predominate.

There is much more physicality to the performances, whether it be the pantomime of removing and replacing shoes, changing hats, falling down and picking themselves and others up or the poor treatment of Lucky. They use the vastness of the stage well, but occasionally sit on the front providing intimate moments too. It’s funnier but it’s also more desperate. It seemed more full of contradictions, more expansive and more poignant. Director Andrew Upton suggests it’s creation was particularly collaborative as he had to take the helm at a late stage and somehow you really felt that.

Unlike The Elephant Man last week, but like Endgame six weeks ago, this is no star vehicle. A lot of people are clearly there for Weaving, and he doesn’t disappoint, but they get four fine performances and a much better, if obtuse, play. I’m used to seeing Philip Quast in musicals, so its a treat to see him give such a terrific performance as Pozzo. Richard Roxburgh is Weaving’s equal and the chemistry between them is palpable. Luke Mullins makes so much of Lucky, lurching around the stage and almost falling off twice.

For once my front row cheap seat was a bonus, giving me a close-up view of such thrilling acting. I’m not that much wiser, but it was a theatrical feast nonetheless.

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I wasn’t going to blog this because I considered it a concert and I confine those to my monthly round-ups (life’s too short!). I changed my mind because it’s more than a concert, I’ve got a lot to say about it and I woke up with it going round in my head. I’ve seen this show more than any other, including Pimlico Opera, The Royal Opera and Opera North (with Welsh National Opera already booked for later this year), but mostly fully staged by theatre companies, latterly Chichester Festival Theatre, the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Harrington’s Pie Shop here in Tooting, now ‘up west’ and I will confess to being a touch biased, though still I think objective.

I was in the US when the original US ‘production’ was aired on PBS, but it was timed for the east coast and I was on the west coast and couldn’t stay awake for the whole thing. It starts as a seemingly straightforward concert with the orchestra on stage and the singers mostly in DJ’s and gowns. In a superbly audacious move, they throw down the scores, overturn the music stands, tear off the formal clothes and generally rough the place up. What follows is semi-staged with a few props, some cleverly purloined from the orchestra, banners from the boxes announcing the location of the scenes and a graffiti backdrop. It works, but it isn’t staged.

One of the chief pleasures is hearing this score from a full orchestra on stage; it does sound brilliant. The chorus too is full throated (sorry!) and by moving around the stage and auditorium it animates the ‘staging’. I’m a huge fan of Bryn Terfel and I’ve seen him as Sweeney before, in another semi-staged production at the Royal Festival Hall. His booming baritone suits the role superbly, though he isn’t as scary as he was closer up at the RFH (or as Scarpia in Tosca) and his operatic style of singing sometimes loses words, as opera singers often do. Emma Thompson proves to be a terrific comic actress, relishing Mrs Lovett’s brilliant lines and lyrics, though I’ve seen better vocal Mrs Lovett’s. It’s great to see Philip Quast again and he’s wonderful as the Judge, as is John Owen-Jones as Pirelli and Katie Hall as Johanna, singing the role beautifully. I’m also a fan of Alex Gaumond, but I thought he was too young and not oily enough as The Beadle, and the Beggar Woman isn’t a role which does justice to Rosalie Craig’s extraordinary musical theatre talent. Matthew Seadon-Yoiung and Jack North were good rather than great as Anthony and Tobias respectively, the later with a very off-putting Rod Stewart wig whilst working for Pirelli!

It was a much-hyped show and the audience reaction was ecstatic, saving the biggest ovation, quite rightly, for Mr Sondheim himself. I’m very glad I went, though I don’t consider it the pinnacle for this show that some do. I wasn’t as scared and I didn’t laugh as much as I did down the road and that’s the one I would return to – and will, fully accepting accusations of bias.

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Well, either this has improved immeasurably since opening or I’m easily pleased. Put off initially by the obscene ticket prices (top price £85 – 30% higher than any West End musical), then by the mediocre blogs and reviews and on arrival at the theatre by the £6 programme, things didn’t look promising…….but I absolutely loved it!

I’ve only seen the show twice before – in 1998 in the West End when Gemma Craven was a rather glib Nellie but Bertice Reading a terrific Bloody Mary and at the NT in 2001 when Philip Quast was an excellent Emile but John Napier’s designs and Matthew Bourne’s choreography were the stars. Neither was cast as well as this, where every role is well played and beautifully sung. The musical standards are particularly high with the orchestra playing the score so well both the overture and entr’acte were highlights in themselves.

Samantha Womack is a revelation – sweet-voiced and gorgeous, with an excellent American accent, riding Nellie’s emotional roller coaster superbly. Jason Howard (well, I think it was him – I refused to pay the £6 for the programme!) is excellent, with a lovely baritone voice that does full justice to the songs Rogers & Hammerstein wrote for Emile. Daniel Koek is a fine voiced, handsome Joe and Loretta Ables Sayre a darker Bloody Mary than we’re used to. Alex Fearns showed us his musical comedy credentials in the touring version of the Menier’s Little Shop of Horrors and he confirms them here with a brilliant characterisation as Billis.

In addition to its exceptional musical standards, where this production scores for me is on an emotional level. You really do engage with the characters, their novel situation and their love – it is often deeply moving. The show was way ahead of its time in the 50’s with a war setting and racism to the fore, and with such wonderful songs (and boy, what a score!) it’s easy to bury the issues in the palm trees and grass skirts. They’ve certainly not done that here and for me that’s the real success of Bartlett’s Sher’s production.

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