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Posts Tagged ‘Renee Lamb’

I hadn’t got to London when this first hit the West End in 1979, but I did get to see it at the Tricycle Theatre in 1995, on it’s way to a West End revival. It’s a surprise we’ve had to wait 24 years for this second revival, at Southwark Playhouse.

It’s a revue subtitled ‘The Fats Waller Musical’, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr, which celebrates black American jazz performers of the 20’s and 30’s, and Waller in particular, taking its title from one of his songs. There’s no story as such, just a feast of song and dance, most of the songs mini-stories in themselves. I was surprised at how many of them were familiar to me, thirty packed into ninety frenetic minutes.

Designer takis has turned Southwark Playhouse into a period club, with a glittering gold multi-level bandstand (no room for the drummer, who’s relegated offstage!) and a shiny gold dance-floor. Tyrone Huntley’s direction and Oti Mabuse’s choreography make great use of the space, though the use of the entrances brought sightline issues. Mark Dickman’s arrangements make it sound much more than a five-piece band, who play very well. Sadly, the Southwark sound gremlins were at it again, and we missed too many lyrics.

Overall, despite a talented, hard-working cast – Adrian Hansel, Renee Lamb, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Landi Oshinowo & Wayne Robinson – it didn’t fully take off for me, but given the enthusiasm of the rest of the audience, I put this down to our front row seats and associated sound issues, though I did wonder if the space was too small for it to breathe fully.

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I’ve had a soft spot for this Howard Ashman / Alan Menken musical since I saw the original London production 35 years ago. It was successfully revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory 12 years ago, heading off on tour afterwards. Now it’s the latest in the Open Air Theatre’s summer musicals, the 31st I think, reinvented by director Maria Aberg and designer Tom Scutt.

Based on Roger Corman’s iconic 1960 b-movie, the musical was an instant hit off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the West End, where it ran for two years. When it was itself made into a film, the budget was 1000 times that of the original (which gave Jack Nicholson his screen debut). You wouldn’t think it was a natural for the leafy green Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but it works. Scutt has built a B&W cartoon New York City, with a riot of colour provided by the characters and the plants of Mushnik’s shop where geeky Seymour breeds Audrey II and is in love with Audrey (I), his fellow shop assistant, who has a sadistic dentist as a boyfriend.

Audrey II becomes a sensation, leading to radio & TV interviews for Seymour and lots of new customers for the shop, but Seymour has been feeding the plant with his own blood and can hardly keep up. He ends up feeding it whole people, starting with Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, as the fame leads to magazine features, TV’s first gardening programme and a plant cutting franchise which sees plants take over America. Audrey II is normally voiced by an offstage actor / singer, but Aberg’s big idea is to bring her alive and onstage in the form of American drag queen Vicky Vox and a handful of assistants, and though a good idea, I didn’t think it really worked. Towards the end, they turned up the excess dial and it became pure fantasy with a stage full of colourful SciFi plants raising the non-existent roof in the finale of Don’t Feed the Plants. With what seemed like an additional song turning it into a bit of a rock concert, the cast invading the auditorium and green pods flying around, the audience went wild and you just had to give in.

It’s very well cast, with Marc Antolin shining as Seymour. I don’t associate Jemima Rooper and Forbes Mason with musical theatre, but they both did a great job as Audrey and Mr Mushnik. Busted’s Matt Willis was excellent as Orin the sadistic dentist, plus four great cameos as TV exec, (female) magazine editor, agent and business guru. Ms Vox was outrageous and cheeky; I’m not sure what the parents of the kids in the audience made of it. The show is famous for it’s chorus of three black girl singers (Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette – get it), an idea Tony Kushner and Jane Tesori stole for Caroline, or Change twenty years later, and Seyi Omoomba, Renee Lamb and Christina Modestou were all great.

I’ve got mixed views really. Part of me missed the nostalgic, b-movie aesthetic and part of me admired the reinvention, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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