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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Bates’

The first time I saw this Sondheim show was English National Opera’s London premiere at one of the capital’s biggest theatres, the Coliseum. Now here I am 27 years later at the opposite end of the theatre scale at the tiny Union Theatre, which has just 2% of the Coli’s capacity. In between, there have been a few more, most notably a visiting production from Chicago at the Donmar in the round (square) in 2003, which was the best of them all. This show, one of Sondheim’s most ambitious and cleverest, but difficult to pull off, suits more intimate spaces.

It starts in Japan in the mid-19th century; the country has been isolated for 250 years when an American ship turns up demanding an audience with the Emperor. The first half is mostly a description of life in Japan, it’s cultural peculiarities and political intricacies. They find an elegant solution to the American’s demand by finding a stand-in for the Emperor and creating an audience space of mats that can be destroyed afterwards, enabling them to claim the barbarians never set foot on Japanese soil. The show is telling the story from the Japanese perspective and the score has a strong Japanese influence. In truth, this part is too long and too slow, though its imaginative and intriguing with some lovely tunes.

The much shorter second half packs a real punch, starting with Please Hello, a terrific comic number with ambassadors turning up from the US, UK, Holland, Russia and France, all wanting a piece of the trading action. The initial brush-off clearly hasn’t worked. We see the effect of the ‘westernisation’ distilled into just one song, A Bowler Hat, then the backlash distilled into another, Pretty Lady. In the end we jump forward to the present day to see how this all plays out in Next.

Here, the musical standards are high, with Richard Bates band sounding lovely with reeds and cello, and some great singing from a vocally strong cast. Director Michael Strassen applies his trademark minimalist elegance with a simple but evocative design and costumes by Jean Gray. The puppet emperor is indeed a puppet, screens are used to great effect, actors transform quickly from locals to visitors with the addition of sailor collars and the staging is infused with Japanese theatrical motifs. I felt the choreography was sometimes over-elaborate and the performances sometimes too camp, but overall the staging was effective.

In an all-male cast, Ken Christiansen had great presence as the Reciter (narrator) and Ian Mowat was excellent in multiple roles as diverse as geisha Madam and British Admiral. Oli Reynolds was so good as Kayama it’s hard to believe he’s graduating this year, and there were a number of other impressive performances and professional debuts from recent drama school graduates. A very talented ensemble indeed.

It’s great to see this show again (after eleven years!), and great to see it in an intimate space once more.

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It’s beginning to look like the Union Theatre’s all-male Gilbert & Sullivan’s are going to become as permanent a feature as Propeller’s all-male Shakespeare’s. This one is the fourth and the best!

The material itself is even more suited to the concept than it’s predecessors The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe. A satire on 19th century aestheticism featuring the rivalry between Grosvenor and Bunthorne for the heart of milkmaid Patience, whilst  a bunch of infatuated Lady’s and maiden’s swoon, pout and sigh, ignoring the attentions of a bunch of dragoons seeking to court and marry them!

Stiofan O’Doherty and Dominic Brewer are perfect as the vain effete aesthetes wrapped up in a world of poetry and beauty. Edward Charles Bernstone is a delight as (s)he moves back and forth between her two suitors. The dragoons are cartoon soldiers, clumsy & naive but lovable, in their tweed jackets, bowler hats, black boots and big belts. The Lady’s Jane, Angela, Saphir and Ella are all brilliantly played by Sean Quigley, James Lacey, Mark Gillon and Matthew Marwick, each a different personality, and the maidens (some doubling up as dragoons) glide along the stage in flower print frocks and cardies, brilliantly choreographed by Drew McOnie.

The musical standards are extraordinary (how do you find that many men who can sing that high?!) and the performances beyond charming. Kingsley Hall’s design is inspired. Even MD Richard Bates, who plays the whole score heroically on a solo piano, dons a frock! I smiled from beginning to end of this faultless production by Sasha Regan – and I’m not even a G&S fan! 

If you like musical theatre and you don’t like this, you’ll need therapy. GO!

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The Union Theatre’s pre-eminence as the home of  musical theatre continues with this very welcome revival of a preposterous & implausible but delightful & charming 60’s American homage / spoof of the golden age of 30’s film musicals.

In the first act, we’re on the stage of a broadway theatre where final rehearsals are underway for that night’s opening of a show starring the legendary Mona Kent. Stage struck Ruby arrives by bus from Utah and gets to replace the chorus girl whisked away by a rich punter. Newly enlisted sailor and songwriting wannabe Dick (from the same town in Utah!) then turns up and gets a song accepted by predatory Mona and falls in love with Ruby. Fellow sailor Lucky arrives looking for Dick (!) and falls in love with fellow chorus girl Joan. The demolition of the theatre means the show can’t open but the sailors have a plan – and we’ve only been going 50 minutes!

In the second half, the show must go on, so it’s staged on the navy ship, Mona is seasick so Ruby gets her big break and a star is born. We end with the triple wedding of Dick & Ruby, Lucky & Joan and Mona with the ship’s captain, an old flame…..and we’ve only been going another 50 minutes in real-time and only a day in stage time!

It has an excellent score beautifully sung and played well by just two pianos (MD: Richard Bates) and there are some very funny lines. Kirk Jameson’s revival, with excellent choreography from Drew McOnie, is pitch perfect, balancing the tongue-in-cheek parody with romantic charm. They are lucky to have a stunning cast. It’s great to see Rosemary Ashe on the fringe and she’s every inch the Broadway diva with a booming voice and terrific comic timing. Gemma Sutton and Catriana Sandison are both superb as the girls and Daniel Bartlett and Alan Hunter equally superb as the boys. Ian Mowatt and Anthony Wise provide fine comic cameos as the ship’s captain and theatre director respectively. In an outstanding ensemble there’s another Strallen, Sasi (exactly how many are there?!) and two impressive professional debuts from recent Arts Ed graduates Matt Gillett and Joshua Tonks.

It’s a delightful, charing and funny evening that is unmissable for any lover of musical theatre.

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