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Posts Tagged ‘Rob Houchen’

Chichester has become the go to place for revivals of classic musicals. In recent years we’ve had very successful productions of Me & My Girl, Oklahoma, Guys & Dolls, Mack & Mabel, Half a Sixpence & She Loves Me. This one was part of the aborted 2020 festival, so the anticipation was heightened, but it has been richly rewarded. As much of a reinvention as a revival, my fourth exposure to it made me look at it anew.

Set in the Pacific islands in the middle of the Second World War, the Americans are confronting the Japanese at the same time as the allies are confronting the Nazis in Europe. Some of these islands are colonies, with plantations growing food for hungry Europe, and the island on which this American base is situated is French. With this serious backdrop, two love stories unfold, a US lieutenant with a local girl and a US Navy nurse with a French plantation owner, both relationships blighted by the racist programming of the American lovers.

Both the male suitors get caught up in a dramatic military expedition, which results in a change in the fortunes of war, though they don’t both live to see the outcome. Meanwhile, military life goes on and the forces endeavour to entertain themselves in this paradise in the Pacific, encountering the local people they are temporarily sharing the islands with. The colonial, race and gender issues are hard to swallow 70 years on, but Daniel Evans solution is to confront them, rather than paper over them as other productions have, hence the reinvention. He’s also tackled the neglect of the local characters. Thus the serious themes can co-exist with traditional musical exuberance in numbers like There is Nothin’ Like a Dame and I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa my Hair. There’s an authenticity too in the look of the show in Peter McKintosh’s design.

Few shows are packed with as many songs which have become standards outside of them, here Some Enchanted Evening, Younger than Springtime, I’m in Love With A Wonderful Guy and Happy Talk amongst others, and they are given superb renditions by a combined cast and band of almost 50. Julian Ovenden has clearly been put on this planet to play Emile – great presence, great chemistry with Nellie and his children, and as fine a voice as you’d wish to hear singing these iconic songs. Gina Beck is coming to the end of her stint as Nellie, sharing the role with Alex Young, and she combines the ‘cockeyed optimist’ with infatuated lover brilliantly, and when her prejudice comes through it is truly shocking. Rob Houchen is a fine romantic lead as Lt. Cable and there are excellent performances from Joanna Ampil as a feisty Bloody Mary and Keir Charles as base comedian Billis. Cat Beveridge’s band sounds luxurious by today’s musical theatre standards and does Rogers’ score full justice.

It comes up fresh, its themes relevant and it’s music joyful. CFT does it yet again.

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Composer Adam Guettel has had an erratic musical theatre career. He began with Floyd Collins and produced too more in quick succession, then five years later he came up with this Broadway success, but nothing for fourteen years (though he appears to have a few in the pipeline), the time its taken for the show to reach London, and in a new big scale short run rather than the more typical West End transfer.

It criss-crosses the musical theatre line between opera and musical, with a lush score that requires, and here gets, a mix of opera trained and theatre trained singers and a full 40-piece orchestra. The musical standards are sky high, with the amplification working for them rather than against. With the orchestra of Opera North behind and above the relatively small playing area, it’s surprisingly intimate (well, from the front of the stalls at least) given we’re in the Royal Festival Hall.

Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, which was made into a film just a couple of years later, it concerns a visit to Florence by wealthy American Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara. Margaret is reliving part of her past and Clara is being introduced to the joys of Italy. She falls in love with Fabrizio, which forces Margaret to confront the issue of her mental health; she’s not had full capacity since an accident in childhood. Fabrizio’s family are also phased by the age difference; Clara is some six years older than Fabrizio.

Craig Lucas’ book tells the story with clarity, leaving the score to deal with the emotional arc of the piece. They’ve chosen to leave the partial Italian dialogue and lyrics untranslated, with brings an authenticity without losing much understanding. Robert Jones’ very Italianate design adds to this. Daniel Evans delicate staging emphasises the period and plays up the romance. You rarely hear a full orchestra like this at a staged musical these days and the sound proves glorious.

The trump card though is the casting, with Renee Fleming incandescent as Margaret, singing beautifully. Alex Jennings is a quintessentially English gentleman, yet here he transforms himself into un perfetto gentiluomo Italiano, aided by natty suits, cool specs and silver hair! Rob Houchen is a real find as romantic lead Fabrizio, with a simply gorgeous voice. Dove Cameron, a Disney regular with zillions of Instagram followers (who I suspect is cast for bums on seats) was indisposed, which created an opportunity for understudy Molly Lynch to steal the show with a performance of great charm and vulnerability and a heavenly voice. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent.

They seem to be struggling to fill seats – the balcony was closed – largely because of the ridiculous pricing, I suspect, but I hope the reviews help fill them as it deserves to succeed, though the producers need to learn that lowering the prices can actually increase their income! Despite the cost, I was very pleased I went.

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