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Posts Tagged ‘Robert McWhir’

The Landor’s 2013 hat-trick of hits is about to become a quartet. Jeff Bowen & Hunter Bell were writing a last-minute entry for the 2000 New York Musical Theatre Festival, but without a subject, concept or even an idea, they ended up writing a show about writing a show and named it after the appropriate section on the application form. The big surprise is that it makes a delightful, funny, feelgood show.

It’s staged in a rehearsal room with just four chairs, but complete with notice board and coffee table. In a series of short scenes, phone conversations and messages, they recruit actor friends Heidi & Susan and try out their songs and scenes as, well, songs and scenes, and we watch the show evolve. The dialogue is very sharp, the lyrics very witty and the songs very chirpy! After they submit the show and get invited to produce it, it continues to evolve as it moves off-Broadway and on to Broadway. You might expect this to be a bit glib and cheesy, but it isn’t; it has so much charm and the smile hardly ever left my face.

The faultless quintet of performers (the Landor’s regular MD & pianist Michael Webborn gets his big acting break!) are terrific. Scott Garnham & Simon Bailey have great chemistry as the writing partners (played by the writers themselves in NYC), playing off each other brilliantly. Sophia Ragavelas & Sarah Galbraith provide the perfect foils and with the boys make a great foursome. Mr Webborn’s occasional interjections are a hoot. Director Robert McWhir and choreographer Robbie O’Reilly stage this so slickly you believe it’s all being made up before your eyes.

Just when you thought you’d tired of American four-hander chamber musicals, along comes this unmissable treat!

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There seems to be an endless supply of contemporary American four-hander chamber musicals. They often feel more like song cycles. They usually feature people in their 20’s & 30’s with complicated relationships. They’re sometimes a bit too slick and sentimental. What makes this one a cut above is the quality of the music, lyrics, story and characterisation.

Waverley works in a bar but she wants to be an actress. Her boyfriend Darren works in an office but wants to be a writer. Waverley’s colleague Lisa has come to New York to get a girl and take her to California. Darren’s workmate Luke’s dad is a literary agent and Luke gets him to read Darren’s play. When Waverley & Darren break up she begins a relationship with Luke, but neither she nor Darren nor Luke know the connections. They’re all trying to find themselves and make their way in the world.

It’s a simple little story, but the characterisations are good and the book and lyrics are sharp. I loved the songs, which really do propel the story. The cast of four – Jennifer Potts, Bart Edwards, Amelia Cormack & Aaron Lee Lambert, all new to me – are all excellent and well matched (and sound great when harmonising). Michael Webborn’s acoustic band is lovely and subtle amplification ensures a good balance. Anna Michaels set is dominated by a superbly realistic NYC bar where much of the action takes place. Robert McWhir’s staging is up to his usual high standards.

Somehow I missed Joshua Salzman & Ryan Cunningham’s other show I Love You Because, which I’ll hopefully have a chance to catch up with at some point. It’s only May, but this makes a 2013 hatrick of hit musicals for the Landor already.

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A rare sighting of an endangered species – a new British musical. It’s only my 3rd this year; mind you I only saw 3 in the whole of 2012, the best of which – Howard Goodall’s A Winter’s Tale (well, in a new version and new to London) – was also here at the Landor Theatre.

Based on Sophie Kinsella’s novel (which I haven’t read), it’s set in a villa in Andalusia where two families have both accepted a friend’s freebie but turn up on the same day. Villa owner Gerard’s friends Chloe and Hugh have a past they agree not to reveal to their respective partners and both couples – with Chloe’s teenage son Sam, Hugh & Amanda’s baby twins and holiday nanny Jenna – decide to make the best of it.

During the evening we learn that Chloe & Hugh were a couple that split ‘accidentally’; that Chloe’s partner Philip, former one-hit-wonder now banker, is under threat of redundancy and that high-flying PR Amanda is struggling with motherhood (and husband Hugh’s apparent disinterest). Sam doesn’t really want to be there, until he sets eyes on the sexy nanny, who herself will be happy as long as she gets some sun & sangria. They misjudge Gerard’s motives, which aren’t revealed until the very end (and I for one didn’t see that coming!).

Chris Burgess’ book and score are very good and serve the story well, with excellent characterisation and a very satisfying structure. I liked the guitar & cello in the band, though with keyboards & percussion too it occasionally overpowered solo vocals (possibly because I was sitting too close to them). Robert McWhir’s excellent production is finely cast, with loads of musicals experience between them showing and paying off.

This is the show’s premiere, but it’s very much the finished product. It will certainly be a contender for this year’s best new musical, and may be a shoo-in for best new British musical. This is the Landor’s second treat this year and you really should catch it in its last week.

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This is the second time The Landor have staged this unique show about American songwriter Ed Kleban. I’m not sure any other theatre in the UK has staged it even once. Given Kleban was the lyricist of A Chorus Line, which has just been revived at The Palladium, the Landor’s timing is impeccable. Frankly, I think it’s a much better show!

The deceased Kleban arrives at the Schubert Theatre in New York, where A Chorus Line is still running, for his own memorial (brilliant entrance!). The eulogies of his friends take us in flashback to various periods of his life from a mental institution in his late teens to his songwriting classes to Columbia Records, where he was a producer, to the rehearsal room of the only show that he would be remembered for. It’s a life full of anxiety and low self-confidence. The characters are real life people like Marvin Hamlish and Michael Bennett, composer and director respectively of A Chorus Line, and Lehman Engel, the leader of the songwriting workshop.

When he died of cancer, he willed his songs to his friends and fourteen years later they were incorporated into this show about his life. When you hear them, you cannot understand why he hadn’t had a string of hit shows. They are particularly strong lyrically, sharp and witty and in some ways Sondheimesque. When you hear his story though, you can see why he didn’t succeed – his insecurity and fragility getting in the way. It’s a bitter-sweet show which captivated me.

Director Robert McWhir has again assembled a fine cast led by a hugely impressive performance as Kleban by John Barr. McWhir’s staging and Robbie O’Reilly’s nimble choreography are outstanding. James Cleeve’s band play the score beautifully. It gets a touch too sentimental in the end, as American musicals have a habit of doing, but it’s absolutely not to be  missed.

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The Landor Theatre continues its roll with this revival of the American updating of one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most poplar operettas. It’s a pretty bonkers idea really, but in this production it works, largely because the stage is teeming with talent, energy and enthusiasm that just sweeps you away.

The only previous production I’ve seen was the Watermill actor-musician touring version at Kingston three years ago – I blogged at the time that I found it pointless and it left me cold (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/hot-mikado) so Robert McWhir’s production has really turned me around. He’s staged it as a 30’s(ish) US radio show, though in the second half this is more in the background. The story is intact, it’s still set in Japan, but the dialogue is modern and the music is adapted to a range of contemporary styles like swing and be-bop.

Robbie O’Reilly’s choreography makes good use of the small space and Richard Lambert’s lighting turns a simple design into something elegant and period perfect. The musical standards are what make this production shine, though. Michael Webborn has a trio rather than a big band but they know how to swing. There are some excellent vocals in both choruses and solos. Mark Daley and Victoria Farley are lovely as romantic leads Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, Nathanial Morrison is an excellent Poo-Bah (chief high everything) and Ian Mowatt provided much of the comedy as Ko-Ko the hapless executioner. Piers Bate, who impressed me as Leo Bloom at Arts Ed earlier in the year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/1012/01/30/the-producers) stood out in the smaller roles. It is an exceptional ensemble who sing and dance their hearts out.

You’re unlikely to see a better production and you have two more weeks to find out why!

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Yet another very good reason to head to the Landor Theatre in Clapham. I think this is the first professional UK production of Kander & Ebb’s last show; they were responsible for Cabaret & Chicago (and Flora The Red Menace, which transferred here from Walthamstow last month – a show which couldn’t be more different if it tried). When I saw it at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/curtains) I thought it was fun, but not a lot more. In Robert McWhir’s superb production, it proves to be a huge treat.

Before the show has even started, you’re admiring Martin Thomas’ ingenious design. He’s managed to create the proscenium, stage and backstage of a Boston theatre in this tiny space! We’re at a pre-Broadway run of a musical of Robin Hood (set in the wild west, obviously). The leading lady dies at the curtain call; enter stage-struck Lieutenant Cioffi, the centre of our musical comedy whodunnit (hot on the heels of The Mystery of Edwin Drood here a few months back, for which Rupert Holmes also wrote the book, but this is in another league altogether).

We learn why many of the cast are reluctant participants and the spotlight moves from suspect to suspect in proper whodunnit tradition. The Lieutenant pays as much attention to improving the show as he does to finding the murderer and falls in love with a cast member along the way. We get an insight into production, investment and staging of a musical with no stereotype left unturned, as well as a classic whodunnit that keeps the surprise right until the end. There’s even a programme within the programme a la Noises Off.

Buster Skeggs (a lady!)  is great as the producer whose many highlights include a quartet about critics with her investor and writers called What Kind of Man? and Its a Business, which just about sums up commercial theatre in three minutes. Leo Andrew also shines as the composer and, like The Producers, there’s a camp (though less outrageously so) British director, excellently played by Bryan Kennedy. Bronwyn Andrews (from Ireland, not Wales!) is a lovely romantic lead, but the star of the show is Jeremy Legat who is simply terrific as the Lieutenant, in fine voice with an excellent American accent.

What I like most about Kander and Ebb is that every show is completely different. Fred Ebb died before this was completed (as did original book writer Peter Stone – a bit spooky for a murder mystery!) but the book and lyrics are sharp and funny with many laugh-out-loud moments. The score is so much better than I remembered it with some real showstoppers like the opening Wide Open Spaces (even funnier in this space!) ans Show People and solos like the Lieutenant’s Coffee Shop Nights.

It’s hard to believe this show has taken six years to get here, but the Landor have done it proud. A truimph of Olympian proportions for which the creative team, the whole cast of 20 and Michael Webborn’s 5-piece band all deserve a medal! A transfer would be richly deserved, but it’ll probably never be better than it is here, at a third of the price of the West End. Stop reading, start booking!

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This is the third Flaherty & Ahrens musical here at the Landor in six months, and this time a European premiere of their latest (2007) show. There was a wonderful revival of Ragtime back in September and Lucky Stiff  just last month was great fun.

You have to admire this pair for the range of their subjects; this time its 16th century Italian Commedia dell’Arte! We follow a troop of street players as they enact scenes and their relationships are revealed. It’s somewhat broad and crude, in keeping with the style it pays homage to (and suggests is the origin of much modern comedy) and there are some nice songs, particularly those of Columbina and Armanda at the start of the second half, which are beautifully sung by Kate Brennan and Jodie Beth Meyer.

Robert McWhir’s staging is excellent, with a lovely period design from Martin Thomas and (yet again) great lighting by Howard Hudson. The opening and closing scenes, with the players behind gauze, are particularly effective. The string / woodwind / piano quintet under Joanna Cichonska, playing new orchestrations by Niall Bailey, produce a sound which is simply gorgeous. I applaud the lack of amplification, but the sound is probably better balanced further away from the band. I’m afraid I thought Mike Christie’s Flaminio was a weak link in the casting, which was otherwise very good, and its a crucial role.

The problem with the evening is the structure of the show – it’s just a series of scenes which hang loosely together, leaving you wanting more of a narrative. It’s the weakest of the six musicals I’ve seen from this pair, but it’s a good production and still worth catching if you’re a musical junkie like me!

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Has a musical’s title ever misrepresented its content as much as this? You’d be forgiven for expecting an evening of chirpy minstrels and plinky plonk music, but what you get is an ambitious epic piece of American social history set at the beginning of the 20th century – even more ambitious if you decide to stage it at the tiny Landor! But ambition often pays off, as it does here.

Based on E L Doctorow’s book, Terence McNally, Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens have linked the stories of a Latvian Jewish immigrant, a black musician who is the subject of  racist attacks (somewhat ironically by Irish Americans!)  and a white upper middle class New England family. We see how a new immigrant can pursue the American dream and end up a successful Hollywood director, the black community’s uphill struggle for respect in this same society and how a liberal white family lives within extraordinary social upheaval. We also get real people in this cocktail – Henry Ford, J P Morgan (if only he knew what his legacy would become), Houdini and Emma Goldman!

The weaving of these stories is seemless and the tiny space has the effect of increasing the intensity and heightening your emotional involvement with these people’s experiences. It’s helped by a very rousing score, with appropriate period ragtime themes running through, which conveys  passion better than any words alone. Though on occasion the story seems a little contrived, you can’t help but get caught up in the events as they unfold.

Robert McWhir has done a terrific job of staging this here, helped by excellent choreography by Matthew Gould and a clever design from Martin Thomas which maximizes the space for the cast of 23 whilst still signposting the many locations the show takes us to (sometimes using the silhouettes our Latvian immigrant is famous for). George Dyer leads a superb five-piece band and I was delighted the Landor bucked the fringe musical amplification trend because it really didn’t need it.

It’s an excellent ensemble, with stand-out performances from Kurt Kansley and Rosalind James as black couple Coalhouse and Sarah at the centre of the story (Kansley also playing a pretty mean piano!). I also very much liked Louisa Lydell’s mother and David McMullen as her passionately political son. Their committment of the whole cast to telling this story sweeps you away.

This show only had a three-month run in the West End in 2003 (in costume but ‘without decor’ if I remember correctly) but it got 8 Olivier nominations and won one for Maria Friedman. Flaherty and Ahrens have other under-rated musicals waiting for a revival (My Favourite Year please!).

We’re still only three-quarters of the way through 2011, but it’s clearly going to be a vintage year for fringe musicals (this is my 18th!). We’ve had another gem here with The Hired Man just last month, Company & Parade at Southwark Playhouse. Road Show at the Menier, Roar of the Greasepaint at the Finborough, The Kissing Dance at Jermyn Street, A Slice of Saturday Night Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Girlfriends in Walthamstow, Salad Days at the Riverside Studios and On the 20th Century, Fings Aint Wot They Used To Be AND Dames at Sea at the Union. Forget the West End, London’s fringe is buzzing with talent. Another gold star to the Landor; up there with the best of them.

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Lyricist Richard Maltby & composer David Shire aren’t well-known here. They’re songwriters rather than writers of musicals – apart from this compilation of their songs, I think the only show we’ve seen here is Take Flight at the Menier Chocolate Factory a few years back. They may be best known for lyrical contributions to Miss Saigon and Song & Dance (Maltby) and songs for Saturday Night Fever (Shire)….but they write clever, witty and smart songs.

This ‘revue’ contains 24 of them, each of which is a little story – mostly middle-aged middle class angst – and the Landor Theatre is very lucky to have bagged four experienced performers at the top of their game who can do justice to these difficult pieces. Clare Burt, Ria Jones, Michael Cahill and Glyn Kerslake inhabit the characters and situations and bring these stories to sparkling life.

Director Robert McWhir, choreographer Matthew Gould and designers Jason Denvir & Jean Gray have created a stylish setting and elegant staging. There were some terrific moments, amongst them Ria Jones’ comic magic in You Wanna Be My Friend and Miss Byrd and Clare Burt’s deeply moving It’s Never Been That Easy.

I’m not a huge fan of these compilations; I often think they’re a lazy alternative to a proper show, but this one certainly isn’t – it was almost like 24 mini-musicals in a row. Not to be missed!

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