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Posts Tagged ‘Rosalind James’

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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Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have blogs and Twitter, so it’s even more of a miracle that this critic-panned show survived. Those like me who were captivated and fell in love with it called our friends and re-booked to see it again and the rest is history. We had people power then too, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be back at the Barbican where it began 25 years later watching a new touring production.

It’s good to report then that it’s in fine shape and some aspects of the new production have improved upon the original, most notably the scene in the sewers of Paris and the death of Javert. I found the longish prologue a bit clunky, but from the moment the opening music of act one began, the tingling and tension of the muscles returned and by the interval we were cheering the wonderfully uplifting first act finale.

The new staging of directors Laurence Connor & James Powell, with set design by Matt Kinley, does work well – it seems much zippier without feeling rushed or without losing any narrative. I was very impressed by Earl Carpenter’s Javert, Gareth Gates (yes!) Maruis, Jon Robyns’ Enjolras the Thenadier’s of Ashley Artus and Lynne Wilmot. There was much to admire about the acting performance of Valjean’s understudy Christopher Jacobson, though his vocal’s were a bit hit-and-miss in the upper register. Rosalind James as Eponine let herself down by wandering into pop diva mode occasionally and I’m afraid I found Fantine Madalena Alberto’s voice highly unattractive. I don’t know which kids were playing little Costette and Gavroche, but whoever they were they were terrific. The chorus sounded great and the new orchestrations are so much better than the synth-heavy budget version now at the Queens Theatre.

I do wonder if Cameron Mackintosh been around at the beginning of the 20th century, whether Puccini would have had similar long runs with Madam Butterfly and La Boheme, for this is the musical territory this show occupies. When they write the history of 20th Century musical theatre, this will most certainly be in the top ten, in the top five of dramatic musicals and maybe even…..

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