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Posts Tagged ‘Royal Academy of Music’

I don’t often do cabaret or revue as I like my musical theatre songs in context, in the shows they were written for, but when I go I almost always wonder why I don’t go more often! I didn’t think I’d heard of John Bucchino, until I realised he wrote a show I saw and loved at the Royal Academy of Music five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/little-me-a-catered-affair-at-the-royal-academy-of-music). He’s first and foremost a songwriter, though, and his songs are mini-stories, which is why this revue stands out in the crowd.

There are twenty-three songs and seven ‘transitions’ linking them, shared amongst five performers, mostly as solos but with a few duets and ensemble numbers. Somehow, they feel like a song cycle; meant to be sung together like this. One of the great successes of the show is that the songs are interpreted, not merely sung, which ensures you hear the stories. Another success is the staging, movement and design, which between them bring an organic flow and cohesion.

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s design is a playful white and pastel home which both the songs and the performers inhabit. Tania Azevedo’s direction and William Whelton’s choreography create a pleasing seamlessness. I loved the fact experienced performers Jennifer Harding, Jordan Shaw and Noel Sullivan are joined by two making their professional debuts, Sammy Graham and Will Carey (who stole the show with On My Bedside Table, until Noel stole it back with Grateful!); five lovely, well matched performances.

I left wanting to get a recording of Bucchino songs, and already have. A delightful evening.

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Opera

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music was an absolute gem with wonderful singing and playing, a superb design, and stunning staging by Liam Steel. Any opera house in the world would be proud to have a production this good in its repertoire.

The Royal Academy of Music inaugurated their lovely new theatre with a brilliant revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight. I’d forgotten how good it was, and here it was superbly played and sung and, like the RCM last week, in a fine production that any opera house would be proud of.

The English Concert have become the go-to company for Handel operas in concert and their take on Rinaldo in the Barbican Hall, his first Italian opera specifically for London, was superb, faultlessly cast and beautifully played (though I could have done without the attempts at semi-staging which seems a bit naff). Handel wrote himself a harpsichord solo for this opera and here the harpsichordist almost stole the show with his thrilling rendition.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder gave a blistering Shostakovich 8th Symphony at another of their Friday lunchtime recitals, with Elder again giving an insightful introduction to the piece. The talent on stage is awe-inspiring and the nurturing by a world class conductor heart-warming.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons Reimagined combined baroque music with a contemporary twist and puppetry to provide a spellbinding 80 minutes by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Another lovely evening in a space that seems to suit absolutely everything!

Britten Sinfonia Voices gave an inspired Easter programme at GSMD’s Milton Court Concert Hall, with choral music spanning more than 400 years, with a few brass pieces as a bonus. The idea of fitting two Stravinsky pieces between movements in a Mozart Mass was particularly inspired.

Dance

Ballet Black’s contrasting double-bill at the Barbican Theatre was a real treat. The Suit was mesmerising, moving and ultimately tragic and A Dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream was cheeky and playful. I need to ensure this company are on my radar permanently.

Film

You Were Never Really Here is a dark and disturbing but original and brilliant film with a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and refreshingly short at 90 minutes!

The Square was 2.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Lured by 5* reviews, it was overlong, slow and a bit of a mess, the satire largely lost or overcooked.

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There aren’t that many proper musical theatre adaptations of Shakespeare plays, though there are a lot, like The Lion King, with vague links. The most obvious are West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate & The Boys from Syracuse, then you begin to struggle. This recent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers, perhaps the only musical based on this play, joins this small club, and boy is it good.

The King and his three college friends take an oath that they will devote themselves to study and self-improvement for three years. When the Princess and her three friends turn up they are kept at a distance, but this doesn’t last long as no-one on either side has enough will-power to resist such temptation. They are tested again with news of the death of the Princess’ father. The excellent sub-plot involving a Spanish visitor is included, and it really is a faithful and very funny take on Shakespeare’s play.

It’s an excellent adaptation, with a fine pop-rock score full of good tunes and witty lyrics. The production values are way higher than you might expect from a conservatoire; the show playing in, and in font of, a two-story hotel. The musical standards are exceptional and the ensemble, one of two sharing the six performances, is packed full of talent. It’s easy to see how these young performers will be turning up in professional productions in the coming years; I continue to be in awe of the consistency of talent coming out of RAM and GSMD.

This show deserves a much longer run, but RAM does it proud, filling the lovely Hackney Empire with fun and joy.

 

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Contemporary Music

Richard Thompson’s solo acoustic concert at Cadogan Hall was a real treat – one guitar, no time-wasting and a selection of songs from his entire career. He responded to an audience request for Fergus Lang, his song about Trump’s (mis)adventures in Scotland before he put himself forward as a candidate and updated it, though as he said it needs updating daily! There was excellent support from Emily Barker; one to watch.

This was the first time I’d attended the Transatlantic Sessions at the Royal Festival Hall, the ultimate folk & roots supergroup with a core of players and guest singers, but it won’t be the last. The sound wasn’t great (sixteen players / singers in the mix) though it got better and from half-way through the first half it took off with lots of real highs.

Classical Music

Jonas Kaufmann‘s recital at the Barbican Hall was my first live experience of this much lauded tenor and he didn’t disappoint. I thought it was a well selected programme of Schumann, Duparc and Britten sung in German, French & Italian. Gorgeous.

Opera

Royal Academy Opera’s Orpheus & Enefers at Hackney Empire was enormous fun, but also of the highest quality, with the stage and pit bursting with talent, brilliant design and a conductor who was visibly having the time of his life in the perfect venue. Welsh soprano Alys Roberts as Eurydice is a real find; a future star if ever I saw one.

Adriana Lecouvreur was the best thing I’ve seen at the Royal Opera for some time. It’s astonishing that this was only the 15th performance of this underrated Pucciniesque 115-year-old opera. The design was sumptuous and handsome and in period and the four leading roles were stunningly sung. American tenor Brian Jagde was new to me and he was sensational. Angela Georgiou was excellent, but I do wish she didn’t milk her bows so much!

My February visit to WNO in Cardiff was a Puccini sandwich with Vin Herbe filling. First up was a revival of their lovely La Boheme which was even better second time round, largely because of faultless casting. This was followed by Le Vin Herbe, the UK stage premiere of Swiss Frank Martin’s take on Tristan & Isolde. He wrote it to reclaim the folk tale from the Nazi hijacking of Wagner’s opera. It was sung storytelling with the chorus centre stage, an unusual piece but it captivated me. The second Puccini was their 39-year-old production of Madam Butterfly. The design might look a bit dated, but everything else was fresh, with beautiful singing and playing. A terrific trio.

Film

I loved 20th Century Women, a quirky, very un-Hollywood film set in a Bohemian home in California. Annette Benning and her screen son were superb.

Hidden Figures had the usual dose of American sentimentality, but it seems timely to be reminded that segregation in the US was still there just fifty years ago, and the film does it very well indeed.

Fences was the least cinematic film I’ve seen in ages, feeling much like watching one of those NT Live screenings, but the direction and performances were stunning and August Wilson’s story was as intense and gripping as it was on stage.

Moonlight was my 7th Oscar Best Picture nominee. A beautifully crafted film; a compelling watch. Of course, like the other five, I didn’t think for one minute that it would beat La La Land, so the following morning I was both surprised and delighted that it did.

Art

The Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain was thoroughly comprehensive and mostly gorgeous. He lost me a bit with the still life’s and early ventures into surrealism, but on the whole a real treat.

Sculptor Richard Wilson is a real favourite. His Annely Juda exhibition was taxing on the brain, but worth the trip, with more David Hockney prints of his iPad drawings downstairs a real bonus.

The Gavin Turk retrospective at his chum Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery had its moments but you end up concluding he’s more of a minor than major contemporary British artist. I thought the ‘homages’ to Warhol and Pollock were lazy art and the final room of rubbish, well rubbish.

The late Zaha Hadid‘s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery was a very pleasant surprise. A very beautiful selection of art meets architecture digital works which are technically accomplished but also very pleasing on the eye.

Anselm Kiefer‘s Walhalla exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey was vast, extraordinary and on the last weekend so popular you had to queue for a few minutes (I’ve never seen so many people in a private gallery). Mixed media and immersive art at its best; he shot up in my estimation.

The small Frank Brangwyn exhibition at the William Morris Gallery explored his Japanese influences and his relationship with a Japanese artist who made gorgeous woodcuts from some of his works. It really whetted my appetite for my visit to Brangwyn Hall in Swansea later in the same week.

Small too was the Australian Impressionists exhibition at the National Gallery, with only 41 pictures by 4 artists, some of which I’d seen the year before last in Melbourne and Sydney, but the quality more than made up for the quantity. Gorgeous.

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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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This latest (last?) Stephen Sondheim musical has had a tortuous journey since it was first workshopped by Sam Mendes in New York City in 1999. First produced in Washington and Chicago (where I first saw it) in 2003, it re-appeared Off-Broadway in 2008 but never made The Great White Way. It started as Wise Guys before it became Gold!, Bounce and eventually Road Show. It’s not even five years since it’s UK premiere at The Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/road-show), but it’s good to see it again in this revival by Phil Willmott at the Union Theatre.

The show presents the story of the real life Mizner brothers. Younger brother Wilson was a serial entrepreneur / chancer / con-man and Addison a self-trained architect. Their adventures started with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, moved to New York City in its hey-day and ended with ground-breaking property development in Florida. In between, Wilson gambles, runs a saloon, becomes a boxing manager, writes plays, sells Latin American furniture, becomes a hotelier and marries a very rich widow. Addison’s journey was less colourful! In truth, in the show their story isn’t anywhere near as exciting and doesn’t make as good source material as any other Sondheim show, but compared to mere mortals it ain’t half bad. The score has too few proper songs and a bit too much ensemble sung dialogue / story, with a lot of melodies that seem familiar from other Sondheim shows.

Phil Willmott’s production is very effective, probably more so that the Menier’s traverse staging. The big two-way mirror at the back works really well and full use is made of the space, making it seem bigger than usual. I particularly liked Thomas Michal Voss’ choreography and Richard Baker’s trio does full justice to the complex, difficult score. The casting of the brothers is crucial to the success of this show and this is its trump card. Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig, both recent RAM graduates with fine vocal and acting skills, are terrific, conveying the completely different personalities, yet totally believable as brothers. The other three leads and ensemble of ten are all very good, but they carry the show.

I wasn’t sure we’d ever see this flawed but fascinating show again and I worried it might be soon to return to it, but I’m very glad I did.

 

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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