Posts Tagged ‘Sam Spencer Lane’

This show came just two years after Lionel Bart’s mega-hit Oliver. Based on a folk ballad about a Liverpool prostitute, featuring unions, dock strikes and political boycotts of cargos of arms destined for misuse in Africa, I’m not sure it had ‘hit’ written all over it. The great British public had other ideas, though, and it ran for 1.5 years, though this is the first professional revival 55 years later. I did see an NYT production 27 years ago, though, in which this theatre’s AD apparently appeared! The Finborough certainly gets my gold star for reviving it at last.

Maggie’s childhood sweetheart Casey decided not to follow in his dad’s unionist footsteps and goes off to be a seaman. When he returns, she’s a professional woman, an empathetic character, and they struggle to rekindle their relationship, as Casey struggles to re-establish himself in the docks. It’s a very working class story, anchored in Liverpool, with a book by local boy Alun Owen. Designer Verity Johnson works wonders conjuring up a dockside setting with some pulleys, steps and crates and I thought it had an authenticity of both location and period, and decent accents.

The story is a bit of a cocktail of ingredients, as is the musical style. If you’re being generous, you might say eclectic; a less positive take would be a bit of a rag-bag, including ballads and knees-ups with snatches of the Mersey sound of the period.  It’s played gamely on solo piano, occasionally breathlessly, by MD Harry Brennan. After a shaky start, Matthew Iliffe’s production gets into its stride with some fine choreography from Sam Spencer-Lane and an enthusiastic ensemble led by Kara Lily Hayworth as Maggie and James Darch as Casey.

It’s amazing the things you find out when you’re reading around a show, on this occasion that Judy Garland, a friend of Bart’s, recorded an EP of four songs from it!

Great to see it staged professionally after all these years. Unmissable for historians and lovers of musical theatre.

Read Full Post »

For the second time this month NYMT’s bold ambition and pool of extraordinary young talent produces something very special. This time it’s a new musical (though previously staged in Leeds in 2014) on a huge scale in a vast theatre with a cast of 33, 18 musicians and goodness knows how many behind the scenes – and it’s another timely First World War setting.

Members of a Leeds brass band sign up and soon find themselves in the trenches. Their womenfolk, now working in a munitions factory, decide to use their musical instruments and form a band to keep the tradition going, and to play for them on their return. The show moves between the munitions factory and the battlefield, exploring a lot of themes. There’s the underage recruit who the officers turn a blind eye to, until he appears to desert. An expectant dad becomes one of the first casualties. The band leader persuades his sister to write to a Brummie soldier with no letters from friends or family, which leads to much more. The munitions factory jeopardises the health of the girls, the ‘canaries’ as they were named, after the yellowing of their skin by the munitions. The class divide is evident both at home and in France. Two soldiers walk on eggshells around their attraction for one another. Above all, the callousness of privileged officers sending ordinary men to their inevitable death chills you.

Benjamin Till’s score is superb, full of moving solos and rousing choruses, very much in the style of Howard Goodall, but with more focus in solo numbers. They take a risk ending the first half with a tragedy and at just over three hours it’s a touch long, but it’s an impressive piece of work which deserves a much longer life (just three performances in London) and future productions. Director Hannah Chissick marshals her large cast well, usually keeping everyone on stage as the locations change, rather than wasting time moving people on and off. There’s excellent choreography and movement from Sam Spencer Lane and the musical standards under MD Alex Aitkin are outstanding. I was in awe of the amount of talent on stage and in the pit, many of whom we’ll no doubt be seeing again on professional stages.

A towering achievement.

Read Full Post »

Well, that was fun! I was underwhelmed by the 2003 West End production with Amanda Holden and Maureen Lipman; it was all a bit too slick, going through the motions. That is the last thing you could say about this lovely fringe revival – it sparkles and fizzes and lifts you up as you smile your way through two hours. I loved it.

It’s another screen-to-stage story. This one took 35 years to get from film to Broadway, only another year to cross the Atlantic, but 12 years for this first revival. I never thought it was particularly good material for a musical, but this small-scale production has changed my mind. Millie arrives in New York City in the roaring 20’s intent on bagging a rich husband. Reality bites and she finds herself in Mrs Meers ‘hotel’ with a lot of other young hopefuls. Mrs Meers provides more than mere (sorry!) accommodation as she’s involved in the white slave trade, shipping girls East with the help of her Chinese collaborators. Millie has her sights on her boss Trevor but her heart belongs to salesman Jimmy. Her newly arrived room-mate Dorothy gets the attentions of both Trevor and Jimmy, much to the consternation of Millie, but it all ends happily. Obviously.

Andrew Riley’s simple set leaves plenty of room (well, just about enough) for Sam Spencer Lane’s terrific choreography and his costumes are a treat. For a newcomer to musical theatre, Matthew Iliffe’s direction is masterly. Chris Guard’s 5-piece band (a bit odd, looking away from the stage and audience) played with gusto but never drowned out the unamplified vocals. Francesca Lara Gordon handled the triple demands of acting, dancing and singing Millie brilliantly, with particularly fine vocals. Both of her leading men – Ben Stacey as Jimmy and Samuel Harris as Trevor – and co-lead Sarah-Marie Maxwell as Dorothy shone in their roles. Steph Parry was an absolute hoot as Mrs Meers, getting many more laughs than her lines contained with her Chinese accent, facial expressions and postures. Alex Codd and Anthony Starr pulled off the task of speaking in Chinese (with surtitles!) superbly and there’s a lovely cameo from Christina Meehan as Trevor’s battleaxe secretary Peg. Charlie Johnson and Chipo Kureya were great in all of their roles. George Hinson and Thomas Inge made up this small but faultless young ensemble.

Whatever you think of the show, and some have questioned whether its worthy of revival, you will love this fresh, energetic, tongue-in-cheek, witty production by a new breed of musical theatre professionals, as promising as any I’ve ever seen. The spontaneous standing ovation said it all.

Read Full Post »

This show, by Joe DiPietro & Jimmy Roberts, ran Off Broadway for 12 years / 5000 shows between 1996 and 2008 but has only managed three short runs in London. Though there are some unsung scenes, its really a song cycle for four actors, and it’s rather good.

It follows relationships from casual dating through serious courting, marriage, parenthood and empty nesting to divorce, death and back to dating! Four actors, two male and two female, play all of the nameless individuals and couples in various combinations, that represent stages in archetypal relationships. The songs are good, but its strength really lies in its humour, finding the truth in life’s twists and turns.

The great attraction of this production is four of Britain’s finest young musical theatre performers – Julie Atherton, Gina Beck, Samuel Holmes and Simon Lipkin – at the top of their game. Not only are they good delivering the songs, but they also prove very adept at the comedy, squeezing every laugh possible from the witty lyrics and sharp lines. Scott Morgan accompanies on an upright piano with no amplification which I liked, though I missed some lyrics when the performers weren’t facing me.

Staged in the small space Above the Arts Theatre by Kirk Jameson with movement by Sam Spencer Lane and just a few props but a lot of costume changes, it’s a delightful 80 minutes, though lengthened to almost two hours by an unnecessary interval and some bad timekeeping, which stretched the patience on a sweltering evening.

I took against the Arts Theatre’s new upstairs venue, Above the Arts, like a room above a pub for an open mic night, with no raking, no stage and no air, but I’m really glad I caught up with this show at last, especially with such fine casting. It deserves a better venue (St James Studio, Union Theatre, Landor Theatre….)and a longer run, though.

Read Full Post »

This is a compilation of songs from the shows of Kander & Ebb. They wrote 15 musicals (I’ve only managed to catch 8 of them), the most famous of which are of course Cabaret & Chicago. What makes them unique, in my view, is the diversity of subjects (a bit like Sondheim) and the way they matched musical styles to their subjects. This features songs from the first ten shows plus the now iconic New York, New York and other songs from the same film.

There’s more staging and choreography than such shows normally get and you have to admire the look of Kirk Jameson’s production. There’s an elegance and sophistication to it which makes it stand out from the crowd of similar shows. We’re more used to hearing these songs backed by a band, but the solo piano worked for me, particularly as it allowed it to be refreshingly unamplified. Tom Boucher’s lighting was a key part of the look, but the noisiness of the movement of the spots sometimes detracted.

I’m less familiar with these songs than those of Sondheim, but I’m not sure they stand alone as well. I wasn’t keen on some of the rearrangements, particularly those from Cabaret, and not all songs suited the singer. A multi-lingual NewYork New York was an inspired idea, though. There was some unevenness in performance, though Emma Francis shone throughout. MD & pianist Michael Riley provided fine accompaniment. The five dancers, choreographed by Sam Spencer Lane and most making their professional debuts, animated the songs and turned it into more of a show than a concert.

Kander & Ebb’s body of work is probably second only to Sondheim, though we see a lot less of it. This show provides an excellent opportunity to hear great songs like Arthur in the Afternoon and Sara Lee that you are unlikely to hear elsewhere as well as the handful like All That Jazz and Cabaret that have become standards. Go see for yourself.

Read Full Post »