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Posts Tagged ‘Sharon D Clarke’

Whenever I see this Gershwin ‘show’ I’m always amazed that it made it to Broadway in the 30’s – an all-black cast, sex, drugs, murder and racism on stage 80 years ago! Every time it’s produced, we get the same debate about whether it’s an opera or a musical – it was probably the first ever ‘crossover’ piece – classical, jazz, blues, spiritual….In both ways, such a ground-breaking show. This is my fourth P&G, after Trevor Nunn’s ‘opera’ at Covent Garden in 1992, his ‘musical’ at the Savoy in 2006, Cape Town Opera’s ‘opera’ here in London in 2012 and now a ‘musical’ again, this time adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks & Diedre L. Murray, at the Open Air Theatre on a gorgeous warm evening that could have been in the American south where its set.

The fishing community of Catfish Row are unsettled by the arrival of Bess, a woman of dubious morals with a drug habit fueled by city boy Sporting Life and her bullying boyfriend Crown, who kills Robbins over the result of a crap game. Disabled Porgy falls for Bess who responds to his overtures, naively thinking Crown is going to let her go. When Jake doesn’t return from fishing in a storm, his wife Clara recklessly goes to find him only to be lost too, leaving their new child an orphan. Bess agrees to turn over a new leaf and bring up their baby, but Crown and Sporting Life have other plans. Porgy deals with Crown, but Sporting Life is still around to scupper Bess’ plans.

The first half is a touch slow and ponderous, despite the presence of gorgeous songs like Summertime and I Got Plenty Of Nothing, but it really takes off in the second half, with more great songs like It Ain’t Necessarily So and much more drama. In this production, the staging of the storm scene is outstanding and Bess’ struggle with drink and drugs realistically played with great sensitivity by Nicola Hughes. It also creates a real sense of a community struggling but surviving by sticking together and supporting one another. The staging of Porgy’s final exit is masterly. Timothy Sheader’s very physical production, with Liam Steel’s stylised movement, are highly effective.

I don’t know why they have imported all three male leads from the US (a co-production?) but they are all good – a positively scary Crown from Phillip Boykin, a slick and slimy Sporting Life from Cedric Neal, and a deeply empathetic Porgy from Rufus Bonds Jr. Sharon D Clark gives us another acting masterclass as Mariah and there are excellent performances from Leon Lopez and Jade Ewen as Jake and Clara and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena. I’m still not sure what to make of designer Katrina Lindsay’s giant metallic cliff backdrop, but as it got dark and Rick Fisher’s lighting made it change colour, which changed the mood, it did look pretty. There’s a decent size 14-piece orchestra, though the sound was sometimes a touch harsh, particularly the first half voocals.

Great to see this landmark show again, feeling very a home in the Open Air Theatre. Not to be missed, I’d say.

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As much as I enjoyed this when it was first produced at the Donmar / Piccadilly in 1987 (I was on the Olivier Awards panel that nominated it as Best Musical, though it didn’t win; Sondheim’s Follies did), I wasn’t prepared to be as blown over as I was by this Hackney Empire revival. Sheldon Epps’ show is more semi-staged concert than musical, but I doubt it has ever been better sung or played as it is here. Faultless.

The setting is a Chicago hotel in 1939. Three women, each from a different generation, each with a different story, each with a connection to the man. This is really just a device to link and interweave the wonderful songs of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and others. Each character has their own space on stage – their hotel room, except the man who seems to be permanently in the bar! A couple of mute actor / dancers come on occasionally and interact with the four singers, but it is of course all about the music.

These are songs that you live, full of life experience and feeling, and the four performers all inhabit them like they lived them first, then wrote them. Sharon D Clarke, Clive Rowe, Paulette Ivory and Gemma Sutton are all sensational and superbly matched to their characters and each other. Their interpretation of the songs is extraordinary and I can’t imagine anything better. Mark Dickman’s band sounds wonderful, with the help of some of the best theatre sound I’ve ever experienced by Avgoustos Psillas.

I’ve enjoyed Gemma Sutton in fringe musicals, but here she’s a revelation (taking the role of a young Maria Friedman 27 years ago, so no pressure there then!). I know the work of Paulette Ivory less, but can’t wait to see her again. Sharon D Clarke has wowed me before, most recently in her Olivier Award winning performance in The Amen Corner, but this was the biggest wow. I think I’ve seen almost everything Clive Rowe has done since (and at) GSMD and he never disappoints.

Hackney’s brilliant regular panto team, director Susie McKenna and designer Lotte Collett, prove just as adept at staging premiere league musical theatre. As always at Hackney, the audience and the venue add that extra bit of magic that propels a good evening to greatness. A triumph.

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Is there no limit to the joy Hackney Empire can unleash during the festive season? Last year they lost (hopefully not forever) their regular Dame Clive Rowe and still came up trumps. This year they go ‘off piste’ with the rarer Puss in Boots and it feels like something new and familiar at the same time. Bliss.

Puss in Boots has somehow slipped from the panto repertoire. A 500 year-old tale made famous by Charles Perrault 200 years later, introduced to the UK another 100 years after that, with Joseph Grimaldi in the first cast. Now the cunning cat (brilliantly played with great athleticism by Kat B!) comes to Hackneyonia with his master who has inherited him from his father, whilst his elder brother got the mill and the donkey!

Here we get two dames – mother Nettie Knowall and daughter Amnesiah, played brilliantly by Stephen Matthews and Darren Hart respectively – a wicked witch played by Josefina Gabrielle and a wicked queen by Sharon D Clarke, both stars of musical theatre who shine just as brightly here, and King Konkers the Bonkers (an excellently hapless Tony Timberlake) and spoilt brat Princess Petunia (the lovely irritating Amy Lennox). Add in Matt Dempsey’s Thomas, a giant Ogre and a good sorceress and you have an abundance of superb performances.

Amongst the treats are a dance routine for colourful giant trainers (without people!), a trio of mice as backing singers for Puss, a tap dance to end Act I and a superb Les Mis spoof to open Act II. Just before the finale we got the singalong, obviously, and the sight of a couple of thousand people singing Madness’ It Must be Love in cat language with cat masks was a surreal delight. Lotte Collett’s design is a riot of colour and invention, with Dame Nettie’s costumes (and there a lot of them!) a particular treat.

This is Susie McKenna’s 15th Hackney panto. It’s only my 5th, but the imagination, enthusiasm, talent and energy hasn’t waned one bit. Steven Eadis has written a lot of excellent new music to add to a handful of known songs with a fair few nods to musical theatre, performed with exceptional musical standards by a small 5-piece band and singers who really can sing.

It might have West End production values and West End stars, but above all its a community pantomime which generates enough warmth to keep you going until the next one – here’s to Mother Goose in less than 12 months time!

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If you ask anyone around here what Amen Corner is, they’ll tell you it’s a junction where roads to / from Tooting, Streatham & Mitcham meet. Back home, they’d have said it was Andy Fairweather Low’s band (born 6 miles away – almost a neighbour). On the South Bank, it’s a 1955 semi-autobiographical play by American James Baldwin (one of only two he wrote) which I first saw 26 years ago at the Tricycle Theatre and again 13 years ago at the same venue. In Rufus Norris’ production for the NT, it seems quite a different play.

Harlem preacher Margaret separated from her jazz musician husband Luke and brought up son David alone. She lives below the tabernacle with David and sister Odessa. As the play starts, all is well in this devotional world, with her sister a church elder and her son its pianist. Luke turns up sick (and drunk), David starts to develop a life outside this insular world and Margaret’s life is turned upside down. The other church elder’s see this as part of her descent, making them intent on a coup. The personal story is played out against the contradictions of this 1950’s Harlem world – evangelical services full of people possessed and seedy clubs full of the fallen.

What makes the play very different from previous productions is that Norris has infused it with music – mostly the gospel of Margaret’s world, but also the jazz of Luke’s world. Ian MacNeil’s design cleverly delineates these worlds with the home stage front, the tabernacle above and the jazz world behind and to the side. The singing of the cast with the London Community Gospel Choir is uplifting, even to a hardened atheist like me, and contrasts with the sultry, sensual jazz soundscape. This does so much to create the dichotomy so important to the story.

I’ve already seen two stunning black casts in recent weeks, with Fences and A Season In the Congo (and there’s The Colour Purple to come in a matter of days), and here’s another one. It’s wonderful to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste again and her performance as Margaret towers over proceedings but doesn’t steal the limelight. Lucian Msamati is excellent as Luke, a difficult role requiring believable sickness and drunkenness. Recent graduate Eric Kofi Abrefa is hugely impressive as David and Sharon D Clarke has great presence as Odessa, successfully stretching herself away from the musicals we are more used to seeing her in. There are three brilliant performances as the machiavellian elders from Cecilia Noble, Jacqueline Boatswain and Donovan F Blackwood.

This must be the definitive production of this excellent play (a better play than August Wilson’s Fences across the river, in my view) and a great use of the difficult Olivier stage. I would have preferred the interval earlier, or two intervals, as the first half is twice the length of the second, but it didn’t get in the way of a thrilling evening at the theatre.

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