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Posts Tagged ‘Ste Clough’

American writer / composer Dave Malloy is rather prolific – sixteen shows in the last sixteen years – though I think this is the first we’ve seen here in London; not even his multiple Tony award winning Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has crossed the Atlantic yet. This original and inventive work is subtitled A Musical Fantasia Set In The Hypnotised Mind Of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which seems like a good opener for a review!

It takes place towards the end of the three year period of depression which followed the negative reaction to Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897, when he was just 24. He’s visited hypnotherapist Dahl throughout and the show uses these sessions as a starting point for tangential leaps into scenes with his wife Natalya, opera singer friend Chaliapin and a host of famous Russians including Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and Czar Nicholas II.

I liked the idea of having two Rachmaninoff’s, one sitting at the piano playing his music and the other wild and boyish, a bit like Mozart in Amadeus, flitting between scenes expressing what’s inside his head; inner and outer characters. There are original songs, Rachmaninov pieces and hybrids. Even though it’s set in 1900, there are modern references and language which I didn’t think worked particularly well. I did like the idea of having the two keyboard players onstage, Billy Bullivant and MD Jordan Li-Smith, who sounded great.

It’s a rather surreal cocktail which by the interval hadn’t convinced me. The first half closing song, Natalya, and the second half opener, Loop, lifted it, and from then on it was a lot better, and it is a unique piece. Though I have reservations about the material, particularly its structure and unevenness, I have none about Alex Sutton’s excellent production. The design team have done a particularly fine job – Rebecca Brower’s set & costumes, Christopher Nairne’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s sound – and Ste Clough’s choreography is great.

Tom Noyes as Rachmaninoff the pianist makes a sensational professional debut, playing brilliantly throughout, and singing beautifully in the closing number. Keith Ramsey is terrific as Rach, athletic and manic, on stage for most of the show. They have superb support from Rebecca Caine as Dahl, Georgia Louise as Natalya, Norton James as Chaliapan and Steven Serlin as The Master, the Russian famous five.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of Malloy’s work, which won’t take long as, like the proverbial bus, another one comes along next month when Ghost Quartet opens the new Boulevard Theatre.

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My track record with this Irving Berlin show isn’t great. On Broadway in 1999, Bernadette Peters was too demure and not enough of a tomboy. At the Young Vic in 2009, Richard Jones inventive production, brilliantly re-scored by Jason Carr for four pianos, miscast Jane Horrocks and had dreadful sight lines. In the 2014 touring production, Jason Donovan’s Frank was no match for Emma Williams’ Annie. Well, this revival has none of those problems, and a lot to enjoy.

It’s easy to forget that this is based on the true story of Buffalo Bill’s show which toured, not just in the US but in Europe in the late 19th century, before merging with competitor Pawnee Bill’s show. When we open (with There’s No Business Like Show Business, one of the greatest opening numbers ever), Frank Butler is the show’s star sharpshooter, but young Annie Oakley turns up from nowhere and ends up challenging and usurping him, which rather scuppers their mutual attraction. Annie heads off to Europe, with Chief Sitting Bull now involved with the show, and Frank defects to Pawnee Bill’s show, but when they return triumphant but broke, love eventually wins.

This staging uses Peter Stone’s 1999 revision of Dorothy & Herbert Fields’ original book, making it more politically correct (changing some, but not all, of the racism towards native Americans), adding a romantic sub-plot and a song, but dropping a handful of other songs and making it a play-within-a-play, a feature which I don’t think really works. It was particularly odd when Annie’s brother Jake puts on a headdress and becomes Chief Sitting Bull, initially with script in hand. Kirk Jameson’s production is appropriately costumed, but with limited props, leaving plenty of space for Ste Clough’s excellent choreography. It’s lacks pace occasionally and the band sometimes drown the solos, but otherwise I liked it. The most important thing is that the standard-laden score is very well sung.

I very much liked Gemma Maclean’s Annie, an excellent transition from naïve tomboy to star turn. She’s well matched by Blair Robertson’s Frank, with great presence and great vocals. They are well supported by a cast of thirteen others who shine in the ensembles and choruses.

Good to see it at last without miscast leads and poor sightlines!

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