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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Flaherty’

If there was an award for the silliest plot of a musical, this would definitely be on the shortlist. Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty’s first show is about an English shoe salesman called Harry who will inherit $6m from his Uncle Tony as long as he takes his corpse on a holiday to Monte Carlo. As you can imagine, it’s a musical comedy, well musical farce, or perhaps farcical musical. Bonkers but fun.

It’s a bit more complicated because the inheritance is in diamonds and it has been stolen from his casino owner employer, in cahoots with the employer’s wife Rita, who is herself determined to get her hands on it. Oh, and there’s a dogs home representative watching carefully because if he doesn’t stick to every detail of the instructions, they cop the lot. Harry heads to Monte Carlo with the corpse, where he encounters Rita, accompanied by her optometrist brother Vincent, and Annabel from the dogs home who he falls for, and her him.

The chief strength if this production is the choruses, both in their singing and their staging; they are like quick-fire cartoon sequences and they take your breath away. Tom Elliot Reade is excellent as Harry, well paired with Natasha Hoeberigs as the equally meek Annabel. Natalie Moore-Williams makes a terrific job of Rita and Ian McCurrach gives a more playful take on the corpse than the first time I saw the show five years ago at the Landor (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/lucky-stiff).

It’s actor Paul Callen’s first stab at directing, though he’s cut his teeth assisting, and a fine job he makes of it too. For once at the Union, there was a good balance between Richard Baker’s duo and the solo vocals, perhaps because they appear to have lost the bass player! Good fun, though the run is now over.

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This Flaherty / Ahrens show, with a book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E L Doctorow, has never really found its place in the musical theatre repertoire in the UK. Maybe it’s a bit too American, and a bit too sentimental. One hundred years on from its setting and 20 years on from it’s creation, in a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, during an equally divided trumped up American election, maybe it’s found its time. It certainly resonated more with me than my three previous productions.

It interweaves the stories if a white liberal New England family with Latvian Jewish immigrant Teteh and his daughter and black singer Coalhouse Walker Jnr, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son, which become entwined almost by accident. Teteh is trying to establish a new life in America, the black couple are trying to survive amidst the racism of the day and the New England family are largely sympathetic to both, standing out from the less welcoming crowd around them. There’s a bunch of historical characters like Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini to add social history to the personal stories. It’s got a great ragtime influenced score, with both choruses and solos shining through.

When Coalhouse is attacked and his girlfriend Sarah murdered by racist Irish fireman Clonkin (somewhat ironic given he too was an immigrant), it unleashes a wave of revenge and rebellion that contrasts with the more peaceful campaigning of black leader Booker T Washington. Our Latvian friend is busy inventing movies, the New England family’s ‘father’ is off exploring the world, ‘mother’ has virtually adopted Sarah’s son and her ‘younger brother’ goes to join Coalhouse’s campaign.

This excellent production by Thom Southerland seemed to me to place more emphasis on the racism and its responses, which gave the show more clarity and focus than I’ve seen before. The twenty-four performers really fill the stage and when they sing in unison it’s a glorious sound. I’m not sure if this team have used the actor-musician format before, but it works very well here, with MD Jordan Li-Smith at one of the two on-stage pianos. I really liked Tom Rogers & Toots Butcher’s barn like design and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are very good indeed.

Anita Louise-Combe is superb as ‘mother’; her second act song Back to Before brought the house down. Ako Mitchell is outstanding as the defiant Coalhouse and Nolan Frederick and Jonathan Stewart invest great passion into Booker T Washington and ‘younger brother’ respectively. Jennifer Saayeng plays Sarah with great dignity and feeling and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Seyi Omooba, who leads the rousing Act I finale. On the night I went ‘little boy’ was superbly played by Ethan Quinn.

The Landor made a great job of it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) but the Open Air Theatre, uncharacteristically, made a bit of a mess of it a year later (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/ragtime-2) This fine production is another jewel in the jewel-laden crown of the Tarento-Southerland team. Don’t miss.

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You have to hand it to Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty; each of their musicals takes you somewhere completely different. This one sees us in the Deep South in the mid-19th century, before the abolition of slavery. Based on Sherley Anne Williams novel, the central characters of Dessa Rose, a young slave, and Ruth, a Southern belle, tell their story in flashback from a prologue and epilogue in the 1920’s, by which time things have of course changed. It’s a dramatically rich story with an excellent score and, in this production, a stunning ensemble.

Dessa Rose is a young slave on the Steele plantation and Ruth, the same age, is the daughter of the wealthy Carson’s who has been brought up by their slave Mammy. Dessa Is feisty and rebellious and in defending herself against unacceptable treatment finds herself in prison at 16, pregnant and the subject of writer Adam Nehemiah’s research. Ruth marries farmer Bertie who all but abandon’s her, leaving her lonely on the farm. Dessa escapes from prison and becomes the de facto leader of a group of slaves determined to head to the more enlightened west to escape slavery. They find an unlikely refuge with Ruth, who befriends them and aids them in their venture.

It’s a very dense story, in truth a bit too dense – there’s a hell of a lot going on – but it does make for a dramatically rich narrative. The score is up there with their best show, Ragtime, with evocative melodic music and lyrics which drive the story. From the rousing opening chorus of We Are Descended (which also closes the show) it packs in a whole load of good songs and choruses and here they are played and sung beautifully. In a surprising move, Dean Austin’s excellent band is dispersed, with keyboards and cello on stage and winds and violin in the corners of the auditorium. It works aurally, even if you are directly in front of a saxophone!, though it does restrict the already small playing space.

Director Andrew Keates has his work cut out staging it on such a small stage (well, floor) but with much ingenuity he pulls it off. When all 12 are on stage, with the two musicians, the space between audience and actors disappears completely. I think it is crying out for a bigger theatre, though not one so big as to lose the intimacy we get here. They didn’t appear to be using the visible head mic’s so the vocals have a lovely purity to them, though I did lose a few words.

The cast is uniformly excellent (casting by Benjamin Newsome again), all equally good as actors and singers. Both Cynthia Erivo and Cassidy Janson shine in the lead roles. Erivo conveys Dessa’s defiance with great passion and soaring vocals. Janson has more of a journey to make and I loved the way her character aged and her personality changed. She invested a lot of emotion in her performance, also vocally strong, and with an authentic accent. There isn’t a fault in the rest of this stunning cast.

This is my 7th Ahrens & Flaherty show and it’s amongst their best. I’d love to see it in a bigger space, but this European premiere is a huge success – and it’s in the West End at fringe prices! Time to book to go again…..

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A week without theatre, now a week behind with reviews (one already closed and another closing today!). Standards are slipping…..

The final evening of the Open Air Theatre’s musical has become an annual tradition and so far we’ve had the best of the weather and this year was no exception (tempting fate here). On a lovely evening, there’s nothing nicer and they’ve been on a roll for a long time now.

It’s only a year since this show wowed me at the Landor Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) and here it is scaled up and moved outdoors. This slice of early 20th century US social history is epic in scope – Jon Bausor’s design attempts to make it epic in scale and Timothy Sheader’s highly conceptual production tries hard to link it to the present day. Sadly that’s where it fails, getting in the way of the stories of the Latvian Jewish immigrant, the harassed black musician, the enlightened middle class New Englanders and the brilliant score. It’s all a bit of a muddle.

Musically, it’s terrific. It’s beautifully played and there are some outstanding vocal performances, notably Rosalie Craig as the mother and Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker. Stephen Flaherty’s music is anchored in the ragtime themes, but it builds from that into a lush and uplifting sound. I sometimes leave an opera which has been messed with wishing I’d closed my eyes or been to a concert version and I’m afraid that’s how I felt here.

One misfire won’t threaten the annual tradition, though programming The Sound of Music for next year might! Somehow, it doesn’t seem right for this venue and this audience and it comes so soon after the Palladium’s revival. Mmm…..

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This is the third Flaherty & Ahrens musical here at the Landor in six months, and this time a European premiere of their latest (2007) show. There was a wonderful revival of Ragtime back in September and Lucky Stiff  just last month was great fun.

You have to admire this pair for the range of their subjects; this time its 16th century Italian Commedia dell’Arte! We follow a troop of street players as they enact scenes and their relationships are revealed. It’s somewhat broad and crude, in keeping with the style it pays homage to (and suggests is the origin of much modern comedy) and there are some nice songs, particularly those of Columbina and Armanda at the start of the second half, which are beautifully sung by Kate Brennan and Jodie Beth Meyer.

Robert McWhir’s staging is excellent, with a lovely period design from Martin Thomas and (yet again) great lighting by Howard Hudson. The opening and closing scenes, with the players behind gauze, are particularly effective. The string / woodwind / piano quintet under Joanna Cichonska, playing new orchestrations by Niall Bailey, produce a sound which is simply gorgeous. I applaud the lack of amplification, but the sound is probably better balanced further away from the band. I’m afraid I thought Mike Christie’s Flaminio was a weak link in the casting, which was otherwise very good, and its a crucial role.

The problem with the evening is the structure of the show – it’s just a series of scenes which hang loosely together, leaving you wanting more of a narrative. It’s the weakest of the six musicals I’ve seen from this pair, but it’s a good production and still worth catching if you’re a musical junkie like me!

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This was Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty’s first musical, back in 1988. They went on to write a classic – Ragtime (brilliantly revived here at the Landor last year and included in this years Open Air season) – plus some good but less successful shows like Once on This Island, My Favourite Year and A Man of No Importance.

Based on Michael Butterworth’s book, the show tells the somewhat preposterous story of an English shoe salesman who inherits his American uncle’s fortune – provided he takes his corpse on holiday to Monte Carlo! He’s followed by a dog’s home representative who is checking he meets the conditions in full as otherwise they cop the lot. Of course, its musical comedy (farce) so nothing is as it seems and nothing turns out as planned.

Though it’s an early work, it’s a quirky and funny show with some nice tunes. We move from dull English shop and lodgings to the French Riviera (cue intentionally dodgy French accents and jokes about French stereotypes) as plain Harry wheels uncle around between locations followed by equally plain Annabel from the dogs home and uncle’s more manic ex and her brother. There’s even a dream sequence which includes a tap dance!

All the leads are excellent. James Winter and Abigail Jaye both strike the right note as quiet souls at sea in a strange world. Lucy Williamson is a terrific scorned woman, brash loud and somewhat gothic; a great double-act with Miles Western as her less manic but equally mad brother. The stiff (Mark Hayden?) would win any Best Performance by a Corpse award going – on stage for most of the play, he hardly flinched.

Rob McWhir’s production has a cartoonish quality and great pace. There’s a clever set with eleven doors and a descending bed. At the interval, I was puzzled at the lack of a design credit, but witnessing the interval repairs I was less surprised! The cast dealt with the elongated interval brilliantly by including a lyric referencing the bed in the second act opener – delicious!

Its great fun and you only have two more weeks to catch it.

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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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