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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Schwartz’

Given the pedigree of its creators (music by Annie’s Charles Strouse, lyrics by Godspell’s Stephen Schwartz and book by Fiddler on the Roof’s Joseph Stein) this musical had a troubled life, surviving only three nights after its Broadway opening. Though there have been excellent drama school productions (I saw it at both GSMD & RAM in recent years), Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre gave it its UK professional premiere, in a revised version with a book by David Thompson, last year, and have now brought it to London, substantially recast.

It’s the story of the American immigrant experience, in this case Jewish refugees fleeing the East European pogroms at the beginning of the 20th Century. Rebecca and Bella meet and bond on a  ship bound for New York. Rebecca and her ten-year-old son David are seeking a new life, Bella is joining her widowed father, who emigrated two years earlier to join his brother. Rebecca is unable to pay her entrance fee on arrival, so Bella persuades her father to vouch for her, then her uncle to house and employ her. From there, their lives are intertwined as they navigate sweat shop exploitation and anti-semitism and get caught up in labour disputes. Rebecca chooses the wrong man whilst Bella chooses a good one.

Bronagh Lagan’s production flows beautifully on a set by Gregor Donnelly defined by suitcases, like the 2016 RAM production, and lines of washing, with excellent costumes underlining the heritage and period. In an ensemble packed with fine performances, Carolyn Maitland shines as Rebecca, with beautiful vocals, passionately delivered. Dave Willetts is on fine form as Avram, Bella’s father, Alex Gibson-Giorgio is excellent as Italian union man Sal, and there’s a terrific performance from a boy actor as David. Two ‘Americans’, played as vaudevillians, pop up regularly to illustrate the ‘welcome’ these immigrants receive and. a four-piece Klezmer band do likewise to emphasise the Jewish roots.

This is the second Hope Mill / Aria Entertainment production I’ve seen in four days. Their march for domination of regional and touring musical theatre continues with five more productions between them in the first half of 2020. Long may it continue.

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This Stephen Schwartz show came just one year after his debut hit Godspell. That was 45 years ago. It took another thirty years for his mega-hit Wicked. Pippin hasn’t been revived very often, but it was a big hit again on Broadway in 2013. The last time we saw it here was six years ago, in a misguided production at the Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/pippin). This new production has come from the new Northern musicals powerhouse in Manchester, Hope Mill. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so impressed by a production of a musical I’m so unimpressed by.

Pippin is the son of the 9th century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. We follow him from graduation, as he tries to make his way in the world, through war, sex, rebellion, politics and ordinary life. I’m afraid I find it impossible to relate to the story and the music is undistinguished bland pop to my ears, though its fair to say it was so well sung and played here, I warmed to the score.

When it comes to the production, it’s hugely impressive, with Jonathan O’Boyle’s staging, William Whelton’s choreography, Maeve Black’s design, Aaron J Dootson’s lighting and James Nicholson’s sound all outstanding. The cast is hugely talented, not a weak link amongst them. Newcomer Jonathan Charlton is a very likeable Pippin, Genevieve Nicole is a charismatic presence as the Lead Player, the narrator, and there’s a great doubling-up by Mairi Barclay as Charlemagne’s second wife Fastrada and mother Berthe. The eight-piece band under MD Zach Flis sounded great.

I can’t imagine a better production, so I have to warmly recommend it, whatever I think of the material. As for Hope Mill, more please!

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This might be the first verbatim musical, based on US oral historian Studs Terkel’s interviews with working people about their jobs, some of which are set to music by no less than six songwriters. It premiered in 1975, but this European premiere is a revised version first seen in 2009, incorporating new interviews conducted by co-adapter Stephen Schwartz and two new songs from musicals-man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda. I loved it.

Six actors tell the stories of twenty-six people in a diverse range of occupations. Some are spoken, some sung, some both. I thought it was an inspired idea to add six performers as ‘chorus’, making their professional debuts, just starting their working lives – they add life and energy to the show. In addition to Miranda, there are songs by Schwartz and singer-songwriter James Taylor amongst others, and the quality is consistently high. It’s surprising how much you learn about these people and its refreshing to see something that reflects the lives of ordinary people, their motivations and their aspirations and here, the presence of the young cast members gives it a strong sense of generational change and parental aspirations for children, particularly moving in Peter Polycarpou’s rendition of Fathers & Sons.

The characters and songs are superbly interpreted by Polycarpou plus Gillian Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison and Liam Tamne, and there’s a great band led by Isaac McCullough. I liked Jean Chan shabby workplace set & Gabriella Slade’s ‘distressed’ costumes. There’s some excellent choreography from Fabian Aloise and Luke Sheppard, who directed In The Heights here, does a fine job putting this all together into a captivating and uplifting ninety minutes.

Not to be missed.

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Biblical musicals aren’t really my thing. I’m not at all fond of the Lloyd-Webber / Rice pair, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, or Godspell by Stephen Scwartz, who also wrote this (which flopped when it went straight to the West End twenty-five years ago). Somewhat perversely, I prefer it to the other three – all hits – but that may have a lot to do with the chamber scale and high quality of this revival.

Based on the Old Testament Book of Genesis, it tells the stories of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel and Noah, the first two in Act I and the latter in Act II. I thought the score was rather good, as were Schwartz own lyrics, better than his other shows like Godspell, Pippin and Wicked. John Caird’s lucid book provides a cohesive structure. Even for an unbeliever like me, these are good yarns.

The staging (director Christian Durham) choreography (Lucie Pankhurst), design (Kingsley Hall) and lighting (Nic Farman) all come together to create a fresh, energetic and attractive whole. The animals were conjured up brilliantly and the use of umbrellas was very clever. Musical director Inga Davies-Rutter led an excellent quartet with particularly lovely woodwind sounds. It was very pleasing on the eye and ear.

There was a lot of doubling-up in the excellent young cast of eleven performers. I was particularly impressed by Stephen Barry as Adam / Noah and Canadian Natasha O’Brien (in her first UK role) as Eve / Mama Noah. There were other fine leading performances from Guy Woolf as Cain / Japeth, Daniel Miles as Abel / Ham and Nitika Johal as Yonah, and an excellent ensemble. They deserved a medal for getting through with the distraction of a front row of kids consuming an entire sweetshop with their mothers two rows behind necking cans of lager!

A very pleasant surprise, well worth catching.

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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 show, based on the Marcel Pagnol & Jean Giono film La Femme du Boulanger, has had a troubled history. The Guys & Dolls boys Frank Loesser & Abe Burrows were originally planning to turn it into a musical in the 50’s, but it never came off. Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) & Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) toured their show around the US in 1976 (with at various times Topol and Patti Lupone in the cast) but it never made it to Broadway. Trevor never-less-than-three-hours Nunn blamed his 1989 West End flop on its length! This is its second London fringe outing in five years and it proves that it’s found its place as a funny, charming chamber musical and for me a better show that either Godspell or Wicked.

A French village without a bakery is unthinkable. They used to be a French law (still is?) protecting the right of every village to a baker. Our nameless one in Provence has been grieving since it lost theirs, but news of the arrival of a new baker lifts their spirits and Aimable and his much younger wife Genevieve are soon in post and bread back on the menu. In our typical village, the priest and the teacher are feuding over an oak tree and the butcher and cafe owner have been feuding so long they no longer know what they’re feuding about and the bickering with, and ill-treatment of, their long-suffering wives is relentless. The Marquis lives with his three ‘nieces’ and his handsome handyman Dominique who falls for Genevieve. When they run away, the baker falls to pieces and the village is without bread once more. In desperation, they send out search parties.

I loved seeing the panic on faces in the audience when it all starts in French, but it soon reverts in English as the cafe owner’s wife Denise begins to narrate the tale. The score is lovely, Schwartz’s lyrics very witty and the atmosphere nostalgique (that’s wistful in French, apparently). It’s not easy to pull off without turning it into a post-war ‘Allo ‘Allo (for younger readers, a dreadful British TV sitcom – which was shown on French TV, dubbed!) but here they have, last night struggling with sweltering conditions on ‘the hottest July day ever!’. The comedy is particularly strong and there are some lovely touches, including appearances by Pom Pom, the baker’s wife’s cat, the smell of bread wafting through the space with the first bake and the butcher forever talking with his mouth full. The ensemble numbers are rousing.

Director Marc Kelly also seems to be responsible for movement and design and all three effectively create an appropriate setting and ambiance for a 1930’s French village. It’s a very good ensemble and it would be invidious to single anyone out.  Kieran Stallard gamely plays the whole score on electric piano.

It’s an impressive show from new kids on the block MKEC Productions and good to see something like this at the Drayton Arms. Now the temperature is dropping, go catch one of the last four performances; who knows when we’ll see it again.

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This 1986 musical with a book by Joseph (Fiddler on the Roof) Stein, lyrics by Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz & music by Charles (Annie) Strouse is a lot better than its post-opening 4-day Broadway run suggests. It provides a drama school like GSMD with 30 roles, lots of different locations to set and a score suitable for a substantial orchestra. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, as that means ambition and challenge, but GSMD pull it off.

The show starts on board a ship full of Russian Jewish refugees bound for New York. Rebecca’s husband, now in New York for five years, has sent for her but fails to meet her at the port. Bella Cohen, who she as befriended on board, and her father Avram vouch for her, enabling her and her son David to enter the US. She lives with the Cohen’s, works in a sweat shop and gets involved with union man Saul. When she eventually finds Nathan some time later, he isn’t the man he was; he’s now one of the oppressors making life hell for sewing machinists like her.

There’s a sub-plot where orthodox Avram seeks to thwart the relationship between Bella and Ben, a romance which started on board ship, and lots of insight into the plight of these poor immigrants. Some funny scenes lighten the mood, notably a Jewish Hamlet, and its at its best in the big numbers which allow the terrific ensemble and orchestra under Stephen Eadis to shine. With a team as good as Martin Connor (director) & Bill Deamer (choreographer), the staging is of course excellent – flowing smoothly from ship to port to tenement to sweat shop to street with a simple but clever two-tier design.

Amongst the individual performances, those that have to play older or younger fare particularly well. Christopher Currie plays old Akram well (despite the dodgy beard!), as does Eva Feiler as Rachel, who befriends him with a view to marriage. Rhys Isaac-Jones does equally well in reverse as young David. Nathan is an unsympathetic character which Alex Large turns you against, as he should, in the same way that Maximilien Seweryn gets all of your empathy as Ben.

A rare chance to see a big Broadway show with the big numbers delivered to thrilling effect.

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Those of us who go to opera have long got used to radical directorial reinvention / reinterpretation. 2011 was a particularly bad year, with Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust (I asked ENO for my money back as I thougth I’d booked for Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust – the composer uncredited in the marketing) followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream relocated from a forest to a boy’s public school! It happens less in theatre – well, except with Shakespeare and other dead writers who can’t answer back – and even less in  musicals. In this case, though, it seems composer Stephen Schwartz hasn’t objected, though I’m not sure he’s seen it!

Director Mitch Sebastian’s ‘big idea’ is to turn it into a video game, which actually isn’t a bad idea. I didn’t think much of this early Schwartz show when I first saw it at the Bridewell Theatre 13 years ago (he went on to write Godspell and Wicked – come to think of it, I don’t think much of those either) so I was up for a radical reinvention / reinterpretation. The production is probably the most visually in-your-face I’ve ever seen. After you enter through the game-player’s bedroom, the stage seems to take up more space than you thought the Menier had and you have to use all of your peripheral vision – and move your head back and fore as if you’re watching a tennis match from the net – to take in as much of the 180 degree staging as you can (it’s impossible to take it all in). The projections by Timothy Bird, often interacting with the performers, are simply extrordinary.

The story concerns the son of Emperor Charles (Charlemagne), his second wife Fastrada, son Pippin and step-son Lewis and in particular to Pippin’s search for purpose and meaning. The problem is the production is a complete mismatch with the predominent musical style (70’s pop-rock) and the story’s period (9th century France) so it’s littered with uncomfortable anachronisms, jarrs frequently and just doesn’t work – and it confirms the view that it isn’t a particularly good show. I have to say though that I have much admiration for the craftsmanship – it’s extraordinarily slick as you move from one open-mouthed moment to another, and another….

Matt Rawle has great presence and a great voice as the Leading Player (another narrator role to follow his Che in the recent revival of Evita). Ian Kelsey and Frances Ruffelle are very good as the king and queen, as is David Page as the step-son, despite the S&M nature of their costumes! Harry Hepple pulls off the difficult transition from naivety to defiance and back to naivety as Pippin. Louise Gold provides a lovely one-song cameo as grandmother Berthe but the introducion of the role seems completely pointless and the song (with audience participation, complete with panto songsheet!) feels like it popped in from the panto down the road for added seasonality. The musical standards are much higher than the quality of the music and Tom Kelly’s band is good, if somewhat loud for such a small venue – this adds to the feeling that you are being bashed over the head relentlessly to compensate for the mediocre material.

I admire the attempt to breathe new life into an ify show, but have to report that for me it failed – and found me asking the same question I’ve asked a few times recently – what on earth is happening to the Menier?

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I’ve waited over 21 years for a revival of this show, which was a critical success but a commercial flop in the West End in 1989, but Michael Strassen’s production at the Union Theatre was worth the wait. This bumper year of small-scale musical revivals and of the Union Theatre’s pre-eminence continues.

Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz’s show is based on the Marcel Pagnol / Jean Giono film La Femme du Boulanger and it’s the best score he wrote. Here it’s beautifully sung, unamplified, with just piano and cello (and occasional acoustic guitar) under MD Chris Mundy. It so suits the story – delightful, funny, charming & wistful.

A French village is incomplete without its baker (I think there is still a law in France that actually prevents this) and this village has been without one for seven weeks, so withdrawal symptoms are rampant and the inhabitants seriously over-excited when the new baker arrives with his beautiful new young wife. It doesn’t take long before a dashing young man whisks her away and the baker is distraught and unable to  bake. Of course, it all ends happily ever after. It is indeed a slight tale, but frankly it doesn’t really matter.

Michael Matus brilliantly captures the lovestruck naivety of the baker (appropriately named Aimable) and Lisa Stokke the struggle between loyalty and temptation. Matthew Goodgame is as dashing as you’d wish for a lover and there is a terrific partnership from Ian Mowat and Ricky Butt as the bickering cafe owner and his wife and a fine Marquis / Mayor (with three ‘nieces’ in tow!) from Mark Turnbull. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble; a superb supporting cast of twelve.

Though I didn’t really like the painted backdrop, which seemed to me more Munch’s The Scream than the presumably intended Chagall, there is an authentic French village feel created by a handful of props and good costumes but more than anything else by good, somewhat tongue-in-cheek acting. I loved the opening in French, before the cafe owner’s wife as narrator is reminded where she is – it lasted just long enough for panic to set in with some audience members! The staging is excellent – with particularly fluid ensemble movement.

Yet another fine production at the Union. Next stop Texas for The Best Little Whorehouse!

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Just as we were moving on from our hippie phase as the 60’s turned into 70’s, along came a few biblical musicals – two by Andrew Lloyd-Webber & Tim Rice and this one from Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz – which applied a hippie style, perhaps in an attempt to ‘get down with the kids’. Some found them refreshing and others embarassing. I was in the embaressing camp. Forty years have passed and I think we’ve only had one more (major) biblical musical – Children of Eden, also by Schwartz, making it 2-2.

It’s an edited version of the Gospel According to Matthew, so there’s no point in outlining the story. It does have a few good songs, notably Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord and Day by Day, but a lot of mediocre ones. I think Beautiful City was added after the original production; in any event, it’s a mistake to end the show with it as the preceeding Finale is much more powerful.

Director Michael Strassen presented wonderful stripped bear productions of Sondheim’s Company and Assassins at the same theatre, and he applies a similar approach here. Unfortunately, Schwartz isn’t Sondheim. I’ve never been that fond of his music; it’s melodic but lacks variety and subtlety. It often assaults you relentlessly with bland pop tunes in an attempt to beat you into submission. I didn’t even like Wicked. I’m also not a believer. So if you did and / or you are, please don’t rely on my view.

As it happens, I admire the production. They’ve dumped the hippie shit and play it in modern street cloths with no set, leaving the excellent lighting by Steve Miller to create the atmosphere. The opening is great, with lovely lighting effects, the cast dressed in black all waking up and Jesus entering in his crash helmet – this is the Union Theatre, so they couldn’t stretch to a motorbike; if it had been an ALW West End revival, no doubt it would have been a bejewelled Harley Davidson!

Though they occasionally forget how small the space is and begin shouting, resulting in even less subtlety, the singing (and acting) is uniformly good. Billy Cullum is a charismatic Jesus and Davis Brooks does well playing a sympathetic John the Baptist and an unsympathetic Judas. The synthetsised voice of god is a mistake as you can’t understand his message – unless that was the point.

If you’re fond of musicals and this has passed you by or if you’d like to see how it shapes up 40 years on or if you’re a Schwartz fan, this is the place to go. Good production, pity about the show.

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