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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Sondheim’

So the first Sondheim show I’m seeing after he’s left us is his biggest flop, which lasted for just nine performances after its 1964 opening night on Broadway. In recent years, though, the London fringe has been interested in it enough to stage it four times in less than twenty years. This is the fourth, and I’ve seen them all. It’s also the best.

It’s a satire without enough satirical bite. It has a Brechtian quality about it, but that doesn’t quite work either. One could argue it hasn’t stood the test of time, but it’s stage history suggests it never worked in the first place. What this production does, though, is invest it with a more manic quality, much more of a sense of fun and exceptional musical standards. If only someone would rewrite Arthur Laurents’ book.

In a bankrupt town, they search for a miracle that will bring in tourist bucks. A spring provides the opportunity. Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper and her three officials start to exploit their luck, or is it? So far so good. Then there’s the arrival of the residents (cookies) of the local asylum (the cookie jar) under the care of Dr Detmold, led by Nurse Fay Apple, intent on disproving the miracle. This derails it. A new doctor, J Bowden Hapgood, arrives (or is he?) and joins Nurse Apple, now in disguise as a miracle inspector from Lourdes. Let’s just forget the story, shall we?

The show does have three great songs which have had a life outside it, and two of them – There Won’t Be Trumpets and the title song – are sung by the nurse, and Chrystine Symone’s excellent vocals ensure they are highlights. The third – Everybody Says Don’t – showcases Hapgood, and Jordan Broatch delivers this superbly too. I’ve been following Alex Young’s career since she brought me to tears singing Send in the Clowns in A Little Night Music whilst training at the Royal Academy of Music (something Judi Dench and Hannah Waddingham hadn’t previously done!) and here she reveals a real flair for comedy as Cora, and sets the tone of the piece brilliantly.

The show has clearly been cast purely for talent, which makes it an exceptional diverse ensemble. I thought the musical standards achieved by MD Natalie Pound were outstanding and the venue’s troublesome acoustics were mastered by Justin Teasdale. This is a relatively new production team, led by director Georgie Rankcom, who bring new life to a dodgy show. The late Bridewell Theatre did well in 2003, as did Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 and the Union Theatre in 2017, but for me this comes out tops. Sondheim fans should be flocking to Elephant & Castle!

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Opening a new theatre after the worst two years in theatre history is brave indeed. Seven Dials Playhouse has risen, metaphorically, from the ashes of Tristan Bates Theatre, and it’s good to report that it gets off to an excellent start with this European premiere of Mark Gerrard’s 2015 off-Broadway hit.

Designer Lee Newby has built a replica of Joe Allen’s New York theatre-land restaurant which doubles up as a Starbucks and other locations. Dick Straker & Barbara Senoltova’s projections into photo and window frames are particularly clever and there’s even a revolve! MD Ben Papworth plays musical theatre numbers superbly on an onstage piano, reflecting the background of the key characters. Outstanding production values.

The story revolves around gay couple Steven, a former dancer, and Stephen, a lawyer, and their 8-year-old son Stevie, Steven’s best friend Matt and his partner Brian and Carrie, a friend of them all, who is estranged from her partner Lisa, oh, and terminally ill. Steven & Stephen’s seemingly stable relationship is tested by another Steve, a personal trainer, who also has relationships with Matt and Brian it seems. Then there’s Argentinian Esteban (guess what that translates as?!), who starts as a waiter but becomes intertwined with them, and Stephen Sondheim, who looms large.

It’s an original, cleverly constructed piece, often very funny, with sharp sparkling dialogue, well developed characters and unexpected plot twists. It’s littered with musical theatre references, particularly Sondheim ones, in both dialogue and piano ‘accompaniment’, which I found delicious, but others less seeped in the genre may find less accessible. It’s performed superbly, particularly by David Ames as Steven and Jenna Russell as Carrie. One of the strengths of Andrew Keates’ great production is its pacing, including a stand-out section where Joe Aaron Reid as Stephen is masterly juggling multiple overlapping phone and text conversations alone on stage.

I really enjoyed it. Quality writing and performances, terrific staging and design. What more can you ask for?

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Given it’s iconic status in musical theatre, I’m surprised this is only the fourth major London revival since I moved here forty years ago. Sam Mendes also turned his theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, into the Kit Kat Club for his 1993 production, albeit less dramatically. This transferred to Broadway, where it ran for six or seven years, returning less that ten years later for another year. Rufus Norris’ 2006 revival was a radical production on a conventional stage. Now Rebecca Frecknall’s is a complete reinvention within an elaborate reconfiguration of the Playhouse Theatre. There was so much to take in, which might be why I’m still struggling to write about it four days later.

It must have felt extraordinarily ground-breaking when it was first staged on Broadway 55 years ago; it felt pretty much the same now – a musical set in 30’s Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party featuring prostitution, drugs and homosexuality, the Kit Kat Club at the heart of all the decadence. It starts when you enter, walking through the bowels of the theatre to emerge in what used to be the foyer where the ‘prologue cast’ were performing. Then you enter the auditorium, where the club vibe continues, with the audience on two sides of a round playing area which revolves and rises, and the band above in the two boxes that once housed audience members. It’s actually a small playing area, though Frecknall and choreographer Julia Cheng use it brilliantly, switching from the club to all other locations with few props very speedily.

In addition to Tom Scutt’s physical design, his Kit Kat Club costumes have a distinct aesthetic too, a sort of surreal punk fantasy, never more so than with Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee, which he invests with an extraordinary physicality and a manic stare. One of the striking things about this production is how all of the roles come to the fore; it isn’t just Sally & the Emcee’s show, the audience waiting for their next entrance. This cast rise to that challenge superbly. Lisa Sadovy is terrific as landlady Fraulein Schneider, her relationship with Elliot Levey’s excellent Herr Schultz growing, exuding warmth, before it crashes so sadly. Omari Douglas continues to impress with a very subtle and sensitive Clifford, struggling with his sexuality. It’s great to see Anna-Jane Casey back where she belongs investing prostitute Fraulein Kost with such exuberance. Then there’s Jessie Buckley, conquering yet another peak in a short career that has demonstrated extraordinary range. Her Sally Bowles balances confidence and vulnerability perfectly.

It’s an unsettling, dark show and this production is often chilling. Perhaps because of the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, the parallels between him and Kander & Ebb struck me. They both tackled subjects unusual to musical theatre before, and each show was completely different. Cabaret will go down in history as a show which made a great contribution to the evolution of the form in the last half of the 20th Century and this production will be remembered for proving the point that great shows evolve and change, reflecting the period they are performed in and the talent that creates and performs them. I’m so glad I was there to experience this one.

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It’s almost forty years since I first saw this show, in a Broadway revival, and it’s been in my top five musicals ever since, so I was excited to see what this new production by Nikolai Foster, without Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, would be like. The answer is ‘thrilling’.

The story is as timeless as the Shakespeare play on which it’s based, but it seems to resonate more in the UK today, given our struggle with gang culture and knife crime. Even though the setting and period, book and lyrics, remain unchanged, it has a contemporary feel and edgy aesthetic, Ellen Kane’s new choreography contributing greatly to this, which makes it feel very fresh. The design team of Michael Taylor (set), Edd Lindley (costumes) and Guy Hoare (lighting) have respected the period whilst somehow making it feel like now. A luxury fifteen piece band under MD George Dyer do full justice to Bernstein’s brilliant score.

It’s been a great pleasure watching Jamie Muscato grow into such a fine performer and here he is owning one of musical theatre’s great roles, with breathtaking renditions of Something’s Coming, Tonight and Maria. Maria is superbly played and sung by Puerto Rican Adriana Ivelisse, here to study musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, but looking like she doesn’t need to (note to self – RAM student productions in 2020!). Carly Mercedes Dyer is a terrific Anita, leading America with Abigail Climer’s Conesuela and Mireia Mambo’s Rosalia, who both also stand out in I Feel Pretty. Then there’s another fifteen in this superb cast, enhanced by a ‘young company’ of local trainees, who fill the stage, most notably during a rousing, moving Somewhere.

The Curve has been working with the police and the local community on the issues covered in the show (how often do you get a programme note by the Chief Constable?!) which underlines the ongoing relevance of this sixty-year-old show, here feeling like its brand new. Thrilling.

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This is one of the less frequently revived Sondheim shows, but I’ve been lucky enough to see it four times since its UK premiere at the Donmar in 1992, and it always repays a fresh look, as it does again here.

Designer Simon Kenny has turned the Watermill into a distressed red striped barn, which creates the perfect intimate space for the nine successful and failed assassins to tell their stories and reveal their motivation. From Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, the father of them all, to more recent attempts on the lives of Regan, Nixon and Ford, some are deranged, some motivated by perceived grievances. It can sometimes seem like a series of individual stories, but in Bill Buckhurst’s production, connections are emphasised and common psychological themes revealed, and the handling of the final assassin’s story brings them together superbly.

The clever references to contemporary gun crime are chilling, with a vending machine and a surprise late arrival. The transformation to, and pivotal scene in, Dallas is deftly handled, with Alex Mugnaioni showing great presence as Booth. The balladeer is played by a woman for the first time, and Lillie Flynn sang the role beautifully. The staging of Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau’s hanging was brilliant, with Eddie Elliott making a great job of I Am Going To The Lordy. Steve Simmonds’ meltdowns’ as Nixon’s would be assassin Samuel Byck were terrific. The whole ensemble acts, sings and plays all of the the instruments brilliantly.

It’s only five years since I last saw it, but it resonated differently again, and it was great to see this small scale production in one of my favourite theatres. Too late for Newbury, but it’s heading to Nottingham, you lucky East Midlands peeps.

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Every time I see a new production of a Sondheim musical, I think its his best, so here we go again! There hasn’t been a major London production of Company for 22 years, though we have had some fine fringe ones. Director Marianne Elliott’s reinvention, with Sondheim’s approval and involvement, changes 35-year-old New York male singleton Bobby to female Bobbie, the three girlfriends to boyfriends and one couple, Paul & Amy, about to be married after living together forever, have become gay couple Paul & Jamie. It makes a 48-year-old show feel fresh and bang up to date.

It’s Bobbie’s 35th birthday and there’s a surprise party planned. We meet her and her three casual boyfriends and her best friends, five couples who fret about her lack of a long-term relationship whilst making attempts at match-making and harbouring some jealous thoughts about her freedom. She’s at that age where she’s trying to reconcile her love of independence with her mid-thirties body-clock, which is where this production works even better with the change of gender. The normality of a gay marriage is the other change which works in its favour and choosing this particular couple, about to be married with one party having second thoughts, is inspired. Each couple has their own story, and they’re interwoven with Bobbie’s three casual romances and all the issues and pressures of being single in your thirties.

The production is highly inventive, with a terrific design from Bunny Christie. Each song and each scene seems to be a showstopper. The boyfriends trio You Could Drive A Person Crazy was deliciously interpreted by Richard Fleeshman, Matthew Seadon-Young and George Blagden. Individually, Fleeshman shines as airline steward Andy in his bedroom scene with Bobbie where they sing Barcelona, the destination of his forthcoming flight, and Blagden as PJ delivers Another Hundred People superbly. Liam Steel’s choreography comes into its own in the staging of Side By Side / What Would We Do Without You, which becomes a slick series of party games. With Jamie a gay catholic, Getting Married Today rises to new manic / comic heights and Jonathan Bailey brings the house down. Broadway royalty Pattie Lupone sings The Ladies Who Lunch like I’ve never heard it before, fabulously. Left alone on a bare stage, Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie sings Being Alive, the song that is the emotional heart of the piece, and her tears are matched by the audience; she’s wonderful as Bobbie.

As a Sondheim fan, being in a full house that roars its approval is a joy. Watching Patti Lupone leave the stage hugging Rosalie Craig felt like one generation of performers nurturing the next, as Marianne Elliott thrillingly passes on this masterpiece to the next generation too. A triumph for all concerned.

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Musical theatre parody Forbidden Broadway has been running in NYC for thirty-six years in a large number of incarnations and has had two London runs in the last ten years, one even transferring to the West End. I think its a mark of respect that they’ve renamed this 2016 incarnation after the show they’ve built it around.

Morgan Large’s design is a mini-Hamilton set and cloned costumes. Most of the show contains numbers from Hamilton with new lyrics, performed by just five actors. The way they’ve structured it, about as well as parodying Hamilton, they are able to go off at tangents with references to writers like Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, spoofing their shows too, plus others like Wicked and Annie, and we even get a visit from a famous diva.

It’s great fun, but I do think the pace is relentlessly fast. Though I’ve seen Hamilton, and most of the other shows it parodies, even I couldn’t keep up, missing more than I was happy with. It’s faster than Hamilton, which is probably the point, but it’s at the expense of total comprehension. I wished it would have come up for air and given the audience a breather every now and again.

The five main performers – Marc Akinfolarin, Jason Denton, Eddie Elliott, Liam Tamne and Julie Yammanee – are all terrific, good enough to be in the show they are spoofing. There are lovely cameos from Damian Humbley, notably as Hamilton’s King George, and Sophie-Louise Dann, including that infamous diva. Simon Beck gamely and brilliantly accompanies on a grand piano. The energy and enthusiasm of all eight is infectious; you have a ball because they are.

Writer / director Gerard Alessandrini gives us a parody that is also a homage to a show he clearly loves, and a musical form he’s a big fan of. Great fun.

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All Star Productions last produced this Stephen Sondheim show just four years ago at their regular home in Walthamstow (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/into-the-woods). Now it’s in central London, fully in-the-round at the Cockpit Theatre, substantially re-cast, but essentially the same production.

Director Tim McArthur seems to have extended his contemporary characterisations, some of which work – Towie ugly sisters, Little Red Ridinghood with headphones and Sloane prince’s – but some which don’t – the witch as bag-lady and Jack’s chavy single mum (with such an impenetrable accent I could hardly understand a word she spoke or sang). The first half is meant to smother you in fairytale charm and lull you into a false sense of security, before it turns very dark after the interval; the problem with this interpretation is that it robs you of that, and that’s where it fails.

They’ve kept the adventure playground design aesthetic, albeit with a different designer. Aaron Clingham’s band sounded great, as ever, though there were amplification problems at the performance I attended. The cast is a great combination of young newcomers, like Florence Odumosu as Little Red Ridinghood and Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella, both delightful, and seasoned performers like Michele Moran and Mary Lincoln, who was in the UK premiere in 1990 – a great singer in a virtually non-singing role here! Jo Wickham is excellent as an older Baker’s Wife than we’re used to, Macey Cherrett & Francesca Pim give great turns as Cinderella’s sisters and Ashley Daniels & Michael Duke make a lovely pair of prince’s.

It was only the fifth performance (but after the press night) so it may well improve. There’s much to enjoy; what I saw was flawed, but worth catching nonetheless.

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It’s thirty years since I saw a large-scale production of this show – it’s first, and only, West End outing – though there were three others in quick succession between 2002 and 2010 – a semi-staged version at the Royal Festival Hall, a delightful fringe production at the Landor and another in Walthamstow during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations. Along with A Little Night Music, it’s never been my favourite Sondheim show, though it contains some of his best songs, but just five days after a stunning revival of that other show in Newbury, here we are at the National being blown away by Dominic Cooke’s sensational production, taking us back to the original Broadway version without interval. Now, where did I put my superlatives thesaurus……

It’s a reunion at the New York theatre where the Weismann Follies were between the wars. It’s about to be demolished and the girls of the 30’s and 40’s have been invited back one last time. Nostalgia gives way to regret for lost love and lost opportunities, as the main characters Buddy & Sally and Ben & Phyllis reminisce. There have been follies in their lives as well as Follies in their careers, and we learn how their relationships were formed and how they progressed. All four have the ‘ghosts’ of their former selves onstage, as do ten of the other stars from the past. Interwoven with their story, and ‘character songs’ as Sondheim calls them, we have routines and turns reenacted and a pastiche called Loveland within which all four leads sing of their individual follies.

Imelda Staunton follows her Mrs Lovett, Rose and Martha with another stupendous performance as Sally. It’s wonderful to see Philip Quast again, on fine form too as Ben, and Janine Dee is a terrific acid-tonged Phyllis, a particularly fine dancer as it turns out. Peter Forbes is less of a musicals regular, but he makes a great Buddy. Another piece of surprising but inspired casting is Di Botcher as Hattie, delivering Broadway Baby as if she was. Tracie Bennett takes I’m Still Here hostage with a particularly ballsy rendition, and the duet between opera singers Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as older and younger Heidi is another stand-out moment in a show full of them. Dawn Hope’s Stella gamely leads the veterans in a thrilling tap dancing number with their former selves. The National is saved from prosecution by the musicals police by casting a Strallen, Zizzi, as Young Phyllis. This teally is a stunner of a cast.

Dominic Cooke isn’t known for musicals, but teamed with choreographer Bill Deamer, he’s done a great job, an elegant staging which is brash when it needs to be, at other times restrained and often very moving. Vicki Mortimer has created an atmospheric set and fantastic costumes. The unbroken 130 minutes was packed full of showstoppers and by the time we got to Loveland, I was overwhelmed and deeply moved. I think my previous, less enthusiastic reaction is down to timing. I was too young and too new to Sondheim and wasn’t really ready for this show – until now.

To the 37 performers and 21 musicians on stage, and the 200 production staff, and of course Messrs Sondheim & Goldman, it was worth every second of your time and effort. Unforgettable.

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This and Follies (which I’m seeing again in three days time) haven’t been my favourite Sondheim shows – I’ve always considered them a bit conventional, even old-fashioned, in comparison with the rest of his work. Well, that was until Saturday. This is another musical theatre triumph for the Watermill in Newbury, unquestionably the best of the four staged productions of the show I’ve seen over 28 years. It looks gorgeous, it sounds great and it’s much wittier.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around three generations of Armfeldt women – actress Desiree, her mother Leonora and daughter Fredrika. Desiree is away on tour much of the time, leaving Fredrika at home to hear her grandmother’s endless tales of liaisons with European nobles. Her ex Fredrik has a new child bride Anne, who he takes to one of her performances. Her current affair is with the pompous military dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. In the second half, they all meet at the Armfeldt home for a weekend house-party where Anne and the Count’s wife Charlotte plot, Fredrik clashes with Carl-Magnus and Fredrik’s son, trainee priest Henrik, declares his love for his step-mother. It all untangles before it ends with three happy couples and a death!

Musically, it’s one long waltz, more delightful here as the actor-musicians sometimes dance with their instruments, including cellos hooked around necks, some serving an additional purpose, such as Fredrik’s trumpet seeming to duel with Carl-Magnus’ clarinet. Watermill regular Sarah Travis has created outstanding arrangements, mostly using strings and woodwind, with the brilliant use of chimes. The book and lyrics shone like never before, much funnier than I remember. David Woodhead’s design is beautiful to look at, a brilliant evocation of time and place and a superb use of the Watermill space. Amongst its delights are the transformation from house to garden as the first half ends. I haven’t seen much of director Paul Foster’s work, but he does an absolutely splendid job here.

The cast is without a weak link. Josefina Gabrielle has great presence as Desiree, her regrets palpable and deeply moving in Send in the Clowns. Dillie Keane is a revelation as Madame Arnfeldt, with an extraordinary ability to convey things like contempt or cheekiness with facial expressions alone. I loved both Alastair Brookshaw and Alex Hammond as Fredrik and Carl-Magnus respectively, one towering over the other, both determined to win. Benedict Salter’s characterisation of Henrik was excellent. Phoebe Fildes as Charlotte transforms well from naive to vengeful, Lucy Keirl is every bit the nervous bride Anne and Tilly-Mae Millbrook is a delight as granddaughter Fredrika.

This may be the definitive revival. Two more weeks to go. Don’t miss it, Sondheim fans.

 

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