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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Miller’

This American musical had its first production here in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in 1997, directed by Sam Mendes no less and starring a then largely unknown John Barrowman. Writers John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe went on to write the stage musical of The Witches of Eastwick three years later, which got a big scale production in the West End under the auspices of Cameron Mackintosh, but have not done a lot in the 12 years since than.

This revival at the Union Theatre has Michael Strassen at the helm; his recent productions of Company, Assassins, The Bakers Wife and Godspell at the same venue have wowed. He has a knack of creating stylish and slick shows with next to no set, relying on costumes lighting and the odd prop or two, as it is here. It looks terrific, but there’s no set – Neil Gordon’s costumes and Steve Miller’s lighting do it all.

Senator Reed Chandler dies on the eve of becoming president and his widow Violet becomes obsessed with the objective of ensuring her son Cal follows in his footsteps and makes it to the White House. She’s helped by her scheming and spinning brother-in-law Grahame, the architect of Reed’s campaign. Cal follows a fast track trajectory from the forces through City Hall to Governor acquiring a loveless marriage (and child), a mistress or two and a cocaine habit along the way. The family’s unsavory Mafia friends become their downfall as history repeats itself.

This production is brilliantly staged and paced; you’re on the edge of your seat for much of the time. The pop rock score sounds great with a (sadly uncredited) five-pice band under MD Simon Lambert in this snug venue, and outstanding unamplified singing from all involved. The three leads are simply extraordinary – Louis Maskell as son Cal has great presence and a fantastic voice, Liz May Brice convey’s Violet’s ambition, determination and passion superbly and Miles Western is terrific as the machiavellian fixer.

A musical I remember to be OK has scrubbed up great. Maybe it’s found its time now that such scheming and manipulation is more commonplace, or maybe its just a fine cast and creative team on top form. Whatever it is, you have to go!

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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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