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Posts Tagged ‘Steven Sparling’

I failed to get to Walthamstow for the first run of this All Star Productions show, so I was delighted when Walthamstow came to me – well, the Landor Theatre in Clapham, anyway. It’s 17 years since we last saw it in London, in a lovely production at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, so it’s a great opportunity to take another look – and in a recession too; a time when it might resonate even more.

Kander and Ebb have of course two iconic shows in their back-catalogue – Cabaret and Chicago. This pre-dates both, a commercial flop when it opened on Broadway in 1965, though it did win a young Lisa Minnelli a Tony award. Not surprising in my book – a Broadway show about workers struggles and the communist party! This revised version hails from 1987. I’m not sure how much it changed, but it did get ‘framed’ by scenes of a workers theatre troupe putting on a show. Since I saw it last, I’ve seen Pins & Needles (revived at the now defunct Cock Tavern a couple of years ago) which I suspect is the only other Broadway show anything like it.

Flora is the catalyst in a co-operative / commune of struggling artists and crafts people in New York City. There’s a jeweller, a dressmaker, a pair of dancers and Harry, like Flora a textile designer. Harry wins the heart of Flora and also wins her for the Communist Party. When she gets a job in a big department store, she starts recruiting behind the backs of the management. Fellow party activist Charlotte seeks to lure Flora away from Harry and persuades the party to protest outside her employer’s store. The lives of 32 of Flora’s co-workers are jeopardized.

Kander and Ebb did select some unusual and brave themes for their shows and this is no exception, but it’s extraordinary that it got to Broadway as they weren’t established names at this point. It’s not a great show, but it is fascinating and there’s some great music and staging possibilities which director Randy Smartnick and choreographer Kate McPhee (doubling as costume designer) fully exploit. They’ve found lots of fun in the story without losing its sociopolitical essence.

There are great set pieces as Charlotte addresses the party, the dancers rehearse for their audition, the workers protest outside the store and a delightful Busby Berkley number to end the first act! Aaron Clingham’s musical direction is outstanding, as always, this time with just piano and double bass. The standard of singing is exceptional.

Heading a fine cast, Katy Baker is superb as Flora – feisty and passionate, yet lovable. This is her first musical; if she’s not in leading roles in the West End soon, I shall be very surprised – one of the most promising musical theatre debuts I’ve ever seen. Ellen Verenieks is excellent as Charlotte, as is Steven Sparling as a stuttering Harry. There wasn’t a fault in the supporting cast and they played to a sparce Sunday matinee audience as if it was opening night.

The Landor should be packed to the rafters, with queues for returns, for important musical theatre work of this quality. You have two more weeks to find out if you agree with me!

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Last year was a good year for fans of Howard Goodall’s musicals, with revivals of The Kissing Dance at Jermyn Street Theatre, an award-winning Hired Man at The Landor and Girlfriends here at Ye Olde Rose & Crown in Walthamstow.   Now this enterprising venue has devised a musical revue showcasing c.30 songs from 8 of Goodall’s 10 musicals. Hearing them all together is conclusive proof that despite the lack of commercial success, he’s still the best British musical theatre composer we’ve had in the last 30 years.

Goodall’s 28-year career has been bookended by his two best shows – The Hired Man in 1984 and Love Story in 2010 – but there are other lovely chamber pieces like Days of Hope, whose title song opens and closes this compilation and is one of the best of the evening. His musical style is uniquely British, with beautiful melodies and excellent lyrics. However, only 3 of the 10 shows got to the West End and 4 didn’t even get to London. This man is seriously under-rated. Can we now have The Winter’s Tale and Two Cities in London please?!

Lydia Milman Schmidt and Aaron Clingham have made a good selection and ordered them well. Sarah Booth’s impressionistic design provides a nice simple setting for the themes of love and war, which do seem to recur in Goodall’s work. The combination of piano (Aaron Clingham) and cello (Maria Rodriguez Reina)  is perfect for this music, though quite why they were located outside the performing area and heard through speakers is beyond me – this is my one quibble!

Jennifer Redson, Terrie-May McNulty, Steven Sparling and Michael Stacey acted the songs, rather than aiming for vocal perfection. This brings out the stories they tell and the emotions they convey and makes them more moving; they brought a tear to my eyes (and theirs!) more than once.

It was a somewhat melancholic evening, but a very beautiful one which proved well worth crossing London for.

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