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Posts Tagged ‘Stewart Clarke’

This American cult musical by Joe Iconis & Joe Tracz, based on the 2008 novel by Ned Vizzini, has had an interesting history. It was first produced in a regional theatre in New Jersey in 2015. Though a success, it never went anywhere else and disappeared for three years, though they had made a cast album. The music went viral on social media, which created enough buzz for a successful two-month off-Broadway run and a transfer to Broadway last year for six months and this UK premiere. Soon after it started I was asking myself the question ‘what am I doing here?’; I’m not the audience for this. I still felt that at the end, but there was enough to enjoy to stop me regretting going.

We’ve heard of the term ‘take a chill pill’, well this one is a Japanese micro-computer that makes you cool, and nerdy teenager Jeremy buys one to try and gain social inclusion, and in particular to get Christine, but the price he has to pay is high, risking pre-existing friendships and relationships. The show’s themes are all about teenage angst and everything they have to go through growing up – hence ‘its not for me’. It’s very American and I wondered if anglicising it might have helped, but the rest of the, mostly very young, audience didn’t seem to be bothered. It was too cheesy for my taste, though, and with the exception of a couple of songs, I thought the score was bland and the story a book-by-numbers.

What I did like was the bright, colourful design, with excellent projections by Alex Basco Koch and terrific costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, and a fine ensemble led by Scott Folan as Jeremy and Blake Patrick Anderson as his best friend Michael. The voice of the ‘pill’ in Jeremy’s head, the Squip, comes alive in an excellent characterisation by Stewart Clarke, who gets some particularly good costumes. So don’t let me put you off, it’s not for me. Maybe they should have an upper age limit?!

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The West End premiere of this show in 1988 must be one of the shortest runs ever – just over a month – though it did well in Manchester en route to London. The Broadway premiere four years earlier ran longer, but wasn’t a great success, despite the casting of Chita Riviera and Liza Minnelli as mother and daughter Anna and Angel. It fared better in the UK ten years later, in productions in Leicester (Paul Kerryson reviving his 1988 production) and at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Watching this wondrous revival a whole twenty years later, I just can’t fathom why it wasn’t a huge hit. Now it seems as good as any other Kander & Ebb show, and that includes Cabaret and Chicago.

Anna has sold her boardwalk roller-skating rink and the demolition men arrive as she is sorting through her stuff and packing up. Her estranged daughter Angel arrives unexpectedly, horrified at what her mother has done, particularly as she is the co-owner. In a series of expertly crafted and expertly executed flashbacks, we see their relationship unfold from Angel’s birth to that moment. There’s a superb male chorus of six (delightfully named Dino, Lino, Lucky, Benny, Lenny and Tony!) from which other characters step out, including an excellent Stewart Clarke as Angel’s dad Dino, Ross Dawes as her grandfather Lino and Ben Redfern as Anna’s childhood sweetheart Lenny. It’s extraordinary how much story they pack into 120 minutes, interspersed with songs. Terrence McNally’s book is very funny and Kander & Ebb’s music and lyrics are way better than the production history would have you believe, with song after song getting roars of approval from the full house.

It’s great to have Caroline O’Connor back on these shores, beloved of musical theatre fans on three continents. I’d almost forgotten how good she is, in all departments – song, dance, comedy and acting – and here she’s paired with one of the best of the next generation, the hugely talented Gemma Sutton – two star performances indeed. I love the fact that O’Conner has gone from being Dianne Langton’s understudy for Angel in the UK premiere to co-lead as Anna here. Bec Chippendale’s design is an evocative and atmospheric fading structure, poignantly littered with some of her recently deceased dad’s stuff, and there’s a brilliant light feature which somehow brings even more intimacy. Adam Lenson’s staging and Fabian Aloise’s choreography are superb, making great use of the small space; it seemed to go from showstopper to showstopper without pausing for breath, the audience erupting at the end.

A revival this good can’t be seen only once, so as soon as I got home I booked to go back. A hugely underrated show which last night felt like a masterpiece uncovered.

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This was always the most audacious of musicals. A show about nine men and women who tried to assasinate eight US presidents, four successfully, five not. Now it gets an audacious production by Jamie Lloyd at the Menier Chocolate Factory and it feels like it’s just been written. A lot of madness has passed under the bridge since the UK premier 22 years ago and it resonates much more today.

The show can sometimes feel more like a song cycle, with each assassin stepping forward to do a turn, but here it feels more like a show. The Proprieter, in gothic clown make-up referencing the American flag, presides over his fairground come shooting range, handing out guns and standing in for presidents. The thoroughly wholesome Balladeer, as American as apple pie, narrates through his song. Here he seems like a 60’s folkie, somewhat appropriate given the closing scene. Assassins tell their stories and commit their crimes whilst we struggle to comprehend their motivation, and this is where Jamie Lloyd’s production stands out, in the psychological depth that emerges. It’s a fascinating piece which subverts the musical form to great effect, not least in the final chorus of Everybody’s Got the Right.

You enter the theatre through the mouth of a clown into what seems to be a disused gothic fairground, with a dodgem and bits of rides, in a traverse setting (design by Lloyd’s regular collaborator, Soutra Gilmour). The success (or otherwise) of each assassination is cleverly marked. It’s louder, brasher and more in-yer-face than any other production I’ve seen. It’s not entirly comfortable and not at all safe, as I think it should be. It can jar with lovers of tradition in musicals. It seems as radical today as it did in 1992.

Jamie Parker, hot on the heels of his Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls at Chichester, is outstanding as the Balladeer (and his other role!), as is Simon Lipkin (one of the best things about the ill-fated I Can’t Sing) as the Proprietor; they anchor the piece whilst the stories of the assassins unfold and interweave. Andy Nyman is terrific as a manic, unhinged Guiteau, who kills James Garfield because he won’t make him Ambassador to France. Aaron Tveit is a fine John Wilks Booth, assassin of Lincoln and father of them all, with great presence and in fine voice. I worried about the casting of Catherine Tate, but she suited the character of dotty Sarah Jane Moore. Stewart Clarke as Zangara and David Roberts as Czolgosz also impress, with excellent characterisations.

This has been a good year on the fringe and off-West End for Sondheim lovers – brilliant Sweeneys in Twickenham and Tooting, Pacific Overtures at the Union, Into the Woods in Walthamstow, the compilation shows Putting it Together & Marry Me a Little at St. James Theatre and now this to end the year – an Assassins for our times, a fresh look at an underated show.

 

 

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