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Posts Tagged ‘Sweeney Todd’

National Youth Music Theatre UK have been extraordinarily ambitious in recent years – two new shows, The Battle of Boat and Brass, Howard Goodall’s The Dreaming & The Hired Man, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and now this second Sondheim, which may well be the biggest mountain they’ve chosen to climb; it’s difficulty may be why it has only been revived twice (Leicester Haymarket and Menier to West End to Broadway) since it’s NT UK premiere 27 years ago. To say they have risen to the challenge would be an understatement. There were times when I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing from an amateur company and the song Sunday has been on permanent loop in my head since I left the theatre.

The only musical based on a painting is in two very different parts. In the first, Georges Seurat is painting on the Island of La Grande Jatte in the River Seine in Paris, where we are introduced to his muse Dot, his mother and her nurse and the other characters in the famous painting now in the Art Institute of Chicago – including shop girls, soldiers, an American couple, another artist, a baker and a boatman. In the second half we zip forward to contemporary times, to the gallery where the painting resides, where Seurat’s grandson George is unveiling his new work with his grandmother, the daughter of Seurat’s muse, in attendance. I consider it Sondheim’s most challenging piece.

The very effective design consists of a picture frame backdrop and nine easels, with excellent period costumes. In the first half, the easels contain canvas sketches of parts of the picture and in the second half they become the illuminated modern work. It’s a small space which sometimes feels a touch cramped but the staging is very good. Sunday, which ends the first half, was staged and performed with such delicacy, restraint and beauty it quite took my breath away. The contemporary gallery scene somehow felt more effective than I remember it being staged before. The segue from Move On into the reprise of Sunday at the end was an uplifting emotional wave.

After a tentative start, the band played beautifully. The ensemble was outstanding, and the two leads – Thomas Josling as Georges / George and Laura Barnard as Dot / Marie – were simply sensational. Two stars are born, I’d say.

Great to see it again after a ten year famine, and great to report that the future of musical theatre in Britain is safe in these hands. The audience, quite rightly, erupted.

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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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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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This is the perfect show to fill Chichester’s temporary ‘Theatre in the Park’. It’s an up-market, comfortable big-top with a great atmosphere and the show’s about 19th century American circus legend Phineas T Barnum. I don’t think it has been seen in the UK since it’s UK premiere 30 years ago and its a lot better than I remembered.

In truth, the story of Barnum’s life has little depth. We follow his relationship with his wife, his fling with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and his business dealings with Brit Julius Goldschmidt and eventual partner James A Bailey, but this is family entertainment and on those terms it succeeds. There’s singing, dancing, acrobatics, clowns and marching bands. Cy Coleman’s music has a lot of numbers you didn’t think you knew and is often rather rousing.

Scott Pask’s design and Paul Willis’ costumes are superb. There’s a two-tier backdrop with the band hidden on the second tier and twin spiral staircases that revolve! Performers enter from the back, the auditorium and down ropes from above. Liam Steel & Andrew Wright’s choreography has people becoming props and doubled-up to play one person. The arrival of a giant elephant is simple but breathtaking and the acrobatics even happen in the auditorium. Director Timothy Sheader, moonlighting from the Open Air Theatre where he has had much musical theatre success, does a cracking job pulling this together into a cohesive entertainment that lifts you up and keeps you on a high.

Given this country is awash with musical theatre talent, I’m not sure why they’ve had to import their Barnum from the US (or his wife from Australia, come to that), but Christopher Fitzgerald is hugely impressive and very hard-working. Walking a tightrope whilst singing a song can be no mean feat. The extraordinarily good-looking, athletic and energetic ensemble is outstanding.

I can’t imagine a better revival or a more appropriate space. With Cameron Mackintosh on board as co-producer, I think we should expect a London outing (bringing the theatre with it when it finishes its time here at the end of September or, with a few changes, Mr Sheader could take it to his Open Air Theatre next summer?). This continues Chichester’s important role in musical theatre. They’ve transferred Singing in the Rain, Sweeney Todd, Love Story & Kiss Me Kate in the last few years, so why not Barnum?

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This world premiere of an unfinished Lionel Bart musical is a real coup for The Kings Head Theatre, even more so since their staring point was a rough book and a CD of songs put together to woo potential investors.

You wouldn’t expect Bart to write a show like this – everything he did was quintessentially British; indeed quintessentially London – but as soon as you hear the music you know it’s him; the melodies are distinctively his – and there are some lovely songs in this show.

Seven ladders covered with cobwebs and a clever loft, designed by Christopher Hoe, make up the Paris of the hunchback on this tiny stage. Jonathan Lipman’s punk gothic costumes add an appropriately seedy quality. Quasimodo, abandoned as a child, brought up by a priest, occupies the bell tower of Notre Dame. He’s treated as a freak by all he meets and as a possession by the priest, who’s fondness for him is more than a bit creepy. When Esmerelda is pursued by the lowlife of Paris, he takes her in, protects her and falls in love with her.

Though it’s a roughly drawn book by Christopher Bond (also responsible for the original Sweeney Todd at Stratford East, which inspired Sondheim to write his), director Robert Chevara has done well to make something of the story and most importantly to showcase the lovely music, which is beautifully played by Peter Mitchell’s small band of piano, accordion and clarinet and sung by a cast in fine voice. Steven Webb is very good as Quasimodo and amongst a small but exceptional supporting cast, Zoe George shines as Esmerelda, particularly in the vocal department.

Though it’s clearly still an unfinished work, it’s definitely worth seeing if you are a lover of musical theatre and a must for Bart fans. He was a great, and underrated, composer who was a whole lot more than Oliver! but who may only be remembered for it.

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My review of 2012 takes the form of nine awards. There are none for performances as I find it impossible to choose and invidious to select from so much amazing talent. Here goes:

THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR – The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, showing the world Britain at its theatrical best, and Globe to Globe, inviting the world to perform its greatest playwright on his ‘home stage’ – both once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Honourable mention to the The Bomb at the Tricycle, the latest in their deeply rewarding reviews of history, world events and global issues.

MOST EXCITING EVENING OF THE YEAR (or possibly my life!) – You Me Bum Bum Train, the most extraordinary adrenalin rush as you perform in 13 scenes from conducting an orchestra to operating a digger, travelling between them through pipes, holes & chutes.

SOLO SHOW – Mark Thomas’ autobiographical Bravo Figaro, funny and moving in equal measure.

BEST OUTSIDE LONDON – National Theatre of Wales’ CoriolanUs in an aircraft hanger at RAF St. Athan; the other highlight of the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad. Wonderful Town is worthy of mention as the touring musical that really should have come to the West End.

NEW PLAYThis House at the Cottesloe, a play about British politics from 1974 to 1979 that was more enlightening than living through it (by a man who is too young to have lived through it), yet entertaining and funny. Honorable mentions to Red Velvet at the Tricycle, In Basildon at the Royal Court and Last of the Haussmanns & The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime – both also at the National, which at last found its new writing form.

PLAY REVIVAL – Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith, a stunning revival of an OK play in a year of many gems, amongst which I would single out A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, She Stoops to Conquer at the NT, Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar, Cornelius at the Finborough,Vieux Carre at the King’s Head, A Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End and both of the radical Julius Caesar’s – the African one for the RSC and the all-female one at the Donmar.

NEW MUSICALA Winter’s Tale at the Landor. The easiest category to call in a very lean year, with Soho Cinders, Daddy Long Legs and Loserville the only other contenders – but that takes nothing away from the gem that Howard Goodall’s show was.

MUSICAL REVIVAL – Sweeney Todd, though this is the toughest category with no less than 10 other contenders – Patience, The Fix and Call Me Madam at the Union, Gay’s the Word & Merrie England at the Finborough, Guys & Dolls Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Curtains at the Landor, Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street, Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier, Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican and another Chichester transfer, Singing in the Rain, in the West End.

TURKEY OF THE YEAR – The NT’s Damned for Despair, though this year there were also a trio of visiting turkeys, all at the Barbican – Big & Small, Nosferatu and Forests – and a pair of site specific turkeys – Babel & The Architects.

2012 will be hard to beat!

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Though the jury’s still out on the best production in Sondheim’s 80th year, with the NYT ‘s Sweeny Todd and the Open Air’s Into the Woods currently leading the list, the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch may well have the worst production award in the bag already. I’m afraid the 3.5 hour round trip to darkest Essex on a wet Wednesday wasn’t worth it.

It’s nowhere near his best show, and you’d hardly call it subtle, but here they’ve produced a Carry On Benny Hill Farce that’s about as brash, gaudy and crude as it gets, with few redeeming features. It is a silly show, but it does have some nice tunes (notably the opening Comedy Tonight) and funny lines. The last production at the NT quite rightly sent up the form the show itself was parodying; this one doesn’t seem to have any tongues in any cheeks.

The staging was rather clumsy, the set tacky & ugly and most of the performances worthy of the local AmDram. I’m sure a half-full house, with the front 4 or 5 rows bizarrely empty, doesn’t help, but it was hard to keep your spirits up and raise a smile.

Woe, oh woe; woe I say – a turkey.

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