Posts Tagged ‘Terrence McNally’

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 Flaherty / Ahrens show, with a book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E L Doctorow, has never really found its place in the musical theatre repertoire in the UK. Maybe it’s a bit too American, and a bit too sentimental. One hundred years on from its setting and 20 years on from it’s creation, in a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, during an equally divided trumped up American election, maybe it’s found its time. It certainly resonated more with me than my three previous productions.

It interweaves the stories if a white liberal New England family with Latvian Jewish immigrant Teteh and his daughter and black singer Coalhouse Walker Jnr, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son, which become entwined almost by accident. Teteh is trying to establish a new life in America, the black couple are trying to survive amidst the racism of the day and the New England family are largely sympathetic to both, standing out from the less welcoming crowd around them. There’s a bunch of historical characters like Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini to add social history to the personal stories. It’s got a great ragtime influenced score, with both choruses and solos shining through.

When Coalhouse is attacked and his girlfriend Sarah murdered by racist Irish fireman Clonkin (somewhat ironic given he too was an immigrant), it unleashes a wave of revenge and rebellion that contrasts with the more peaceful campaigning of black leader Booker T Washington. Our Latvian friend is busy inventing movies, the New England family’s ‘father’ is off exploring the world, ‘mother’ has virtually adopted Sarah’s son and her ‘younger brother’ goes to join Coalhouse’s campaign.

This excellent production by Thom Southerland seemed to me to place more emphasis on the racism and its responses, which gave the show more clarity and focus than I’ve seen before. The twenty-four performers really fill the stage and when they sing in unison it’s a glorious sound. I’m not sure if this team have used the actor-musician format before, but it works very well here, with MD Jordan Li-Smith at one of the two on-stage pianos. I really liked Tom Rogers & Toots Butcher’s barn like design and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are very good indeed.

Anita Louise-Combe is superb as ‘mother’; her second act song Back to Before brought the house down. Ako Mitchell is outstanding as the defiant Coalhouse and Nolan Frederick and Jonathan Stewart invest great passion into Booker T Washington and ‘younger brother’ respectively. Jennifer Saayeng plays Sarah with great dignity and feeling and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Seyi Omooba, who leads the rousing Act I finale. On the night I went ‘little boy’ was superbly played by Ethan Quinn.

The Landor made a great job of it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) but the Open Air Theatre, uncharacteristically, made a bit of a mess of it a year later (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/ragtime-2) This fine production is another jewel in the jewel-laden crown of the Tarento-Southerland team. Don’t miss.

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Even though the clue is in the title, I hadn’t quite clocked that this play was going to be almost entirely set in a, well, Master Class! Terrence McNally tells the story of Maria Callas by showing her conducting a Master Class with three young opera singers on stage in a theatre in front of an audience. This cleverly makes you part of the play and allows the actress to involve and interact with the audience. In particular, it means she’s talking directly at you, making a lot of eye contact, heightening the belief that you’re watching Callas herself.

Though there is a scene at the end of the first act where the scenery disappears and we witness a dialogue between Callas and Onassis (she speaks the words of both) and another towards the end of the second act where we hear more about her personal life story, most of the play comprises the merciless persecution of three singers as she prowls the stage barking instructions and advice, throwing withering looks and spitting acid lines. This is how we learn about both her professional life and the art form itself.

Tyne Daly, with severe make-up and a fierce expression which hardly ever leaves her face is simply extraordinary. By moving her head and her eyes, she gives us a whole catalogue of attitudes and emotions including contempt, indignation, impatience, disdain, regret, arrogance, superiority and vulnerability. She has some terrific put-downs and bitchy lines to go with these expressions and she commands the stage like few actors can or few characters allow.

The supporting cast is, as a result, just that. However, Garrett Sorenson sings Caravadossi’s aria from Act I of Tosca better than a fair few of the renditions I’ve heard in an opera house (and I’ve heard a fair few) and Naomi O’Connell deserves an award for getting through a whole chunk of Verdi’s Macbeth whilst being talked over, glared at  and prodded. Jeremy Cohen’s piano accompaniment is excellent, but he’s also a character in the play. The men get off better than the women (jealously that they can still sing?).

I don’t know if she really was as much of a cow as depicted here, but it makes for good theatre and story telling, however biographically accurate it is. You can tell it’s written and directed by people who understand opera (Director Stephen Wadsworth is a renowned opera director and teacher as well as a director of plays). I come to it as both an opera and theatre lover, but I’m not sure that matters – and you can’t miss a performance as good as this, as they don’t turn up that often.

The Whatsonstage Q&A after the performance was the icing on the cake. The producer, director and playwright, as well as Tyne Daly, gave up their time and it was very insightful. When Tyne walked on the stage after the others I gasped because her appearance as herself confirmed that I’d just seen a terrific performance

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