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Posts Tagged ‘Thom Southerland’

The 1971 film was a flop, as was the 1980 English language stage adaptation, though the film went on to become a cult hit and turned a profit twelve years later. There was also a French TV adaptation, which itself was adapted for the stage in Canada. It’s been described as a romantic black comedy, the romance being between an eighteen year old boy, with a bit of an obsession about death, and an eccentric 79-year-old woman.

Harold lives with his widowed mother in middle-class American suburbia. She’s a social climber who is set on finding Harold a wife using computer dating. He stages fake suicides and attends real funerals where he meets Maude, an Austrian Countess who lives a Bohemian lifestyle seemingly without money. Cautious at first, Harold is drawn in by her infectious love of life and they become good friends. After rejecting the three suitors his mother introduces, he realises Maude is the love of his life and plans to propose at the 80th birthday party he is planning for her, but she has other plans.

Michael Bruce has added musical accompaniment which the actors play live on instruments including double -bass, cello and accordion, in character, just like those actor-musician musicals, though it isn’t a musical. It gives it the feel of one of those charming French films. Francis O’Conner’s set has an equally lovely other-worldly quality and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are a delight, Harold in seventies style, Maude in Bohemiana and Harold’s mother power dressed.

Sheila Hancock is perfectly cast as Maude, a beautifully judged, delicate performance, as light as air. Bill Milner’s transition from existential angst to love-struck teen is navigated superbly, with real chemistry with Hancock. Rebecca Caine is excellent as the controlling mother and Joanna Hickman is a delight as all three suitors. in an outstanding supporting cast, Samuel Townsend makes a great seal, as well as a cop.

Thom Southerland’s production is as quirky as the material, which is a touch absurd, a bit surreal, but rather captivating. I wasn’t entirely sold on the story but it’s hard to imagine a better production or better performances. Well worth a visit.

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French writers Sebastien Lancrenon & Jean-Baptiste Saudray have decamped to more musicals friendly London to mount the world premiere of their first musical. They’ve got themselves a premiere league translator in Ranjit Bolt, the best off-West End director of musicals in Thom Southerland, and the support of the RNIB to tell the true story of the inventor of the Braille language. It has its flaws, somewhat ironically more to do with the production than the writing, but there’s a lot to like.

Louis Braille was a resident in an institution for blind youth where the benevolent director, Doctor Pignier, supported learning but the teacher didn’t (!). He started with a primitive embossed system, but then Captain Barbier de la Serre brought him the ‘night language’ which he developed for communication with his troops and Braille simplified it, initially against the wishes of the Captain, to create the language still used 170 years later. In addition to the opposition of the teacher, they had to deal with his collusion with a sinister eye research doctor and the National Assembly’s disapproval. Though both writers are experienced in music, it appears to be their first musical as such, which makes it an impressive achievement. I liked the score, book and lyrics, but it’s a chamber piece getting a big production, too big I thought. Director Thom Southerland doesn’t seem to have his usual team around him too (except choreographer Lee Proud) and I think this shows.

The stage is dominated by designer Tim Shorthall’s two-story minimalist metal structure which seemed incongruous for a show set in the 19th century. I wasn’t keen on Jonathan Lipman’s costuming either, the sighted all in black and the blind in white with black blindfolds. The look just didn’t feel right for the material. It’s over-orchestrated and over-amplified. It’s at its best when Jack Wolfe’s beautiful voice is allowed to shine with just piano or strings. It sometimes becomes shouty at moments when restraint would serve the material better. Towards the end, when the language is accepted and the doctor and teacher exposed, they switch to storytelling direct to the audience – I wasn’t sure about this at first, but warmed to the idea. It is a fascinating true story and it’s told well.

It’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Jack Wolfe as Braille, with excellent acting to match his terrific vocals.. The vocal standards are high elsewhere too and I liked Lottie Henshall as the Captain’s daughter Rose, Ceili O’Connor as the matron of the institute, Jason Broderick as Gabriel, who spars with Braille before he befriends him, and Ashley Stillburn as the teacher Dufau. The six children were all impressive.

I’d very much like to see it scaled down, but its well worth catching in its present form.

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This musical by Maury Yeston & Peter Stone / Thomas Meehan is a 2011 adaptation of a 1924 Italian play which was filmed twice, in 1934 with Fredric March, and in 1998 as Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. This is its European Premiere, staged by Thom Southerland, who has had great success with Yeston’s Titanic and Grand Hotel.

The Lamberti family have a near miss car accident on the way home from their daughter Grazia’s engagement party. It turns out that Death has prevented Grazia’s demise because he fancies a long weekend in human form, partly to answer the question of why he’s so feared. He takes the form of Russian noble Prince Nikolai Sirki and only Grazia’s dad, the Duke, knows the truth. He falls in love with Grazia and she with him and he’s intent on taking her with him at the end if his holiday, but her dad pleads with him not to, until counter pleas from Grazia.

I struggled to suspend enough disbelief to engage fully with the story, but it’s a gorgeous melodic score. Morgan Large has designed a terrific Italian villa and Jonathan Lipman has created brilliant period costumes. Stylistically, it feels like Sondheim’s A Little Night Music or Passion; very European, very early 20th century. Thom Southerland’s staging is up to his usual impeccable standard, with a forensic attention to detail. The humour surprised but pleased me. Dean Austin’s band sounds as beautiful as the music.

Zoe Doano and Chris Peluso are superb in the leading roles and there’s a fine supporting ensemble. Mark Inscoe has great presence as Duke Lamberti, Ashley Stillburn is excellent as Grazia’s fiancé Corrado, as is James Grant as servant Fidele (who will be promoted to the role of Death / Nikolai during the run!). It’s great to see Gay Soper give such a fine cameo, as Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli (!), close to her 50th year in musical theatre.

I’m not entirely convinced by the premise and the story, but it’s a lovely lush score, it looks gorgeous and the performances are terrific.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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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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