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Posts Tagged ‘Thom Sutherland’

Has there ever been a musical based on a documentary film before? This 2006 Off-Broadway-to-Broadway show, getting its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse, is based on the film of the same name, a true account of the mother-daughter relationship of Edith & Edith Bouvier Beale, Long Island socialites with connections to the Kennedy’s.

After a brief prologue looking back, the first act is set in 1941, their heyday hosting parties and mixing with the rich and famous. Young Edie is betrothed to the future president’s elder brother Joseph Kennedy (may be true) and her cousins include a young Jaqueline (Kennedy nee Bouvier – definately true). Big Edie’s dad is an eccentric retired major, perhaps even a bit barking. They even have an in-house pianist to accompany Big Edie in her vocal entertainments. Think Philadelphia Story with eccentricity scaled up 10-fold.

In the second half we move forward 32 years to 1973. Mother and daughter are recluses, living with 54 cats in filthy surroundings unable to look after themselves. The press have made the connection with the former first lady and the neighbours protest. Their only friend is a teenage handyman whose motivation is ambiguous and who Big Edie has an unhealthy attraction to.

The difference between the two acts is extraordinary, very much a show in two halves. For me this is its flaw. I can see the necessity of showing their heyday, but a whole act seems to overplay it and rob us of more depth to the story at the heart of the piece – the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship and how they got that way.

That said, there is so much to admire and enjoy that it’s an unmissable evening. Chief amongst this are the performances. Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Southerland must have wet themselves when they secured Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell for the leads; it’s hard to imagine a pair more suited to these roles and they are both sensational. Russell combines pathos with tragi-comedy and quirkiness to give a performance that is a career highlight, even in her illustrious career. Hancock’s stage presence and audience engagement are extraordinary; she completely inhabits the role.

As if that wasn’t enough, Aaron Sidwell follows his brilliant turn in American Idiot with a brilliant pair of performances, as dashing young naval man Joseph Kennedy and the teenager who befriends the ladies, and Rachel Anne Rayham is hugely impressive as Little Edie in 1941. There’s superb support from Billy Boyle as dad / granddad, Jeremy Legat as the pianist and friend and Ako Mitchell as two generations of household staff. I don’t know which pair of girls played the cousins, but they were superb.

The surprisingly big 10-piece band make a lovely sound (and the venue’s former sound problems seem to have gone, as they had in Grand Hotel). Tom Rogers impressive design is a touch cramped in the first act but suitably chlaustrophobic in the second. Thom Southerland’s staging is as good as we’ve come to expect from him.

Southwark Playhouse starting the year on a high. Don’t miss.

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When I saw the West End première of this show in 1992 I was completely underwhelmed. Part of the problem was that it was staged in the vast Dominion Theatre. I warmed to it when the Donmar revived it in 2004, winning an Olivier award for Best Musical Revival, and again when the Guildhall School of Music & Drama gave it their all just last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/grand-hotel). Now I’m getting positively hot. The producer / director team of Danielle Tarento & Thom Sutherland have another big hit on their hands with this thrilling revival.

It’s a character-driven piece set in a Berlin hotel in the 1920’s. It revolves around a broke Baron, Felix von Gaigern, forced to steal by his criminal creditor. He falls for both fading Russian ballerina Elizaveta and temp secretary Flaemnchen, and befriends dying book-keeper Otto, himself intent on a little bit if luxury on the way out. Otto used to work for Preysing, an unprincipled businessman in the process of engineering a merger for his ailing company, and buying Flaemnchen’s attentions. Felix is also kind to hotel concierge Erik, awaiting news of the birth of his son, much more so than his boss. It’s all presided over by Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, a somewhat mysterious morphine addict, acting as narrator.

The score is a lot better than I remembered and there’s a lot of it (and little dialogue). It unfolds over 105 unbroken minutes on a patterned faux marble floor, with a huge chandelier above and just a few props, in a traverse setting. Lee Newby’s costumes are terrific and Lee Proud’s choreography is superb, miraculous given the space he has to work with. Thom Sutherland’s staging is masterly, overcoming my initial fears that it would be cramped in this space. The Southwark Playhouse often has issues with sound at its musicals, but not here. With a lot of small overhead speakers angled down, Michael Bradley’s string-heavy septet sounds great, and all of the lyrics are clear.

Tarento does her own casting and again she has assembled a truly gifted ensemble. Scott Garnham is terrific as Felix, with particularly fine vocals. I loved both the characterisation and singing of Christine Grimandi, an auspicious British debut for this Italian performer. It’s great to see Valerie Cutko as Elizabeta’s companion / assistant Raffaela, the same role she took over in the original Broadway production. Here David Delve took over the role of the ‘narrator’ Otternschlag at very short notice, but you’d never know it from his confident, commanding performance. There are too many more to mention – another 13 – in this fine cast, except perhaps to say that there are excellent professional debuts from 2015 graduates Jammy Kasongo, Durone Stokes and Leah West.

We are ever so lucky to get work of this quality on the fringe. I think I might have to be greedy and go again…..

 

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This 1979 Jerry Herman show was the third of three flops sandwiched between Hello Dolly & Mame and La Cage aux Folles. The second of the three, Mack & Mabel, was rehabilitated and is now often revived, but this one disappeared until this enterprising European premiere 35 years later. Gold stars to the Finborough Theatre and producer Danielle Tarento for enabling us to see it at last.

It’s based on S N Berman’s 1944 stage play, itself adapted from Franz Werfel, who wrote it after he’d fled to the US, via France, in the 30’s. There seems to be an autobiographical influence on the story. The National Theatre staged the play in 1986 and my recollection is that it was a comedy. This certainly isn’t.

Eternal optimist Jacobowsky is a Polish Jew who has moved around Europe and now finds himself in a France under German occupation. He befriends a Polish colonel, Stjerbinsky, and they begin a journey through France by car, train and boat. Stjerbinsky is trying to get important papers about undercover agents in Poland to the Polish government in exile in England. En route they visit a cafe where they meet Marianne, who joins them. They pair up with a circus, get split up and reunited at a Jewish wedding Jacobowsky is performing, and take refuge in a convent before getting to the port and the boat that will take them to England.

If you know Herman’s other shows, you’ll know this is hardly typical Herman fare and that’s the crux of it – the story doesn’t really work as musical theatre. That said, Director Thom Sutherland and his team have made a good fist of it. Set Designer Phil Lindley’s pop-up book set is ingenious; a giant map of Europe from which other sets fold out. Sophia Simensky has added fine period costumes and Max Pappenheim some great sound effects. Though no doubt driven by the duel needs of economy and space, the twin pianos are perfect for this music. I thought some of the performances were a little tentative, but Alastair Brookshaw and Nic Kyle were very assured as Jacobowsky and Stjerbinsky.

A flawed show, but a good production, and above all a great opportunity to catch such a rarity by a titan of musical theatre.

 

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I find it astonishing that the story of the Titanic has such a high-profile, now more than 100 years after its fateful maiden voyage. It’s equally astonishing that it has taken 16 years for this Maury Yeston musical to get a London production (sorry, Bromley, but you are in Kent!). It turns out that, in telling the tragic story, this musical is way better than the somewhat pompous and overblown film and this showcase is long overdue.

It tells the story of the tragedy very well, bringing out the conflict between the owner, the shipbuilder, the captain and other crew members, but it’s even better bringing out the personal stories of the passengers and crew through the ship’s own class system. Third class is full of hopeful immigrants, second class has social-climbing holidaymakers and the rich and famous occupy first class.

Thom Sutherland & Cressida Carre’s staging is simple but clever. I particularly liked the owner’s relentless pressure for speed staged as a series of dinners; the conflict between owner, builder & captain trading blame-laden one liners; the choreographed transfer of ladies into lifeboats and the eventual tilting of the ship. David Woodhead has designed an elevated ship’s deck in front of a metal wall, some movable steps and a handful of props which do everything that’s needed.

Yeston’s score is excellent, especially in the company numbers. It has a pleasingly unBroadway, somewhat British sound and the string-heavy band under Mark Aspinall played gloriously. Andrew Johnson’s sound is amongst the best I’ve ever experienced in musical theatre. Danielle Tarento’s casting is again outstanding and it would be invidious to single anyone out as there are so many fine performances and an ensemble that shines.

When will a commercial producer give Thom Southerland a big West End musical? As this shows, he’s as good as any – and Southwark Playhouse continues its indispensable contribution as a bigger-than-most fringe musical venue.

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This show started life as a film, made by Blake (Pink Panther) Edwards as a vehicle for his wife Julie Andrews some 30 years ago. It got to Broadway 13 years later but took another 9 years to get to London; a fringe production by Phil Wilmott at the then home of fringe musicals, The Bridewell Theatre. It’s only taken 8 more years for its second London outing (I think), this time at one of our now multiple fringe musical homes, Southwark Playhouse, in a production by the talented and prolific Thom Sutherland.

It owes a lot to Cabaret. English girl abroad. Decadent nightclubs. Cross-dressing. It’s the story of Victoria Grant who after a failed audition as a club singer is persuaded by new friend Toddy to pose as Polish Victor playing a woman – a woman playing a man playing a woman; very Shakespearian.

She falls for visiting American nightclub owner King Marchand (and he for him/her in a nice touch of confused sexuality) but is rumbled by competing club owner Henri Labisse for whom she originally auditioned.  All is revealed so that she can get her man (and his sidekick can get his man i.e Toddy!). It’s a bit of a slight story and the score isn’t much more than OK, but it scrubs up well in this excellent production.

It’s a traverse staging with a (rather too noisy) entrance and stairway at one end and an (underused) staircase and eight club tables with table-top lights (occupied by audience members) at the other end. A few tables and chairs constitute the minimal props but its an effective design by Martin Thomas, well lit by Howard Hudson.

The key to its success is a star turn from the wonderful Anna Francolini who is perfectly cast and believable as both Victor and Victoria. Richard Demsey is good as Toddy, as is Matthew Cutts as King. Mark Curry had real presence as the club owner / manager and Kate Nelson did a lovely job as King’s dumb blonde Norma. In the supporting cast, Jean Perkins gave a fine set of cameos, including a warm-up magic act!

The show was still in preview and it didn’t seem quite ready; in particular there was some ragged playing from the eight piece band under Joseph Atkins. I suspect it will settle and improve as the run continues, but in any event it’s well worth a visit.

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We seem to be awash with great musical revivals on the fringe and back at Southwark Playhouse, Thom Sutherland has worked wonders again on this difficult show about Mack Sennett, the master of silent movies, and his on / off relationship with actress Mabel Normand.

The story is told in flashback from the time Sennett is forced to leave his studios. We first see him churning out films at a heck of a pace from his Brooklyn studios, where he comes across the natural talent of Mabel when she delivers a bagel! Keystone studios move to Hollywood ,where their pre-eminence continues, until talkies come on the scene and Sennett refuses to change with the times. This is the backdrop for the story of the pair, both as a working partnership and as a relationship.

The Vault at Southwark Playhouse is the perfect space for a show which largely takes place in film studios and set & costume designer Jason Denvir and lighting designer Howard Hudson have done a great job creating the backstage world and the early 20th century period with a pile of props and machinery at the back which is brought forward and moved around to create many different scenes. The period costumes are excellent and the lighting is hugely atmospheric.

I loved the way the show flowed, with intimate moments drawing you in and big numbers taking your breath away. Lee Proud’s choreography is fresh and often funny and Thom Sutherland’s staging captures the organised chaos of film making but allows the characterisations to shine through. You feel as if you’ve been given an insight into this world of movie making and into the hearts of its protagonists

Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are sensational as Mack and Mabel. Their attraction and relationship are totally believable and they sing beautifully. There’s a fine ‘supporting’ cast of 13, too many to mention but all worthy of it, and a large band of 11 (for the fringe) under Michael Bradley, who do full justice to Jerry Herman’s under-rated score.

This is a very different show to Herman’s hits Hello Dolly and Mame and more like his third hit La Cage Aux Folles in the merging of a unique world with a troubled love story. Despite its lack of commercial success, this production made me think that it’s a better show than the first two in so many ways. We don’t see it that often, and never to my knowledge on this scale, so it’s both an opportunity and a treat!

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Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Sutherland follow their hugely successful revival of Parade at Southwark Playhouse with something completely different, Sheriden Morley’s sophisticated entertainment telling the story of the relationship between Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, at a North West London venue that has been quiet for some time.

Morley expertly weaves together narrative, correspondence and Coward songs with extracts from the only two plays they did together (Private Lives and Tonight at 8.30) plus Blithe Spirit, which Lawrence also acted in. This actually gives you a surprisingly full account of the relationship.

Though there’s no set designer credited, they’ve created a stylish 1920’s /30’s space which is lit very well by Howard Hudson. Ben Stock is a very good Coward, playing piano live on some numbers (though this did make the recorded piano on other numbers sound rather flat) and sometime Maria, Helena Blackman, is delightful as Lawrence, delivering in all departments – acting, comedy, dance but especially song. Sutherland’s direction is faithful and respectful of the material, stylish and period perfect, subtly balancing the narrative, comedy, dance and song. 

This is the sort of show we rarely see these days and some might find it rather fusty and dated. For me, it’s a very welcome and long overdue revival of this 28-year old show that compliments other musical fare on the fringe.

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