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Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Sheader’

The weather hasn’t been kind to us this year at the Open Air Theatre. We managed to get through On the Town with delays and shivers, and this one with a thirty minutes unscheduled break in the first half. Though I’m a regular at OAT musicals, I didn’t book for this last year as I’m not that keen on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music (except Evita and his collaboration with Puccini, Phantom of the Opera!) and I’m an unbeliever (though if I was, I might take offence at some scenes). The reviews, awards and friends suggested I’d made a mistake, so we booked for this second run. Though there were things I admired, I think I was right first time.

It tells the story of the last year of Jesus’ life, sung through, more rock opera than musical, a year after The Who started the genre with Tommy. The music seems dated, much more so than other music of the period. The seriousness of the story doesn’t really allow Tim Rice to shine lyrically, with his trademark sharp wit. Timothy Sheader’s production seems more rock concert than musical theatre, returning the show to its first flash Broadway outing rather than following the more restrained London production.

Here we have Tom Scutt’s giant two-story metal structure with a huge fallen cross, something like 300 spotlights and smoke, flares and fire. I found myself admiring the spectacle, but not at all engaged with the story. The singing honours belong to Tyrone Huntly as Judas, who is as sensational, as had been suggested, and as he was in Dreamgirls, and there’s a terrific band under Tom Deering. Drew McConie’s choreography is bold and is the freshest aspect of the show.

Great spectacle, but I went to a musical not a rock concert, so not enough for me I’m afraid.

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Nothing beats the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park on a lovely summer evening and when the show benefits from the combined imaginations of directors Timothy Sheader & Liam Steel and designer Jon Bausor magic can actually happen. This captivating re-imagining of Peter Pan fits perfectly in the OAT and magic it certainly is.

The story starts in a First World War army hospital. The Llewelyn boys, who inspired J M Barrie, may have been in one. A nurse finds a copy of the book under the pillow of a patient and begins to read it. She becomes Wendy and two of the patients John & Michael Darling and so the adventure begins, as Peter Pan whisks them away to Neverland.

The staging is extraordinary and the characterisations wonderful. Things like beds, bedding and floorboards transform into locations, props and creatures, characters emerge from nowhere and everywhere, Tinkerbell is a fabulous puppet creation and the flying is thrilling. A singer comes and goes with lovely renditions of WWI songs. Before you know it, we’re back in the hospital, packing up at the end if the war, but in between you are captivated by Peter’s adventures with the lost boys amongst the pirates, in a timeless lo-tech marvel.

Hiran Abeysekera is a charming and athletic Peter and Kae Alexander a loving nurse and a delightful Wendy. Beverly Rudd is a great old school hospital matron before she transforms into a hysterically funny Smee. All of the adult actors playing boys are terrific but I had a soft spot for Thomas Pickles’ Slightly. As an ensemble they are much more than the individual performances; a real team of boys and a group of hapless pirates.

I loved every moment of this show, which ended poignantly with much of the audience (well, me, anyway) in tears as the great war ends. It was greeted by a fully justified spontaneous standing ovation. I’ve had countless great evenings at the OAT but none have bettered this. Ends this week, but must surely return next year.

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Whenever I see this Gershwin ‘show’ I’m always amazed that it made it to Broadway in the 30’s – an all-black cast, sex, drugs, murder and racism on stage 80 years ago! Every time it’s produced, we get the same debate about whether it’s an opera or a musical – it was probably the first ever ‘crossover’ piece – classical, jazz, blues, spiritual….In both ways, such a ground-breaking show. This is my fourth P&G, after Trevor Nunn’s ‘opera’ at Covent Garden in 1992, his ‘musical’ at the Savoy in 2006, Cape Town Opera’s ‘opera’ here in London in 2012 and now a ‘musical’ again, this time adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks & Diedre L. Murray, at the Open Air Theatre on a gorgeous warm evening that could have been in the American south where its set.

The fishing community of Catfish Row are unsettled by the arrival of Bess, a woman of dubious morals with a drug habit fueled by city boy Sporting Life and her bullying boyfriend Crown, who kills Robbins over the result of a crap game. Disabled Porgy falls for Bess who responds to his overtures, naively thinking Crown is going to let her go. When Jake doesn’t return from fishing in a storm, his wife Clara recklessly goes to find him only to be lost too, leaving their new child an orphan. Bess agrees to turn over a new leaf and bring up their baby, but Crown and Sporting Life have other plans. Porgy deals with Crown, but Sporting Life is still around to scupper Bess’ plans.

The first half is a touch slow and ponderous, despite the presence of gorgeous songs like Summertime and I Got Plenty Of Nothing, but it really takes off in the second half, with more great songs like It Ain’t Necessarily So and much more drama. In this production, the staging of the storm scene is outstanding and Bess’ struggle with drink and drugs realistically played with great sensitivity by Nicola Hughes. It also creates a real sense of a community struggling but surviving by sticking together and supporting one another. The staging of Porgy’s final exit is masterly. Timothy Sheader’s very physical production, with Liam Steel’s stylised movement, are highly effective.

I don’t know why they have imported all three male leads from the US (a co-production?) but they are all good – a positively scary Crown from Phillip Boykin, a slick and slimy Sporting Life from Cedric Neal, and a deeply empathetic Porgy from Rufus Bonds Jr. Sharon D Clark gives us another acting masterclass as Mariah and there are excellent performances from Leon Lopez and Jade Ewen as Jake and Clara and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena. I’m still not sure what to make of designer Katrina Lindsay’s giant metallic cliff backdrop, but as it got dark and Rick Fisher’s lighting made it change colour, which changed the mood, it did look pretty. There’s a decent size 14-piece orchestra, though the sound was sometimes a touch harsh, particularly the first half voocals.

Great to see this landmark show again, feeling very a home in the Open Air Theatre. Not to be missed, I’d say.

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Timothy Sheader made a brave decision when he introduced 20th century classics to the Open Air Theatre, but boy has it paid off. The Crucible led the way, Lord of the Flies & To Kill a Mockingbird confirmed his wisdom and now All My Sons proves conclusively that this space can be great for modern drama as well as Shakespeare and musicals. Set over one day, the onset of natural darkness co-incides with the heightening of the drama – and for once planes flying overhead have some connection with what’s happening onstage!

Arthur Miller’s play is based on a true story and is influenced by both Greek tragedy and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. It centres on the post-war all-American suburbia of the Keller family. Son Larry went missing in action towards the end of the war and son Chris now works with his dad Joe in the family engineering firm. Joe’s former business partner Steve is in prison for allowing faulty aircraft parts to be supplied to the US Air Force, resulting in more than twenty deaths. Some, including neighbour Sue, believe he’s the fall guy for Joe who is really to blame. Mom Kate is convinced Larry is still alive 3.5 years on, egged on my neighbour Frank’s horoscopes. Chris wants to marry Larry’s sweetheart Ann, Steve’s daughter. Then Anne’s brother George arrives and the truth is revealed, propelling the drama to its tragic conclusion.

This was only Miller’s second (produced) play and the first of four classics over a ten year period from 1946 to 1955.There isn’t a wasted moment or unnecessary line and every character has a purpose. In Sheader’s fine production, the first act lulls you into a false sense of security which heightens the tension of the second act before bringing a passionate emotionality to the third. I wasn’t sure about Lizzie Clachan’s billboard house at first, but it grew on me. Brid Brennan is magnificent as Kate and Tom Mannion plays Joe ‘s transition from denial to confession brilliantly. Charles Aitkin is excellent as Chris, as is Amy Nuttall as Ann and there ‘s a fine supporting cast.

Because of the weather, it took two attempts before I saw this, but I’m glad I persisted. It’s a lot better than the (paid) critics would have you believe; a fine revival indeed.

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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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Once the perfect setting for Shakespeare, then a wonderful home for musicals, then reinvented for 20th century drama, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park now feels absolutely the right pace for storytelling. This adaptation of Harper Lee’s 60’s classic American novel (and the only thing she ever wrote!) is completely at home.

The actors start reading it from the audience, and continue doing so between scenes throughout the play. The simple staging starts with the town being chalked onto the stage floor. The props are on the sides of the stage, where the actors wait their turn. The only thing on stage for the duration is a tree. It’s all so very simple and so very perfect for storytelling as it draws you in and never lets you go. The charm and innocence of the children is contrasted with the hate of the white racists as the story of misjustice in small town America is played out. Timothy Sheader’s production is enthralling and deeply moving.

I’m not entirely sure which of the three groups of three children performed, but they were sensational. Robert Sean Leonard had great presence as Atticus; father, lawyer and liberal. Both Ritchie Campbell as the accused Tom and Hattie Ladbury as his alleged victim Maudie were hugely impressive. In fact, it’s a bit invidious naming actors, as there isn’t a fault in the casting.

On a clear, dry evening there’s nowhere better than the Open Air Theatre and on this occasion, apart from a tantalising short dusting of a delicate spray (as if to discourage us from becoming complacent), it spun its magic spell yet again and reinvented itself for yet another genre.

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I’ve always thought this a well-structured, well-plotted comedy; but I’m used to seeing a less radical, less farcical production and I’m not entirely convinced Timothy Sheader’s broad cartoonish take on it serves it well – though in all fairness I did warm to it as the evening progressed.

There’s a giant 3D frontispiece which rises to reveal a group of ‘dandies’ singing the first in a series of narrative songs specially composed by Richard’s Sisson & Stilgoe, then the first of Katrina Lindsay’s pop-up book sets. The Olivier’s drum revolve is well used to deliver the other three settings. It’s technically outstanding and looks great, but…..

Arthur Wing Pinero’s late 19th century play revolves around a lie told by the Magistrate’s wife in order to bag him. She takes five years off her age, which requires her to take 5 years off her son’s age, making him a 14-year old in a 19-year old body. He leads her husband astray (as a 19-year-old might) and she seeks to make other complicit in her deception so it isn’t revealed.

Though the acting style is somewhat OTT, in keeping with the directorial style, there is much to admire in the performances. For me, John Lithgow has to live up to both Nigel Hawthorne and Iain Richardson as the magistrate and he acquits himself very well indeed. Nancy Carroll continues to impress, here the broadest and loudest I’ve ever seen her as the magistrate’s wife. Joshua McGuire pulls of the task of making a 19-year old 14-year old believable to great effect.

There’s luxury casting in the smaller roles from Nicholas Blane as the other magistrate, Jonathan Coy as the Colonel, Roger Sloman as the chief clerk and Alexander Cobb & Beverley Rudd as servants. Don Gallagher & Christopher Logan provide delicious French caricatures as the hotel proprietor and waiter.

It’s an enjoyable evening, and thoroughly suitable seasonal fare, but despite the inventiveness and talent it falls short of greatness by its lack of subtlety.

 

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A week without theatre, now a week behind with reviews (one already closed and another closing today!). Standards are slipping…..

The final evening of the Open Air Theatre’s musical has become an annual tradition and so far we’ve had the best of the weather and this year was no exception (tempting fate here). On a lovely evening, there’s nothing nicer and they’ve been on a roll for a long time now.

It’s only a year since this show wowed me at the Landor Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) and here it is scaled up and moved outdoors. This slice of early 20th century US social history is epic in scope – Jon Bausor’s design attempts to make it epic in scale and Timothy Sheader’s highly conceptual production tries hard to link it to the present day. Sadly that’s where it fails, getting in the way of the stories of the Latvian Jewish immigrant, the harassed black musician, the enlightened middle class New Englanders and the brilliant score. It’s all a bit of a muddle.

Musically, it’s terrific. It’s beautifully played and there are some outstanding vocal performances, notably Rosalie Craig as the mother and Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker. Stephen Flaherty’s music is anchored in the ragtime themes, but it builds from that into a lush and uplifting sound. I sometimes leave an opera which has been messed with wishing I’d closed my eyes or been to a concert version and I’m afraid that’s how I felt here.

One misfire won’t threaten the annual tradition, though programming The Sound of Music for next year might! Somehow, it doesn’t seem right for this venue and this audience and it comes so soon after the Palladium’s revival. Mmm…..

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Almost twenty years ago, American writer Ken Ludwig (best known for Lend Me A Tenor) and British director Mike Ockrent had the bizarre idea of staging a ‘new’ Gershwin musical. Using Girl Crazy as their starting point they created a new book and added Gershwin songs from elsewhere. Not exactly a ‘jukebox’ musical, but close. They may well have inadvertently given us the best musical the Gershwin’s (n)ever wrote.

Bobby is a banker (there, I’ve said it!) who yearns to be a Broadway boy. To divert him from his attempts to join the Zangler Follies, his haridan of a mother sends him to the Wild West to foreclose on a theatre that has defaulted on its mortgage. Of course, he falls in love with both the theatre and the owner’s daughter and sends for the Follies girls (on their vacation) to stage a show with the local rednecks to rescue the theatre.  Cue lots of east coast  meets wild west culture clash and knowing jokes about how gambling will never catch on in Nevada.

Peter McKintosh has created a terrific set which starts with the neon lights of  Broadway but soon moves to the dusty streets and saloon bars of the old west; a few real horses tied up outside the saloon and you’d think you were there. Timothy Sheader’s staging and Stephen Mear’s choreography sparkle with ingenuity and wit and there’s a fine ensemble of hapless cowboys and pretty chorus girls. It’s packed full of Gershwin tunes, from solo gems like Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You and They Can’t Take that Away From Me to big chorus numbers like the show-stopping I Got Rhythm, which closes the first act leaving you desperate for the second to start. The book is very funny and the drunken scene where the real Zangler and his imposter meet is a comic masterpiece.

Sean Palmer is terrific as Bobby and Clare Foster is delightful in her transition from tomboy to lovestruck girlfriend. David Burt and Harriet Thorpe give us great cameos as Zangler and Bobby’s mum. The band is as big and as brash as it should be when necessary, but plays tunes delicately when needs be.

This season, the OAT has gone from desert island crash site to Hogarthian London to Broadway / the Wild West and all three show have been hits. The new policy of a more varied repertoire is paying off and the space is proving it can just about stage anything. Now all they have to do is replace the caterers! Miss this at your peril.

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The Open Air Theatre’s new artistic director, Timothy Sheader, has always made his intentions to move this lovely venue on from it’s long-standing ‘Three Shakespeare’s and  Musical’ formula very clear. Last year he gave us a chilling ‘The Crucible’ which proved how great drama can work in this space. He also seems to be thinking more about what shows suit the venue and last year’s Into The Woods was a perfect choice. Now we have Lord of the Flies doing both – another drama which works well in a space which is nigh on perfect for the play.

The stage is a beach where the remains of a plane crash are strewn – the fusilage spewing luggage and a wing in the trees. There’s an engine in the bushes bordering the beach and another in the auditorium. Smoke still emanates from the wreckage; this crash has just happened. It’s a stunning design by Jon Bausor (who created the extraordinary Kursk at the Young Vic) which uses the space brilliantly. You’re impressed before a word is spoken.

Nigel Williams’ adaptation is a little flawed, mostly because he rushes the first part, getting to the descent into savagery too quickly. Though it might be a little slow for a young audience, showing how the power struggles unfold and the first reaction of children to a world without grown-ups seems to me to be a crucial part of the explanation of the decline. Otherwise it’s faithful to the book, with a little updating such that we can’t be in the second world war (which I think is what William Golding intended) and the arrival of a helicopter rather than a plane at the end, which made more sense.

There is fine acting from a very young company who look every bit the age of their characters. The movement (co-director Liam Steel and fight director Kate Waters) adds much to the effectiveness of the staging. There’s also music and a soundscape by Nick Powell & Mike Walker which makes a big contribution to creating atmosphere and driving the story forward.

I studied the book for something that used to be called ‘O’ level many centuries ago; if only we could have seen a thrilling interpretation like this, I might have done better than my mediocre Grade 4!

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