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Posts Tagged ‘Tracie Bennett’

This is the second of three January day-trips to catch musicals that aren’t scheduled to come to London, this time Hope Mill Manchester’s production of Mame visiting Northampton, a show the UK hasn’t seen since it’s premiere here 50 years ago, which is why I’ve never seen Jerry Herman’s iconic Broadway show.

Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame went from page to stage to screen before this musical adaptation, which was itself later filmed. It revolves around a New York socialite who loves life and likes to party. When her brother dies, her 10-year-old nephew Patrick comes to live with her, and she makes it her job to show him the world, sharing her Bohemian lifestyle. After losing all her money in the Wall Street Crash, she’s lucky enough to meet and fall for rich southerner Beauregard, who marries her and takes her on seemingly endless honeymoon, seeing even more of the world.

Patrick goes to boarding school, where conservative snobbery replaces fun living, and when the honeymoon ends in tragedy, with Beauregard’s death, Mame gets to see how her work has been undone. Patrick is about to marry into the rich but dull & tasteless Upson’s from Connecticut, but she is determined to prevent such a match. The hedonistic first half gives way to a clash of the party animals and the dull New Englanders, providing some sublime comedy.

Herman’s score has some great numbers, with superb orchestrations by Jason Carr, brilliantly played by Alex Parker’s terrific band. His lyrics, and Jerome Lawrence & Robert E Lee’s book, are sharp and witty. It’s scaled down from big Broadway / West End values, but with a cast of eighteen still fills the stage. You can see the dance background in Nick Winston’s slick and stylish direction and Philip Whitcomb’s art deco set and excellent 20’s costumes give it the perfect period feel.

The leading role needs a special actress and Tracie Bennett is perfect for the part, belting out those big numbers and squeezing every ounce of comedy from her dialogue, particularly in her scenes with her best friend, ‘Broadway baby’ Vera, superbly played by Harriett Thorpe. Patrick is a big role for a young actor, but Lochlan White was confident and assured, pulling it off with great aplomb. They are all part of a fine company who do the show proud.

I’ve seen and loved Hello Dolly, La Cage Au Folles and Mack & Mabel, so I’m so glad I finally got to see Herman’s other big show, thanks to Hope Mill, now an important part of the UK’s musical theatre landscape, plus Aria Entertainment and their hosts the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. Next stop Salisbury, then ?????

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It’s thirty years since I saw a large-scale production of this show – it’s first, and only, West End outing – though there were three others in quick succession between 2002 and 2010 – a semi-staged version at the Royal Festival Hall, a delightful fringe production at the Landor and another in Walthamstow during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations. Along with A Little Night Music, it’s never been my favourite Sondheim show, though it contains some of his best songs, but just five days after a stunning revival of that other show in Newbury, here we are at the National being blown away by Dominic Cooke’s sensational production, taking us back to the original Broadway version without interval. Now, where did I put my superlatives thesaurus……

It’s a reunion at the New York theatre where the Weismann Follies were between the wars. It’s about to be demolished and the girls of the 30’s and 40’s have been invited back one last time. Nostalgia gives way to regret for lost love and lost opportunities, as the main characters Buddy & Sally and Ben & Phyllis reminisce. There have been follies in their lives as well as Follies in their careers, and we learn how their relationships were formed and how they progressed. All four have the ‘ghosts’ of their former selves onstage, as do ten of the other stars from the past. Interwoven with their story, and ‘character songs’ as Sondheim calls them, we have routines and turns reenacted and a pastiche called Loveland within which all four leads sing of their individual follies.

Imelda Staunton follows her Mrs Lovett, Rose and Martha with another stupendous performance as Sally. It’s wonderful to see Philip Quast again, on fine form too as Ben, and Janine Dee is a terrific acid-tonged Phyllis, a particularly fine dancer as it turns out. Peter Forbes is less of a musicals regular, but he makes a great Buddy. Another piece of surprising but inspired casting is Di Botcher as Hattie, delivering Broadway Baby as if she was. Tracie Bennett takes I’m Still Here hostage with a particularly ballsy rendition, and the duet between opera singers Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as older and younger Heidi is another stand-out moment in a show full of them. Dawn Hope’s Stella gamely leads the veterans in a thrilling tap dancing number with their former selves. The National is saved from prosecution by the musicals police by casting a Strallen, Zizzi, as Young Phyllis. This teally is a stunner of a cast.

Dominic Cooke isn’t known for musicals, but teamed with choreographer Bill Deamer, he’s done a great job, an elegant staging which is brash when it needs to be, at other times restrained and often very moving. Vicki Mortimer has created an atmospheric set and fantastic costumes. The unbroken 130 minutes was packed full of showstoppers and by the time we got to Loveland, I was overwhelmed and deeply moved. I think my previous, less enthusiastic reaction is down to timing. I was too young and too new to Sondheim and wasn’t really ready for this show – until now.

To the 37 performers and 21 musicians on stage, and the 200 production staff, and of course Messrs Sondheim & Goldman, it was worth every second of your time and effort. Unforgettable.

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Terry Johnson’s idea to turn this into a musical is as good as the late Bob Hoskins idea to put it on screen. It’s one of the best screen-to-stage transitions and a must-see in its final two months.

The Windmill was an iconic institution. It brought revue to London. It brought nudity to the stage. It was the only theatre still open in the blitz. It was the heart of Soho. It’s a great story for the stage and for a musical and Terry Johnson’s adaptation, book and staging are outstanding. It tells the story from the meeting of unlikely business partners Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm through their unsuccessful first shows, their negotiations with the government’s censor, the Lord Chamberlain, the successful nude tableaux shows to performing for soldiers during the second world war. The personal story of Maureen, from tea lady to star, her love (or not) for Eddie and her unwanted pregnancy is woven through it.

George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain are more used to producing film and TV music and their score is somewhat old-fashioned, but it suits the period being presented and it’s got some great tunes. Don Black’s excellent lyrics benefit from his significant musical theatre experience. I very much liked Tim Shorthall’s design, moving us successfully from backstage to onstage (and on the roof) with a couple of quick visits to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and Paul Wills’ costumes are delightful. I loved Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in comic numbers like the Lord Chamberlain’s song – and his fan dance is masterly!

It’s exceptionally well cast, led by Tracie Bennett, yet again inhabiting a musical theatre role, and in this case banishing the memory of Judi Dench. I don’t think of Ian Bartholomew as a musical theatre man but when I read his biog in the programme I realised I’d seen him in a handful of musical theatre roles and he’s excellent here (and in fine voice) as Van Damm. Emma Williams delivers yet again and is sensational in her big Act II number If Mountains Were Easy to Climb (one day she’ll be in a commercial hit again!). In a very strong supporting case, I was particularly impressed by Samuel Holmes as Bertie and Robert Hands as the Lord Chamberlain.

This lovely show doesn’t deserve its early bath and I strongly recommend you catch it in its final two months.

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I don’t really share the fascination and adulation many still have with Judy Garland over 40 years after her death. I’d even go as far as to say that way too much has been said and written about her. In fact, I find the obsession with dead ‘stars’ in general a bit difficult. Not a great starting point for this show then!

By focusing on a very short period at the end of her life, what playwright Peter Quilter has done is delivered something with more psychological depth than your average biographical play. I can’t say I entirely understand what turns someone into the wreck she was at the end of her life, but the play does help you begin to understand.

The action takes place in her London hotel room (finely detailed design from the great Bill Dudley) and the Talk of the Town where she is performing a five-week stint. The two men in her life are the other main characters – gay pianist and confidante Anthony and toy boy fiancée / manager Micky; the motivation of the former seemingly genuine but the later somewhat dubious. By playing out the tempestuous will-she-won’t-she-perform back story alongside concert scenes, the play explores the psychological and emotional journey they’re all on. I was a bit shocked when the hotel room wall rose to reveal a small band, but these performance scenes and snatches are an important element to the story – fortunately they’re played for realism in context rather than concert perfection.

It must be very difficult to play any other character against this larger-than-life icon, but both Stephen Hagan as Mickey and Hilton McRea do extremely well to bring their characters to life. I felt Tracie Bennett occasionally came close to pushing her performance over the edge, but it is an extraordinary acting achievement. At the curtain call, I was so exhausted I only just managed to get to my feet to join the spontaneous ovation, while she bounced on stage looking like she could do it all over again!

To turn this cynic around is no mean achievement and to witness Tracie Bennett’s own star performance is an unmissable treat.

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