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Posts Tagged ‘Union Theatre’

I’ve waited almost thirty years to see this Lionel Bart show again. The last time it was in London it was staged by the National Youth Theatre in the West End with a sensational performance from Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) in the leading role. It’s the third of only five British musicals Bart wrote, coming immediately after Oliver! which was still running in the West End at the time. It now seems at home in a 70-seat theatre under the railway arches near Waterloo.

When it was first produced in 1962, the Second World War was far enough, but near enough for the spirit of the blitz to provide a nostalgic setting for the story of two families, the Blitztein’s and the Locke’s, whose lives become intertwined. Mrs Blitztein and Mr Locke are both market traders in Petticoat Lane, but they can’t stand each other, Locke being somewhat anti-semitic. Despite this, Locke’s son George and Blitztein’s daughter Carol are in love, a love that survives George’s war injuries and Carol’s blindness by bombing. Their parents’ melt and marry and there’s even a frisson between the grandparents. Three generations, two cultures, love conquers all. I love the populism of Bart’s work, and this is as packed full of great tunes as his other shows are.

Phil Wilmott’s staging turns the small space to an advantage, given that most of the show is set in the underground shelters. The choruses are fantastic and there are a whole load of excellent performances, with Jessica Martin terrific as Mrs Blitztein, Michael Martin as Locke and Caitlin Anderson, Conner Carson and Robbie McArtney as Carol, George & Harry respectively are great, with a lovely cameo from James Horne as grandad Locke.

Lovely to see it again.

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It’s always good to welcome a new British musical, and this is a promising one, but as the great Stephen Sondheim says, musicals aren’t written they’re rewritten, so I approach this as work-in-progress.

Katharine Heath’s superb design turns the Union Theatre into The Green Fairy pub, where our protagonist Jo comes to see her estranged daughter Wendy perform at their Open Mic Night. From here, we flash back, courtesy of an actual green fairy, to a the moment Jo falls in love with Eliza but decides not to accompany her on her quest for fame in the USA. We then learn that she marries Daniel, the landlord of the pub, and they have a child, Wendy. From here we move back and fore to piece together Jo’s story, facilitated by the Green Fairy.

It’s a slow and shaky start, which risks losing the audience before it takes them in its hold. Jack Sain has written the book, music and some of the lyrics, with Stephen Libby, and also directed. In my view this is one job too many and, despite his directorial experience, that’s the chair he should have relinquished to ensure some healthy creative tension that could have tightened it. They have their moments, but neither the book nor the score are currently good enough, and not all of the unamplified singers win the battle with four or five instruments, so the storytelling is hampered because not all of the lyrics are audible.

It’s good to see Julie Atherton again, and she navigates the emotional roller-coaster role of Jo very well, with strong vocals. Georgina Hellier is outstanding as Eliza / the Green Fairy and the supporting cast – Emma Whittaker, David Perkins, Emma Kidney & Harry F Brown – are all very good. MD William Bullivant has made the short journey from Preludes at the Southwark Playhouse to helm this very successfully.

I do hope we get a second version, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending this first outing for musical theatre lovers.

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The 1953 film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is much better known than this 1949 Jule Styne musical on which it was based. The Broadway show took 13 years to get to London and has only had one revival since then, at the Open Air Theatre 21 years ago, so a revival at the Union Theatre is to be welcomed.

I’ve lost track of how many Broadway shows are set on cruise liners or trains, but here’s another one. Follies dancers Lorelei Lee, from Little Rock Arkansas, and her best friend and chaperone Dorothy Shaw are heading for Paris, a trip funded by Lorelei’s betrothed, button king Gus Esmond Jr., who is planning to join them later. On the journey they meet Mrs Spofford, Philadelphia’s richest woman, who loves a drink, and her son Henry, zipper king Josephus Cage and British toffs Sir Francis and Lady Beekman. On the journey Lorelei flirts with Sir Francis and Henry and Dorothy with a group of Olympic athletes! Lorelei discovers Gus has gone to Little Rock with his dad to check out her background and worries they will uncover her secret. She gets Sir Francis to secretly fund the purchase of his wife’s tiara, makes a play for Josephus and fixes up Dorothy with Henry. When we get to Paris its all French stereotypes, dodgy accents and jokes at their expense. The Beekman’s arrive from London and Gus from Little Rock, later followed by his dad, and the story of buttons and zippers plays out in a night club, ending happily ever after, obviously, with two marriages.

It’s a big show that requires big resources, but the material doesn’t really deserve them. Jule Styne’s score comes to life occasionally (notably during its most famous number, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend) but is mostly undistinguished. Anita Loos & Joseph Fields’ book, based on Loos novel, and Leo Robin’s lyrics are both weak, lacking the wit and sparkle a musical comedy requires. Though I saw the Open Air Theatre’s production, it only became clear this time why it is rarely revived. This production is at its best in the chorus numbers and in Zak Nemorin’s well choreographed set pieces. With just piano and drums it’s a bit underpowered musically, and I wondered if a solo piano might have been better if a bigger band wasn’t possible. Justin Williams and Penn O’Gara’s designs give it a great period look, well lit by Hector Murray. Eighteen is a big cast for the Union, including a handful of very welcome professional stage debuts, and they work hard and enthusiastically. Somewhat ironically, it sparkled most when the bar became the Paris club, as the interval transformed and transferred to the theatre for the second act; elsewhere Sasha Regan’s production lacked oomph, though this may have been partly due to first night nerves.

Good to catch it again, though, despite my reservations about the material.

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I don’t think London has seen this early Michael John LaChiusa musical since it’s UK premiere at the Bridewell Theatre eighteen years ago. It was the first of the five very diverse shows of his I’ve seen, the latest being Queen of the Mist earlier this year, now transferred to the Charing Cross Theatre.

More song cycle than musical, it’s based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde and consists of ten scenes, or sexual liaisons, each in a different decade of the 20th century (LaChiusa’s innovation) from 1900 to 1999, though not chronologically. One of each pair of characters (‘the nurse’, the writer’ etc) moves from one scene to the next, where they are in a new pairing, in a new decade, so we meet each generic character twice, with ‘the whore’ from the first scene turning up in the last to take us full circle.

Paul Callan’s production is staged in costume but ‘without decor’, so the pressure is on the material, and it doesn’t really come up to the mark. The eclectic score seeks to reflect the period of each scene but in truth the songs aren’t really that memorable. That in turn puts pressure on the performers and its to their credit that much of the time they make it shine more brightly, particularly in the way better second half. Henry Brennan’s trio play the score well, but you do miss some of the lyrics and sung dialogue without amplification.

I liked the idea but it didn’t really go anywhere, and the material wasn’t good enough to make up for that, so more of a curiosity than a satisfying show, I’m afraid.

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This 1950 adaptation of Ibsen by Arthur Miller came midway between All My Sons & Death Of A Salesman and The Crucible & A View From A Bridge, an extraordinarily productive and successful eight years for Miller, fired up by the McCarthy trials. It’s rarely produced these days, so Phil Willmott’s revival at the Union Theatre is very welcome, and as it turns out very timely.

Miller didn’t change much, just gave it contemporary relevance 68 years later and Willmott has done the same another 68 years on. The small town of Kirsten Springs is in the process of building a spa resort. Town doctor Thomas Stockmann has been following up patterns of illness by having the water tested and he’s ready to go public, with the local newspaper on his side. It will delay and increase the cost of the project and when his sister the Mayor gets wind of it she points out how much damage it will do to the town and how much extra tax the people will have to cough up. The newspaper withdraws its support so Stockmann calls a public meeting, which is hijacked by the mayor and newspaper in cahoots. He becomes an enemy of the people, with consequences to his family’s safety, job loss, eviction and blackmail from the mayor, the newspaper and even his father-in-law, but not everyone can be bought.

It proves to be absolutely timeless, resonating in our current political climate where finding anyone with principles is like finding a needle in a haystack and where fake news rules. The production has great pace and passion. They even manage to make the public meeting rousing with just nine actors and some recorded crowd noise. It’s an excellent ensemble led by terrific performances from David Mildon as Stockman and Mary Stewart as his sister The Mayor. Willmott has breathed new life into it as he did to The Incident at Vichy two years ago. An absolute must for Miller fans and strongly recommended for anyone who likes gripping drama.

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This show by Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda & Rachel Sheinkin is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. It started as an album in 2002 and became an Off-Broadway show four years later. It appears to have lost half of it’s songs since the album (I’m not sure about the US show) and the big question about this UK premiere is Why?

It’s set on New Years Eve in New York City where Brendan is torn between staying at work and partying. The match girl is now a seller of electric lights. There are just three other actors who play a narrator, other characters and musical instruments like drums and violin, and there’s a pianist. With fourteen songs in seventy minutes there isn’t much time for story or character development and it felt more like a song cycle than a musical.

I liked Oliver Kaderbhai’s lively staging and Natalie Johnson’s design and there are good performances all round, led by Declan Bennett as Brendan and Bronte Barbe as The Match Girl, both in fine voice. I was particularly impressed by Kate Robson-Scott, who played a mean violin. Even though they had already played more than a handful of performances, they hadn’t got the sound balance right the night after the press night, which marred the performance. Using a drum kit necessitates the amplification of vocals in this small space. Despite this, lyrics were lost and acoustic instruments sometimes buried.

Though it’s an eclectic score with some good tunes, and the creatives and cast do their best, sound issues notwithstanding, it’s a slight piece which I’m not sure justifies the transatlantic journey.

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This WWI set musical was commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre and when I saw the London premiere of their production just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/brass-nymt-at-hackney-empire) it had a cast twice the size, an 18-piece band doing what a solo pianist does here, in a theatre with a capacity twenty times the Union Theatre. Despite that, this very timely professional premiere packs as much, if not more, of an emotional punch.

It moves between Leeds and the Somme as a brass band enlist together and their loved ones at home manufacture the munitions they need. At the front we glimpse the horrors and hopelessness as one dies, an underage recruit is executed for desertion, two men supress their desire for one another and the troops are sent to their death on ‘the big push’ by officers knowing full well what their fate was likely to be. Back home, the girls health deteriorates as their bosses expose them to risk in the munitions factory, and they form their own brass band as a tribute to their men. Relationships are lived through letters.

Benjamin Till’s excellent score is quintessentially British, with folk and choral influences, very melodic. Sasha Regan’s staging has great pace and energy, handling moving moments sensitively, not least the chilling ending to the first half, though I did think some of the soldier’s choreography was a touch quirky. A couple of large tables help to created the trenches and the factory in a simple and uncluttered set. The talented young cast serve the play well; I particularly liked Sam Kipling and Emma Harrold as brother and sister Alf and Eliza, and Samantha Richards feisty Titty, whose brother Morrie is beautifully played by Lawrence Smith, a fine trumpeter too. Henry Brennan does a terrific job playing the whole score on piano.

A lovely, heartfelt musical that again proves British musical theatre is alive and thriving, and a fitting tribute during the centenary of the events and times it represents.

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I don’t often do cabaret or revue as I like my musical theatre songs in context, in the shows they were written for, but when I go I almost always wonder why I don’t go more often! I didn’t think I’d heard of John Bucchino, until I realised he wrote a show I saw and loved at the Royal Academy of Music five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/little-me-a-catered-affair-at-the-royal-academy-of-music). He’s first and foremost a songwriter, though, and his songs are mini-stories, which is why this revue stands out in the crowd.

There are twenty-three songs and seven ‘transitions’ linking them, shared amongst five performers, mostly as solos but with a few duets and ensemble numbers. Somehow, they feel like a song cycle; meant to be sung together like this. One of the great successes of the show is that the songs are interpreted, not merely sung, which ensures you hear the stories. Another success is the staging, movement and design, which between them bring an organic flow and cohesion.

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s design is a playful white and pastel home which both the songs and the performers inhabit. Tania Azevedo’s direction and William Whelton’s choreography create a pleasing seamlessness. I loved the fact experienced performers Jennifer Harding, Jordan Shaw and Noel Sullivan are joined by two making their professional debuts, Sammy Graham and Will Carey (who stole the show with On My Bedside Table, until Noel stole it back with Grateful!); five lovely, well matched performances.

I left wanting to get a recording of Bucchino songs, and already have. A delightful evening.

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This was the fifth of five shows for which Lionel Bart was the sole composer and lyricist over a six year period in the early sixties, the most famous of which was of course Oliver. I’ve seen the others, though they are rarely put on, and though they’re not as good as his masterpiece, they are decent populist fare and they did well at the time. This last one was a troubled show which the director, his friend and mentor Joan Littlewood, walked out of before its opening. Bert Shevelove (book writer of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) came to the rescue, but he couldn’t. The opening night was a fiasco and the show a critical and commercial flop (closing early, allowing one of it’s stars, Ronnie Corbett, to take a job on the Frost Report. It’s other stars included Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw and Long John Baldry!). The fact Bart had added an LSD habit to his heavy drinking may have something to do with it. I’m not sure it’s been seen in London since; this Bart fan certainly hasn’t seen it.

There’s a new book by Guildford School of Acting’s Julian Woolford, commissioned by the Bart estate ten years ago and first performed at GSD, and the music has been adapted by Richard John, but I’m not sure what that means. It doesn’t breathe new life into the story of Robin Hood, who’s lost his twang, hence the title, but the production does, by effectively sending itself, and musical theatre, up in a bawdy innuendo-laden romp. There are lots of quotations from and references to other musicals – Les Mis, Phantom, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Legally Blonde, Wicked etc., a running joke where character Alan-A-Dale is trying to write a song called Living Doll (one of Bart’s, of course), somewhat like the title character in a much later musical Blondel, set in the Crusades with King Richard at the same time as this in Britain featuring his brother, and a lot of jazz hands choreography.

Whatever you think of the show, panto in my case, you have to admire the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast, under Bryan Hodgson’s direction, who give it their all and whose fun is infectious. After the first few minutes, I wasn’t expecting a fun night, but they swept me away and it was.

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Opera directors regularly take liberties with the work of dead composers, but this isn’t Carmen the opera, and Phil Willmott won’t be the first person to rob Bizet’s grave – Oscar Hammerstein did it for his musical Carmen Jones and Matthew Bourne for his dance piece Car Man. What Willmott has done is create a largely new story, set some 12 years before Prosper Merimee’s novella, on which the book for the opera was based, when Napoleon’s army had taken Spain. It’s inspired by a Goya painting, which appears to have dramatically changed his life. In two highly effective coup d’theatre, they create a tableau of this painting and dramatise the effect on Goya, who is the narrator.

There are elements of Merimee’s  story – the cigarette factory and Carmen herself, now a resistance spy  – but not a bullfight in sight. In essence, it’s the story of a fight for independence, though it sometimes can’t make its mind up if it’s Spain or Catalonia, in recognition of recent events. He’s placed Bizet’s tunes into this story, arranged by Teddy Clements, with new lyrics and book by himself. The recycling of the tunes works well.

Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s design is excellent, as are the costumes of Penn O’Gara and the lighting of Ben Jacobs, and it’s a great use of the Union’s space. There are some thrilling dances choreographed by Adam Haigh, where recordings of Bizet’s orchestral score are used to rousing effect. Otherwise, it was played on piano, with occasional guitar. Rachel Lea-Gray was very good indeed as Carmen, supported by an enthusiastic and passionate cast of sixteen.

I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but there’s much to enjoy here.

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