Like a rolling stone

OVGirl

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a Bob Dylan jukebox musical or a play with Bob Dylan songs? Well… no, no, and take your pick. The programme lists twenty Dylan songs, drawn from every corner of his career, but this isn’t a greatest hits show, and you won’t hear Blowin’ in the Wind. The songs don’t function the ways the numbers would in a conventional musical; instead, they serve more or less as a live soundtrack to Conor McPherson‘s grab-bag of stories about Duluth (of course, Dylan’s birthplace) during the depression.

On paper, it probably shouldn’t work. McPherson’s script throws together a disparate collection of People With Problems in a rooming-house that is basically the Minnesota equivalent of the Last Chance Saloon. Nick, the owner (Ciaran Hinds) is mortgaged up to his eyeballs and the bank is about to foreclose. His wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has dementia, and her lucid moments are few and far between. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) is an unemployed drunk, and their daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim), a black foundling they adopted, is mysteriously pregnant. Throw in a sexy widow, a boxer, a malevolent, blackmailing Bible salesman, an on-the-lam apparently middle-class family with a really dark secret, a shoe salesman, and the widowed family doctor, and you’ve got basically the full deck of depression-era clichés crammed together under a single roof for two acts. It could easily be deadly.

That it isn’t is partly down to the performances and musical arrangements, and partly due to the clever way McPherson uses the songs to amplify or comment on the content of the surrounding scenes. The result is a show where the point is less the story itself and more the unlocking of the delicate poetry inside Dylan’s songs – poetry which is only sometimes (there are people who’d throttle me for saying this) apparent in his own performances. It’s hardly a spoiler, given the nature of McPherson’s plot, to say that by the climax of the second act, pretty much everyone’s chickens have come home to roost, and there isn’t much incident in the show that you won’t see coming ten minutes ahead – but what you won’t necessarily expect is the sheer beauty that McPherson, his fine cast, and orchestrator/arranger Simon Hale find in the characters, the songs, and the setting. There are four musicians – keys, violin/mandolin, guitar, and upright bass – onstage, and a couple of members of the cast take turns playing drums when needed, and it’s as if a play and a concert are sharing the same physical space. The music is almost all presented diegetically, with the actors not singing the lead in a given song providing backup vocals; the play and the songs are carefully woven around each other so that while each could stand alone, they’re immeasurably stronger together. At the close of the first act, when the remarkable Shirley Henderson grabs the microphone and tears into Like a Rolling Stone, it’s as if she’s giving voice not simply to every character on the stage, but to an entire era. McPherson’s play offers a collection of characters on a collision course with life, and the song amplifies their frustration in a way that dialogue simply couldn’t match. It’s a mesmerising performance – simultaneously chilling and intensely moving.

There are fine performances, too, from Arinzé Kene as the boxer, Debbie Kurup as an impecunious widow waiting for her ship to come in – her Went To See The Gypsy is another musical standout – and especially from Sheila Atim as the pregnant Marianne. Atim gives the character an extraordinary, quiet dignity; you can’t take your eyes off her, and her gorgeously understated performance of Tight Connection to My Heart may well be as felicitous a meeting of singer and song as you’ll hear in a theatre this year. Ciaran Hinds is very good indeed in a role that doesn’t stretch him. Rae Smith’s spare, suspended-in-space set, with moody projections of Minnesota landscapes on flown-in flats, is tremendously evocative, and McPherson’s detailed but unshowy direction somehow manages to make a piece that probably shouldn’t work at all make perfect sense.

If you walk into the theatre expecting a performance that works along the lines of a traditional musical, then, you’ll probably be disappointed. The best way to approach Girl from the North Country is probably as a kind of two-act theatrical tone poem. Taken alone, the stories McPherson tells about these characters are too thin to sustain two full acts. Paired with the Dylan songs – and with Hale’s hauntingly lovely musical arrangements – the whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll pick all kinds of holes in the script afterwards, but as an experience this show is – surprisingly – moving, memorable, and genuinely beautiful, none of which are words you’d usually expect to apply to a jukebox musical.

Just keep your fingers crossed for a cast album. Once you’ve heard them once, these are performances you’ll want to keep.

 

 

Advertisements

Let us worship

AMLD

It’s unusual – strikingly unusual – for a West End production not to hire understudies, but there are no understudies here: Audra McDonald is the main event, and her uncanny, goosebump-inducing, devastating embodiment of Billie Holiday is more than worth whatever you pay for your ticket. This is less a play than a performance; McDonald is astonishing, and that’s just as well, because the writing underneath is rather on the thin side.

That’s partly dictated by the format. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill recreates one of Billie Holiday’s late-career performances in a bar in Philadelphia (we’re told in a programme note that the playwright’s partner saw one such performance in 1959, a few months before Holiday’s death). A visibly intoxicated Holiday staggers on, stumbles through a few songs, and in her between-song patter delivers the story of her life. As written by Lanie Robertson, it’s more than a little contrived, although Robertson mercifully steers well away from the luridly purple invented scenes that characterise Peter Quilter’s awful End of the Rainbow, which takes a not-dissimilar look at Judy Garland’s demise. Robertson’s Lady Day is drunk and rambling and visibly impaired, and – for better or worse – presented without editorialising. There’s no other point of view on the stage, save the occasional interjection from Sheldon Becton as Holiday’s musical director, and that’s possibly no bad thing, given the way invented dialogue in celebrity biographies so often descends into melodramatic sludge. There’s just Billie Holiday, performing her life for patrons in a bar.

And that, unfortunately, is where the artful artifice of Lonny Price‘s production starts to fray around the edges. Despite a terrific barroom set by Christopher Oram, with patrons seated onstage and nightclub tables filling the (more) expensive half of the stalls, the show simply doesn’t sit very well in an elegant late-Victorian jewel-box like Wyndham’s. The venue is too pretty and (although it’s hardly one of the West End’s biggest houses) too large, and despite the best efforts of the director, the designer, and McDonald herself, it’s difficult to recreate the intimacy necessary for this piece in a theatre that seats 750 people on four levels (if you see this – and you should – you really need to sit downstairs). The proscenium arch doesn’t help; Robertson’s text works strenuously to maintain the illusion that we’re watching a performance in a nightclub; even from the back of the stalls, you simply aren’t close enough. The production cries out for a smaller, less ostentatiously pretty, more flexible venue, but such places are in relatively short supply in London. The Young Vic would have been ideal, but it possibly doesn’t quite fit their mission – and for a limited season the numbers may well not have added up in a venue with half the number of seats.

And in any case, McDonald’s performance is so jaw-dropping that it almost feels like bad manners to quibble at any element of the production surrounding her, even though some elements of it are undoubtedly problematic. Her mastery of Billie Holiday’s very individual vocal mannerisms is astonishing – all the more so when you consider the basic nature of McDonald’s voice, because Billie Holiday really wasn’t a Juilliard-trained soprano. It’s not simply a vocal impersonation, though – McDonald gets under Holiday’s skin and delivers a haunting, haunted portrayal of a star on the verge of self-destruction. There’s a smattering of Holiday’s best-known songs here, of course, and McDonald’s delivery of them is beyond reproach; what you’ll remember, though, isn’t the voice, so much as the intensity. Strange Fruit, in particular, is a riveting, chilling performance, but you’ll learn as much about Holiday from the moment at the song’s conclusion where McDonald shoots a disgusted glare at her music director for having just forced her to sing it. McDonald’s Billie Holiday is a walking open wound, and singing this song wounds her further.

If this makes it sound as though the performance is all darkness, it shouldn’t. Certainly, Billie Holiday’s life story is bleak, and neither Robertson nor McDonald shy away from that, but McDonald makes Holiday’s interactions with her audience in her more lucid moments thoroughly charming, and finds – almost unbelievably – considerable bawdy humour in a story about a southern restaurant hostess’s horrific racism. Even in a space that isn’t quite appropriate for the production, this works – Price’s unobtrusive direction makes the best of both the piece and the difficult venue, the three musicians are terrific, and McDonald herself is giving a performance for the ages. It’s a shame the production surrounding her isn’t quite as perfect as she is, but it doesn’t matter: you’re here for the star, and the star more than delivers.

The best of all possible worlds

CHC

Apologies in advance, but I’m probably about to run out of superlatives. Candide is one of those shows whose production history is so complicated that there is probably a PhD thesis in untangling the differences between the various different versions (see also Chess and Merrily We Roll Along). A flop in its original Broadway production in 1956, it has endured largely because of Leonard Bernstein‘s glorious music, despite a book that has, over the years, gone through more changes than Céline Dion’s nose.

In a concert production, fortunately, you don’t have to worry too much about whether the book works. As Freddie Tapner, the conductor and founder of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra, pointed out in his opening remarks, the show’s plot is “bonkers” – a picaresque procession of murder, coincidence, shipwrecks and natural disasters (there’s a volcanic eruption in there somewhere). Far easier to concentrate on the music, which is more or less all wonderful, and there’s an off-the-shelf concert version available which delivers the bulk of the score, tied together with dryly funny narration (originally written by Bernstein and John Wells) delivered by the actor playing Dr. Pangloss. The narration has been spruced up a little – we’re treated, among other things, to an explanation of how the tropes of a picaresque plot apply to The Fate of the Furious – but the music is centre-stage. This is not an Encores!-style semi-staged “concert production” – there’s no choreography, the principals stand at music stands at the front of the stage, the men are in dinner jackets and the ladies wear nice frocks, and the chorus are lined up behind the 34-piece orchestra. There’s minimal amplification, a very simple lighting plot, and the performers are (technically) on book.

CH

The miracle is that in this rather rarefied setting – Cadogan Hall is lovely, but it’s nothing if not genteel – Tapner and his cast do an admirable job of capturing the show’s wide-eyed, bawdy humour – and the musical values are impeccable right across the board. Often, with this material, you get one thing or the other – it’s beautifully played and sung, or it’s funny (if you’re lucky – sometimes it’s neither, as in Kristin Chenoweth‘s cataclysmically unfunny, tasteless assault on the role of Cunegonde in a televised concert staging a few years ago). Here, you get almost none of the dialogue, but you get a conductor and a set of principal performers – and an orchestra and chorus – who know exactly where the humour in this score is located, and find all of it.

James Dreyfus – not the world’s strongest singer, though he’s done a couple of musicals – is a perfect host/narrator/Pangloss, and his just-right, slightly sardonic delivery sets the tone for everyone else. Rob Houchen’s wide-eyed, gloriously-sung Candide is a joy from start to finish, and his It Must Be So – my favourite thing in the score – is very lovely indeed. The concert format rather short-changes the actors playing Maximilian and Paquette – Stewart Clarke and Jessica Duncan – because those characters usually have more to say than to sing, and the dialogue is mostly gone, but their (brief) appearances leave you wanting to hear more from them. Louise Gold is reliably funny as the Old Lady, and Michael Matus wrings more laughs than you’d imagine possible in a concert staging out of his several roles, and brings the house down in ‘Bon Voyage’. And Anna O’Byrne‘s Cunegonde is simply glorious. Glitter and be Gay is a formidably difficult aria, but O’Byrne negotiates the piece’s somewhat satirical melodramatic humour without ever descending into vulgar schtick – take notes, Ms. Chenoweth. She also tosses off the song’s fast-paced coloratura with dazzling ease; it’s a thrilling vocal performance, but it’s also simply enormous fun, and that’s not always the easiest balance to find.

But then, that’s true of everyone involved. This is, on one level, Bernstein’s most serious, difficult musical theatre score, but it’s packed with humour too, and everybody involved here, from Tapner down to the last member of the chorus, is clearly having a wonderful time performing this music. Shaun Kerrison’s unobtrusive direction makes sure everyone hits and maintains the correct tone – again, not the easiest task with this material, as that awful televised New York concert loudly demonstrated – and there’s an underlying sense of sheer joy running through the whole evening. The orchestra sound marvellous and so do the chorus, and I might have had something in my eye during the final verse of ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. There’s no set, no costumes (apart from a stick-on moustache), no staging – but there’s also nothing missing. Candide is a very, very difficult piece, and this one-night-only production might well be as perfect an iteration of it as you could ever expect. It’s something I’ll remember for a long, long time.

CHO

 

America singing

working southwark programme

This could so easily have been the dreariest show imaginable. Working is a plotless musical with a piecemeal score supplied by a handful of different songwriters, based on Studs Terkel‘s seminal 1974 book of oral histories about life in the American workplace. It’s not a book that seems to cry out to be adapted as a musical, particularly given that it doesn’t follow anything you’d recognise as a traditional narrative and it doesn’t focus in on any single leading character. As adapted from Terkel’s book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, it’s essentially a series of vignettes: a selection of songs and monologues, each delivered by a different character, with a kind of dramatic through-line but no “story”, based on real-life interviews in which people talk about their work, how they feel about it, and how (or whether) it defines them.

And it’s wonderful. Having a multitude of composers supply two or three songs each is an approach that really shouldn’t work, but it does here: these are terrific character monologues set to music by composers ranging from the late Mary Rodgers to Lin-Manuel Miranda, with simple, direct lyrics drawn directly from Terkel’s interviews. This isn’t quite verbatim theatre along the lines of London Road or Committee; the songwriters here (who also include, aside from Schwartz, Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, and James Taylor) craft lyrics from the text in the interviews instead of setting reported speech directly to music. The result is a startling, moving, warmly real collection of characters – ordinary people, portrayed without cliché, looking for meaning in ordinary lives. So often, musical theatre trades in the larger-than-life – big characters painted in broad strokes. There’s none of that here, and no tap-dancing either,* and the show is all the better for it.

working southwark song list

The six leading actors all play several characters, and they’re all superb. The brilliant Gillian Bevan is sensational as, among other things, a public school teacher reflecting on how teaching has changed since her career began four decades previously and a waitress who finds tremendous pride and dignity in her work. Krysten Cummings finds huge emotional depth in the affecting “Just a Housewife”. Dean Chisnall throws himself into “Brother Trucker” with unrestrained glee, then later delivers a devastating monologue – which takes on a new immediacy in the wake of the horror of Grenfell Tower – as a firefighter considering the reasons he chose such a dangerous career. Siubhan Harrison delivers as good a performance of James Taylor’s “Millwork” as you’re ever likely to hear, and Liam Tamne finds all the comedy in his collection of young/callow characters, and especially in a monologue as a spoiled brat who gets fired from his first job for gross insubordination. Towering above them all is Peter Polycarpou, offering a masterclass in character acting as he shifts personas at the drop of a hat (or rather, at the punch of a time-card).

The show’s ensemble is made up of half-a-dozen straight-out-of-drama-school performers making their professional debuts, and they’re wonderful, but they aren’t given enough to do. A couple of weeks ago, I saw Miriam-Teak Lee give a flawlessly hilarious debut production in On The Town in Regent’s Park. The six young actors here – Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Mackley, and Kerri Norville – are clearly all immensely talented, and their movement, via Fabian Aloise’s character-derived choreography, gives the show much of its energy. In too many scenes, though, they are more or less relegated to singing backing vocals, and that’s a pity. Luke Sheppard’s direction keeps them (and everyone else) moving at a good clip, but you’re left with the impression that they could have been allowed to contribute more. Sheppard does a great job of making the show’s lightning-fast transitions between characters and stories admirably clear, Jean Chan’s blue-collar industrial set provides a fitting backdrop, and the show looks great under Nic Farman’s understated lighting, particularly considering the tiny budget. It might be nice to have more than six musicians – but at this size of venue, at these prices, six is a luxury, and the band sounds great under Isaac McCullough’s sensitive musical direction.

If there’s anything to fault, it’s in the material itself, or rather in how this version of the show was constructed. Terkel’s original book appeared in 1974, and the musical, based on the interviews in Terkel’s book, began development in 1975 and opened in 1977 (there’s a helpful timeline in the programme). Lin-Manuel Miranda, the youngest of the show’s various songwriters, was born in 1980; a revised version of the show was developed between 2009 and 2011, based on new interviews conducted by Stephen Schwartz in 2006-7. Miranda’s two songs are excellent, and sound perfectly in keeping with the rest of the score, and “A Very Good Day”, sung by two underpaid caregivers, is one of the show’s great highlights – but the world of work changed a great deal between 1974 and 2006, and the show doesn’t quite manage to negotiate the transition between then and now. As the (intermissionless) performance moves towards its climax with Craig Carnelia’s closing “Something To Point To”, you may well feel a couple of chapters have been missed along the way.

That’s a minor quibble, though, because in most respects the production is an absolute triumph. Whether it will get one is anyone’s guess, but it certainly deserves a longer life; there’s a rumour that a cast recording may be in the offing (or at least, Peter Polycarpou apparently mentioned in a radio interview that a live album was being made), and if the show’s producers are listening, I will buy a copy the second it comes out. Luke Sheppard’s production makes a strong case for this show as a neglected classic, and the performances are simply flawless. Once again, the Southwark Playhouse comes up trumps: they work on a shoestring, but this is probably as good a musical production as you’ll see all year.

*I don’t hate tap-dancing. Really. I’ve a ticket to see 42nd Street later in the year. I even paid for it myself.

The zoo is up, Madame Tussauds is down

on the town programme

If you live in the UK, it takes a certain optimism to book months in advance for a show in an open-air theatre, even if the performance date is just a couple of days after the longest day of the year. “Summer” here is sometimes more of an abstract concept; if you don’t live in London and can’t book at the last minute, you roll the dice then spend the week before the show nervously looking at the weather forecast.

I caught the tail-end of our “heatwave”, actually – people who live in places where there are genuinely hot summers, stop giggling – so I didn’t get the full Open Air Theatre experience. You know, sitting hunched up in a cheap plastic rain poncho for twenty minutes waiting for a downpour to pass so the show can resume. There was some light drizzle, which began, with impeccable timing, right on the second line of “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” – yes, “the sun is warm…” – but that’s all. Rain ponchos (£3 at the bar, or bring your own) were not necessary. Some people put umbrellas up, but they were quickly admonished by the front-of-house staff (absolutely right, they block the view for people sitting behind). And we had an unscheduled several-minute pause halfway through Act One so that stagehands could mop the deck dry:

on the town mop

It was worth the drizzle (and the hay fever, because our damp parody of a summer doesn’t do anything to ameliorate my allergies). Years ago – so many years ago that it’ll make me feel very old if I do the subtraction – I saw the Barbican concert production that begat the Tyne Daly recording (everybody else in the cast was a better singer than Ms. Daly, and she blew them all off the stage), but I’d never seen a production that had an actual set and costumes. It might be my favourite of Bernstein’s theatre scores – or my favourite might be Wonderful Town!, depending on the day – and seeing a full production has been one of my theatrical holy grails for… well, since I saw that concert at the Barbican. I missed the ENO’s revival a few years ago, and have been kicking myself for it ever since; I wasn’t going to miss this.

The weather, actually, might have been just about the only thing wrong with Drew McOnie’s sensational revival. This is a difficult piece to direct: the slender story about three sailors exploring New York during a 24-hour shore leave requires a very light touch, and it’s difficult to find the correct balance between the book scenes, which are more or less simply a series of linked comic sketches, and the achingly bittersweet ballets. Underpinning the whole thing is the fact that the characters onstage know, as do we, that the lighthearted, what-larks plot isn’t as lighthearted as it seems: it’s 1944, these three sailors are shipping out to war tomorrow morning, and there’s a very good chance some or all of them won’t be coming back. We know, too, about the horrors they’re about to face even if they do make it through the rest of the war (physically) uninjured; if you can get through the second act’s farewell song, “Some Other Time”, without a lump forming in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

Fortunately, McOnie gets it pretty much exactly right. His production never stops moving, the ballets are truly lovely – a reinterpretation of the Act One pas de deux to show a sailor’s brief, secretive dalliance with another man is particularly poignant – and he and his terrific cast find all the jokes without ever pushing the comedy too hard. Danny Mac makes a tremendous Gabey – great dancer, charm to spare, good timing, and just enough voice to land “Lonely Town”, the score’s most beautiful song. He, Jacob Maynard (Chip) and Samuel Edwards (Ozzie) form an appealing trio; they’re effortlessly funny, and in this material that’s not as easy as it seems  – witness the cast recording of the recent Broadway revival, on which every single member of the cast mugs to the point where you wonder if they’re all hooked up to a caffeine drip. As the maneating cab driver Hildy – yes, the role I saw Tyne Daly sing all those years ago- Lizzy Connolly offers a dazzling, showstopping, wonderfully dirty rendition of the innuendo-laden “I Can Cook Too”, a song which – spoiler alert – is not really about cooking. She even – unlike Alysha Umphress, the lady who assaults the role on that most recent recording – sings the song’s melody as written, without jazzing it up or inserting self-indulgent scatting that isn’t in the score (I’d love to know what Ms. Umphress believes qualifies her to rewrite Bernstein; her “improvements” really aren’t). Siena Kelly is a charming Miss Turnstiles (if you don’t know the plot, just go with it – it’s one of those comedies that only really makes sense if you see it), Maggie Steed offers a smashing turn as dipsomaniac music teacher Madam Dilly, who is the closest thing the show has to a villain, and Naoko Mori’s Lucy Schmeeler gets more laughs out of a sneeze than you’d ever think possible. Best of all, there’s Miriam-Teak Lee’s Claire de Loon, the anthropologist who gets “Carried Away” when she spots Chip in the Museum of Natural History. This, unbelievably, is her professional debut; she has a glorious soprano and sensational timing, and her work here is absolutely flawless. And she’s gorgeous too, which doesn’t hurt.

There’s a good-looking, less-simple-than-it-seems scaffolding set from Peter McKintosh – it can unfold to show apartments, nightclubs, a diner, and even a subway train, and it manages the difficult job of evoking 1940s Manhattan amid the trees of Regent’s Park. Economic realities dictate that there’s only a 15-piece band, and this music really needs more than that; we get (most of) the brass, but some strings would have been nice. The playing is impeccable, and finding space to pay for more players in a presumably (very) finite budget was probably not possible, but this music deserves better; it’s easy enough for producers looking to rein in finances to trim the orchestra, on the grounds that audiences can’t tell the difference, but some of us can. A clever orchestrator can make 15 musicians sound like more than 15 musicians, but you can’t pull an entire string section out of thin air when there isn’t the money to pay for one.

That’s a minor complaint, though – or rather, if not a minor complaint, inevitable these days, because seeing golden-age musicals with the original complement of musicians in the pit has become the (rare) exception, rather than the rule. In every other respect, this revival is just about ideal. I’ve been waiting, as I said, for decades to see a fully-staged production of this show; this one, for once, was well worth the wait.

 

 

Dreamgirls will never leave you…

DGP

First, a confession: I never liked Glee. I didn’t dislike Amber Riley in it (and I loathed a couple of her co-stars), but when she was announced to star in a (long-overdue) London production of Dreamgirls, I was far more interested in seeing the show than in seeing her in it. I’d have been perfectly happy to go on a Monday night, when Ms. Riley is not scheduled to perform. I wouldn’t have been at all bothered if one of the alternates had been on. Seeing the clip of her singing on the Olivier Awards did not change my mind, and neither did reviewing the production’s cast album. In both cases, I thought her singing was terrific, but there wasn’t anything that convinced me this was one of those drop-everything-and-book-a-ticket must-see performances.

As it turns out, though, I didn’t see the show on a Monday. Ms. Riley was on, and I was completely wrong about her. Two-thirds of the way through And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, I found myself doing something I don’t remember doing in a very long time: applauding a performance in the middle of a song. I knew she had a great voice, but the blazing intensity she brought to that moment is not something I expected from her – and she was even more remarkable in the second act. I found myself applauding in the middle of I Am Changing and Listen as well, and she deserved it. I’m sure her alternates are great, but Ms. Riley is delivering a genuine star performance, and I’m (to my surprise) very glad I got to see it.

I’m glad I finally got to see the show itself, too. Dreamgirls was a reasonably substantial hit on Broadway in 1981, but for some reason it’s taken 35 years for it to be produced in London. The composer’s hilariously awful Siamese twin musical Side Show, which has flopped on Broadway twice (I saw the first version) and which, in a song called I Will Never Leave You, contains possibly the stupidest lyrics ever performed on the musical stage, arrived in London (slightly) before Dreamgirls, albeit in a fringe production rather than in the West End. A London production of Dreamgirls has been an occasional feature of the theatrical rumour mill for as long as I’ve been paying attention, to the point where it’s actually slightly surprising to see that the show is up and running.

And not only is it up and running, it’s up and running in a very strong production indeed. Casey Nicholaw‘s direction and choreography pays careful homage to Michael Bennett‘s original Broadway staging  – no I didn’t see it, but there’s enough footage out there and enough has been written about it that we all know how it worked – without ever directly reproducing it. It’s slick, fast-paced, and (occasionally literally) dazzling; as in Bennett’s staging, the main element of the set consists of four sliding, revolving columns of spotlights, and the show’s action unfolds in constant, fluid motion. There are no blackouts between scenes, and relatively few pauses for applause (which is one reason we all found ourselves applauding Amber Riley two-thirds of the way through her first big number). A couple of big performance set-pieces aside, Tim Hatley’s set includes relatively little scenery – no walls, no rooms, just minimal furniture, with changes in location suggested by those constantly-moving light towers, Gregg Barnes’s spectacular costumes, Hugh Vanstone’s endlessly inventive lighting, and a lot of wigs. Dreamgirls evokes (and is set during) a period in which pop music aspired to glamour rather than grunge; there may be less to the physical production than meets the eye, in terms of the number of elements that make up the set, but the show looks gorgeous.

It sounds gorgeous too, but then it has to. Dreamgirls is the story of a black girl-group called the Dreamettes (later just the Dreams) from Chicago, their ascent to national fame, and the rift that opens up when the group’s original lead singer is fired just as they’re on the cusp of stardom. The parallels with The Supremes are obvious – Effie White, the lead singer who gets fired and has to learn to strike out on her own, is basically Florence Ballard, if Florence Ballard didn’t die halfway through the story’s second act. Deena Jones, the prettier, lighter-voiced, thinner backing singer who is promoted to lead in order to project a more glamorous image, is pretty much Diana Ross, right down to wanting (in the second act) to disband the group so that she can go and star in a film. So far, so obvious, but what makes the show so fascinating is the way Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen‘s brilliant score takes you on a guided tour of black American popular music of the 60s and 70s, along the way carefully showing how musical styles that were originally dismissed as “race music” had to be gradually adjusted/sanded-down/whitened in order to receive mainstream acceptance. On one level, this is simply another gotta-make-it-in-showbiz backstage musical, but there’s considerable subtext in the music, in terms of the way in which it shows how black performers (and by extension black people in general) had (and still have) to conform to the expectations of their white peers in order to “fit in”. It’s a very, very clever piece of writing, and the fact that Krieger and Eyen accomplish this via a parade of electrifying individual songs makes their achievement here all the more remarkable. There’s almost an embarrassment of riches here: Move (You’re Stepping On My Heart), Cadillac Car, Steppin’ to the Bad Side, Heavy, And I Am Telling You…, I Am Changing, Ain’t No Party, One Night Only, Listen, and the title song are all thrilling, distinguished, distinctive musical numbers of a kind that certain more recent “hit musicals” – including some that have played at the Savoy – would kill to match even once. This is one of the great Broadway scores of the late Twentieth century, and the band and cast here more than do it justice.

Amber Riley’s Effie White is, as I already said, a sensational star performance; she manages to nail every one of her bg moments without ever calling to mind Jennifers Holliday and Hudson, the originators of the role on (respectively) stage and film, and she’s more than worth whatever they’re paying her. Don’t dwell too much on the moment in the first act when Liisi LaFontaine’s just-about-perfect Deena Jones says she can’t sing like Effie – she certainly can, and when she and Ms. Riley finally face off in a belt-your-tonsils-out duet late in the second act – Listen, dragged in from the film with new lyrics by Willie Reale – they practically blow the roof off the theatre. As third member of the group Lorrell Robinson (the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, more or less) Asmeret Ghebremichael offers a blazing Ain’t No Party. These women all have incredible, powerhouse voices, but they blend beautifully when they sing as a group as well, and that’s not always as easy to achieve as you’d think. The men, perhaps, are less individually distinctive, but their performances are all impeccable, as is Nick Finlow’s musical direction. It’s hard to imagine a production of the show that sounds better than this one.

Criticisms… really, not many. I’d held off booking a ticket because prices in the West End seem to be on a sharply upward trajectory, to the point where the seat that cost me £49 for Gypsy in the same theatre two years ago is on sale at £72.50 for this, which (to put it nicely) is not a price rise that can be attributed to inflation – but actually, as it turns out, there are some bargains elsewhere in the theatre if you do a bit of research and know where to look, and they aren’t all in the upper circle. The programme is another matter: yes, it’s glossy, contains some nice production photos and three pages of costume sketches, and the articles in it, for once, are not written by a moron, but it costs £8.00, and that’s a blatant cash-grab. Now, granted, I fell for it – I bought one, and I don’t particularly regret it – but £8.00 is just too much money. And while this production is glorious, the cast recording is disappointing for reasons that have nothing to do with the material or the performers. The poster art is a little bit naff, but that’s par for the course in the West End these days.

The show itself, though, really is as good as its reputation, and this production does it proud. From the insistent cowbell at the top of the show to the final note of the reprise of the title song at the very end, this Dreamgirls grabs your attention and never lets go. It’s a real theatrical thrill-ride – and the thrills, for once, come via voices rather than hydraulics. It’s brash and loud, sure, but it’s packed with sensational songs and wonderful performances, and – don’t faint – the show’s book and lyrics never once insult your intelligence, which unfortunately is becoming an increasingly unusual quality in big commercial musicals. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to; this is just about as good as the West End gets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun and games

pvwp

It’s every bit as good as you thought it would be. Go and see it now… oh, wait, you can’t, it closed yesterday. Keep an eye out of the NT Live encore screening, because if you admire the play at all this is something you need to see.

Beyond that, actually, I don’t have a huge amount to say about it. I’ve said before that this is a play I admire rather than love, and that’s true this time as well, but this revival – directed beautifully by James Macdonald – is a bit more of a roller-coaster ride than the last one I saw. Usually, productions of this play are a bit like ordering off a set menu where you can have one item from each column – so you can have the laughs and the viciousness, or the deep hurt and the vulnerability, or the rage and the regret, but you can’t have them all together. Not this time. This time, thanks to a stunning quartet of actors, you get the lot. Imelda Staunton, as you’d expect, is a perfect Martha, and she does a staggering job of capturing all of the character’s oppositions (fierce/pathetic, funny/vicious, loving/hateful, wounded/wounding and all the rest), but in this production it’s really George’s play, which is by no means always the case. Conleth Hill is extraordinary – very, very funny, he somehow manages the odd trick of dominating while (or possibly by) being downtrodden, and he’s exceptionally moving when he allows George’s sardonic mask to slip.

As the younger couple, Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots are also spectacularly good. Treadaway’s Nick is slick, ambitious, and somewhat lacking a moral compass – he can barely be bothered to disguise how much he dislikes his wife, and he doesn’t appear to have any qualms at all about making out with Martha while George is in the room. And Imogen Poots’s Honey is a riot until she sobers up and starts to dimly grasp the truth about her own marriage; this is Poots’s professional stage debut, and it’s a very fine performance indeed.

There’s fine, unobtrusive direction from James Macdonald and a handsome/worn-around-the-edges Craftsman living-room set from Tom Pye, but you don’t go to this play for the set design or for directorial tricks. You go to hear four great actors dish out Albee’s spectacularly brittle dialogue, and this production delivers all the fireworks you could want. There’s music in this play’s dialogue, and these actors find all of it.

Do I have any complaints? Only one: it’s great that this was filmed for NT Live, but I wish that, like Staunton’s Gypsy, it had been taped for television.