Blow Us All Away

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Yes, it really is THAT good. Yes, the tidal-wave of hype is absolutely justified. Yes, this very American story plays perfectly well to a British audience. And yes, it seems like nearly every single review of the London production of Hamilton has begun by saying exactly the same thing, but the last musical to arrive here from Broadway trailing this level of advance expectation was probably The Lion King, 19 years ago.

As just about everybody knows by now, Hamilton – book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – tells the story of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, one of the US’s founding fathers and the man whose face appears on the $10 bill. Miranda’s twist is to tell the story of America’s very, very white founding fathers using a cast and a musical palette that reflects America today: a diverse, multicultural tossed salad of ethnicities and influences in which everybody who isn’t wholly descended from Indigenous Americans can trace their ancestry back to somewhere outside the country, and where the white hegemony in popular culture has long since dissolved into a smorgasbord of genres and influences whose roots stretch far beyond the US’s borders. The show has a notably diverse cast – white performers are a distinct minority – and Manuel’s score travels all over the musical map from rap to hip-hop to contemporary musical theatre, somehow managing to blend influences and musical/lyrical allusions that range from Eminem, Beyoncé and Tupac Shakur to the Beatles to Gilbert and Sullivan and Sondheim into a coherent, compelling, thoroughly theatrical whole. It’s a dense, dazzling, genuinely exciting piece of writing, and it appears to have captured the public’s imagination in a way very few new musicals have managed in recent years; the Broadway production was nominated for 16 Tony awards and won 11, along with the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the (flawlessly-produced) cast recording made it to Number One in the Billboard 200, has gone triple platinum in the US, topped the soundtracks (I know, I know) chart in the UK six months before the London production even began taking bookings, and won a Grammy. Tickets went on sale for the London production about eleven months before previews were scheduled to begin, and sold very quickly; bar a few returns, the initial booking period is sold out. This is, in short, an event. It’s become far more than just a musical that opened at New York’s Public Theater and did well enough there to warrant a transfer: it’s become a cultural touchstone, an instantly-recognisable entertainment product whose title seems to inspire an almost ludicrous degree of reverence. Michelle Obama – Michelle! Obama! – is said to have proclaimed it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”

I wouldn’t quite go that far, and I’m not sure that kind of hyperbolically extravagant praise is helpful: it creates the kind of expectations that are almost impossible for mere mortals to live up to. Hamilton is very, very good indeed. It’s a thrilling, original, daring piece of writing, it tells a complex story admirably clearly, and it is brilliantly staged and performed. It is not perfect, and it’s far too soon to tell whether it’s going to prove to be the game-changer some have labelled it. That said, Miranda succeeds remarkably well in delivering a potentially rather dry slab of history in a way that is consistently engaging and entertaining; his music is terrific, but the meat of this score is in the lyrics, which are clever, dense, sometimes tongue-twisting, and so packed with allusions that you’ll never get everything on first listen. And you will have to listen – in sharp contrast to the vapid green oz-fest playing across the street, you’ll have to pay close attention to these lyrics. To his very great credit, Miranda’s lyrics are a world away from the blandly generic greetings-card sentiments that characterise so much contemporary writing for musical theatre; the flow of information is almost dizzying, and you have to work to keep up.

That’s the piece’s biggest strength, but also its biggest failing: you could strip away Thomas Kail’s kinetic staging, Andy Blankenbuehler’s restlessly energetic choreography, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and everything else, and present the score with the band onstage and the actors behind mike stands, and the plot would still come across loudly and clearly, because Miranda’s score tells the story of Alexander Hamilton rather than dramatising it. What Miranda has written, essentially, is a dazzling contemporary oratorio; the piece was first conceived as a concept album, and it shows. The performance unfolds as a series of tableaux in which much of the plot is announced, which probably goes with the territory when rap is a primary storytelling tool. This should be a serious flaw, and in just about any other kind of musical it would be, but Miranda gets away with it because his text is so rich and so fast-paced that you never get the sense, the way you do in something like Miss Saigon, that the plot is being delivered via flashcards.

And certainly, when he slows down to allow the show to take an emotional beat, the show is far more moving than you’d expect from the premise. Burn, Eliza Hamilton’s condemnation of her husband following the public revelation of his affair with Maria Reynolds, isn’t a generically tear-stained you-broke-my-heart Big Ballad, and it’s all the better for it (Burn is as good a traditional theatre song as anybody has written in the past twenty years). Instead, Miranda shows Eliza methodically burning her husband’s letters to her; she knows she is part of a significant moment in history, and Miranda shows her protecting her dignity and privacy by burning the letters so that historians will have no insight into her reaction to such public humiliation.

The finale, too, is surprising, more powerful than you’d expect, and conceived very cleverly: in a show in which there are relatively few big moments for the women in the cast (somewhat – although only somewhat – inevitable given the subject-matter), Miranda gives the last word to Eliza, in a song about her efforts to secure her husband’s legacy after his death. Almost the last thing we learn in the show is that Eliza founded an orphanage in New York City, and that she sees her husband’s face in the faces of the children she sees growing up there. It’s as close as Miranda comes to an explicit statement about the motivation for the production’s carefully colour-conscious (emphatically not “colour-blind”) casting: it’s something that should go without saying, but given the ugly history of race relations in the USA over the past 200 years, and the demonstrable fact that fifty years after the Voting Rights Act the USA is still a society in which your rights are defined by your skin tone, putting those lines in the mouth of an actress who is not white, who is playing a historical figure who was (more or less) white, surrounded by a (fabulous) multicultural cast of performers who are (also) almost all playing white historical figures makes a very definite statement. So, come to that, does the curtain call: company bows only, and no exit music. Again, although the show doesn’t quite say it explicitly, the message we’re clearly meant to take away is that Hamilton-the-show is not just the story of Alexander Hamilton. The title of that finale – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story – drops a big hint: the show is nothing less than a breathtakingly audacious attempt to (re)define the USA’s origin myth in a way that (correctly) encompasses all of the people who came together to build America, and the brilliance of Miranda’s writing – and, to be fair, of Thomas Kail’s production – is that while it’s certainly a very wordy show, it succeeds in making the point crystal clear without delivering a lecture. In lesser hands – actually, in almost any other hands – delivering that lesson would probably have turned the finale into a thuddingly didactic company anthem full of the kind of shut-up-and-eat-your-broccoli sloganeering that makes the audience squirm in their seats. Miranda and Kail manage to deliver the lesson without delivering the lesson, and it’s an interesting paradox that in a show where, much of the time, the biggest fault in the writing is that too much is told instead of shown, the biggest lesson of all is delivered via the cast, or rather via the casting.

And for London, it has to be said, they’ve assembled a hell of a cast, and they’ve done it – are you listening, Book of Mormon? – by casting out of the local talent pool instead of parachuting a set of leads in from New York. Jamael Westman, in the title role, lists only two professional credits in his bio; he graduated from RADA about ten minutes ago, and you’d never guess he was just out of drama school. He’s absolutely at home with Miranda’s tongue-twisting way with language, and his Hamilton carefully grows from diffident student to intellectual heavyweight, somehow – and this is a very difficult trick indeed – gaining both stature and star power along the way. As Aaron Burr (Sir), Hamilton’s nemesis, Giles Terera offers more grit than we got from Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Teflon-smooth performance on the Broadway cast recording, and that’s no bad thing. Terera grabs hold of The Room Where It Happens, the score’s showiest showstopper, and slams it across the footlights to a wall of applause. Jason Pennycooke’s George Washington is located somewhere between Little Richard and Purple Rain-era Prince, and yet he manages to offer something far more complex and interesting than the one-joke punchline that description suggests. As Eliza’s sister Angelica, Rachel John makes the breathless, breathtaking Satisfied – Angelica’s lifelong battle between intellect and unrequited love, condensed into five minutes – into the show’s musical highlight. Rachelle Ann Go, who is quite dreadful in a relatively small role (Gigi) on the DVD of the recent revival of Miss Saigon, is guilty of a few LuPone-esque modified vowel sounds here (and she is the only member of this cast to suffer from that particular disease); I was all ready to dislike her, but her big moments – Burn and the finale – are both beautifully understated and very moving indeed. And Michael Jibson, luxury-cast in the three-verses-and-off comic-relief role as the British King George, rescues his one song from the clutches of Jonathan Groff’s excruciatingly unfunny performance on the original Broadway cast recording, finds every scrap of humour in lyrics which reimagine the Declaration of Independence as a bitter break-up between two very mismatched lovers, and somehow manages to bring the house down just by slightly raising one eyebrow. The ensemble performances are flawless, and – unusually – while I’m sure each performance is as carefully, mechanically timed and tracked as any other major musical production, there’s a much greater sense than you usually get at a big musical of the ensemble as a collection of distinct personalities rather than as a single mass. The dehumanising effect described in the finale of A Chorus Line – which, like Hamilton, began at the Public – is missing here, and I don’t remember the last time I saw a big musical whose production offered such a strong sense of each individual contributing something unique to the whole. The singing throughout is superb (granted, Westman isn’t really a singer, but Miranda wrote the title role for himself, and neither is he); I’m sure a London cast recording is unlikely, but these performances certainly deserve to be preserved.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the London production maintains the kind of impossible-ticket momentum the show has in the USA, and the fact that ticket prices moved sharply upwards for the just-opened second booking period (August to December this year) may slow sales down a little. My £57.50 seat – dress circle, way off to the side – would now cost £100, and it simply is not worth the same price as a seat further towards the centre of the house; worse, a fair number of seats that were £89.50 in the first booking period have been reclassified as “premium” seats, and now go for £250 each. Whether these prices are healthy for theatre as an art-form is a whole other discussion (spoiler: they are not); presumably the production was going to be profitable at the original prices, so the price hikes look unpleasantly like gouging. There are ways to see the show more affordably, and it is certainly worth the effort, but there’s also a distinctly nasty-tasting contrast between the studied all-in-this-together egalitarianism of Miranda’s writing and Kail’s staging and price hikes that make two seats in the centre stalls as expensive as a weekend in Italy. If you’re going to blow a wad of cash on a single theatrical event, this is certainly the one to pick – particularly since Network is only around until the end of March – but relegating the plebs, by which I mean those of us who can’t cough up £100 and up for a ticket, to the upper circle smacks of the worst kind of 1%-ism. Yes, it’s live theatre, and live theatre costs money – but it doesn’t cost that much money.

The show itself, though – as I said at the beginning – really is THAT good, and it lives up to the hype. The most remarkable thing about it, actually, was possibly the audience at the performance I attended. I wanted to come to the material relatively fresh when I saw it; of course I’d bought the cast album and a copy of the great big hardcover book containing the script and the story of the show’s genesis, but when I booked the ticket(s) a year ago (I’m seeing it again in June; I assumed they’d bump the priced up after the first booking period, and I wasn’t about to throw away my shot at a second visit) I stopped listening to the album and put the book back on the shelf. Apparently that puts me in a very small minority; it was clear from the way they responded to the show that a good chunk of the 1600 or so other people in the Victoria Palace knew the material word for word. More than that, they knew it off by heart and they were listening (I’ve been a front-of-house manager; believe me, you can tell when the audience aren’t listening). At a big musical these days that’s a less common experience than you’d think; there wasn’t, for example, any particularly egregious bad behaviour on display the night I saw 42nd Street back in October, but this audience engaged with the show in a way that that one just didn’t (granted, the current revival of 42nd Street is the musical theatre equivalent of a steamroller; you don’t have to concentrate on it because it more or less beats you into submission). That, again, is an achievement worth noting. As I’ve already said, it’s at least a decade and a half too soon to tell whether Hamilton turns out to be the kind of game-changer too many tedious articles smugly tell us it is, but for it to inspire that response in London, where the history it depicts is mostly not familiar and mostly not ours, is very impressive indeed. This is a brilliantly-conceived, thrillingly-executed piece of entertainment… so now that the prices have gone up, assuming you’d like to see it from a seat where you can see the actors without binoculars, you’d better start saving. It may take a while, but it’s worth it.

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Je suis émotif

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I’d tell you to rush to book a ticket, but the run ended two days after I saw it, and that was two weeks ago. Oops. Romantics Anonymous is a tiny, perfect little gem of a musical. It has magic chocolate (no, really), a glorious score by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, a witty, moving book and fabulously clever staging by Emma Rice, gorgeous performances, Lauren Samuels as a self-help tape with major attitude, and a radio-controlled model 2CV. It’s wonderful, flawless, utterly charming, and the perfect antidote to a crappy grey British January.

And it closed. Never mind. What did you miss? A lovely, tentative love story between a chocolatier who is so painfully shy that she faints when people look at her, and a chocolate factory owner so repressed that he spends half his life sitting on the floor of his office listening to self-help tapes with the blinds closed. It’s based on (and much better than) a French film called Les Emotifs Anonymes; the title comes from Angélique-the-chocolatier’s therapy group. It’s a romantic comedy, so of course on one level it’s absolutely predictable: you know just from looking at the poster that Angélique-the-chocolatier and Jean-René-the-factory-owner are going to end up together, and that whatever impediments to true happiness block their path along the way will be magically resolved by the finale. The journey, though, is so thoroughly delightful that it doesn’t matter if you can see each plot twist a mile away.

Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh are sweet but never too sweet as Angélique and Jean-René; the show tells us more than once that the magical element in chocolate is the note of bitterness behind the sugar, and in both performances there’s a hint of deep unhappiness just beneath the surface that prevents the material’s inherent sweetness from ever becoming cloying. They both sing beautifully, too. Around them, the hardworking ensemble – they all play at least three roles – never put a foot wrong, with standout turns from Joanna Riding as a factory book-keeper, Angélique’s flinty, oversexed mother, and a therapist, and from Gareth Snook as the riotously funny just-escaped-from-an-Italian-opera confiseur Mme. Marini. The production, overall, gives you the full Emma Rice experience – there’s airborne acrobatics, neon, too many witty visual gracenotes to count, tremendous warmth, generous humour, and even a square of “magic chocolate” so that we can miraculously hear French characters as if they were speaking English. It could all so easily have been painfully twee – except, again, there’s always that note of bitterness, of real unhappiness, underneath. Kooman and Dimond’s score – unfortunately no list of musical numbers in the programme – is sublime; as an extra treat, if you’re in the lobby during the intermission you’ll hear Philip Cox as Jean-René’s overprotective father singing a very funny song about all the horrible things that could happen to you before you go back to your seat (don’t go into the courtyard, you might get struck by lightning). The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse imposes a certain aesthetic on the production, but Lez Brotherston’s gorgeous neon-and-venetian-blind set bridges the gap between the replica-Jacobean woodwork and the show’s contemporary setting with considerable flair. Romantics Anonymous is lovely to watch, to see, to listen to; as Angélique and Jean-René fall in love with each other, you can feel the audience falling in love with the show.

Which – on a final, rather bitter note to (again) undercut the sweetness – makes the machinations that brought about the rather public ending of the artistic relationship between Emma Rice and the Globe all the more baffling. Rice, by now, is an established director, not some obscure fringe figure. She’s developed her own aesthetic, her work with Kneehigh attracted a great deal of positive attention, and the Globe’s board presumably knew who she was and what she does when they hired her. To recruit an artistic director with a very individual, idiosyncratic theatrical aesthetic and then balk when she brings that aesthetic into her productions in your venue is beyond perverse, and sets an uncomfortable precedent for Michelle Terry, Rice’s successor. In terms of this particular production, too, it seems particularly strange: a new musical with a contemporary setting may not be precisely the kind of show the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was built to house (the bum-breaking, backless seats suggest it wasn’t built for anything longer than about forty minutes, but that’s another gripe for another time), but at the performance I saw there was a more or less full house, and people left the theatre, to quote the finale, ‘dancing on air’. This show makes people happy; it also, I imagine, brought quite a few new patrons into the venue for the first time, which of course should make it easier to bring them back to see other productions in future. I don’t see any downside – but presumably this kind of work wasn’t what the Globe’s board wanted. As I said, baffling.

As for the show itself – can somebody please make a cast recording? Pretty please?

 

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Dazzling jewels by the score

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Yes, I went back.

It’s still breathtaking, I still have some reservations about some specific choices, and some elements made a little more sense the second time around. So… random thoughts, because it’s been a long week and I’ve written about this production already.

  • Follies is an incredibly complex piece, and there is never going to be an absolutely perfect production of it. On second (live) viewing (I saw the NT Live screening too), this comes as close as anyone is likely to manage these days – provided you’re willing to go with Dominic Cooke’s choices.
  • The single greatest achievement of Cooke’s staging is that he appears to understand the rhythm of the piece, and therefore stages the show as a constant tapestry of action taking place all over the derelict Weismann Theatre rather than as a succession of scenes taking place on the Weismann Theatre’s stage.
  • The character work, right across the cast, is enormously detailed, even though the script basically gives us a parade of archetypes. That was true at the last-but-one preview, and the performances have only got stronger since then. Every single detail, even those that go against the way this material has been played in earlier productions, can be justified by the text, and every single actor is listening. That doesn’t happen as often as it should when everybody’s a few months into a run.
  • Imelda Staunton’s Sally is possibly (even) more startling now than it was the first time. Her Sally is no simpering, deluded romantic. She’s full of resentment, she drinks, and she’s fuelled by her barely-suppressed rage – but based on information we’re given in (this version of) the book, it’s a plausible interpretation. This Sally could very believably get on a plane and fly a few hundred miles to pick a fight with her children.
  • I’m still not won over by this production’s staging of Losing My Mind, but I was somehow far more moved by the moment this time than I was back in September. That might be because this time I was sitting close enough to see the whites of Ms. Staunton’s eyes, rather than halfway back in the circle, or it might just be because I wasn’t seeing it for the first time. I still think the song (and the character) really demands a lusher singing voice, and that the moment works better when the song is performed rather than acted, but when you cast a Sally whose singing voice isn’t up to doing the heavy lifting in this number there are inevitably going to be compromises.
  • Sally’s dress in the book scenes is blue. It looked blue from the circle, it looked blue from the front stalls… but somehow it looked a bit more teal-ish in the NT Live screening.
  • Philip Quast’s breakdown at the end of his big Loveland number is better now – much better – than it was in September. Other people have made larger acting choices in that moment, but Quast’s Ben appears to deflate before your eyes.
  • At some point before the NT Live screening last month, the two men playing “Margie” and “Sally” in Buddy’s Blues were replaced by women. It makes all the difference, the song now plays like gangbusters, and Peter Forbes is giving a very, very fine performance which has been somewhat overlooked by some critics in their rush to praise everyone else.
  • Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here is now simultaneously darker and more celebratory than it was the first time around, and it’s still an extraordinary performance. The prominent positioning of Young Carlotta watching the song from the side of the stage isn’t in the stage directions, but (still) works beautifully; this Carlotta appears to fling the final verse of the song at her ghost, and Young Carlotta stands, I think in admiration, during that final verse. Carlotta is the show’s survivor – the character who has somehow managed to break free of her past. I’ve never seen that come across more strongly than it does in this production.
  • The dialogue exchanges between Janie Dee’s Phyllis and Quast’s Ben are even more electrifying now than they were in September. This time, I was sitting in the front row; my phone was in my pocket, and I swear they recharged it.
  • Zizi Strallen and Alex Young (respectively Young Phyllis and Young Sally) are both superb. The actors in these roles are often overlooked, and they shouldn’t be.
  • Somewhere on Youtube, there’s a clip of Blythe Danner doing The Story of Lucy and Jessie in the 2001 Broadway revival. It will give you new appreciation for Janie Dee.
  • And speaking of Janie Dee and Lucy and Jessie, this time I really liked the inclusion of Zizi Strallen’s Young Phyllis in the number. Phyllis’s folly – her big problem – is the great big yawning chasm between who she was when she was in the Follies and the brittle sophisticate she’s moulded herself into. Of course it makes sense to put her younger self alongside her in her Follies number – and Dee and Strallen are sensational.
  • The Loveland drops don’t look as flimsy from the front stalls as they did from the circle.
  • Sitting a few feet from Josephine Barstow as she sang One More Kiss seemingly right at me was as transfixing an experience as I’ve ever had in a theatre. I saw the show on Wednesday afternoon and it’s now Saturday night, and I still have goosebumps.
  • I still don’t love Bill Deamer’s choreography for Who’s That Woman, and I particularly don’t love the part where the older women leave the stage and are ‘replaced’ by their ghosts – even though it makes sense in terms of the way this production uses the ghosts. There’s no faulting Dawn Hope’s performance, and the number still stops the show, but we’ve all seen Michael Bennett’s original choreography (other productions have used it and there’s footage on Youtube), and this just isn’t as effective.
  • The final scene is heartbreaking – not cheap, manipulative, let-us-all-now-shed-a-tear-for-these-people heartbreaking, but quite deeply moving, again in a way that it wasn’t in September (I mean, I found it moving the first time, but not that moving).

I thought the first time I saw it that this production would make fans of the show argue – and it has, and there are people who have loathed it. I think that possibly says something about the material: this show says something quite unpalatable about age and regret, and there are a lot of things in it that can justifiably be given more than one interpretation. Dominic Cooke makes a succession of very definite choices, and has his actors commit fully to the heightened, far-from-naturalistic tone of James Goldman’s dialogue. I found that choice enormously effective, but it’s a choice you’ll either buy or you won’t. For me, while I (still) don’t think everything about this production is perfect, I suspect it’ll be a very long time, if ever, before I see another Follies that’s as in tune with my personal reading of the text as this one is… so it’s a good thing I’m going back a third time before it closes.

Runyonland, uptown

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I have a (very) short list of musicals I think, as writing, are just about perfect, and Guys and Dolls is very close to the top of that list. It’s a glorious American classic, one of the shining jewels of Broadway’s golden age, and it works beautifully. It doesn’t need anybody messing with it.

This production – a co-production between Manchester’s Royal Exchange and the Talawa Theatre Company – messes with it. The setting is booted 90-odd blocks uptown from Times Square to Harlem, the score gets a swinging Harlem Renaissance makeover from (re)orchestrator Simon Hale, and A Bushel and a Peck – one of the show’s most famous numbers – is dropped and replaced (as it was in the film) with a lesser (Loesser?)-known song called Pet Me, Poppa. This is the point where the purists start swooning onto their fainting-couches; swoon if you like, but while I wouldn’t want to see most (or really, any) of these changes in a more traditional revival, the result is more or less a complete triumph.

Because of Talawa’s involvement, some kind of reexamination of the piece was inevitable. This isn’t the first production of Guys and Dolls with an all-black cast, but it’s the first in the UK. The (relatively slight) shift in setting (and, let’s be fair, the nine-piece band imposed by a relatively small budget) mean it makes sense to arrange the score for a jazz band, so bye-bye strings. In a nightclub in Harlem, Pet Me, Poppa perhaps makes a little more sense than a quasi-striptease performed by a gaggle of “farmgirls”. And the venue itself imposes a certain performance style; the Royal Exchange is completely in the round, with the audience placed very close to the actors, so the frenzied, (much) larger-than-life comic tone adopted by (to give an example I actually saw) Jerry Zaks’s 1992 Broadway revival isn’t going to do the material any favours here.

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That’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned: this is a show that works best when it’s about people rather than schtick. Under Michael Buffong’s tremendously subtle direction (‘tremendously subtle’ is not a description you always get to apply to revivals of this particular show), we’re allowed to see more than just a parade of archetypes – and yes, I know there’s more than just a parade of archetypes on the page, but depending on a director’s choices that’s sometimes all you get in the theatre. Here, the romance between Ashley Zhangazha’s Sky Masterson and Abiona Omuna’s Sarah Brown is as lovely as it’s ever been – he’s genuinely surprised by how hard he falls for her, she’s whip-smart and absolutely sure of herself, and the moment they first melt – in a gently swinging I’ve Never Been In Love Before at the climax of the first act – is very touching indeed. Ray Fearon’s Nathan Detroit is a heavy with a heart of gold, and there’s a wonderful warmth between him and Lucy Vandi’s sweetly rueful Adelaide. Of all the principals, Vandi probably strays furthest from the mould in which her role is usually cast; her Adelaide’s Lament is a bittersweet, humorously reflective character solo rather than a comedic tour-de-force, and it’s an interpretation that you’d think really shouldn’t work – but it does, and she’s wonderful, and her fabulous rendition of Pet Me, Poppa just about blows the roof off the joint.

There are gains and losses, of course – the laughs (and this applies right across the cast) are all there, but they’re maybe not as big as they have been in other revivals of the show – but Buffong and his cast offer a startlingly fresh look at very familiar material; if you’re willing to submit to a reading of the show that isn’t what you’ll have been expecting, there’s a great deal to enjoy here. There’s muscular choreography from Kenrick Sandy (Luck Be a Lady is as big a showstopper here as it’s ever been), riotously colourful costumes from designer Soutra Gilmour, evocative lighting from Johanna Town. The singing is splendid right across the board, the supporting performances are flawless, Ako Mitchell sings the hell out of Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat, and Buffong – thank God – lets the song stop the show, but then doesn’t milk it by subjecting the audience to 37,000 encores of the last 16 bars (yes, I still bear the residual scars from the National Theatre revival, in which Clive Rowe flogged the dead horse to a degree that makes the Brexit negotiation process look imprudently brief). This is as good a Christmas show as you’ll see this year, and probably as good a revival of Guys and Dolls as you’ll see anywhere; it’s different, yes, but for this production Buffong’s approach pays dividends. These are clichés, but they’re all true: it’s a joy from beginning to end, it will sweep you away, and you’ll leave the theatre walking on air.

And it’s a crying shame productions from the Royal Exchange don’t generally get cast recordings, because have I mentioned already that Lucy Vandi is fabulous?

 

 

Poisson Strange

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Or, a tale of the good, the bad, and the unmemorable.

Big Fish, based on a 2003 movie I haven’t seen, really wants to be an enchanting, heartwarming family musical about what fathers pass on to their sons. It also wants to be a celebration of fantastical storytelling, and sometimes the stage equivalent of a Lifetime hospital drama. Will Bloom (Matthew Seadon-Young) has grown up listening to his father Edward (Kelsey Grammer) tell impossibly tall tales about his past. When Edward becomes seriously ill, Will goes back through the stories to try to separate fact from fiction, and uncovers a huge secret. There’s a deathbed scene, the opportunity for a good cry in the second half of the second act, and the potential for a series of great big production numbers in the fantasy sequences. You can see why the show’s creators were drawn to adapting it as a musical – but while there’s possibly a wonderful musical buried somewhere in this source material, this really isn’t it. In terms of the material, what you’re getting here is basically the equivalent of a tuna sandwich from a hospital cafeteria: it’ll keep you going, it tastes OK, and you’ll remember very little about it afterwards.

What you will remember – and he’s probably the reason you bought a ticket – is this production’s above-the-title star. As the storytelling Edward, Kelsey Grammer is the real deal. He’s charming, very funny, and has effortless stage presence and a better singing voice than you might expect. This is a proper old-fashioned star turn, and he’s more than worth your time and money. The trouble is, he’s far more interesting than the show itself. John August’s book, even in the fantasy sequences, is predictable – bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the film, it was a quarter of the way into Act Two before I wasn’t two steps ahead of the plot. That might not be a problem if Andrew Lippa’s score was at all memorable, but it isn’t. It’s always pleasant, but it’s always bland; outside of a couple of  Andrews Sisters-type pastiche numbers (one in each act), there’s very little you’ll remember afterwards. The lyrics are technically proficient, although they tend to announce emotions as if they were headlines, and the music is always superficially attractive, but if you try to dig into the heart of the score – with the exception of one song sung by Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife – there is no there there.

And that might not be a problem if there was anything inspired about Nigel Harman’s direction, but there isn’t. The Broadway production (which flopped) was apparently too overblown, so this, in response, is the cut-down chamber version; it isn’t a bad idea to set nearly the entire show in Edward’s hospital room, but once you’ve taken the decision to do this show small, the fantasy sequences need an injection of theatrical magic. Not necessarily a big budget or huge set-changes – just imagination and a sure sense of fun. Here, both are notably lacking, despite the herculean efforts of Forbes Masson as a circus ringmaster and Dean Nolan as a misunderstood giant. They’re both terrific, but the songs they’re given aren’t; Harman’s direction and Liam Steele’s choreography don’t hit any clunkers, but they also don’t have the kind of flair that can sometimes elevate tepid material.

It doesn’t help, either, that Jamie Muscato’s Story Edward – the version of Edward Bloom who appears in the older Edward’s fantastic tales – is so singularly charmless. Muscato is a very, very talented performer. He’s a good actor, he can move, he has a wonderful singing voice – and he is absolutely miscast here, to the point where his character and Grammer’s barely seem related to each other. Muscato doesn’t have Grammer’s effortless presence and charm – at all – and without them Story Edward comes across as an egotistical con-man. Muscato works very hard indeed, and it isn’t his fault, but unfortunately it’s this performance that holes the show below the waterline.

Matthew Seadon-Young, though, is a genuinely moving Will Bloom, and Clare Burt is even better as his mother. Her one solo number, ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, is by far the best thing in the score (and just about the only song in which the emotional subtext isn’t announced at the top of each verse), and she sings it with devastating restraint. It’s a lovely, truthful, absolutely heartbreaking performance; she, like Grammer, is worth the cost of the ticket.

And having said all this, it’s fair to say that a lot of the (more or less capacity) audience seemed to like the show a lot more than I did. There’s a fine set of supporting performances,  decent production values (set and costumes by Tom Rogers, lighting by Bruno Poet), and for all that the material is bland, it is also moving, at least in the second act – though it’s also rather manipulative, and if you’ve experienced losing a parent the final scenes push buttons that are more or less guaranteed to provoke a response. As I said, though, there’s a memorable musical located somewhere in this source material, and this is not it. You’ll leave the theatre remembering Clare Burt’s face when she sings ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’, Matthew Seadon-Young’s final scenes, and (especially) Kelsey Grammer, but the score will have evaporated by the time you get to the tube, and Harmon’s direction might have evaporated before you’ve finished watching it. Go for the cast – they’re worth it – but go with low expectations. And if you want a really memorable fish, try the aquarium.

 

 

 

Ready for her close-up

sb ria jones

She’s ba-ack!

From Glenn Close’s understudy to headline attraction in her own right, Ria Jones‘s (very belated) big break is an irresistible showbiz-dream-come-true story. She’s always been wonderful – twenty-five years ago, she was a thrillingly-sung Fantine in the first Manchester run of Les Misérables, twenty-one years ago she was flawless in the two leading roles in the chamber musical Romance/Romance at the Bridewell, and she’s toured all over the place and done concerts with just about everyone – but she’s always been one of those people who should be a Great Big Star, and somehow isn’t.

Until now. This time, thanks to the spectacular word-of-mouth that followed the four performances last year when she stood in for an indisposed Glenn Close in a revival of Sunset Boulevard that had basically been packaged and marketed as The Glenn Close Show, it’s Jones’s name above the title on the posters. This production, too, is being sold around the star – and this year’s star is last year’s understudy (which must feel especially sweet given that Jones, in fact, was the first person ever to sing the role of Norma Desmond in a workshop a few years before the original London production). The show itself is what it always was – some good stuff, a lot of musical wallpaper, some real clunkers among the lyrics, and overall a very imperfect adaptation of a more-or-less-perfect film. While the writing isn’t unimpeachable, though, it’s undeniably a great star vehicle. Jones, STARRING as opposed to playing the lead, is superb as Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent movie star whose entanglement with a young writer ends very, very messily indeed; these cut-price touring productions are often faintly dismal affairs, but the production director Nikolai Foster has built around his star is far better than anyone had any right to expect, and in several respects it’s streets ahead of both Lonny Price‘s concert(ish) staging last year and Trevor Nunn‘s overblown original at the Adelphi.

In terms of her strengths in the role, Jones is just about the polar opposite of Glenn Close, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Close’s power in the role came from her immense charisma: she’s a very good actress, but she’s also the kind of Great Big Movie Star whose effortless presence commands an audience’s attention. Her singing, on the other hand, is not her strongest suit – she got away with it, but that’s just about the best you can give her. Jones, on the other hand, is a good actress and a magnificent singer, but she doesn’t bring that kind of movie-star magnetism to the table. Strangely, that’s a combination that turns out to work very well for this role: some of Jones’s predecessors, including Close, were so loudly FABULOUS! that it was difficult to see why Norma Desmond had been forgotten by the public (it’s not as if the transition from silent to talkies was impossible to negotiate: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard all managed it). Jones avoids the trap (hi, Betty Buckley!) of getting too crazy too quickly, giving us a carefully-mapped descent into madness. She’s absolutely believable as a lonely, lovelorn woman, she sings the living hell out of Norma’s big numbers, and she manages to put her own spin on that monologue in the final scene (and a very smart spin it is too – when her Norma announces that she can’t go on with the scene because she’s too happy, Jones’s Norma genuinely is. She’s completely out to lunch, of course, but she’s happy, not suicidal, because her grip on reality has finally completely snapped). It’s not necessarily the most subtle account of the role you’ll ever see (and I suppose I might mention here that my favourite Norma, as much as I loved Close last year, Jones in this, and Elaine Paige in the original production, is probably Rita Moreno, who delivered an astonishing acting performance and, like Close, just about got away with the demands of the score), but that final scene still raises goosebumps, and I doubt anybody has sung As If We Never Said Goodbye better than Jones sings it in this production.

Opposite her, Danny Mac is a strong Joe Gillis – and for once, in this production, it’s clear that Norma is a character in Joe’s story, rather than the other way around. He sings well, and captures the character’s corrosive self-loathing better than anyone I’ve seen since Kevin Anderson in the original London cast. Molly Lynch is a sweetly girlish Betty Schaefer, Adam Pearce is a just-creepy-enough Max, and there’s nothing to criticise in any of the ensemble performances (some of the casting is a little young, though: whoever plays Hog-Eye, the spotlight operator, needs to look as if he’s been in showbiz for a hell of a lot longer than three decades. Two-and-a-half decades ago, the actor playing the role in this production was a zygote). There’s a superbly evocative Hollywood soundstage set by Colin Richmond (who also supplies the perfectly-apt costumes), enhanced by Douglas O’Connell’s sometimes subtle, sometimes dazzling video projections. The car chase sequences, in particular, work better here than they did in either last year’s revival or the original staging, thanks to cleverly-timed use of rear-projection.

Nikolai Foster’s staging emphasises Hollywood’s artifice: because the whole production takes place on a soundstage, the detritus of moviemaking is always visible somewhere on the stage, even when we’re supposedly in Norma’s mansion. Towers become walls, Norma’s staircase splits into pieces to become other buildings in other locations, there’s usually a camera visible somewhere on the stage, and O’Connell’s projections keep reminding us of the Los Angeles that exists outside Norma’s mansion, which makes the mansion feel all the more claustrophobic. It’s all accomplished on a much smaller budget than the gargantuan, eye-popping original, but it actually makes a better case for the show than Nunn’s production did. The writing is still uneven – the strongest director couldn’t save a number as weak as The Lady’s Paying, though we’re mercifully spared the limp-wristed, lazily-stereotyped camp caricature of a performance that accompanied the song at the Coliseum last year – but the focus here is firmly on the people rather than the set, and the people are worth your attention. Granted, they’re interesting mostly because of Billy Wilder (and Ria Jones and Danny Mac) rather than Lloyd Webber, Christopher Hampton and Don Black, but in a Lloyd Webber show you take what you can get. It’s a pity there are only sixteen musicians in the pit – this music really needs a big string section, and it doesn’t get one here, which means the instrumental passages sound anaemic – but that’s really the only major criticism. It may not have happened without the publicity generated when Jones stood in for Glenn Close last year, but this, it turns out, is a very, very fine revival indeed.

Oh yes – before I finish, a shout out to the front-of-house staff at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, and particularly to the three of you who spent the last fifteen minutes of Act One during Wednesday’s matinee holding a conversation in the aisle right behind the back row of the dress circle. It’s not like the customer experience in this venue is ever good – but my expectations are very low indeed, and you surpassed them. Well done.

Wind ’em up and watch ’em go!

42ndst2

You will have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Is that clear? You WILL have a good time watching the revival of 42nd Street at Drury Lane.

Sorry, I don’t think you’ve quite got it yet. YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD TIME WATCHING THE REVIVAL OF 42ND STREET AT DRURY LANE.

YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED.

ALL DISSENT IS TREASON.

Actually, snark aside, you’ll be entertained, and often a lot more than that. It’s just that by the curtain call you may also be exhausted. This is a great big brightly-coloured juggernaut of a show. It’s slick, fast-paced, a bit too loud, and absolutely relentless; it’s often great fun, but it might be more fun if the production occasionally paused for breath. There’s a huge ensemble of tap-dancers, drilled to within an inch of their lives by choreographer Randy Skinner. There are gaudy, spectacular sets by Douglas W. Schmidt, who seems to have had a great time taking every single Busby Berkeley cliché and hurling the whole lot of them at Drury Lane’s vast stage. Roger Kirk’s sequins-and-spangles costumes for the chorus are noisier than Gareth Owen’s ear-splitting sound design. It’s an eye-popping, jaw-dropping two-and-a-half-hours of sensory overload, and sometimes it’s glorious.

It’s so relentlessly BIG, though, that the puny little human beings at the centre of it sometimes seem curiously irrelevant. There’s no need to discuss the plot because everybody knows about the film, even if these days not everybody has seen it: it’s not simply that the film is the ultimate go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star fantasy writ large – the film created most of the go-out-a-nobody-and-come-back-a-star clichés, and that scene where the director tells the chorus girl to (getting the point yet?) go out there a nobody and come back a star is a widely-referenced, universally-recognisable touchstone in American popular culture. That the film has become a CULTURAL MONOLITH, though, isn’t only down to the plot or the musical numbers. The film gained the currency it did because, on top of spectacle and an irresistible story, the cast list is a roll call of irresistible, memorable movie stars: Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell. Here, in their place, we have a lot of very efficient performances. Everybody hits their notes and their marks, but Mark Bramble appears to have directed most of his cast to act in semaphore. With very few exceptions, there’s little subtlety and less charm. The sheer energy emanating from the stage will be enough to carry you along – don’t have a coffee or shoot amphetamines before the show, artificial stimulants might push you over the edge – and the LAUGHS are telegraphed LOUDLY enough that you won’t be able to help laughing too, but the film traded in personalities as well as plot, and this production mostly doesn’t. And I mean it mostly really doesn’t.

There are a few exceptions, fortunately, and they’re wonderful. As Maggie Jones, a co-author of the show chorus-girl Peggy Sawyer is supposed to Go Out And Become The Star Of, Jasna Ivir is warm, funny, and an absolute delight. It’s unfortunate that her ability to project a charming, human performance despite the steamroller of a production surrounding her makes a few of the show’s supporting players seem even more like robots, but you can’t have everything. Clare Halse’s Peggy, too, is the real deal: a good singer, a terrific dancer, presence to spare, and she, like Ivir, pulls off the neat trick of demonstrating an actual personality instead of being dwarfed by the garish costumes and gargantuan dance routines. I’ve no idea what top-billed Sheena Easton is like as fading star Dorothy Brock because she was out on Tuesday night; she probably sings the hell out of her songs (in this production, she gets an extra one – ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ – because if your biggest star is a star singer and her character is onstage for only four-and-a-half minutes of the second act, you really need to throw her a bone), but her understudy, CJ Johnson, gave a fine, flawless account of the role, and Ms. Easton was not missed. As Julian Marsh, the tough-talking director of the show-within-the-show, Tom Lister seems, until late in the second act, to be perfecting a very good Jerry Orbach impersonation – but then right at the end of the second act, after the final big production number, the show finally slows down and takes a breath, finishing with a sweetly touching scene between director and chorus-girl-turned-star and Marsh’s solo rendition of the title song. At that point – but only at that point – Lister makes the role his own. Those last few minutes, in fact, despite not including forty-odd tap-dancers, mirrors, dance props, moving scenery, or any notably gaudy costumes, are by far the best thing in the show.

The bottom line: you WILL have a good time, though you may also leave the theatre feeling like you’ve been bludgeoned into submission. The choreography is often dazzling, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s songs are classics of their genre, there’s a superb band under the direction of Jae Alexander (and a nifty little lift under the conductor’s podium in the pit which propels him upwards into a spotlight so that the audience can see him conduct the overture and entr’acte), and the show as a whole, wearyingly relentless at it sometimes seems, is bright, shiny, colourful fun. If it sometimes – OK, often – feels like a theme-park recreation of a Thirties musical comedy, that’s because it IS: this material was never conceived for the stage, even though it’s about the creation of a stage musical, and the production’s relentlessly overcaffeinated imitation of the various performance tropes associated with Thirties backstage movie musicals is so shamelessly overhyped that the extravaganza now on display at Drury Lane inevitably seems (more than) a little ersatz. It is great fun – genuinely – but you may very well end up with the odd suspicion that you’re being forced to have fun at gunpoint. That the show doesn’t feel like it’s being performed entirely by animatronics or replicants is largely down to Clare Halse and Jasna Ivir – really, whatever they’re being paid, it isn’t enough. When they’re onstage – and in Halse and Lister’s final scene, too – this 42nd Street can charm as well as overwhelm. The rest of the time? As I said, YOU WILL HAVE FUN.