It was the music of something beginning…

ragtime

Or, some brief, belated notes on Thom Southerland‘s now-closed revival of Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre, which I saw during the final week of performances (I know, I know – three weeks ago. It’s Christmas, life is complicated, deal with it).

  • I almost didn’t go. When I learned that the production would be using actor-musicians, it killed any interest I’d had in seeing it (in the past, actor-musician productions have not always been my very favourite thing). Once it opened, a number of friends saw it and they pretty much all thought it was wonderful, so I caved. I’m still not, as a general rule, thrilled at the idea of forking over good money in order to hear actors torturing musical instruments they haven’t touched since they left school, but there’s an exception to every rule: this production, unlike most actor-musician productions I’ve seen, does not short-change the music (although it also doesn’t use, or even try to emulate, William Brohn’s original orchestrations). There’s a professional MD centre-stage, there are no issues with musicians struggling/failing to keep time with each other, and Flaherty and Ahrens’s score, dressed in Mark Aspinall’s Americana/folk-tinged new orchestrations, actually sounds good. That in itself is a startling achievement.
  • This is the third thing I’ve seen this year that Southerland has directed, following Grey Gardens and Allegro at the Southwark Playhouse, and each has been better than the last. This is a fierce, confident revival of a difficult show, accomplished at a fraction of what it would cost to produce this kind of thing in the West End. How good is it? I saw the gargantuan original staging of Ragtime in Los Angeles; this production, obviously, is much smaller, with a cast less than half the size and a simple two-level unit set (co-designed by Tom Rogers and the fabulously-named Toots Butcher), and while it may be less overwhelming than Garth Drabinsky’s cast-of-thousands (well, 59), budget-of-millions extravaganza, it is emphatically not any less moving.
  • This is as good an ensemble performance as you’ll see this year (granted, as I write this, this year – thank God – has less than four hours still to go. Yo, 2016 – don’t let the door hit you on the way out). Fine performances from all of the leads (and possibly a career-best performance from Anita Louise Combe as Mother), terrific choral singing (and that’s not as common as you’d hope in musicals), and great work even from the performers in the smallest roles.
  • And speaking of performers in the smallest roles – as Sarah’s Friend, Seyi Omooba is jaw-droppingly good, and her ferocious gospel vocals in ‘Till We Reach That Day’ pin you to your seat. This is her professional debut, and she’s someone to watch.
  • The show itself is what it is. A number of the reviews this time complained that it’s heavy-handed and preachy; given the nature of the source novel, that’s probably inevitable, and one of the preachiest numbers in the score – ‘He Wanted To Say’ – has been cut from this revival (it isn’t missed). Stephen Flaherty’s music cleverly exploits the blend of black and Eastern European musical ingredients that formed the basis of the era’s popular music in America, and he and Lynn Ahrens give the show a (mostly) very fine score – but the show’s opening number is truly brilliant, and nothing that follows can quite equal it. It doesn’t help, either, that the first act, overall, is markedly better than the second (although the show’s two loveliest songs – ‘Our Children’ and ‘Sarah Brown Eyes’ – are performed almost back-to-back in Act Two), because the music turns notably weaker when Terrence McNally’s book takes a turn towards the violent. The novel is brilliant, complex, and never quite satisfying; that was true of the musical in Frank Galati’s enormous original staging, and it’s true here as well.
  • With prices soaring in the West End – the seat that cost me £50 for Gypsy at the Savoy eighteen months ago is £75 for Dreamgirls, which is one reason I haven’t yet booked a ticket – it’s refreshing to see a commercial venture which charges reasonable prices (between £20 and £40) for tickets and doesn’t try to rip the audience off via unjustifiable booking fees and overpriced programmes. The Charing Cross Theatre, God knows, has disadvantages – from the front, you’re practically looking up the cast’s nostrils, and from the back it’s like watching a show in a tunnel – but it’s a charming venue, the location couldn’t be more convenient, and the continued success of companies like the Southwark Playhouse and the Menier suggests there’s a growing audience out there for this sort of thing. This series of musical productions – the first was a transfer of Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Titanic – is a new venture for the Charing Cross Theatre, and it deserves to be a roaring success.
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…and (nearly) all that jazz!

 

(Note – I wrote this a week ago, and then promptly forgot to post it. Oops.)

Praise be, this time they’re not just wearing underwear. It’s very easy to forget that the massively successful revival of Kander and Ebb‘s Chicago, which closed in the West End last year after a roughly 15-year run and is still going strong on Broadway, began life as a streamlined concert presentation. The show – only a moderate success in its original Bob Fosse staging in 1975 – has become familiar almost to the point of ubiquity, even discounting the 2002 film (which messes about with the material in ways that mostly do it no favours at all), but it’s become familiar in a staging that employs almost no conventional scenery, and in which nearly everyone has only a single (black, skimpy) costume. Seeing the show, then, in a staging where there’s an actual colour palette on view (rather than fifty shades of black) is a welcome surprise.

And this, thank God, is a really good production. With the closing of the long-running revival in the West End, the rights to the show have once again become available to regional theatres; more than one has it scheduled for the upcoming season, but the Oldham Coliseum is, I think, the first to get a production up and running. It’s not the first time they’ve done it; they staged the show in the late 80s in a production that starred Caroline O’Connor, and while I did see it, I can’t honestly say I remember a great deal about it. I imagine their earlier staging did not use actor-musicians; this one does (or rather, three full-time musicians plus the cast), and I admit my heart sank when I realised the actors would be doubling as most of the band because all too often the result is simply that the score gets short-changed. This cast, however, pull it off triumphantly. The music sounds good all the way through, the playing is impeccably tight, there are no audible bum notes, and under Kevin Shaw’s assured direction the cast find all kinds of witty ways to incorporate the instruments into scenes – one of the reporters outside the courtroom, for example, uses a trumpet’s mute as the earpiece of a telephone.

The acting performances, too, are good right across the board. Yes, pretty much everyone is about twenty years too young for the role they’re playing, but that’s hardly unusual in a production of this show. Special honours go to Adam Barlow’s sad-sack Amos Hart – he nails the Bert Williams act in ‘Mr. Cellophane’, white gloves and all – but the singing is all good, the zingers all land, and this company is giving a thoroughly entertaining account of the show. Yes, some of the American accents are a bit wonky; yes, putting Helen Power and Marianne Benedict (Roxie and Velma) in wigs and costumes that make them look like Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played their parts in the movie version, is a strikingly unimaginative choice; and yes, it’s fair to say that not all of the choreography is executed quite as slickly as you’d have expected in the West End revival, but it really doesn’t matter: this production is not as cool or as sexy as the show has sometimes been in the past, but the show has possibly never been more fun than it is here. This, first and foremost, is a musical comedy. It’s sharp, colourful, strikingly performed, and very, very funny indeed, and the cast – all of them – are clearly having a wonderful time.  Yes, it’s very definitely a scaled-down production, but the gains far outweigh the few losses.

It’s also – and this is a bigger achievement than you might think – accomplished with a fraction of the resources available to a commercial West End or Broadway production, and has tickets on sale at just one-third of the average top price for a West End musical. In terms of bang for your buck, when it comes to musical theatre in the UK, this Chicago is just about as good as it gets.

Any criticisms at all? Just one, and it’s of the theatre rather than the show. I love the Coliseum. I’ve been going there, off and on, since I was a very young child – it’s at least 35 years since I first set foot in there. I think they’re great, I think they’re Oldham’s most valuable cultural institution, I think the recent renovation is terrific, I am impressed that they refuse to overcharge for drinks and programmes, and their box-office staff are unfailingly helpful. They’ve now introduced a print-at-home facility for online bookings, and unlike some gougers ticket agencies, they don’t charge an additional fee for it  … but the receipt you print off in lieu of a ticket, although it does include your seat number, makes no mention at all of whether the seat you’ve booked is in the stalls or the circle. I knew what seat I’d booked, but that’s an argument waiting to happen, and it needs to be changed.

 

 

Welcome to 1945.

First clue that this is not your standard-issue big musical revival, circa 2012: there’s no sound designer credited in the programme (although there is a sound engineer listed way down in the technical credits at the back). The second clue: the first few rows of seats in the Leeds Grand Theatre’s stalls are missing, swallowed up by the orchestra pit. Yes, there was a similarly-enlarged pit a few weeks ago at Wonderful Town at The Lowry as well, but trust me, it’s unusual.

This time, though, we’re here for Rodgers and Hammerstein, rather than Bernstein: Carousel, as revived by Leeds-based Opera North, which means we get their full orchestra of fifty or so players, a large chorus, and a separate troupe of dancers, and the conductor (Jonathan Gill at yesterday afternoon’s performance) takes a curtain call with the cast. Carousel is probably my favourite of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores, and the opportunity to hear it with this size orchestra and chorus doesn’t come around very often. Here, the very first article in the (rather expensive) programme – before anything at all about either Rodgers and Hammerstein or the show itself – is a two-page piece about Don Walker’s original orchestrations, which were painstakingly recreated by a team from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization in 2000 (the full set of charts had been missing for decades; the National Theatre revival in 1992 used a new set of orchestrations, based on the originals, by William David Brohn). Clearly, this is not a case of an opera company slumming it at the lighter end of the repertoire. It’s not an absolutely complete presentation of the score because “The Highest Judge of All” is cut (and not particularly missed; it was cut from the National Theatre production as well, and I honestly think that section of the show plays better without it), but it’s obvious that everyone involved here has the utmost respect for this material.

And, it has to be said, this production offers an absolutely glorious account of the music. The orchestra’s playing is impeccable throughout – not stiff and reverential, but gutsy and full of life – and they’re matched by the singers, right down to the last member of the chorus. Carousel is not a pretty show – at core, while it ends with the promise of redemption, it’s a dark, unhappy love story between two people who are each in their way very damaged – and for a full production to work, the material demands a great deal more than an impeccable orchestra and marvellous singers (no, I’m not going to summarise the plot – we’ve all seen it, and if you haven’t, Wikipedia offers a fuller synopsis than I would). There’s a difficult line to tread here – in the National Theatre production, Michael Hayden and Joanna Riding offered devastating acting performances as Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, but the music sat very uncomfortably on their voices, and they both strained for the higher notes. Here, we have West End actor Keith Higham as Billy (at matinees only; at evening performances the role is played by American opera singer Eric Greene) playing opposite British soprano Gillene Herbert as Julie. Neither has any difficulty at all with the music – Herbert’s “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” is as good a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard – and they create an utterly convincing portrait of this very, very troubled couple. Their bench scene – the lengthy sequence that includes “If I Loved You” – is simply flawless.

[I could, here, offer a very lengthy aside in which I traced the beginning of the concept of the ‘integrated musical’ to the bench scene in Carousel, rather than to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration, to which far too many historians attribute far too much influence – but anybody reading this who knows me and has any kind of interest in musicals has probably heard it before, so I won’t… except to say, baldly, that I think the bench scene in Carousel was a more influential moment in the development American musical than the premiere of Oklahoma!. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, and a 5,000-word essay on the subject would be a little over the top.]

The other leads? There’s absolutely delightful work from Clara Boulter and Joseph Shovelton and Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, a beautifully-danced Louise from Beverley Grant, and a fine, rough Jigger Craigin from Michael Rouse. Towering above them all, there’s Elena Ferrari’s Nettie Fowler. Last year, I saw Ms. Ferrari give a breathtaking performance as the tragic Anna Maurrant in a chamber production of Street Scene. Yesterday, I saw her take “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and sing it simply and directly, as if nobody had ever touched it before, with no hint of grandstanding but with enormous emotional force. Her “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was warm, funny, and absolutely charming; her “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was probably definitive. And yes, I cried, even though I know that moment in the play is shamelessly manipulative.

The production is lovely to look at, too. Director Jo Davies has shifted the plot forward in time a little, so that this production begins in 1915; that’s still almost a century ago, but it means the clothes and props are a little closer to items that would be worn/used today, and in a production in which the music is privileged above everything else, it’s a choice that takes away a little of the potential for starchiness. Anthony Ward’s set – fairground lights, a bleached treetrunk, ocean vistas, clapboard walls, wooden piers and houses – is deceptively simple and superbly evocative, as are Bruno Poet’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s (very lightly-used) video design, and between them, at the beginning of the Act Two  ballet, they manage a startling coup-de-théâtre to show Billy’s descent from Heaven back to Earth (if you haven’t seen this production and are going to in the future, I suppose this is a spoiler, so highlight the following couple of lines to read a description. Louise is first seen at the beach, in scratchy silent film projected on a clapboard wall at the back of the set. The square projected image slowly widens to become a panorama of the beach scene, and then the clapboard wall rises to reveal Louise in exactly the same spot she’d been in in the film, on the beach, in front of projected rolling waves). There’s strong, muscular choreography from Kay Shepherd, and it’s to her very, very great credit that in the crowd scenes it’s difficult to see the join between the singing chorus and the dancers. Occasionally, the pacing could be a little tighter, and the staging of the robbery scene (which, to be fair, is not the show’s best-written moment to begin with) needs revisiting before the production moves on to its runs in London and Paris, but this is, overall, an exceptionally strong staging.

Davies and her company also deserve a lot of credit for not ducking or in any way softening the domestic violence at the heart of the plot. We are no longer living in 1945; today, the scene in which Louise asks Julie if it’s possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt at all reads very, very uncomfortably, and our society’s attitude towards violence towards women has moved on to the degree that it’s impossible not to view that moment through a contemporary filter. We see Billy commit a sin that today is more or less unpardonable – more than once – and then, at the end of the show, we see him get a second chance. In the National Theatre production, when Louise asked that question, Michael Hayden’s Billy mouthed ‘no’. That doesn’t happen here, and there’s no acting around the lines; we simply see in Billy’s face that the question makes him realise what he’s done. The scene is sensitively played, and it’s powerful, but when Julie tells her daughter that yes, it is possible for someone to hit you and it not hurt, it isn’t easy to watch, and nor should it be.

What’s really interesting about this production, though, is watching the audience adjust to receiving a production that is all but unamplified (there is amplification, but it’s so subtle that it’s almost imperceptible). At the beginning of each act, there were three or four minutes in which isolated conversations, I’m afraid, could be clearly heard from various points around the area where I was sitting – and then, by and large, people shut up and listened.

It would be nice to say that there was no bad audience behaviour on display during the performance, but that’s a longer story. Still, this is a spectacular production, and I am, as the song says, mighty glad I came, even given… well, as I said, that’s a longer story.

Pay the band, you tightwads!

We’re now less than 100 days from the beginning of the rapture 2012 London Olympics, which of course means that it’s time for our island nation, and LOCOG in particular, to start abandoning any pretence of sanity. This way, we get to give ourselves a gentle warm-up for the opening ceremony, during which we are presumably collectively expected to lose it completely. The official merchandising stand  – which has now appeared nationwide in branches of John Lewis, who usually have more sense – offers ample visual evidence that the 2012 Olympics already got a divorce from any concept of taste or restraint:

Clearly, this divorce was not amicable. That’s Wenlock, the mascot for the summer games, rendered as two different kinds of cuddly toy, both of which look like an unsightly cross between a Dalek, a Cyclops, and some kind of personal stimulation device. It’s lovely to see us choose such dignified imagery as the vehicle via which we sell ourselves to the rest of the world.

It’s not entirely surprising that at this stage, under the surface, some aspects of the event’s organisation are beginning to smell a little. Take, for example, the engagement of musicians for the various park events during the games. There’s a growing suspicion that LOCOG have adopted a policy of not paying professional musicians who are hired to perform during the games. Apparently, the honour of being asked to participate should be payment enough, for musicians at least. Presumably LOCOG are under the boneheaded impression that professional musicians don’t have mortgages, rent, car payments, gas and electricity bills and all the rest of it. The Musicians’ Union is now investigating.

Now, OK, I’m not a professional musician, and nor do I play one on television. But this still strikes me as being a peculiarly obnoxious decision for LOCOG to have taken, particularly in the context of the huge amounts of money that are being lavished on staging the games. Presumably the technicians will be paid – the cameramen, the stagehands, the cleaners and groundsmen and ticket staff and all the rest would not, naturally, be expected to work without pay – and yet the musicians, who are also skilled professionals with bills to pay, are expected to sing for no supper. Sorry, that’s indefensible, particularly given that Heritage Lottery Fund money has already been diverted to the games.

Here’s the thing: despite the hideous logo, the outrageous cost, the problems processing ticket sales and all the rest of it, I want the games to succeed, even though I’m not remotely a sports fan and won’t be attending any of the events myself (or, probably, even watching on television apart from the opening and closing ceremonies). It’s a huge event, and people all over the world will be watching. But it’s because the whole world will be watching that we need to pay attention to how the way the proceedings have been organised will be perceived elsewhere in the world. Leaving aside the fact that professional musicians are as much entitled to be paid for their services as anybody else, adopting a policy of not paying professional musicians to perform at the Olympics just makes us look cheap, particularly given that the amount of money involved is a drop in the ocean in terms of the games’ overall budget. It’s a choice that certainly does not make me proud to be British, or English, or in any way associated via citizenship or geography with the 2012 games; the adoption of this shameful policy does Lord Coe and the rest of LOCOG’s board no credit at all. It’s the nastiest kind of penny-pinching, and it diminishes and demeans the whole event. We’re known, as a nation, to be proud of our artists, their tremendous heritage, and the enormous contribution they make to our society. By refusing to pay professional musicians at Olympic events, LOCOG is simply broadcasting to the world that art, in 2012, is not something that has any value at all to this country’s establishment, and that’s not a message we should be giving the rest of the world as we prepare to host the biggest international event this country has seen in at least half a century.

So, LOCOG – just pay the damn band, OK?