…and you don’t even know it!

jamie

I’d tell you to rush straight to Sheffield to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the new musical playing at the Crucible, but it closes tonight. Oops. I saw it last week, but I’ve been busy. Deal with it.

Anyway, it’s not as if you won’t get another chance, although nothing seems to be set in stone yet. It’s (deservedly) had very strong reviews, the final few performances apparently sold out, it has a wonderful score, and it’s going to have a life beyond this first production… not least because a good half-a-dozen songs in the (terrific) score are so maddeningly, infuriatingly catchy that they’ll be rattling around your head for days after you see the show, even if you don’t shell out for the concept album on sale in the lobby (and on iTunes).

Based very loosely on a BBC Three documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, on one level this is simply another show about a kid who wants to succeed in showbusiness – but specifically, in this instance, to be a drag queen. What makes the show so refreshing, apart from Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae‘s wonderful score, is that it offers a thoroughly joyous, celebratory take on its subject. At the start of the show, Jamie is out and proud, with a supportive mother and a network of friends. It’s probably fair to suggest that Tom MacRae’s tight, funny book at least somewhat glosses over the difficulties Jamie has to overcome in order to a) take his first tentative steps towards becoming a professional drag performer and b) attend his school prom in a prom dress rather than a dinner jacket, but to go too deeply into the ripples around Jamie’s rejection by his homophobic father would have resulted in a very different kind of show, and perhaps, right now, celebrating tolerance and diversity is a more interesting dramatic choice than emphasising difference and rejection.

Aside from his walking cliché of an absentee father, actually, the biggest difficulty Jamie has to overcome, at least in the second act, is that he’s a little too consumed by his own (undeniable) fabulousness. The show’s dramatic meat has less to do with Jamie’s absentee father or his clashes with the school bully; instead, it’s about how Jamie learns to negotiate the space between a combative drag-queen persona and his desire to cross-dress as himself. It’s no kind of spoiler at all to reveal that Jamie does, at the end of the show, arrive at the school prom wearing a dress – but the scene is beautifully, delicately written, and surprisingly touching.

And in the title role, John McCrea is, well, absolutely fabulous. This is a genuine star turn, and it deserves to be seen by a (much) larger audience. He captures Jamie’s curious combination of strength and naiveté perfectly, he has a terrific pop tenor singing voice and great comic timing, and he can rock a pair of heels as well as anyone. As Jamie’s mother Margaret, Josie Walker brings down the house with a ballad called ‘He’s My Boy’, a song which is orders of magnitude more interesting than you’d guess from the wince-inducingly trite title, and Mina Anwar is brassily hilarious as Margaret’s best friend. The actors playing Jamie’s classmates are all fine, with Lucie Shorthouse a particular standout as Jamie’s friend Pritti; ‘It Means Beautiful’, a song in which Pritti draws a parallel between Jamie’s questions about his identity and her own choice to wear a hijab, is arguably the most interesting thing in the score, and Ms .Shorthouse’s performance of it is truly lovely.

There’s slick direction, too, from Jonathan Butterell, who keeps the action moving swiftly around Anna Fleischle’s grey-walls-and-school-desks set. If this is, in the end, a show that delights rather than surprises, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and while MacRae’s book may sometimes lack a little depth, he and Sells have given the show a superb set of songs. The opening number, ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, is a real earworm, and so is the title song; it’s rare, these days, to come out of the theatre humming the tunes unless you already knew them going in, but you will here. If you didn’t get a chance to see the show, the concept album – mostly performed by Sells, with guest performances from McCrea and Walker (and, um, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Betty Boo) is worth seeking out. Despite a scattering of good reviews in the national press, shows like this can easily slip under the radar, and Sells and MacRae’s score is simply too good to be produced once and then disappear.

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Mrs. ‘Arris Goes To Sheffield

 

flowers for mrs harris

 

This is something very special. ‘Flowers for Mrs. Harris’ is a new musical by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, based on a novel by Paul Gallico. Gallico’s Mrs. Harris is a widowed cleaning-lady in postwar London who sees a Dior dress hanging in the bedroom of one of her wealthy clients and is so struck by its beauty that she embarks on a quest to buy one for herself, in the process bringing about profound changes both in her own life and in the lives of the people she encounters on her journey to Paris. The novel is slight but charming; in 1992 it was made into a slight but less-than-charming TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, and you’d never guess from either that the property could be transformed into a musical that is as moving as anything I’ve seen in – well, let’s say the last twenty years.

What Taylor and Wagstaff have done is quite simple, although Taylor’s (often very beautiful) music is anything but: between them, they’ve done an extraordinarily good job of making you see the world through their heroine’s eyes, and feel everything she feels. Taylor’s score is through-composed (in the operatic sense; the show has a fair amount of spoken dialogue, though more in the second act than the first), with few extractable songs, and you aren’t going to come out of the theatre humming the show’s big hit – but while the music is certainly complex, it somehow also manages to go straight for the heartstrings. Taylor and Wagstaff find something profoundly moving in this rather odd story about a woman whose life is unexpectedly transformed by an encounter with an expensive dress, and they’ve spun from it a musical of considerable, surprising power.

There’s something almost miraculous, too, about Clare Burt’s performance in the title role. She’s nothing like Angela Lansbury in the film, thank God – much as I love Lansbury, playing working-class characters who are not music-hall caricatures is not her greatest strength, and every note of her performance in the film rings false. Burt, by contrast, is absolutely compelling. Mrs. Harris’s Road to Damascus moment when she first sees the dress ten minutes into Act One (cleverly suggested by Mark Henderson’s endlessly subtle lighting, you don’t see an actual Dior dress until a third of the way into Act Two) could easily seem ridiculous or comical, but in Burt’s performance it’s neither (in the film, that scene doesn’t work at all). It’s a surprisingly moving, surprisingly emotional moment, as is the parade of dresses when Mrs. Harris finally gets to the Dior boutique in Paris. As someone who is usually completely uninterested in clothes (I mean, I wear them, obviously, but I didn’t even pay much attention to fashion when I was a teenager, and I haven’t been a teenager for a very long time now), I would never have expected a fashion show to move me to the brink of tears, but Mrs. Harris is enraptured by the moment, and because she is, so are we. It goes without saying, of course, that Burt’s singing is superb, but this is as remarkable an acting performance as you’re likely to see in a musical this year. It’s not a great big grandstanding star turn along the lines of Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – it’s simply a quietly luminous portrayal of an ordinary woman who is transformed by an encounter with something she finds beautiful. Burt, along with the writers, treads a very careful line – the material is unabashedly sentimental, and in the wrong hands the whole show could easily turn to treacle – and their softly-softly, subtle approach pays huge dividends.

Elsewhere, the cast includes a selection of musical theatre’s best and brightest performers, all working at the top of their game (and all playing more than one role). Mark Meadows is a joy as the late Mr. Harris (act one) and a kindly Marquis who befriends Mrs. Harris in Paris, and then there are glorious turns from Anna-Jane Casey (Mrs. Harris’s friend/neighbour Violet, and a French charlady), Rebecca Caine (the owner of the dress Mrs. Harris sees in London, and the vendeuse in the Dior boutique in Paris), Laura Pitt-Pulford (a self-centred actress in London, and a kind-hearted model in Paris), Nicola Sloane (a countess in London, Dior’s seamstress in Paris), and Louis Maskell (one of Mrs. Harris’s clients in London, Dior’s accountant in Paris). Director Daniel Evans, in his swan-song at the Sheffield Crucible, does a fine job of keeping the plot moving while making sure the show has just the right amount of sweetness, Lez Brotherston’s set makes a great deal out of relatively little – London and Paris backdrops (Battersea Power Station and the Eiffel Tower figure prominently), a staircase, a few pieces of furniture, Mrs. Harris’s tiny kitchen  – and the finale, in which the Crucible’s turntable brings the show’s title to literal, glorious life, is a wonder to behold.

The show is that rare thing: an exquisitely-constructed entertainment that builds on its source material rather than dumbing it down (if you want a dumbed-down version of this story, you can always watch the Lansbury TV movie, which craps all over the novel from a very great height and rips the ending to shreds. Don’t say I didn’t warn you), and the whole, with this cast, is even greater than the sum of the parts. Apart from the remarkably self-absorbed “lady” sitting behind me who seemed unable to keep her mouth shut while the house lights were down – and that, sadly, is becoming par for the course when you go to the theatre these days – this is just about as perfect a theatrical experience as you could ever hope for. The cast, at the curtain call, clearly knew how special this show is. It’s sublime, and there simply aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice.

Whether it would be a hit in the West End is another question. This is, as I said, as good a new British musical as there has been in quite a while – beautiful score, literate book, perfect design and direction, stunning central performance, flawless supporting cast – and the run is just two and a half weeks, finishing tomorrow (and yes, if I had the time, I’d go back and see it again). It deserves to be remounted somewhere else, and it deserves to be recorded, because writing and performances as good as we have here ought to be preserved. In an ideal world, for a show as good as this, people would be storming the box office in a rush to get tickets… but this isn’t an ideal world, and about a third of the seats were empty at the performance I saw, and this isn’t the kind of show where you can rope in the punters by casting a couple of has-been X-Factor runners-up in bit parts. Unfortunately, that’s showbiz.

 

 

Show Boat

s b p c

 

 

Once upon a time, when the Livent revival of Show Boat was running in various cities in the US and Canada and the Livent brand was still untainted by The Unpleasantness surrounding Darth Grabinsky, I planned a vacation around seeing it – in Chicago, in January, I think 19 years ago this week. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth the trip – if for no other reason that I’ve never, since, seen a commercial production of a musical with 70-odd actors on the stage and 30 musicians in the pit. I wondered at the time how the numbers could add up – the theatre, the night I saw it, was far from full – and Mr. Drabinsky’s complicated legal history since then, and the various arrest warrants against him that are apparently still outstanding in the US, rather suggest that they didn’t.

The thing is, Show Boat, more than nearly any other classic American musical, demands to be done big. It’s an enormous show with a (justly) celebrated score, it has a large cast of central characters, it takes place in multiple locations, the plot spans four decades, and audiences expect to see the Cotton Blossom – the Show Boat of the title – on the stage in front of them. In this show, more than many, there are certain requirements that are very difficult to work around.

Or so you’d think. Daniel Evans’s revival, playing for another week and a half at the Sheffield Crucible, has a cast of 24 and a band of 11 – large for a regional theatre in this country, but tiny in terms of the resources usually thrown at a production of this particular show. In terms of performers/musicians, it’s more or less exactly one-third the size of the production I saw in Chicago. And it’s glorious. It’s based on the text used in a production at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 2011 (Show Boat’s production history could form the basis of a doctoral thesis – it’s far too complicated to explore fully here, because it’s one of those shows that seems to undergo some kind of revision with each successive revival), and it sits beautifully in the roughly 1000-seat Crucible.

Much of the show, in fact, is played right in the audience’s laps. The Crucible has a thrust stage; in Les Brotherston’s evocative bleached-wood set, a sunken playing area is surrounded by wooden boardwalks, and the Cotton Blossom, seen front-on, enters from the rear of the stage. Aside from the boat itself, and the Trocadero stage in Act Two, there are few major set-pieces apart from furniture (and, in the second half, evocative projections onto the back wall). It’s an impressive set but not an epic spectacle; the set pushes the scenes and musical numbers halfway down the thrust stage, lending them an immediacy and an intimacy that is the opposite of what you get when the show is staged behind a proscenium arch. This production is far more a character study than a sweeping panorama; you don’t get the spectacle or the string section or the huge chorus, but the gains outweigh the losses, for me at least. The performances are glorious – all of them, with special mentions for Gina Beck’s thrillingly-sung Magnolia and Emmanuel Kojo’s strong, dignified Joe – and the material somehow gains in power from being seen in a relatively intimate setting. The miscegenation scene is always moving, but it isn’t always this moving; Rebecca Trehearn’s Julie is another superb performance, but part of the scene’s added power in this production comes simply from the fact that you can see right into her eyes in the moment she’s forced to admit she’s been passing as white.

In terms of the text, the second act is a little more problematic. Again, it’s beautifully staged and performed here, but the second act of Show Boat was always weaker than the first – it covers a much longer timespan, it’s far more episodic in structure than the first half, a number of key twists in the plot rely on unlikely coincidences, and the ending is abrupt. Evans and his cast finesse it very well, but the ending of the show, in particular, feels rushed. Magnolia and Ravenal’s love story – arguably the show’s biggest plot strand – always feels as if there are at least a couple of scenes missing in the second half of Act Two, and that’s more the case than ever here; Michael Xavier’s Ravenal, in particular, is short-changed by this particular version of the script. There’s no number for Magnolia and Ravenal’s daughter Kim in the final scene, and it’s missed; there’s room in this version of the show for a little bit more material in Act Two, and that particular cut is a cut too far. In terms of cuts/additions to the score, other characters fare better. Queenie’s haunting “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun'” – cut against Jerome Kern’s wishes from the original 1927 production but present in a lot of the show’s underscoring and heard prominently in the overture – is a welcome addition, and Sandra Marvin sings it movingly; I’m not sure the second act needs “Hey Feller” and “Ah Still Suits Me”, but Marvin and Kojo are so good that more time with them is welcome. The most famous numbers – “Only Make Believe”, “Old Man River”, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, “Bill” etc – are of course all present and correct, and “Why Do I Love You?”, thank God, is not uncomfortably handed off to the dour Parthy as a solo, as it was in the Livent production. Yes, a bigger orchestra would have been nice – but in a venue this size, that was never going to happen.

As for the thorniest issue regarding Show Boat’s script and score, this production treads a very careful line. In the opening chorus, “coloured folk” work on the Mississippi; the N-word is heard only as a term of abuse from the more bigoted white characters. In 2016, there’s no context for that word that isn’t shocking; here, it’s used sparingly, and for maximum impact.  The choice pays off in this production’s riveting account of the miscegenation scene; in it, the N-word goes off like a bomb, in a way that it possibly wouldn’t if you’d already heard it sung twenty times by the chorus in the opening number.

And while I do have some quibbles with the material this version of the show chooses to include/omit in the second act, they don’t diminish Daniel Evans’s great achievement here: in terms of pure entertainment, this is as fine a Show Boat as you could hope to see, even if it doesn’t have a huge chorus or a big string section. And not only is it a terrific production, the top-price ticket for the matinee I attended was £26 – between half and one-third of what you’d expect to pay these days for a big musical in the West End, and less than the cost of most tickets for musicals at the half-price booth in Leicester Square. It’s running another week and a half, and there are still a few tickets left. It’s still only January, but this is probably as good a musical revival as you’ll see all year.