Saturday, 20 August 2016

Paramour - Review

Lyric Theatre, New York


*****

Directed and conceived by Philippe Decoufle


Samuel William Charlton, Myriam Deraiche and Martin Charrat

With Paramour, Cirque du Soleil widen their scope venturing into musical theatre and incorporating dialogue and songs sung live alongside their signature circus wizardry.

Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood (and Broadway) and dripping in Art Deco themes, the plot is faux film-noir. Indigo (Ruby Lewis) is an actress, a small town stunner who is new to LA and looking for her break in the movies. A.J. (Jeremy Kushnier) is the mogul director who not only casts her as his new found star, but also wants her for his wife. Throw in Joey (Ryan Voner) a humble studio composer on the picture who falls hopelessly in love with Indigo as she does for him and the scene is set for a classic, corny love-triangle.

Before purists of the genre dismiss the plot as predictably shallow, remember that corny de-rigueur in noir-based musicals. Consider City Of Angels and Sunset Boulevard, both shows that offered the potential for stylish song and dance numbers, but only when set against a backdrop of cliché-riddled plot. 

Visually of course, the show is hallmark Cirque. Clever use of live action projection (black & white of course) emphasises the cinematic theme, whilst a beautifully choreographed ensemble break into tap routines at the drop of a (top) hat.

For the skimpiest of reasons the plot shifts around the studios' backlot, from sound stages filming a Cleopatra themed routine (outstanding aerial strap work from Andrew and Kevin Atherton) to a Wild West hoedown and, after the break, a nightmarish zombie invasion. The story's creakiness however is matched only by the Cirque troupe's excellence, a high spot of the second half being the hand-to-trapeze act of Samuel William Charlton and Myriam Deraiche with Martin Charrat on the ground, depicting the passions of the ill-fated trio.  

It may be the actors who top the bill, but it is the Cirque artistes that are Paramour's stars. The closing routine, played out across New York rooftops as the bad guys, clad in vividly coloured suits (think of Batman's Joker and Riddler) chase the heroes, is jaw-dropping in its impossible simplicity. Using discreetly positioned trampolines and their world class artistry, the performers literally fly themselves across the stage and up its walls. There are no wires or ropes at this point, just exceptionally choreographed human endeavor. In a modern movie the scene would be a green screen CGI creation, here it's for real.

Back in the Golden Age, audiences flocked to musicals to be wowed by spectacular routines, perfectly performed. Bravo to Cirque du Soleil for restoring that magic to Broadway.


Booking until February 2017
Photo credit: Richard Termine

Waitress - Review

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York


*****


Music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles
Book by Jessie Nelson
Based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly
Directed by Diane Paulus




Jessie Mueller

Move over Mrs Lovett, there's a new baker on the block. Waitress, Sara Bareilles' female-fuelled take on modern Americana, is perhaps the finest example of new musical theatre writing in quite some years. 

Drawn from Adrienne Shelly's 2007 movie, Jessie Mueller is Jenna the titular waitress from a southern USA town, who not only serves tables but also bakes the top-notch pies that make up the diner's daily specials. Unhappily married to the inadequate and abusive misogynist Earl (covered very well by understudy Ryan Vasquez on the night of this review) Jenna discovers early on in the show that she is pregnant with their unplanned (and, by her, unwanted) child. Following her through the trimesters, the show’s story is strong, engaging and witty and under Diane Paulus' assured direction, never dissolves into sentimentality.

Jenna's two fellow waitresses are Dawn and Becky played by Jenna Ushkowitz and Keala Settle respectively, who sustain the momentum with perceptive comic relief. Dawn desperately seeks love, while Becky, a middle aged battle-axe agonising that her breasts may be misshapen whilst trapped in her own sexless marriage, goes on to satisfy her carnal frustrations in a second half surprise. Both supporting women are cleverly sketched out, with the dynamic between all three, as they share their respective anxieties and desires, proving credible, funny and ultimately moving. There should be a mention too for Charity Angél Dawson as Nurse Norma, whose dealings with the complex cavortings at the local surgery make for a witty measured performance.

Setting aside the stereotype of woman as domestic pie-making goddess, the baking analogy makes for a clever conceit. Not just Jenna's bun in her own oven, but rather the focus on what's inside a pie - ergo what's inside a woman - makes for some honest theatre. Jenna's anguish at her impending motherhood is as contemporary as it is timeless. When Mueller sings What Baking Can Do, we see the lifeline of sanity that baking has thrown to her amidst a life of domestic misery.

If the women are cleverly devised, the men are little more than thinly fleshed out flawed caricatures, with the only admirable man on stage dying before the final curtain. Escaping from Earl's contempt, Jenna stumbles into an affair with her gynaecologist Dr Pomatter (Drew Gehling). It’s an unlikely liaison, the married Pomatter’s actions being unethical, unprofessional and adulterous, however notwithstanding Pomatter cheating on his wife, the love between the two serves to inspire Jenna in believing that not all men are beasts.

Dawn finds love online with Ogie, a geekish tax auditor who shares her love of history. Little more than a decent if two-dimensional twat, Christopher Fitzgerald nonetheless imbues the role with maniacal energy. Already recognised with various awards and nominations for his performance, Fitzgerald's fabulous physicality serves the role perfectly and it is a joy to see this gifted performer so perfectly cast.

Bareilles' writing is a long overdue example of new musical theatre that is imaginative, thought provoking and most of all entertaining. More than just a hardened pie crust hurled at the patriarchy, Waitress is a perfectly baked celebration of womanhood today.


Now booking until June 2017
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Children of Eden - Review

Union Theatre, London


**

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by John Caird





Directed by Christian Durham, this production of Children of Eden marks the show’s 25th anniversary. It is also only the second production to be staged in Southwark’s newly built and re-located Union Theatre.

John Caird's script for the show is based on the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis and goes from Creation with Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel in act one through to Noah and The Flood in act two. The dialogue is minimal, involving a lot of characters in prayer - frequently overhead to the spotlights.

Notwithstanding the minimalism, the stories’ themes of hatred, forgiveness, love and death, all stemming from familiar biblical tales are immense and demand a certain gravitas from the lead characters. Unfortunately, for the most part, gravitas is the missing element in this production.

As Father, or the “God” character, Joey Dexter feels too young for the role, lacking the authority and charisma that the part desperately needs. Unfortunately Dexter is not helped by the over amplified electric piano which swamped the majority of his vocals. As with the new Union’s recent production of The Fix, the cast here are un-mic’d and poor sound balance seems to be emerging as a recurrent issue. Producers take note: the acoustic intimacy of the old Union didn’t need mics, but it looks like the new space does. 

The young cast of eleven are enthusiastic, charming and unquestionably, hardworking, with their sheer energy in Generations, the second act opening number, proving infectious. The evening’s highlight is Natasha O'Brien, newly arrived on British shores from Canada and one to watch in the future: her committed performance as both Eve and Mama Noah was eye-catching, exuding warmth and openness. O'Brien has an impressive, natural singing voice, showcased to particular effect in Ain't It Good and she seems to enjoy singing the uplifting gospel anthem as much as the audience enjoyed hearing it. 

Lucie Pankhurst devises some clever choreography, with bodies continually moving to evoke settings and props. Her work is perfect for the piece and incorporating her cast to become an elongated snake for Gabriel Mokake's serpent’s song In The Pursuit of Excellence is terrific.

When the whole cast sing in unison, the sound is quite lovely but it is the individual voices that lack confidence. Schwartz's songs, even if not up there amongst his best compositions such as Wicked and Pippin, still beg for strong voices to fill the phrases and soar with the melodies. Unfortunately here they don't and with big subject matter - God, Creation etc - more experienced performers would have made the piece more coherent. 

The relevance of Children of Eden in 2016 is debatable and this production feels slightly old fashioned where it could perhaps have been infused with an element of danger. Any theatrical experience requires the audience to believe another reality and in this show, for two and a half hours. The Union's production manages to suspend our disbelief fleetingly but not enough to convert an audience to this particular religious musical.


Runs until 10th September
Reviewed by Andie Bee

Allegro - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


****


Music by Richard Rodgers 
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Thom Southerland

The Company

Allegro is the third musical born from the long standing genius that is the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein. While neither their most successful piece, nor their most daring and despite it being a somewhat lacklustre story, Allegro still holds all of the charm and sophistication associated with R & H musicals. 

The story follows the life of Joseph Taylor, Jr., born to a middle class family in small town America. The son of a doctor, he grows up to follow in his father’s footsteps and training as a medic and trudging through the hardships of college, medical school and all the worries that come with it.

Thom Southerland’s direction is, as ever, expertly executed with the onstage action proving beautifully slick. Paired with Lee Proud’s choreography, the cast deliver compelling performances without going over the top. Anthony Lamble’s minimalistic set design of rolling set pieces and not much else is also beautifully flexible, making for easy interchanges between time frames.

Dean Austin has done an immaculate job with the band, affording a fine respect to Richard Rodgers’ music, giving a rich and full sound that is only aided by the acoustics at Southwark.

As Joseph, Gary Tushaw’s performance is excellent. He plays the polite and quiet leading man with a gentleness that makes you sympathise with him on all of his decisions. Playing opposite him is the spritely and brash Emily Bull, who plays Jennie Brinker, Joe’s eventual wife. Her voice is strong and she plays the free spirited character with a care free energy that, despite her ending up as a rather conniving woman, is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise average story.

The most wonderful and truly gripping part of the production is the use of puppetry to display Joseph in his much younger years. The cast’s control of the simplistic yet hugely effective puppet, adds a further dimension to the performance.

The Southwark Playhouse is building a reputation for extraordinary theatre. While Allegro might not be the most gripping of its recent productions, it is still a joy to watch.


Runs until 10th September
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Scott Rylander 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Steel Magnolias - Review

Hope Theatre, London


****


Written by Robert Harding
Directed by Matthew Parker


Maggie Robson

A beautifully bittersweet comedy/drama, set entirely in a small Louisiana town’s hair salon, Steel Magnolias focusses on six women from all walks of life who we discover have a bond between them stronger than the volumes of hairspray securing their expertly coiffured styles.

Written by Robert Harding, the book is based on his experience of his sister's death and by the end of the show’s press night never mind a dry eye, there wasn't a person in the audience who wasn't sobbing uncontrollably.

Samantha Shellie's performance as Shelby is key to the plot. Her fast approaching wedding and dire health conditions knit the piece together and Shellie's understated performance lends itself well to the piece, particularly in contrast to the high energy given from all six actresses that does not drown her out.

Playing Shelby’s mother, Stephanie Beattie is M'Lynn. Throughout the narrative we see M'Lynn constantly battling with her daughter over the wedding and her fragile health conditions and her future. She may be a a concerned controlling mother, but she has good intentions. The raw emotion though, that she portrays in the final scene, is remarkable.

There is similar excellence from the redoubtable Maggie Robson playing Ouiser Boudreaux. Robson’s manic characterisation of the older Southern woman is sheer perfection, from her ever changing voice to her eccentric movement. Quite simply she is a woman who has seen it all, done it all and we love her for it.  And as Truvy, the salon’s owner, Jo Wickham is a treat. Wickham can shift from have the audience clutching their sides with laughter to holding their breath trying not to sob within the space of about 30 seconds. The care and time that she has invested into her character is evident.

Matthew Parker does a fine job working within the Hope Theatre’s compact space. And paired with Rachael Ryan’s fun and engaging set that creates a fully functioning salon, complete with stationary blow-dryer and hair washing station, the audience are made to feel engulfed in the on stage action.  Throughout, the cast do themselves proud offering a whirlwind of female empowerment and a masterclass in acting.


Runs until 3rd September
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: LH Photoshots

The Battle of Boat - Review

Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames


****

Written by Ethan Lewis Maltby and Jenna Donnelly
Directed by Kate Golledge


The Company

The Battle of Boat is a new musical from the National Youth Music Theatre. Set in a seaside town on the English south coast in 1916, the carefree happiness of a group of young children is short-lived as they find themselves discovering more and more about the First World War that is unfolding around them. Their initial response, to join the army, is thwarted as they are inevitably each rejected for being too young. There is one exception however as William, the oldest of the group (played by Jonty Peach), is enlisted and is sent to fight in France.

The tale is of the persistent attempts that the children make to do whatever it takes to help their friend and their country, with Ethan Lewis Maltby and Jenna Donnelly weaving powerful themes of rivalry, leadership and battle. As is the NYMT protocol, the cast and orchestra are entirely comprised of young artists ranging from 11 to 21. The youthfulness of the cast, and of the nation's young generation lost to the Great War, serve to make the scale and impact of the musical even greater. 

With such a strength of talent arrayed across both stage (and orchestra pit) it would be unjust to single out individual cast members. This is not to suggest that the piece lacks standout performances, rather the contrary. There is an infectious emphatic energy amongst the entire company that is tangible from the outset. Director Kate Golledge and choreographer Darragh O’Leary have combined to create some exquisite work both in scenes and songs; taking us from land to stormy seas in the blink of an eye. Golledge ensures that while the script demands a lot from the young performers, their natural innocence and raw juvenile energy is never lost. Alongside a demanding text Candida Caldicot leads the orchestra and company through Maltby and Donnelly’s emphatic score that is almost akin to cinema, such is its grandeur. 

In the vast space that is the Rose, Diego Pitarch’s set sits comfortably, whilst at all times being scarce enough to leave ample space for the show’s controlled chaos that seems at times to overspill the stage’s edge. Illuminated trees and shadows that could in time serve for the ultimate game of hide and seek form the back drop to the piece, while four seemingly plain long wooden containers are used in every possible way under O’Leary’s genius and playful choreography. 

From the epic company numbers to stunning solo moments, each line, note and lyric carries a punch. The company has the audience in the palm of their hand from the word go and under Golledge’s sensitive direction have the audience laughing along with their childish games just as effortlessly as they achieve immense empathy facing the emotional and physical challenges of their journey.

The Battle of Boat is an epic piece of musical theatre. Maltby and Donnelly have made a brave decision in focussing a story about war from the perspective and reactions of a group of children. Credit too to Jeremy Walker who has produced the show and who time and time again ensures that the NYMT’s quality and standard is nothing short of exceptional, across all departments. With only three performances remaining, the show makes a theatrical voyage that is well worth catching.


Runs until 13th August
Reviewed by Andrew Milton
Photo credit: Matt Hargraves

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

MS. A Song Cycle - Review

*****



An album themed around the impact of a disease makes for an unusual release at the best of times and yet there is an unexpected noble beauty to Rory Sherman's MS. A Song Cycle. As Sherman writes in his CD sleeve notes, most of the people diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) are women, often in their 20s or 30s whose lives are at best, rearranged and at worst, devastated. Drawn from his own conversations with friends and family, Sherman has written a collection 14 songs, each one set to music by a different composer, and each recorded by a different woman drawn from amongst the cream of Britain's musical theatre performers.

Whilst all of the recordings are as humbling as they are beautifully crafted, a number are particularly profound, moving or even dammit downright entertaining. Robert J. Sherman (he of the illustrious songwriting line of Shermans and no relation to Rory) has scored the reflective Mondays, recorded by Rosemary Ashe. There's an innate sense of wisdom in Ashe's timbre, singing of the therapy found in a weekly group meeting - with Sherman's gentle melodies only enhancing the song's message.

What's That Jim? scored by George Stiles and sung by Caroline Quentin has a music-hall ring to its take on a woman's frustration at her condition, with a clever fusion of wit and irony in  Quentin’s delivery. Likewise the satire in Mummy's Not Well sung by Lauren Samuels with music by Paul Boyd is another bittersweet gem. The song tells of a child's perspective on her mother's diagnosis, the lyrics bringing a clever poignancy - naive, yet knowing.

Laura Pitt-Pulford's Cerulean Skies (penned by the talented Sarah Travis, more often to be found directing other people's music rather than composing her own) offers a deeply personal message from a mother contemplating her own decline in health as she addresses her child. 

One of the most heartbreaking perspectives on the album comes from Caroline Sheen's Tortoise & Hare (composer Gianni Onori) - sung by a woman who sees her partner physically speeding up in comparison to her own battle with MS, that is leaving her impaired and slow. It's perceptive, painful songwriting, powerfully performed.

And that last sentence is actually an apt description for the entire album. This review has highlighted those that tracks I found left the deepest personal impression and the key word there is “personal”. There's a bevy of other songs from other talented performers and creatives, each of whose contribution may strike each listener differently. They all deserve credit so: Also appearing on the album are Alexia Khadime, Lillie Flynne, Anna Francolini, Jodie Jacobs, Siubhan Harrison, Josefina Gabrielle, Preeya Kalidas, Janie Dee and Julie Atherton. Additional compositions come from George Maguire, Brian Lowdermilk, Erin Murray Quinlan, Verity Quade, Amy Bowie, Luke Di Somma, Tamar Broadbent, Robbie White and Eamonn O'Dwyer.

And on nearly all of the tracks, Ellie Verkerk puts in sterling work on the piano.

No personal gain is being made from the album, with profits going to The MS Society. All the artists involved have donated their time and talent, with Richard O'Brien providing the cash to get the CD released. As such, this review can only be a loving appraisal - to critique would be invidious - as would be to award anything less than 5 stars. MS. A Song Cycle is beautifully performed. Buy it!