Sunday, 1 May 2016

Sunset Boulevard - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed by Lonny Price

Glenn Close and Michael Xavier

Billy Wilder's seminal 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard is a satirical gem that scooped three Oscars back in its day and is still ranked amongst the top 20 of American films of the last century. If you've never seen it, then read this review and then go watch it. A link to view the movie online is at the foot of this page.

Wilder’s genius lay not only in his script and direction, but in hiring so many Hollywood greats to act in his meta-movie. Norma Desmond, his fictitious, faded Hollywood star was played by Gloria Swanson, herself a legend of the silent movie era. Cecil B. DeMille played himself and Max, her loyal butler was played by Erich von Stroheim, back in the day a silent-movie directing genius.

Where Singin’ In The Rain was all about the death of silent-movies and later Mack and Mabel celebrated their very existence (and note how Swanson’s name pops up in that show’s song Movies Were Movies), Sunset Boulevard explored a far darker world – that of the impact on a megastar whose 30 million fans have deserted her and who is now isolated and deranged, holed up in her mansion on Sunset Boulevard, with just a chimpanzee for company. Wilder could almost have been foretelling aspects of Michael Jackson’s lifestyle…

So, it is a remarkable credit to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton that their musical is such a homage to Wilder’s classic. And in Lonny Price’s iteration, to see Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, offers perfection in casting.

For sure, Close is not deranged (neither was Swanson in 1950) and nor has she been deserted by her fans (the adulatory cheers as she walks on stage in what is her West End debut, even before the final rave ovation prove that). But what Close is, is a Hollywood Legend of the grandest order, ranking in her generation alongside Meryl Streep, but not really many others. And that defines part of the magic of this production at the Coliseum. A Hollywood diva is in London, playing …a Hollywood diva. This will not happen often in our lifetimes.

Sunset Boulevard makes for a sensational night in the theatre. Close, returning to the role that she created in the USA 20 years ago is a remarkable presence. The show is at its strongest revolving around Norma Desmond’s mania and her two big numbers With One Look, defining how she filled the screen in her heyday and As If We Never Said Goodbye, sung as she makes a heartbreaking return to a Paramount sound stage, connect strongly with the pulse of the original movie.

As the hack writer Joe Gillis, Michael Xavier is perfect. As his character is hardened to the trash of Tinseltown and possessing a body to die for (literally), there are few people in town who could match Xavier’s presence and vocal excellence. Opening the second half, his big number Sunset Boulevard defines Hollywood’s rapacious brutality.

The youthful love-interest comes from Siobhan Dillon’s Betty Schaefer. Wilder created Schaefer very much as a two-dimensional, film-noir, femme fatale and Dillon nails the woman’s beautiful allure.

Perhaps after Close, the most ingenious casting decision has been to select the Swedish Fred Johanson to play Max. Johanson not only brings the most carefully crafted interpretation to Madame’s “keeper of the flame”, striving to preserve the paper-thin illusions of her deluded world – but he is also a dead-ringer for von Stroheim’s creation. There’s not a lot for Max to sing in the show, but Johanson makes fine work of the haunting New Ways To Dream.

Fred Johanson

The economical concert staging is pulled off with aplomb. Michael Reed’s on-stage 48-piece orchestra provide a lavish treatment of Lloyd-Webber’s score, whilst Stephen Mear’s inspired choreography makes versatile use of the Coliseum’s space and walkways.

It all makes for a very stylish musical, Glenn Close's Norma Desmond proving unforgettable.

To watch Sunset Boulevard online click the link below

The show runs until 7th May
Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

The movie's title shot

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Show Boat - Review

New London Theatre, London


Music by Jerome Kern
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the novel "Show Boat" by Edna Ferber
Directed by Daniel Evans

Emmanuel Kojo

Show Boat at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre was the best musical that I saw last year and its London transfer is setting a very high bar for 2016. Daniel Evans' production, mounted on Lez Brotherston's spectacularly evocative set doesn't just reprise one of Broadway's greatest ever musicals, it recreates Americas Southlands and Midwest at the turn of the 20th century, with a spine tingling intensity.

Famed as the "original Broadway musical" Show Boat is powered by a narrative that steams through human love and tragedy, fuelled by some of the finest songs written - and in this production, performed by arguably the most talented company in town. Chris Peluso and Gina Beck lead as Gaylord Ravenal and his wife Magnolia. Peluso, who takes over the role from Michael Xavier, offers his own distinctive interpretation of the riverboat-gambler whose heart is melted and enchants with a convincing passion both in solo and in his famous duets of Make Believe and You Are Love.

Beck continues to deliver a magnificent Magnolia with an arc, tragic yet strong, that breaks our hearts. As Magnolia matures from wide-eyed love-struck teenager into a challenging adult life, Beck is en pointe throughout. Truly one of the finest of her generation, the power of her soprano is spine-tingling. Her duets with Peluso may be charming, but in After The Ball, she takes the roof off.

Rebecca Trehearn's Julie offers a performance that is perfectly nuanced throughout. Her character hides a complex secret (no spoilers here) and on re-visiting Trehearn's performance, the tiny details that betray Julie’s deepest fears are performed exquisitely. And of course she matches Beck's vocal perfection. Can't Help Loving That Man Of Mine evolves throughout the evening until it's the song on everyone's lips at the final curtain, whilst Bill, a beautiful lament Is one of the second half's highlights.

Rebecca Trehearn and Gina Beck

The musical is famous for Ol' Man River, a song that's arguably bigger than the Mississippi it tells of. The ridiculously young and talented Emmanuel Kojo continues to kick the song out of the park. He gives it a beautifully bass foundation, yet also allows it to soar with a spirituality. The despair of the African American stevedores, so cleverly evinced in Kern's classic chords and Hammerstein's inspired lyrics is a thing of wondrous grief when sung by Kojo's Joe. Sandra Marvin as Queenie brings a worldly wisdom to her modest role but, again with her gorgeous vocal range, she makes fine work of Mis’ry’s Comin’ Roun’ and the second half’s jolly Hey, Feller!

Alex Young's rising star continues to shine. Her feisty Ellie Mae Shipley providing many of the show's compassionately comic moments with Life Upon The Wicked Stage being delightfully executed. Opposite her, Danny Collins plays her stage husband Frank Schultz. Collins’ dance work is a marvel, his routine with Young during Goodbye My Lady Love being a blur of perfectly executed footwork. In fact Alistair David’s choreography is stunning throughout. The company numbers are breathtaking, either in their raw humanity during Ol’ Man River, or the simply stunning exuberance of Act One’s opening and closing routines.

Show Boat speaks with charm of a time gone by. Whilst its darker sides of racism and gambling/alcohol addiction are sadly timeless, so too is its observation of marriage. As the Ravenals’ union fails, both Joe and Queenie’s marriage along with that of Captain Andy Hawks and wife Parthy (again, excellent supporting work from Malcolm Sinclair and Lucy Briers) endure the decades. There’s a theme of recognizable hen-pecked husbandry that bridges the racial separation and while Parthy and Queenie’s domineering wives raise a warm chuckle in their disciplined approach to housekeeping, it all harks back to a golden and more gentle age of storytelling, when vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood entertained the world. It’s a further credit to Evans, David and Brotherston that the whole production exudes such a filmic quality.

As Tom Brady's orchestra provide the perfect backdrop to a night of laughter and tears, Show Boat defines flawless musical theatre.

Booking until 7th January 2017
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Toxic Avenger The Musical - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Benji Sperring

The company

There's a fabulous pedigree behind the satirical jaunt that is The Toxic Avenger - The Musical. Inspired by the Troma Studios b-movies of the same name and with music and lyrics by David Bryan (he of Bon Jovi) and Joe DiPietro (both of Memphis fame), the show is an irreverent pastiche of late 20th century America.

Set against the toxically polluted backdrop of “Tromaville”, New Jersey, Mark Anderson is Melvin Ferd The Third, inadequate but essentially good, who gets dropped into a vat of toxic waste by hoodlums. He survives the dunking but emerges as Toxie, a hideously deformed mutant with superhuman powers who sets out to win the heart of Sarah, a (conveniently) blind librarian. To describe the show as tongue in cheek could almost be an obtuse reference to the grotesque prosthetic (good work from Jonathan Moriarty North's studios) that Anderson sports as Toxie. But this musical's not to be taken seriously and it's only to be seen by those who share that guilty pleasure of liking like their comedy served bloody, with a large helping of political incorrectness on the side.

Deliberately setting out to spoof itself by requiring a cast of only five, Anderson along with Hannah Grover who plays Sarah, are the only actors allowed to stay in role throughout. The remaining multitude of characters are made up by Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering who spin through costume changes with breathtaking speed and Lizzii Hills who spends her time alternating between Tromaville's Mayor and Melvin's mother - and who closes act one hilariously as her two characters fight (each other!) in a number aptly entitled Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore.

There's merciless mockery in Bryan and DiPietro's lyrics and the show drips with wit and some killer lyrics. That Toxie’s stench, can be rhymed not only with “french” but also with “mensch” is a stroke of genius. If some of the satire sometimes flags, when it’s good it’s inspired. Pickering’s appearance as a Folk Singer with The Legend Of The Toxic Avenger is a spot-on tribute to John Cougar’s Jack and Diane, whilst Anderson’s You Tore My Heart Out will stay with me for a long time. 

The creative work is classy too, with Mike Lee’s set design, all skyline, vats, and steam-belching oil drums cleverly re-creating New Jersey’s polluted shoreline. Set above the stage, Alex Beetschen’s band make fine work of a score that’s epic in its range.

If you enjoy comedy-horror that while being carefully (and expensively) crafted, refuses to take itself seriously, you'll love The Toxic Avenger. Not for the easily offended, this is top-notch trash! 

Runs until 21st May
Picture credit: Claire Bilyard

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Evelyn Hoskins - There Was A Little Girl - Review

Battersea Barge, London

Evelyn Hoskins and her band

A packed Battersea Barge saw Evelyn Hoskins deliver a slick and intimate cabaret. Elfin / gamine / diminutive - take your pick of the adjectives, Hoskins' looks famously belie her age and for a show titled There Was A Little Girl she not unreasonably opened her set, clad in a tightly fitted and collared school-girl outfit.

The Sound Of Music's Liesel (who Hoskins recently played live on ITV) was famously 16 going on 17, and only this time last year Hoskins was playing Carrie, a telekinetic teenager of similar age yet barely out of puberty - so clearly there's been a little bit of typecasting going on. But the singer has cannily and professionally exploited her charms to the full. As she sung When I Grow Up from Matilda, Hoskins brought an almost ethereal beauty to the number.

A few songs into the evening however and it didn't take long for Hoskins to shed the chrysalis of her kid's costume, literally let her hair down and emerge before our very eyes, transformed from precocious brat to twenty-something beauty. Her set list stepped up a gear too as she duetted First Date / Last Night with Jon Tarcy (previously her ITV Rolf), later duetting with Sam Lupton in a mellowed That's What's Up.

Hoskins' take on The Things That Men Don't Say offered a beautiful vocal, framed with a maturity that dispelled her trademark youthfulness - and there was to be another most charming of double acts as, whilst strumming the ukulele, she sang Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Wanna Have Fun alongside her director Frances Ruffelle. Few performers understand the nuance of cabaret like Ruffelle who had polished Hoskins' act to a lustrous sparkle, ably supported by MD James Taylor's three piece band.

A gloriously assured and virtually faultless performer, Evelyn Hoskins is a welcome addition to London's cabaret scene.

Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

Doctor Faustus - Review

Duke of York’s Theatre, London


Written by Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Jenna Russell and Kit Harington

Christopher Marlowe’s story of Dr Faustus is well-known. The scholar no longer able to find interest in the traditional fields of knowledge (law, religion and medicine) who delves deep into the dark arts and to make a pact with the Devil, selling his soul in exchange for 24 years of godlike powers. 24 years of fame and success followed by eternal damnation. 

Black and existential in its original form, here Marlowe's play is given a more cynically contemporary twist as Colin Teevan introduces new texts that connect today’s transient and trashy pop culture with the moral vacuum Faust makes for himself. 

The result is  fascinating, disturbing and at the same time farcically ironic, like a delirious post-hangover nightmare. The barely-dressed actors inhabit Soutra Gilmour’s stage as already-damned souls, occasionally with an unbearable tension much like the slow-motion protagonists of a Bill Viola video, at other times simply with aggressive violence.

Kit Harington plays a young Faustus, in possession of both human frailty and ingenuity. His pact with Lucifer however is firmly set in the 21st century, with our anti-hero seeking TV celebrity rather than the traditional order of regular superpowers. No longer a scholar, he becomes a magician like David Copperfield or Dynamo, desperate for popularity. Faustus’ longing for a show in Vegas reveals the height of his ambition: we're not in 1592 anymore and people’s deepest desires have changed. 

Harington, albeit looking more comfortable delivering the modern sections by Teevan than the originals, convinces as the easily-duped Faustus. The real strengths of this production however lie with Jenna Russell’s Mephistopheles and Forbes Masson as Lucifer. Russell’s performance is magnificent, part demonic seductress and part talent agent. Her ability to convey the suffocating love/hate relationship with Faustus – Who is really the master, who the servant? – is outstanding. In her nightgown, with her short hair, Russell remains the powerful central focus of her scenes and don't linger too long in the bar either - her on-stage singing towards the end of the interval is an infernally ingenious treat.

Masson shines as a sardonic and auto-ironic Lucifer, dangerously mellifluous more than straightforwardly intimidating and a nod too to Tom Edden for his representation of the seven deadly sins. Helped by Jon Clark’s lighting, his is a spectacular transformation through the sins. 

It certainly makes for a stimulating night at the theatre. Lloyd and Gilmour have a well-established partnership that leads to stunning visuals, usually supported by outstanding performances. Russell is fabulous, Harington’s Faustus is likely to be best enjoyed by his fans.  

Runs until June 25th.
Reviewed by Simona Negretto
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Friday, 22 April 2016

Funny Girl - Review

Savoy Theatre, London


Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Revised Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Mayer

Sheridan Smith

“People”, who didn’t manage to nab their seats fast enough for the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Funny Girl can most definitely rest easy in the knowledge that this acclaimed and triumphant revival is an even bigger and better show following its transfer across the river to the Savoy.

Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice simply oozes star quality. Her comic moments are sublime, as is the heartbreak in her portrayal of Brice’s journey as the laughs fade and her world turns ever so less funny. Smith’s versatility as an actress is displayed to heart rending consequences. She grabs the audience with her quirky grin, comic panache and a varied quip of one liners and expressions sure to catch anyone’s eye, quickly proving that she has what it takes to sweep both the dashing Nick Arnstein and the audience into both her life and our hearts. Darius Campbell plays Arnstein to perfection and opposite Smith, gives us a pairing you’ll want to root for and hate in equal measure as the tale unfolds. Equally, Marilyn Cutts as Mrs Brice gives us an all too stern, yet familiar (and alongside her friends, hilarious) mother to Fanny.

Michael Mayer’s flawless direction has allowed the transfer to grow effortlessly on to the Savoy’s stage. Lynne Page’s choreography is much more refined and suited to the larger house here, with numbers such as Henry Street and the ever so hilariously diplomatic Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat evolving from impressive, to now “stand out” at the Savoy. In particular, the magnitude and accomplished intricacy of Page’s Temporary Arrangement truly dazzles in its new home. A nod too to the ensemble, whose efforts in such a fast paced “conveyor belt” of a show, both literally and metaphorically, provide the backbone to both Fanny’s fast moving world and this epic production.

Arriving (almost) hard on the heels of Gypsy, there’s more of Jule Styne’s sensational music to fill the Savoy. Under Theo Jamieson’s baton the 14 piece band provide pizzazz and nuance in equal measure as they deliver so many seasoned songbook favourites. Harvey Fierstein too has done a fabulous job in fine-tuning Isobel Lennart’s original book, proving that even the greatest shows can be improved upon.

Just, for one minute, take a look back at London’s theatre landscape over the last 12 months. It is incredible that so many of this nation’s smaller and regional theatres have transferred sensational revivals of Broadway classics into West End houses (and, in the case of the Menier’s The Color Purple, even back to Broadway itself!). Britain’s theatre practitioners lead the way, with Funny Girl proving yet another 5* example of world class Theatre.

Booking until 8th October
Reviewed by: Jack Clements
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Ria Jones Plays Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Directed by Lonny Price

Ria Jones

Last night, following the indisposition of the show's leading lady, Ria Jones was called upon to play Norma Desmond.

Theatre PR Kevin Wilson was in the audience and with his permission, I am proud to share his review here.

The West End and Broadway is littered with real-life cases of people taking over in a starring role through illness or misfortune and shows like 42nd Street even use it as the main story frame. But those of us fortunate to personally know Ria Jones, who stepped up to the plate so heroically in Sunset Boulevard last night when Glenn Close was taken ill, know that she is already one of our greatest Musical Theatre stars, yet largely unknown as a "face". 

At 19 she had been the youngest actress ever to play Eva Peron in 'Evita', followed shortly by her stunning West End debut in 'Chess' as both Svetlana and Florence. Grizabella in 'CATS', Fantine in 'Les Miserables, The Narrator in 'Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' Liz Imbrie in 'High Society' Reno Sweeney in 'Anything Goes', 'The Witches of Eastwick' all followed among many other notable roles... Hell, she even created the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's original Sydmonton workshop. 

Born to play this flashy, dramatic, highly operatic role, she was always billed as The Alternate Norma but few expected her to get to actually don the turban. Last night she did with just a few hours notice. And she stormed the stage and took the roof off the building. She must have been terrified (and exhilerated in turn) as she uttered Norma's first words off stage and descended the massive staircase to the stage below and a sea of disappointed punters. But she won them over with a performance that was pure CLASS.

There had been blood on the carpet in the box office as puce-faced theatregoers waving self-print tickets costing hundreds of £££ in the air demanded their money back (no chance, there) – and they delayed the show by 20 agonising minutes. Thanks to just 3 puny notices, hundreds more in their seats weren't aware anything was wrong... Then the theatre manager (poor man) took to the stage with a microphone and announced Ria was in the lead. Someone behind me in the stalls shamefully shouted out loudly "GIVE US OUR MONEY BACK!" There was no large scale booing but much murmuring and muttering then her army of fans – me included - many in the gods having bought tickets at just an hours' notice screamed and shouted and clapped her in. 

"I know you are in for a treat and it sounds like many of you here know already and agree with me," the apologist manager finished with final rejoinder to the neersayers. 

And Ria was S-E-N-S-A-T-I-O-N-A-L. Backed by the 51-piece ENO orchestra (who all applauded her off stage after the curtain call) she has never sounded better... this was HER MOMENT and she knew she had to be better than she's ever been before. She hit every high note like a clarion bell. Her final, thrilling defiant "They'll say Norma's back at last ...With one look I'll be me!" silenced any doubters that they were seeing an inferior performance... and the crowd went absolutely wild. 

At the curtain call, co-star Michael Xavier bowed down before her on stage and producer Michael Grade was first to grab her in the wings as the sound of the cast applauding her enveloped her. A class act, indeed and one I am so priviliged to say I witnessed up close and personal from the front row. It was a night I will never forget.

Siobhan Dillon, Michael Xavier, Ria Jones, Fred Johanson