Friday, 20 April 2018

The Last Ship - Review

Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool


Music and lyrics by Sting
Original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey
Direction and book by Lorne Campbell

Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick
For the most part, Sting’s The Last Ship is a thing of beauty. The Geordie songwriter / pop megastar has penned a well-crafted salute to the shipbuilders of his native Newcastle Upon Tyne and their industry that has long vanished.

Sting’s roots shine proudly throughout the show. The language is frequently and gloriously in the north eastern vernacular while the melodies, be they balladry or the more rousing ensemble numbers,  are anchored firmly in English folk heritage. Think of The Hired Man, fused with Blood Brothers alongside a hint of Auf Weidersehn Pet and you start to get close to the show’s heartbeat. 

It’s hard (nigh, impossible) to write of the plot and remain spoiler-free. Suffice to say, not only is there a solid industrial foundation to the narrative, there is also a cleverly crafted human interest too. Themes of love, ambition along with both a respect for and a challenge to the importance of family and tradition, are well woven into the narrative.

Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick lead the cast as Jackie and Peggy White, shipyard foreman and nurse respectively and both could not be more perfectly cast. Their singing voices may not be the finest, but McGann has a beautifully powerful presence that’s hewn from riveted granite. As he leads his workers in act one’s stirring Shipyard number, there is a believable wryness to his delivery that defines him, not only as a leader of men, but also as a shipbuilder with a deeply held a pride in his craft. Peggy is made of the same steel as her husband, but with the additional thread of a perceptively drawn woman’s compassion. We see her not only leading, but caring too. 

The story’s romantic theme derives from the school-love that blossomed between Gideon Fletcher and Med Dawson (Richard Fleeshman and Frances McNamee) and who we meet some 17 years later. Both actors are gifted with some of the show’s more heart-rending numbers, though McNamee leads the women in a gloriously tango-infused routine If You Ever See Me Talking To A Sailor.

The portrayal of the industry’s decline is as heartbreaking as it is recognisable. This review was written as the touring production played in Liverpool and there was a resonance to its message that was almost tangible sitting amongst the packed matinee audience in the Playhouse Theatre. Merseyside too has seen its docks and shipyards decimated.

But Sting and Lorne Campbell have pulled their punches with the villain of this piece. Mr Newlands (played by Sean Kearns) is the shipyard owner who, as his business crumbles, resorts to having to call in the police to clear the picketing workers, defiantly attempting to hold on to their livelihoods. He’s clearly the bad guy here, but the real "bad guy" was a far more complex machine of global and local politics and policies that crushed the shipyards along with many other of Britain’s heavy industries. Similarly, in a litany of current “issues” recited before the final bow, its hard to reconcile a reference to gun control in the USA, however fashionable that debate may currently be, with Newcastle shipbuilders stripped of their industrial pride and dignity. 

Creatively, the show is cutting-edge in its conception. 59 Productions’ set design makes for an ingenious use of simple girders and clever projections to create illusions that switch seamlessly from present day to backdrop to spiritualised suggestiveness. Lucy Hind has crafted clever and authentic dance work, while in the pit Richard John’s six-piece band makes Sting’s songs soar.

Whether the show will carry its charm into the metropolitan bubble of the M25 is hard to discern, with today's bloated Londoners being a world away from the harsh industrial axe that fell upon the North. Until then, the tour plays until July and it is well worth catching. 

The show tours until 7th July. Venues and dates can be found here.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Carousel - Review

Imperial Theatre, New York


Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry

Music by Richard Rodgers 
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer
Directed by Jack O'Brien

There is a gloriously challenging intensity to Jack O’Brien’s Carousel that creeps up on one throughout the evening and draws us into this glimpse of humanity’s cruel underbelly. Supported by Justin Peck’s balletic choreography (and dance is a strong feature of this production), O’Brien has stripped away what little froth Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original might have once contained.

The nuclear reactor at the core of this show is the chemistry between Jessie Mueller’s Julie Jordan and Joshua Henry as fairground barker Billy Bigelow. Henry defines Bigelow’s tragedy in a way that has not been seen, on either side of the Atlantic, for decades. He exudes an irresistible masculinity that would have acted as a honeypot for the girls who swarmed over Mrs Mullin’s carousel. But more than that, he captures a blustering vulnerability. His Billy is not a bad man, but rather a good man who has done bad things. And rarely is that human characteristic so profoundly displayed as it is here. Vocally of course Henry is a dream. His reprise of If I Loved You is but a warm up for his masterful Soliloquy.

Jessie Mueller likewise is an outstanding Julie Jordan. Mueller’s interpretation of this complex, grounded woman is piercingly profound. Through this performance we can understand how Julie can walk away from the security of her life at the mill, how she can still love Billy even after he hits her. The precision of Mueller’s work is devastating. In the penultimate scene, as she realises in a moment that the star that her daughter has shown her has come from Billy, Mueller rips our hearts open with her craft. And of course, she too is magnificent in full song. If I Loved You is exquisite but when, with Nettie, she sings the portentous What’s the Use of Wond’rin?, she has our heartstrings firmly in her grasp.

Onstage excellence surrounds Mueller and Henry. Renee Fleming’s Nettie is a masterclass in compassion and understanding, her You’ll Never Walk Alone spine-tingling as she supports Julie in her grief. Likewise Lindsay Mendez offers a convincing and beautifully fleshed out friendly foil as Julie’s best friend Carrie Pipperidge. 

O'Brien has cut the comic lift of Enoch Snow’s Geraniums in the Winder, along with Jigger Craigin’s There's Nothin' So Bad for a Woman, making it clear that this interpretation of the musical, albeit with its uplifting finale, is unrelenting in pursuing the story’s underlying tragedy. Both Amar Ramasar and Alexander Gemignani make fine work of Jigger and Craigin respectively notwithstanding that their roles have been trimmed by O’Brien’s scalpel. Setting the tone for the show, a neat touch from O'Brien sees The Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson) is given a role of fundamental importance right from the get-go.

This is a heartbreakingly beautiful interpretation of probably the darkest musical to have emerged from Broadway’s Golden Years but, and not unlike The Starkeeper himself, Jack O’Brien has firmly fixed his Carousel in the firmament of 21st century musical theatre.

Booking until September 2018

Josefina Gabrielle talks about Chicago

Sarah Soetaert and Josefina Gabrielle

As Chicago returns to London, I spoke with Josefina Gabrielle who as Velma is sharing the show’s leading credits, about the piece and her career.

Josefina:    Well, it's the longest running American musical. It's been running for 21 years on Broadway and it is wonderful to have it back in the West End. Chicago holds a very dear place in my heart, because I've had so many wonderful experiences with it. And I also have to admit an obsession with it too! Before I’d even saw the show, the original cast album had been a favourite of mine. I love to watch it and I love being in it.

It also has a real international appeal. Not only do theatre lovers come to see the show, but it brings other audiences too. It makes me feel very proud, and Cuba Gooding Jr., by the way, is a diamond. We love him, an absolute superstar. He's a true star - a lovely, warm, funny man and an excellent company leader too. And of course, to work with Ruthie Henshall is a privilege and a dream. I've followed her for years and admired her and we've meet socially on occasions too, but to finally get to work together, and to sing Class with such a classy lady, is a thrill.

JB:    You’re playing Velma but when Chicago was last in town you played Roxie. Tell me about that contrast.

Josefina:    It is terribly interesting, because I played Roxie for the first time, 18 years ago. I went in and out of Chicago on various occasions during its run. I think the last time I was involved as 10 years ago. So now I am Velma watching Roxie, having been Roxie watching Velma.

I suppose, maybe because of who I am now, 18 years later, my Velma certainly feels very grown up. Looking back at Roxie, I felt more sort of twinkly and girlie then. Now I feel more calculating, more of a planner, whereas Roxie didn't really think about consequences. She sort of turns on a six pence and just cleans up as she goes along, whereas Velma is more calculating. 

JB:    You’ve played a number of phenomenal roles in recent years. What have you brought from your experience to date, to add to your take on Velma?

Josefina:    Interestingly and thinking of Merrily We Roll Along from four years ago, I've tapped into Gussie quite a few times. 

JB:    The sexual politics of Chicago take on a different hue post-Weinstein. This production’s publicity shots follow the tradition of presenting Roxie, Velma and here, Mama Morton too, clad in underwear, while Billy Flynn (and Amos) remain fully clothed. How can that styling be explained, today?

Josefina:    I feel that the entire company, men and women, with the exception of Billy and Amos maybe, are owning their life with sexuality and physicality. Fosse is such a very strong, wonderful style of choreography, and we are wearing outfits and costumes that represent that style of the show and its dance.

If you think of any ballet company, any dance company, it's no different. It is a dance and singing and acting show, so you're covering everything, really. I don't feel anyone is being exploited or feeling weak, because of what they're wearing. 

JB:    Tell me your thoughts on performing Kander and Ebb's work. 

Josefina:    My experience with Kander and Ebb and also Rodgers and Hammerstein are that the subjects that they pick are so fascinating and very often ahead of their times. How they portray those subjects, the structure of the shows and the music is just so wonderful, such brilliant numbers, that is it pure, pure entertainment that really sort of picks you up and makes you soar, soar as in fly to the sky.

But when you really think about the message that you're putting across, it is wonderful food for thought of the whole sensationalising criminal behaviour in Chicago. Cabaret with the rise of the Nazis in Berlin. They touch on such fascinating subjects, moving you. And then, when you explore what you've celebrated, it opens your eyes. It's wonderful. 

JB:    I'm glad that you touched upon Rodgers and Hammerstein because the first time that I came across your work was at the National Theatre 20 years ago in Trevor Nunn’s remarkable Oklahoma! What do you mean by those composers being "ahead of their time"?

Josefina:    Well I've done three Rodgers and Hammersteins now. Oklahoma!, Carousel and The King and I and every time it's an education. It's the birth of a nation in Oklahoma! as that state was just coming into existence. The musical is about the land rush, starting from scratch and setting up communities. That's an entire education on the history of the birth of a state.

The King and I is all about cultural differences. Where you believe yourself to be superior, because you think you know better, but then another culture opens your eyes to your ignorance and you learn from each other. It's always been a wonderful education, and a sort of sense of coming home to, every time I've done a Rodgers and Hammerstein – the material is just so rich. 

JB:    And of course you are one of the few West End leading ladies to have played opposite Hugh Jackman!

Josefina:    Yes. I mean on stage, it's just me, isn't it?

JB:    And now, together with Ruthie Henshall and Sarah Soetaert, you can add Cuba Gooding Jnr to that tally too!

Chicago plays at the Phoenix Theatre and is booking until 6th October.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

42nd Street - Review

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London


Music by Harry Warren
Lyrics by Al Dubin
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Directed by Mark Bramble

Clare Halse leads the 42nd Street company

Revisiting 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – and it still remains the finest spectacle of dance to be found in the West End.

Lulu takes over the role of Dorothy Brock, crock, from Sheena Easton – and the show displays one of those rare moments of art imitating life. Wikipedia may disclose Lulu’s age but this review will not. Suffice to say that her days of being a chart-topping pop star were many decades ago – and indeed her last venture onto a West End stage was back in the ‘80s. But actually, that’s what Dorothy Brock is all about. She’s a faded star, long past her best. Lulu’s vocal magic may have slightly faded, but she still has star quality by the bucket load, alongwith a name that’s recognised on both sides of the Atlantic. Producers, Michaels Grade and Linnit are no fools – Lulu will put bums on seats.

And then, of course, there’s that 50-strong(!) company wowing the crowds with their dance. Ashley Day takes over as Billy Lawlor, but while Lulu may top the bill, it is unquestionably Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer who leads the show, with tap-dancing feet that become a blur of brilliance.

42nd Street was fabulous when it opened a year ago. It still is.

Booking until 20th October

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Wizard of Oz - Review

London Palladium, London


Conducted by Anthony Gabriele

Nearly 80 years after its release, there is not a lot left to say about the wonderful The Wizard Of Oz. A classic movie, beautifully crafted from script through to performance, design, photography, choreography and a legendary score.

Until, that is, one has the privilege of watching the movie on the big screen with the score played live by a 64 strong orchestra under the baton of Anthony Gabriele and Leader Susan Bowran in a screening produced by Ollie Rosenblatt for Senbla, in association with IMG.

We all know the story with its strongly fabled morality and lyrics that are literally enchanting. Gabriele has studied the film meticulously and his conducting his spot on to the frame. A skilled Musical Director will be able to harness live musicians to live actors with a seamless fluidity. But where the action is on screen however, the scope for fluid flexibility and the odd filler-bar here or there is not an option. For 2 hours and 400 pages, Gabriele has to hit his mark with pinpoint precision. And he does. Connecting us with our pasts and our heritage and offering a timeless link to a beautiful history.

Judy Garland et al may be captured, beautifully, in that flickering light beam and one may know the movie thoroughly, but Gabriele truly takes this score over the rainbow. If the gig comes around again, don’t miss it!

Twang!! - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart
Book by Julian Woolford
Directed by Bryan Hodgson

Peter Noden and Kweeva Garvey

Lionel Bart’s Twang!! first aired in London in 1965. The composer who, with his Oliver! had become the first British composer to win a Broadway Tony, died virtually penniless in 1999 and it was some ten years ago that his Estate approached Julian Woolford to work on revising the show’s book, prior to a try-out the Guildford School of Acting where Woolford still teaches.

One of the reasons Bart was to die broke was that he had invested a vast chunk of his fortune into the 1965 show that was to quickly garner the reputation of “the most expensive flop” in West End history and on close inspection it’s hard to discern quite what Woolford has added that might enhance the show’s standing. Loosely based around the story of Robin Hood (played by Peter Noden) and his Merry Men et al, Twang!!’s current iteration threads Bart’s numbers into a story that is as cliched and dated in its style as a Carry On movie - but which lacks the comic genius of the actors who made that particular style of humour a success. 

That being said, there are enough moments here to make for a mildly entertaining evening. Bart’s songs have an infectious Sixties charm that it is almost impossible to trash, while Mitchell Harper’s choreography is impressive and ambitious for the Union’s compact space. There are standout performances from Kweeva Garvey’s Marian (her singing of Bart’s Dream Child and later, Plant A Kiss is exquisite) and also Ed Court, a man who has long impressed as a musician but here delivers a cracking nasty Sir Guy.

For the most part the cast offer up a skilled, enthusiastic set of turns - though they are again hampered by the Union’s singular failure to mic their players.  Notwithstanding any current contentious issues surrounding the “Professionally Made, Professionally Paid’ debate (and this reviewer remains blissfully unaware of how the Union tends to pay their actors) one might nonetheless hope that some of their show's budgets could be deployed on some decent amplification. Maybe one day....

Woolford has scattered references to other famous musicals throughout his rewrite, and West End Wendies in the audience will enjoy playing spot-the-show in the throwaway references. And Twang!! is worth a visit if only if only for a chance to revisit some of Bart’s gems.

Runs until 5th May
Photo credit: Anton Belmonte

Thursday, 12 April 2018

I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical - Review

Live at Zedel, London


Written by Alexander S. Bermange
Directed by Paul Foster

For anyone who has sat through the drawn-out spectacle of a musical that just seemed to miss the mark completely, Alexander S. Bermange sympathises with you. From the opening number which promises so much, through to the second half that might feel as though it is dragging on just a bit too long, the audience’s plight is fully acknowledged in this spirited production.

What’s also apparent is that this is a decidedly un-rosy experience for the performers too. For all the contrived joviality and tightly directed cohesion on stage, the polar opposite is going on behind the scenes.

I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical is a satirical exposé of the life of a musical theatre performer, which poking fun at all those involved in a musical (the audience included) while the performers themselves also come to terms with why they endure such an ordeal.

The life of a musical theatre star is not an easy one. Auditioning is a gruelling and thankless task (beautifully communicated by Diana Vickers in her finest moment of the show), but even after getting a part, you could be resigned to waiting in the wings as an understudy to the star who will never willingly relinquish a show. Or you could be forced to contend with an unbearable star, as exquisitely portrayed by Suzie Mathers in The Diva Is Here. You may even end up with a stalker, before eventually becoming a teacher. The stories are all grounded in reality but layered with a healthy dose of comedy.

The cast of five - which includes Bermange on the piano, acting as narrator and an ensemble actor who longs to be recognised in his own right - is well assembled, with Oliver Savile and Liam Tamne rounding out the group. Strong vocals and on-stage chemistry means they are a delight to watch. Mathers and Savile are outstanding in their own rights, but even better together and no doubt this comes as a result of being reunited in their third production together.

Throughout however, it is apparent that rehearsal time was lacking; while the songs are broadly on point, the dialogue between numbers is rushed and often delivered off cue cards. This is a shame, since the material is sharp, creative and fiery and appropriately mirroring the energy levels that exist across a performer’s career, which gradually peters out.

Hopefully with time, the delivery will do the piece justice. Until then it remains a highly enjoyable evening and one which will no doubt give the audience a new perspective on the next musical they see.

Runs until 15 April, and then 19 April
Reviewed by Bhakti Gajjar