Monday 30 May 2016

Rob Rokicki Back In London - Review

The Pheasantry, London


There was much anticipation ahead of New York composer Rob Rokicki’s one night cabaret in Chelsea’s Pheasantry. Rokicki’s songs offer a refreshing alternative to much of the balladry offered up in new writing. His musical The Lightning Thief is currently running two separate tours in the USA before an off-Broadway run next year and he has another album shortly to be released, imaginatively themed around songs about monsters of popular mythology.

It therefore proved a disappointment to find the gig’s sound levels aligned to the needs of the Palladium rather than the more intimate requirements of a Kings Road pizza parlour. When Rokicki accompanied his (uniformly excellent) singers, or himself, on guitar or piano, the sound balance worked, just. But when his four supporting musicians on drums, bass, violin and guitar joined in, (who to be fair were equally as talented individuals), voices were lost in the din. Singers frequently had to belt solely to make themselves heard, making for a too frustrating evening, with much of the wit of Rokicki’s lyrics proving inaudible.

That being said, there were moments of exquisite vocal performance that shone out brilliantly (and, invariably, before the band kicked in). Emily Lynne and Sinead Wall had a chance to have their inspired acting through song shine in Casting Call For A “Best Friend” and similarly Helen Woolf impressed with her treatment of a witch in Hell Hath No Fury. Perhaps the most gorgeous number of the night was Torch Song sung by Charlotte Jaconelli. The song is resolutely tongue in cheek, satirising the biggest musicals’ biggest numbers with Jaconelli nailing the song’s comic nuance. The song’s joint greatest strength was perhaps not just the singer’s excellence, but also the fact that the band sat that one out, with accompaniment only coming from Rokicki on piano.

The New Yorker spoiled his audience with the riches of his assembled cast (even if we couldn't always hear the 5* musical theatre talent on offer). Amanda Flynn, aka Mrs Rokicki, was an impressive American import on the night, likewise singer and fellow composer Tony Greenlaw added a classy contribution. Lynne had been the driving force behind the gig and it was pleasing to see her She Loves Me cast connections reaching out to include Joshua LeClair too. In a powerhouse of energy Book Of Mormon’s Tyrone Huntley closed the first half – whilst after the break, violinist Amy Davis stepped down from her fiddle to offer up a gorgeous take on the song Lead Singer, at least until the band drowned her out.

When Rokicki returns to London – and he should – if he’s to play an intimate cabaret venue then piano or acoustic guitar is just fine. One suspects his songs are wonderful, they just need to be heard.

Friday 27 May 2016

Flowers For Mrs Harris - Review

Crucible Theatre, Sheffield


Based on the novel by Paul Gallico
Music and lyrics by Richard Taylor
Book by Rachel Wagstaff
Directed by Daniel Evans

Clare Burt

Flowers For Mrs Harris marks Daniel Evans’ farewell production at Sheffield’s Crucible and he bows out premiering a musical that is elegant, charming and beautifully crafted.

Paul Gallico’s novel, set just after the Second World War tells of Ada Harris, a charlady widowed during the Great War and who, upon setting eyes on a Christian Dior dress in a client’s house, falls in love with the frock and sets about earning enough cash to buy one of her own. The strength of Gallico’s tale hangs upon Harris’ steely humble resolve in a world that has shown her few favours. Radiating an enchanted kindness to all those she encounters and inspired at first by the spirit of her dead husband with whom she shares private conversations, act one is about Ada raising the near-fortune of £500 to purchase the dress, with the second half centred around her antics upon reaching Dior’s salon in Paris.

And at risk of spoiling, that's it for the plot - save to say that this hardened critic, who was expecting to be entertained if not necessarily moved by a show about a woman and a dress, was in tears at the denouement.

Gallico’s work is a minute examination of post-war England. A time of rationed austerity, where class was prevalent and everyone knew their place. His world also demonstrates the timeless virtues of grace and kindness, demonstrating that whilst some people of power and wealth can behave like pigs, so too and on both sides of the Channel, can privileged folk act with love and compassion.

At the centre of this journey is Clare Burt’s astonishing performance as Ada Harris. A glorious everywoman, Burt makes us believe in the utmost modesty of her lifestyle and its contrast with her dazzling Dior dream. We root for her endeavours and we (literally and audibly) gasp in anguish at her setbacks and stoicism. Imagine a female Jean Valjean, only this time from Battersea, and you start to get close to the genius that lies at the heart of Burt’s creation. 

Like Valjean’s encounters in Les Miserables, it is the individuals who Mrs Harris meets on her journey that make this tale. In assembling his cast Evans has plundered the A-List of Britain's musical theatre performers, with a neat conceit seeing all the cast (Burt excluded) double up from playing one role in Battersea to another in Paris – a touch that only makes the show’s charm sparkle more.

There is much for Anna-Jane Casey to do in London as Ada’s fellow widowed charlady, Violet Butterfield. Casey nails not only nails the female camaraderie of south London working class, but after the break returning as a fag hag of a Parisian femme de ménage, she is a hilarious delight. Rebecca Caine’s opera trained voice thrills, first as a wealthy Londoner and then as the manageress of the Dior salon who learns to overcome her own prejudiced snobbery.

Laura Pitt-Pulford plays a well observed, petulant, wannabe movie actress in London, who cares little for her cleaner, Mrs Harris. But act two sees this gifted actress metamorphose into Natasha, Dior’s star model and in sporting the scarlet Rose ballgown, the highlight of the season’s collection on the Paris runway, Pitt-Pulford takes our breath away.

There's a measured dignity to Mark Meadows’ supporting work, firstly as the ghost of Mr Harris and later on as a kindly French patrician, while Louis Maskell offers some beautifully sung romance as the young André, out to woo Natasha.

Lez Brotherston’s set design suggests a bombed out Battersea, all power station and gasworks. But as the interval strikes his grim London is flown away to reveal a skyline of Paris highlights – only enhancing the magic of Mrs Harris’ arrival in the French capital. Brotherston's imagery is embellished with the imaginative use of a revolve - a further nod to Les Mis?

The costumes are magnificent with act two’s fashion show proving a jaw-dropper. But badged as a musical – and to be fair Tom Brady’s 10piece band make fine work of the score – the tunes are hard to recall and frustratingly the show’s programme does not include a list of musical numbers. One’s memory can almost almost hint at having attended a play with songs.

Either way, the show is pure class and let's hope that London producers will have travelled to Sheffield for make no mistake, the underlying production values of Flowers For Mrs Harris are exquisite. If the right West End venue were to be found then this new musical, Clare Burt, and her stellar company would surely deserve Olivier-nomination.

Runs until 4th June
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday 25 May 2016

King Lear (at Birmingham Rep) - Review

Birmingham Repertory Theatre


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Buffong

Don Warrington and Miltos Yerolemou

It’s a mark of a good Shakespeare production that, even when one knows the play well, the show reveals new depths and nuances to the text. So it is with Don Warrington whose Lear, now playing at the Birmingham Rep (for a ridiculously short 3 further days!) is up there with the best.

Director Michael Buffong chooses not to play fast and loose with the context. This is a pre-mediaeval setting, all animal skin drapes for royalty and heavy swordplay, mounted against Signe Beckmann’s simply effective staging and it works. No gimmickry here, the power of this production rests solely in the verse and its delivery.

At 65 Warrington is the perfect age to be a monarch who is planning his retirement and wanting to bestow his kingdom upon his three adult daughters. Warrington descends convincingly into the red mist of his rage at what he mistaken sees in Cordelia as a loveless insouciance – and then takes us on the most harrowing of journeys as we watch him realising his foolishness as age slowly saps his mental faculties.

Warrington’s handling of Lear’s big moments is masterful. His curse of sterility upon Rakie Ayola's Goneril is appropriately splenetic, yet where one can occasionally sympathise with his daughter at this point, here Warrington bestows his evil words with a justifiable credibility that is rarely, if ever witnessed.

The man gets better – His impotent rage, howling at Kent being placed in the stocks and subsequent, classic, plea to his daughters to “reason not the need” is heartbreaking. As Lear’s detachment from reason becomes more pronounced, Warrington’s cri de coeur at recognising his decline, “oh let me not be mad” touches us, in our modern ageing society increasingly challenged by dementia, with a touchingly relevant poignancy.

Warrington is surrounded by a fine company – In a revelatory performance Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool bestows a perceptive wisdom on this most intriguing of Shakespeare’s characters. The love between the monarch and his all-licensed fool is tangible (only heightened by the pathos of Lear’s penultimate words “and my poor fool is hanged” on Cordelia’s death) and the white slap that Buffong paints his Fool in, which miserably washes off in the storm scene, offers yet a further glimpse into the stripping back of human facades that had so easily convinced the King.

Of Lear’s daughters Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia offers the most rounded performance, however all three women are at times occasionally inaudible. This may be down to the staging/venue, however if there is an opportunity to fine tune this, it would make a very good play even better. Philip Whitchurch’s Gloucester however makes for a touching turn. The sub-plot of his deception by Fraser Ayre’s bastard of an Edmund is effective – with Whitchurch’s “I stumbled when I saw” offering powerful pathos.

Deceptively wicked, Norman Bowman brings a chilling menace to his all-too caledonian Cornwall. A truly malignant thug, his terrifying manner towards Gloucester is frightening even before he lays hands on his host. And credit too to Buffong for laying on a truly gruesome blinding, complete with tendril-strewn eyeballs bouncing off into the stalls. Shakespeare intended the scene as a horror show and, to mash up the reference points, Bowman duly delivers some Tarantino for the groundlings.

Above all, there is a heartbreaking majesty to this production and in this anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, and with more Lears on the way, Warrington sets the bar very high. His Lear is every inch a King.

Runs until 28th May
Photo credit: Jonathan Keenan

Thursday 19 May 2016

Recognising The Value Of Britain's Fringe Theatre

My letter below was published in The Stage today

Dear Sir

I read with interest the very detailed British Theatre Repertoire Report 2014 (May 12) and the trends that it highlights.
It is disappointing to note, however, that the only theatres surveyed for the report were the members of the Society of London Theatres and UK Theatre.
In London alone there are approximately 80 Off-West End venues, the great majority of which are not affiliated to SOLT, and which have therefore been excluded from the report.
Off-West End venues not only offer theatre at ticket prices that are typically far below SOLT-staged productions, they also provide an organic base from which, occasionally, shows can springboard up to a more commercial SOLT venue.
Additionally, Off-West End productions offer outlets in which emerging artists are often discovered, and established artists can hone their skills.
The quality of many Off-West End productions is not in question. By way of example only, the Arcola and the Southwark Playhouse theatres frequently mount shows that garner four-star and five-star ratings in Britain’s mainstream national press, and which can play to packed houses with queues around the block.
As and when the next report on the British Theatre Repertoire is published, it needs to be more inclusive.
Jonathan Baz

Parade (at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester) - Review

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester


Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Directed by James Baker

The company of Parade

As musicals go, Jason Robert Brown's Parade is a tough gig. His Tony-winning score is an immense fusion of the sounds of America’s South, tackling a monstrous story of love in adversity and the utter depths of man's capacity to hate. The Leo Frank trial in the early 20th century split America, laying bare the racist core of the Confederacy. 80 years later, Brown's show was to become a troubling piece that held a mirror to its country’s soul - a mirror that to this day a large part of that nation still resolutely refuses to look in.

One of the first productions to be mounted in this newest of Manchester's venues, the old mill building lends itself well to Parade's disquieting storyline. Tough shows however require a strong cast and in this ensemble James Baker has assembled a company of standout performers. The show opens with the uncomfortably stirring The Old Red Hills Of Home and playing the Young Soldier, Aidan Banyard sets spines tingling within the first 30 seconds. As the show unfolds Banyard's vocal magnificence is found to be replicated throughout the entire cast.

Any production of Parade has to rest on strength in its leads of Leo and Lucille Frank. Tom Lloyd shines as the unfortunate Jewish accountant who finds himself framed and racially persecuted for a crime he did not commit, the rape and murder of a 13yo. Lloyd captures Frank's stubborn indignity perfectly, his slight frame metamorphosing into a performance of utter litheness in Come Up To My Office, before slumping back into quiet and purposeful, pleading, principle within It's Hard To Speak My Heart.

More than a match for Lloyd, Laura Harrison's Lucille brings a stunningly voiced maturity to the Southern belle that is Frank's troubled wife. Her initial uncertainty as to his innocence, that slowly forges itself into a righteous defence of her innocent husband is one of the finest female turns seen this year. Brown has written Lucille some spectacular numbers and Harrison brings an especially beautiful resonance to You Don't Know This Man, alongside the heartbreaking irony of her powerful duet with Leo, All The Wasted Time.

There is not a weak link in this cast. Memorable for their multi-role excellence are Matt Mills and James Wolstenhome. The sole black man in the cast, Mills has to pick up all of the parts that demand an African American male - and in playing wily convict Jim Conley, Mills displays a sublime mastery of the blues. There is an unsettling insouciance to his manner that only adds to the show's momentum. Mention too, here, for Shekinah McFarlane's Angela with a performance that more than suggests Cynthia Erivo's style and presence in its pedigree.

Wolstenhome however is simply a chameleon of performing excellence. It is hard to believe his Governor Slaton is played by the same man who also plays the (sometimes gutter) journalist Britt Craig, with his take on Craig's big number, Real Big News proving flawless, shocking and exhilarating.

Andrew Gallo's manipulative prosecutor (and Governor in waiting) Hugh Dorsey brings just the right amount of deviant corruption to the politics of his game, likewise Nathan Summer's portrayal of the evil Tom Watson. Spewing racist bile through the medium of hymn, Summer chills as he taps into the South's collective frustration at their racial purity being defiled,

The show's staging is inspired, with Baker using the mill's full space alongside William Whelton's clever choreography, to jar our attention. If one or two of his directions have wandered slightly off-piste it's no big deal - the strength of this show lies in the stripped-down excellence that Baker coaxes from his actors.

Musically, Tom Chester directs a 9 piece band that pays magnificent service to Brown's musical maelstrom. And in a nod to the trio of Chester, Baker and producer (and local girl) Katy Lipson, Manchester is unlikely to have seen many fringe performances assembled to such a high standard of production value. If you're coming from afar, the show is well worth the train fare. If you live in the North West, Parade is unmissable.

Runs until 5th June
Photo credit: Anthony Robling

Click here to read my foreword to Parade.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

La Poule Plombee - Review

St James' Studio, London


Sarah-Louise Young

Appearing as part of the (now ended) London Festival of Cabaret, Sarah-Louise Young's latest cabaret manifestation is a set entitled La Poule Plombée. Literally translated it means the "leaded hen", which offers a sardonic contrast to Edith Piaf's "little sparrow" (and of course sounds appetizingly like flambé too). However, Google a little deeper and one finds that Poule can also refer to a floozy or tart (human rather than pastry). And then remember that Young famously describes herself on Twitter as Cabaret Whore...

In this show however, Young is the very essence of pastiche as she dons the persona of an angst-filled chanteuse. Affectionately and perceptively mocking the chic French-diva genre, hers is no Piaf tribute gig.

A consummate professional, Young’s mask does not slip throughout. There may not be any personally revealing anecdotes here, but the 4th wall is cunningly and repeatedly breached as she rips up the entente cordiale with some deliciously credible swipes at British culture.

Young also brings an entertaining even if depressing mania to her act. Arriving on stage brandishing a large butcher's knife, the melodrama is played to hilarious effect - the knife gag leading into a song about a traumatised butcher's daughter, whose pet pig is slaughtered by her father. Nice.

Other numbers touch upon the Little Black Dress as well as an affectionate play on the word Encore that closes the set, keep the wit razor sharp while occasional moments of audience participation are managed perfectly by Young who never once lets good-humoured embarrassment slip into rank humiliation.  

With musical director Michael Roulston as deeply immersed in playing a supporting role as Young, the pair's banter may lack spontaneity, but it is polished to perfection. Young's mastery of the genre is up there with the best and it is a real treat to be offered a show that is so distinctly original.

A Song Goes Round The World - Review

St James' Studio, London


For one night only, Daniel Donskoy with Inga Davis-Rutter created an evocative evening of cabaret, which if not quite as global as the title suggests, offered a bouillabaisse (or should that be tzimmes?) of Continental songs from the 1930s that spoke of humour, love and culture as well as Europe’s more troubled times.

Only in his mid-20s Donskoy truly is a child of Europe. He’s grown up in several countries and boasts a multi-lingual magnetism that is as attractive as his voice is smooth. The first half sees him commanding the stage and whirling the audience through some of the bitter-sweet gems of the German and Yiddish songbooks. If a number of the songs will not have been familiar to the audience - it didn't really matter. Donskoy offered a warm and informative patter that seamlessly linked the numbers. His take on A Yiddishe Mame hit the sweetest of spots with his audience, while Bei Mir Bistu Shein that was to prove a multi-million dollar smash hit for the Andrews Sisters, was here stripped back to its origins. Donskoy’s Papirossen however, a lament from the Polish ghettos, marked a brief yet appropriate reference to the hellish devastation that the last century wreaked upon European Jewry.

As the silver tongued Donskoy danced through the linguistics, I was reminded of Joel Grey's chameleon-esque Emcee in Bob Fosse's movie Cabaret, singing Wilkommen in its three different languages. No sinister undertones here mind, nor of course the sleaze of pre-war Berlin in the dapper St James’, but rather an outstanding mastery of multi-lingual nuance that is not often heard.

The show dropped a gear after the break. Jackie Marks came on to sing La Vie En Rose. Sung well, Piaf’s songs can reduce grown men to tears. Notwithstanding Marks' all powerful belt and presence, her take on the number's English translation (which itself lacks so much of the French original's je ne sais quoi) made it all seem just a tad more Dorien than Diva. Donskoy then sang Piaf's Hymne À L'amour, a tall order for even an accomplished male singer and didn't quite hit the mark. As the gig evolves, its French Quarter needs work.

But this was an evening of musical diadems and fascinating facts. Who knew that Mary Hopkins' Those Were The Days had stolen its melody from the Russian folk song Dorogoi Dlinnoyu?

Davis-Rutter was a delight on the keys. Accompanied by bass and drums (perhaps a clarinet too, next time?) she partnered Donskoy and Marks perfectly, giving a spectacularly Spanish infused piano solo just before the interval.

With the intimate Studio packed for the gig, Donskoy and Davis-Rutter make a fabulous team. A Song Goes Round The World is an imaginative addition to London's cabaret scene and is well worth catching on its return.

Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Awards 2016

Sunday May 15th saw the Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year Awards 2016 take place at London's Novello Theatre. 
Catherine Francoise was at the event for and reports. 

Courtney Bowman (centre) and her fellow finalists

10 years on from the start of this innovative showcase awards competition,  it has evolved into a major influence, showcasing some of the  best final year student performers from the UK’s training academies, also discovering  new writers of songs and indeed complete shows. Stiles & Drewe’s writing partnership and career were majorly boosted when they won the Vivian Ellis prize in 1986 and their initiative in setting up the MTI Mentorship Award is to provide something similar for new writers in the 21st Century.

The platform the competition provides for young performers at the start of their careers is invaluable. Previous winners with now developing and established  careers sang Sondheim’s Old Friends from Merrily We Roll Along: Erin Doherty (2015) Corrine Priest (2014) Kris Olsen (2012) Alex Young (2010) Michael Peavoy (2009) and Natasha Cottrail performed Dougal Irvine’s 2012 Stiles & Drewe prize winning song Do You Want A Baby Baby? from the current production of The Busker’s Opera now playing at Park Theatre 4 years later.

We were also reminded that some non-winners have gone on to great things including Cynthio Erivo, now nominated for a Tony for her tremendous performance in the Broadway production of The Colour Purple (originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory).

From just 10 entrants in 2007 the competition has grown in numbers every year. There were 80 entrants this year of which 12 students were chosen as finalists as follows:

Courtney Bowman, Guildford School of Acting
Emily Day, Performance Preparation Academy
Lauren Drew, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts
Abigail Fitzgerald, Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA)
Dafydd Gape, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Eleanor Jackson, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Kirsty Ingram, Arts Educational Schools (ArtsEd)
Edward Laurenson, Guildhall School Of Music & Drama
Callum McGuire, Oxford School of Drama
Ashley Reyes, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art
Adam Small, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts
Tabitha Tingey, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Each singer was accompanied and supported by MD Mark Warman.

The 2016 Student Performer of the Year and £1000 was deservedly awarded to Guildford School of Acting final-year student Courtney Bowman. The fact that Courtney played corrupt mayoress Cora Hoover in GSA’s production of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle in 2015 was clearly evident in her barnstorming performance of Me and My Town. Her second song The Driving Lesson was a hilarious tour de force by this year’s Best New Song award winner Tim Connor (although Tim actually won his award for a different song in the competition).  Courtney’s characterful and tremendously well sung performances lit up the stage. 

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School final-year student Eleanor Jackson was a very popular runner up, winning £500 with a beautiful, detailed rendition of the title song from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, and a wonderful song highlighted by the judges, by James Burn called More To Life.  A truly beautiful voice and compelling, intelligent actress.  Definitely another name to watch out for

Stiles & Drewe praised all the new songs and writers presented this afternoon, but wanted a particular ‘shout out’ of 3 of the songs (which I also loved!)…

Rivets by David Perkins, Dominic & Joe Male, a witty, wordy quirky song indeed which Dafydd Gape of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama obviously enjoyed performing very much.

More To Life by James Burn, as mentioned sung wonderfully by runner-up Eleanor Jackson.

Little Wooden Horse by Chris Bush and MattWinkworth sung movingly by Royal Conservatoire of Scotland student Tabitha Tingey. 

I also very much enjoyed Wallpaper Girl by Rebecca Applin & Susannah Pears sung by Abigail Fitzgerald, studying at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA)

Alongside the celebration of Sondheim’s work, the competition was also set up to showcase and promote new writing and this year Stiles & Drewe divided this award into two parts.  Tim Connor won his £1,000 Best New Song award for Back to School.  London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art Ashley Reyes who sang Back to School received a £100 bonus prize from The Newsome Family.

Perhaps the most exciting and intriguing winner was that of the tremendously valuable inaugural MTI Mentorship award, which will offer support, feedback, workshops, writing & progress evaluations and mentoring for full year, culminating in a professional industry showcase (who wouldn’t be ecstatic to win this award!).  Composer/lyricist Darren Clark and book writer Rhys Jennings for Wicker Husband, both looked excited, overwhelmed and truly grateful to receive this award.  We heard a tantalising taste of this new musical when Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts student Lauren Drew sang a very beautiful evocative song, My Wicker Man. George Stiles described the show as ‘a sort of Folk Tale’ and ‘other worldly with all sorts of possibilities’ ~ I personally can’t wait to hear more!

Demonstrating a wide range and variety of songs and performance skills we are certain to see some, if not all these finalist performers and writers in productions in the future. Sondheim is notoriously challenging to sing and whilst everyone acquitted themselves well, a few young singers could have possibly chosen songs which suited their ages and technical abilities as they are now rather than as they will be in a few years or even 10 years’ time.  Tempting as it is to sing the big Sondheim ‘torch songs’ there are so many wonderful songs to choose from, it might have served them better to choose lesser known songs that may have showcased them even more strongly than the iconic songs did. 

The tremendous calibre of the judges should also be noted. There is a separate panel of judges for each element of the competition enabling them to concentrate on their specific area.

Judging the STUDENT PERFORMER OF THE YEAR Edward Seckerson as chair was this year joined by Jason Carr, Sophie-Louise Dann, Anne Reid and director Thea Sharrock. 
Judging BEST NEW SONG were Don Black, Paul Hart, Lotte Wakeham, George Siles & Anthony Drewe. 
Finalist judges for the MTI STILES & DREWE MEMBERSHIP AWARD were Vicky Graham, Paul Hart, Luke Sheppard, George Stiles & Anthony Drewe.

A wonderful afternoon of young music makers was also further enhanced by truly wonderful performances from Julian Ovenden and Sophie-Louise Dann who finished the first half by singing the powerful soul-searing duet Move On from Sunday in the Park with George.  Sophie-Louise Dann also sang a touching new song by Stiles who accompanied her, Six and Half Inches from your Heart from a new musical called Becoming Nancy. Whilst the judges were deliberating Julian Ovenden sang two songs from Sondheim’s earlier work: Love I Hear from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962) finishing with a tremendous Being Alive from Company (1970).

There are so many people involved with the SSSSPOTY awards and everyone has to be named and thanked which unavoidably means fairly long lists of names and credits which could make it feel like an end of term school event.  As well as singing, Ovenden was a warm, witty and very charming compère and host.  Ovenden’s repartee, genuine love of Sondheim & Music Theatre and respect for all performers, kept things flowing whilst also ensuring we got all the necessary information.   

Congratulations to all writers and finalists. Musical Theatre is fortunate indeed to have Stiles & Drewe, Julia McKenzie and Edward Seckerson providing this tremendous opportunity and being so passionately committed to young performers and new writing.   And we are in for a treat with The Wicker Husband methinks!

Photo credit: David Ovenden

Sunday 15 May 2016

Guys and Dolls - Review

Phoenix Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Gordon Greenberg

The Guys from Guys and Dolls

The current London cast of Gordon Greenberg's Chichester production of Guys and Dolls, recently moved across town to the Phoenix Theatre, is a delight. This company's polished excellence give a delightful treatment of Frank Loesser's words and tunes, themselves a carefully crafted tribute to Damon Runyon's Broadway fables.

The move to the Phoenix itself was an an improbable 12-7, the London production having been planned to leave the Savoy and continue its tour around the UK. It was only upon seeing the warmth of the capital's reception that canny producers opted for the tour to spawn a continued London residency, before hitting the road.

There is an irresistible loveliness around these four leads. Over from America, Richard Kind is a wonderfully lugubrious Nathan Detroit. Kind nails the old promoter's romantic ineptitude as he struggles to find a home for his floating crap game. Beautifully expressive, in a suit that's deliberately cut just a size too large, there's a generous measure of a recognisable everyman in Kind’s comic creation.

Also new to the show is Samantha Spiro's Miss Adelaide. Spiro is all five of New York's boroughs rolled into one - and the shtick that she evolves with Kind is comedy gold. If her vocals may not be the finest, her acting through song is off the scale, including a revelatory nuance to Marry The Man Today (and this from a critic who's loved the show for 35 years). Elsewhere, Spiro’s Take Back Your Mink, all Marlene Dietrich for the first couple of verses before she Hollanderizes her voice into a magnificent Broadway belt for the closing stanzas, is a very guilty pleasure.

Siubhan Harrison is the only lead to have remained from the Savoy and like London’s springtime her Sarah Brown has blossomed magnificently. Of the story's leads, it is only Brown and Sky Masterson who truly evolve through the show discovering both each other and love. Harrison convinces with a touching poignancy as she struggles to resist Sky's charms, along with a glorious set of pipes. Back in Chichester, Clare Foster set Sergeant Sarah's bar very high and it is a joy to report that Siubhan Harrison's tambourine bashing mission doll more than rises to the occasion.

The final newcomer to the romantic quartet is Oliver Tompsett's mellifluous Masterson. Tompsett not only sounds perfect, he looks the part too (his cocked-trilby poise reminding me wistfully of 1982's Ian Charleson at the National). Cool yet ultimately crumbly, with Tompsett it’s all about the voice and the man is a treat to watch and listen to.

It's the lightly sketched details to Loesser's supporting ensemble, those citizens of his Runyonland that add the magic to a great Guys and Dolls and this company doesn't disappoint. Gavin Spokes' Nicely Nicely Johnson convinces as a sweaty water-buffalo in Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat, alongside Jason Pennycooke who delights as an ingeniously created Benny Southstreet.

The diminutive Cornelius Clarke offers up a pugnacious Harry The Horse, sitting well alongside an outsized (and perfectly cast understudy) Cameron Johnson as Big Jule, the Chicago mobster. And as it’s currently the season to celebrate under-recognised understudies, a nod too to Lavinia Fitzpatrick whose dancing as the Diva gave a fabulous contribution to the Cuba routine.

Andrew Wright's choreography alongside Carlos Acosta remains a highlight with both Cuba and the Crapshooters' Ballet pieces continue to offer flair and spectacle. In the pit, Gareth Valentine's work on the new orchestrations brings added sparkle to some wonderful Songbook stalwarts.

Guys and Dolls works best when it doesn't take itself too seriously - and it is truly the mark of an in-form company that a packed theatre can laugh at even the most modest of Loesser's gags. Chemistry? Hell yeah, chemistry! An un-ashamedly romantic, comic-book sketch of New York’s low-life, Guys and Dolls is a perfect evening's entertainment.

Booking to 30th October

My Thoughts on Jason Robert Brown's Parade

As Jason Robert Brown's Parade opens at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre this week, I was invited to write the Foreword for the production's programme.
With the producers' permission, my article is reprinted below. 

It is a tremendously exciting event for Manchester's newest theatre, Hope Mill Theatre, to be staging the city’s première of Parade, a show that is both inspirational and yet deeply troubling. The musical is a complex, true and thrilling story that touches upon some of the worst aspects of humanity while celebrating a love that flourished in the most desperate of circumstances.

Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-winner kicks off during the 1913 Confederate Memorial Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia. The Civil War had been fought (and lost) some 50 years earlier and it is the aftermath of that defeat that powers the context of this show. 

The Southern States had fought the North in a desperate, bloody struggle to hold on to their right to enslave African Americans. Slavery was (and is) de-humanising and barbaric and yet, to a majority of folk in the Confederacy, it was not only acceptable, it was desirable. Southern racism was ingrained and the Confederate flag remains a chilling emblem of the white supremacists.

As that 1913 parade passed by, Mary Phagan a white 13 year old girl from Marietta, just outside Atlanta, was brutally raped and murdered in the city’s pencil factory where she worked. Amid a hue and cry for justice, it didn't take Atlanta’s Police Department long to be conveniently pointed in the wrong direction, accusing Leo Frank, the factory superintendent. Frank may have been white, but he was a Yankee from the North and worse, a Jew. 

Parade explores how Frank was subsequently framed and how he and his wife Lucille, fought back. Child abuse and murder may not be regular subjects for a musical theatre treatment, yet from this dark core, composer Jason Robert Brown has fashioned one of the finest musicals to have emerged in the last 20 years.

Parade succeeds on so many levels. It has a finely crafted score and libretto, it's a history lesson and a towering love story. Brown won a Tony for the score; listen out for the traditional melodies of the South, carefully woven into his work. There’s Gospel, Spiritual, Blues and Swing in there, with the composer saving perhaps one of musical theatre’s finest coups for his Act One Finale. As Parade’s narrative reaches a horrendous turning point, Brown has his citizens of Atlanta launch into an exhilarating cakewalk. Where Kander and Ebb brought Cabaret’s first half to a troubling close with ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’, Brown’s cakewalk juxtaposes jubilation with injustice. Rarely has an array of swirling Southern petticoats and frocks been quite so stomach churning.

As a history lesson, Parade is up there with the best. The opening number ‘The Old Red Hills Of Home’ hits the audience with an unforgiving staccato percussion that soon includes a funereal chime alongside discordant strings, before evolving into a chilling yet (whisper it not) discomfortingly stirring anthem. The song is remarkable in that between its opening and closing bars, Brown tells the entire story of the South’s Civil War. A young and handsome Confederate soldier sings the opening lines, who by the song’s end is a gnarled and crippled veteran. Wounded and bitter, the old soldier dreams of the ‘lives that we led when the South land was free’. 

Brown also kicks off the second half with a punch. While Parade is famously about anti-Semitism, ‘A Rumblin’ And A Rollin’ is sung by two of the Governor of Georgia’s African American Domestic Staff, both well aware that while the Frank furore is gripping the nation, their lot hasn't significantly changed, even after the abolition of slavery. Riley, the Governor’s Chauffeur has a line ‘the local hotels wouldn't be so packed, if a little black girl had gotten attacked’ that should prick at America’s collective conscience even today, while his killer lyric a few bars on, ‘there’s a black man swingin’ in every tree, but they don't never pay attention!’ has a devastating simplicity.

Parade also beats to the drum of a passionate love story. Early on we find Leo and Lucille questioning their very different Jewish lifestyles. He’s from Brooklyn, a ‘Yankee with a college education’, while she is a privileged belle about whom Frank observes ‘for the life of me I cannot understand how God created you people Jewish AND Southern!’. There is a cultural gulf between the pair which, upon Leo’s arrest, only widens. How Alfred Uhry’s book and Brown’s lyrics portray the couple’s deepening love, is a literary master stroke. 

While the show was to receive numerous nominations in both Broadway’s 1999 awards season and later in 2008 on its London opening, the Opening at New York's Lincoln Centre disappointed, running for barely 100 performances. Variety magazine called it the ‘ultimate feel-bad musical’ and the crowds stayed away.

It was however, to be at London’s modest Donmar Warehouse, directed by Rob Ashford who had been the show's original Dance Captain on Broadway, that the show was to soar. So much so that Brown took the Donmar production back for a successful run in Los Angeles, with Lara Pulver, the Donmar’s Lucille, still in the lead. Thom Southerland’s fringe production a few years later at London’s Southwark Playhouse received similar plaudits. 

So why was Parade loved in London, yet shunned in New York? Wise theatre heads have suggested that perhaps Americans have little appetite for a musical that focuses upon such an ugly feature of their country’s history.

100 years on, what has been the legacy of the Frank case? For good, it served to spawn the Anti-Defamation League, America’s anti-fascist organisation. However the episode also re-ignited the burning crosses of the Klu Klux Klan. I recently visited Marietta to see for myself where Leo Frank’s story ended. Sadly, even if un-surprisingly, the site isn't marked amidst what is now a busy road intersection and if you didn't know what you were looking for, you'd never know you've been there.

And think back to last year, with the horrific massacre of 9 Black Americans, shot as they prayed in a South Carolina church, by a man who was pictured proudly waving the Confederate flag. Incredibly up until last year, a handful of States still flew that flag from government buildings, with Mississippi still including the Confederate emblem as a component of its state flag to this day. 

The Leo Frank trial and its aftermath ripped a nation apart, re-opening fault lines that to this day have barely healed.

© Jonathan Baz 2016 All rights reserved

Parade opens at the Hope Mill Theatre on 18th May and plays until 5th June. 

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Lloyd Kaufman - Creator of The Toxic Avenger - In Conversation

Lloyd Kaufman

The Toxic Avenger - The Musical has received rave reviews on its European premiere at Southwark Playhouse. I had a coffee with "Toxie's" creator and the founder of Troma Pictures, Lloyd Kaufman along with his wife Pat, who were over in London to see the show.  

JB:    Tell me about the creation of Troma pictures, its inspiration.

LK:    Well, Troma descends from a very obscure American university called Yale. It was the '60s, a time for peace and love and make the world a better place, idealism and all that.

I was going to be a teacher or a social worker.  I was going to teach people with hooks for hands how to finger paint, all that kind of stuff. I got put in a room (ok, God fucked up my life) with a movie nut, a guy who ran the film society and I started drifting into the film world.

He was an auteur proponent and the office of the film society had a stack of magazines from the French cinematique, Cahiers du Cinéma. Being a very classy guy, I speak fluent French, so I started reading the magazines. The articles in those days were written by critics, and it was all about the auteur theory and controlling the movies and the movie should be the director's event come from the heart. I bought in to all that.

We had also a very tiny bedroom. Our beds were head to toe, and at night I would inhale the stinking feet of my roommate, and the Aroma du Troma was born and I found that instead of wanting to teach the people with hooks for hands how to finger paint, I decided that I wanted to film them.

The moment I decided, the exact moment I decided, was during a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's 'To Be Or Not To Be', with Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, and Robert Stack. If you want to blame somebody for Troma, go to the graves of Lubitsch,  Stack and Lombard and take a picture.
I mean, if you look at Picasso's work, you will see that he was inspired by the great portrait artists and all that. 

JB:    So, referencing Picasso, do you see yourself as bringing Cubism to the cinema?

LK:    I see myself as bringing Troma-ism to the cinema!
JB:    What are the politics and the origin of The Toxic Avenger?

LK:    I had a Socialist grandmother. Big influence on me

You see the Toxic Avenger films all have a basic premise. There is a town of Tromaville. The little people of Tromaville are perfectly able to run their lives, but they are victims. Firstly of a conspiracy of a labour elite, that's the labour leaders who make millions of dollars while their constituents eat dog food. Then there is the corporate elite and we all know who they are. Finally there is the bureaucratic elite, the Congress of the United States, who have never worked a day in their life for the most part but who all are feeding at the public trough.

And then you get the eco-warrior campaigning guy who runs the Environmental Protection Association or whatever it's called. He goes on to get to be made the chairman of the board of Waste Management, the polluter, the garbage company that pollutes. It’s all one big revolving door.

The little people of Tromaville are sucked dry of their economic and spiritual capital, and sometimes they need The Toxic Avenger (Toxie) to save them! He lives in the dump.

Oh by the way you can't say “superhero” because you get a lawyer's letter from Warner Brother's / Marvel because they own the English language! Yeah, the Elite now owns the language. There are words, “superhero”, you cannot use! This is the world we live in, you have to say 'superhuman', you know? At least we do, because we've gotten lawyers letters.

When The Toxic Avenger was a comic book from Marvel they called him a superhero, but when The Toxic Avenger was no longer a comic book hero with Marvel we used this word 'superhero' and we got, ahem, a nice letter from them.

JB:    And what decided Toxie’s transition into a staged musical.

LK:    David Bryan (one of the composers) had seen The Toxic Avenger in a movie theatre when he was a kid and always wanted to do a musical of it!

JB:    Is there any quarter of society you would not offend?

LK:    I don't think there's anyone I would not mock. But I would draw the line at certain themes.

JB:    Such as?

LK:    In other words, if someone offered me a job directing a movie that suggested that Hillary Clinton was a decent, honest, patriotic citizen……. I would stop. I wouldn't go near it, right?
JB:    So as America gears itself up to have Hillary vs. Donald come November, what would Toxie say, to that?

LK:    Well, you know, Toxie has Tromatons which react automatically. That's part of the pathos of Toxie is that he can't help himself. He kills people who are evil without wanting to! So he might very well kill both of them, I don't know.

JB: A Troma movie at its most visual/visceral level is not for those with the faintest stomach.

LK:    Let me tell you something about the violence. Monty Python, big influence. Big influence. I mean, also, let me tell you that Steven Spielberg does real violence, right? That movie about the war, Saving Private Ryan. That was realistic! 

Saving Private Ryan, and Bruce Willis, Die Hard, that's real violence! Our stuff is cartoony.

CNN has stuff on the morning, as children are eating their little Cheerios, that get to see the stuff in the Balkans, with that war that Clinton helped stop. They've got to wake up with body parts and god knows what, right there on the TV, with their breakfast! Little children. No problem there. But god forbid Troma comes along with 'The Toxic Avenger' 

You cannot legislate morality. It is impossible. They've never done it. I'm 70 years old. They haven't figured out how to do it. You can't do it! 

I mean, what's more violent than the Bible, for heaven sakes? We just toured the National Gallery today. Giant tableaux of people with arrows in them, and, you know, it was violent!

JB: You’ve had some talented people start out with you and Troma. Trey Parker who created South Park and Book of Mormon and Eli Roth who is an acclaimed horror director. How proud are you of these wunderkind alumni?

LK:    I'm extremely proud! 

JB:    After this show, do you see any future Troma inspired musicals? 

LK:    Well I made a movie called 'Poultrygeist: The Night of the Chicken Dead', which is a kind of a musical. It’s got singing and dancing and it’s about the anti-fast-food movement.

JB:     Finally, is there any question that you wish I’d asked that I haven’t?

Pat Kaufman:    You could ask him, how did you get that fabulous wife?

JB:    Excuse me for not asking that question! Where did you meet your fabulous wife?

LK:    I'm asked very often what I am most proud of. I think I'm most proud of the fact that I've been married for 42 years to the same person.

 And I've had the same partner for 42 years, Michael Herz. We've never had a written contract. He can empty the bank account any time he wants. - Not that there's anything in there, but he could empty it at any time!

JB:    Lloyd Kaufman - and Pat - Thank you for your time. 

The Toxic Avenger plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 21st May

Mark Anderson as The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse