Tuesday 30 April 2024

Pippin - Review

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Roger O. Hirson
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Patricia Hodge

In what was quite possibly the finest vocal interpretation of this show to be heard on this side of the Atlantic, Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin played to a packed Theatre Royal Drury Lane for two nights only.

Written in the 1970s as part-allegory against the Vietnam War, Pippin is a curious work that was never to achieve commercial success in the West End. Unquestionably a show of two-halves, act one is a magnificent pastiche of the medieval court of Charlemagne with grand romance, intrigue and glamour and some of Schwartz’s finest compositions. The second half in contrast tails off into a quirky domestic love story that lacks voltage and excitement. One can understand how, outside musical theatre enthusiasts, the show has failed to gain traction in front of large-scale British audiences.

All that being said, the cast that Jonathan O’Boyle has assembled for this concert production were sensational. Jac Yarrow stepped up to the title role and from his sublime handling of Corner Of The Sky early in the show, his credentials were defined. Alex Newell is flown in from the USA to take on the challenging role of Leading Player. Newell brings charisma and strength to a part that demands pinpoint timing alongside strong vocal presence and delivers magnificently. Zizi Strallen plays Fastrada, Pippin’s scheming stepmother. Strallen only knows world-class performance values and her balletic take on the evil queen is sensational. She also knocks her big solo, Spread A Little Sunshine straight out of the park.

The evening’s biggest delight however is in Patricia Hodge’s take on Berthe, Pippin’s elderly grandmother. Her number No Time At All is perhaps the most glorious celebration of life to be found in the entire musical theatre canon. Hodge delivers the song and its singalong chorus to note-perfect precision, with a power that belies her years. Lucie Jones is given the spotlight after the interval as Catherine, Pippin’s love interest. Jones of course is flawless in her singing but she’s battling against a storyline that defies credibility.

The production’s choreography was ambitious in its Fosse-tribute intentions - but while the dancers’ talents were unquestioned, they needed far more rehearsal time to pull off Fosse, well. 

Never say never, but it is unlikely that Pippin will ever sound as good in London as what O’Boyle has achieved at Drury Lane this week. A neat touch saw a 50-strong choir of ArtsEd’s finest adding impressive vocal heft throughout the evening. Equally Chris Ma’s directing of the London Musical Theatre Orchestra was spot-on throughout.

Pippin’s 50th anniversary concert production was a memorable musical theatre treat.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Saturday 27 April 2024

Tim Rice - My Life In Musicals - Review

G-Live, Guildford


Before writing this review, I have to declare an interest. I am neither personal friend nor relative of Sir Tim Rice and I have only met him briefly, in a professional capacity, on a couple of occasions. However, throughout my 60 odd years Tim Rice’s songs have been part of the soundscape to my life and the lives of my family. From my own youthful encounter with Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat while at school, through the mega hits of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita and then through to my own kids growing up in that whole new world of The Lion King and other Disney animated-features, Rice’s lyrics have been there. And thus it was as much in homage as in artistic interest to sit in a full house in Guildford and enjoy an evening of Tim Rice – My Life In Musicals.

This show was first reviewed early last year when Rice trialled it over a very brief 4-venue tour. This year the itinerary is gruelling – 20 shows in less than a month covering the country from Bradford to Truro, but if the number of venues has been stretched, the quality of the evening remains world class. Rice is perched on a bar-stool onstage throughout, as Duncan Waugh’s 4-piece band and a quartet of West End singers give life to a raft of songs from his life’s discography. When the moment is right, Rice himself steps forward to offer anecdotes linked to the songs and his own remarkable career and collaborations with so many composers. Songs from Joseph get things going, with an unexpected poignancy in the number Close Every Door To Me, which in the show is of course sung by the imprisoned Joseph in Egypt and which today resonates with the 100+ children of Israel (and other nations) currently held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.

As Rice moves on to talk about Superstar (his abbreviation of the show’s title) he explains Andrew Lloyd Webber’s genius in fusing rock music with a more classical musical theatre structure, and the decision of the music publishers for both Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and subsequently Chess, to on all three occasions release the album well in advance of the show. With hindsight, such a strategy speaks volumes for the underlying musical strength of a Broadway or West End show – the melodies and lyrics alone generating huge support and admiration even before one actor has set foot on a stage.  Singers Shonagh Daly and John Addison brought an Evita medley to life, with Madalena Alberto, herself an accomplished Eva Peron in a more recent iteration of the show, offering up a gorgeous Another Suitcase In Another Hall.

Rice wraps up the first half with a briefly moving introduction to Anthem from Chess, suggesting that the song’s lyrics are now more appropriate than ever. Rice clearly has a love from his country, demonstrated if for no other reason than by his commitment to taking this show on the road across virtually the entire land. His intro gave Anthem’s already powerful lyrics, an even stronger punch.

The second act kicked off with Chess’s Someone Else’s Story beautifully sung by Daly, before the impressively guitar-wielding Sandy Grigelis performed a stirring Fight The Fight from From Here To Eternity. The evening also continued with the display of Rice’s EGOT collection (Emmy, Grammy, Tony, Oscar) with the “Oscars” tribute comprising a medley of Evita’s You Must Love Me, segueing into Can You Feel The Love Tonight and then A Whole New World from Aladdin. The two Disney numbers of course have been massive in their reach and to see their writer sat simply on a stage on a stool, in a UK regional venue, tapping his feet to his lyrics being perfectly sung, is quite simply a privilege. 

The 8 gifted singers and musicians on stage are testament to the thousands of individuals, both performers and crew, to whom Rice's creative genius has given employment over the last six decades. Add on the millions worldwide who have been entertained by Rice's talents and it is clear that his global footprint is quite simply remarkable. Rice’s modest and self-effacing presence on stage belies his achievements as the greatest living musical theatre lyricist.

An evening in the company of Sir Tim Rice remains an all time high.

Thursday 25 April 2024

What (is) a Woman - Review

Arcola Theatre, London


Written by Andrée Bernard
Directed by Michael Strassen 

Andrée Bernard

For two hours Andrée Bernard holds the audience rapt in her one-woman wonder What (is) a Woman, a play with music penned by the actor herself.

Telling the story of an (un-named) woman, Bernard skilfully blurs any boundaries between autobiographical fact and fiction as her tale follows the arc of an actress from a teenage drama-school naïf through to the worldly wisdom of middle-age.

Bernard charts us through her character’s crushes and loves - from the sad abortions of her early sexual experiences through to the tragic desolation of failed IVF attempts in her later years, in a narrative of remarkably bitter-sweet charm.

This male reviewer cannot comment upon the authenticity of Bernard’s prose, but as she exhaustingly commands both the Arcola Studio’s compact stage and our attention with her story, and irrespective of our own sex, one cannot fail to be moved by the overwhelming humanity of the evening.

Bernard brilliantly captures the key people who’ve impacted her character’s life - from an elderly bandy-legged drama coach through her various lovers and a frequently appearing hilarious pastiche of her gay, cigar-chomping agent, Cholmondeley.

The script ranges from witty, to biting, to painfully poignant - and in an elegantly flowing dress and sensible heels, Bernard’s performance, directed by Michael Strassen and choreographed by Lucie Pankhurst, is a whirl of perfectly positioned movement.

The acting is flawless - how Bernard ages her character with no additional makeup or costuming is little short of remarkable - and the writing and compositions, en-pointe throughout. There may be moments when Bernard’s singing is less than perfect, but the strength of her lyrics carry the songs nonetheless.

Daniel Looseley and Jess Martin on keyboards and bass respectively provide the musical accompaniment to an evening of outstanding new writing, brilliantly performed.

Runs until 4th May
Photo credit: Kate Scott

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Long Day's Journey Into Night - Review

Wyndhams Theatre, London


Written by Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Brian Cox

Brian Cox heads an impressive cast in Eugene O’Neill’s grim take on early twentieth-century America. Widely considered the finest of O’Neill’s works and drawn from the writer’s autobiographical experiences, Cox plays James Tyson, a miserly washed-up actor in his sixties and the patriarch of a family wracked with alcoholism, morphine addiction and consumption. 

Cox may take the starriest billing but his fellow performers are equally magnificent. Patricia Clarkson is his wife Mary, with Daryl McCormack playing elder son James Jnr. and Laurie Kynaston as Tyson’s youngest child Edmund.

In a 3hr 20min show, each of the 4 characters is given ample room by O’Neill to explore and display the depths of their own personal tragedies. All of the quartet are profoundly flawed, with the evening proving a stunning combination of outstanding prose delivered to perfection. Cox may be the unlikeable linchpin of his family, but even he garners a modicum of sympathy as the full extent of his and his family’s misfortunes are laid bare. Clarkson and her take on Mary’s surrender to opiates offers perhaps the evening’s most poignant interpretation.

Set over the course of one long day, in the confines of the Tyson house located in a remote coastal Hicksville, Jeremy Herrin’s direction is masterful, enhanced by Lizzie Clachan’s simply designed set and Jack Knowles’ ingeniously effective lighting.

It is rare for such a magnum opus of a play to be performed by such a gifted company. The evening may be uncomfortable and unhappy, but it is also unmissable.

Booking until 8th June
Photo credit: Johan Persson