Friday 28 February 2020

The Prince of Egypt - Review

Dominion Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Philip LaZebnik
Directed by Scott Schwartz

Luke Brady

The Bible has not always had an easy relationship with musical theatre. Two notable exceptions being Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar and that  perennial favourite Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Each of these casts a contemporary take on the scripture and features a through-sung score. A modern oratorio. At about the same time US composer Stephen Schwartz gave us Godspell, a whimsical take on the Gospels that proved just as successful and gave us memorable hits such as God Save The People and Day By Day. What Godspell lacked was staying power and major revivals have been few and far between. His musical Children Of Eden, also based on episodes from the Bible, failed to take off in 1991, despite development from the RSC.

A few years later, Schwartz scored a  hit with an animated version of the story of Moses from DreamWorks Animation, The Prince Of Egypt. It’s probably nowhere near the classic movie that the publicity would have you think, despite the noble line-up of actors providing the voices.  However Schwartz hit pay-dirt with the Academy-award winning anthem When You Believe, recorded for popular release by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

Move forward another 20 years and Schwartz has shifted the story to the stage, adding further musical numbers to the score and a book by the author of the original screenplay Philip Lazebnik. All the familiar key points are in place. There are bulrushes, a baby in the basket and a burning bush. Lazebnik’s storytelling technique manages to cram many plot points into a relatively short running time. Yet for all this speed it still manages to drag, only ever really springing to life in the musical numbers. And boy, do we pray for some of the whimsy that made Godspell so appealing in its day. Instead we get a story that’s both too leaden for family audiences and too simplistic for adults.

Kevin Depinet’s set design works on certain levels, with the projections and variegated screens capturing the burning desert or the majestic temples of the Nile with some sense of scale. However bearing in mind that this is a story steeped in mysticism and miracles, there’s very little magic on show. Sean Cheesman’s relentless choreography offers us the Twelve Plagues of Egypt via interpretative dance, which would be fine if this was Sadler's Wells or the Union Theatre. I personally want a little spectacle from a West End production, especially as the hand of God was supposed to be behind it. Instead we get polystyrene building blocks and a couple of magic tricks that wouldn’t impress a ten-year old, let alone a Pharaoh. To add to the disconcerting simplicity of the special effects and set, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes managed to look both cheap and unsettlingly anachronistic.

Schwartz has padded out the original with ten additional numbers, none of which really have the impact of When You Believe. The song Dance To The Day is given to Christine Allado's Tzipporah the captured Midian to establish her pride and independence. This turns out to be one of the best numbers in the show, proving a highlight for Allado and a shoo-in for this year’s Eurovision entry. Thankfully a woefully underused Alexia Khadime as Miriam and Allado do justice to When You Believe but it’s a long wait for this edifying anthem.

It’s good to see Gary Wilmot back in the West End in trousers, rather than his regular star turn as Dame at the Palladium panto. Wilmot has a natural warmth on stage and his musical number as Jethro, offers a little light relief from the rather worthy, soul-searching anthems that populate the score. The focus of Lazebnik’s story is, understandably, Moses played by Luke Brady and more pointedly his relationship with Rameses, the boy who would be Pharaoh, played by Liam Tamne. There’s oddly little chemistry between the two, although this may be down to Lazebnik’s script, which struggles to fashion a credible tone and ends up as conflicted bromance. Brady and Tamne each get to strut their stuff vocally, both proving they have quality singing voices but there’s little here to help establish them as West End leading men.

Schwartz appears to have added to his collection of problematic Bible-based musicals with The Prince Of Egypt, but director Scott Schwartz’s cheap and often confused looking production doesn’t actually help matters. It cuts too many corners, dumbs down Moses’ relationship with God and beefs up the one with Rameses. Who knows, in years to come a fringe theatre may manage to hit the right tone. In the meantime, this production could do with a little more creative flair and re-write.

Booking until 31st October
Reviewed by Paul Vale
Photo credit: Matt Crockett

Saturday 22 February 2020

Elton John It's A Little Bit Funny - Review

Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London


Written by Chris Burgess
Musical arrangements by Andy Collyer

Martin Kaye

Martin Kaye enthrals his audience at Upstairs at the Gatehouse as he spins the tale of Elton John’s ascendance into global super stardom, complete with pitfalls along the way. Kaye’s enthusiasm for Elton is infectious, weaving in his own autobiographical detail into his recantation of the singer’s journey from the lonely Reginald Dwight in grey flannel trousers through to the sensational Elton John in spangled hot pants. 

The show is centred around a night in Las Vegas where Kaye, during his time performing in Million Dollar Quartet, bumps into his ultimate hero Elton John in a hotel lobby where the two then spent an eventful, confessional, evening together. The evening’s narrative however seems minimal, especially when contrasted with Kaye’s excellent singing talent and with the Rocketman movie having only recently graced our screens, there is not much here that we do not already know. But the songs are great and undoubtedly the best part of the performance is a finale that sees Kaye getting the whole audience to sing along with Crocodile Rock.

Ben M Rogers’ set is striking, with huge illuminated lettering and the piano being put front and centre (literally with some incredibly inventive live projection of Kaye’s finger work), giving the feel of being front row at an actual Elton John concert. The lighting was effective, helping to create atmosphere and tone, as the sparse set and limited props allowed Kaye’s showmanship, with his odd socks and wild piano playing, to be the main focus of the event. 

Clever and entertaining, the show is a musically brilliant tribute to one of our greatest showmen.

Runs until 1st March
Reviewed by Dina Gitlin-Leigh
Photo credit: Ben Hewis

Message In A Bottle - Review

Peacock Theatre, London


Choreographed by Kate Prince
Based on the songs of Sting

In a display of sensational dancing, Message In A Bottle takes the songs of Sting and The Police fusing them into a performance, under Kate Prince’s choreography, that focusses on love, resilience and above all, a desire for freedom. 

The evening is a display of inclusiveness and freedom of expression in different ways: both physical and emotional with the first act starting through the telling the story of a strong supportive community, where people are friendly and look after each other. As the simple narrative unfolds it becomes heart-wrenching to see the challenges of tougher times – the separation of a married couple and a community experiencing hardship.

Throughout, the performances are sensational. Nafisah Baba in particular is a mesmerisingly strong and talented dancer.  Baba’s moves are animalistic, full of grace and intrigue and it is a delight to watch her dance. To the backing of The Police’s classic number Roxanne she flourished in a dance of spice and passion.

While Baba stood out it has to be said that all of Prince’s talented troupe are fantastic. Their moves are filled with physics, energy and mutual connection, communicating brilliantly the concepts of teamwork, friendship, family, community and love. If there is but one small flaw, it is the space constraint of the stage which seems to restrict the dancers’ movement.

A dance of love between two male dancers is impressively performed to Sting’s Shape Of My Heart, with the audience exploding into applause. One can see the dancers not only holding the line of the dance, but also transferring their feelings to the audience. 

Message In A Bottle is an inspiring show filled with energy, joy, love and expression and a must see for lovers of modern dance.

Runs until 21st March
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Lucie Jones Live at The Adelphi - Review

Adelphi Theatre, London


Lucie Jones

Having captured the public’s attention back in 2009’s X Factor series, Lucie Jones this week played her first solo gig (with guests), impressively packing out London’s Adelphi Theatre.

That same stage has seen Jones play the title role in Waitress for the past 7 months and in a sassy touch the singer opened her set with that show’s well-known "sugar, butter, flour" motif from What’s Inside, segueing into a powerful performance of Funny Girl’s Don’t Rain on My Parade’. A bold choice of an opening number with an even bolder lyric tinkering to “Hey The Adelphi, here I am” receiving a rousing cheer from the adoring crowd. 

Throughout the evening the audience were treated to various anecdotal moments from Jones’ early life and career, highlighting her down to earth nature. Her natural charisma and warmth giving an almost cabaret-style intimacy to the vast venue. 

Providing the musical accompaniment was Freddie Tapner’s 22 piece London Musical Theatre Orchestra. Jones and Tapner have worked together on numerous occasions, their synergy and tightness evident from start to finish. 

In occasional support were John Owen-Jones and Marisha Wallace, the latter having played Waitress’ supporting role of Becky alongside Jones’ Jenna. Rent’s female duet Take Me Or Leave Me was performed with all the tricks, flicks and flair that you would expect from these two West End leading ladies. Equally impressive was a beautiful rendition of ‘The Prayer’ sung alongside Owen-Jones, with these two Welsh singers demonstrating a beautiful handling of the Italian lyrics with soaring melodies and pitch-perfect harmonies sung so tenderly one could have heard a pin drop.

Other stand-out songs were Gimme Gimme from Thoroughly Modern Millie, Lucie’s original song from her 2017 Eurovision entry I Will Never Give Up On You and Into The Unknown from Frozen 2. It is just a shame that the gig was for one-night only as Jones will have no trouble filling out the Adelphi again!

Reviewed by Sophie Kale

Friday 14 February 2020

Somebody Loves Me : The Songs of Gershwin - Album Launch

Image preview

Friederike Krum, one of Germany’s finest mezzo-sopranos captivated a Ronnie Scott’s audience with a handful of the composer’s classic numbers to launch her album.

Assuming an improvised, off the cuff jazz style, there was but the tiniest hint of restraint as Krum delivered a delicious take on some of the last century's most beautiful songs. Displaying a modest playfulness with the audience as she performed the album's title track, Krum went on to shine in her closing rendition of Summertime, sung in its originally intended operatic style. This wonderful ending to a very modest set allowed Krum to highlight the beauty of Gershwin’s music and her ability to bridge the gap between classical and jazz through powerful, perfectly nuanced vocals. On piano, James Pearson’s accompaniment was sublime. His riffs, while never overshadowing the vocals, inserted just the right level of both gravitas and jauntiness to the occasion.

Krum's album will complement any collection of jazz recordings.  of stunning songs, beautifully sung.

Written by Dina Gitlin-Leigh

Saturday 1 February 2020

Faustus: That Damned Woman - Review

Lyric Hammersmith, London


Written by Chris Bush
Directed by Caroline Byrne

Jodie McNee

Life imitates art with the opening of Chris Bush’s latest play Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith. For where the original tale saw Dr Faust bargain with the Devil to exchange his soul for all worldly knowledge – so here does Bush seek to swap the classic parable for a feminist-angled perspective that fails to hit its target.

There is fine work from Jodie McNee as Johanna Faustus and an equally enchanting turn from Danny Lee Wynter’s diabolical Mephistopheles. But as Ms Faustus seals her pact, and in the future encounters Marie (Curie) played by Alicia Charles, we see Bush scoring the most spectacular own goal. For rather than Curie’s achievements being celebrated for the (true) heroine that she was in her scientific discoveries, Bush relegates her to little more than a sidekick to husband Pierre (Tim Samuels) and where Marie could have been portrayed as a strong, smart and independent woman, Bush and director Caroline Byrne reduce her to little more than a spouse who is both humble and scared. This shallowness of perspective clouds the whole piece, and while there may be some wit in Bush’s words, it is overshadowed by a disappointing structure that sidelines real, factual female achievement in praise of the patriarchy.

The set and costume designs from Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and Line Bech impress, but not enough to avert a disappointing evening.

Faustus: That Damned Woman is a Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and Headlong co-production, in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 22nd February before playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 24th February and then touring the UK, visiting Bristol Old Vic, Leeds Playhouse and Northern Stage throughout March and April 2020.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan