Friday, July 19, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: 17: THE RINK (1984) (John Kander / Fred Ebb)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1984, Martin Beck Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1987, Forum,Wythenshawe
Productions seen: three

Score: John Kander / Fred Ebb
Book: Terrence McNally

Plot:  Anna Antonelli has finally sold the Coney Island roller rink that she used to run with her volatile Italian-American husband, wanting rid of all the unhappy memories it holds.  But just as the wrecking crew arrive to start demolishing the rink, Anna's estranged daughter Angel appears after fifteen years on the road, wanting to come back to the only home she knows... let battle commence!


In 1984, THE RINK opened on Broadway with the double-threat casting of Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli as the estranged mother and daughter Anna and Angel.  Despite them and a score that is pure Kander & Ebb, the reviews were iffy and it lasted six months with Minnelli leaving before the end to check into rehab, her replacement was none other than Stockard Channing.  Kander and Ebb had originally wanted it to be a smaller show: Off-Broadway with a different book and director.  But when their good friend Liza expressed an interest, the investment money poured in, a new director was brought on board and Terence McNally was drafted in to re-write the book.  Despite it all, THE RINK won Chita Rivera both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Actress in A Musical.

In 1987 I went up to Manchester to see the UK Premiere at Paul Kerryson's northern musical powerhouse The Forum Theatre in Wythenshawe starring the wonderful pairing of Josephine Blake and Diane Langton.  They had whetted my appetite by singing songs from THE RINK in the Kander & Ebb tribute show HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET! in 1985 so I could not let that opportunity pass - little did I know they were to transfer to London's Cambridge Theatre the following year.  But, as I got in to see them in their shared dressing-room after, I'm glad I made the effort.  Sadly history repeated itself when, despite their explosive performances and the energetic performances by the male chorus of six, the show received so-so reviews and it closed after only a month despite the goodwill of all who saw it and a rallying campaign by Jo Blake who suspected double-dealing from the show's management.  It was all very sad but they a London cast recording captures some of their unique performances.  A while after it closed, there was a concert version staged at Her Majesty's with Blake again but with Langton's understudy Caroline O'Connor playing Angel - and last year O'Connor starred in the Southwark Playhouse revival playing Anna with Gemma Sutton as Angel.  It was great to see again but it proved that if you are going to stage it, you really need two larger-than-life performers whose voices still are travelling when they smack the back wall.  Where are the likes of them these days?

Luckily THE RINK got a slot on the Olivier Awards show before it opened so sit back and experience the take-no-prisoners belting vocals of Josephine Blake and Diane Langton with Michael Gyngell, Richard Bodkin, Peter Edbrook, James Gavin, Gareth Snook and Steve Hervieu as the Wreckers - Go Girls!

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Dvd/150: SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1959)

Tennessee Williams' one-act play is expanded by screenwriter Gore Vidal into a fevered Southern Gothic horror classic (Williams recieved a co-writing credit but did no work on it).

Mankiewicz's overwrought film doesn't do the play justice but it's worth it when you have Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn going at each other, leaving Montgomery Clift's doctor a mere onlooker.

Hepburn is fantastic as the possessive Mrs Venable, offering to bankroll Clift's hospital providing he lobotomize hysterical niece Taylor, the only witness to her son's death "suddenly last summer..."

Taylor looks magnificent and gives us full 'star' acting, but it's in her quieter moments that she really delivers; her manic scenes show off her vocal limitations too much.

Taylor demanded Clift play the doctor but only three years after his near-fatal car crash, he is a hesitant, stumbling shadow of his former self.

For all it's flaws, unmissable!

Shelf or charity shop?  Katharine Hepburn was so disgusted with Mankiewicz's on-set bullying of shaky Montgomery Clift that when he yelled 'cut' on her very last scene, she asked him if that was definitely her last moment on the film, when Mankiewicz said it was she spat in his face.  One to keep but living in the limbo of my plastic DVD box.  It's worth keeping for the crazed cameo of comedy harridan Rita Webb as a knitting asylum inmate!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Dvd/150: THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (Arthur Lewin, 1945)

The most famous of the eighteen films based on Oscar Wilde's 1890 supernatural novel made a big impression on me when I first saw it years ago.

However  although the film has some great components, ultimately it is smothered by MGM's 'taste'.

The film also suffers from Hurd Hatfield as Dorian; he certainly looks the part but his glacial, uninvolving performance never suggests anything underneath, good or bad.

The film however looks wonderful with marvellous art direction, atmospheric lighting and Academy Award-winning cinematography by Harry Stradling.

It also gained 20 year-old Angela Lansbury an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe Award, in only her third screen role.  She is luminous as tragic Sybil Vane, loved and discarded by Dorian.

George Sanders' silky Sir Henry excels while Lowell Gilmore as Basil, Richard Fraser as James Vane and Morton Lowry as a dissolute artist make up for Hatfield's anonymity.

Shelf or charity shop?  I can see myself watching this again but it lives in the limbo of my plastic DVD box...

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Dvd/150: NOTHING LIKE A DAME (Roger Michell, 2018)

Every so often, four acting greats - Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith - meet at Plowright's Sussex home to catch up and reminisce; this time director Roger Michell was on hand to film them.

With their friendships crossing generations. they have much shared experience: first nights, critics, playing Shakespeare, acting with husbands, getting older...

Of course Laurence Olivier pops up in conversation several times: when talking about acting partners, Plowright says "Mine was the most difficult" to which Maggie dryly responds "Well, we all found him tricky".

I suspect the real gold was left out - there is a flash of it when they discuss their wariness in playing Shakespeare's Cleopatra: Atkins says she has found all actors playing Antony dislike it as they realize the best role is Cleopatra "Alan Bates told me he hated it" to which Maggie says "That's because he wanted to play Cleopatra!"

Shelf or charity shop?  Shelf!

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Dvd/150: LILITH (Robert Rossen, 1964)

Hugely under-rated, Robert Rossen's last film was also the peak in Jean Seberg's career.

Rossen's dream-like film was an unhappy experience for all due to Warren Beatty's antagonistic behaviour towards Rossen; ironically, his blank performance is the worst thing in it, Jean's is all the more exciting given his anonymity.

Vincent is an aimless ex-GI who becomes an occupational therapist at a private asylum for wealthy patients in Maryland.  While there, he becomes obsessed with Lilith, a young reclusive schizophrenic.

Lilith's sensuality disturbs both male and female patients and Vincent's jealousy has catastrophic effects for all...

Kim Hunter's head doctor and Peter Fonda as a besotted fellow-patient shine and a heartbreaking scene where Vincent visits ex-girlfriend Jessica Walter and her crass husband Gene Hackman is also wonderfully played.

But it's Jean's child-like yet destructive Lilith who haunts the mind in her finest screen performance.

Shelf or charity shop?  Jean's Golden Globe-nominated performance deserves a place on any shelf...

Thursday, July 04, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: 18: CITY OF ANGELS (1989) (Cy Coleman / David Zippel)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1989, Virginia Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1993, Prince of Wales Theatre, London
Productions seen: three

Score: Cy Coleman / David Zippel
Book: Larry Gelbart
Plot:  1940s Hollywood: the crime novelist Stine is trying to adapt his novel "City of Angels" for dictatorial film producer Buddy Fiddler but fact and fiction feed off each other and Stine soon discovers his worst critic is his fictional private eye hero Stone...


By the time Michael Blakemore's production of the musical CITY OF ANGELS opened in the West End in 1993. after playing two years on Broadway, I was word perfect with Cy Coleman and David Zippel's score having bought the Original Cast Recording cd soon after it was released.  I immediately loved Coleman's mix of lush film noir music and snappy 1940s big-band jazz along with David Zippel's cynical and tart lyrics.  Blakemore's marvelously detailed production deftly handled the intricacies of Larry Gelbart's book, seamlessly moving from the black and white fictional world of private detective Stone who is hired by the glamorous Mrs Kingsley to find her wayward step-daughter, and the Technicolor world of 1940s Hollywood where we see the film script being written by the increasingly disenchanted screenwriter Stine.  A wonderful cast was headed by Roger Allam and the late Martin Smith as Stone and Stine, Henry Goodman stealing scenes as the egotistical producer Buddy Fiddler, and an array of fine West End actresses playing double roles : delicious Susannah Fellows as the seductive Alaura Kingsley and as Fiddler's actress wife Carla, Fiona Hendley as Stone's long-lost lover Bobbi and Stone's estranged wife Gabby, Haydn Gwynne as Stone's trusty secretary Oolie as well as Fiddler's secretary Donna, and Sarah Jane Hassell as the very-much alive missing step-daughter Mallory and the starlet Avril.  CITY OF ANGELS was seen as going toe-to-toe with Lloyd Webber's SUNSET BOULEVARD which opened a few months afterward which was, of course, also a film noir tale of the Los Angeles film world.  Sadly, despite it being a better show with better reviews, CITY OF ANGELS closed after eight months - it's closure started again the eternal debate about how do you get audiences in to a totally new show which requires a little work from them intellectually, opposed to a show that they know from a previous film.  There was some sort of revenge however when CITY OF ANGELS won the Olivier Award for Best Musical over SUNSET BOULEVARD.

You cannot keep a good show down though: I saw a Guildhall Drama School production 15 years later and then in 2014, it finally received another West End production at the Donmar in a production which suffered from the underwhelming performances of the three male leads and director Josie Rourke's sometimes sluggish pacing.  The show however was wonderfully designed and lit and starred a fine bunch of broads - Katherine Kelly (Alaura / Carla), Rosalie Craig (Bobbi / Gabby), Samantha Barks (Mallory / Avril) and the wonderful Rebecca Trehearn (Oolie / Donna) who stopped the show with the glorious "You Can Always Count On Me".   The show can be accused of having characters that are hard to like and it can be said that Gelbart's second act gets bogged down in the collision of plot lines (both onscreen and off) but owing to Coleman and Zippel's wonderful score it's a show I would love to see again.  And again.

I have chosen the following press-reel video for the original Broadway production of CITY OF ANGELS as it features two favourite songs, powerfully performed, "Lost And Found" and "You Can Always Count On Me" but it also serves to give you a flavour of Coleman and Zippel's standout score.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: 19: TITANIC (1997) (Maury Yeston)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1997, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 2013, Southwark Playhouse, London
Productions seen: two

Score: Maury Yeston
Book: Peter Stone
Plot:  April, 1912: the 'unsinkable' RMS Titanic leaves Southampton to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to New York with a cross-section of society aboard.  It never arrived...


There was a lot of raised eyebrows when it was announced that a musical was to appear on Broadway based on the sinking of the Titanic - it sounded like something from a comedy script; who would play the iceberg?  Was the stage going to tip up or would they just flood the theatre?  How would critics stop themselves from the obvious gags about the show going down with all hands etc.?  But then something rather odd happened... it opened and although there were some mixed reviews, there were also some raves including this from the New Yorker: "It seemed a foregone conclusion that the show would be a failure; a musical about history's most tragic maiden voyage, in which fifteen hundred people lost their lives, was obviously preposterous [but] astonishingly, TITANIC manages to be grave and entertaining, somber and joyful; little by little you realize that you are in the presence of a genuine addition to American musical theatre."  On the back of the positivity about it, I bought the Cast Recording and immediately fell in love with Maury Yeston's masterly score.  It takes in a wide range of contemporaneous musical styles of 1912: ragtime trots, Gilbert & Sullivan pastiches, stirring Elgar-esque themes, choral work, hymns, folk airs, all filtered through a traditional Broadway score of ballads and up-tempo numbers.  TITANIC found an audience on Broadway and ran for nearly two years - indeed, although James Cameron's film opened in December 1997, it actually helped increase the show's attendance rather than the reverse as was expected.  At awards time, it won each of the five Tony Awards it was nominated for including Peter Stone's sober book, Yeston's score and the big one, Best Musical.

Then something even odder happened: TITANIC became a much sought-after show for amateur dramatic companies, final-year student productions and international companies who all realized that the show's minimalist designs, recognizable name and possibilities for large casts made it ideal for them.  I had to wait 16 years until the Southwark Playhouse and director Thom Southerland took a chance on staging it and was completely won over by the show; I knew the score of course but loved how the late Peter Stone's book showed what could be achieved in storytelling within a musical setting and was struck how often he comes back to the fact that on Titanic everything depended on what class you were, even in the ultimate extreme of whether you lived or died.  Three years later, Southerland was made Artistic Director of the equally snug Charing Cross Theatre and it was great that his first production was a revival of his Southwark Playhouse TITANIC, giving more people a chance to see it and experience Yeston's breath-taking score.  Maury Yeston is represented by three musicals in my Top 50 - NINE (#39), GRAND HOTEL (#20) and now TITANIC (#19).  They are three scores that glow with excellence.  Now all together: "Sail on, Sail on / Great ship Titanic...."

There is a fair few TITANIC videos available on YouTube but they fall a bit short; the 1997 Broadway clips are not the best quality and most of the others are filmed amateur productions so I will stick to the trailer for Thom Southerland's Southwark production when it sailed over to the Charing Cross Theatre.