Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I knew there was something I forgot to tell you... on Saturday evening I had a delightful hour in the company of David McAlmont in the Clore Ballroom bit of the Festival Hall foyer.

The Festival Hall is currently the home of the stage production of THE WIZARD OF OZ and a series of events will run concurrently during it's run. Early evenings on Friday and Saturday will see a singer in an hour-long set of standards and the first was David M with excellent accompaniment from Natasha Panas on piano.

The cherry on the top was David was singing standards from the over-stuffed songbook of the great composer Harold Arlen who wrote the OZ score. So many classic songs to choose from but David M gave us ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE, LET'S FALL IN LOVE, THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC, THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY, BLUES IN THE NIGHT (a stupendous version using all of David's amazing range), GET HAPPY, STORMY WEATHER, ONE FOR MY BABY, WHEN THE SUN COMES OUT, PAPER MOON, THIS TIME THE DREAMS ON ME... like wow! He acknowledged OZ with an affecting version of OVER THE RAINBOW (of course) and riled it up by singing DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD saying that it was always by his cd player for when he hears about the death of the Blue Witch of Grantham. He even sneaked in a lovely version of AT LAST as it was from the same era.

I had sent him a message the week before on MySpaz so plucked up the courage to go over and shake his hand as he was chatting by the stage and he recognized me from the message - yay! I told him how much I loved the show and told him to check out Arlen's magnificent I NEVER HAS SEEN SNOW from the musical he wrote with Truman Capote "House of Flowers". I would love to hear him sing this yearning song of someone in love for the first time. It was great to meet him after all these years of admiring him - he even said goodbye again as he left!

Friday, July 25, 2008

I wonder exactly how many blogs are being typed as I speak about the experience that was The B-52s gig at the Roundhouse on Thursday?

Well here's another....Up until they came on I was still unsure they would turn up after two previous tours had been pulled but just after 9pm there they were - magically transported from their own world to ours for the night to flatten us with waves of thumping music.
And what a strange world it is, marked from the get-go in the late 70s as a new wave music equivalent of a drive-in movie double-bill. As they unfurled the inspired insanity of ROCK LOBSTER and PLANET CLARE during the encores all I had in my mind was a z-grade Roger Corman movie mash-up of beach party and sci-fi movies.

They were tub-thumping the new FUNPLEX cd and the new songs slid in nicely with their earlier classics. It must be difficult to choose what to play after so long in the game but they gave us a good overview of their be-wigged career.

Among my favourites were the two already mentioned, LOVE SHACK - as I later said to the Comtesse du Right Nasty the only thing that could have possibly have made it better would have been for RuPaul to come in on a wire - FUNPLEX, MESOPOTAMIA, GIVE ME BACK MY MAN, STROBELIGHT, PUMP and in a glorious middle section we just had Cindy and Kate on stage singing the new single JULIET OF THE SPIRITS and a majestic, inspirational ROAM. There voices melded into their own Wall of Sound.

It was just so good to see them all doing what they do best - Keith whipping his body & guitar across the stage on the thinnest legs known to mankind, Cindy shoeless, playing some great bongos and throwing that blondeness around the stage, Fred just being a law unto himself - a genuinely dangerous stage presence - and the glorious Kate.

This was the biggest thrill of the evening. Along the same lines of being a Frida boy when I liked Abba I have always definitely been a Kate boy. She was wonderful, working the stage like a manic go-go girl in her corset top and tiny skirt, floaty filmy black net overshirt and her kitten-heel sparkly stripper shoes. And that voice... truly one of THE great pop voices, raunchy, playful and full of life. The B-52s are summed up in that voice.

I also have to give some serious props to Tracy Wormworth who WORKED her bass especially during an extended instrumental with Keith during LOVE SHACK. A quick Google led to the revelation that she was the bass player for The Waitresses in the early 80s so way respect.

Needless to say I didn't get too many good photos although we had a great view from the mezz looking across the stage but I like this one... the B-52s giving it to the converted!

Friday, July 18, 2008

And the films-into-musicals just keep on coming... next year will see Dolly Parton's musical version of 9 TO 5 hitting the Great White Way.

Apart from Megan Hilty & Stephanie J. Block (both ex-WICKED leads in the Dolly Parton & Jane Fonda roles) the musical stars the rather wonderful Allison Janney in the Lily Tomlin role. I am sure it will be worth seeing just for her.

They had a meet & greet with the press at the start of the week and how nice of Joan Collins to appear showing off her new blonde wig. Oh....

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Owen was too full of a head-cold to come to the theatre with me tonight but luckily Andrew was free to accompany me to the Donmar to see Michael Grandage's excellent revival of Enid Bagnold's 1955 play THE CHALK GARDEN.

My only knowledge of it was that Hayley Mills & Deborah Kerr were in the 1964 film version and that Sophie Thompson had appeared as Laurel in a regional revival in the 1980s so it was great to watch this 50 year old play with no idea of what was going to happen. What did happen was an excellent production, in a play that was both gripping and funny that boasted two stand-out lead performances.

Mrs. St. Maugham (the majestic Margaret Tyzack) is living with her grand-daughter Laurel (Felicity Jones) in a lonely country house where the girl lives unsupervised and allowed to indulge her penchant for starting fires in the garden. Apart from her doting and indulgent grandmother the girl's only companion is Maitland (Jamie Glover) the young manservant left jumpy and highly-strung due to his time in prison as a conscientious objector during the war. These three inhabitants are ruled by the offstage commands of an old family butler, still running the house although dying in an upstairs room.

Into this anarchic household Mrs. St. Maugham decides to bring in a ladies companion for Laurel. In true Mary Poppins fashion, the other applicants drift away leaving just Miss Madrigal (Penelope
Wilton). She is aloof and strangely resistant to being employed until she sees Mrs. St. Maugham's dying flowers in her garden growing in the chalky soil and decides to tend both garden and grand-daughter. Amazingly the possibly clumping imagery of the garden here is lightly done.

Madrigal transforms the house and it's inhabitants until one day a visit from an old friend of Mrs. St. Maugham's cracks Madrigal's controlled exterior and a subsequent visit from Laurel's long-estranged mother results in a final battle over the girl's future. And whose side is Miss Madrigal on?

The play grips from the get-go, strangely alternating between drawing room comedy and poetic drama and it is baffling why this is it's first West End revival in thirty years
. Michael Grandage directs the varying shifts in atmosphere expertly, in less nuanced hands I can imagine the play lurching from mood to mood but here the play flows smoothly.
The cast rise to the challenge of this haunting play. Jamie Glover has great fun as Maitland, the young, slightly odd ex-convict working as the manservant who is Laurel's only outlet for friendship while Felicity Jones is excellent as Laurel, the willful girl taken to live with her indulgent grandmother when her mother remarries. Headstrong and outspoken, she gave a standout performance, especially considering the actresses she shares most of her scenes with.

Much of the success of the production is thanks to the extraordinary performances of Penelope Wilton & Margaret Tyzack.
I am not sure how she manages it but Penelope Wilton gets better with each production. As Miss Madrigal she is a total enigma, as feisty and quick to answer back as her teenage charge but never once losing the sense of isolation and almost strait-jacked by a bodily tension, as if at any moment she will break out. Even when Miss Madrigal allows herself the luxury of a smile it ebbs away quickly. Just watch her in the scene when Laurel is questioning Mrs. St. Maugham's friend (Clifford Rose) over lunch, as the girl edges closer to Madrigal's secret you cannot take your eyes off her - you can almost feel the tension in her body as she stares into the mid-distance. In the original London production the role was played by Peggy Ashcroft, in my opinion Wilton is edging up to that level of excellence.

Margaret Tyzack was quite simply astonishing as the redoubtable Mrs St. Maugham. From a solid Raj background she appears unassailable, the personification of the Middle England Upper Class, such as when she hires Miss Madrigal without references because to ask for them means "you are unsure of your own convictions". She is forgiving of the outlandish actions of her grand-daughter and intrigued by the blank canvas of Miss Madrigal. However when her daughter (Suzanne Burdan) arrives to reclaim Laurel she turns into a lioness, fighting her corner with a palpable anger. However Tyzack's excellence is in showing that her character's Raj-bred bravado covers a loneliness as palpable as Madrigal's and Laurel's.

THE CHALK GARDEN opened the same year as John Osbourne's LOOK BACK IN ANGER - I know which one I would rather see again. Fingers crossed for a swift West End transfer as the Donmar run is sold out.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

MUSICALS - from stage to screen and back again...

A trip to the theatre & cinema and a viewing of a dvd have made me brew on the subject of the musical.

On Friday Owen, Angela & I went to the
Guildhall School of Music & Drama to see the final year students in a production of the great musical CITY OF ANGELS. Not seen in London for 15 years, this hugely enjoyable show won Tony Awards for Best Musical and also for the three writers: composer Cy Coleman, who wrote among others SWEET CHARITY, lyricist David Zippel who went on to Disney's HERCULES and MULAN and for the book by Larry Gelbart, the writer of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and TOOTSIE. It was a good opportunity to see the show again and do a bit of future star-spotting.

The show is a challenge to any production team as it tells two stories consecutively with the same actors doubling up across them. Set in 1940s Hollywood, in one story we follow Stine, a New York writer, adapting his gritty crime novel CITY OF ANGELS into a script for an interfering and tyrannical producer/director while at the same time we see the story taking shape with private eye Stone hired by the glamorous Mrs. Kingsley, wife of a rich and infirm man, to find her missing step-daughter.
The production needs to find a way of clearly defining the two stories so they can co-exist side by side and occasionally bump into each other at crisis moments in Stine's mind. The Guildhall team managed this ok with the sliding 'train carriage' set behind a film screen that raised for the 'film noir' story with the 'real-life' scenes played on either side of it. There were occasional longueurs during the scene changes which broke the rhythm but apart from that it was ok.

The actors certainly put their all into it although some were noticeably vocally strained by the Coleman's jazz-influenced score. Sadly the most vocally unsure was Rhys Rusbatch as Stone. Although fine playing the hard-talking, broken-hearted gumshoe he just got through most of his numbers but his climactic duet with his long-lost love was a bit all over the place, a shame as this scene is particularly affecting with Gelbart dropping the gags and writing with a bruised sadness worthy of Chandler. Leila Farzad as the fatale femme Alauara Kingsley was also a bit wobbly when singing in her upper register however she was very impressive as the wordly-wise actress wife of the producer/director in the 'real life' scenes.

The inherent problem with this productions is that every one is the same age so when a role calls for an older actor a lot has to be taken on trust. This was the case with Peter McGovern as Buddy Fidler the cut-throat producer/director who always has his eye on the Oscar. McGovern was out of his depth and although there were young executives aka Irving Thalberg, you can't help feeling that it was the one role that needed experience to get the jokes across.
The two stand-out performances were from Robin Steegman and Natalie Irene. Steegman played Oolie the archetypal private eye's secretary with a crush on the boss in the 'film noir' scenes and Donna in the 'real life' scenes, the producer/director's hard-working secretary whose affair with Stine leads to trouble. Irene played Stine's editor wife Gabby who hates what the west coast is doing to her husband's ideals and Bobbi in the 'film noir' story, Stone's cabaret singer fiancee who vanished out of his life when he took the rap after she shot a film producer. Both had fine voices and put their big solo numbers across with great style - Oolie/Donna's rueful song of the singleton "You Can Always Count On Me" and Bobbi's great torch song "With Every Breath I Take".
Catching the eye also were Daisy Keeping and Gwilym Lee. Keeping played ingenue-on-the-make Avril and 'film noir' jailbait teen Mallory and did a good job with the character's innuendo-laden "Lost & Found" while Lee as Stine's embittered ex-colleague Lt. Munoz also made the most of his big number "All You Have To Do Is Wait" with Seamus Maynard, Daniel Rose & Julian Pinder. The students in the pit band were also great.

The next night Owen and I went to see the film version of MAMMA MIA! Now a brief personal history. Yes I did used to be an ABBA fan back in the day - before you ask I was a Frida person - but then I worked with Ann for 5 years at her actor's agency where ABBA was played 24/7. I grew SO familiar with every single note of their product that it means ABBAsolutely nothing to me anymore. Sadly this realisation happened just as they started getting reassessed, their naff image seemingly banished for ever and the impossibility of escaping the music anywhere.

So how come I have seen MAMMA MIA! three times on stage? Well the first time was accompanying my Ma on free tickets, the next time was again free at a dress rehearsal when Susannah Fellows took over as Tanya
and finally was in Toronto as a birthday present for Owen who hadn't seen it. So I feel I am in a good position to review it.
Let's say that it won me over in the 'second act'. For most of the time though I was totally gobsmacked at how bad it looked. In a rare occurrence the film is produced, directed and written by the same three women behind the stage show, Judy Craymer, Phyllida Lloyd & Catherine Johnson, none of them with any previous big screen knowledge. And that is where the danger lies.

The film's opening has Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) setting up the plot by telling two
friends that she has invited three of her mother's ex-lovers to her own wedding to find out which of them is her unknown father. She found their names from her mother's diary and she reads them entries from the diary: cue song: "Honey Honey". All the film's problems can be found in this brief segment. The cinematography is appalling, at one point Sophie stands in front of a sunlit blue sea which glares so badly you cannot focus on her. I have no idea if this is the fault of the cinematographer or director Lloyd just having no idea where to put the subjective eye of the camera on the three chattering, mugging, jumping-up-and-down actresses so she relies on the editing of Lesley Walker to cut it in such a way to give it a sense of urgency. All it does is throw so many bad angles and bad shots at you that the mind reels. This opening works ok in the theatre where you are focused on the stage and ready to take in the set-up while looking at three actresses within a well-lit stage set but on a massive screen it just clicks straight into over-edited overkill.

The same misjudged tone bedevils the first section of the film with the musical numbers over-edited to within an inch of their lives, the actors registering emotions as if the camera was at the back of the balcony and always, that awful camera work.
For some unknown reason during the first scene where Meryl Streep confronts her ex-s Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellen Skarsgaard, it is filmed in a shaky point-of-view shot of the three men explaining their motives for being there - it's just all so wrong! Another thing that struck me as odd is how a major balls-up in the script is made worse on screen. Sophie quizzes the three men about the summer 21 years before when they met her mother and Harry (Firth) says he met her during the punk days referencing his Johnny Rotten t-shirt while Bill (Skarsgaard) says it was the summer of hippy love! Now on stage this wonky timeline barely registers - it's spoken it's gone - but here the camera lingers on snapshots of them in appropriate punk and hippy outfits. Now there has already been play on the fact that Donna (Streep) wants her Greek hotel to be online so being generous and dating the film from 1999 when the show opened in London, that would make it 1978 which could *just* accommodate a punk reference - but the summer of love?? It's just so lazy.
Despite the clueless cinematography and unsure tone remarkably the film calms down in the second half largely in part to the actors who all appear to be having the time of their lives. The men, having the most under-written roles, hit their marks and do little to rock the boat - I must say of the three I liked Colin Firth the most, not a phrase I am given to saying a lot.

I was a bit worried that Julie Walters would use the film as a mug-fest but she was quite restrained for her and Christine Baranski was a real hit as too-rich and too-married Tanya. The good thing about the plot of MAMMA MIA! is that it identifies that the most interesting relationship is between Donna & Sophie, the free-spirited mother and the daughter who wants marriage - and a father figure. Despite being a bit annoying at the start with her over-reactions, Meryl Streep gave a fine performance as Donna and was in good voice for her two big moments in the second act: the little-known song "Slipping Through My Fingers" is used perfectly in the scene where Donna helps Sophie dress for her wedding day and then turns on the emotion for "The Winner Takes It All" confronting Brosnan as the actual father.

But again this scene triggered something in my mind that it never has in the theatre. As an 11 O'Clock Number it works fine - the opening line of "I don't wanna talk..." being a great lead-in for any song - but what exactly do the lyrics have to do with the actual character singing them? It's more likely that it's a big weepie ballad that fits where a big weepie ballad is needed, the characters certainly haven't had enough scenes together to warrant it. This probably troubled me having seen CITY OF ANGELS the night before where the lyrics *have* been written specifically for the situation and the character and where Stine's lacerating climactic number "Funny" fits perfectly.

Later on we watched Owen's dvd of XANADU which he bought after we saw the stage version earlier this year in New York. Now it's been years since I have seen it but I had forgotten how grindingly naff it was. It's so vapid it practically vanishes while you are watching it just like Kira the muse from Zeus played by Olivia Newton-John has a habit of doing.

Of course what it does have is a couple of great songs by Jeff Lynne and David Farrar but after refreshing my memory of the film I can now fully understand the jaw-to-the-floor amazement when it was announced that a stage version was going to skating into the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. But luckily the script was entrusted to gay writer Douglas Carter Beene who went to town taking the piss out of the original plot and the whole premise, leading to a stage musical that was hugely entertaining.

Which brings me back to where I came in!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Pure bloody genius. As much as I wanted Roger Federer to win Wimbledon it would be churlish not to applaud Rafael Nadal on his triumph. Same time next year lads....