Sunday, September 26, 2010

Before I get down to cases with blogging about my recent vacance to Athens I need to keep you up to speed with my theatre trips - the last was to see the revival of the Louis Jordan tribute show FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE which is again playing at it's original home at Theatre Royal, Stratford East.Ah, happy memories of the 1990 production which I saw at Stratford East in the Prompt side Box with Molloy and Miss Suzanne Golden who memorably held the show up because she didn't have a lyric sheet in her programme. I also saw it several times when it transferred to the Lyric - Guy in Rio recently reminded me that when we went to see the show on his last night in London before leaving to work in Brazil, we were seated next to Ben and Tracey from Everything But The Girl!

This time Owen and I were ensconced in the dress circle which was surprisingly not as busy as one would expect but what we lacked in punters was certainly made up for by the noise of those there - rather annoyingly at times from a large bunch of women out on a jolly.

The big selling point for me was the show again stars the rather fab Clarke Peters who wrote the book for the original production as well as co-starring as Four-Eyed Moe. Well it was twenty years ago so Clarke now plays the more reflective role of Nomax.

Nomax has been dumped by his girl Lorraine and is drinking himself into a stupor in a cheap hotel room listening to his favorite records - and wouldn't you know it - he falls into his record-player. As you do.

Once inside he encounters his musical guardian angels, the Five Guys Named Moe with their rather nifty house band, who give Nomax the schooling he deserves in getting his life back on track through the music of 1940s jazz giant Louis Jordan.

The show is an all-out fun event - the plotline is as sharp and thin as the creases on the Moe's zoot-suit trousers but with the non-stop parade of Jordan's classics such as SATURDAY NIGHT FISH FRY, CHOO-CHOO-CHA-BOOGIE, I LIKE 'EM FAT LIKE THAT, SAFE SANE AND SINGLE, CALDONIA and IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN' T MA BABY keep feet tapping and the spirits soaring.

If I have a criticism it's that the Moe's aren't up to the standard set by their predecessors - Kenny Andrews, Paul J. Medford (who has choreographed this production), Peter Alex Newton, Omar Okai and Clarke all gave really individual performances while today's crop seem fairly amalgomous. However Christopher Colquhoun, Horace Oliver and Ashley Campbell made a real impression. Clarke Peters was of course the star of the show as Nomax as well as giving us a great EARLY IN THE MORNING at the top of the show. After the show I had the opportunity of nabbing Clarke and finally being able to thank him for so many fine performances on stage and of course as Lester in THE WIRE and he was as charming and gracious as one could wish. What a fine man he is.

The good news is that FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE has been extended a week at Stratford East so get yourself over there by October 9th for a real good time!

Another helping of Brown Sugar with the cool elegance of Ivie Anderson who sang with Duke Ellington's band from 1931 to 1942. Aged only 26 when she started singing with Ellington, she sang on countless recordings which stand the test of time especially for her effortless artistry - IT DON'T MEAN A THING, I'VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING, the beautiful STORMY WEATHER, MY OLD FLAME and THERE'S A LULL IN MY LIFE.

She appeared in the Marx Brothers' "A Day At The Races" singing ALL GOD'S CHILLUN GOT RHYTHM and continued to record masterpieces such as MOOD INDIGO, ME AND YOU and here she is seen singing the glorious I GOT IT BAD AND THAT AIN'T GOOD. I find her singing on this to be genuinely thrilling.

However after I GOT IT BAD..., she had only one year left with Ellington before chronic asthma forced her to quit the band and she moved to the the West Coast where she ran a chicken restaurant while still playing the occasional singing date. Sadly her health continued to deteriorate and she died in 1949 aged 44.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

They came, they danced, they spread joy.

But all good things must come to an end and with an echo of cheering in our ears, they were gone.
On Saturday evening, the phenomenal American cast of Diane Paulus' revival of HAIR said their goodbye to London, The Gielgud Theatre and Owen and I.

We had already seen Gavin Creel's last night as Claude on Wednesday so it was time to put ourselves through the turmoil of watching the show knowing this was the last time - and also knowing the performers were thinking the same thing. As some of them have been with the show since 2008 when it first opened at the Delacorte in Central Park this had all the aspects of one emotional show.To be honest, I felt a bit sorry for anyone who was seeing the show for the first time as the show kind of lost it's shape a little as the audience response was so huge. But for us HAIRites it was a great opportunity to finally let rip and show The Tribe in what affection they are held.

Needless to say the Gielgud roof got it's first seismic shock when Sasha Allen finished singing AQUARIUS - a huge roar and a standing ovation marked the end of the number - Tribe member Hannah Shankman (brunette at the front in the picture above) was in the stalls aisle nearest us and with the ovation, her face crumpled into a teary smile. And we were off...Standing ovations abounded - at the end of the title number we again were on our feet applauding - and we had Darius Nichols as 'Hud' standing on the seat in front of us! It was a bit of a shame that Gavin Creel had to leave those few days before as it would have been great to see him in these circumstances.

It was a particular delight to be able to stand and applaud some performers - Kacie Sheik as 'Jeannie' with "Air", Andrew Kober as 'Margaret Mead' with "My Conviction", Caissie Levy as 'Sheila' with "Easy To Be Hard" and - best of all - Allison Case as 'Crissy" with "Frank Mills". Every time I have seen it she has broken my heart with this most gentle and touching song in the score and as I said in an earlier blog, she carefully guided us through it - pointing out the funny lines at the start but never failing to touch the heart at the end of it. She was quite adorable.After a much-needed drink and ice cream in the interval it was time to welcome in the second act. It seemed to whizz by and soon we were at the cold dawn of "Let The Sun Shine In" which again was greeted with a standing ovation midway through and as the Tribe left the stage for the last time revealing the snow falling on the fallen Claude, quite a few of them were already giving way to emotion too.

They raced back on stage to a thunderous ovation and there was one hell of a lot of love in the air. As soon as we saw the rails appear to be put on the stairs leading up to the stage we were off but hadn't reckoned on the cheeky buggers at the back who had followed the cast down the aisle when they returned. It was at absolute scrum and despite initial fears, we both managed to get on stage and join in the last dance.
I think that's me about 3:05 getting on stage looking about quickly then clapping with my hands over my head!

After it was all over we threaded our way through the throng and Owen managed to nab Allison Case just as she was heading into the wings. She graciously signed the picture Owen had taken of the two of us together on an earlier trip and we told her we would love to see her in future shows which she was most touched by.And with that, they were gone... gone to star in the theatre that lives in memory.

Elisabeth Welch

My third helping of BROWN SUGAR pays tribute to the glorious Elisabeth Welch, one of the most gracious interpreters of popular 20th Century song.

Born to a half-black, half-native American father and a half-Scots, half-Irish mother, the young Elizabeth appeared in Broadway black revues with contempories Josephine Blake, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Adelaide Hall and it at this here, in 1923, that she introduced the song "The Charleston". By the end of the 1920s she had joined Blake and Hall in Paris where she too thrived in the more accepting cabaret scene of Jazz Age Europe.

Back in New York in 1931, she introduced Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" to Broadway and, at Porter's request, she came to London in 1933 to appear in NYMPH ERRANT with Gertrude Lawrence. During the lengthy rehearsal period she was allowed to appear in a new revue where she introduced "Stormy Weather" to London. She settled in London where she was a vital presence on stage, radio, screen (co-starring in two films with Paul Robeson) and was seen regularly on early television broadcasts. She opted to stay in London during WWII adding concert tours for servicemen to her activities and here she stayed, constantly working until her retirement in the early 1990s and she died in 2003, seven months short of her 100th birthday.

I was lucky enough to see her in the 1980s when she appeared at the Donmar in her own show and in KERN GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. I met her while she was appearing in the show and she had a lot to say about how although the show celebrated the composer Jerome Kern that as a singer she felt the lyricists should be equally lauded.

Elizabeth left an idellible impression on anyone who saw her on stage - myself included - and, when filming his version of THE TEMPEST in 1979, Derek Jarman could not have chosen a better actress to play a Goddess. Her rendition brims with love, sly fun and sheer artistry.

Monday, September 06, 2010

What with all the heightened emotion of the two Last Days of HAIR - Gavin Creel's final show on Wednesday and the cast on Saturday - my trip to see Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS has been on the blog back-burner.

As I reported a few weeks back HERE rain stopped play on our first attempt to see it and on Friday 27th I had been watching the skies all day as well as realising that I had a cold brewing too. But nothing was going to put me off having another crack at this production of one of my favorite Sondheim shows.

From the first attempt at seeing it I had liked what I saw with some reservations, seeing the full production confirmed both initial responses.

First off I must say how heartening it was to see the auditorium so busy and given the nature of the show it was no surprise to see there was quite a large kid quotient there, maybe a bit too young for the show's darker moments - but then the wee shaggers have to learn sometimes that Happily Ever After doesn't always mean the end of the story.There have been some snitty comments regarding the score in the published reviews, mostly about the show's second act turning away from the first act's megamix of fairy tale characters to more sober reflections on responsibility and community. But they are, of course, wrong, the arc and breadth of Sondheim's score is remarkable and the more you listen to it the more personal it becomes to the listener.

But did I like the production? For years I have been baffled how a show which would seem to be a natural for the Open Air has been overlooked and now it has been given a bracing production by Timothy Sheader which by and large I enjoyed but there were a few jarring choices that pulled my focus.Soutra Gilmour - whose sets this year for POLAR BEARS and THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED have overworked a particular design idea - here designed an intriguing multi-level metal platform which stretched off in all directions into the surrounding trees and reached high up for Rapunzel's tower room. It was certainly an ingenious way to use the height of that stage - but that was all it did. I was hoping maybe some of it might fall away when the Giant's Wife stomps around the land but no. The perils of a standing set. I loved the idea of how to represent the Giant's Wife however but no points for the WAR HORSE rip-off for Milky White and the Golden Hen.

Her costumes too were a bizarre hybrid of 1940s Country House, music video cast-offs and whatever was going at Cosprop. The Witch was also cursed with having an awful transformation dress, it was a bottle-green number that suggested Scarlett O'Hara's outfit made from her mother's curtains. It was a show singularly lacking in glamour - oh and while I'm on the subject. The Witch had one of the lamest transformations ever. The idea of having a runaway boy as the narrator is an interesting one, he is introduced camping in the woods with a satchel full of his toys that he uses to illustrate the story - but as good as the two boys were who we saw play the role, the toys concept surely was lost on anyone beyond row H and both boys were out of their depth at the end of the first act when the Narrator has LOTS of exposition *and* has to sing "Ever After". However I have to give Sheader credit for not wimping out and still having the Narrator killed when the fairy tale characters give him up to The Giant's Wife in exchange for being left alone. There was a nice uneasy chill in the audience at that.

Also my major irritant was the lame idea of having the characters with funny lines - The Baker's Wife, Red Riding Hood, Jack and Jack's Mother - to be played as Reet Northern. It would have worked for Red Riding Hood and Jack but Jenna Russell only seemed to be revisiting her equally Northern Dot in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. It just gets old and plays rather naff.So Constant Reader, you would assume from the above that I had a ghastly time. No of course I didn't I enjoyed it a lot - it's just I love this show so much (it was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway) that directorial flounces tend to annoy if they detract from the show's emotional journey.

By and large the cast were all delightful. In two studies of motherhood, Gaye Brown certainly made her presence felt as Cinderella's fog-horning Stepmother and the delightful Marilyn Cutts was great as Jack's Mother, her early demise was keenly felt. The most surprising performance was from Billy Boyle as the Mysterious Man - this part is usually doled out to the most irritating altacocker in the cast but Boyle gave a nicely restrained performance making his and Mark Hadfield's "No More" duet actually listenable for a change.

You know you are in trouble if your Red Riding Hood doesn't steal the show but luckily we were in the greedy hands of Beverly Rudd who took anything that wasn't nailed down. Looking initially like James Cordon in a polka-dot dress, Rudd was delightful and socked across her "I Know Things Now" solo suggesting that Red Riding Hood was more than happy for her "moment" with the Wolf.

Mark Hadfield lacked a bit of sparkle as the Baker but he is always an enjoyable presence on stage and he was ably partnered on stage by Jenna Russell - who despite speaking the part like a Gracie Fields soundalike - was a constant delight in her musical numbers and there wasn't a dry-eye in the house by the time she sang "Sometimes people leave you..." in the final moments of the show.

Ben Stott was an endearingly thick Jack but sang "Giants In The Sky" very well, it was great to look up to see him sing this amid the trees leaves - and to indeed look up at the very sky itself. For me the biggest cast disappointment was the colourless Cinderella of Helen Dallimore. I thought she had the most uninteresting voice onstage and how innocent can Cinderella be when she has a nose-ring in?

However by the sound of the applause at the end of his numbers, the hit of the evening was Michael Xavier in the one-two combination of The Wolf and Cinderella's Prince. The seeming lovechild of Rupert Everett and Russell Brand, Xavier was a vital presence onstage and was delightfully partnered by Simon Thomas on two killer versions of "Agony". I must say that the cast's vocal diction throughout was superb - Sondheim's lyrics never sounded so clear and precise.I am still unsure of Hannah Waaddingham as The Witch. She certainly made a striking hag - almost looking like a walking tree - but her 'glamorous' Louise Brooks bob and the afore mentioned Scarlett O'Hara dress seemed to also rob her of some interest. She did however sing The Witches great anthems to love and loss very well - her rendition of "Stay With Me" to the disturbed Rapunzel was one of the high-points of the show.So there you go, not for me the best production of the show but with enough dazzling components to make it surely as much a staple of the Open Air's future repertoire as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.

Sondheim and James Lapine's comic-tragic tale of magic and loss, survival and the need for a family - either biological or the one you choose for yourself - may not be to every one's liking but for me, it's one of Sondheim's best and most emotionally direct scores.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

It was Gavin Creel's last night in HAIR tonight which itself ends on Saturday so O and I made a point of booking for both.
It was bound to be a highly emotional night and on Gavin's first appearance he received a huge ovation which should have let him know he was among friends on both sides of the footlights. In the first of his 'big' songs I GOT LIFE he totally went for it, showing the kinetic energy that has energised the show.

At the song's end which finds him sitting in the middle of the stage surrounded by the tribe in a line-up widely arcing behind his back, the audience's thunderous ovation was echoed by his cast mates who advanced clapping him for a few minutes before the delayed light cue brought us back to 1967.There was a definite feeling of end-of-term with plenty of ad-libs and invented business, particularly cast member Kevin Kern who as the school principal started effing 'n' jeffing to beat the band to gasps of delight from cast and punter alike and later as Hubert when, accompanying Andrew Kober's scene-stealing turn as Margaret Mead, he shouted out "why the hell don't you get star billing" which again set the cast into a fit of church giggles. We also had extra participants in the DON'T PUT IT DOWN hoedown when Gavin, Caissie Levy and Darius Nichols joined the line dance.

Needless to say the title song was slammed across the footlights with most of the lads following Gavin's lead in pulling his shirt off at the start! Again another massive ovation when they ended the musical coda.Oh and need I say that Allison Case again made me cry... buckets... with her lovely rendition of "Frank Mills".

Then for the big one... I had wondered during the show how Gavin might approach the first act closer WHERE DO I GO? Within a few lines however, the emotions took him over and without missing a beat the tribe members took up the song and sang softly until he was able to gather himself but by the end again he was too choked to sing.

The second act seem to speed through on fast-forward and there we were with Claude in his army uniform, invisible to his former friends, and again he just made it through "Eyes Look Your Last" before he went again. The rousing, ferocious a capella "Let The Sunshine In" faded away as we watched the snow gently falling on Claude's dead body, only this time it was a heightened sadness for the previously-mentioned reason. The bows took place amid raucous cheers and clapping and Gavin appeared for his final bow. Trust us to be stuck in the slow-moving queue for the stage-dancing, they stopped letting people on just as we got within gobbing distance of the stairs but we got a smile and a wave from Kacie Sheik and had a good view for when Caissie gave a very touching and heartfelt speech to Gavin from the whole company and there was a final rousing version of LET THE SUNSHINE IN as he was lifted shoulder-high... oh and the shirt came off again, captured here by HAIR fan Chasity Neutze.Apart from the GRRRRRRRRRness of not getting on stage, it was a night to remember.