Monday, August 12, 2013

Sing The Book...

Constant Reader, I have quite a few musicals to get blogging about. I have been thrashing about wondering how to tackle this task but I have come up with an ingenious way to do it.  I am going to stick my hand into the pile of programmes!

I saw THE BOOK OF MORMON on the first Saturday matinee after it's opening night and there was that certain buzz in the air of an audience almost delirious at having tickets for A Big Hit.  A similar feeling was in the air when I saw Patti LuPone in GYPSY on Broadway a few days after it's opening night.  I actually don't think it's the best circumstance to see a show, the balance is slightly off as everything and anything gets huge laughs and practically all the songs get standing ovations.  We audiences are excitable buggers sometimes.

I had no idea if I was going to like it. I vaguely knew the premise - two bright-eyed Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda and find their optimistic outlook at odds with the poverty and violence they find - and had remained immune to the whole Trey Parker / Matt Stone phenomenon.  I had however loved AVENUE Q so knew I would probably enjoy Robert Lopez' score.

What surprised me the most was not the much-vaunted outrageousness but how savvy it is to the tenets of how a Broadway show works - take away the odd AIDS joke or 'cunt' word and you have a show that any coach party will enjoy!  It was rather obvious that it's outrage would be viewed slightly differently on this side of the pond.  It's often the case that what's viewed as cutting edge on Broadway raises but an eyebrow here.

However it was all rather endearing and I was soon won over by it's sheer joy in being able to make knob jokes amid the kick-steps.  Not knowing the first thing about the birth of Mormonism I found it all too ludicrous to be true - people actually believe this?  But while Parker and Stone enjoy their lampooning the whole set-up, it of course all ends happily for everyone, Mormon and warlord alike.  Oh and yes, Robert Lopez' score is wonderfully catchy and packed with memorable songs.

What makes the show so likeable is the the cast and in particular, the fabulous Gavin Creel who stars as the ever-smiling but ruthlessly self-centred Elder Price.  Three years ago he was here leading the wondrous HAIR tribe at the Gielgud and Owen and I also got to see him perform his own material at the Jazz CafĂ© so it's great to see him brightening up the West End again.

His charismatic, wonderfully-sung and funny performance as Elder Price lights up the Prince of Wales stage and he is one of those rare performers who you can just relax while watching as you know he will deliver the goods and he does.

Jared Gertner plays the hapless Elder Cunningham and certainly has the harder role as he really is playing an escapee from SOUTH PARK.  With no recognisable human qualities at all he occasionally grates but he certainly grabs his big moments such as the first act closer MAN UP and BAPTIZE ME.  Gertner and Creel previously played the roles in the American road tour and have an easy and natural partnership on stage.

Another stand-out is Stephen Ashfield as the ever-smiling, ever-closeted Elder Cunningham who runs the Ethiopian missionary.  His first act number TURN IT OFF is a real showstopper and he knocks it out of the (south) park with a twinkle in the eye and great energy.  I must admit it was the number that made me think "Oh I know I am enjoying myself now!"  I find that usually 20 minutes into a new musical, a song will pop up and I know I can relax... it's going to be a good show.  He also delivers with the second act paean of European Afro-centric condescension I AM AFRICA.

Giles Terera plays the village spokesman Mafala and has good fun with the 'welcome to Africa' number HASA DIGA EEBOWAI while Alexia Khadime shines with an unaffected innocence as his daughter Nabulungi, eager to escape to the heaven-on-earth SAL TLAY KA SITI.

I really enjoyed Casey Nicholow's energetic and inventive choreography although Scott Pask's set design is rather alarmingly low-rent at times.  I had a hugely enjoyable time so get yourself to the Prince of Wales and get Mormonised.  Hello!

I haven't blogged about MATILDA THE MUSICAL??? But I saw that *yonks* ago!  I mean to say, Bertie Carvel is playing Miss Trunchbull on Broadway now!  Well the programme is in my Poly Styrene 'Generation Indigo' tote bag and that's where unblogged progs go so... um *tries to dredge up what I thought of it*

I remember I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to, the combination of Roald Dahl and the RSC had left a sinking feeling within despite all the good reviews.  But I had reckoned without Dennis Kelly's involving book with it's darker moments and it's inventive retelling of Dahl's tale of a young girl who loves to read and has kinetic powers - I'm amazed the RSC took in on as it sound like a more family-friendly version of CARRIE which the RSC famously staged as a musical with disastrous consequences.

In fact the book takes over at times - God there's a lot of plot!  Matilda's parents hate her but are unknowingly involved with the Russian mafia, Matilda is telling a librarian an immensely convoluted tragic story of an escapologist and his wife, her teacher Miss Honey is living in a shed due to the evil plotting of her aunt Miss Trunchbull who also happens to be the headmistress of Matilda's school.  Luckily there is Tim Minchin's quirky and sophisticated score to break up the relentless plot. 

Although I was not enthused enough to buy the cast recording as Owen was, the score works within the confines of the show and does include one genuinely lovely song WHEN I GROW UP which got my eyes a bit moist, sung as the children soar out over the orchestra pit on swings!  The show is a triumph for choreographer Peter Darling, energetic and inventive for both young and adult performers. 

Rob Howell delivers colourful and eccentric costumes and an all-encompassing set design which even extends beyond the confines of the proscenium arch with building blocks tumbling and inching along the Cambridge Theatre walls.  Hugh Vanstone's lighting is also hugely effective and adds to the theatrical excitement.

Matthew Warchus' direction keeps the pace going but even he can't keep up the momentum of the second act plot log-jam.

I was lucky enough to see the first company - despite an a.w.o.l. Paul Kaye as Matilda's father - but it was great to see Josie Walker as Matilda's ballroom-dancing mother and Lauren Ward as the sympathetic schoolteacher Miss Honey while our Matilda for the evening Cleo Demetriou gave a performance which was a pure delight.

But towering over MATILDA - both the character and the show - was Bertie Carvel's astonishing Miss Trunchbull the domineering head mistress.  Part Richard III, part Anne Widdicombe, Carvel gave a performance that was frighteningly hilarious and hilariously frightening.  Although primarily a supporting part, he made his character larger-than-life and made you feel sorry for whoever has to follow him in the role.

MATILDA is still running at the Cambridge Theatre, I wonder if a second visit would enhance or wreck one's memory of it?

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