Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 7 Shows of Xmas 7: ASSASSINS

Well, we made it Constant Reader… end of 2014 and here I am at the last show at Christmas.  I couldn't have done it without you.

The last show of 2014 was in one of my favourite theatres and was one of my favourite shows.  If maybe not in this production...

The show, written in 1990, was a departure for Sondheim - in a career already defined by departures from the norm - in that it was a non-linear, ensemble piece set in an imagined fairground shooting gallery, where the nine living and dead people who attempted or succeeded in killing the President of the United States gather to relive the circumstances that brought them to their murderous deed.  

Gathered together across the years they seek to justify their actions as Sondheim's score and John Weidman's book seek to understand how their twisted logic and sense of failure led them to do what they did.  It's a musical that is also a scathing polemic on the curdled idea of The American Dream and Sondheim willingly takes a backseat in several major scenes giving Weidman the space to explore the characters without the necessity for a song to interrupt the flow.

One by one they step forward into the spotlight that they felt was denied them: John Wilkes Booth, vainglorious actor who shot Lincoln to avenge the South; Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to shoot Roosevelt in his hatred for the capitalists who he had to slave for ruining his physical and mental health; would-be Anarchist Leon Czolgosz who shot President McKinley to also avenge the masses; deranged Charles Guiteau who shot President Garfield because he did not receive the post of Ambassador to France which he felt he was entitled to.

John Hinckley who attempted to shoot Ronald Reagan so Jodie Foster would notice him; misfit Samuel Byck who attempted to crash a plane into Nixon's White House; Manson acolyte Lynette Frome who attempted to kill Gerald Ford to publicise Manson's world vision and Sara Jane Moore a confused woman desperate to do something radical to be noticed.  And the ninth, of course, is Lee Harvey Oswald who, in Weidman's chilling scene, is persuaded by the others to be the assassin that will define them all.  If the greatest ambition for any American is to rise to be President, how much more famous is it to be the person who kills them?

It's all there in Weidman's excellent book and Sondheim's glorious score which pastiches various American musical forms: rousing Souza marches, folk ballads, high-stepping cakewalk, pop ballads - sadly the ubiquitous director Jamie Lloyd obviously feels that the material is not clear enough and has given us a production which starts so ramped-up and overwrought that it swamps the material.  This leads to several of the cast giving performances that are almost grotesque in their clanging over-emphasis.

Soutra Gilmour's threatening and creepy fairground set also overdoes the emphasis and again suffocates the work's quiet despair.  Mind you, it provided an amusing moment at the start when the ghastly Proprietor popped out of the mouth of a large papier-mâché clown's head and the woman next to it shrieked loudly in alarm.  Oh and I did love Gilmour's visual trick of showering red ticker-tape on the 'successful' assassins.

Ah, the Proprietor.  He is there to introduce the assassins and to play various characters within their scenarios.  But here the role is hideously over-played by Simon Lipkin who literally gasps the opening number "Everybody's Got The Right" while heavy-breathing through his mouth.  What the fuck was director Lloyd thinking about?  Sondheim's lyrics went for nothing as he sounded like someone trying to sing while having an asthmatic seizure.

His truly ghastly performance is mirrored in an over-the-top performance from Stewart Clarke who bellows his lines in "How I Saved Roosevelt" so much I was over-the-moon when he was finally electrocuted.  Sadly this air of high-pitched desperation affected Catherine Tate's woozy Sara Jane Moore which she played as if to an audience of hard-of-hearing patrons in the Albert Hall.  It was a grotesque performance of a woman who was anything but, just very, very confused.

Again the heavy-breathing-through-the-mouth acting style affected Harry Morrison who played John Hinckley as hysterically as a drag act who had just had his wig pulled off.  This was shown off to alarming effect in his duet with Carly Bawden's Lynette Frome.  Sondheim's glorious subversion of the typical musical love song has Hinckley and Frome singing of their unworthiness of someone's love - only this time it's to pictures of Jodie Foster and Charles Manson.  Morrison's over-wrought delivery was instantly forgotten when Bawden started singing - a pure, soprano voice just singing… a rarity in this production.

However, it was not all ghastly - some performers fought through the unimaginative staging to make an impression.  US actor Aaron Tveit was an impressive Booth, his preening vanity sitting on him like an ever-present opera cloak and he shone in the afore-mentioned Lee Harvey Oswald scene.  The always dependable Jamie Parker played The Balladeer, the musical's voice of reason who counterpoints the assassin's protestations with asides on how they didn't change anything, they didn't get what they wanted etc.  However when the assassins attack him during their clarion call "Another National Anthem", he emerges from the scrum dressed as Lee Harvey Oswald, ready to be seduced by Booth into his moment of fate. 

Andy Nyman was fun as the clearly deranged Charles Guiteau and made the most of his solo cakewalk number, clapping and dancing his way up the gallow stairs, he even breaks out dancing in mid-air after his lengthy hanging!  I also liked David Roberts as the confused and lonely Leon Czolgosz, he was particularly good in the small but telling scene with Emma Goldman where he struggles to make a connection with a real radical visionary.

As I said, Carly Bawdon was excellent as the angrily obsessed Lynette Frome and at the other end of the spectrum, Mike McShane was blistering fierce as Sam Byck who has two monologues in which we see an angry, disturbed man slowly coming apart.  The interesting thing is that Weidman does give Byck genuine concerns - what Weidman and Sondheim are saying is that it's right to get angry at injustices, it's how you react that is important.

Neil Austin's lighting design was, as always, almost a star in itself and the orchestra gave the score a vibrancy not always echoed by the cast.

I came out of the theatre shattered at the sheer intensity of it all so I guess Jamie Lloyd would say he succeeded but I would seriously debate that.

2014… Thank You and Good Night!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 7 Shows of Xmas 6: TREASURE ISLAND

To paraphrase Cole Porter: another ev'nin', another show...  This time it was back to the ever-welcome comfort of the Olivier stalls to see the latest in the National Theatre's Christmas productions based on literary children's books.  However this year Robert Louis Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND has been given a particular female twist.

The production is directed by Polly Findlay and the adaptation by Bryony Lavery has reassigned Jim Hawkins to being a girl along with sex changes for Dr. Livesey and several pirates.

To be honest I was dreading what had been done to the story - revisionism for -isms sake? - but after a short while I didn't notice the gender shifts.  I guess it's all about finding the right actress to play the role rather than doing it for the role's sake and they have found the perfect actress to play plucky Jim in Patsy Ferran.

After impressing in her West End debut earlier this year as the gauche servant Edith in BLITHE SPIRIT, here she is a natural centre of attention with her sly wit and bright personality.  What a year she has had!

Actually she gives such a winning performance that she quite pulls the focus from Arthur Darvill as the show's famous villain Long John Silver.  Playing against the stereotypical representation of the character, Darvill's Silver is a cunning, sly adversary who easily infiltrates himself among the crew aboard Squire Trelawney's ship which sets out to find the titular island.  His performance is in keeping with the 'ensemble' feel of the show - but damn it all, this *is* the Olivier stage, an easy place to get lost if you are not flashing the bottle a bit.

Apart from Gillian Hanna as Jim's sparky Innkeeper grandmother, the cast are by and large anonymous although I liked Nick Fletcher's egotistical Squire and Tim Samuels as the aptly-named Grey, a sailor so anonymous the pirates forget to tie him up with the others.

There is also a great animatronic parrot playing Silver's ever-watchful Captain Flint which steals scenes easier than any pirate.

The National has also called again on it's favourite folk composer John Tams whose songs are atmospheric enough to give you a flavour of shanties heard through a dense fog.  Dan Jones' score and in particular his chilly soundscape help conjure the mood too.

The other big plus for the production is Lizzie Clachan's ingenious set which uses the Olivier revolve well, none more so than when the Squire's ship, the Hispaniola, rises majestically into view from what had been the desolate Inn minutes before.  The large curved plinths that surround the stage are also an excellent design choice suggesting both the bare bones of a ship's hull... and just bare bones!


Looking back, my only real annoyance was Lavery's overuse of archaic poetical speech patterns for Jim which sometimes pulled the focus away from the actual play and character.  Also, oddly enough for a show that succeeded so well with the onstage mise-en-scene, the occasional use of lighting cues above the audience to suggest the parrot's flight were usually mis-timed and a bit confusing.  This was also the case with the final effect - what should have been a haunting 'button' actually was a bit of a clunker.

But I was surprised how much I enjoyed the show and the good news is that Treasure Island fan and secret pirate king Owen was hugely impressed with it.

New Year ahoy!

The 7 Shows of Xmas 5: CITY OF ANGELS

Finally, here it was... the one I had most been looking forward to seeing this Christmas. One of my all-time favourite shows, CITY OF ANGELS at the Donmar was bound to fall short of my high expectations - but by how much, Constant Reader?

CITY OF ANGELS, directed by Michael Blakemore, opened on Broadway in 1989 where it ran for over two years, in the process winning the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical, Best Book for Larry Gelbart and Best Score for Cy Coleman & David Zippel.

It appeared in London in 1993 but, despite Blakemore again directing and with the great cast of the late Martin Smith, Roger Allam (perfect as the private eye Stone), Henry Goldman (also perfect as the manipulative film producer/director Buddy Fiddler) and the dazzling Film Noir siren quartet of Susannah Fellows, Haydn Gwynne, Sarah Jane Hassell and Fiona Hendley, the show managed only 8 months at the Prince of Wales.  However it still won the Olivier Award that year for Best Musical.

A loving celebration of Film Noir thrillers, Gelbart's wonderfully witty book tells of Stine, a NY crime writer who is lured to Hollywood - against his editor wife's wishes - to write the script for a film adaptation of City of Angels, the latest novel to feature his private eye hero Stone.  However once there, he finds it difficult to remain faithful to his creation with the constant meddling of his tyrannical producer/director Buddy Fiddler - to say nothing of remaining faithful to his wife.  Eventually even his hero has to make his feelings known...

Even without Coleman & Zippel's delicious score, Gelbart's book would be a joy as he switches the action constantly between Stine writing the script and the fictional world he is creating for his hard-bitten private eye alter-ego Stone amid an array of Film Noir characters: the mysterious wife of the decrepit wealthy man, the night-club singer that broke Stone's heart, the lovelorn Girl Friday, the nymphet jailbait daughter, the mysterious quack doctor etc etc.  The actors playing the film characters also double up as the actors and crew of the film Stine is working on and the fun is seeing how life imitates art and vice-versa.

I had a chance to see the show again in 2008 at the Guildhall Drama School where it was proven that you really do need actors who can sing to make the show a success.  So the news that Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke had chosen the show to be the first musical she would direct had me cock-a-hoop: who would be cast and how on earth could they stage this complicated show on such an intimate stage?

The answer was: quite easily actually!  Against a towering backdrop of piled up manuscripts, Robert Jones has designed a show that uses minimal set dressing to conjure the mood required and it is aided immeasurably by Howard Harrison's Noiresque lighting and the witty use of Duncan McLean's video projections.  It was a pleasure to see the show coming to life on that small stage.

The casting I have a bit more trouble with.  Countless plays of the original Broadway cast recording have spoiled me as the double act of Gregg Edelman and James Naughton (who won the Tony Award) as Stine and Stone are matchless, closely followed by the London pairing of Smith and Allam.

I am not sure whether it is symptomatic of the calibre of West End leading men at present but although Hadley Fraser could certainly belt out the last notes of DOUBLE TALK and FUNNY - and clamber like a mountain goat over the vertiginous backdrop - I felt he was too lightweight as Stine and Tam Mutu also seemed to lack the real grit needed for Stone, the tough dick hiding a bruised heart.  I was hoping for Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" and got George Segal in "The Black Bird". 

I hasten to add that the two theatre groupies who were sitting next to me more than made up for my muted applause for Fraser as they couldn't keep still when he was on stage.  Bless.

Also disappointing was Peter Polycarpou's Buddy Fiddler.  The perfect scene-stealing role, this Fiddler growled rather than roared.  I don't know whether he was playing down to match the size of the stage but this tyrant of the sound stage came across as some guy from the front office.  Where the production did score big however was with the female cast.

Larry Gelbart wrote four excellent roles which give the actresses playing them a real opportunity to show their versatility.  There is Donna, Fiddler's secretary who helps Stine rewrite his script while seducing him over the typewriter, who also doubles as Oolie, Stone's dependable but lovelorn secretary; there is Gabby, Stine's practical editor wife, who doubles as Bobbi, a cabaret torch singer who Stone loved when he was a cop and who vanished after he took the rap for her shooting a man.  

There is Avril Raines, the dumb blonde 'protegée' starlet of Fiddler who knows plenty when it comes to advancing her career who doubles as Mallory Kingsley, a teenage heiress whose unexplained disappearance is solved when she turns up very much alive in Stone's bed; and there is Carla Haywood, Fiddler's none-too-faithful but no-nonsense actress wife who also doubles as the seductively mysterious Alaura Kingsley, wife of a sickly industrialist who might or might not know more than she lets on.

Josie Rourke has the good fortune to be blessed with Rebecca Trehearn as Donna/Oolie, Rosalie Craig as Gabby/Bobbi, Samantha Barks as Avril/Mallory and Katherine Kelly as Carla/Alaura.  Luckily my two favourite songs in the show were wonderfully performed: Samantha Barks turned up the heat as the seductive Mallory without losing Zippel's delicious lyrical double-play in "Lost and Found" and Rebecca Trehearn stopped the show with Oolie/Donna's "You Can Always Count On Me" - her good-natured but worldly-wise performance suggesting Jane Russell at her brunette best.

Cy Coleman and David Zippel's 40s jazz-style score contains so many great songs that should either bounce off the stage like bullets from a .44 or wrap around you like the smoke from a Femme Fatale's cigarette that at times it was frustrating that they were sometimes too plodding in their arrangements.  The innuendo-drenched "Tennis Song" between Stone and Alaura should feel like a bracing rally but here felt like a full 5-set match (with rain delays).

So... there you have it.  Yes there were things I was disappointed with but would I see it again?  In a hot minute.  All they have to do is whistle... know how to whistle don't you Donmar?  You just put your lips together and... blow.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The 7 Shows of Xmas 4: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS

It was going to be a tough ask for any production to follow the dazzling HERE LIES LOVE but the next day found Owen and I at Sadler's Wells for the revival of Matthew Bourne's dance version of Tim Burton's EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.

I saw the show in 2008 and in my blog I was less than enthusiastic.  Although Bourne has slightly revised it I still feel it's a show that is as thin as one of Edward's blades, as light as one of his ice shavings.  By the way, how wonderful to be able to access exactly what I thought of a show seen six years ago.  Thank you Mr. Blogger.

Actually re-reading that blog makes me realise that not a lot has changed in 6 years sadly.  The piece has not been re-imagined to any great extent - there is now a duet between Edward and Kim in the first act which strengthens their relationship but again not good enough for them to be a couple that you root for: Edward yes, but Kim's actions are too unreadable as imagined for this.

The show is also still saddled with one too many ensemble numbers.  Usually this would not be a bad thing for a Bourne show but here is a town that needs some serious down-sizing.  Their are six families portrayed - each comprising four members - and Bourne feels the need in each ensemble number to reintroduce them all with their own idiosyncrasies.  With two ensemble numbers in each act this just feels like padding, as if Bourne didn't feel he could do enough with the central couple which bizarrely is just what the show lacks.

So we get the Evercreech family being religious, the Covitt family's husband sneaking off to have sex with Mrs Monroe, the Grubb family being slovernly and the Upton husband and wife running for political office again and again.  The irritating thing is that nothing actually builds from this, like some Burtonesque nightmare they just repeat the same actions again and again.  I am not sure if Bourne is attempting social satire, I suspect not.

What makes this all the more frustrating is after treading water for almost an hour and a half, in the last 20 minutes of the show Bourne suddenly ramps up the action and the emotional involvment to arrive at a genuinely sad and emotional ending.

Edward being chased back to his inventor's deserted home, the climax of the action, the significance of the old woman we saw at the start of the show and the thing that haunts her; all of these finally galvanize the show and give it a resonance that have been lacking up until then.  I hate to criticize Bourne's work as it has given me such great pleasure but it has to be said.

Of course what helps immesurably are some of the performances.  It was great to see Dominic North again as Edward, he has made the part his own and makes an indelible impression of an innocent lost in a world that he so wishes to be part of.  He genuinely makes Edward a tragic figure through his thrilling performance.

Katy Lowenhoff was a charming Kim but as I have said, is hampered by Bourne's wishy-washy approach to the character while Bourne old-timers Etta Murfitt and Saranne Curtin were very good as the kindly Mrs. Boggs and the man-hungry Joyce Munroe.  Tom Clark was also good as Edward's nemesis Bill.

The ensemble cast gave the usual high standard that is expected of a Bourne production, Lez Brotherston's stage designs were a delight as always as was Howard Harrison's evocative lighting.

If only Matthew Bourne could have another look at the show and, with Christmas in mind, discard the padding surrounding the show and concentrate more on the actual heart of it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The 7 Shows of Xmas 3: HERE LIES LOVE

Before I saw this, a work colleague asked me what I was seeing.  I replied "A disco musical about Imelda Marcos written by Fatboy Slim and David Byrne".  We both then burst out laughing as it sounded like I was just saying random words out loud!

It did indeed sound a mind-twanging concept, but it was one of the shows I was most looking forward to - as well as seeing what had happened to the National's Cottesloe auditorium now it has been redesigned and rechristened the Dorfman.

The Theatre has found space to fit in a new staircase, bar, cloakroom and loos, although there was still no room to swing a cat as the show was a sell-out as is the rest of it's run.  The auditorium doesn't look terribly different but it was exciting to see it transformed into a club setting, the lighting cues becoming more and more urgent the closer we got to start time while the audience who had standing tickets nervously bounced from one foot to the other to the banging electro tunes.

So the set-up: David Byrne had been intrigued when he read that Imelda Marcos was a disco fan and had visited Studio 54 when in New York and had even had a floor in her NY Townhouse equipped with a disco-ball.  Collaborating with Fatboy Slim, they have used this as a springboard to explore her and husband Ferdinand's rise and fall in the Philippines.  Together they have crafted a fascinating piece of musical theatre quite unlike anything else thanks to the imagination of director Alex Timbers.

Imelda's story is told using an excellent score, projections, lighting and a shape-shifting set of platforms that move around the auditorium floor.  Bizarrely, apart from the music and staging, Imelda's trajectory follows that of Eva Peron's in EVITA - poor girl makes good in the big city then meets politician with an eye on the prize, she rises to become the President's wife and, while inspiring great love among voters, is adept at turning a blind eye to the violent cracking down on any dissent.

Unlike the sexist approach to EVITA however, here at least there is an attempt at understanding the hunger that drove Imelda to strive for more as well as view her with sympathy in relation to her marriage to Ferdinand, who seemed to view it more like a business take-over.  One can then understand her anger when the Western actress Ferdinand was keeping as a mistress went public with covert tapes of their lovemaking when he dumped her.

With Ferdinand's health in decline, Imelda seized her opportunity to woo world leaders to do business with the Philippines and to also take a bigger grasp of the political reins.

The interesting facet to her story was that the Marcos' opponent Ninoy Aquino had been Imelda's boyfriend when she first arrived in Manilla, allegedly dumping her because she was too tall.  This gives the politics an intriguing soap opera element.  My knowledge of Imelda Marcos was minimal so it was all an education to me!

For such a far-reaching subject, there are only four main characters in the show: Imelda, Ferdinand, Ninoy and Estrella, Imelda's maid who was her only friend in a loveless home.  She later ran foul of Imelda when she spoke to a reporter of her former friend's humble beginnings which ran counter to the official Marcos version - she was kept under house arrest for her pains.

The score gets darker as the Marcos grip on the people gets tighter until Ninoy Aquino is assassinated on the airport tarmac minutes after arriving back from exile in America.  We then leap three years to the Peace Revolution which brought down the Marcos regime in only four days.  This is done simply but very effectively by having the theatrics stop and with just the house lights on, a trio from the ensemble sing the song GOD DRAWS STRAIGHT.  This ends the show but you can't keep a bad girl down and Imelda reprises HERE LIES LOVE, a fantastic show song which lodges itself in your memory as soon as you hear it.  The title comes from an interview when Imelda was asked what she wanted inscribed on her tombstone.

The production was an astonishing combination of theatrical storytelling: music, choreography, lighting and performance melding together to make an unforgettable experience.  David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's score pulses and blares with energy but the attention never slips when the pace or tone gets slower or darker. 

Natalie Mendoza was electric as Imelda, effortlessly moving from ingenue to diva with an unstoppable energy that could power the whole of the Philippines.  If the supporting cast don't have quite the same opportunity to shine, it doesn't stop them making impressions: Mark Bautista as a slick Ferdinand, Dean John-Wilson as an impassioned Aquino and Gia Macuja Atchison as the increasingly invisible Estrella.

The ensemble worked every minute of the show and Frances Mayli McCann and Li-Tong Hsu caught the attention in their solos as the Mistress and Aquino's mother respectively.

It would be great if the show could come back in some way as it is sold out until it closes in early January.  More people should have the opportunity to experience this remarkable show.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The 7 Shows of Xmas 2: THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

Owen, being a fan of Kenneth Grahame's book of life along the riverbank, booked tickets to see this ballet version by the Royal Opera House.  It had a big success last year so has been brought back for a short season at the Vaudeville.

Now I must declare at this point that I have never been partial to Grahame's story.  With it's superior tone and referencing the worst elements of upper-class snobbish attitudes I am afraid I have always remained resistant to it - even the Disney version.

But Owen wanted to see it so I went along.  Sadly after a fairly hectic day at work - and with the heaviness of a head cold hanging about - about 5 minutes after it started I was nodding and drifting away. It's placidly charming tempo and Listen With Mother air knocked me out.

Another reason for the slightly soporific feeling was down to the fact that The Narrator was played by none other than Alan Titchmarsh - yes THE Alan Titchmarsh! Onstage! Not on tape like I was expecting.  I think the shock of seeing the Gran's favourite pin-up in all his woolliness set me off to snoozeland.

However after an interval that saw the bar being invaded first by the irate owner of a stolen car then Mr Toad in said stolen vehicle and finally by the bobbies who arrested him - and after finishing off a gin and tonic *and* an ice-cream - I felt a bit more connected to the piece.  

There was real snow in the auditorium during the winter section although Owen was upset we didn't get any as we were under the balcony overhang like at WHITE CHRISTMAS and by the end of the show - it's only 100 minutes - I must admit I had quite a pleasant time.

It's killingly twee of course but it has a charming quality which works quite a spell of good-feeling.  It was hard to think that outside it was all manic Christmas shopping and boozy office parties.  Will Tuckett's choreography is inventive with a nice manic twist for Toad.  And even Alan Titchmarsh's casting *worked* at the end.

Cris Penfold whirled and bounced around the stage as Toad with unstoppable energy and he was well-supported by Martin Harvey (Ratty), Ira Mandela Siobhan (the most bizarre name currently onstage played Badger) and Sonya Cullingford (Mole).  A busy cast double and triple up as well as acting as puppeteers.

I still dislike the story but I have to admit the show - to quote Sam Goldwyn - had charmth and warmth.

Monday, December 22, 2014


This year it has somehow fallen that there are 7 shows booked up until the end of the year which is all rather exciting.  It can't be all opening presents then lying asleep on the couch while Brenda rabbits away on the tv about what she and the family have been up to in the past year.  So let's kick off the theatrical Xmas season with the underwhelming WHITE CHRISTMAS at the Dominion.

Now the Dominion is a hard barn to warm up, to be honest I have never seen a show that has successfully managed to make it feel like a welcoming auditorium and it certainly wasn't the case with this import from Plymouth.

It was played with all the galvanising energy of an understudy call.  At times it felt like I was just watching people going about their work that they know they will get paid for; a theatrical equivalent of watching train cleaners.

I can't say I hated it as there was nothing really to hate, it was so inoffensive and anodyne.  While looking at the actors going about their business my mind wandered to the film of WHITE CHRISTMAS and started musing that it was directed by Michael Curtiz who also directed CASABLANCA.

Now I put it to you that these two films which enjoy huge popularity to this day were never meant to be the 'classic' films that they are viewed as now.  They were films that exemplified the Hollywood films of the period, vehicles for star performers who didn't portray characters so much as give a new version of their established screen persona - Curtiz also did this with Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning role of MILDRED PIERCE.  So Crawford is the career woman who suffers in fur, Bogart is the bruised cynic, Ingrid Bergman is loving and noble, Bing Crosby is easy-going and mellow, Danny Kaye is zany but non-threatening etc.

The trouble is that in adapting WHITE CHRISTMAS for the stage you need to make it a star vehicle for actors who are larger-than-life and who can make you forget the original.  Ladies and gentleman I give you Tom Chambers and Aled Jones, both as charismatic as kapok.

Okay I will admit that Chambers has an easy charm and puts the dancing skills he won STRICTLY COME DANCING with to good use but he simply cannot project a personality into the vast auditorium.  He had a success with TOP HAT but that was in the smaller Aldwych theatre.  I will equally admit that Aled Jones has a good singing voice but that's all he has, he wandered through the proceedings like a brow-beaten husband allowed out for an evening.

Rachel Stanley and Louise Bowden played Betty and Judy, the Haynes Sisters, with an interchangeable stridency totally at odds with their leading men.  Both were teeth-gridingly awful.  Stanley in particular is heart-freezing and for some reason her big torch number in Act 2 "Love, You Didn't Do Right For Me", so memorably sung by Rosemary Clooney in the film, is here transformed into a diva moment aka Streisand singing "My Man" at the end of FUNNY GIRL.

Matching her in over-the-top belting is Wendi Peters who plays the hotel housekeeper Martha who - well, surprise surprise - reveals a past as a former Broadway performer.  This gives her carte blanche to perform all her numbers as an ersatz Ethel Merman and rather than galvanising, she simply made herself more kickable.

The rest of the cast perform their roles with various shades of anonymity.

What was particularly annoying was the choice to make the dance numbers so long that they outstayed their welcome.  Now I love a tap routine like any other show queen but the interpolated number "I Love A Piano" went on ad infinitum with repeated tap riffs which lost the song's original shape completely.  But Tom Chambers did tap on STRICTLY so there it was...

Oh and another thing... re-christening it IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS has seemingly given them the right to cram it with other Berlin songs not in the film which only prolongs the pain.  I hope Stephen Sondheim has it stipulated in his will that future productions of his work will not allow "Send In The Clowns" to be stuck into INTO THE WOODS or "Losing My Mind" into SWEENEY TODD.

So IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS, meet CHRIS VOISEY'S BLACK MOOD.  I am sure some people will point out that the capacity audience all had a whale of a time but I suspect they would have had equally as good a time watching the Christmas lights up and down Tottenham Court Road.

Monday, December 08, 2014

MEMPHIS... And I'm as blue as a boy can be

I really have no idea what to say about MEMPHIS: THE MUSICAL at the Shaftesbury.  As opposed to MEMPHIS: THE CITY or MEMPHIS: THE SEWER SYSTEM.

Oh Beverley Knight... the things you put me through.  Some performers make it bloody hard to be a fan.

It didn't take too long to realise I was not enjoying the show but what was the cause of my distress?

I am still in a state of shock that one of the thinnest books I have ever sat through won a Tony Award.  So, the story: Huey, an under-achieving department store worker becomes a d.j. and uses his popularity to bring rhythm and blues to the masses while also starting an affair with a talented singer Felicia against the opposition of his mother and her brother Delray.

And that's about it.  Now I don't expect depth from the average musical book but sweet Jesu... the characters are paper-thin and change with their every appearance onstage: the hero's mother is a Southern racist but has an overnight conversion by going to a black church meeting, the girl singer's brother is ultra-protective, then he's not, then he is...

The biggest absurdity in the script is when Huey and Felicia are caught kissing on the street by a group of racists who beat her in the stomach with a base-ball bat.  Later Delray, while arguing with Huey, announces that because of him Felicia can no longer have children.  So how does this colour her character as written?  Not a jot as it's never mentioned again.

Maybe she didn't particularly care to have children?

On a bigger scale - and I am truly stunned that critics have not picked up on this - the second half is a direct steal from HAIRSPRAY as Huey is given his own local cable music show which he presents as truly integrated.  The final number "Steal Your Rock 'n' Roll" also has a chorus that is a direct steal from HAIRSPRAY's "You Can't Stop The Beat".  But by then I was past caring.

There are incidental pleasures such as Sergio Trujillo's choreography which is energetic and gives the male ensemble in particular plenty of scope to shine.  There was good work from Rolan Bell in the schizoid role of the approving/disapproving brother and Jason Pennycooke was also fine in his musical numbers.

But the score by Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan and book writer Joe diPietro is uninspired, synthetic soul music - yes, Beverley Knight was in excellent voice but when you are listening to the extent of her vocal prowess rather than taking in what she is singing then you know something is out of whack.  Sadly the character of Felicia is so milquetoast that it's difficult to engage with her on any level when she is not singing.

As is the way with the West End, the usual leading man Killian Donnelly was off the night we went - they just don't have the range you know - so we saw Jon Robyns who has impressed before in ROAD SHOW and AVENUE Q and while good in the role of Huey, he could do little to make an unlikeable character interesting.

So there you have it.  And you are welcome to it.