Sunday, July 15, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 45: FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE (1990) (various)

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: 1990, Theatre Royal Stratford East
First seen by me: as above
Productions seen: three

Score: various
Book: Clarke Peters
Plot: Nomax, down on his luck and left by his woman, is is visited by the five guys named Moe who appear out of his radio and bring him back to happiness through the songs of jazz legend Louis Jordan.


Short on plot but big on joy, Clarke Peters' tribute show celebrates the back catalogue of Louis Jordan whose recordings span the 1930s big band jazz sound through the jump 'n' jive swing years to the early stirrings of rhythm and blues that led to rock & roll.  Starting at Stratford East - where I was lucky to see it - the show conga'd into the West End where it ran for over four years; on Broadway it ran for over a year.  In 2010 the show appeared again at Stratford East where I saw it again and had the great joy of meeting Clarke Peters.  MOE memories include sitting in the prompt-side box at Stratford East in 1990 with Ann Molloy and Suzanne Golden who memorably held the show up because she didn't have a lyric sheet in her programme - Peters had to go into the audience to find a spare one - and when I saw the West End transfer at the Lyric with friend Guy, on his last night in the UK before leaving to work in Brazil, we were seated next to Ben and Tracey from Everything But The Girl!

Here is Clarke Peters with a revival cast in 1998 appearing in the Cameron Mackintosh tribute show HEY MR PRODUCER! singing a medley of the title song, HURRY HOME, IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN'T MY BABY and DON'T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYING...

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 46: COMPANY (1970) (Stephen Sondheim)

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: 1970, Alvin Theater, NY
First seen by me: 1996, Albery Theatre, London
Productions seen: two

Score: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Plot:  Robert is single and living in New York; on his 35th birthday his best friends - five couples - throw him a surprise party which finally makes him confront his lack of commitment in relationships.


As you all reel from the fact that a Sondheim musical is only at #46, I have to say that, although it's not my favourite of his shows, I think I enjoyed it more than the 'Variety' critic who reported after seeing it's 1970 Boston try-out "As it stands now it's for ladies' matinees, homos and misogynists."  Charmed.  I had to wait quite a while to see it and finally caught up with Sam Mendes' Donmar revival when it transferred to the Albery in 1996 with the extraordinary cast of Adrian Lester as Robert, the late Sheila Gish as Joanne, the unstoppable Sophie Thompson as Amy and such solid musical performers as Teddy Kempner, Paul Bentley, Clare Burt, Clive Rowe and Michael Simkins - a company as good as that can distract you from thoughts that the characters are all fairly annoying.  My main COMPANY memory is seeing Patti LuPone at the Leicester Square Theatre who ended her show with Joanne's coruscating solo THE LADIES WHO LUNCH and, at the song's climax, tossed her martini (aka water) into the audience - and over me.  Cow. Let's see if she can do it again in October when we see her play the role in Marianne Elliott's upsy-gender revival at the Gielgud....

Here is a remarkable performance of THE LADIES WHO LUNCH by it's originator Elaine Stritch - the performance is worthy of Beckett it's so unflinching..


Monday, July 09, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 47: BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1980) (various)

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: 1980, Playhouse 46 NY
First seen by me: 1988, Piccadilly Theatre, London
Productions seen: two

Score: various
Book: Sheldon Epps
Plot: Three women sit in a run-down hotel waiting for the same no-good man to appear, and sing their lives through the classic blues and torch songs of the Golden Age of American jazz.


Following on from similar jazz and blues revue-style shows like BUBBLING BROWN SUGAR and ONE MO' TIME, BLUES IN THE NIGHT changed the format from a night-club setting to a run-down hotel so the songs play more as a musical than an out-front recreation of a cabaret show.  Three women: an ingenue, a sophisticate and an older touring blues singer all interact with a man who seems to connect them through classic songs written by Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Ida Cox and Harold Arlen among others.  It's a simple format that works because of the exhilarating song choices and having a tightly-focused quartet and I still remember the pure pleasure when I saw it 30 years ago.  An atmospheric live cast recording immortalizing the excellent original London quartet of Clarke Peters, Carol Woods, Maria Friedman and Debby Bishop has kept the show alive for me and I look forward to seeing a new production next year with Sharon D. Clarke and Clive Rowe in Kilburn,

Here is a compilation of scenes from a 1989 tv version of BLUES IN THE NIGHT with Peters, Woods, Bishop and Friedman.  The video quality is a bit shonky but it does give a flavour of the show's fun...

Saturday, July 07, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 48: HAIR (1967) (Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, James Rado)

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: 1967, Public Theater NY
First seen by me: 1993, Old Vic, London
Productions seen: three

Score: Galt MacDermot / Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Book: Ragni & Rado
Plot: A 'tribe' of hippies in New York assert their love of life and peace in late 1960s America but the Vietnam war looms ever closer...


Odd for HAIR to be so low in my chart, particularly as Diane Paulus' 2010 revival was so wondrous but, for all the variety of the score, the book is showing it's age - and in particular, the lengthy and disjointed Vietnam drug trip in the second act stops the show dead, just when you want more of the members of the tribe that you have grown to like in the first act.  I got to know the score through the 1968 London cast album, but was totally bewildered by the disjointed Old Vic production by Michael Bogdanov in 1993; my only lasting memory of it was sitting in the back row of bleacher seats on the Old Vic stage with fellow First Call workers - as I watched Sinitta spiral down to the stage holding onto a strap with one hand while singing AQUARIUS, I had not noticed 1) that Paul J Medford had popped up behind us to sing the second verse and 2) that one of my colleagues had started a nose bleed - when the spotlight snapped onto Medford it also revealed Nigel covered in blood!!  That was the most dramatic thing in the whole show.  All was put right by the fantastic revival by Diane Paulus which we first saw on Broadway then visited 5 times when it transferred to the Gielgud Theatre but sadly it just didn't connect with a wider audience and closed early.  However I will long treasure the definitive performances of Claude, Sheila, Jeanie, Berger and Crissy by the wonderful Gavin Creel, Caissie Levy, Kacie Sheik, Will Swenson, and Allison Case who made me blub every time with her heartrending performance of FRANK MILLS.

Here that remarkable ensemble led by Gavin Creel and Will Swenson take over the Tony Awards with the title song - it won the Award that year for Best Revival...

HAMLET at the Globe - "To hold the mirror up to nature..."

Last week I found myself back in the dangerous corridors of Elsinore, this time via the bare stage of The Globe Theatre.  Yes folks, another week, another Globe visit...

So here I am again, seeing an actor taking on the challenge of Hamlet for the eleventh time - and who was following in the steps of Kenneth Branagh, Jeremy Northam, Ian Charleson,  Simon Russell Beale, Dan McSherry (indeed, who?), Jude Law, Rory Kinnear, Michael Sheen, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott?  Michelle Terry, my first female Hamlet - apart from seeing Frances de la Tour doing a scene at a charity event - and a major challenge for The Globe's new Artistic Director.

HAMLET is presented by the same 12 actors who also appeared in AS YOU LIKE IT and I think the comedy succeeded more than the tragedy.  The same two directors are credited but there is no sense of direction during the play: people come, people go, with no sense of escalating tension for either Hamlet or Claudius.  Hamlet goes to England, he comes back from England...  people drop like nine pins in the final scene but with no real sense of mortality or that this is the climax of the actual play.

The directors' blocking and positioning of the actors on the stage, as with AS YOU LIKE IT, suggested it was possibly all worked out in the rehearsal room and just dropped onto the stage as is; there was a lot of traffic on the stage but none of it seemed to make any sense or helped with the dodgy acoustics in the round auditorium.  It was all a bit infuriating.

As I said, this Elsinore had gone minimalist and appeared to have no furniture to speak of at all.. and don't start me on the costumes or lack of them.  I was not totally surprised to read in the programme that they have brought their own stuff in to act in.  That might explain the light blue floaty dressing gown that Gertrude - the Queen of Denmark remember - wears in the closet scene:  they were obviously having a sale on at Primark.

There actually was one concept that worked: the scene with the players and Hamlet's staging of "The Mousetrap" - that never fails to get a laugh - is usually a problematic one because you have to see the play twice: once in mime, then the players act it out.  It can really try one's patience when you just want to get on with the plot, and also it's a bugger to focus on because you are too busy concentrating on watching Hamlet watch Claudius watch the play to see his reaction to the player king being murdered.  Here the players did the dumb show to set up what they were going to act but then vanished into the audience and the play was not shown, just the reactions front and centre of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet; loud and ominous percussion was played behind our first-level back-row to suggest the play.- which was effective but a bit-heart-attack inducing.

The casting, as with AS YOU LIKE IT, was ethnic and gender blind and created as many problems as with the comedy.  Surely an idea behind gender-mix-up casting is to possibly give a new slant on the role in question but here that was not in evidence apart from possibly within Terry's performance.  There were some seriously under-powered performances: James Garnon as Claudius made no impression at all as Claudius - he seemed to just point his elaborate hair-style at people (think Cameron Diaz in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY) while Catrin Aaron was colourless as Horatio and Helen Schlesinger played Gertrude as if she had come into a room and forgotten what she was looking for.

The main problem was with the tipsy-tarty casting of Bettrys Jones and Shubham Saraf as Laertes and Ophelia respectively - if they had switched roles it might have proved more interesting and allowed them to give better performances, but no: Saraf brought no insights to Ophelia - just a man in a dress - and James was as lightweight and as vaguely irritating as she was in AS YOU LIKE IT in yet another male role.  I have enjoyed her performances in previous productions but in these two plays she has proved that she is a lousy man.  Shubham Saraf did redeem himself briefly as a very characterful Osric.

The fine Jack Laskey was reduced to playing Fortenbras and the player who recites the Priam speech - but even he was defeated with being placed over at one side of the stage in that scene and his speech went for nothing.  But credit where credit is due: Colin Hurley was a dull Ghost but seized his laughs as the Gravedigger, Richard Katz was a suitably irritating Polonius - while missing any suggestion of threat in his relationship with Ophelia - while the indispensable Pearce Quigley and Nadia Nadarajah made a good Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Above all else, it was Michelle Terry's show; she played with a solid authority and spoke the lines with great intelligence - oh, and that speech?  She played it kneeling at the front of the stage, holding an audience member's hand and asking him "To be or not to be?" which was a very nice touch, it somehow personalized it, as if Hamlet was asking his opinion.  Sadly she was given no help with the absurdly ugly costumes she had to wear and ultimately, a lot of the production was not up to her level.

I will have to ponder where Michelle Terry sits in my pantheon of Hamlets, but I know that her interpretation did not move me as others have; it is possible for this to happen even within a shonky production - Andrew Scott is a good example - but here I suspect Terry was unwilling to out-shine the ensemble - she didn't even get a solo bow!  This strikes me as a rather false humility, after all, as the Globe's artistic director she nabbed the role for herself.  Despite all the failings of the production, I have to admit that I was pleased to have seen it and I still have high hopes for Michelle Terry's tenure.

Friday, June 29, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 49: OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! (1963) (various)

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: 1963, Theatre Workshop, Stratford East
First seen by me: 1998, Roundhouse, London
Productions seen: three

Score: various
Book: Joan Littlewood / Theatre Workshop / Charles Chilton / Gerry Raffles / Ted Allen

Plot: The savagery and foolishness of the Western Front in World War I is performed by a troupe of Pierrots.


Although Richard Attenborough's heavy-handed film version - loathed by Joan Littlewood - is probably more well known, the original still retains it's ability to freeze the smile on your face at it's depictions of the carnage on the Western Front during WWI.  Littlewood's partner Gerry Raffles had heard Charles Chilton's radio programme on the songs sung in the trenches and commissioned a script which Littlewood ditched.  She wanted her Theatre Workshop actors - including Murray Melvin, Brian Murphy, Larry Dann. Ann Beach and Victor Spinetti - to each research an aspect of the war and the short agit-prop linking sketches sprung from that; she also wanted the show to be from the ordinary soldier's point of view and NO uniforms.   Some of the sketches now seem heavy-handed - one on industrialists comparing the fortunes made through munitions lasts forever - but the three productions I have seen all had fine moments, my first at the Roundhouse was the most consistent; the irony being it was a mobile production by the National Theatre - another thing that Littlewood loathed!  There was also a Northern Stage tour which interpolated other songs - Owen liked it when a song not heard for ages, "Cushy Butterfield", popped up - and a revival at Stratford East.  The heartbreaking juxtaposition of the songs - optimism turning to weariness in the face of resignation and death - against the moving scenes of the 1914 Christmas truce between the British and Germans, and the French army literally baa-ing their way, like lambs to slaughter, into machine gun fire, keep their theatrical power.

Here is a trailer for the 2015 tour that followed the Stratford East revival the year before:

Thursday, June 28, 2018

AN IDEAL HUSBAND at the Vaudeville - Wilde casting

Dominic Dromgoole's theatre company Classic Spring is coming into the home stretch now in it's year-long season of plays by Oscar Wilde; unsurprisingly THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST will close the season but before that we have the first of the two plays Wilde presented in the fateful year of 1895, AN IDEAL HUSBAND.

It has been thrilling to see the plays presented together and to fully appreciate the fizzing wit and barnstorming melodrama in A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE and LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN.  However AN IDEAL HUSBAND, although it has these elements, seems to have Wilde trying a more through-drama with less chattering characters swamping the storyline.

Sir Robert Chiltern is a high-flying member of the Government, married to a woman who holds the view - Wilde's young wives always initially hold dogmatic views on things - that if you have done wrong you should be punished.  What Gertrude Chiltern doesn't know is that her husband's whole standing in society is based on a shady secret - he gave a Baron news that the Government were going to back the building of the Suez Canal a few days before it was announced, giving the Baron time to invest in the deal and make himself a fortune.  The Baron's financial recompense to Chiltern bankrolled his start in political life.  Oh and by the by, how remarkable that Oscar should hit on the Suez Canal as a possible source of Government embarrassment.

At a soiree given by the Chilterns, their friend Lady Markby arrives with the glamorous but mysterious Mrs Cheeverly, who reveals to Chiltern that she was the late Baron's former lover and has in her possession Chiltern's incriminating Suez letter.  Her price for silence is that Chiltern puts pressure on the Government to push through a similar canal deal in Argentina which Cheeverly and her friends have invested in but which Chiltern knows is doomed to failure.  Mrs Cheeverly was a contemporary of Gertrude's at school and they always despised each other, which is another reason for her to wreak havoc on the couple.

Chiltern capitulates but when Mrs Cheeverly, in a row with Gertrude, reveals the secret to her, Gertrude is appalled that her "Ideal Husband" has broken the law.  Gertrude demands that he admits his wrongdoing even though it will ruin them.  In desperation, Robert confides to his best friend, the pleasure-loving Lord Goring, his quandary but Goring insists he keeps quiet and allow him to see to Mrs Cheeverly, whom he was once engaged to!  While all this is going on, Lord Goring is appalled that his father is putting pressure on him to finally marry - could Chiltern's sparky younger sister Mabel be about to get her "Ideal Husband"?

As Oscar himself said "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means" but not before he has taken us through twists and turns over the allotted 24 hours of the play's timeline.  It is a play I like very much - the two sides of the narrative intersect every so often and there are of course the killer lines dropped like jewels on velvet in the text, oddly enough mostly by the gossiping Lady Markby in the second act when she comes to tea with Mrs Cheeverly - it's like Oscar thought "you want the gags - here they are".  So we get scintillating lines like "She ultimately was so broken-hearted that she went into a convent, or on to the operatic stage, I forget which. No; I think it was decorative art-needlework she took up. I know she had lost all sense of pleasure in life" - lines that pop and fizz in the mind and that so betray the debt that Joe Orton had to Wilde.

The film version in 1999 was excellent with the perfect Lord Goring in Rupert Everett, but oddly enough the last time I saw it on stage was again at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2011 in a production that at the time I felt had "no unity of style, time and again a character would come on stage and suddenly you are forced to adapt to a new acting style so you are never sure on which level the play truly sits"  Here there certainly was that unity of style thanks to Jonathan Church's well-paced direction but the production felt topsy-turvy with it's casting.  I posited the idea that the actors had all called their agents and said "Why haven't I been asked to do the Classic Spring season - get me in one quick" and they have all landed up in AN IDEAL HUSBAND.

The quasar of oddity was Freddie Fox's casting as Lord Goring; in itself it wasn't a bad performance - particularly in the second act - but his youth threw the rest of the characters awry.  There was no way Nathaniel Parker's middle-aged Sir Robert would ever have had the late-twenties Lord Goring as his confidante and possible saviour from disgrace, while the idea that Fox's Lord Goring could have been engaged to Mrs Cheeverly years before simply stretched believe to breaking point, particularly as this is a major turning point in the plot's resolution.  Similarly, Frances Barber's gurgling, predatory Mrs Cheeverly must have been held back MANY terms at school if she was a contemporary of Sally Bretton's priggish Gertrude Chiltern.

It was a casting coup to get real-life father and son Edward Fox and Freddie Fox to play the fictional father and son of Lord Caversham and Lord Goring and they certainly had an easy playing style together on stage - Edward Fox is now sounding like a member of a lost Hapsburg royal house as his vowels are so clipped, he really was never the same after playing Edward VIII was he?  He also seemed odd casting initially as he broke the rhythm of the scenes he popped in and out of, but as with Freddie, came into his own in the second act when Caversham has more substantial scenes - and one absolutely killer exit line, played to perfection.

Other pleasures dotted among the odd cast were Susan Hampshire who was sweetly cutting as Lady Markby (despite the odd stumble), Tim Wallers as Goring's butler Phipps - only on for one scene but stealing everything in the scene apart from the doorknobs - and Faith Omole, in her West End debut,  as a spirited and cheeky Mabel Chiltern. The best performance, unsurprisingly, was the unstoppable Frances Barber as Mrs Cheeverly; in this oddly-cast production, she was the perfect fit - even if some of her costumes were not.  I am sure they were designed to be over-the-top but at times they got in the way of her performance.

Cut from the same cloth as Mrs Erlynne in LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN - mysterious woman living on her uppers in Europe returns to London to intrigue society - here, Mrs Cheeverly has no real redeeming features - which is why I love her!  However I would say that underneath it all, she is a Modern Woman, living on her own and by her own design, using the traits that if she were a man would possibly take her far.  In the tying-up-all-the-loose-ends of the last act it is a damn shame that she vanishes from it, I yearned to see her one more time - she is facing an uncertain future with her investments lost but you know she will land on her feet - or her back - but always on her own terms.

Of course it is impossible to watch any of the plays without overlaying it with Oscar's fate: despite the wide-range of characters his authorial voice is so strong you cannot help but see and hear him behind each of them.  The play premiered in January 1895 and was still running three months later when Oscar brought Lord Queensberry to court on the ill-fated charge of Criminal Libel; the collapse of that trial led to his arrest for Gross Indecency and all that followed...

While hearing the lines about your past indiscretions catching up with you, it's the following speech by Mrs Cheeverly that rips through the intervening years with a startling prescience:

"Sir Robert, you know what your English newspapers are like. ... Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in dragging you down, of the mud and mire they would plunge you in. Think of the hypocrite with his greasy smile penning his leading article, and arranging the foulness of the public placard"

Oh Oscar.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

SWAN LAKE at Covent Garden - Scarlett's swans take off...

This December I will see my fifth production of Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE at Sadler's Wells and I am sure I will blub again at the last scene, it gets me every time.  But three years ago, after we had our Paulean conversion to the Royal Ballet, we decided it was time to see a 'classic' production of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece.

In 2016 we saw the visiting Bolshoi production, and what a disappointment that was!  Technically proficient yes, but danced with no sense of emotion or connection to the audience - it felt like they turned up for work and did their job, no more no less.  So the news that the Royal Ballet were going to stage a new production by Liam Scarlett set us off... finally a chance to see it done properly.

The night we went marked the 1,026th performance of SWAN LAKE at Covent Garden and Scarlett's version has replaced Anthony Dowell's production which had lasted in the repertoire for thirty years!  As I have frequently mentioned, it is jaw-dropping how long productions run in the ballet and opera houses of London - can you imagine the idea of the National Theatre only ever staging revivals of productions from the 1980s and 1990s?

But SWAN LAKE goes even further back, because - as is the case with practically all productions - it is based on the version staged by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Imperial Ballet in 1895.  The main body of the ballet is theirs: Petipa's choreography is used for the palace scenes, the famous lake side scene is Ivanov's while Scarlett has devised a new final scene as well as the featured dances for the visiting princesses - apart from the Neapolitan princesses dance which is by Sir Frederick Ashton!  With all these choreographic strands to be woven together, Scarlett has said that his biggest challenge is to make it flow together as if from a single vision - and he succeeded; it was a thrilling production.

With the romantic design by John Macfarlane and moody lighting by David Finn, Scarlett's production swept you up in the swirling drama of Tchaikovsky's monumental score and the oft-told tale of Prince Siegfried who, when ordered to marry by his imperious mother The Queen, falls in love with the beautiful Odette who is under the spell of the wicked magician Von Rothbart who has disguised himself as The Queen's chief courtier.

Odette is transformed from a swan into a woman only at night but Siegfried is tricked at a sumptuous palace ball by the sorcerer into proposing to the mysterious Odile who resembles Odette.  As soon as he does, Odette is doomed to remain a swan forever but can Siegfried save Odette in time?  Of course it ends unhappily but this only makes Tchaikovsky's score all the more powerful and all-encompassing.

The biggest ovation of the evening was for the orchestra, under the baton of Valery Ovsyanikov, which filled the auditorium with the full grandeur of Tchaikovsky's score

Originally we had booked on this particular night to see Steven McRae dance the role of Siegfried but a recent leg injury put paid to that so instead we saw William Bracewell who performed the role well enough but it did not stop me thinking how much more thrilling McRae would have danced the love-lorn prince.  Akane Takada danced the dual role of Odette / Odile, but while her Odette was a graceful, captivating presence I felt she missed out on the seductive danger of Odile.  I will long remember though her slowly rippling arms showing the exact moment that Odette transforms back into the Swan.

Thomas Whitehead added yet another villain to his collection as the hissable Von Rothbart, Kristen McNally was an imposing presence as The Queen while Marcelino Sambé hit all the right notes as Benno, Siegfried's friend, in particular with his dazzling leaps.  SWAN LAKE of course allows the ballerinas of the company to shine and they were glorious as the elegant, ever-watchful swans.

A special mention to the tripping cygnets danced by Isabella Gasparini, Elizabeth Harrod, Meaghan Grace Hinkis and Romany Pajdak, while Itziar Mendizabal was on eye-catching form as the Spanish princess and a special mention to the whirling excitement of Olivia Cowley as the Spanish dancer attended by Reece Clarke, Téo Dubreuil, Fernando Montano and Giacomo Rovero.

I suspect this production will be visited again in years to come; I now look forward to seeing the Matthew Bourne version with new eyes in December at Sadler's Wells.