Wednesday, February 20, 2019

VIOLET at Charing Cross Theatre - Tesori's Travels...

Up until now, composer Jeanine Tesori has had a fairly low profile in the West End but recently it appears that Everything's Coming Up Jeanine.

First, her musical CAROLINE... OR CHANGE (2004) opened at the Hampstead Theatre then proved so successful it transferred to The Playhouse, closely followed by her Tony Award-winning musical FUN HOME (2011) opening at the Young Vic.  Although I think this is the better musical of the two, there does not seem to be any news as yet of a transfer.  We also - briefly - had a touring version of her 2004 musical of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE.

And now - with a slight air of wagon-jumping about it - The Charing Cross Theatre is staging her 1997 chamber musical VIOLET in a production directed by the Japanese theatre director Shuntaro Fujita.  I would say her writing has got better but I find her a slippery composer at best.  I always leave a Tesori musical trailing the songs behind me and by the time I have got back home I usually cannot remember a single one.  Her songs usually seem to work while you are sitting in the theatre watching the show saying to yourself "ah this song fits well and is well-written" but turns opaque when thought of afterward - the only one where the score seemed to have left an impression has been FUN HOME.

As I said, her numbers occasionally strike me as interesting when I am facing the characters singing them, and she does have a particular knack of writing pastiche pop numbers - the children's bouncy pretend tv-ad song or Jackson 5-style family song in FUN HOME; the radio numbers in CAROLINE... OR CHANGE - but the main book songs tend to run into each other with no change in tone, as opposed to popping off the stage in contrast to each other.  Maybe the day she writes both songs and lyrics for a musical she will find a real sustained voice?  So to VIOLET... it is based on a short story by Doris Betts called "The Ugliest Pilgrim" and it feels it.  It has the air of generic Southern Gothic Americana, a bit like a cut-and-shunt job from Carson McCullers or Horton Foote.

1964: Violet is a young woman who was disfigured in an accident when a young girl, and is travelling on a Greyhound bus with a motley crew of other passengers from North Carolina to Tulsa in the hope that a brash televangelist will be able to perform a miracle on her face.  Because of her face, Violet is withdrawn and defensive of any curious people's attention but, despite this, she falls in with a poker game between two soldiers at a rest-stop in Tennessee.  Monty is a young corporal who enjoys poking fun at her while Flick, a black sergeant, is more respectful of her and obviously secretly is drawn to her.  After she takes umbrage at Monty's joshing, she sits apart from them but Flick seeks her out, attempting to boost her confidence.

The travellers stop-over in Memphis overnight and while out in a bar, Flick is angered when he sees Monty obviously trying it on with Violet.  Despite Violet calming him down, Monty later visits her room and they make love.  As the bus continues to Fort Worth where the soldiers will leave, Violet and Monty both rehearse how they will jilt the other but at the last minute Monty asks her to meet him at the bus station on her journey back.

Once in Tulsa she seeks out the televangelist who of course disappoints her in not taking her seriously, in her mind's eye she replaces the preacher for her father and rails at him for a lifetime of pain.  This catharsis makes Violet think that she has been cured and on the way back home, gets off the bus to find Monty and Flick waiting for her... who will Violet choose?

Sadly book and lyric writer Brian Crawley makes Violet such a chippy, miserable character that it is hard to feel any sympathy for her and, by inference, any of the other characters as they are mostly seen through her eyes.  Watching her '11 o'clock' ranting number at the Preacher and her Father, I just watched thinking "Ah you did this so much better in CAROLINE.. OR CHANGE", that time of course helped immeasurably by Sharon D. Clarke's titanic performance.

I was also precluded from any real involvement in Fujita's production by the fact that the sound was amplified so loud I was always aware that though the cast were singing only feet away on the in-the-round stage absolutely no sound came off them, everything blared out of the overhead speakers so by the end of the show I had convinced myself that they were all miming to a cd being played somewhere; in a space as small as the Charing Cross Theatre this is ridiculous.  I will give Shuntaro Fujita's direction a nod for making the pace fairly quick with it's minimal staging of tables and chairs being utilized well, it's just a shame that it held no real interest.

Kaisa Hammarlund, who played the narrator Allison in FUN HOME, certainly gave her all as Violet, it's just a shame that she could not make the character interesting.  There was good playing between Matthew Harvey as Monty and Jay Marsh as Flick, while Kieron Crook as Violet's Father and Kenneth Avery Clark as the Preacher also found moments to make an impression.

So there we go, another rather under-whelming production at Thom Southerland's Charing Cross Theatre, where in truth the only good productions have been his own of RAGTIME and TITANIC.  I am happy to have seen VIOLET but I don't think i will be getting on the bus with her again anytime soon.

Monday, February 18, 2019

VIENNA 1934 - MUNICH 1938: A FAMILY ALBUM at The Rose Theatre, Kingston - Vanessa Looks Back...

Last Saturday I finally visited the Rose Theatre in Kingston, it's only taken 11 years!  So, Constant Reader, you will know that it had to be something fairly special to get me there, how about Vanessa Redgrave's debut as a playwright and stage director?  Fairly special.

VIENNA 1934 - MUNICH 1938: A FAMILY ALBUM was billed as a work in progress - and it was definitely that.  There were three performances at the Rose which followed on from two weeks of workshops on it, and the actors were certainly all ready for an audience and gave committed performances.  The problem was the shape of the piece itself.

Written in response to the rise of right-wing political parties particularly across Europe, Vanessa Redgrave has attempted to show us the lives of people who confronted the rise of Fascism in the 1930s.  The play started disarmingly with Vanessa wandering on to put some papers down on a table at the side of the stage, turn to look at the audience and say "Hello!"  She then proceeded to sit down and tell us what she hoped to illuminate through the play and also to introduce us to the main characters via photographs on the stage's backcloth.

There was the poet Stephen Spender who - on a holiday to Croatia in the early 1930s - met the American psychoanalyst and doctor Muriel Gardiner who, using her family's wealth, had come to Vienna to hopefully be taught by Freud.  Although Spender was in a sexual relationship with his 'assistant' Tony Hyndman, he and Muriel started an affair.  The affair petered out when Muriel fell in love with a militant socialist leader Joseph Buttinger.

By now Muriel could see first-hand the danger that her friends who were communists, socialists and Jews faced from the Austrian and German Fascists and in the years leading up to the start of WWII - when she, her young daughter Connie and Buttinger managed to escape to America - Muriel worked tirelessly for the anti-Fascist Underground, smuggling false passports from Prague into Austria.  In these efforts, she was also helped by a brave Tony Hyndman with whom she remained friends.  This took up part one of the play with Daisy Bevan (Vanessa's grand-daughter) playing Muriel - and two of Vanessa's co-stars from THE INHERITANCE - Russell Boulter playing Spender and Paul Hilton playing Buttinger.


But doesn't this all sound familiar?  Rich American studying psychology in Vienna becomes tireless anti-Fascist activist?  After the 1973 publication of Lillian Hellman's PENTIMENTO - which was later turned into the film JULIA starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa - friends asked Muriel could she possibly be 'Julia'?  Hellman insisted she had never met Gardner and her character 'Julia' actually existed; Muriel agreed she had never met Hellman, but when she arrived back in the US she had been a neighbour of Lillian Hellman's lawyer who knew of her life in Austria.  All of which proved fuel to the long-running fire that raged between Hellman and fellow-writer Mary McCarthy who said of Hellman on a TV show "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'".  How strange that Vanessa stands now at the crossroads of that story, having played and won an Academy Award as the possibly fictional Julia and now having written a play about Muriel too.

Vanessa never met Muriel but she did meet her daughter Connie just before she died and also was a very good friend of Stephen Spender's wife Natasha Litvin.  A snapshot of Tony Hyndman appeared which linked Vanessa to the story in a more direct way - Hyndman had been her father Michael Redgrave's lover too, briefly in 1940.  She showed photos of Michael and Rachel Kempson in the year of their engagement and also a photo of her brother Corin.  The second act was primarily based around the section of Corin's book MICHAEL REDGRAVE - MY FATHER where he attempts to identify who his father's elusive lover called 'Tommy' was while he was appearing as Macheath in THE BEGGAR'S OPERA.  It turns out that 'Tommy' was Tony Hyndman's real name - and one of the many aliases he used.  Michael and 'Tommy' went on a painting weekend in the countryside during their brief affair - which was also attended by Spender!!  In this act Boulter played Michael and Paul Hilton played Corin.

It should have ended there - but no.  After a pause, we were meeting through photograph's Rachel Kempson's brothers Nicholas and Robin - the latter killed in WWII.  Just to complete the family album we also saw a photograph of Vanessa's husband Franco Nero - "isn't he nice?" she said bashfully!  Franco was up there just so Vanessa could tell us that his father had been an officer in Mussolini's Carabiniere - Oh well, we can't all be on history's right side I suppose.

The whole play is based on letters, memoirs and diaries and this - for me one act too far - was based on her Uncle Nicholas' journals kept as a Midshipman.  He gives us a contemporary account of Mussolini's Italy occupying Abyssinia in 1935 which happened despite being damned by The League of Nations.  Their sanctions were never fully carried out and Great Britain and France also secretly agreed to give over two-thirds of Abyssinia to Italy.  Which of course Vanessa ties in with Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler over the Sudetenland and the annexation of Czechoslovakia that followed it. Uncle Nicholas (Russell Boulter) gives way to Thomas Mann (Paul Hilton) and his essay 'This Peace' in which he dissects the fact that Hitler was appeased by the Governments of Europe.

Very much like her film SEA SORROW which dealt with displaced persons through history, VIENNA - MUNICH fairly buckles with the weight of material that it carries.  Vanessa needs to hand the whole play over to a play doctor who would be able to tie-in all the connections - and there are many - while containing a dramatic through-line; be that the fight for political freedom (Gardiner) or sexual freedom (Michael Redgrave).

The third act could very easily be dropped as it has no immediate bearing on the relationships established in the first two acts between Spender - Gardiner - Hyndman - Redgrave, but I suspect that Vanessa would be loathe to drop the third act as it is the most political and has more of a bearing on the current worldview of turning a blind eye to world-wide injustices.  The trouble being that - despite Paul Hilton's impassioned reading - ending it with the verbatim reading of Mann's essay is dramatically deadening.

All the family have discussed their identities within the family and the outside world - Michael wrote his autobiography assisted by Corin and, after his death, Rachel, Vanessa and Corin all wrote memoirs, while Lynn addressed Michael's emotional remoteness in her one-woman play SHAKESPEARE FOR MY FATHER so it is no surprise to find Vanessa mining this seam, indeed for me it provided the emotional centre of the play.  It was very moving to see Vanessa onstage as her father and mother's married life was explored with it's acceptances, compromises, emotional cruelty and concomitant guilt; Rachel Kempson emerging as a remarkably forward-thinking 25 year-old in unconditionally accepting Michael's bisexuality before they were married.

So it will be interesting to see the next steps for the play; in the evening there was a Rose Theatre fundraising event AN EVENING WITH VANESSA REDGRAVE where she was interviewed onstage by director Roger Michell.  She obviously likes him as, for once, she did not seem overly wary as she usually is in onstage interviews - she was downright playful at times - but he let her stray too often away from the point of the question asked.  However during the event she said that she and The Rose were looking for avenues to explore with the play and she hoped she might be able to get it booked into the Edinburgh Festival.

Among the clips shown - the BBC recording of her legendary Rosalind in the RSC's AS YOU LIKE IT, ISADORA, VENUS (directed by Michell) and JULIA, was a segment of a film that her son Carlo had compiled for her 80th birthday party which showed her activism from the 1960s onwards - Vietnam, Ireland, Women's Rights, The Palestinians, standing as an MP, UNICEF, Kosovo - they were all there and while she would not be drawn on whether she felt that her career had suffered, her remarkable fearlessness was there to be seen.  In particular in her remarkable speech at the Academy Awards where, battling against boos from some sections of the audience, she commended the Academy for not being swayed by the "Zionist hoodlums" who were burning her effigy outside the theatre.

I was going to include that here but I will settle instead on this delightful compilation of moments from over 60 years of film performances - yes, Vanessa, you have a canon of work!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


Second theatre trip - second Royal Ballet!  What can I say - I like their ice-cream.

We saw another of their mixed programmes which, as I have said before, certainly allows the company to show their versatility in contrasting productions: this time it was Liam Scarlett's 2010 debut ballet for the company ASPHODEL MEADOWS paired with Sir Frederick Ashton's lyrical 1961 production of La Fontaine's THE TWO PIGEONS.

ASPHODEL MEADOWS was Liam Scarlett's first ballet choreographed for the Royal Ballet in 2010, the company that he trained with as a teenager.  The ballet is only 25 minutes but it's concentrated energy is quite hypnotic added to the tension in the score by early 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc.  Within a company of 20 dancers, the main focus is three sets of couples who all have a moment to shine in differing pas de deux.

In Greek mythology the Asphodel Meadow was where the souls of ordinary citizens went after death and there certainly was an endless tension in Liam Scarlett's choreography of couples locked in an endless dance.  It's a production I would be very interested to see again. 

It was paired with Ashton's charming but slight THE TWO PIGEONS which we first saw in 2015.  A painter is losing his patience with his young girlfriend's unwillingness to stay still while he tries to paint her in his Parisian roof-top garret.  Things aren't helped when her friends appear, closely followed by a troupe of passing gypsies.  The painter is captivated by a fiery gypsy dancer and he follows her to their encampment, leaving his girlfriend alone.  However the gypsy leader turns on the painter and humiliates him, finally chasing him out of the camp.  The two lovers are reunited in the attic, their love personified by two pigeons who settle near them.

Based on an original ballet from 1912, Frederick Ashton choreographed a shorter version which premiered, appropriately, on Valentine's Day 1961.  It's all a bit generic - inconstant lover, spirited girl, flashy but hard-hearted gypsies - but oddly enough, when the two sad lovers are reunited and the audience's attention is riveted to the two live pigeons on stage, the piece wins you over.

Restaged again by Christopher Carr, the thin characters were vibrantly danced by Vadim Muntagirov and Lauren Cuthbertson as the lovers and Laura Morera as the passionate but fickle gypsy girl.  The late Jacques Dupont's original scenic design still charms.

It was a very enjoyable evening of two uplifting ballets, I am sure there will be more mixed programmes in the coming months...

Sunday, February 03, 2019

DVD/150: LA FLOR DE MI SECRETO (The Flower of My Secret) (Pedro Almodóvar, 1995)

LA FLOR DE MI SECRETO is from Pedro's transitional 1990s period of making films with deeper emotional resonance than those that brought him fame the previous decade, with a stronger cinematic language and more rounded characters.

Magnificent Marisa Paredes is Leo, whose obsession for her absent - physically and emotionally - army husband Paco is driving her to alcoholic despair.  Leo ghostwrites successful romance novels but cannot deliver the vacuous fodder her publisher wants as her writing is reflecting her anguish.

They reject Leo's latest novel and threaten to expose her as the real 'Amanda Gris' if she does not fulfill her contract, but Leo, who wants to write serious literature, is helped when a sympathetic magazine editor Ángel offers her a job as a literary critic.

Leo breaks down when Paco finally rejects her, but her publishers are thrilled with the 'Amanda Gris' novel they have received - but who wrote it?

Shelf or charity shop?  The ravishingly-photographed LA FLOR DE MI SECRETO surprises me every time I watch it with Marisa Paredes' wonderful performance and supporting contributions from Juan Echanove as Ángel, Imanol Arias as Paco, Rossy de Palma and Chus Lampreave so it's a keeper - Almodóvar even manages to sneak flamenco sensation Joaquín Cortés into the film in a sub-plot!

Saturday, February 02, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: 28: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (2010) (John Kander, Fred Ebb)

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: 2010, Vineyard Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 2013, Young Vic, London
Productions seen: one

Score: John Kander, Fred Ebb
Book: David Thompson
Plot: The device of a minstrel show is used to explore one of America's most shocking miscarriages of justice: In 1931, nine young black men - aged from 13 to 20 - were arrested and sentenced to death for the alleged rape of two young white women in a boxcar train.  Although the death sentences were commuted - and one of the women admitted on oath that the accusations were all lies - the Scottsboro Boys were made to endure re-trial after re-trial.


Sometimes I see a show and within the first 15 minutes I know I can relax as I am safe in the hands of practitioners at the top of their game, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS was such a show.  Those practitioners were composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, writer David Thompson and director / choreographer Susan Stroman who met in 2002 to find a new project to work on. They revisited the court room territory of Kander and Ebb's CHICAGO and looked at famous American trials, and the case of the Scottsboro Boys was chosen.  Work was underway when lyricist Fred Ebb sadly died in 2004 putting the show on hold.  In 2008 Stroman asked Kander to try writing the unwritten lyrics and two years later, the show appeared Off-Broadway.  It transferred to Broadway later that year but frustratingly did not find an audience and closed two months later, ironically it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards after it closed but won none.  I saw it when Stroman recreated her show at the Young Vic - with five cast members from the US show - where it became a sold out hit and it later transferred to the Garrick in the West End for a four month run.  Soon after the show opened on Broadway it had to run the gamut of protesters protesting Stroman's use of the minstrel show.  What these clowns could not understand was that the device of the minstrel show was just that - an ironic device where the avuncular white Interlocutor doubled as the various judges who denied the men justice, while the minstrel show's two resident comedians Mr Bones and Mr Tambo play the men's defence lawyers, prosecutors and racist policemen and warders.  During the course of the action, the nine men playing the Scottsboro Boys slowly take over the storytelling - much to the Interlocutor's frustration - until the finale is disrupted by them refusing to give him the happy ending he wants.  Shadowing all the action is a black woman who responds to the injustices and mistreatment with sorrow; this all comes full circle when she closes the show, climbing on a bus and refusing to move her seat.  It was a bit obvious but is based in truth, Rosa Parks and her husband had campaigned for the Boys' release. The score is 100% Kander and Ebb - their unique sound filtered through vaudeville numbers, high-stepping cakewalks, blues ballads, and jazzy tap. A show about the human spirit that entertains while shocking you at the same time...  I would love to see it again.

Here are the original Broadway Scottsboro Boys - lead by the marvellous Brandon Victor Dixon who appeared at the Garrick Theatre in London too - singing the opening "Hey Hey Hey Hey" and the joyous "Commencing In Chattanooga" at the 2011 Tony Awards, singing as they travel on the box-car, unaware that it leads not to adventure and happiness but to years deprived of their liberty...

Friday, February 01, 2019

TRIO CONCERTDANCE at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House - music and movement

It took 22 days into the new year but I finally went to the theatre.  I am amazed I knew how to sit in the seat properly.  It was a first visit to the newly-designed Linbury Theatre which sits in the basement of the Covent Garden Opera House as it's studio space.  We had been a few years ago to see The Unthanks - when they were called the unwieldy Rachel Unthank and The Winterset - but it was a rather cold auditorium which has now been transformed into a shining wooden nest of a space which rather oddly has it's upper circle level on the ground floor, the oval staircase proving to be a bit slow-moving both going in and coming out.

Our visit was to see the wonderful Alessandra Ferri in a programme that she devised with American Ballet Theater principal Herman Cornejo and concert pianist Bruce Levingston.  Four pas de deux and a solo each were interspersed with piano pieces by Satie, Chopin, Glass and Bach among others.  The six dances all have different choreographers and amongst them were Russell Maliphant, Wayne McGregor and Cornejo himself.

The real thrill was being only five rows from the stage so it was very easy to be overtaken by the limpid mood of the music and the dance, it was great to be so close too to see the total immersion in the music and movement by Cornejo and especially the magnificent Alessandra; she was hypnotic enough on the Covent Garden main stage in McGregor's WOOLF WORKS but here she was extraordinary.

Cornejo was an excellent partner for her, as they seemingly mirrored each other throughout the pieces - one moment him supporting her then she supporting him.  They were partnered by the excellent playing of Levinstone, his piano's notes floating across the open stage for them to simply hang upon and be spun around by them.

They were joined in the final number by the strings of the Halcyon Quartet and the added volume helped make this a remarkable finale, with Mozart's music brought to life by French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj; especially the breathtaking moment of Ferri's armed locked around Cornejo's neck as he spun around as they kissed.  A special mention too to the nuanced, subtle lighting of Clifton Taylor.

A lovely night of gentle surprises and revelations...

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

50 Favourite Musicals: 29: CARMEN JONES (1943) (Georges Bizet, Oscar Hammerstein II)

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: 1943, Broadway Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1992, Old Vic, London
Productions seen: one

Score: Georges Bizet, Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Oscar Hammerstein II
Plot:  At a parachute factory during WWII, Joe, an air-force recruit, is ordered to escort the fiery Carmen Jones to the police in the next town.  Carmen seduces him however and escapes, resulting in Joe being confined to the stockade.  Joe and Carmen are reunited on his release but she has already attracted the attention of boxer Husky Miller who is offering the highlife in Chicago... 


In these earnest, crashingly obvious days of re-imagined, gender-fluid, re-written reinterpretations of classic works, the idea of re-imagining a classic opera as an all-black musical would be guaranteed a slot at the National, the Young Vic or the Almeida.  Too late hipsters, that ship sailed 76 years ago with the Broadway premiere of Oscar Hammerstein II's updated version of Bizet's "Carmen", CARMEN JONES.  Hammerstein took the Bizet opera and re-wrote the lyrics and book to update it to a drab WWII parachute factory in North Carolina.  CARMEN JONES will always lose out to the earlier PORGY AND BESS in status as it does not have the imprimatur of the opera house, although both roughly tell the same tale of a doggedly dull man in love with a flighty woman.  For me - and despite Hammerstein's dated Dat, Dem and Dis lines for his characters - CARMEN JONES wins out as a perfect re-imagining of a classic work and in the transformation, becoming it's own work of art.  Carmen - fiery, sly, unattainable - is a magnificent character and Hammerstein is clever enough to give her the "Card Song" where her true tragic independence is shown, determined to live life to her rules no matter what the consequences down the line, and she becomes a powerfully sympathetic heroine.  And oh those songs... "Dat's Love", "Beat Out Dat Rhythm On A Drum",  "Whizzin' Away Along The Track", "Dis Flower" and the afore-mentioned "Card Song" jump out of the score like firecrackers.  I finally saw the musical on stage when Simon Callow directed the UK premiere - astonishingly nearly 50 years after it's Broadway premiere - and loved it's inherent theatrical power with a magnetic lead performance by Sharon Benson.  Otto Preminger's film version remains marvellously powerful with stand-out performances from Pearl Bailey and Dorothy Dandridge, the first black actress to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award.  The film also has the strange claim that of the five lead performers, three were dubbed.  However what this anomaly gave us was the fantastic vocal performance of Marilyn Horne as Carmen, only 20 years old and her first major job before becoming one of America's great opera singers.  By the final scene, Dandridge's acting and Horne's singing fuse into one of the great film musical performances.

There is precious little video on stage productions of CARMEN JONES so here is the splashy trailer for Preminger's film...