Oklahoma! with Arthur Darvill at Young Vic – review

The old songs still soar in this new look at Oklahoma!

★★★

Production photo from Oklahoma! at the Yougn Vic theatre in London featuring Arthur Darvill 2022
Arthur Darvill in Oklahoma! at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner
If the optimistic, can-do nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals grates on you a little, the new Broadway production of Oklahoma!, now the Young Vic, will be right up your Stetson.
Daniel Fish‘s production, co-directed at the London end by Jordan Fein, examines this 20th century classic from a 21st century perspective. It’s even been nicknamed ‘Wokelahoma’ by some wags. Curly is less heroic, Judd less of a villain, the previously admirable strength of the Oklahoma community more sinister.
Let’s start with Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher ‘s design. Most of the audience is on either side of the stage, traverse style. On the back wall is a painting of open plains with sketches of a couple of farm buildings. At the other end is a live band. The unraised stage is bordered by long trestle-style tables; the cast stays on stage most of the time. It feels and is meant to feel like a community hall, all the more so because the entire auditorium is evenly and brightly lit. The last time I experienced this kind of lighting was when I went to see my daughter in a school play. It’s as if we the audience are part of that community and that the community is commenting on their own story. Very Brechtian. But this does mean emotional involvement and dramatic tension are kept at a distance.
The famous opening song Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ is sung initially by Arthur Darvill accompanying himself on guitar before others join in. Straightaway you know that this is going to be a different kind of Curly because, although he’s an attractive guy, he’s nothing like the famous Curlys of the past, tall, well built men like Arthur Drake, Howard Keel and Hugh Jackman. Mr Darvill is small and wiry, and, unlike those rich baritones, he has a beautiful tenor voice,  with a nice falsetto.
There was a certain way in which romantic male leads were expected to behave in the mid 20th century when Oklahoma! was written. Even if sensitivity does actually figure in the finest male roles of the period, Hammerstein clearly admired the strong self-assured roll-up-your-sleeves type of hero: the common man who built America. Like Curly. He is even contrasted with weaker male figures like Ali Hakim and Will Parker, played for a great many laughs by Stavros Demetraki and James Davis. Now, we can and usually do choose to take Curly’s character as being of its time, but in this production, looking through 21st century eyes, his charm does lean over into smarm, his cockiness becomes arrogance, his laddishness seems awfully like harassment, and his possessive jealousy spouts toxic masculinity. So he’s not as obviously attractive as one would normally expect.
Then again, nor is Jud the hired help as nasty. Curly’s prospective spouse Laurey is frightened of Jud, which is why she doesn’t reject him and thus he’s encouraged in his pursuit of her. By making him less sinister and more misunderstood, this production undermines the basis of her fear. Patrick Vaill plays Jud with sad-eyed sensitivity showing that he’s awkward with women. There’s a hint of the ‘incel’ about him and, although he’s potentially violent, it does seem that he’s despised by everyone simply because he’s a loner. He’s considered a genuine outsider, not simply someone from outside like Ali Hakim, who’s been accepted into the community. People’s descriptions of this nicely coiffed clean boy as dirty seem to stem from simple prejudice.
When Curly talks with Jud and encourages him to think about suicide, which I guess was always weird, the talk becomes distinctly nasty because it takes place in pitch black. Normally exit signs or some sliver of light enable your eyes to pick up something, but here you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Then in the second act, when Curly is determined to outbid Jud in an auction, the humiliation of the outsider seems less like punishing him for his unpleasantness and more like simple malice.
Production photo from Oklahoma! at Young Vic theatre in London showing actora Anoushka Kucas and Arthur Darvill 2022
Anoushka Lucas and Arthur Darvill in Oklahoma! Photo: Marc Brenner

The lighting isn’t always bright or nonexistent. Sometimes Scott Zielinski’s design bathes the room in orange or green or shines spotlights, as befits the moment.

Rather than the country music you might associate with a southern state like Oklahoma, the band plays bluegrass style: in other words, lots of stringed instruments. And, under Musical Director Tom Brady, what a marvellous sound they make. That most romantic of songs People will say we’re in love is as beautiful as it could be.

Three women dominate this production

Anoushka Lucas plays Laurey as confused, vulnerable and passionate in equal measures. She’s not only a fine actor, she’s another fantastic singer.
Lisa Sadovy plays Aunt Eller with a twinkle in her eye, but harder and more cynical than you might expect. And all the better for that. The women definitely hold their own in this production.
The plot is unchanged, at least until the end. Curly makes clear he likes Laurie but plays it down a bit. Laurie feels the same about Curly but won’t admit it. The suppressed sexual desire rises like steam. When you think about it, an awful lot of this musical concerns young people desiring one another.
The surrey with a fringe on top is not the familiar jaunty tune that matches the rhythm of a horse and carriage. Instead, it’s slow and sensuous. The line ‘Don’t you wish it could go on forever and you’d never stop’ is delivered with a lascivious smile. It’s clear it’s another kind of ride Curly’s thinking about. 
Production photo from Oklahoma! at Young Vic in London showing actor Marisha Wallace 2022
Marisha Wallace in Oklahoma!

The emphasis on sex continues when we meet Ado Annie and her big number. I cain’t say no. She’s not portrayed as an amusingly silly girl but as a woman confident in her sexuality. Marisha Wallace is not only hilarious., she also has a tremendous voice that blasts the song into the category of showstopper.

Oklahoma! is famous for being one of the first, if not the first, musical to be led by the book, or story. So the songs serve the book, which was written by Oscar Hammerstein II, by revealing character and driving the narrative forward. It may also be the first to fully integrate dance. In fact, Agnes de Mille‘s choreographed dream sequence is one of the iconic moments in the original and her name still appears in the credits, even though her choreography has disappeared.
Now Laurey’s dream is a contemporary dance, choreographed by John Heginbotham. It starts with an electric guitar screaming a stretched out version of Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ that generated the same startled surprise in me as when I first heard Jimi Hendrix playing another classic, The Star Spangled Banner. This is the moment when Laurey is supposed to see clearly that she should choose Curly but it’s less explicit than Agnes de Mille‘s ballet so it confuses more than clarifies.
This production isn’t the only one recently to try to update Rodgers and Hammerstein. Chichester Festival Theatre‘s South Pacific, which is due a London run, dampened down the sexism and bolstered the anti-racism. The Open Air Theatre‘s Carousel faced its domestic violence head on. And I think this is right if we’re to continue to enjoy the positive qualities of their musicals.
However, the ending of this reimagining of Oklahoma! left me disappointed. Not a word has been changed., remember, but the actions have. For me, the reassessment of Curly’s character is pushed too far. I don’t want to give you a spoiler, but I’ll just say that the sham trial now seems like a real miscarriage of justice brought about by a community that sticks together against outsiders. And it makes the ending considerably downbeat.
While I love the new arrangement of the songs, the comedy, the sexiness, and the examination of maleness, I did hope to leave with a smile on my face. It felt like Daniel Fish had tried too hard to shoehorn the actual Oklahoma! into his vision of it.
Oklahoma! is performing at the Young Vic in London until 25 June 2022.

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) – review

The Funniest Show in The West End


★★★★

Production shot featuring the cast of Pride asnd Prejudice Sort Of at the Criterion Theatre London
Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) at The Criterion

Some critics have acclaimed Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) as the funniest show currently in London’s West End. I was late seeing this little gem at The Criterion, but I can’t disagree.

It is an outstanding achievement by Isobel McArthur. She not only wrote it, with a little help from Jane Austen, she also co-directed it with Simon Harvey, and stars in it.

What’s particularly clever about her take on Pride & Prejudice is that, although it’s a spoof, it is extremely faithful to the story.  Much of the comedy derives from the same situations that are funny in the book, and it is, at key moments, quite moving. I was surprised at how touched I was by the ending.
So, she has paid homage to the qualities of the story and some of the dialogue, while extracting a great deal more lol.

It’s funny before it even starts, when we’re presented with the concept of five modern working class women playing early 19th century maids who recreate the story with makeshift costumes and props. So we have the bathos of this classic story and its characters being presented from today’s perspective. There’s 21st century language, including a lot of swearing: Darcy is described as a ’twat’ (and that’s one of the milder insults). Elizabeth tells Mr Collins exactly what he can do with his marriage proposal. So, there’s the shock of seeing Jane Austen’s reserved characters, who normally use sensitive language, mouthing expletives. But there’s also the anachronism of party food at a ball being Pringles and Wagon Wheels.

Is there no end to Isobel McArthur’s talents?

Of course, the basic material is great. Pride & Prejudice is not only Jane Austen’s most popular work but one of the most read novels written in the English language. That’s thanks in no small part to the character of Mr Darcy, played over the years on screen by Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth and Matthew McFadyen. To that pantheon, we can now add Isobel McArthur.

There have been many excellent takes on Pride & Prejudice, like Lost In Austen, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and a Bollywood musical Bride & Prejudice. It is without question a crowded market, but Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) manages to stand out.

To add to the enjoyment, it’s actually a musical comedy. The story is interspersed with moments when the characters grab a microphone and sing classic romantic pop songs like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Holding Out For A Hero, Young Hearts Run Free and You’re So Vain (about Darcy of course). And Lady in Red, a song by Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s relative Chris de Burgh! It’s tremendous fun, a bit like karaoke at a hen night.

The cast of five take on all the parts. Isobel McArthur is a wonderful Darcy. She conveys very well the stiff reserve that conceals a romantic heart. In addition, she plays an even more coarse than usual Mrs Bennet. Tori Burgess creates a truly obnoxious Mr Collins, Christina Gordon plays Lizzie’s sister Jane and the appalling Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

There were two understudies on the night I saw it, which is par for the course at the moment in theatre, mainly because of the Covid. I had been looking forward to seeing Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Meghan Tyler who are both highly experienced actors and were very well reviewed. However Annabel Gordon did well as quietly desperate Charlotte trapped in her hellish marriage, as well as playing the soppy Charles Bingley. Leah Jamieson acquited herself well as the strong-willed but annoyingly self-satisfied Elizabeth Bennet.

Sometimes the characters are too much of a caricature and I did expect, having set the idea in motion, that the play would give us more of the maids’ angle on events than it actually did. But it is rich in ideas and displays non-stop creativity.

I particularly liked the moment when Elizabeth looks at a painting of Darcy and Isobel McArthur slides behind the empty frame to pose as the portrait, whose eyes then follow Lizzie round the room.

There is one simple set, designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, that suggests a rich household, not dissimilar in décor to the lovely Criterion Theatre, using minimal props, and with books as a motif. It features a magnificent centrepiece of a wide staircase that winds all the way up to the flies, with steps supported by books.

This is a light hearted and lightweight play. It doesn’t have the depth of Laura Wade’s Austen inspired comedy The Watsons, which I saw at The Menier, and which was due a West End transfer before Covid struck. Nevertheless, it’s just what you need to cheer you up in a year that has started as depressingly as the last one ended.

Covid is scaring audiences away from theatres, which is a shame, because this is a show that should be selling out, and looking forward to a long run, rather than closing prematurely. I recommend you to see it while you can.

Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of) is performing at the Criterion Theatre in London until 6 February. An autumn 2022 tour is planned with a possible return to London in 2023.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella – review

Ignore The Butcher Of Broadway, this is a winning show

★★★★

Production photo from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella featuring Carrie Hope Fletcher and others at the Gillian Lynne Theatre London
Carrie Hope Fletcher (left) in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella opened to largely positive reviews but more recently the production has been butchered by the New York Post’s Johnny Oleksinski, potentially scuppering a Broadway launch.

According to Britain’s leading showbiz reporter Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail, Milord Lloyd Webber is so concerned that he is considering revising the show. So what did the new Butcher of Broadway (Baz’s description)  say about Cinderella, and why do I disagree with him?

I don’t need to sum up Johnny’s opinion because he does it himself: ‘Bibbidi-bobbidi-cut 30 minutes! Bibbidi-bobbidi-scrap the set and costumes! Bibbidi-bobbidi-more jokes and dancing!’

The Butcher Of Broadway (Baz’s description) first buries his cleaver into the writer of the book and original story, Emerald Fennell:

‘Problem is this revisionist “Cinderella” isn’t dark and brooding like “The Phantom of the Opera.” With a book by Oscar-winning “Promising Young Woman” scribe Emerald Fennell, it fancies itself a musical comedy, like “Guys and Dolls” or “Hairspray.” But at the matinee I attended, the silent crowd might as well have been watching Ibsen.’

An audience can enhance or dampen your enjoyment, and I’ve sat through a few ‘dead’ matinees in my time. So, the ‘silent crowd’ could have affected Johnny’s appreciation of the show. At the performance I attended (which was a Sunday matinee, by the way) the audience laughed, cheered and clapped throughout, ending with an almost universal standing ovation. I can’t deny that the atmosphere added to the pleasure I got from the show.

The Transformation scene just before the interval did leave me feeling underwhelmed (it’s no Wicked or Phantom in that respect) but the Ball at the opening of act two more than made up for that.

Too long? I enjoyed every minute

‘For a straightforward tale, the show takes its sweet time — a good two hours, 45 minutes all told,’ continues Johnny.

First of all, that timing includes a 20 minute interval so it’s actually well under two-and-a-half hours, which is quite short for a musical. I guess any new show can be tightened up, once the audience’s reaction has been gauged, but I myself would be hard pressed to know what to cut since I enjoyed every minute.

So what is this apparently longwinded ‘revisionist’ story? You don’t need me to tell you that it concerns a ‘Bad Cinderella’, that earworm has been widely played. She lives in Belleville, a tourist destination whose attraction is based on the physical beauty of its citizens. Cinderella is a rebel whose activities undermine the town’s reputation. She’s in love with her best (and only) friend, the heir apparent Prince Sebastian. Not Prince Charming who has been lost, presumed dead, in a war. Sebastian loves her too but neither will admit it for fear of damaging their friendship.

She falls into the trap of believing he wants a glamorous beauty queen and undergoes a transformation at the hands of a nip-and-tuck Godmother. Inevitably her plan goes wrong and there are a few twists and turns before the happy ending.

The so-called ‘revisionist’ message is that you shouldn’t judge by appearances, and that character is more important. There is a wonderful moment when a macho male character reveals that he is gay and introduces us to his fiancé. There was a spontaneous roar of approval from the audience which made me feel delighted at the way in which public attitudes have changed since I was a lad, a feeling tempered only slightly after the show when I heard a woman say: ‘I didn’t know where to look when the two men kissed.’

So, for me, an interesting story, with plenty of twists and fun.

Scrap the set and costumes? This is a fairy tale, not a concert

‘Scrap the set and costumes… drab and forgettable,’ moans Johnny.  His recommendation seems to be a ‘bare stage’, or at least that’s when he says this production was at its best. I expect he’s looking forward to the concert version. There is a short time when the stage is bare but I totally disagree that this was an advantage. This is a fairy tale, even if it’s been turned on its head, and it needs a fairy tale look. And, for me, that’s what we get with Gabriela Tylesova’s set which is a mixture of the rococo style of 18th century France and Bavarian castles, reflecting the time when the version of Cinderella we know and love was written. At the same time, it is not done in icing cake colours and is surrounded by slightly sinister thorns, suggesting that all is not well in Belleville.

Production photo from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella featuring rebecca trehearne and other members of the cast at the Gillian lynne Theatre
Rebecca Trehearne and other members of the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Her costumes are clever too. We have bare-chested, muscular men in tight lederhosen, evoking the mid-European period setting while emphasising their macho narcissism. The women are given sumptuous, brightly coloured gowns but with sexually suggestive splits, underlining their shallow attitude to relationships. Except, of course, for the rebellious Cinderella , who is clothed like a Goth with a black dress and Doc Martins.

‘More jokes and dancing,’ pleads Johnny. It’s  hard to understand why he would want more jokes because Cinderella is full of innuendoes. Maybe he just doesn’t find that kind of joke funny.  Admittedly some hit the mark, some missed, and some were deliberately designed to make you cringe. For example, one of the hunky knights invites Cinderella to ‘polish my sceptre’.

Rival mothers Rebecca Trehearn as the Queen and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s stepmother got plenty of laughs for their Ab Fab haughtiness and sly bitchiness.

David Zippel‘s lyrics have wit and feeling. Take Bad Cinderella:

Yes I’m bad Cinderella, I will not say goodbye
You’ve been hateful since I met you
Barking mad Cinderella, flying high in the sky
And I hope I have upset you
Well, forget you!

As for dancing, they never stopped moving from the opening number of villagers going about their business- and admiring the baker’s buns (more innuendo)- to the Finale. Joann M Hunter‘s choreography is imaginative, energetic and stage-filling, and totally in tune with the varying moods.

The Butcher Of Broadway also takes the boning knife to the director Laurence Connor, declaring that his ‘plodding, one-note direction is the production’s biggest offender’. If you find a show dull, it’s likely the blame lies with the author, the director or the cast. These are not always easy to separate. I found the production had plenty of pace, and struck many different notes between energetic ensemble numbers, comic routines and the pathos of love gone wrong. I would attribute this to the director bringing out the best of the book, cast and music.

Johnny praises the cast but, as I said, it can be hard to separate direction and cast, so, if the show was plodding on the day Johnny attended, it is possible that some of the performers were having an off day.  It does happen that a cast, especially at a matinee, just don’t generate the energy needed for a show like this. Baz Bamigboye reported that Andrew Lloyd Webber had had a go at the cast, following Johnny Oleksinski‘s review, so maybe he thought some of their performances needed sharpening, rather than the direction. I obviously don’t know and I can only say the cast were full of energy and commitment when I saw them a few days later, and gave some excellent perofrmances.

Carrie Hope Fletcher leads an excellent cast

Carrie Hope Fletcher plays Cinderella.  She has such an open-faced smile and sweet, powerful voice that’s it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. However, her alternate Georgina Onuorah has had many favourable comments, and that’s who Johnny saw, and liked.

Ivano Turco as Prince Sebastian has a good singing voice and conveyed well this shy, sensitive, good-hearted lad.

And then there’s the music. Here Johnny and I agree. He praised Lloyd Webber’s ‘heart-racing ballads’. He’s right. Bad Cinderella is a stand-out song but the slower, plaintive, soaring ballads Only You, Lonely You sung by Prince Sebastian and Cinderella’s  I Know I Have A  Heart represent Andrew Lloyd Webber on top form. I’ve never been a big fan of his lush light operatic music but I freely acknowledge he can write a good tune. In this case, his traditional melodic style and big orchestral arrangements seem perfect for the subject matter.

Johnny Oleksinski feels ‘There is a satisfying musical buried somewhere in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella”. ‘ Once they’ve added more jokes and dancing, cut half an hour, and changed the story, script, sets, costumes, and director, presumably.

I wonder if there is a clue in the way Mr Oleksinski writes his review as to why he is critical of so much of the production. Right at the beginning, his reference point is the 1950 Disney film Cinderella. ‘Bibbety Bobbity’ he quotes. Could it be the British lord inadvertently trampled on an American child’s happy memory?

We British on the other hand have been brought up with Cinderella pantomimes in which subversion (and innuendo) are the norm. There’s no Buttons in this production, a character who traditionally loves Cinderella for what she is rather than her shoe size, even if his love is unrequited. However, that panto character prepares us nicely for Prince Sebastian’s attitude. Then there are the panto traditions, derived from 19th century music hall, of men playing female characters like the wicked stepmother and the ugly sisters, or women playing the so-called principal boy part of Prince Charming. We’re well used to a bit of rule-breaking, which is what this Cinderella celebrates.

To be clear, this is not a pantomime, it’s an excellent musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber on good form, a satisfying story and a scintillating production. I hope those involved don’t take too much notice of Johnny Oleksinski. After all, he didn’t like Caroline, Or Change with Sharon D Clarke either. And that was one of the best British productions of the last decade, winning her an Olivier Award.

Watch the video of this review on  our YouTube channel

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella is currently performing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in London. For more information and tickets, click here.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – film review

Star debut by Max Harwood in a joyous fantasy film musical

★★★★

Still from film of Everybody's Talking ASbout Jamie showing Max Harwood
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Everybody should be talking about the film of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie but I suspect they won’t because it slipped through the cinemas and is now behind the firewall of Amazon Prime.

First thing to say, this is a movie in its own right, not simply a film of the stage show. It’s the story of a gay teenager verbally bullied at school and rejected by his homophobic father, but who finds liberation in dressing up in glamorous women’s clothing. The central message is a familiar one of allowing people- young people- to be themselves and fulfill their potential.

Like the stage show, it fetures the fabulous songs composed by Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling with lyrics from Jamie writer Tim MacRae. They’re energetic, liberating and someones melancholic, although some of the songs from the stage show failed to make the transition to celluloid.

The film is an impressive directorial debut for Jonathan Butterell who tells the story confidently and seamlessly switches from the mundane classroom and other day-to-day situations to the glorious fantasies of the songs in which Jamie imagines the life he should lead.

This is not about someone being ashamed of being gay. Jamie is confident in his sexuality, which is a sign of the progress that’s been made in the 50 years since same-sex relationships became legal. He even stands up to the homophobic class bully. No, his secret desire is to be a drag queen, or more immediately to wear a dress at the forthcoming prom.

It’s not entirely secret. His mother supports him and even buys him ruby encrusted shoes which must surely make us think of The Wizard Of Oz and that old euphemism for gay men, namely friends of Dorothy. His father too is aware but is ashamed of him, which has led to Jamie having a poor self image.

For me the most moving moment was a scene that’s not in the stage show. Jamie has met Hugo Battersby, an older drag queen, played by the great Richard E Grant as someone ‘battered’ by the past but still flamboyantly extrovert. He becomes Jamie’s mentor and shows him a VHS video from the late 80s. This wonderfully convincing, slightly blurry pastiche – complete with a new song- shows the protests against the Thatcher government’s discrimination against gay people, all in the midst of the horrors of the AIDS epidemic.

In a nice touch, the transfixed Jamie and Hugo, at first reflected on the TV screen, become part of the video. It powerfully reminds us- and Jamie- that there were many battles fought by lesbian and gay people and much bravery in being ‘out’. It puts today’s problems in perspective. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants  Short as the scene is, the power of the song This Was Me and the sadness and defiance shown in the video moved me more than anything else in the film.

Max Harwood gives an outstanding performance as Jamie, the self deprecating, likeable  youngster who gradually gains the confidence to express himself. Also making an impressive feature film debut is Lauren Patel who plays his studious but vocal Muslim friend Priti.

They are well supported by some great veteran actors.  Sharon Horgan, seen recently on Channel 4 in the extraordinarily good This Way Up, is magnificent as the teacher who squashes the ambitions of her working class  students. There are two alumni from Coronation Street. Sarah Lancashire plays Jamie’s devoted mother with great warmth and sings the stand-out song – a kind of torch song- He’s My Boy, with depth and passion. The excellent Shobna Gulati plays her comic but forceful friend Ray. Ms Gulati is, I think, the only member of the  West End stage show to reprise a role in the film and incidentally she’s playing Ray in the current UK tour.

The story is predictable in both its course and outcome. In many ways you could describe it as a fairy tale and, in saying that, I’m not attempting a crass joke. What I mean is that everything works out just a little too well. The implausibility matters more in this film than it does in the original stage show where you are carried along by your emotional response to the songs and performances. Even so, this is a well-made and uplifting film, right up to the tear-in-the-eye ending.

And if you can’t see it in all its wide screen glory at the cinema, you can catch it streaming on Amazon Prime.

Watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

5 Reasons Sutton Foster Triumphs in Anything Goes – review

Sutton Foster’s West End debut is the top


★★★★★

Production photo of Sutton Foster in Anything Goes at The Barbican Theatre London
Sutton Foster in Anything Goes. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Cole Porter’s Anything Goes at The Barbican is the best musical performance I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. And it’s thanks to one person- Sutton Foster.

This is Sutton Foster’s first London appearance. I guess Broadway audiences know all about her qualities but in this review I’m going pick out the five key moments in which she showed she has what it takes to launch this show into the musical stratosphere. That’s not to play down the importance of Kathleen Marshall who directed and choreographed the original Broadway production and gave Sutton Foster the vehicle to show off her talent. Nor am I underestimating the support she receives from Robert Lindsay and others. And we can never forget the foundation stone of Cole Porter’s songs.

Sutton Foster very nearly didn’t appear. The part of nightclub singer Reno Sweeney was due to be played by Megan Mullally, but after she dropped out with an injury, Ms Foster- the original Tony Award-winning Reno- was drafted in. Well, Megan Mullally’s bad luck is our good fortune.

Let me set the scene. Nearly all the action takes place on the deck of a ship with interior scenes rolled on or dropped in as needed, so we nearly always have in view Derek McLane’s phallic funnels and vaginal doors and portholes, never letting us forget that this is a musical that’s at least as much about sex as romance. Then there are the parallel lines of those smokestacks which prepare us for the precision of the chorus lines.

1 She Acts

After a jolly overture in which the conductor Stephen Ridley wears a naval officer’s white hat, the top of which is picked out by  a spotlight, and a short scene that kicks off the ludicrous and frankly irrelevant plot, we meet Reno Sweeney for the first time. She sings I Get A Kick Out Of You.

In modern musicals, which is to say mainly those written after Rodgers And Hammerstein changed everything, the songs are led by and enhance the story. In Cole Porter’s hey day, the 1930s, it was more a case of the story being built around the songs. So we have this classic love song, sung by Reno about young Billy Crocker. She says she’s in love with him but in no time at all she’s helping him snare the love of his life Hope Harcourt.

Even though it seems like her feelings for Billy are invented simply so she can sing this song, and even though we’ve heard it a thousand times, you very quickly realise that something extraordinary is happening here. Sutton Foster is putting in phrasing- pauses, emphases- making it personal. She’s singing like she really doesn’t understand why she has feelings for this young man. She forces this and every other song she sings (and she does have all the best songs) to mean something in the context of the show. It’s like hearing the song for the first time. Because she is acting the song.

2 She’s Funny

After Billy decides to stow away on an ocean liner bound for Britain so that he can court Hope, only to discover she is engaged to an aristocratic Englishman, Reno gives him a confidence boost. She tells him You’re The Top. It may start as Reno trying to cheer up Billy but it ends as a competition between them to find ever more bizarre compliments. So we begin with the over-the-top

‘You’re the Nile
You’re the Tow’r of Pisa
You’re the smile
On the Mona Lisa’

but end with ‘You’re broccoli.’ Now, this is a comic song but Sutton Foster takes the comedy to a new height thanks to her facial expressions: puzzlement at some of the comparisons, triumph when she finds yet another rhyme. She is indeed ‘the nose on the great Durante’.

3 She’s A Team Player

Prtoduction photo of Robert Lindsay and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes at The Barbican Theatre in London
Robert Lindsay and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Billy and Hope, played by Samuel Edwards and Nicole-Lily Baisden, have a moment, as does Gary Wilmot, who doesn’t have a lot to do but what he does is reliably comic. Then Sutton Foster and Robert Lindsay have their only number together, Friendship. Usually, the part of Moonface Martin, a gangster disguised as a priest, is a relatively minor character in a subplot but in this production- and all credit here to the director Kathleen Marshall– he becomes a lead.

On Broadway, the great Joel Grey took the part. In London, we, and Sutton Foster, are blessed with Robert Lindsay. It sometimes seems Mr Lindsay can do anything. I last saw him extracting tears as a legendary Hollywood cameraman suffering from dementia in Prism. But of course, he is a skilled comic actor as he showed as the star of the revival of Me And My Girl. His greatest quality is his understanding of how to work an audience.

So his patter as he breaks off from the duet is pure vaudeville and transforms a comic song into comedy genius, with jokes about it being a shame Sutton Foster’s London debut is in the City of London, not the West End. And if you’re not familiar with this in-joke, it’s true that while the size of the venue and the show are ‘West End’, it is geographically speaking somewhat to the east. And what’s great about Sutton Foster is that she sails with him on this almost stream of consciousness, so that they really do seem like friends.

4 She Can Dance

The climax to the first act is the song Anything Goes. If there’s a serious theme to this musical (and there probably isn’t), it’s that standards of good and bad and right and wrong have been swept away in contemporary society, and that anyone can become a celebrity, including gangsters like Moonface Martin and Public Enemy Number One Snake Eyes Johnson, whom Billy Crocker is mistaken for, just as we find in today’s celebrity culture. This suits Cole Porter’s cynicism and gives us the song and show title.

By now, we’ve already tasted the quality of Kathleen Marshall’s choreography but this number goes up a gear. The company generates enough energy for a power station. Sutton Foster’s energy is nuclear. And so is her dancing, as she leads the synchronised stage-filling chorus through a tap routine that just builds and builds. I can’t remember when I last saw a standing ovation at the end of act one.

5 She has limitless energy

So act two opens with Reno singing Blow Gabriel Blow, a song that absolutely doesn’t fit. Why on earth would a nightclub singer sing a gospel song? Apparently, it’s because she was once an evangelist. Okay, why not? For quality of choreography and performance, it takes up where Anything Goes left off. The number starts with Sutton Foster in a preacher’s outfit but before long she and her troupe have shed their white robes to reveal red, devilishly skimpy showgirl dresses that show she also has a fantastic figure. When the dancers sway rhythmically in a close group it’s like a cauldron and again Sutton Foster, who must have been exhausted as the end of act one, is right at the centre of it, setting the stage on fire.

It’s worth remembering that the part of Reno was written for Ethel Merman and has been played in the past by luminaries such as Patti Lupone and Elaine Paige. We can add Sutton Foster to that pantheon of musical stars. Her next role is alongside Hugh Jackman in The Music Man on Broadway. I  hope, after this success, we’ll be seeing more of her on this side of the Atlantic.

Those were my five moments to remember but there’s a lot more to enjoy in the production, of course. A delightful version of The Gypsy in Me in which the English Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, played by Haydn Oakley, reveals a previously unexpected passionate side leading to a comic tango with Sutton Foster, which includes an impressive vertical split from her. There’s the comedy song Be Like The Bluebird which gives Robert Lindsay a brilliant solo moment; and Carly Mercedes Dyer who recently acted everyone else off the stage as Shug Avery in the Leicester Curve production of The Color Purple gives the raunchiest version imaginable of Buddie, Beware.

Without Sutton Foster, and Robert Lindsay in support, this production would still be amusing, energetic and visually impressive but, with them, it’s the top.

Anything Goes performed at The Barbican until 31st October 2021. A return to the Barbican and a tour are planned for 2022 (with a new cast).  An excellent film of the stage show is available on BBC iPlayer anythinggoesmusical.co.uk

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

 

Michael Ball in Hairspray – review

Michael Ball floods Hairspray with sunshine

★★★★★

Michael Ball and cast in Hairspray. Photo:Tristram Kenton

The musical Hairspray opened on Broadway in 2002 and hasn’t changed much since. The current production at the London Coliseum, normally home to English National Opera, and the forthcoming UK tour replicate the original, as directed by Jack O’Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. And why not? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And Hairspray is not only not broke, it’s as strong as Emily Campbell.

Maybe they were just glad to be back in a theatre but the roar of the audience when the curtain went up said to me that this is a musical people love and you would mess with it at your peril.

I’m sure you know the story, set in the early sixties, about a young woman called Tracy.  She is determined to dance on a local TV show, despite some people thinking she isn’t thin enough. In the course of that battle, she also fights segregation and liberates her previously embarrassed plus-size mother.

The familiar songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are an ebullient stream of jaunty tunes and fun lyrics from the opening Good Morning Baltimore to the closing You Can’t Stop The Beat.

The original 2002 production is still as fresh as a Baltimore crab cake. David Rockwell‘s set design is cartoonish and colourful, within a proscenium arch shaped like a 1960s television. There are many clever touches- the moment three different households sing Mamma I’m A Big Girl Now (a scene you won’t find in the film of the musical), the way the Dynamites girl group walk out of a poster, and the walkdown finale, crowned by a giant can of hairspray. And there are the over-the-top costumes with the outrageous hairstyles (of course) by William Ivey Long. You really wouldn’t want to change any of that.Fierstein

The show is so well known that, as a reviewer, I’m left with the cast, who are different from the original production- and can make a difference. The producers just need to make sure the cast do what’s required of them. I’m pleased to report they exceed expectations.

The part of Tracy’s mother has always been played by a man. Harvey Fierstein was the first stage Edna Turnblad. When the production opened in London in 2007, Michael Ball took on the role, and he’s reprised it for this revival at the London Coliseum.

The part of Edna Turnblad doesn’t give us the chance to enjoy his beautiful voice to the full nor even the complete range of his acting skills, but we do get to appreciate his ability as a stage performer. Through his dimpled smile, his twinkling eye contact, the sense that you are getting 100%, this man has an incredible rapport with his audience. It’s as if he has bottled up sunshine and is releasing it into the auditorium. His Edna Turnblad, transforming from downtrodden domestic to dazzling diva, is a joy.

Les Dennis gets big billing as a well known name, and his performance as Edna’s warm-hearted, ever optimistic husband Wilbur doesn’t disappoint. His duet with Michael Ball in the poignant Timeless To Me, complete with suggestive repartee and convincing corpsing, is hilarious.

Lizzie Bea and Jonny Amies in Hairspray. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Michael Ball apart, the star of the show is Lizzie Bea as Tracy Turnblad, the only fully developed character. She convinces throughout, whether swooning over heartthrob Link Larkin (Jonny Amies), standing up forcefully for equal rights, or ignoring obstacles and confidently dancing to the music she loves. One of the best aspects of this musical is the way insults and barriers are water off a duck’s back for Tracy (even when she is left alone in prison- something else that’s not in the movie). So, you are not only on her side but never- or rarely- feel sorry for her. She is an advertisement for the power of positive thinking, as is this whole musical.

Rita Simons and Georgia Anderson are the nasty Van Tussle mother and daughter, with an unpleasant line in racism and sizeism. Mary McGinlay, making her West End debut, impresses as Tracy’s gawky friend Penny Pingleton.

For a musical about equality of opportunity and opposing racial discrimination, the black characters rarely take centre stage, but Motormouth Maybelle played by Marisha Wallace is as sassy a mother and as powerful a singer as she should be. This is after all a show that turns the spotlight on the role of mothers.

Ashley Samuels makes the most of the part of her likeable son Seaweed Stubbs, Penny’s love interest. Holly Liburd, Mireia Mambo and Robyn Rose sing impressively as the Dynamites.

As I was leaving, I heard a little boy say I’m glad Lion King was cancelled or else I wouldn’t have seen this. Well, I wouldn’t want to wish any show cancelled because of Covid isolation rules, and of course The Lion King is a great show, but I do think it was that little boy’s lucky day.

Hairspray is performing at the London Coliseum until 29 September 202. A production with a different cast is touring the UK from 16 August 2021. Click here for the dates and other details.

Click here to watch the video of this review of Hairspray on YouTube

Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre – review

Magical production of Wicked composer’s first musical

★★★★

Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre. Photo: Edward Johnson

It’ll be 50 years old next year but somehow I’ve never managed to see Pippin. I’m glad my first introduction to Stephen Schwartz’s earliest musical (with a book by Roger O. Hirson) was this production at the Charing Cross Theatre, first seen at the Garden Theatre in 2020. It may not be a behemoth like Shwartz’s Wicked, Godspell and The Prince of Egypt but director Steven Dexter has put together a joyous version of this uplifting, magical show.

Apparently, with eight actors, it’s much slimmed down from previous versions, making it tight and intimate. All the more so because it’s being played in this lovely little basement theatre on a traverse stage. With the front rows at stage floor level.

Consequently, this story of a young medieval Prince who rejects the establishment and tries to find fulfillment in life is very easy to relate to when he’s right next to you. That he is a Prince is not really the point. Despite obvious comparisons with another Prince, who recently rejected his destiny to become an ordinary wealthy and privileged man, Pippin really is an Everyman. This is evidenced from the very beginning when members of the cast are supposedly chosen at random to play the parts, including Pippin. In other words, it could be anyone, and at various times during the proceedings, comparisons are made to previous Pippins.

The musical takes the form of a troupe of players telling the story of Pippin’s search so he can be said to reject one destiny only to be trapped by another. The question becomes will he finally reject the story planned for him?

Production photo of Ryan Anderson and Ian Carlyle in Pippin at Charing Cross Theatre London
Ryan Anderson and Ian Carlyle in Pippin. Photo: Edward Johnson

Ryan Anderson is superb in the title role, sincere, naive, caring, angry and, annoyingly, never satisfied as he looks for this so-called fulfillment.
And he tries many things- war, power, art, working the land. Through it all, he interacts with some wonderful characters: his grandmother played with great humour by Genevieve Nicole; the woman he appears to love, Catherine, played as confident and brittle by Natalie McQueen; and the Lead Player, a Mephistopheles-like character who directs the action, and leads Pippin to a much flagged up finale, which may not be what our hero was expecting.

Playing this role is Ian Carlyle who is the outstanding actor in this production with a strong personality, plaintive voice and brilliant dancing. In fact, the best moment in the show was the number Right Track which he and Ryan Anderson perform together in perfect unison.

Oh yes, the dancing. This is what makes this production such a winner. Nick Winston’s choreography is always entertaining and the cast dance with skill and enthusiasm.

The costumes and set by David Shields reflect the hippy time in which it was written and its hippy message that our lives are not pre-destined, and that looking for vainglory rather than finding fulfillment in the ordinary is the devil’s work. Oh, and the songs are heavenly.

Pippin can be seen at Charing Cross Theatre until 5 September 2021

Click here to watch this review of Pippin on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

South Pacific in Chichester – review

I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical


★★★★★

SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, , Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson
Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific. Photo credit: Johan Persson

I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.

South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.

Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.

But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.

I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.

And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.

The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance.  (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)

Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.

Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Gina Beck and cast in South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson

The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.

The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.

And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.

A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.

South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights – film review

Feel-good movie hits the heights.

★★★★★

Still photo from the movie In The Heights showing Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera
Anthony Ramos & Melissa Barrera in In The Heights. Photo copyright Warner Bros Pictures

In The Heights is the most feel-good, uplifting movie I have seen in a long time.

It’s not a film of the stage show, it is a proper film in its own right, directed by Jon M Chu, who made Crazy Rich Asians. It’s packed with the most magnificent ensemble dancing build around stirring rap and Latin music and heartwarming stories about love and community. I know you may be tempted to wait to see it on your TV but I’m telling you, no matter how big your TV is, it will not do justice to the huge dance sequences nor that Latin beat.

It’s not quite sung-through but one song follows another so quickly that’s there are only short scenes of dialogue and then you’re on to another spectacular dance sequence. There’s dancing in the street, Fame style, there’s dancing in a club, Saturday Night Fever style, dancing on bleachers, Grease style,  and dancing in a swimming pool- Busby Berkeley style. You can see where the $55 million dollar budget went.

And there are romantic songs, the loveliest of which is between Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace, when they dance in a fantasy moment up the side of a building –La La Land style.

In The Heights started as a stage musical back in 2005, eventually opening on Broadway in 2008. It was Lin Manuel Miranda’s first hit, ten years before Hamilton.

Although there is a central character called Usnavi, a young man who owns the local store and is played with a delightfully shy manner by Anthony Ramos, this is the story of a Latinx neighbourhood in Washington Heights in north Manhattan. Almost equal weight is given to other members of the community, like the woman he fancies Vanessa, a vivacious performance by Melissa Barrera, his friend Benny played by the cool and handsome Corey Hawkins.

I don’t know why I’m saying he’s handsome because frankly, these are all highly attractive people. Like Nina who is the pride of the community because she has a place at  Stanford University. It’s a strong performance by Leslie Grace but she’s not only the cleverest person around, she’s also the most beautiful. Her father Kevin, the taxi business owner, is Mr Cool himself Jimmy Smits, for goodness sake, and Olga Merediz is the twinkling kind-faced matriarch of the community.

So what you don’t get are any horrible characters or any of the abrasiveness in relationships that can light up a movie with their sparks. It’s not that kind of movie. Having said that, the main characters have about as much depth as a paddling pool.

Arguably Quiara Alegría Hudes who wrote the book of the musical and wrote writes the movie screenplay. could have expanded on the characters because real people on stage carry you along much more easily than the close-up of people on film.

But it doesn’t really matter because the central character here is the community, one that answers discrimination by working hard and making a success of oneself. Yes, it’s a romantic ideal but it is an uplifting journey in which Usnavi, who longs to live in his homeland of the Dominican Republic, comes to realise the strengths of this little piece of Latin America in New York.

The action- and that’s not really the right word- builds up to an electricity blackout that occurs at the height of a very hot summer. And this is also the low point for the characters in the film- Nina having rejected financial help, a key character revealed as undocumented and therefore with limited prospects and the ever-present threat of repatriation, and Usnavi and Vanessa’s relationship in peril. And that’s about as much tension as this happy film generates. The blackout changes everything as the people, at first resigned, rediscover their community and the ways they can support each other.

Although there is romance, this is very much a family film with hardly a suggestion of sex. However, the three women (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco) who run a nail bar forced out by gentrification, are not only funny, they strut their stuff in no uncertain way. They’re almost from a Carry On film and this is just one way in which this film feels like a throwback to an earlier time.  Nostalgia is sewn into its fabric.

If you want cheering up, this is just the tonic you need. I had a smile on my face throughout.

And by the way, don’t leave before the end of the credits because Lin Manuel Miranda’s character, the Piragua seller, makes a return appearance.

Watch this review on the YouTube channel one Minute Theatre Reviews

Top 10 People of colour in Stage Musicals

Top 10 People Of Colour in Musicals

The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation recently criticised the lack of opportunity given to black and minority ethnic performers in drama schools. If we don’t have more diversity in our theatres, we miss our opportunity to see the best possible shows on stage. So, let’s celebrate the people of colour who have made a major contribution to the stage musical.

10. Eubie Blake & Noble Sissel

These days blind casting, whereby, unless the part is written for a specific skin colour, you choose the best person for the role regardless of colour, has made a huge difference to the number of people of colour on stage. But racial discrimination was rife in the past. A hundred years ago, black performers were restricted to a few slots on the Broadway stage- no more than one act per show.

Frustrated by the situation, the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel, got together with some other black artists and wrote their own musical comedy Shuffle Along. They managed to hire a theatre right on the edge of the theatre district. The artists feared a reaction from white audiences against a portrayal of black people in romantic situations, but this was the beginning of the jazz age and audiences lapped up the genuine article.

Shuffle Along was a huge success running for 504 performances with many spinoffs. It launched or at least helped the careers of, among others, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. The biggest hit from the show was I’m Just Wild About Harry.

9. Adelaide Hall

Born in 1901, Adelaide Hall was a major star in the Harlem scene of the 1920s. In 1938, faced with a lot of prejudice in the States, she moved to the UK. A year later, just after the Second World War broke out, she took part in the BBC’s first live show to be broadcast worldwide. She became a British resident and it was here that she added musicals to her resumé. In 1951 she appeared in Kiss Me Kate and then two more West End musicals before returning to Broadway to appear in the Lena Horne vehicle Jamaica and in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Live concerts and recordings remained her big passion and in 2003 at the age of 102 she entered the Guinness Book Of Records as the world’s most enduring recording artist.

8. Sharon D Clarke

Sharon D Clarke & in Caroline, Or Change
Sharon D Clarke & in Caroline, Or Change. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Sharon D Clarke is one of the UK’s leading ladies. She began her West End career as General Cartwright in 1996 in Guys And Dolls. Over the years she’s been Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Mama Morton in Chicago, Oda Mae Brown in Ghost and the star of the National Theatre production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Probably most will remember her as Rafiki in The Lion King, a musical that did much to give opportunities to black performers. Her leading role in the Chichester production of Caroline, Or Change won her an Olivier Award, one of three she’s won. In 2017 she was awarded an MBE for services to drama.

7. Gary Wilmot

photo of Gary WilmotGary Wilmot is another of the UK’s greatest musical stars. His musicals career began with the lead role in Me And My Girl in the West End.  One of his earliest roles was as Joe in Carmen Jones, the musical in which Oscar Hammerstein wrote new lyrics for a black cast to Bizet’s music. In all he’s taken part in over two dozen musicals and played Fagin in Oliver!, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Billy Flynn in Chicago. His brilliance at comedy roles may have held him back from the more serious parts his voice and acting ability make him more than capable of.

6. Ethel Waters

Photo of ethel WatersAfter she starred in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, there was a time in the 1930s when Ethel Waters was the highest paid performer on Broadway- that’s not highest paid black performer, that’s highest paid performer of all. She began to branch out into large and small screens and was the first African American to have their own TV Show.  Her biggest hit on Broadway came in 1940 with Cabin In The Sky.

 

5. George C Wolfe

Bring in Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk

Director George C Wolfe has directed twenty Broadway shows from Jelly’s Last Jam featuring the music of Jelly Roll Morton in 1992 to Caroline, Or Change to the revival of Shuffle Along. Perhaps his most famous Broadway show is Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk which he conceived and directed in 1996. It tells the story of the black experience in America from slavery to hip hop primarily through the medium of tap, choregraphed by the great Savion Glover. Wolfe has received 23 Tony Nominations and won five. He also directs movies, most recently directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is up for an Oscar.

4. Paul Robeson

Photograph of Paul RobesonIn the early days of Broadway, it was almost impossible for black people to get exposure on what was appropriately nicknamed ‘The Great White Way’. But some white creators of shows were determined that people of colour should have their proper place in stage musicals. George Gershwin, for example, wrote Porgy And Bess in 1935, with the bets of intentions despite subsequent criticism, and Oscar Hammerstein introduced people of colour and questions about racism into a number of his musicals.

Back in 1927, Hammerstein co-wrote Show Boat with Jerome Kern which was a groundbreaker, not only because it told a serious story but because it was the first musical to feature a mixed black and white cast on stage together. The part of Joe, a stevedore, was expanded as a showcase for my Paul Robeson. Unfortunately, he was unavailable to take part in the Broadway premiere but when the show opened in London he took his rightful place in the cast. The show became the Theatre Royal’s most profitable production of the 20th century.

At a time when black actors were mainly playing servants, Robeson brought a much needed dignity to black acting, taking on major roles in cinema and on stage, including a legendary Othello.

3. Lea Salonga

production photo of Lea Salonga in Allegiance
Lea Salonga in Allegiance. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The Filipina soprano Lea Salonga was the original Kim in Miss Saigon for which she won an Olivier Award. She reprised the role on Broadway and became the first Asian woman to win a Tony. It launched her career on  Broadway where she also played the roles of Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables. She has continued to play leading roles on Broadway and in the Far East including Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

Notably, she had a starring role in 2015 in the musical Allegiance which explored the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2.

2. Audra MacDonald

Audra McDonald in Ragtime

Audra Macdonald is the first and only performer ever to win six Tony Awards.

Trained as an operatic soprano, her Broadway successes include her performance in the revival of Carousel back in 1994, Ragtime in 1998, 110 in the Shade in 2007, Porgy And Bess in 2012. Perhaps her greatest role was as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar And Grill in 2014.

1. Hamilton

We started in 1921 with a musical that brought the first all black cast to Broadway. A hundred years later, the biggest show on Broadway and the West End is another groundbreaking musical featuring a cast almost exclusively of people of colour. Thanks to its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton has set a new standard for colour blind casting by employing mainly non-white actors to play people who were historically white. This casting provides a real and metaphorical illustration of the contribution of people from immigrant backgrounds can make to their adopted country, both in the USA but also here in great Britain. The number one is not one individual but all the casts that have made Hamilton a showcase for the talent of people of colour.

Two To Watch For

Here are two young people of colour destined to be major musical stars.

Miriam-Teak Lee had just left drama school when she blew everyone away with her performance in the Open Air Theatre production of On The Town. Then she got a part in the ensemble of original London production of Hamilton, followed by the lead role in the jukebox musical & Juliet, again giving a jaw-dropping performance for which she rightly for which she won an Olivier Award.

American Eva Noblezada has already played Kim in the 2014 London and subsequent Broadway revivals of Miss Saigon. She follows in the footsteps of Lea Salonga 25 years ago when she originated that role and has also followed her in playing Eponine in Les Miserables. Recently she played Eurydice in Hadestown to much acclaim. Hopefully we won’t lose her to the screen but her starring role in Yellow Rose was unforgettable.

You can see performances by many of the artists featured by visiting the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews and clicking on Playlists where you’ll find Top 10 People Of Colour in Stage Musicals.

The Box Office Radio podcast My Top Ten People of Colour in Stage Musicals presented by Paul Seven Lewis is available on mixcloud.com