If you’re worried that a musical couldn’t do justice to the classic film Sleepless In Seattle, don’t be. Sleepless does pretty much all you would hope from it and more.
Okay, Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh are not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. However what makes Hollywood stars great is their ability to convey their thoughts and feelings through their faces in close up. The composer Alan Menken said songs in a musical substitute for close ups when it comes to revealing character. And the songs by Robert Scott and Brendon Cull are both charming and do the job.
Jay McGuinness and Kimberley Walsh perform well, especially the latter as Annie who is the full package of acting, singing and dancing. Jay McGuinness as Sam is also impressive and very likeable but I felt his inexperience as an actor showed a little bit in the more emotional moments.
Now, you’ll remember the plot but just in case… A widower in Seattle can’t sleep and his son gets him on a late night radio show to talk about his situation. He’s heard by a journalist in Baltimore and she is one of many thousands who are moved by what he said. He receives a letter from her. She invites him to meet her at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give away the ending (and best not look at the production photo).
That subtitle A Musical Romance is interesting because this is not only a romantic musical, it’s a romance about musicals. Nora Ephron’s movie, although set in 1993, harks back to the films of the 1950s and in particular An Affair To Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (or it Carr, as the characters keep saying). So does this show. It is a tribute to the musicals of that time. Just as the film has a soundtrack of songs from the swing jazz era, the songs here are a homage to the hits of that time- you can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing some of them. The costumes by Sue Simmerling are technicolored. There is a joy in language in Michael Burdette’s book.
You may be aware that I’ve been doing a podcast History of Stage Musicals for Box Office Radio so I’ve been steeped in the very best of the so-called Golden Age Of Musicals. While it may not plumb the depths of South Pacific or hit the heights of Gypsy, Sleepless is an uplifting musical and the creators’ love of that period really comes across.
Where Sleepless falls down is that it sticks too closely to the plot of the film. The first half is all about setting up for the second half. While that’s quite normal, Sam probably wouldn’t have had his problem with sleeplessness if he’d watched this first act late at night. It really needed an additional subplot or at least some dancing to spice up the proceedings. I was probably naïve to expect the show to be sprinkled with dance numbers but it does star two Strictly Come Dancing alumni. Also, it’s a long time since I went to a musical that didn’t feature lots of dancing.
There’s plenty of smooth jazz style walking from the chorus and the odd moment of where emotion is expressed through movement. That includes a comedy duet between Sam’s son and his friend. The only ‘proper’ dance is during the curtain call when our two stars show that they still remember their Strictly moves.
There is good support from Daniel Casey as Annie’s dull fiancé Walter and the splendid Harriet Thorpe as her domineering mother. Tania Mathurin as her extrovert friend Becky and Cory English as Sam’s friend Rob (a new character) inject a healthy dose of comedy.
The set designed by Morgan Large evokes Sam’s job as an architect by using back projections of architectural drawings. In the same vein, the skeleton of a multi-purpose structure dominates centre stage with lots of vertical and horizontal lines. Morgan Young directed this most enjoyable show.
Finally a word about the producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders. I can’t praise them highly enough or indeed thank them enough for giving audiences starved of live theatre the chance to see this lovely musical, even though at 30% capacity because of social distancing they can’t possibly be making any money out of it. And well done to the Troubadour for their exemplary Covid-19 safety precautions.
Hamilton was filmed during the initial Broadway run. The recording of the live show was meant to saved for later but with theatres dark, the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to make it available now. After some intense bidding, it was Disney+ who secured the rights.
So, these are the questions: If you’ve already seen Hamilton, is this film of the Broadway show worth watching? If you haven’t seen Hamilton, does the film do justice to the stage production? Finally, if you’re not interested in Frozen II and Star Wars, is it worth subscribing to the Disney+ streaming service just to see Hamilton?
The answers, in my opinion, are ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘oh yes’. I’ve been quite critical of live recordings of large scale stage shows as removing the excitement of theatre while being too theatrical for film but, if anything, this is better than the stage show. Of course, you can’t being ‘in the room’ with live actors but here you’re able to appreciate every aspect of this great musical. You can watch a dance sequence from the best seat in the circle, then see the faces of the performers as if you’re in the front row of the stalls.
It doesn’t harm that you get to see the first and quite possibly the best cast, including the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. His character is driven to make a difference in the world at all cost to his personal life (“I’m not going to waste my shot”). He helps lead the American revolution, which is over before the end of act one, then is one of the founding fathers of the American republic. His single-mindedness makes him enemies leading to political fights that drive the second half. His flaws, as in any great tragedy, lead to his downfall. Thanks to the music, his story is told with excitement, passion, and humour.
There are two other characters who develop through the course of the show. Aaron Burr, beautifully sung and played by Leslie Odom Jr, is the narrator and ‘damn fool who shot him’ as he says of the end of his difficult friendship with Hamilton. He starts off uncommitted but, in a moment of tremendous excitement, realises that the important decisions are being made behind closed doors and he needs to be ‘in the room where it happens’.
Hamilton’s wife Eliza, played with poignancy and the sweetest voice by Phillipa Soo, changes from a love-struck girl through pain to a powerful woman.
There is an excellent supporting cast including Renee Elise Goldberry as Angelica, Eliza’s intelligent, sensual sister who is Hamilton’s love, if not lover. Daveed Diggs is the Marquis de Lafayette and later Thomas Jefferson, both larger than life and played to great comic effect.
The background is the birth of the United States and the midwives are immigrants or the offspring of immigrants. Hamilton himself is an immigrant from a poor background. To underline the point, a mainly non-white cast play the rebels and their musical numbers are Hip-hop, the music of the disadvantaged.
We’re always aware that we are looking back from today. This is emphasised by the use of a narrator and by other asides to the audience. ‘Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?’ is a question asked by the musical, because our view of history changes with each generation. Miranda has said that this is ‘the story of America then told by America now’. We notice the parallels with today. One song says: ‘Immigrants- we get the job done’ to a cheer from the audience.
Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s music is clever, subtle and catchy. It’s no wonder millions have bought the soundtrack who haven’t even seen the show. Hip-Hop dominates but he plunders other genres as needed. For example, when Jefferson returns from France, he sings a jazz song, thus showing that he not only missed the War Of Independenceshows but also a change in musical taste. The love songs exude the pain of love.
Hip-Hop is a terrific dance music and, in the poetic language of rap, Miranda has found the perfect form to tell a story and communicate the thoughts and feelings of his characters.
The original director of the Broadway production Thomas Kail directs the film which means he knows exactly what he wants to put across. Every change of shot, whether a close-up or the whole stage, seems to come at exactly the right moment. I never felt I wanted to be looking somewhere else.
The show looks great too, thanks to set designer David Korins and Paul Tazewell‘s costumes. What a clever idea to remove the female dancers’ voluminous dresses and show off their moves in 18th century underwear.
Well worth a month’s subscription to Disney+ and you get to see Frozen II as well.
Hamilton is streaming on Disney+. When theatres re-open, the British production can be seen at Victoria Palace Theatre, London.
How musicals came to dominate theatre for 90 years
Musical theatre has dominated Broadway and West End stages for nearly a hundred years but there are five musicals that shaped the modern musical. In choosing these five musicals what I’ve tried to look at is not their quality or success at the box office but the way each one brought something innovatory to the musical.
The modern musical followed the footsteps of the European tradition of opera and Gilbert & Sullivan style operetta but it was born in America.
Song-and-dance shows in one guise or another had been produced in New York since the 19th century. These included the racist Minstrel Shows, popular variety shows in which white entertainers ‘blacked up’.
By the late 19th and the early part of the 20th century, Broadway was awash with revues. Many of these spectacular song and dance entertainments were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld under the recurring title of The Ziegfeld Follies. It was an era immortalised by films like 42nd Street and revisited by Stephen Sondheim in his musical Follies.
There were also Musical Comedies. Successors to and to some extent popular rivals to the more middle class operetta, this genre originated in late Victorian London but soon became a staple of the New York stage. They offered lightweight, often banal plots punctuated by brilliant singing and dancing. Think Fred & Ginger movies. It’s a format that’s never completely gone away.
In the Twenties The Jazz Age took hold, inspiring a range of talented composers. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and, perhaps the greatest of all, George Gershwin were all part of the Broadway scene, penning songs for revues and comedies. It was probably the most prolific period in Broadways’s history. In 1927 alone, fifty musicals were launched.
One of them launched what we know as the modern musical, or musical theatre. It was the first major musical show to feature a proper drama- and incidentally it was Florenz Ziegfeld who brought it to Broadway.
1. Show Boat
From 1912 onwards, Jerome Kern had written many musical comedies into which he brought more complex believable plots, but what he needed was a lyricist to match his vision. Then he met Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1927 they wrote Show Boat and set the template for the next 90 years of so-called ‘book musicals’, that is to say, musicals with a believable narrative and realistic dialogue. And this certainly was a serious story: it encompassed alcoholism, racism and marital conflict.
Thus the musical became a vehicle to support and enhance drama, just as opera does. As Leonard Bernstein said: ‘Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.’ As well as covering racial themes, Show Boat was the first musical show in which both black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together. And the first to feature an inter-racial marriage.
Songs drove the drama and included Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.
Other weighty musicals followed. Of Thee I Sing, a political satire from 1931 by George and Ira Gershwin, won the Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, the Gershwins along with librettist Dubose Hayward created Porgy And Bess. George Gershwin decided it would be appropriate to use African-American folk music- spirituals and folk songs with a jazz-like feel. The use of popular music and the way the music ran continuously through the work meant, although it was technically an opera, Porgy And Bess had a significant influence on musicals. And, unusually for Broadway, it featured an all African-American cast.
Oscar Hammerstein had some fallow years after Show Boat but when Jerome Kern turned down an idea he had to make a musical from a play called Green Grow The Lilacs, he got together with Richard Rodgers. Rodgers had been looking for a new lyricist to replace the unreliable Lorenz Hart and, coincidentally, had also been interested in Green grow The Lilacs. Together they produced a revolutionary musical, possibly the greatest of all time: and the first to fully integrate music, drama and dance.
It was 1943 and, in the midst of war, Americans were ready for a celebration of American values. They found it in Oklahoma! When Alfred Drake sang those opening lines Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ unaccompanied off stage, musical theatre changed forever.
First, there was the music. Nothing said ‘the music element matters’ more than by giving the parts to singers who could act rather the common practice of actors who could sing.
Then, there was the drama. Oklahoma! was the first musical in which every element served the characters and furthered the story. And, for the first time, that included the dance sequences. Agnes de Mille choreographed expressive dances so challenging that professional dancers were required for some of them. Songs included People Will Say We’re in Love, Surrey With A Fringe On Top and the rousing title song.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were the perfect partnership: contrary to the usual pattern, both liked to get the lyrics first and set them to music. There followed a succession of great musicals: Carousel, The Sound Of Music, The King and I, South Pacific and doznes more. Other composers took inspiration from them and created a Golden Age of the Musical with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls…. the list goes on and on. And all these shows made the journey from stage to the big screen to create the so-called ‘Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical’.
Dance played a part in enhancing the drama of Oklahoma! and many subsequent musicals but the final building block of the modern musical came in 1957 when dance came into its own.
3. West Side Story
The musical’s credentials were great: the book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, the music was by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but it was the role of Jerome Robbins as the director that was crucial. He was the preeminent stage choreographer of his time, which meant West Side Story not only incorporated dance into the narrative but let it take the lead. The famous finger snaps say it all.
A writer in Time magazine found the dance and gang warfare more compelling than the love story and noted that the show’s ‘putting choreography foremost, may prove a milestone in musical-drama history.’ He was right. That the show ended tragically was also groundbreaking. Memorable songs included Maria and Tonight.
Many more musicals followed as the Golden Age rolled on, not least another contender for greatest musical of all time, Julie Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent’s Gypsy. The longest running musical ever, The Fantasticks by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the singer) opened in New York in 1960 and closed 42 years later.
Tastes in music changed: rock rather than jazz now dominated the charts and perhaps audiences were getting bored with the formula of the book musical. Whatever the reason, by the mid-1960s the first Golden Age of the Musical came to an end. Musicals continued to be written and performed but not so frequently or spectacularly as before.
The time was ripe for the arrival of the concept musical, in other words, a musical where the idea or theme takes precedence over the narrative.
Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970 wasn’t the first concept musical. As early as 1947, Rodgers and Hammerstein created Allegro. Interestingly, a very young Stephen Sondheim worked as a production assistant on this musical. A year later, Alan Lerner of Lerner and Lowe fame teamed up with Kurt Weill who wrote The Threepenny Opera and they created Love Life. Both shows had linear plots but these were disrupted by songs that commented on a theme.
However Company was the first significant concept musical where the narrative was virtually abandoned in favour of a theme, in this case, an exploration of relationships in songs like The Ladies who Lunch and Being Alive. Other concept musicalss followed including Chicago, A Chorus Line and Cats, as well as many more by Sondheim such as Follies and Sunday in The Park With George.
Hair was another concept musical of sorts but it’s more memorable for bringing rock music into the previously jazz-based world of musicals. It’s arguable that rock is a genre better suited to the individual song than to carrying a whole narrative or theme but there’s no arguing with the success of Hair, Godspell and the early Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaborations like Jesus Christ Superstar.
One trend of the last few years has been the jukebox musical which recycles existing popular songs around a story: it’s not exactly new- the film musical Singin’ In The Rain uses an existing songbook but the genre has been unstoppable in the last few decades- the most successful is Mamma Mia! featuring the music of ABBA. Early examples were Return To The Forbidden Planet and Buddy- The story of Buddy Holly. Others include We Will Rock You featuring the music of Queen, Jersey Boys which tells the story of the Four Seasons and, last year, the wonderful & Juliet showcasing the songs of Max Martin.
And, having made films out of so many stage musicals, Hollywood has repaid the compliment in recent years by providing the inspiration for Little Shop Of Horrors, Disney’s The Lion King, The Producers, Spamalot, Billy Elliott and many more.
Talented writers have created musicals that continue the tradition of exploring serious themes: Rent, Blood Brothers and The Book Of Mormon to name but a few.
The mid 1980s saw the arrival of the mega musicals where the sets became as or more important than the content- and Britain led the way, revitalising this great American genre, just as The Beatles had revitalised American rock’n’roll in the sixties. In what could be described as a second Golden Age, there are two landmarks – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s almost operatic Phantom Of The Opera and Cameron Macintosh’s production of Les Misérables.
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical may be, as The Observer put it when it opened, “a witless and synthetic entertainment” but its popular appeal is undeniable. With its rousing story of doomed revolutionaries and its uplifting tale of a man who pays back a debt with heroic charity, Les Misérables is now the second longest running musical ever. It’s certainly a musical I could see again and again. However, although this musical is about revolutionaries, it’s not actually revolutionary.
We had to wait 45 years after Company before we got another genuinely revolutionary musical. In fact, in 2015, you could argue we got two in one year.
Fun Home was the first show on Broadway to have a lesbian protagonist- some 30 years after La Cage Aux Folles focussed on male homosexuality. It showed that musicals can tell complex stories about women and indeed lesbian women, who are not often represented in the mainstream, and that musicals written by women can be successful on Broadway.
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first all-female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Score, as well as Best Musical. But is it revolutionary simply because women take centre stage? I would argue, in the male dominated world of musical theatre, that it is, but I have to admit there is no new musical form here.
However there was another musical that also started off-Broadway in 2015 that has found a new form.
Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (streaming on Disney+ channel from 3 July 2020) does everything the best musicals do in terms of taking an engaging subject and combining it with music and dance. Miranda plundered a number of musical genres but what makes Hamilton look like the future of the musical is its use of hip hop or rap music in songs like Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down) or Right Hand Man. Rap is the music of revolution, because it expresses the angry feeling of the underprivileged. But more than that, just as the jazz sound was used by Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein and the other greats of the first Golden Age of the musical to create dance tunes and complex lyrics, hip hop rhythm is great for dance and rap’s poetic use of language make it the perfect music for lyrics.
Stephen Sondheim put it this way: “Of all the forms of contemporary music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater… both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness.”
Ninety years previously Show Boat was the first musical to put black and white performers on stage together. In 2015, there has been deliberate casting of non-white actors in Hamilton as the mainly white Founding Fathers and other historical figures. It is, as Miranda put it, ‘the story of America then told by America now’. Hamilton has found a way of making what we’ve been calling the ‘modern’ musical for nearly a hundred years actually work for a modern audience.
It remains to be seen whether more rap-based musicals with such wide appeal will emerge but the signs are good. One of the best new British musicals I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Poet In Da Corner by Debris Stevenson which features grime music.
What Stephen Sondheim said about Hamilton could apply to any of the five musicals I’ve chosen: “What it does is empower people to think differently. There’s always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms.”
I’m pretty sure I’m not the target demographic for & Juliet but I loved it.
It’s a jukebox musical which is an art form usually well down the West End hierarchy. It features the work of Max Martin whom I’d never heard of until now. Although I vaguely recognised a lot of the songs, they arrived a long time after I lost interest in teens and twenties music. The choreography is mainly street dance, which I admire but am usually unmoved by. The plot is a love story with a strong dose of girl power which I applaud but the story is too lightweight for me.
And yet love it I did. Why? Because the songs are actually great. The performers generate enough energy to power Regent Street lights. The costumes, the set, the sound quality (great to be able to hear the words) and most of all the singing are phenomenal. If the director Luke Sheppard were a football manager, he’d be winning the Premiership.
The show features nearly 30 hits from the most successful songwriter of the last 20 years, Max Martin – songs like ...Baby One More Time, It’s My Life, Roar, Oops I did it again, I Kissed A Girl, Can’t Stop The Feeling and many more which fit like a glove around the story. The plot imagines Juliet living on after Romeo’s death and going on to write her own story.
It’s presented as a kind of workshop in which at Anne Hathaway’s insistence, her husband William Shakespeare rewrites the ending of Romeo & Juliet. She wants it to be about empowering women and about finding true love. She wants the love to spread beyond the traditional romantic leads. She even writes herself into the plot. Will tries to undermine this, partly to inject some conflict and setbacks into the drama but also to re-build his male ego.
It’s not quite F—ing Perfect (another Max Martin song). David West Read’s book has some cheesy moments, unlikely plot twists, cliche characters and terrible puns but it is all tongue-in-cheek and, as in all good musicals, you are carried along by the emotion of the music more than the words in between. And you definitely Can’t Stop The Feeling!
Miriam-Teak Lee: Stardom beckons
There’s slick street dancing choreographed by Jennifer Weber. Paloma Young’s colourful costumes nod to Elizabethan symbolism as well as today’s streetwear. Soutra Gilmour’s set joins in the fun by melding various centuries plus street art and pop culture and giving many opportunities for the principals to spin round and to rise into the air. (It’s been a good year for Gilmour with her stark dramatic set for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Evita helping the show win an Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.)
Then there’s the cast. I was exhausted just watching them. Miriam-Teak Lee is destined to be a great star. I thought she was outstanding in the Open Air Theatre producton of On The Town, this time she blew me away with her Juliet- a powerful voice and a strong character mixing strength, emotion and comedy.
Matching her is Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway. This musical is as much about her disappointment in her relationship with Will as anything and her poignant rendering of That’s The Way It Is is a highlight of the show.
The third in the triumvirate of strong women in this show is Melanie La Barrie as the Nurse. Her comic performance deservedly got the most laughs. She has a heartwarming mature love affair with the poised Lance, charmingly played by David Bedella, who is bowled over by love.
This is a musical in which women dominate so generally the male characters fare less well. William Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett) is a deliberately one dimensional sexist. Juliet’s gay friend played by Arun Blair-Mangat is a cliche. His love interest Francois (Tim Mahendran) is lightly drawn. Romeo is amusingly shallow and given an appropriately preening performance by Jordan Luke Gage.
Much to my own amazement, I came out of the theatre singing I Want It That Way and I’d be delighted to see & Juliet..Baby, One More Time.
& Juliet is performing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. For tickets, visit the official website shaftesburytheatre.com
Paul Seven Lewis was given complimentary review tickets.
Click below to view this review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is one of his lesser known musicals. Having seen this production of it at The Watermill, I understand why. There’s no story, no engagement with the characters and, like the would be assassins, it’s hit and miss. On the plus side, you do get a fascinating look at men and women who attempted and sometimes succeeded in assassinating American presidents. You are also treated to some great music and amusing lyrics and, in the case of this Watermill production, an entertaining performance that hits the bullseye.
In this fantasy musical with a book by John Weidman, all the would be assassins get together at a funfair where they are given their own special guns and cajoled into going for the big prize if they shoot a president dead. The musical is an exploration of what that prize is. The answer, and this is not a spoiler, is fame.
We learn something about each of these would be assassins, first John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln, finally Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John Kennedy. It’s by no means chronological and the various stories intertwine. We see them as failures, mentally unstable nobodies who have been let down by the American Dream which promises that everyone can succeed.
Although we never sympathise with this unhinged bunch of people, we do hear some great tunes. Peter Dukes as Leon Czolgosz (who killed President McKinley) sings one of the best- The Gun Song which describes the number of hands involved in the manufacturing process. Generally Stephen Sondheim’s score offers pastiches of various forms of traditional and popular American music. It carries us and the assassins along with the joy of America while contrasting with the grubby truth revealed before us and through his lyrics.
Another National Anthem sums it up: ‘There are those who keep forgetting That the country’s built on dreams.’ Or as another song says: ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy.’
It’s a fast moving, slick production from Bill Buckhurst. The Watermill has a small stage but the 15 strong cast manage to fill and move round it with military precision, choreographed by Georgina Lamb. They also play instruments, so to say they are talented is an understatement.
I don’t like to pick out individual performances from this excellent ensemble, but I’m going to. Eddie Elliott is the delusional but hyper confident Charles Guiteau who expects to become ambassador to France and shoots dead President McKinley. Mr Elliott plays him with great pizzazz, jumping around the stage and shaking hands with the audience and rushing to the scaffold with a joyful gospel I’m Going to The Lordy. Lillie Flynn as the Balladeer, a kind of narrator, has the strong punchy voice of a classic musical singer. Sara Poyzer’s neurotic Sara Jane Moore gets a lot of laughs as her mind and her gun fire in all directions.
Inevitably on a stage as small as The Watermill’s, the set is minimal but Simon Kenny has cleverly created a fun fair feel particularly by showing the presidents’ faces like targets in a shooting gallery.
When it comes to the climax- the assassination of JFK- the back of the set spins round to become the windows of the famous Book Depository. All previous assassins led by Wilkes Booth (a chilling portrayal by Alex Mugnaioni) gather to nudge the suicidal Oswald to pick up the rifle.
The previously black comedy becomes serious and even sentimental which makes the end inconsistent with what leads up to it. Presumably Sondheim and Weidman decided this particular assassination was still too raw in their and our minds. Perhaps, unlike Oswald, they lost their nerve.
I doubt whether Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Evita has ever looked or sounded better.
As you enter the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, you’re presented with a set that looks like bleachers or maybe a staircase which rises from the front to the back of the stage. At the bottom of the staircase, appropriately, is Eva about to embark on her journey of sleeping her way out of poverty and climbing to the highest office of the land.
She is a showgirl. Like her colleagues, she wears a short skirt and sits with her legs apart, making it clear that she sees her body as a tool in her ruthless ambition. It’s not long before attaches herself to up-and-coming General Juan Peron and helps him to become President of Argentina. Then tragedy strikes as she contracts cancer and dies, the announcement of her death providing the opening of the musical.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best score is movingly played
I’m not a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music but I have to say the stirring swelling arrangements, the Latin American pastiches and the memorable tunes make this, for me, his best score. Coupled with Tim Rice’s clever, caustic lyrics, Evita is a pleasure to listen to and this production is musically excellent under Alan Williams.
Under the supervision ofAlan Williams, the blockbusters Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (which I can’t get out of my head) and Another Suitcase in Another Hall are movingly performed, the former by Samantha Pauly, the latter by Frances Mayli McCann.
Just as the musical is intended to be sung-through, director Jamie Lloyd has made a decision to have it danced-through. Fabian Aloise‘s choreography, picking up on the Latin American rhythms, works exceptionally well. The lack of a flat stage could have made life difficult for dancers but Mr Aloise turns it to advantage by having the performers move up and down and along the steps. At times, he uses Soutra Gilmour‘s tiered design to create a spectacular wall of dancers.
The leads are excellent. Eva is played by Samantha Pauly. In her slip dress and trainers, she seems very young , much younger than other Evitas you may have seen. This is appropriate because the musical takes her from age 15 to 33. She is a pleasure to watch and hear. You have no doubt of why she would be attractive to Peron and the Argentine people. My only reservation is that she didn’t show enough ruthlessness on her face.
I came out humming Lloyd Webber’s tunes but wasn’t engaged in the story
The strength of this production which is the youthful energetic dancing is also its flaw because Peron should be older. Historically and in terms of this classic musical, it should be much clearer that Eva gave an unattractive older military man sex appeal, much in the way Lady Diana did for Prince Charles or Ginger Rogers for Fred Astaire. Excellent asEktor Riverais as a performer, he is too young and fit.
Trent Saunders is powerful in the role of Che the narrator. He has a strong expressive voice. The narrator not only tells us what’s going on but comments cynically until even he falls under Eva’s spell. He is also her conscience, experiencing physically her rejection and her contrition.
The Brechtian device of a narrator is meant to be alienating but I don’t find it works in Evita. Yes, we step back from emotional engagement to think about Evita’s populist progress but the downside is, we don’t care about the protagonists. While the biting libretto goes one way, the music goes another, slapping on emotion with a trowel. It tries hard but Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s musical passion fails to attach itself to Tim Rice‘s characters.
I came out humming the tunes but I wasn’t engaged in Evita’s story.
Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate is a gift to performers. It has a great story- a play Taming Of The Shrew within a play in which the lead actors in conflict on stage are at loggerheads behind the scenes. It has tuneful songs with clever lyrics. It has strong characters. It is a perfect musical comedy. Changing it would destroy it. Like putting lipstick on the Mona Lisa. You’d think.
Paul Hart, The Watermill’s artistic director, has decided to take the risk and adds more comedy in the form of farce by making it a kind of Kiss Me Kate Goes Wrong plus a dose of sexual politics.
Most of the time he pulls it off. But not always. Petruchio famously spanks Kate but having her spank him as well, in the cause of sexual equality, takes the edge off the subsequent joke that she can’t sit down. That’s one bum note.
Another is making so many things go wrong from the start because this takes away from Lily’s belligerence being the factor that brings down the previous order of the theatrical production. If it falls apart without her help, that removes one of the golden threads that is woven into the cloth of this glorious musical.
In a similar way, if the actor manager Fred is a loveable idiot from the start, his descent from a big headed authoritarian to broken fool is lost.
And yet, there’s no denying the added farce is very funny. The chorus has to improvise an encore when the curtain fails to rise. Actors leave the stage on the wrong side and have to scurry across in the background. The witty lyrics are still given full weight, so this an evening in which the laughter rarely stops.
It helps that there are some terrific performances. Rebecca Trehearn and David Riccardo-Pearce as the lead actors Fred and Lilli have strong, pure voices that both soar and express pathos. They are engaging performers. Fred running round the auditorium buttonholing members of the audience as he asks Where Is The Life That Late I Led? had the audience in stitches.
The highly talented Kimmy Edwards as Lois/Bianca does justice to both her big numbers- Tom, Dick Or Harry and the showstopper Always True To You In My Fashion. The latter climaxes with her skirt ripped off and Edwards high kicking in true showbiz style, using drumsticks like majorette batons.
Sheldon Greenland and Robert Jackson make amusing gangsters who become enchanted by the theatre, eventually exhorting us to Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Jay Perry is a charming Bill and Andre Fabian Francis is a stupendous dancer.
Talking of the dancing, Oti Mabuse does an excellent job as choreographer. Given the small space at The Watermill, there’s no opportunity for big chorus line numbers but there are quite a few energetic ensemble numbers that are all the more thrilling for squeezing flamboyant movements into the limited room.
Finally, the piece de resistance: all the actors play instruments which gives the show an added sense of excitement and makes the music seem like an extension of the acting.
So, while I may have small reservations about this production, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt are the leading lights and Kirsty MacLaren shines
There’s a lot to like in This Is My Family which is directed by Daniel Evans with a light comic touch.
This is the second of CFT Artistic Director Daniel Evans‘ ‘greatest hits’ from his days at the Sheffield Crucible to be revived at Chichester. I wasn’t so keen on Flowers For Mrs Harris but I’m delighted he brought this show south with him.
Nicky, our narrator and the daughter of the family in question, sees that her family is falling apart. Her mum and dad are hitting midlife crises, they bicker and don’t seem loving any more, her brother is moody and withdrawn, her grandmother is beginning to lose her mind. Nicky’s solution is a camping holiday back where mum and dad first met.
Put like that, it sounds quite predictable and in truth there’s not much to challenge the audience but Tim Firth has written a beautifully observed comedy about family relationships through the generations. There are some very witty lines, the best of which go to Grandma (‘Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and there’s the nut left’) and Mum’s libido driven sister Sian played by Rachel Lumberg. The latter part is, unlike the others, more of a cariacature but it’s all the more funny for that and her song comparing lovemaking to driving a car is hilarious.
This is My Family is a musical play rather than a musical musical which may be why I didn’t find the songs memorable. There are no show stoppers or vocal stretching moments- they’re more like words accompanied by music, almost recitative, and this may be the point because Tim Firth‘s many lovely metaphors would be too poetic or emotional for spoken dialogue.
Kirsty MacLaren is magnificent as Nicky. She holds the show together and is one talented young woman, living up to the promise she showed in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Scott Folan as the lovestruck brother is good too and their antagonistic but loving sibling relationship feels spot on.
At the other end of the age scale, Sheila Hancock is fabulous as the grandma who’s frightened of what she’s losing but finds peace in the past.
James Nesbitt and Clare Burt are a pleasure to watch for their comic acting.
The set by Richard Kent is clever. This is the Minerva so mostly it’s three-sided space but at the back in act one there’s a kind of slice through the middle of a house, filled with domestic details, which then spins round to form a wood in act two.
In the end this is a hopeful view of the family that we can all recognise. As I said, there’s a lot to like about This Is My Family. It’s been a while since Chichester had a West End transfer, this feelgood musical deserves to be the one.
Anne-Marie Duff adds Wow Factor to excellent production of Sweet Charity
Sweet Charity with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.
This would be an excellent production with any musical star but Anne-Marie Duff adds a wow factor. She may not be as good a singer or dancer as those who’ve made a career out of musicals but she can sing and she can dance and she brings to the part all the emotional depth of a great actor. You feel her pain and you feel her ecstasy, and her pick-yourself-up-and-try-again smile is infectious.
Charity is a taxi dancer in the 1960s. If you don’t know what that is (and I didn’t), it’s someone who works in a club where punters can hire them for a dance, and sometimes more. Charity believes in love. Despite being conned and let down many times, she remains an optimist and keeps looking for love. When things go wrong, she simply changes reality to suit her romantic view of love.
Ironically, despite being no virgin, she remains an innocent, which is the essence of her vulnerability but it’s also her strength. You could simply dismiss her as a naive fool, instead her way of seeing the best in people and not losing hope is inspirational. We want her to find love, even though we fear she won’t.
Anne-Marie Duff is perfect for the part. Her song-and-dance rendering of If My Friends Could See Me Now complete with a routine with a top hat and cane perfectly conveys Charity’s child-like unaffectedness. And her I’m A Brass Band is a joyous expression of what it feels like to be in love.
But it’s not a one woman show.
Arthur Darvill as Charity’s shy insecure boyfriend and Martin Marquez as a charming and charmed (by Charity) film star are both superb. Most of all there are the women who make up the rest of the taxi dancers. Their performance and reprise of Big Spender are astonishing. In the intimate setting of the Donmar where the audience is only four rows deep, these women saying ‘Let me show you a good time?’ is very personal.
The stunning choreography by Wayne McGregor, paying homage to the original work by Bob Fosse, evokes Cabaret and Chicago. Robert Jones’ set, a simple open stage with silvery props and furniture inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Silver Factory, suggests Charity’s bright optimism in a harsh world.
What a way for director Josie Rourke to bow out as Artistic Director of the Donmar.
Sweet Charity can be seen at the Donmar until 8 June 2019
Come From Away, a musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein at the Phoenix Theatre in London
9/11 was a tragic event carried out by evil people. The musical Come From Away is a kind of antidote, reminding us that most people are basically good and generous.
I’d forgotten but, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, US air space was closed which meant hundreds of planes were diverted. 35 of them with 7000 people on board ended up in a small Canadian community of Gander, doubling the population. The locals could have been hostile to these unexpected immigrants. Instead they welcomed and looked after them.
In this musical, we meet a diverse number of characters, locals, passengers and crew telling us their story. We get a sense of the panic and fears of the time and we zone in on some of the individuals’ stories and how they are changed by the experience.
It is not all sugar-coated. There is some anti-Muslim behaviour and inevitably some tragedy but the overriding message is one of hope.
I was impressed by the use of an almost bare stage in David Ashley‘s production. A few chairs and tables become a plane, a bus, a café and a community hall. It puts the burden on the cast to create the scenes in our imagination but this is a talented cast who also take on many parts. This is theatre and acting at its purest.
The players are all really good but I’m going to be unfair and pick out Rachel Tucker as the pilot who loves flying but has to take charge on the ground, Clive Carter as the welcoming Mayor and Cat Simmons as Hannah worried about her firefighter son.
There are a few too many characters to focus sufficiently on individual stories. There could also be more light and shade or, to be more precise, more shade. There are funny moments and there’s a love story but I would have liked to dwell a little more on the moments of sadness.
However the pace is tremendously fast and you really don’t have time to think about that. And the ending which is akin to a hoedown is hugely entertaining and uplifting.
This musical quite possibly paints too rosy a picture but I think, right now, we should treasure this positive view of humanity.