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. While they dance what from memory was an American Smooth, 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 Pepsodent.’ 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 continues at The Barbican until 31st October 2021. (Sutton Foster’s final performance will be on 10 October.) anythinggoesmusical.co.uk

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

 

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

 

 

Flowers For Mrs Harris – Chichester – Review

A few blooms but no bouquet for a dull production

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Production photo of Clare Burt in Flower For Mrs Harris at Chichester
Clare Burt in Flower For Mrs Harris at Chichester. Photo: Johan Persson

Flowers for Mrs Harris, a musical based on a Paul Gallico story and directed by Daniel Evans, is set in East London just after the end of the second world war. In a world of rationing and drabness, Mrs Harris has a dream of owning a Christian Dior dress. She goes about achieving this, mainly by being nice to people and bringing out the niceness in them.

Click here to see the review of Flowers For Mrs Harris on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

There are set backs along the way but they are easily resolved within minutes. I think this is the essence of why I didn’t enjoy this musical. There is no grit, no tension, no sense that this won’t have (spoiler alert!) a happy ending.

Flowers for Mrs Harris at Chichester. Photo: Johan Persson

Richard Taylor’s opera-style sung-through music is unmemorable.  To complete a dull presentation, the sets are grey. Even when we relocate to Paris for the second act, they offer hardly anything in the way of scenery or dynamic changes to delight the eye. Only the Dior dresses and of course flowers provide colour, which I guess is designer Lez Brotherston’s point but you have to wait quite a while for those.

And just because it’s a musical, don’t expect any dancing.

On the plus side, there are some good characters well acted by a strong cast that includes Claire Machin, Joanna Riding and Gary Wilmot and especially Clare Burt who is brilliant as the self effacing, resilient Mrs Harris.

I admit I did feel like a miserable git when I saw people around me crying at the end.

Flowers For Mrs Harris can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 29 September 2018

Here’s the One Minute Theatre Reviews video on YouTube-