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Archive for March, 2011

I just got back from a 10-day trip to the UK, where I was able to soak up the sights and sounds of the thriving London theatre scene, as well as taking in a touring show in Stoke-On-Trent.  I also got to re-acquaint myself with the lovely scenery of the valleys of South Wales.  The highlight, however, was definitely London, which (with all due respect to New York) is my favorite theatre city on Earth.  It has much of the variety and thriving theatre scene of New York in (to my mind) a much more friendly and accessible atmosphere.  I love New York as well, and I would love to get back there someday and have a real Broadway trip, but London will always hold a special place in my heart.  Here are some mini-reviews of the five shows I saw:

The Sound of Music (UK tour), Regent Theatre, Stoke-On-Trent, England

This is a production I had seen before, first at the London Palladium and later in Cardiff, Wales, both starring Connie Fisher as Maria.  I am a big fan of Connie’s, and I really thought she brought something new to the role of Maria, but this time the show’s Maria was played by UK soap actress and West End veteran Verity Rushworth, who I thought played the role extremely well.  Rushworth has a clear, pretty voice and, acting-wise, made for an energetic, almost athletic Maria, and her scenes with the children were a highlight.  There was also excellent supporting work by Jacinta Mulcahy as Baroness Schraeder and Martin Callaghan as Max.  The weak link, however, was Jason Donovan as Captain Von Trapp, who lacked the stage presence and sense of authority that is required for the role, and the production as a whole seemed to have less energy then it had when I saw it before.   Still, it was an enjoyable production overall, and the sets (especially the mountain in the opening and closing scenes) were much improved from the last time I saw the tour.

Ordinary Days–Trafalgar Studios, London

This show (music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, directed by Adam Lenson) was a very small musical with a cast of four, telling the inter-twining stories of four young New Yorkers.  Daniel Boys and Julie Atherton played a young couple going through troubles in defining their relationship, while she dealt with issues from her past, and Alexia Khadime and Lee William-Davis played two very different people who were brought together in friendship by chance.  It was a very well-done show, almost entirely sung-through, with a very clever set (one large white structure with movable pieces that the actors would move around as needed), and universally appealing performances.  Although the entire cast was excellent, Alexia Khadime was the standout for me, with the energy she brought to her character and her powerful voice.  It was also fun to be seeing the show in such a small venue with the cast being so close-up.

End of the Rainbow—Trafalgar Studios, London

This play (written by Peter Quilter and directed by Terry Johnson) is more of an experience than just a show.  It tells the story of Judy Garland’s last time in London, when she was doing a series of concerts at a night club a few months before she died, and works as kind of a concert-within-a-play, with a full band backing Tracie Bennett as Garland in the concert scenes.  Bennett gives what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance.  She doesn’t just play Judy Garland—it’s like she becomes her, and it is such an emotional, physically and vocally demanding role that I really don’t know how she manages to keep coming back and delivering this performance night after night.  It is a truly remarkable feat of acting, and it was an honor to be able to witness it.  Bennett is ably supported by Hilton McRae as Garland’s pianist, Anthony, and by Stephen Hagen as her fiancé, Mickey Deans, and the costumes and sets really add to the late 60’s atmosphere of the piece.  It’s a wonderful, intense theatrical experience, and although the whole cast is wonderful, Bennett’s performance alone is more than worth the price of admission.  If you live in London or plan on going in the next month, I highly recommend seeing this show.  It truly is a must-see.

The Last Five Years—Tabard Theatre, London

This production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, directed by Drew Baker, starred Lauren Samuels (from BBC TV’s “Over the Rainbow”) and Christopher Pym as a couple recounting their failed relationship, going backwards in time from her perspective and forward in time from his.  It is a very intimate piece of theatre, and was executed very well.  Samuels in particular was outstanding, displaying a convincing American accent and offering a sympathetic portrayal of a frustrated actress in a confusing but exciting relationship.  She also possesses an extremely powerful singing voice that was very well used in this production.  Pym, as her novelist husband, was excellent as well, but I had trouble sympathizing with his character, who just seemed full-of-himself from the start.  The set was simple but effective, and I’ve long been a fan of Jason Robert Brown’s music.  Overall, it was a moving depiction of the building and unraveling of a relationship, with good chemistry between the two leads even though they only actually interact with each other in one scene, in the middle of the show when their timelines come together.

The Wizard of Oz–London Palladium

This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new stage version of the classic film, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and additional songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, adapted by Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams and directed by Sams.  It stars Danielle Hope as Dorothy, who won the part in the BBC talent show “Over the Rainbow”, and veteran stage and screen star Michael Crawford (the original Phantom of the Opera) as the Wizard.

I’m not sure I can be entirely objective reviewing this particular show, since I watched “Over the Rainbow” online and started a fan forum for Danielle (www.daniellehopeforum.com) that she has since endorsed as her fan club.  Still, I like to think I’m an honest fan, and no matter how much I like a performer, am willing to admit when they give a less-than-stellar performance.  Fortunately, I don’t have to do that this time, since Danielle is truly a delightful Dorothy.  Her performance is very unlike Judy Garland’s in the 1939 film, but thoroughly winning all the same.  Her Dorothy is gutsy, at turns shy and feisty, and even has bits of the whiny teenager at the beginning.  Her story is one of growth, and her rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, occuring very early in the first act, is plaintive and sincere.  Her Dorothy seems a bit distrustful and pessimistic at first, but by the end of the show she is brimming with optimism.  It is a unique take on the character, and for me it really works.  The highlights of the performance for me were her reprise of “Over the Rainbow” in Act Two and the scene where she says goodbye to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion.  In fact, all four actors were impressive in this last scene, and the chemistry between them was delightful and moving.

The other real stand-out in this cast is Hannah Waddingham as the Wicked Witch of the West.  She presents a very fresh take on the character, imbuing her with a sense of gleeful, evil energy, and her new number in the second act, “Red Shoes Blues” is a showstopper.  She is nearly matched by Emily Tierney as a somewhat mischievous Glinda, the Good Witch, and their scenes together are a real comic highlight.  Edward Baker-Duly makes a great macho, deadpan Tin Man, and Paul Keating is a charming, seemingly boneless Scarecrow.  David Ganly as the Lion is given some groaner jokes, but he delivers them well, and the whole trio has excellent chemistry with Danielle’s Dorothy.  There’s also a cute Westie terrier (there are four used in rotation) as Toto.

Michael Crawford also gives a convincing performance as the Wizard, although he isn’t given a lot to do beyond his first act number “Wonders of the World”, which is a nice, melodic addition to the show.  I did think that his Act One closing song “Bring Me the Broomstick” sounded like a rejected song from Phantom of the Opera, though, and it featured Crawford in full-on Phantom voice.  I especially liked his reprise of “Off to See the Wizard” in the second act–it was very touchingly done.  I could see all the weariness and regret in his character, and found it moving.

As for the other aspects of the production, I found the sets and costumes by Robert Jones to be nothing short of spectacular.  There’s a set piece in the second act (the Witch’s Tower) that just sort of unfurls itself onstage, and it was one of the first times in a show where I actually wanted to applaud the set.  There are also some very clever tricks with flying from both of the witches, and the tornado scene is very effectively portrayed, as well.  The costume and set designs also deviate from the film somewhat drastically, and I really liked that, because this comes off as its own new theatrical presentation and not a carbon-copy of the film. I also really liked the orchestrations of the music, which blended themes from both the old and new songs together seamlessly.

This show is by no means high art, but it is a very enjoyable, extremely well-crafted and well-performed show that will surely delight audiences of all ages, and if ALW wishes to, he can use that as a pull-quote on the posters!   I had a great time seeing this show, and I’m sure it will run at the Palladium for a very long time.

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