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Archive for the ‘World Theatre’ Category

As anyone who read my last blog entry would know, I was eagerly anticipating NBC’s broadcast of The Sound of Music, which finally aired last night after months of hype, and it seems like everyone was talking about it online. It was on Twitter, Facebook, the BroadwayWorld message boards, and many other places online, and I can’t remember the last time (if ever) I have seen so much buzz for a theatre-related event among the general public. The show also apparently drew huge ratings for the night, and today, people are still talking about it (good and bad). As for my own thoughts, I think this was overall a positive night for theatre and the production itself was entertaining if not perfect.

This biggest reason for all the hype surrounding this event was the casting of Carrie Underwood as Maria. She was the undisputed main draw of this production, and I defended her casting in my last article when I had only heard clips of her singing and hadn’t seen her act the role, so I was particularly curious to see how she would perform in the show. I think the best way to describe her performance is “un-polished, but earnest”. Underwood was obviously trying her best, emphasizing Maria’s youth and naivete, but her lack of acting experience was apparent.  Early in the performance, she appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by nerves and simply seemed to be reciting lines, except when she sang and she was more in her element. Then, about halfway through the first act, after a particularly rousing and charming rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd” with the well-cast group of Von Trapp children, Underwood started to loosen up, and had some genuinely convincing moments, such as her confrontation of Captain Von Trapp (Stephen Moyer) about his neglect of his children, her reactions to The Mother Abbess’s (Audra McDonald) glorious “Cimb Ev’ry Mountain”, and a nice little moment with McDonald before the Captain and Maria’s wedding, where Underwood seemed to finally let go of any residual nervousness and displayed a warm, genuine smile. Underwood has an inherent likability about her that, I think, made her deficiencies as an actress a little easier to bear, and her voice was strong in the musical numbers. Overall, she came across as a singer and not an actress.  She did seem to have some flashes of acting talent there, though, and I would be curious to see her try more roles in the future, with some training (but starting with smaller projects than this one).

As for the rest of the cast, the Broadway veterans were, to my mind, the real stars of this show. Every moment Audra McDonald was onscreen, she got my attention with her strong, authoritative but warm characterization and that glorious voice of hers, which was best highlighted in the soaring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.   She also seemed to help make Underwood’s performance stronger in all of their scenes together. Laura Benanti was the best Elsa Schraeder I’ve ever seen, bringing all the wit and sophistication, as well as much more sympathy  to the character than usual, and her scenes with Christian Borle as the enterprising Max Detweiler were particularly well done. Borle brought intelligence and charm to his performance, as well, and I was also impressed by the strong performances of Kristine Nielsen as the Von Trapps’ housekeeper Frau Schmidt and Sean Cullen as butler Franz. The children, led by the winning performances of Ariane Rinehart as Liesl, Sophia Caruso as Brigitta and Joe West as Kurt, were well-cast and engaging, performing their scenes with energy and a good sense of familial rapport, and in great voice on numbers like “The Lonely Goatherd” and “The Sound of Music”.

Some of the casting was more problematic, however. Michael Campayno as Rolf the delivery boy is nice-looking and had a good voice, but seemed too old for the much more youthful-looking Rinehart as Liesl, and “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” had some charm but ultimately lacked believability. Moyer as Captain Von Trapp was more of a one-note characterization, and his chemistry with Underwood seemed more friendly than romantic, but he did have a bit of a nice moment with “Edelweiss” late in the production.

In terms of the production as a whole, which was directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller, I thought it had the look of a daytime soap opera in terms of filming, but the sets by Derek McLane were stunning, from the forested hills to the grandeur of the Abbey and the opulence of the Von Trapp villa.  I also thought the changes between scenes were clever and well-executed, especially the transition from the Von Trapps’ mansion to the music festival towards the end of the show. There were some strange camera angles, though, and too many shots of the backs of people’s heads, and the costuming mostly ranged from good enough (for most of the performers) to unflattering (most of Underwood’s outfits in the second act). The sound was muddled, with an odd background humming during the dialogue scenes. The mixture of the pre-recorded orchestral tracks with the live vocals seemed disjointed, especially in the Abbey scenes with the nuns and at the end when McDonald’s reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was drowned out by the music. Some of the pacing also suffered because of the lack of a live audience, and I hope that if NBC ever does this again with another musical, they will include an audience. I think some of the audience feedback may have helped less-confident actors like Underwood find their energy, and it might have helped with the flow of the production as well.

Despite the production’s flaws, this is an amazing event in terms of exposure for musical theatre to the general public. The net was alive with the buzz surrounding this production last night, and I hope NBC capitalizes on that by producing more live broadcasts of musicals. Perhaps they could find a star performer with a little more confidence in the acting department and have even more success the second time around. Still, even with its limitations, I view The Sound of Music Live as a success, and I’m glad I was able to see it and engage in some great discussions with friends and acquaintances online.  I hope this leads to bigger and better developments for musical theatre on TV in the future.

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There has been a lot of hype and talk surrounding the upcoming live broadcast of The Sound of Music, which airs tomorrow night on NBC and stars country music superstar Carrie Underwood as Maria and Stephen Moyer (from HBO’s True Blood) as Captain Von Trapp. I’m looking forward to this production because I think live theatre on television is a great thing. It harks back to the days of other live musical events such as Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. If this broadcast is successful, I could imagine it leading to more live musical broadcasts in the future, and I hope so. I still keep seeing a lot of skepticism about this production online, though, either because of the casting of Underwood or because people seem to think of this as a remake of the film (which it is not), so I thought I would offer just a little bit of information about this production and what it is, and what it is not.

I know many viewers will be familiar with the movie and not the play, but to quote that great philosopher Yoda—“you must unlearn what you have learned”.   This is The Sound of Music, but in a way you may have never seen before. It’s the same basic story, and there will still be a whole lot of singing, dancing and yodeling, but this is the play, not the film. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind as you watch The Sound of Music Live:

1. “Where’s That Song?” The film adds two songs that Richard Rodgers wrote on his own specifically for that adaptation: “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” (Oscar Hammerstein II had died before the film was made). Several stage revivals have added these songs as well, but this production will apparently only be using “Something Good”, which was written to replace the original stage show’s beyond bland love duet, “An Ordinary Couple”, a song Rodgers himself apparently wasn’t happy with. Basically, what you will be seeing here, with one exception, are the songs from the 1959 original Broadway production in their original order and context.

2. “New Songs?” Not so New The original stage play contains two very witty numbers for Max and Elsa—“No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive” that are sorely missed (by me, anyway) in the film. I look forward especially to seeing these great songs being performed by celebrated Broadway stars Christian Borle and Laura Benanti, and bringing an air of sharp, sophisticated humor to the show that wasn’t as apparent in the film.

3. The Same, But Different Several of the songs in the show are in different places in the stage play than they are in the film, such as “My Favorite Things”, “The Lonely Goatherd” (there’s no puppet show), and “Do Re Mi” (same general idea, but it’s earlier in the play). Also, “Edelweiss” is in the play, but only in one of the scenes it appears in on film. The plot is the same as the film, but many of the individual scenes and plot developments are different. While I personally think the film script, for the most part, is superior to the stage script, the stage script when performed well is highly engaging and entertaining. It’s all slightly different, but it’s still The Sound of Music, and if this production lives up to its promise, it should be well worth watching.

4. Carrie Underwood as Maria? Why Not? I was dismayed to read that Underwood has received “hate tweets” because she dared take on a role that has been played in such an iconic fashion by Julie Andrews in the film. Underwood, however, has never claimed to be trying to usurp or imitate Andrews, and in fact, nobody “owns” a role. Andrews (who has had nothing but good things to say about Underwood) was not even the first Maria in The Sound of Music, nor was she the last. There have been many excellent and acclaimed stage Marias, starting with Mary Martin on Broadway in 1959 and including Petula Clark (1981 London Revival), Rebecca Luker (1998 Broadway Revival), Connie Fisher (2006 London Revival), and this production’s Elsa Schraeder, Laura Benanti, who (at age 19) replaced Luker in the ’98 revival. The role has been played by countless actresses of varying levels of notoriety in regional and touring productions, as well.

While Andrews’s name and voice will always be associated with the role for many people, and she was certainly wonderful in the film, this is a classic and much-played role, and Carrie Underwood is in excellent company. Whether she is able to convincingly act the part remains to be seen, but judging from the clips I’ve heard of the newly-released Cast Recording, she’s more than up for the task vocally. She has obviously worked hard to learn to adapt her voice from singing country-pop to singing musical theatre, and all that work has paid off. She sounds great, and I hope she’ll be able make a positive impression with her acting as well.

5. All-Star Cast (and they mean it!) Personally, I would be tuning into this production no matter who played Maria, simply because of the extremely talented supporting cast. Apart from Underwood, Moyer, and the children, this show is full of big-name Broadway veterans. Benanti, Borle and the glorious-voiced Audra McDonald (who plays the Mother Abbess) are all Tony winners, and even the nuns’ chorus is chock full of high-caliber Broadway performers, and even leading ladies like Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original Mary Poppins). There are more Broadway performers in this ensemble than I can easily highlight. This is a theatre geek’s dream, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but even non-Broadway fans should know the depth of talent in this production, and that so many of the cast members from the major supporting players to the ensemble are top-quality performers with years of stage experience.

To sum up my advice—if you don’t know anything but the film, please try to put your pre-conceived notions aside and see this production for what it is. Judge it on its own merits—and it seems to have a lot of them. This is promising to be a truly remarkable television event, and I hope it lives up to that promise.

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Eleemosynary at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Well, here it is–the last day of January 2013.  I’ve found myself thinking back at all the great theatre I saw in 2012 (London, Denver, the new-and-improved Muny, etc.), and I’m very grateful for all I got to see and do last year.  My only real regrets are that I didn’t see more shows at the various different theatre companies here in St. Louis, and that I didn’t manage to review every show I saw.  So with that in mind, here are my Theatre Wishes for 2013:

In 2013 I hope to:

1. Review every show I see–That is, regretfully, something I didn’t do in 2012.  Here are some brief thoughts about the three 2012 shows that, for various reasons, I didn’t get around to reviewing last year:

  • Chicago, the Muny (June 25th)—This was a full-scale production of the much-loved Broadway show with a fun set that brought the orchestra onstage and set the action in the atmosphere of a jazzy 1920’s nightclub. It was  a lively, colorful production with great performances by Patti Murin and Natascha Diaz as musical murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, as well as by Justin Guarini as slick lawyer Billy Flynn (with a smooth crooner’s voice and great dance moves) and Jackie Hoffman as tough prison matron Mama Morton.
  • Pirates! Or Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d, The Muny (July 30)—This show was imply a lot of fun! This production, which is basically The Pirates of Penzance with a Pirates of the Caribbean twist, had a lively cast led by Hunter Foster as the Pirate King, Jay Armstrong Johnston and Analisa Leaming as the noble and loopy lovebirds Frederic and Mabel, and probably the best ensemble chemistry I’ve ever seen at the Muny. It was a tale of pirates, curses, True Love, and more, and it was a sheer delight from start to finish.
  • Eleemosynary, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (November 17)—This was a show that I had never heard of prior to my seeing it at SATE.  Great performances and creative staging tells the story of the complicated relationships among an “eccentric by choice” grandmother (Margeau Baue Steinau), her more conventional daughter (Rachel Tibbetts) and her bright and determined spelling-bee champion granddaughter (Madeline Steineau).  It was a truly beautiful production with exquisite performances.  I’ve never seen a bad production at SATE, but this was one of their best.

 2. See more shows in 2013—In addition to the Muny, the Rep, Shakepeare Festival St. Louis and SATE, there are many other great local theatre companies that I haven’t patronized yet.  I hope to see more shows at more venues in the coming year, as well as taking in special events like Shake 38 and St. Lou Fringe, and reporting about all that I see. St. Louis might not have the bustling theatre scene of New York, London, or even Chicago, but it has a lot more to offer than many would imagine, and I hope to explore the St. Louis theatre scene more thoroughly in the next year.

 3. Write more topical entries–Reviews are fun, but I really see myself as a fan more than a critic. I review shows as a celebration of theatre, but I hope to explore more of my thoughts on various topics ranging from favorite composers and playwrights, favorite shows and performers, and issues that particularly interest me concerning theatre.   I also may occasionally write about movies and TV, although theatre will be my main focus because that’s what I’m most interested in.

 4. See and review at least one show in a city other than St. Louis—In the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to see shows in New York, London and Denver.  .  If I could, I would travel to many cities around the world seeing shows and writing about them, but this year my travel plans aren’t as extensive. I do hope, however, to get to a show on my family’s planned trip to our old stomping grounds, Washington, DC, later this year.

 5. Write more consistently—Because I don’t get to see as many shows as I’d like to, I’ve often gone for long periods of time between blog entries, and this year I aim to change that.  My minimum goal is to write at least two blog entries per month, although I hope it will end up being more than that.

So, one month into 2013, I’m approaching the year ahead with high hopes and happy memories.  I hope 2013 will be as eventful theatre-wise as 2012 was, and even more so!

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So, here I am with the last entry in my London series, and a show that I’ve been a fan of for over 25 years.  It was a fun experience of re-visiting an old favorite while also seeing this version for the first time.  I feel that way about London itself every time I visit there.  Having been there five times in the last six years, it has become a very familiar place to me but I always discover new things about it when I am there.  I hope I will be able to visit again before too long and see more of the city and more great shows in the wonderful West End.  So until then, thanks London–it’s been fun!  Here’s my review:

Les Miserables

Music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg

Lyrics by Alain Boublil (French) and Herbert Kretzmer (English)

Queen’s Theatre, London

October 25th and 29th, 2012

It seems like Les Miserables has been following me lately.  Not only did I go see this production in London, but at the very same time, the US tour was in St. Louis.  Also, the movie will be released in a few weeks, and the Muny recently announced that the show will be part of their 2013 summer season.  I’m not complaining—I love this show and I have since the 1980’s when Les Mis was brand new and I was in high school, listening to the London and Broadway cast albums on my friend’s Walkman on the school bus and singing along with the Broadway CD at home with my brother. Those days are a distant memory now, but my fondness for the show endures.  I was so glad to be able to see the London production because, as far as the English language production goes, that’s where it all started.  Even though the show is one of my all-time favorites and I’ve heard several cast recordings and seen both televised anniversary concerts as well as numerous YouTube clips, I didn’t get to see it onstage until the Muny’s production in 2007, which I saw twice and loved.   Still, seeing it in London was special for many reasons, not the least of which is the incredibly high caliber of the current cast, including two of my favorite performers and several highly talked-about performances.  It’s also Les Mis in London, with mostly the original staging, but it still seems fresh and vibrant even 27 years into its run.

As much as I’ve loved the musical, I never got around to reading the novel until this year, and I’m glad I did because it enhanced my appreciation of the show.  It was fun to watch the show and think of all the little elements from the novel that show up in the various performances, particularly from this cast.  It was also great to watch the show as originally staged and see how well the atmosphere is set–following Jean Valjean (Geronimo Rauch) on his journey from the chain gang to small town mayor to Paris in the midst of the student rebellions.  I think this show has been popular so long because of its enduring themes of loss and redemption, struggle and hope, faith and love, and this current production communicates those themes extremely well.

The cast is simply amazing.  This is a show that’s had so many people in the various roles over the years but the current casting more than lives up to the show’s illustrious reputation.  It’s a “dream cast” as far as I’m concerned, and I felt honored to be able to see them.  Geronimo Rauch, who had previously played the role in Spain, plays Jean Valjean with strength, energy and real compassion, and his voice is strikingly clear and strong. His moments with Fantine and Cosette are very convincing, and “Bring Him Home” is beautiful.  He is well-matched by Tam Mutu as the rigidly determined Inspector Javert.  I loved their performance of the “Confrontation” with all of the energy and depth.  Mutu brings a real depth and humanity to Javert that is evident in his solo numbers and interactions with his fellow cast members.  Sierra Boggess, who played Christine so remarkably in the 25th Anniversary performance of Phantom of the Opera, appears in this production as Fantine, and she brought out the character’s desperation and fragility in a way that I had never seen before.   Her death scene was hauntingly tragic, and she brought both power and gut-wrenching emotion to “I Dreamed a Dream”.  Boggess is more of a traditional soprano than most actresses who have played Fantine, but her voice worked well, highlighting the emotions of the character. Danielle Hope is an outstanding Eponine, bringing out the full emotional range of the character in a performance that is very true to the novel. Hope has a particular gift for allowing the audience to see the character’s thoughts very clearly, without uttering a word.  Her scenes with Marius and her reactions to his attentions to Cosette (Samantha Dorsey) are especially remarkable. “On My Own” is amazing and “A Little Fall of Rain” is heartbreaking.  Her Eponine is simultaneously tough and vulnerable, single-minded, intense and even a little crazy, which is marvelous.

Craig Mather is also a standout as a particularly compassionate Marius. His “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” is stunning, and he has excellent chemistry with his co-stars, especially Dorsey and Hope.  Adam Linstead is also excellent as the saintly Bishop and the student Grantaire, bringing strength and sympathy to both characters.  I also saw Linstead as Thenardier the second time I saw the show, and he was excellent in that role as well, highlighting the comic aspects of the character in contrast to principal Thenardier Cameron Blakely’s darker (and also excellent) portrayal.  I also got the chance to see two different actresses as Madame Thenardier–Nicky Swift (the understudy) on the first night I saw the show and Linzi Hateley (the principal) the second night.  Both were excellent, with Swift coming across as more earthy and Hateley as more over-the-top villainous.  There was also a top-notch ensemble that was in great voice both nights, doing justice to the wonderful score of this remarkable show.  I especially loved “One Day More”, the barricade sequences and the finale in terms of ensemble singing.

Seeing the original staging of this show was a delightful experience.  I loved the giant barricade set especially, and was tempted to applaud when it came together dramatically at the beginning of the second act.  I also liked the extensive use of the revolve and how everything was in constant motion as the story took us from setting to setting as the story unfolded.  It was also great to hear the spectacular music played so well by the show’s orchestra.  The time, place and mood of the show and its various settings were vividly realized, and even though I knew the show well, I felt transported to 19th Century France.  It’s great to see such a long-running show in such a a vibrant production, still being played as if it is brand new.

I could go on writing every little detail about this production, but I won’t because this entry would be far too long.  I love this show so much that anything I write seems inadequate, and it was a joy to get to see it in London with this wonderful cast.  It more than lives up to 27 years of hype, and it deserves to run for many more years. The tagline for this show is “Dream the Dream”, and after all these years, the dream is still going strong.

 

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This time last month, I was in London.  I still wish I could have stayed longer, and that I can go more often.  London is such a vibrant city full of history,character and great theatre, and I was so glad to have been able to see so many shows on my latest trip.   In this entry, I was planning on reviewing two shows–one of the most exciting new shows I’ve ever seen as well as the one classic show that is probably my all-time favorite, but the sheer length of both reviews has made me decide to make this two entries instead of one.  I wanted to do justice to both of these wonderful productions. I felt so privileged to be able to see both, as well as all the shows I saw and the magnificent city itself.   I hope I will be able to get back there before too long, because there is always so much happening and because it’s London and I will never get tired of visiting there.  Here is my review of a very exciting and extremely popular new show:

Matilda the Musical

Book by Dennis Kelly, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin

Choreographed by Peter Darling

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Cambridge Theatre, London

October 28, 2012

I almost didn’t get to see this show.  Matilda is the hottest ticket in London right now, and as I was preparing for my trip, I had tried to buy tickets in advance.  They were sold out on every website I tried.  Every day I looked at was sold out, but I had a friend who told me about the returns line, so I tried for that when I got to London.  I tried the Wednesday matinee, but there were no returns when I got there and I decided to get a ticket to Singin’ In the Rain instead.  I was very glad I saw that show, but I still wanted to see Matilda, and since I had a free day on the Sunday, I decided to try in earnest and wait in the line up until showtime if I had to, so I showed up an hour in advance expecting to wait.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to, because after about three minutes a woman walked up to me with two spare tickets and offered to sell me one.  I never found out her name, but I’m very grateful to her because, thanks to her, I was able to see one of the most exciting and creative musicals I have ever seen.

Matilda is based on the classic book by Roald Dahl, which I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read.  I haven’t even seen the movie.  All I knew is that it was a Dahl book and it was about a girl with special abilities and a mean teacher.  I was going into this show almost blind, and I’m actually glad because the whole unfolding sense of wonder as the story progressed was a major highlight of the experience of seeing it for me.

In the opening “Miracle” sequence highlighting some parents’ overindulgence of their children, we are introduced to Matilda Wormwood (Hayley Canham), an extraordinarily gifted young girl who is ignored and underappreciated by her materialistic and self-centered parents (Annette McLaughlin and Mark Goldthorp).  She learns to read at a very young age and is only encouraged in this by the local Librarian Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie), who likes to listen to Matilda’s stories.  Soon Matilda is sent to a school run by the overbearing and over-the-top evil Miss Trunchbull (David Leonard), where she makes friends with the other children and meets another encouraging adult, her teacher Miss Honey (Haley Flaherty), who has a dramatic childhood story of her own that mysteriously links her to Matilda.

This show has some of the most creative staging I’ve ever seen, and numbers like “School Song” with the different sized alphabet blocks being pushed through a grid to the rhythm of the song by cast members while other cast members climbed on them, and “When I Grow Up” with the kids on swings, were visually stunning.  I also thought the “Bruce” sequence, in which a boy is forced to undergo an unorthodox punishment by the evil Miss Trunchbull, was very well staged, as were the story sequences that Matilda narrates with the Escapologist and the Acrobat.

The set is colorful and whimsical, with the different sized alphabet blocks a prominent feature, and fun little touches like school desks that rise out of the floor, and towering shelves of books in the library.  Everything sets the mood perfectly, and childhood with all its adventure, joy, and mischief is represented as well as the very real sense of horror and menace personified by Miss Trunchbull.  There is also real spectacle with some clever special effects, but the real “special effect” is the overall atmosphere of the show, which runs the full gamut of feelings from fear to wonder and from loneliness to love.

The casting is universally excellent, and the child performers are simply amazing.  There is a rotating cast of child performers and I’m sure they are all wonderful.  The standouts for me were the remarkably talented Hayley Canham as Matilda, Elliot Reed as Bruce and Ella Yard as Matilda’s self-proclaimed best friend, Lavender. Canham especially is a wonder, bringing an earnestness and entirely unsentimental sympathy to the role. Her pain at being rejected by her parents is apparent, as is her hope for something better and her joy in reading and telling stories.  She also has a strong singing voice and performs her solo songs “Naughty” and “Quiet” extremely well.  The whole cast of children is extremely impressive as well.

As for the adult performers, the casting is also very strong and very energetic, with the standouts being La Barrie as the sympathetic Miss Phelps, Flaherty as the concientious, compassionate and self-doubting Miss Honey, and Goldthorp (the understudy) as Matilda’s television-obsessed father. Leonard as Miss Trunchbull was also outstanding, bringing a villainous energy and real sense of menace to the role.  It’s obvious why the children, and the adults, are terrified of this domineering, self-centered and sadistic character.

I loved how the writers of this show, from Dahl to the adapters, don’t condescend to children and seem to genuinely remember what it’s like to be a child in all its wonder and magic, as well as some genuine terror.  The joys, dreams and fears of children are aptly displayed here, and of the grown-ups (most notably Miss Honey and Mrs. Phelps) who still remember, as well as the self-absorption and over-the-top ridiculousness of the adults who don’t remember (Trunchbull, the Wormwoods), even though there is a small humanizing moment for Mr. Wormwood later in the the show.  The songs by Tim Minchin are wonderfully written, perfectly expressing the sentiments and situations.  All of the songs are excellent, but my favorites were “When I Grow Up”, the “School Song” and Matilda’s solos.  The “Telly” song by Mr. Wormwood and his son Michael (Nick Searle) at the beginning of the second act was a fun comic highlight as well.

I don’t know how to accurately describe how much I loved this show, and how privileged I felt to be able to witness this remarkable feat of new theatrical writing.  I hope this show is a symbol of the future of musical theatre, and that more shows with this degree of wit, charm and creativity will make their way to the West End and Broadway in the near future.  It’s basically an ideal show, and I am so glad that its sold-out status did not prevent me from seeing it.  I will remember this for years to come as one of the real highlights of this trip to London.  This show is due to open on Broadway early next year, and I hope it does as well.  It’s so distinctly British that I do worry a little bit that it might not be the wild success it has been in London, but I hope it is successful anyway.  It deserves to be a smash hit on both sides of the pond.

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Here in the second part of my London series, I’m reviewing the two plays I saw in one day.  It was only the second time I had seen two shows in the same day, as well as the first time I ever stood in line for “Day Seats” for a show.  That was a fairly painless experience except it wasn’t exactly warm that day, and my friend and I had to wait for about an hour before the doors opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre, but we were first in line and able to get our front row seats for 10 pounds each.  The bargain was worth the wait.  It was a mixture of serious drama and crazy comedy that day, featuring three performers I was most familiar with through the UK TV show Gavin and Stacey, with one (Sheridan Smith) acting against type and the other two (Adrian Scarborough and Rob Brydon) playing more expected roles but doing them extremely well.  Here are my reviews:

Hedda Gabler

By Henrik Ibsen

In a version by Brian Friel

Directed by Anna Mackmin

Old Vic Theatre, London

October 27, 2012

I am almost ashamed to admit I had never seen or read this play before I saw it in London, despite its being an extremely well-known classic of the theatre by the famed 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and my having heard much about it.  I had read some Ibsen  in drama class in high school, but for some reason never got around to this one.  The main draw for me to see this play was the much talked-about performance in the title role by Sheridan Smith, a television and stage actress much more well-known for comic roles than for serious drama.

This is a new translation with some embellishments by Irish playwright Brian Friel, and I’ve seen reviews that criticize some of Friel’s dialogue choices, but since this is the only version of the play I have seen, I can only review what I saw, and I thought it was excellent.  All aspects of the production, from the inventive set which allowed action to occur and be seen in several rooms behind the main performance area, to the minimalistic but highly effective use of music, to the meticulously detailed costumes and universally superb performances, made this a production worth seeing and remembering for a long time.

This is the story of Hedda Gabler, the strong-willed and self-centered daughter of a general who has married, against general expectation, an earnest and dedicated but seemingly unromantic professor, George Tesman (Adrian Scarborough), and is trying to start a new life with her husband amid shadows of her past and the appearance of her old paramour and current academic rival of George’s, Eilert Loevborg (Daniel Lapaine) as well as a former school acquaintance, the seemingly meek but determined Thea Elvsted (Fenella Woolgar).  What starts out as a seemingly simple character study soon develops into an increasingly suspenseful drama that takes an ultimately tragic turn in several different ways.

Hedda is a much celebrated role noted for its complexity and challenge, and it has been played by many a great actress in the past. Here, the role is taken by Smith, perhaps not the obvious choice in a lot of people’s minds, but the casting works surprisingly well. The great thing about Smith’s performance is that she really goes for it, disappearing completely into the role and bringing so many dimensions to this character that, even though she does some downright awful things, she still holds the audience’s attention and even sympathy.  It would be easy with a character like this and some of her actions to just write her off as a vindictive bitch, and she is that but she’s more as well.  Ibsen wrote the character with some sympathy inherent in her situation, but it takes a great actress to convincingly portray all aspects of the character, from her unbelievable cruelty on the one side, to her very obvious sense of regret and helplessness on the other.  There is also a real sense of affection(although not passion) between Hedda and George at the beginning of the play that makes the events of later on seem all the more tragic.

This is a solid cast all around, but the two real standouts aside from Smith are Scarborough as George and Woolgar as Thea, Hedda’s childhood adversary turned adult rival for the soul of tortured alcoholic writer Loevborg.  The common thread to both of these performances is their sense of moral fortitude and inherent strength despite their initial appearance of fastidiousness (George) or nervousness (Thea).  Both of these characters seem to represent different foils to Hedda, as well as representations of hope should Hedda choose to allow them to be that.  Hedda herself is so locked in the past—the power she used to feel over those around her and her destructive hold on Loevborg—that she is in a way trapped, especially toward the end when the initially jovial and buffoonish Judge Brack (Darrell D’Silva) reveals a much more sinister side.  The ultimate conclusion is telegraphed in the structure of the play, expertly crafted by Ibsen and brilliantly performed by all the players with devastating impact.

This was quite an intense play, and the technical aspects-music and lighting–helped set the mood.  I really need to read more Ibsen. I was impressed not just with the production of this play, but with the structure of it, and I think I will be checking out more of his plays.  This production was a great re-introduction to Ibsen’s work for me, and a very impressive effort from all involved.

A Chorus of Disapproval

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Harold Pinter Theatre, London

October 27th, 2012

This play was a great contrast to Hedda Gabler and, even though it is a revival, it features a lead performance seemingly tailor-made for actor Rob Brydon.  The role of amateur operatic society directory Dafydd ap Llywellyn suits Brydon so well it may as well have been written for him.  Dafydd (don’t call him “David”) is a proud Welshman who has his hand in all aspects of the production even as it all spins out of control.  Brydon brings a lot of energy and affability to the role, as well as a strong singing voice, and his rendition of “All Through the Night” in Welsh is a treat.  Brydon brings a lot of sympathy to this befuddled and at times exasperating character, and the rest of the cast supports him well, but this is really Brydon’s show.  He is full of physical and emotional energy as he runs around the stage and into the audience, and at turns sings, shouts, lectures, and bemoans his situation at various times throughout the play.

Simply told, this is the story of a small town amateur operatic society in the midst of rehearsing a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and all the messy relationship situations that happen along the way. The catalyst of it all is Guy Jones (Nigel Harman), fittingly named because he basically is just a guy in the middle of everything.  He’s an amiable enough character, but as written there isn’t much for him to do but smile and let all the events unfold around him as he joins the society and finds himself embroiled in intrigue both within the production and outside.  We aren’t told much about him except that he can sing, he’s from Leeds, and he works for a local company that is rumored to be involved in a real estate deal that effects some of the other members of the society.  For whatever reason, Guy just seems to attract trouble, as well as the attentions of Dafydd’s neglected wife Hannah (Ashley Jensen) and another society member, the frisky swinger Fay (Daisy Beaumont), whose husband (Paul Thornley) is hoping to benefit from the real estate deal.  As Guy moves from one role to another in the production, the self-absorbed and clueless Dafydd hovers and fruitlessly tries to keep every situation under his control.

In addition to the wonderful Brydon, there are some excellent performances here.  Nigel Harman brings a warmth and affability to the role of Guy that makes his situations believable and relatable, and Jensen plays the bored housewife very well and has good chemistry with both Brydon and Harman.  There are some great scenes with these three, especially one of a tech rehearsal in which Guy and Hannah are attempting to talk about their issues while Dafydd argues with the lighting technician.  There is an excellent supporting cast of distinctive characters as well to round out the production, and the costumes and sets also contribute  well to provide a very strong sense of time and place (a small English town in the mid-1980s).

This isn’t the deepest of plays, and a whole lot of problems pile up only to be left mostly unresolved by the end, but by and large this is a highly entertaining production led by a tour-de-force performance by Brydon.  It was fun sitting in the front row and getting a great view of all of his antics.  If it can ever really be said that an actor was born to play a role, then surely Brydon was born to play this one.  It suits him so perfectly, and it was a joy to watch him and this whole hilarious production.

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I love London! As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best theatre city on earth.  I’ve written that before, but having been to New York relatively recently, on my most recent trip to London (late last month) I was able to more directly compare. London is still the winner in my eyes.  New York has a lot going for it and I would love the chance to go there again, but London is where my heart is.  It’s a big city with a lot of English charm and international appeal as well as great beer and the best curry I’ve ever tasted, and shows as good as any you can see on Broadway. Also, the theatre scene seems more accessible than Broadway–it doesn’t seem as heavily commercialized and it’s definitely a more leisurely experience.  There’s no lining up outside the theatre and then being herded in and out like what happens at Broadway shows.  You can show up relatively early, get a drink in the bar and chat with your friends with less of a rush, and then get settled into your seat for a great show.

I want to further explore the “London vs. Broadway” topic in a future blog, but now it’s time to focus on London.  The shows, of course, are world-class, and I was fortunately able to see six of them when I was there.  This time, instead of reviewing them all in one blog entry, I’m going to publish my report in three parts with two shows in each installment.  Here are the first two:

Singin’ In the Rain

Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Choreographed by Andrew Wright

Directed by Jonathan Church

Palace Theatre, London

October 24, 2012

I made a last-minute decision to see this show when I couldn’t get return tickets for Matilda (although I did manage to later–more on that in Part 3).  The front of the theatre (above) was so eye-catching that I thought, why not?  I had also heard good things about this production, so I bought a matinee ticket and hoped this would be better than the last time I saw this show on stage (the Muny two years ago, which I liked but didn’t love).  I was very curious to see if the classic Gene Kelly musical could be staged without looking like a museum piece, and I was very happy to see that it could.  This production is fresh, energetic and full of life and undeniable charm.  It was a fitting tribute to the film without being a direct copy or pale imitation.

This production takes us back to the Hollywood of the late 1920s, as the industry is shifting from silent films to talkies, and the movie stars have varying degrees of success making the transition.  The atmosphere is set well from the beginning, as the lights come up on a studio back lot and we see the various performers, directors and crew preparing for filming, and then later as we witness the premiere of the latest hit motion picture featuring the popular romantic duo of Don Lockwood (Adam Cooper) and Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley).  We soon learn, however, that this seemingly blissful pair is anything but, and the story unfolds as Lockwood meets aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Scarlett Strallen) and encounters the difficulties of nurturing a new relationship in the midst of the Hollywood limelight and a clingy, controlling would-be fiancee with plans of her own.

The cast is great all around.  The three main leads are perfectly cast. Adam Cooper as movie star Lockwood has the look of a classic matinee idol–tall, broad-shouldered and handsome–with the charm and dancing ability to match. He’s very well-paired with Scarlett Strallen who makes a convincing and slightly quirky Kathy Selden.  Her singing and dancing are both wonderful as well, and the chemistry between her and Cooper is electric.  The central trio is nicely balanced out by Daniel Crossley as Lockwood’s longtime friend, the witty writer-composer Cosmo Brown.  His portrayal is both funny and charming, and his acrobatic dancing is a real delight.  Katherine Kingsley also makes a fun comic turn as Lina Lamont, Lockwood’s frequent co-star who possesses a voice and attitude that makes the transition to talking films problematic to say the least.  She invests a vindictive energy to the role and proves an effective foil to Lockwood and Selden.  I was also surprised to see Robert Powell (who I remember as Jesus in Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazereth miniseries) in a fun, solid performance as producer R.F. Simpson.  The well-cast ensemble rounds out the cast with a great deal of energy and remarkable dancing ability.

This is simply a fun show.  I love all the old-school Hollywood references and the dancing is strong and energetic.  All the classic songs from the film are here and delightfully performed–from “Make ‘Em Laugh” to “Good Morning” to the famous title song complete with sprinklers overhead to provide the rain, which puddles up on stage as Cooper dances, playfully kicking water into the first few rows of seats to the delighted and shocked gasps of the audience.

The entire production is a joy from start to finish, from the action on stage during the overture to the singing, dancing and raining curtain call (with more water kicked into the audience).  I’m so glad I decided to see this show.  It made for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a fun, thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience.

Loserville

Book, Music and Lyrics by Elliot Davis and James Bourne

Choreographed by Nick Winston

Directed by Steven Dexter

Garrick Theatre, London

October 26, 2012

I was very pleased to get a chance to see this brand new original musical at the Garrick Theatre. Loserville is the brainchild of James Bourne, formerly of British bands Busted and Son of Dork, and veteran musical writer Elliot Davis. As an American, I was unfamiliar with Bourne’s musical career, but the British friends I was with told me that some of the music sounded a lot like Busted. For me, this was all new material, although I recognized the bright, crunchy sounds of the pop-punk genre. That might sound like a strange style of music for a show set in 1971, but it works. This isn’t a show that’s trying for meticulous period accuracy—in fact, the costumes and setting often look more 1981 than 1971, and there are a lot of elements that seem more from the 2000’s as well, but that really doesn’t matter because the bottom line is that this show is simply a whole lot of fun.

It’s a fairly simple American high school story with elements that have appeared in many a show and film–geeks vs. jocks, appearance vs. intelligence and young people exploring their purpose in life and pursuing their dreams.  The central figure here is the aptly-named Michael Dork (Aaron Sidwell), a self-described “geek in a garage” whose dream is to discover the secret of communication between computers and send the world’s first e-mail message.  His gang of fellow-geeks have their own dreams as well.  Marvin (Daniel Buckley) and Francis (Li’l Chris), sci-fi enthusiasts who have memorized the scripts of every episode of Star Trek, aim to build a winning starship for a contest at an upcoming science fiction convention. Meanwhile, Michael’s best friend Lucas (Richard Lowe) has dreams to write his own sci-fi epic that sounds suspiciously like Star Wars.  Both Michael and Lucas are attracted to Holly (Eliza Hope Bennett), a brainy new girl with secrets of her own, and all of the geeks are terrorized by big man on campus Eddie (Stewart Clarke), a rich kid and jock who seeks to steal Michael’s ideas.  There is also Eddie’s girlfriend Leia (Charlotte Harwood), who just wants the status quo to stay as it is, and an ensemble of jocks, nerds and popular girls to round out the young, energetic cast.

The players here are very well-cast, led by Sidwell as the endearingly earnest Michael and Bennett as the smart and determined Holly.  These two work very well together and have convincing chemistry.  Also, Clarke is an effective and occasionally sympathetic villain as Eddie, and Lowe is particularly strong and funny as Lucas. The plot about his book provides some of the show’s funniest jokes, and the science fiction convention plot is a lot of fun as well, providing some great moments for Buckley and Li’l Chris as Marvin and Francis. It’s difficult to single out too many actors, though, because it’s a very strong cast all around, and the American high school atmosphere is convincingly portrayed by all. The American accents are excellent as well, for the most part.

The look and sound of this show is bright, whimsical and fun. The set is very inventive.  It’s a lot of metal and plastic framework and lots of cartoony elements, such as brightly colored backdrops held up by cast members in several scenes.   There are also placards with the names of cast members that get held up for the “opening credits” at the beginning and the “end credits” at the curtain call, providing the look and feel of a classic sitcom.  The music is upbeat and fun, with stand-out songs like “We Are Not Alone”, “Ticket Out of Loserville”, “Holly, I’m the One” and “Living In the Future Now”.

It’s very fitting that the logo for this show includes a letter “v” that looks like a heart, because the driving force of this show is its heart.  There is so much enthusiasm here by a talented young cast that really believes in this show. The belief and enthusiasm are contagious, and even though the book isn’t perfect, that really doesn’t matter in the end in a show like this. These are likeable characters with a cause that’s easy to believe in.  The overall message seems to be that the world can be changed through hard work, determination and lots and lots of heart.  It’s fun to think of these high school students pursuing their dreams and realizing that they are played by a talented cast made up largely of recent drama school graduates, all of whom have very promising futures ahead of them.  I expect to hear a lot more from many of these performers in the future.  There was also a lot of enthusiasm from the audience the night I was there.  This is a real crowd-pleaser of a show, with a young cast and aimed at a young audience.  I don’t think I’m in its target demographic, but I enjoyed it very much anyway.

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