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Posts Tagged ‘london theatre’

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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Well, the Dress Circle Benefit concert is tomorrow night, and I really wish I could attend, but true to the story of my life as an American fan of British theatre, I’m stuck on the wrong side of the ocean.  Still, I wanted to address the “charity vs. business” issue again quickly because I’m still seeing a lot of those arguments online.  This will be short, because I’ve said most of what I wanted to say on this issue already, but here goes:

A lot of people seem to be questioning why all the artists involved in this benefit are putting so much time and effort into helping out a business when they could be putting that same time into helping various charitable causes.  I already mentioned in “Save Dress Circle 2” that many of these artists already do a lot to support charities and it’s not a case of “either/or”, but I thought of an analogy that I think might explain why a lot of these artists are doing this, and why I and many other theatre fans are supporting this cause.  The bottom line for me is that it’s not about helping a business vs. helping a charity.  It’s about helping a friend.  If someone has a good friend who owns a business that is struggling, would they just say “tough luck.  That’s the way things go these days, with this economy, and you should have worked harder to save it yourself. “ I don’t think most people would do that.  They would help their friend in whatever ways they could—they would patronize their business and tell other friends about it.  They might even donate their time and/or money to help their friend find ways to keep their business afloat.  If that friend has been there for them in hard times as well as in good times, they would want to return the favor.  This, I think, is what is happening with Dress Circle.  I can’t read minds, but what I see from the words and actions of the performers, fans and others involved is that they don’t see Dress Circle as just some shop.  They see it as a friend, and they want to do whatever they can to help their friend.

What has Dress Circle done, you may ask, to have all these people want to help them like this, as if they are an old friend?  Dress Circle has supported them when they needed support, in terms of selling and promoting performers’ solo CD’s when the big chain stores wouldn’t.  They’ve also been there to hold signings to help promote West End shows as well as the individual performers.  Also, they are there as a place to go for theatre fans and creatives to meet and promote whatever is going on in the industry, from small fringe venues to the West End and everything in between.  They see Dress Circle as a place with people who understand them and will work to promote them and the industry that they love.  It’s not just about someplace to buy CDs or books.  That is an important aspect of it, but there is a lot more to it than that.  These people—artists, creatives, fans and whoever else—seem to feel that this particular shop is more than just a shop.  Dress Circle has been there for them when they needed support in their careers, and they want to return the favor.  They love Dress Circle, and see it as a friend, and they would like to see their friend stick around.

That, to my mind, is why this effort is going on.  It is not about making a business into a charity or taking away funds and/or time that can be devoted to charities.  It is about real, genuine affection for an institution that has come to be seen as a dear old friend, and these people want to help their friend.  I see nothing wrong with that, and indeed I share the sentiment.  I have been to Dress Circle, the actual shop, only twice, but I’ve long been a member of their online message board, and I have seen all the efforts they have made to support and promote theatre and individual artists. I feel like this organization has been a real friend to the theatre industry and it would be a shame to see them go under, so I support this cause.  I really wish I could attend the concert, but there has been talk of a CD of the event and if there is one, I will gladly buy it.  I send my best wishes to all who are involved in this benefit and to Dress Circle itself.  This shop has been a true friend to the theatre community, especially in London but also around the world, and I hope it stays around for a very long time.

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Since I wrote my last “Save Dress Circle” piece, there have been some new developments in the situation, so I thought I’d address those here.  I’ve seen a lot more debate online on various theatre message boards, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., mostly centering on the fact that there is now a benefit concert in the works, featuring quite a few big-name West End performers, to help raise money for the shop.  I thought this was a great idea, and I really wish I lived in London so I could go.  I never realized, though, that this was going to turn into such a contentious issue.  Most of the debate seems to center on the issue of “charity vs. business”—basically, that Dress Circle is a for-profit business, and all the various fundraising efforts are making it seem like a charity.  Some even go so far as to say that such fundraising efforts are wasted and that whatever time and money are put into this effort should be spent on actual charities.

I don’t know if this is a cultural thing, being American, but I see no problems with holding a benefit of this kind to help out a struggling business.  I have heard of similar cases in this country.  In the specific case of Dress Circle, it is not claiming to be a charity, and as far as I know the shop’s owner did not plan this benefit himself.  The point is that this store is more than just a store, and people can argue with that all they want, but the fact is that there is no other place like this shop, and they do a lot more than just sell CDs, books and other theatre-related items. Their efforts to support the theatre community and promote artists and productions via signings and other events cannot easily be done online.  I really wish we had a shop like this in St. Louis. It is well-loved in the theatre community in London, and these performers and the others involved don’t want to see it close.  They are not making these efforts at the expense of charitable organizations, though.  In fact, many of the performers reported to be involved in the benefit have been involved in many fundraising efforts for charities as well.  This is not a case of either/or.  It’s just one more cause that they are supporting because they care about it, even though in this case the cause is a for-profit business rather than a non-profit charity.

Another case that is being made is that the fundraising efforts will not really save the store, and in one sense I do see that point.  I know very little about running a business, but I do know that it takes more than a lump-sum of money to keep a business afloat for the long haul.  I’m sure that there are a lot of factors contributing to the shop’s current financial struggles and I think a lot of those are not the owner’s fault.  The store is located in a very high-rent district of London, and many people now buy their music online to get the best prices.  These factors will not go away, and no matter how much money the benefit raises, those funds won’t last forever.  The shop’s business plan does need to be revisited and modified if the shop is going to survive for years to come, and Murray Allan, the shop’s owner, has indicated on the Dress Circle website’s message board that he is in the process of doing just that.  Also, a long-term investor will most likely be needed to keep the shop going, as Allan has also admitted and is actively seeking.  In fact, Allan has recently spoken on the subject in a short interview that is up on YouTube. See what he has to say here:

Still, despite the business issues that need to be dealt with, I think a benefit concert and other fundraising efforts are worthwhile for several reasons.  First, the current efforts have served to raise awareness of the shop’s situation, and apparently business has picked up as a result.  The efforts will also help to advertise the need for and attract the attention of potential long-term investors.  Also, the funds raised will help to meet the shop’s immediate financial needs and give the owners more time to address the long-term issues.  The benefit is not a magic cure, but it is a start, and if I lived in London I would attend.  I hope they make a DVD of the concert and sell it to help raise further funds. If they do, I will buy it and encourage others to do so.

The bottom line is, I think Dress Circle is a valuable asset to the London theatre community, and many performers and other theatre professionals, as well as fans, agree with me and are involved in the efforts to save it.  Some people either don’t like the store or disagree with the idea of raising money to help a business.  These people don’t have to support the efforts, but those of us who do support them will not change our minds.  I wish the benefit every success and hope the shop remains open for many years to come.

Addendum–To keep up to date with the fundraising efforts and other issues regarding the shop, you can follow @dcbenefit on Twitter and/or join the Facebook page I linked to in my last post on this subject.  Dress Circle also has an official Facebook page here and they also have a Twitter @DressCircleShop.  The main Dress Circle website (from which you can order their merchandise online) is linked in the Blogroll on the right side of this page.

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Steph Fearon signs CDs at Dress Circle

This post is more of a vent than anything else.  I saw the news on Twitter this morning about one of my favorite shops in London being in trouble, and so even though I don’t think my blog gets enough readers for this to make much of a difference, I had to write something about it.  In  a nutshell, Dress Circle is a wonderful theatre shop that may have to close if they don’t find some investors within the next few weeks. Here’s the story from The Stage, a London theatre newspaper and website:

http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/newsstory.php/32129/exclusive-west-end-showbiz-shop-fights-to

Dress Circle is a musical theatre book/music shop in the heart of London’s theatre district, the West End.  It is a very small two-level space with a cozy atmosphere, and practically every square inch of wall space that is not occupied by merchandise shelves is covered with theatre posters and paraphernalia.  You don’t even have to talk to anyone to feel the theatre-aficionado vibe that oozes out of every nook and cranny of this place.  It is so much fun to browse the many shelves of popular and hard-to-find cast albums and performers’ CDs, as well as engaging in conversation with the highly knowledgeable staff and customers (well, mostly overhearing it on my part as I browsed the shelves).  I went there twice on my recent trip to London and I still count it as among the highlights of my time there.  I’m sure that if I lived there, I would be a regular customer, and although I have no clue when I will ever get back to London, the idea of this shop’s not being there when I do return is very sad.

I’ve read a few comments on some theatre message boards that have bothered me a little, because they seem to miss the point.  Basically, some people are saying that this shop was bound to close because of how the times have changed and the fact that more people are buying their CDs and books online at cheaper prices.  Some still seem sad that the shop may close, but others are more callous.  The thing is, a lot of these people don’t seem to get the idea that this place is much more than just a store to buy stuff.  It’s a gathering place for theatre people—fans, performers, composers, writers, and anyone else involved in the world of musical theatre in London.  It’s fun to hear and participate in the conversations that go on in the shop about various shows and theatre happenings in the city.  The shop also often hosts CD signings and special performances, and it’s a great resource for finding out what’s going on in the London theatre scene, with its many posters, flyers and magazines.

When I was there in March, I had the pleasure of attending a CD signing event for Stephanie (“Steph”) Fearon, who was a semi-finalist on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent  BBC talent show Over the Rainbow.  There was such a fun buzz in the shop as the small area was packed to the rafters with fans, as well as some of Steph’s friends and family.  We were treated to a short performance as well, and as all the people lined up outside the store and headed down the stairs for the signing, various conversations about musical theatre were going on around me and there was such a general air of excitement.  The shop has hosted many such signings over the years, featuring both well-known established performers and young up-and-coming talents.  It would be wonderful if these events would be able to continue.

Earlier in the week, I had visited the shop with a friend and had a much quieter but still extremely enjoyable experience as I was able to take time browsing the shelves and taking in the atmosphere of the place.  I ended up buying four CDs and picking up some show flyers and theatre magazines, and I had a much more fun time than I would have had if I had just ordered the CDs online.  There’s just something about a small, independent shop like this that so supports the thriving theatre industry in London that is such a joy to be a part of.  It’s a small, unassuming place, but it is a real treasure.

If anyone who reads this would like to help get the word out, you can follow @DressCircleShop on Twitter, as well as joining the “Save Dress Circle” page on Facebook and sharing these links with your friends.  Also, if you’re in London, go there!  Browse for a while and buy something.  Dress Circle is a London institution and a truly unique place.  I encourage theatre fans everywhere (whether in London or not) to help spread the word so that maybe they will find the financial support they need that will allow them to stay open and continue providing such great merchandise and delightful atmosphere to theatre fans from around the world. I love this shop, and I hope it will remain open for many, many years to come.

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