Sunday, 6 August 2017

"Bat Out Of Hell", London Coliseum, 18/7/17

After a successful run of 'previews' in Manchester (reviewed here and here), Bat Out Of Hell has hit London's West End for a limited run at the home of the English National Opera, the London Coliseum. Somewhat appropriate given the monumental nature of Jim Steinman's epic masterwork.


Developed over several decades by Steinman from his musical The Dream Engine through the musical Neverland and beyond, the plot is essentially a rock and roll reworking of the Peter Pan story utilising many of Steinman's songs many of which were written with the Neverland project in mind. Indeed, Steinman composed so much material over the years that a number of songs don't feature in the musical at all given that several songs may cover the same scene or content and that there is limited time to squeeze them all in. One of the most obvious losses, and an odd one given the song's obvious subject matter, is that "Lost Boys And Golden Girls" fails to make an appearance. I can certainly think of a place for the number within the show as is, though there are still a massive number of songs peppered throughout the musical and every song from the first "Bat Out Of Hell" album makes an appearance in one form or another. 
One of the clever aspects of the production is that there are numerous nods to Steinman and the earlier incarnations of the show; from the various lyrics sprawled across the walls to posters and signs to the very shirt that Strat (the Peter Pan of the story) wears - a picture of Jim Steinman himself from The Dream Engine in the role of Baal, the earliest incarnation of Strat.


It is the year 2100 and the island city of Obsidian (once known as Manhattan) is ruled by the tyrant Falco who is opposed by a group of mutants destined to never age beyond 18 called "The Lost". This group resides under the city, in The Deep End, and are led by Strat who has caught the eye of Falco's daughter, Raven. Repercussions follow when Strat elects to kidnap Raven from her isolation; repercussions from both Falco and from Strat's best friend, Tink, whose jealousy is multi-faceted given his own mutation came before puberty took hold. Falco also faces unrest from his unhappy wife, Sloane, as they both ache for the youth which is perpetual for "The Lost".


Steinman's book is relatively simple but there are interesting twists on various aspects of the Peter Pan story whilst the songs blend into the plot seamlessly (or intentionally not), which is no surprise given most were written for one incarnation of Neverland or another. The songs serve to reinforce emotional points and also to drive the plot onward. True, there are a few plot point which could be expanded upon but, given the nature of Steinman's overblown (in the best possible sense) creation, this is not essential; Steinman is retelling a fairy-tale through the medium of rock and roll and it works because of the faerie-tale nature of rock and roll itself. Furthering the powerful nature of the musical score is some beautiful and evocative underscoring which is haunting in itself.
The design of Jon Bausor is also perfectly attuned to Steinman's imagination, from the monumental set which includes dynamic filmic elements to Patrick Woodroffe's lighting design which perfectly walks the line between stadium and theatrical lighting. The projected film elements of Finn Ross also seamlessly tie in with the design and add to expansive nature of the show. The costumes have undergone great changes since the Manchester run (thankfully) and they now feel much more appropriate to the world of Obsidian.
It is easy to say that Bat Out Of Hell has easily become one of those productions where everything works in harmony to benefit the production, and this includes the intelligent direction of Jay Scheib whose experience in directing opera serves him exceedingly well here where he crafts arresting images and events within the excitingly outrageous environment. Even the choreography of Emma Portner, which has received some harsh criticism, feels at home within the onstage world; it may be unconventional for musical theatre (but then there is a lot here that is unconventional) but it is cleverly used to convey the various unwritten stories of the (supporting) characters qualifying the often minimal dialogue and further adding to the depth and complexity of Steinman's universe.


The cast are uniformly excellent and perform with a gusto rarely seen, but with a theatrical sense that conveys the dramatic necessities of the various roles. Even the diction of the cast is crisp, with not a word mumbled or dropped. Each role is named and every cast member is distinctive, though there are primarily three couples whose adventures we follow: Jagwire (Dom Hartley-Harris) adores Zahara (Danielle Steers) but his love is unrequited, despite all the action the two evidently get up to. Both performers bring innate qualities to the parts with Jagwire both a strong and gentle persona whilst Steers' vocals are some of the most distinctive heard for many a year and her sass and inherent sexuality is marked well with every single step she takes. Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton) each exhibit the tired energy of middle-aged parents lamenting the loss of the youth that their daughter possesses. Their chemistry and vocal compatibility is sizzling and, with an economy of words, they clearly delineate the decline of the older rocker in the face of ageing. Their 'resurrection' is all the more satisfying because of the powerhouse performances given.


The supporting ensemble, including Ledoux (Giovanni Spano) and Blake (Patrick Sullivan) lend varied emotional power to proceedings along with a variety of vocal tones not often seen in musicals, let alone rock ones. There are standout performances within the (dancing) ensemble also with Anthony Selwyn, Benjamin Purkiss (who also alternates the role of Strat at particular performances) and Olly Dobson among those whose individuality shines through. The character of Tink, as played by Aran MacRae, is the most obvious hold-over from the original J M Barrie tale and is translated here into a jealous and petulant teen whose childlike innocence is contrasted with his desire to be as 'adult' as the remainder of "The Lost". Raven (Christina Bennington) and Strat (Andrew Polec) are the focus of the show and the pair are delicately matched. With stirring vocals, vibrant physical presences and displaying the energising force of youth to the Nth degree, both possess the roles completely with Polec's contortions the embodiment of Steinman's rock sensibilities. It is understandable that script elements were excised when the cast (coupled with the direction and choreography) so readily portray the various dimensions of their characters with - seemingly - relatively little. And it is a credit to the creative team that the cast chosen is one imbued with a youthful spirit that matches their external projections, with vocal qualities that play against the typical 'musical theatre' - or even 'rock' - voices one usually expects on a stage (to the effect that the vocals are often indistinguishable from one performer to the next in a typical production) which further enhances the variations of life within the world of Obsidian. Here the characters are truly alive.


Taking the appropriate excesses of rock and stadium productions together with the nuances and theatricality of the most audacious elements of the stage, Bat Out Of Hell executes Jim Steinman's long-standing vision with a passion and verve not often seen. The cast meet every challenge and raise the bar for musical and vocal performances. The production values are a new high and exudes a force barely contained within the confines of a theatre auditorium. With flawless musical direction the songs are performed to the highest quality by a band (rock orchestra?) that sound as if they are having as much fun as the cast appear to be having onstage. That this musical has come to fruition is something of a miracle in itself in that much of it is more cinematic in scope than theatrical - and it would indeed make a fantastic movie musical given the right director, but it is a credit to theatre that it can and always will pull it out of the bag when required. And, though the production is massive in scope and execution, I have no doubt that a gifted director could make Steinman's material work in a smaller, less technical production (and let's face it - the size of this production means it will never tour in the conventional manner).
Bat Out Of Hell is a monumental, monolithic musical with a scale larger than anything recently conceived of for the musical stage. It is a thrilling joyride of fun, emotion, theatricality and damned great rock and roll! It is a sin that it is only running for a limited time in London before it crosses the Atlantic to hit Toronto. There are rumours that the producers are looking into bringing it back to London next year but either way I suggest you grab a ticket and have your mind blown by the most epic of productions you'll see in quite a while.
If you don't go over the top you can't see what's on the other side, as a great songwriter once said.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

La Cage Aux Folles, Glasgow King's Theatre, 25/7/17

A review written for Backstage Pass:

http://www.backstagepass.biz/2017/07/theatre-review-la-cage-aux-folles-kings.html


Some theatrical experiences should be on social prescription, to be experienced by those who should heed a message or those who require a dose of joy in their lives. La Cage Aux Folles is such an experience and it is one of the most outstanding pieces Bill Kenwright has produced for many a year; done with such panache and flair. But it is also a welcome reminder in a period of political upheaval that the message of tolerance and acceptance should not be discarded. Nor the ultimate legend to "live and love as hard as you know how". Perhaps it is fate, given this is the first ever UK tour of a classic musical which originally premiered in the 1980's:
By night Albin is 'Zaza' the star of the St Tropez drag club, La Cage aux Folles, run by his partner, Georges, whose son from a one-night fling, Jean-Michel, returns home to announce his forthcoming marriage to Anne, whose father, right-wing politician Dindon, advocates against non-heterosexual 'lifestyles' and for a return to so-called traditional values. More upsetting is that Jean-Michel requests his father and biological mother act as a couple and that Albin be absent for the meeting of the two families, despite Albin having raised him as his own alongside Georges. The repercussions of this announcement form the central crux of a musical which radiantly promotes positive ideas of family and love.

Harvey Fierstein's book remains as relevant, as funny and as moving as ever and Jerry Herman's score remains one of his best, replete with numbers ranging from the most showy of show-stoppers to the most tender of ballads;  the glorious songs include the call to seize the moment of "The Best Of Times", the romantic "Song On The Sand" and the soul-stirring "Look Over There". And of course La Cage contains one of the most anthemic numbers ever composed for the stage in "I Am What I Am".
The direction is fluid, tight and focused, retaining an air of innovation, and the comedy and chaos is controlled whilst simultaneously appearing to be free of restraint. The choreography is also perfectly attuned to scenes both within the club and outside of it and show the Cagelles in their full force.
The design is a glorious visual treat, from the glamorous costumes to the chic settings that smoothly transition from one scene to the next, and it is yet another stand-out aspect of this truly outstanding production.

John Partridge is electrifying as Albin/Zaza, a role he inhabits completely, and he is outrageous, hilarious and emotionally heart-breaking in turns. His full, rich voice is put to great use throughout the show as is his enterprising physicality.
Not to be outshone, Adrian Zmed is a suave, calm and collected Georges who eloquently keeps the madness about him in check. His relationship with Partidge's Albin is at once honest, believable, tender and affectionate and Zmed is a welcome addition to the British stage.
Stage stalwart Marti Webb lends her thrilling vocals and charm to the small but vital role of Jacqueline whilst the Cagelles are thrillingly dynamic and varied, always entertaining in whatever scene they appear simultaneously exuding a palpable energy beyond the footlights.

Entertaining, thought-provoking and gloriously staged, La Cage Aux Folles is one of the most impressive productions to have toured the UK in recent years and remains one of the most relevant and timeless of musicals. Grab a ticket and enjoy!


Friday, 16 June 2017

"The Crucible", Theatre Royal Glasgow, 13/6/17

Written for Backstage Pass:

http://www.backstagepass.biz/2017/06/theatre-review-crucible-theatre-royal.html



Over the last few years Selladoor Productions has gone from strength to strength with their dynamic and varied productions. Their latest production is a new tour of Arthur Miller's classic allegory The Crucible, produced in association with the Queen's Theatre, Hornchuch and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and directed by Douglas Rintoul.
Arguably Miller's most famous play, The Crucible dramatises the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th century focusing around the Proctor family and how their village is turned upside down as paranoia and suspicion rip through the town following a children's game that leads to allegations of witchcraft. Miller famously wrote the play as a response to the 1950's United States government's persecution of supposed Communists by the House of Respresentatives' Committee on Un-American Activities. The play also rings relevant given the current political climate that pervades several countries, including our own.

This production is somewhat Brechtian in its direction and design with stage directions projected on its bare, stripped back set and anachronistic costumes (which hint at both 1690's and the 1950's fashions) though there are also abstract and near-expressionist elements throughout, especially in the unusual lighting. The sound design is also intriguing and moody, though it is excessive at times.
Director Rintoul guides the cast ably, though there are slack moments and the pace of the production could be tightened, along with the lengthy scene changes, which would resolve some uneven moments and also serve to cut the running time.

The cast are led by a strong, stable Eoin Slattery as John Proctor, supported by former "Coronation Street" actor Charlie Condou as a sterling Reverend Hale whose principled stillness is palpable. There are other fine performances from David Delve as Giles Corey and Lucy Keirl, as Abigail Williams, amongst others. Victoria Yeates ("Call the Midwife") plays Elizabeth Proctor, one of those falsely accused of witchcraft and, whilst she is often strong, she is amongst a few in the company whose vocal projection needs a bit more work.

A slightly uneven, though visually interesting staging, this production of The Crucible has some strong elements throughout and serves as a stark reminder of how mania can easily sweep throughout a population and how history is apt to repeat itself.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

"Funny Girl", 31/5/17, King's Theatre Glasgow

Written for Backstage Pass:

http://www.backstagepass.biz/2017/06/theatre-review-funny-girl-kings-theatre.html



The iconic musical Funny Girl makes its way around the UK for the first time in a classy, stylish production telling the real life story of Follie-girl Fanny Brice - whose comedic and vocal talents enabled her to rise to fame despite her unconventional appearance - and her unsettled relationship with professional gambler Nick Arnstein. Hitting the heights of success and enduring the ruin of her marriage the life of Fanny Brice has all the hallmarks of triumphant tragedy and this production hits all the right spots effortlessly.

Harvey Fierstein has reworked Isobel Lennart's book, though his efforts have done little to correct the flaws inherent in the libretto, with most characters still little more than two-dimensional figures who orbit around the central role of Fanny, but such flaws are barely noticeable when the lead actress is as strong as Natasha J Barnes certainly is. 
The iconic musical score, containing the famous 'People' and 'Don't Rain On My Parade', has been slightly altered from the original Broadway production in an attempt to improve the balance between Nick and Fanny although these alterations are not always successful. Jule Styne's music, however, remains powerfully stirring as do Bob Merrill's lyrics more than 50 years later.
Michael Mayer's direction is simple, clean and luminous and the choreography by Lynne Page is equally uncluttered and purposeful. The design is spare and elegant though a rather ugly border, complete with neon trim, has been pointlessly added but this is fortunately all but hidden in the King's theatre.  The musical direction is first rate and the orchestra performs the score vigorously.

Funny Girl fails or succeeds depending on the quality of its cast and this cast rises amiably to all challenges with a dynamic ensemble that produce a sustained energy and fluidity throughout the show. There are some brilliant and funny performances from Mrs Brice (Rachel Izen) and her cohorts including Mrs Strakosh (Myra Sands) and the Eddie of Joshua Lay is equally entertaining. Darius Campbell reprises his role as Nick Arnstein and elevates the part into something more memorable than is written. His strong voice, his physical presence and stillness combine to make the most out of an inadequately written part whilst adding sterling support as an arresting leading man to the primary role of Fanny Brice, shared on tour between Sheridan Smith and Natasha J Barnes (who famously rose from understudy to share the role with Smith in London). Barnes assumes the role for the Glasgow run and for those who may be disappointed not to see Smith; worry not for Barnes is beyond superb and surpasses all expectations: her acting is tender, rich, dynamic, varied and ultimately heartbreaking. Her honest, raw performance connects with the audience and follows through into her singing where her vocal abilities are displayed to astounding success. Her voice is malleable, full-bodied and assured and she remains in complete control from start to finish. Barnes has an innate charm which radiates beyond the footlights and she really is the greatest star on that stage and was visibly moved by the deserved standing ovation she received. 

Funny Girl is a beautiful, entertaining and moving production, nourished with an outstanding musical score and cast. It's also lucky enough to have a stellar lead actress with astonishing acting and vocal talents in the unforgettable Natasha J Barnes who radiates that factor known as 'star quality'. If a star was indeed born in London then that star is now burning brightly on tour in this stunning production.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

'Shirley Valentine', Glasgow King's Theatre, 2/5/17

Review written for Backstage Pass:

http://www.backstagepass.biz/2017/05/theatre-review-shirley-valentine-kings.html


30 years after its premiere at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, Willy Russell's one-woman play "Shirley Valentine" hits the road in a superb anniversary tour starring the the engaging Jodie Prenger as the eponymous heroine.
Shirley Bradshaw (née Valentine) spends her days talking to the kitchen wall, bored with her life spent serving her husband and the few associates she has. When a friend offers her the chance of a two week holiday in Greece she decides to grasp the opportunity and start living the life she has long been aching for.


The production is a bright and appealing one with a design concept divided across the two acts; the realistic smart, clean kitchen with its bold yellow walls of Act One contrasting with the brighter, more abstract realisation - as if seen through Shirley's eyes - of Greece in Act Two. Such contrast is reflected in the direction of Glen Walford, who returns to the play after directing the premiere production three decades previous. There are a few moments which could be tighter and the odd bit of business that feels superfluous but otherwise Walford's direction is solid and engaging, consummately matched with Willy Russell's writing which is blessed with much word-play in turn humorous, witty, poignant and philosophical with Shirley dealing with the isolation of a life much wasted, musing on the trials and tribulations of human nature and life in general.

Jodie Prenger makes a wonderful 'Shirley Valentine' and her innate warmth and likability aids in her sympathetic, self deprecating portrayal of a woman coming to terms with the negative quality of her life before embarking on a journey of self discovery, ultimately commencing a life of worth and value, of joy and hope. Prenger's only minor flaw is that occasionally her Liverpudlian dialect becomes a little unsure, but this never detracts from a funny and emotional performance that bursts with pathos and life and is worthy of much praise: Prenger is a truly appealing performer and continues to grow and develop as such, pushing herself with each new role she undertakes, furthering her talents which continue to triumph in each new production.


"Shirley Valentine" speaks volumes to the middle-aged audience member, who may empathise with much that Shirley speaks of, and acts as a caution that life is for living and it is never too late to start doing so. There is always some semblance of joy to be had in life but often one has to reach out and take it. Willy Russell's play is a positive reminder to do so and this splendid production communicates the message admirably.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

"Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell - The Musical", 25/4/17, Opera House, Manchester

I was fortunate enough to revisit the extraordinary Bat Out Of Hell in its final week in Manchester and I can happily say that the production is even better than before.

My first review can be viewed here.


Bat Out Of Hell is pure, unmitigated rock and roll electricity. It infuses the audience with the drive and energy that the greatest rock-n-roll excites and I think this is why every witness of the show I am aware of leaves the production buzzing with energy. It is indeed true that Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through in this astounding production which fuses the best elements of theatre, stadium rock and visual design to tell Jim Steinman's rock and roll retelling of the Peter Pan story:
Strat, and his gang, The Lost - a band of perpetual 18 year olds - live in the tunnels beneath the city of Obsidian which is ruled by the tyrant Falco. The day before Falco's daughter Raven's 18th birthday she encounters The Lost leading Strat to fall for Raven and she for him. Jealously guarding his daughter from the outside world, Falco is equally jealous of the eternal youth that genetic mutation has given the members of The Lost; a youth that both he and his wife, Sloane, ache to retrieve. Soon Strat is stealing into Raven's bedroom and luring her away from Falco Tower, much to his best friend Tink's chagrin. The course of true love never runs smoothly and events will turn sour for all parties until each is reminded of what really matters ...


There has been only the slightest of changes since my last viewing and this includes the removal of a line stipulating the separation period of Strat and Raven as being six months. Now it is left as a non-specific, vague period which does much to satisfy the problem that the jump in time created. That said I still think the song The Future Ain't What It Used To Be would serve excellently at this point with the song's intro playing under the graveyard scene between Strat and Zahara before Strat and Raven go on to share the song proper as the passage of time is visually marked.
I also still wish that the Strat/Tink relationship was developed earlier (I think that Strat's opening monologue - Love And Death And An American Guitar aka Wasted Youth - should be addressed to an admiring Tink; as a devoted follower watching his hero showing off, which would be a start) to further enhance the emotional impact of Tink's choices and ultimate fate. And I hope that the Zahara/Jagwire romance - which fails to offer an appropriate explanation for Zahara succumbing and falling in love with Jagwire - comes to offer the revelation that Jagwire needs to offer Zahara to convince her she can love again; I think the song Ravishing could serve a purpose here. Also requiring further explanation is Zahara's secret occupation - what reason prompts her subtle sympathies toward Falco and his company? At the moment it is little more than a convenient plot device. The final resolutions could also be further clarified, easily rectified by minor changes in direction; we need to see the animosity between Strat and Falco resolved so as to cement and encourage the Strat and Raven coupling at the very end of the show.
True, this is a rock and roll fairy-tale, but certain levels of logic have to be sustained and the above could only strengthen the narrative. Otherwise Jim Steinman's libretto is solid rock and roll fare, solidly presenting the story with little distraction. Steinman's flare for a humorous and/or abstract line feels perfectly at home in this unique world that he has developed with his prodigious musical catalogue further enhancing plot and character with ease. The fact that virtually everything Steinman has written was developed from his initial musical ideas can only further their integration into the plot.


The direction remains tight and focused and the precision and command of Jay Scheib's work is clearly on display throughout the production which expounds succinctly and the combination of Steinman and Scheib's imaginations is an explosion of divine inspiration for the stage.
Emma Portner's choreography is as tight as ever, even if some of the dancing is irrelevant at certain points. It might be worth the choreographer considering changing the motifs in such places to give them a new meaning, if the dances are to serve any purpose at all. That said, there still remain the times when the dances serve to further the entertainment quotient to great success (as is the case in the glorious staging of the brilliantly performed Dead Ringer For Love).
The band, led by Robert Emery, continue to burn through Steinman's score with the necessary excess, serving the composer excellently and it is worthy to note that the variations in the soundscape of the score (including the underscore pieces which themselves include some beautiful, haunting and thrilling writing) are executed to the degree that the music is never dull or repetitive. Gareth Owen's sound design is gauged pretty perfectly as is the lighting by Patrick Woodroffe which, like most elements of the production, takes the best of theatrical and stadium lighting and fuses them to create an appropriate palate, serving the visual and emotional elements of the production to perfection.
The visual elements of Finn Ross are even more impressive second time around and it becomes apparent how sympathetic the audacious set design of Jon Bauser is to them. The dynamic use of the set and the visuals is also all the more impressive on second viewing as this is a show which continues to offer new things on each viewing. The costumes of Meentje Nielson also offer a variety of homages which, for the most part, appeal on numerous levels; from the nods to the 70s and 80s to the t-shirt print of Jim Steinman onstage in one of the earlier incarnations of the musical. The only misstep taken by Nielson seems to be in Ledoux's primary attire (and hairstyle) - the most heavily 70s influenced onstage - which stands out like a sore thumb making the actor appear aged beyond his years, further opposing the idea that he is meant to be eternally 18. If this character's costume can be rectified before the London run then I, for one, will be a happier person.


Speaking of the cast - they have raised the bar even further and every single performer surpasses their previous performances. Dom Hartley-Harris' Jagwire is now on equal footing with the other leads; his performance is now saturated with an added grit and power which feeds into his vocals propelling him into the performing stratosphere. His connection with Steers' Zahara is electric and enthralling. Danielle Steers continues to be the sassiest presence onstage as Zahara and her voice has continued to develop with her husky, smoky quality lending itself to the sultry, foxy character and she is someone to keep an eye on. She is truly one of the most exciting performers I've seen for a long time. Aran MacRae's Tink, the one member of The Lost whose genetics froze him at an earlier age than the others, has developed further emotionally and his lament Not Allowed To Love is a heart-breaker. Rob Fowler as Falco and Sharon Sexton as Sloane have also surpassed themselves in their portrayals: Fowler is frightening and sympathetic in turns and the frustration and redemption of Sexton is palpable and their relationship is easily understood and translated to the audience whose response to their rendition of Paradise By The Dashboard Light (which is a moment of inspired conception and direction) is a real roof-raiser. The ensemble excel as a company and there are numerous moments where one or two members stand out as Anthony Selwyn and Olly Dobson do. The three primary members of The Lost - Jagwire (Hartley-Harris), Ledoux (Giovanni Spano) and Blake (Patrick Sullivan) serve as excellent vocal support in many numbers but really come into their own with their emotional performance of Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are. As Raven Christina Bennington continues to shine with her voice raising the roof on many an occasion, especially in her stunning rendition of Heaven Can Wait where she showcases her emotional command. The ebullient and striking Strat of Andrew Polec dominates proceedings and Polec is a strong leading man with his physicality continually pushing the boundaries and his powerful voice striking into one's soul. His chemistry with Bennington is utterly flammable and Polec's frame, movement, facial expression and outright etherealness perfectly encapsulate all the teenage angst and sexuality that Steinman has poured into his work and it's hard to think of anyone more perfect for the role. Something that could actually be said about pretty much every member of this exceptional and well-cast company.


Bat Out Of Hell really is an exceptional production and one Jim Steinman and his fellow creatives should take utmost pride in. Despite any minor flaws it is a musical of many riches and worthy of repeat visits and of many future productions; the material offers so much to work with that I can envisage many, utterly different takes on it, as any truly great piece can attest. Indeed, it is a musical that stretches the ideals of musical theatre. It is probably more akin to opera in many respects but is really unlimited by any genre. It is its own beast and that is something to take pride in, no matter what the future may hold.




Friday, 21 April 2017

"Funny Girl", Edinburgh Playhouse, 18/4/17



After a controversial season in London's West End, the Menier Chocolate Factory production of "Funny Girl" has hit the road for a tour of the UK, which I believe is the first (correct me if I'm wrong). The bio-musical is iconic as being the musical that propelled Barbra Streisand into super-stardom with her superlative recordings of the numbers and Oscar-winning performance in the movie version helping to define the musical as one of the most dangerous for any producer to stage, given that Streisand's shadow looms vast over the musical.

I previously saw the West End production and wrote about it here. I also recorded my first attempt at viewing the show when I was fated to attend that performance and that can be viewed here.


I hadn't expected Sheridan Smith to be part of the tour when I booked my ticket but, as it turns out, it was announced that she would share the role with Natasha J. Barnes who famously stepped in to the role following Smith's troubles. Smith, it was announced, would play Edinburgh. I won't lie, but my heart sank a little. Still, I decided to go in with an open mind and with a view to enjoy the show as much as possible. It was later announced that Darius Campbell, who was not scheduled for the venues where Smith was to perform, would now take on his West End role in Edinburgh (this may be as the actor is a Scot and Edinburgh would have been the only Scottish date he would not have done) and while I was quite happy to see another performer's take on the role (in this case it was originally announced that Chris Peluso was to star alongside Smith) it was not an unwelcome announcement.

The production started late, which is something that continually annoys me - if the ticket says a 7.30pm start then that is when it should start. No doubt late-comers were the usual culprit and I am all for closing the doors and refusing entry to those who cannot be bothered to take their seats before the announced curtain up time, whether it be through laziness on their part (I'm sure some people think it's like going to the cinema where there will be half an hour of trailers) or whatever. I totally understand there are events which one cannot control but a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Anyway ...

The production has undergone only minor changes between its run in the West End and the new tour and these are for practical purposes - in London travelators were used and these are replaced on tour by amended choreography and by the use of trucks to move set pieces. That and the ol' manual labour. The set is now also framed by a large border created to fill out the size of the set on the various stages on the tour. Unfortunately this border is rather blandly ugly and doesn't feel a natural part of the set. The background of the train station in the act I finale is also changed as the original West End version replicated the art deco styling of the Savoy theatre but, for whatever reason, it was decided not to duplicate this on tour.

It appears that the orchestra is pretty much the same size as that used in London but, surprisingly, the sound they produce is fuller and richer than was heard at the Savoy. Whether this is through the sound design or the acoustics of the Edinburgh Playhouse, I do not know. But the music sounded great.
In fact, much of the production looks more at ease in this touring production. Where the Savoy production looked a little cramped at times, here it allowed to breathe. Of course, this may change depending on the venue, but in Edinburgh at least it worked better.


The cast are as dynamic and as strong as that which featured in London and there are a number of stand out performances including the Mrs Brice of Rachel Izen, whose delivery is underplayed yet striking; Martin Callaghan's Mr Keeney, whose warmth and comedic timing is top notch and the Eddie of Joshua Lay, who is physically quite different to London's Eddie but is equally as adept vocally and choreographically. The relationship with Fanny is perhaps not so natural as it could be but this is perhaps due to the physical differences.
Darius Campbell's Nick Arnstein is better than ever and his deep, rich voice is stirring and one of the strongest in the production. His physical dominance is perfect for the role and he is equally at home with the odd comedic line as he is with the dramatic arc of Nick's fall from grace.
Shouldering the burden of the show is Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, the 'Funny Girl' of the title. Smith is markedly better than she was in London and her performance is composed less of the mugging that she was guilty of previously and she relies more on an honest, emotional take and the physical attributes of Brice's comedy. Here she is far more in control than I previously witnessed and is thus much more successful in her dramatic execution. Her vocals still remain her weak spot and her voice audible declines in strength and power as the show progresses, many crescendos passing by unmarked by Smith though her innate charm and warmth wins the audience over. I still think her solo songs should be lowered for her but if Smith were to undertake some serious vocal lessons to improve her technique and her breathing then this could be a most stunning portrayal. But as it is ... 
That said, Smith continues to win raves from other reviewers and the audience (no doubt familiar to her via her many television performances) but I simply cannot detach one aspect from the whole when there are less famous persons who would be crucified for the same lesser skill levels.

The direction and choreography work well though the revised book continues to make little difference to the musical. Jule Styne's music remains some of the strongest and is served well throughout. The added songs, again, add only minor improvements to the story-telling and the reworking of 'Who Are You Now' into a duet still irks somewhat, though giving Fanny and Nick an emotional duet is nice.

All in all the touring production, and its leading lady, is a sterling production of equal quality to the London production with some aspects even improved.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

"Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell - The Musical", Opera House, Manchester, 24/3/17

Awesome. Emotional. Epic. Exhilarating. Gut-busting. Intense. Monumental. Powerful. Rocking. Stunning. Wagnerian.


Perfectly synthesising varied elements ranging from the graphic novel to the rock concert Jim Steinman's apocalyptic rock retelling of the Peter Pan story finally bursts onto the stage in a production that manages to equal the audacity of Steinman's songwriting more than 40 years since the project was initiated as the musical The Dream Engine and its revision Neverland, spawning the Bat Out Of Hell album and influencing virtually everything Steinman has since written.
Though it is termed a 'musical' Bat Out Of Hell really is more akin to an opera, both in writing and execution and only as an opera can the audacious nature of the work be granted full release so that it is able to achieve its potential success. Yes, 'musical' is a more marketable, more commercial term but Bat Out Of Hell is really a modern opera. As it should be:
In the year 2100 the city of Obsidian (formerly Manhattan) is ruled over by Falco who keeps his daughter Raven a virtual prisoner in his tower home, along with his wife, Sloane. Under the city live The Lost, a tribe of mutants whose genes ensure they never age beyond the age of 18. Their leader is Strat who falls for Raven when he first sets eyes on her. The feeling is reciprocated and Raven makes her escape as soon as she can, enraging Falco as well as Strat's best friend, Tink, a fellow Lost Boy who is unique in that his genes make him younger than all the others to the point that where others may ride motorcycles, Tink has to rely on his bicycle. Tink's uniqueness also means that he is never able to fulfil his sexual desires, primarily aimed at Strat, which leads to his growing jealousy toward his idol. The teenage sexual angst drives the various strands of the plot, even where that angst is jealously longed for by Falco, eager to recapture the passion that youth promised.

Steinman's libretto is somewhat rudimentary and reliant on his penchant for a unique turn of phrase but this actually works in favour of the production helping to establish the world and its language whilst harking back to the fairy-tale nature of the source material: basic, but detailed when required. It's also laced with humour and pathos and has its surprisingly moving moments.
The arrangements by Steve Sidwell and Michael Reed of Steinman's songs are excellently executed and the orchestrations have a variety about them that maintains a consistent feel within the nature of the production. Indeed some arrangements are downright stunningly haunting (Heaven Can Wait for one). Robert Emery's musical direction is well judged and Gareth Owen's sound design serves Steinman's songs well, though sometimes the numerous speakers  seem barely able to contain them. The use of the songs throughout the libretto are perfectly attuned to the necessary plot elements, elaborating plot details and/or character emotion and none seem superfluous; even Dead Ringer For Love serves a purpose within the subplot between Zahara and Jagwire. Steinman's lyrics also feel perfectly at home on the grand musical stage and any minor tweaks he has made work for the better.


The set design by Jon Bausor is rich in theatrical/cinematic fluidity and it metamorphoses succinctly between numerous locations and the integration of Finn Ross' video projection and Patrick Woodroffe's awesome lighting is uniquely congruent. There are numerous references to various Steinman lyrics and projects within the set design, from the Bad For Good album artwork on Raven's bedroom wall (she oft quotes the opening lines of the title song of that album) to the Life Is A Lemon graffiti adorning some of the geological rock elements of the set. The costumes by Meentje Nielson equally establish a world of the future that echoes the past whilst retaining comedic elements as is true throughout the production.
The synergy created between the design elements and the vision of the musical's director, Jay Scheib, ultimately shaping Steinman's dream, is such that the images and happenings onstage are exhilarating and surprising, generating diverse environments and energies making the theatrical experience a cinematic one and it is a testament to the production and its direction that what is witnessed is so kinetic that it sweeps the audience along, no doubt aided by a design which encroaches into the auditorium, drawing them into the onstage world completely.
The pacing, the mood, the tension and the emotional impact are almost universally exquisitely executed by Scheib who utilises the music, the lyrics and the dialogue to exacting precision. That he is versed in directing opera is a boon to the production with the opera staging style well integrated into the more usual form of musical theatre directing, never glaringly obvious but perfectly natural to the epic, over-the-top nature of Steinman's material.
Emma Portner's choreography is distinct and sometimes akin to that that may be seen in a Steinman music video; indeed its use is occasionally to the same end, as the dance is not always essential to the plot, but rather it is a visual element since the dancers are not really part of a scene, but even then it is unusual in that they never distract from the lead characters whose song or scene it may be and who always retain the audience's attention. In other sequences, though, the dancers are an essential element and are often used as a storytelling device, simultaneously providing the backing vocals to create the Steinman sound. The performers' energy and enthusiasm is never waning and their stamina is noteworthy.


Of course, the production isn't perfect; the opening medley of songs could be trimmed further and the subplot of Tink's love and friendship of Strat could be established earlier and more successfully to make what happens later more profound, as could the relationship between Zahara and Jagwire which needs a little more elaborating to make her falling for him (after confessing she loves someone else) more believable. More time also needs to be taken between Strat and Raven's separation and reunion which, at present, passes in the blink of an eye; perhaps here would be a more suitable use of the song It Just Won't Quit or even the song The Future Ain't What It Used To Be. Likewise the final resolutions could be more established to create a more concrete finale. Were I to be even more critical then I'd point out that the 'California' reference in For Crying Out Loud may need altering if it is a literal lyric as the city of Obsidian is indicated to be the former Manhattan whereas, in the original Neverland, it was actually in California, which would make the lyric appropriate. That said the lyric can be an abstract, wishful reference and is such a small quibble that it is almost irrelevant.
Of course, given the amount of material Steinman has written over the years it's impossible for a stage production to feature every song (or song extract) heard on any of the Bat Out Of Hell albums without the production running for less than four hours (don't worry, it doesn't - it currently runs just over two and half hours) and there will inevitably be one or two numbers omitted that Steinman and Meat Loaf fans will lament the loss of; Lost Boys And Golden Girls is just one of the songs that you won't hear in the stage show, but there are plenty of numbers to satiate any die-hard fan. That said, if any further revisions happen (perhaps to rectify any of the points illustrated above) then I can certainly see a use for some of the omitted album tracks, or even extracts from them, such as using the bridge (and perhaps more) from Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere) in place of the current position of It Just Won't Quit which would facilitate the latter song's re-use as I describe above. But these are decisions for the creative team to make.

The casting as almost uniformly excellent with the company blessed with truly outstanding credible rock voices and a physicality that exudes the youthful energies and drives that Steinman captures so well.
Andrew Polec as Strat is a dynamo and his lean, youthful looks and big voice perfectly capture the figure of permanent youth and sexual energy as any alter-ego of Jim Steinman should. He rises well above the challenges that he faces in the role and he leads from the front giving a truly spellbinding performance.
Christina Bennington's Raven is a full-throated, raging, vivacious teenager, rebelling against her parents blessed with a powerful voice and beautiful stage presence.
As Tink Aran MacRae is a delicate creature whose tender voice and charisma beautifully captures the tragedy of the character, caught in a world in which he can never really participate.
The sexually charged Sloane is portrayed with scintillatingly by Sharon Sexton who has ample opportunity to let her vigorous vocals shine, especially in the incredibly staged Paradise By The Dashboard Light which she shares with the prowling, masculine Falco of Rob Fowler whose aching need to recapture his youth, whilst restraining his own daughter's, is elegantly performed by an actor whose vocal qualities are perfectly suited to Steinman's work. 
Whilst still pleasant to hear, it's unfortunate that Dom Hartley-Harris' vocal range means he isn't quite on par with his fellow singers in handling the demanding ranges of Steinman's songs - he chooses to sing lower harmony lines at times - and he sometimes appears ill-at-ease onstage whilst the connection and his charisma is somewhat lacking in the relationship with Danielle Steers' dynamic and thrilling Zahara whose voice is one of the most unique and memorable. Steers is a powerful force on the stage and one of the most mesmeric performers of recent years. Indeed there is quite a large number of incredible performers gracing the stage in Bat Out Of Hell.
Not to take anything away from otherwise rousing performances but there are also, sadly, one or two members of The Lost - Giovanni Spano being one - who appear physically too old (at least as they appear in character onstage) to credibly play a 'frozen' - never appearing to age beyond 18 - but as these are seldom centre of attention this incongruousness is often dismissed.
The powerful voices and physicality that Bat Out Of Hell demands - and requires - is in plentiful abundance in this production and they, for the most part, serve Jim Steinman excellently.


Bat Out Of Hell is perhaps the ultimate rock musical - certainly the ultimate rock opera - and given that Steinman's songs have always been character and story driven this eases their integration into the realms of a dramatic structure more than most other rock musicals which utilise some pre-existing music. The plot and its children's story origin also have that something which exudes the ideals of 'rock', given the concept of burgeoning sexuality inherently simmers below the surface of the original J. M. Barrie story with Wendy (translated here into the character of Raven) on the cusp of womanhood. Steinman of course brings such elements well to the fore which is entirely appropriate for rock which has always been associated with sex ever since the genre emerged. The execution of direction and design is appropriately gauged and the musical becomes one of those rare creations where every element fuses in harmony to create the glorious whole.