Frankly I cannot write about this production without it coming across as a bit of a rant and I'll say now that the reason for my frustration with the production is that it clearly had promise (especially in its cast) but was, ultimately, let down by direction that lacked cohesion.
Let's start with some positives:
I must give kudos to the director, Steve Mann, who seemed to be attempting something 'new' even if everything he applied wasn't. The simplest of his staging ideas were the best; the cross-over of 'Poor Jerusalem' into 'Pilate's Dream' - where 'Jesus' (Lawrence Sharkey) remains onstage once his song is over to become an image from the dream of 'Pilate' (Johnny Collins) - was nice, as was the final sequence of 'John 19:41' where 'Jesus' is removed from the cross, dressed in a simple cloth and lifted above the heads of the 'Apostles' who carry him slowly offstage. Simple but effective.
The choreography by Lynne Bustard was enjoyable if prosaic for the most part although the number 'Superstar' was a more exciting sequence with some fine motifs.
Musical Direction by Alan Fraser was assured and the guitar playing quite brilliant. The quieter moments, such as 'Pilate's Dream', were amongst the strongest sequences and 'The Temple' was a rousing aural experience with the tempo of the number the fastest I'd experienced onstage creating an exciting musical experience.
But the best thing about the production was the cast, most of whom were blessed (no pun intended) with lovely voices and sufficient stage presence to root the show and raise it above the mundane.
Now for the negatives, and here I must go into some detail to justify my views:
Verisimilitude was lacking throughout because of the disconnected direction which failed to connect on an emotional level.
The show was advertised on social media as being 'avant-garde' and utilising physical theatre. They did so in as much and to the same effect as the Arena tour of a few years back i.e. underwhelmingly: I can't say I saw anything in the production to warrant its claims and the physical theatre seemed to comprise of little more than numerous choreographed ensemble-undulating sequences. Some circus-skills such as a silk performer and stilt walking were also employed, the latter appeared in the Arena tour. To be honest their use didn't really add anything to the dramatic purpose of the scene other than to appeal visually.
If nothing else the director is guilty of being too derivative: There were scenes based on the Gale Edwards UK touring production (which was filmed before heading to Broadway) and also on the Arena tour. Examples include the 'Overture' which was all but a copy (save for redundant dialogue) of Edwards' production as was 'Could We Start Again, Please' while 'The Temple' seemed to be lifted from the Arena tour.
During the 'Overture' background information (such as why the Priests disapproved of Jesus) was projected which I felt unnecessary given that all that is required to understand the plot is within the lyrics. If the director really had to provide this information then it should be kept to programme notes as the projection became a distraction from the frenetic action onstage. It also didn't help that some elements of the set obscured the projection screen. The projection also clearly set the production in the early A.D. period which was confused by other elements throughout (graffiti, costuming etc.) and the director would have done better to suggest a period rather than specifically define it which would have made the anachronistic elements to sit more comfortably within the production (as some other productions have done).
Directors should also be aware when to use stillness and when not to. People were often almost manic while at other times the ensemble was reduced to choreographed slow-motion action.
There were some scene changes and entrances and exits that were a bit clumsily handled thus stilting the flow of events and these could easily have been rectified. The same could be said of some prop/scenic elements such as the cloth hung from the flies for the aerial acrobat and the rope that 'Judas' (Garry Taylor) hangs himself with which intruded beyond their allotted use and became rather distracting. 'Judas' Death' and the earlier 'Damned for all Time' sequences also had an ensemble of figures who were reminiscent of the 'Tormentors' of the Tom O'Horgan production: Figures in black who waft around 'Judas', although in this case they carried boughs with shredded black material hanging off. The programme mentioned the presence of ravens as a symbol of death and I can only assume that this material is what is alluded to. But again these figures weren't really utilised to the best effect. The only purpose I can make for them was as a foreshadowing of the tree from which 'Judas' will hang himself. I may be totally incorrect. (The director attempts to explain some choices in his programme notes but the need to explain such things suggests a possibility of unsuccessful communication of these ideas across the footlights.)
Given the director makes heavy-handed attempts to show the frustration and anger of 'Jesus' (amongst other things) the director once again misses Tim Rice's point about his divinity - that is it isn't shown or admitted ('Jesus' never claims to be the Son of God in the show and deflects the suggestion) - by opening Act II with 'Jesus' walking on water (a cloth waved by cast members!) directly before the 'Last Supper' begins. Another cringe-worthy moment was in the Da Vinci Last Supper Tableau enacted by the company which got quite the laugh from the audience (the Da Vinci setting was even projected in the background) - unfortunate given the nature of the scene that follows.
The choices the director makes for his cast was also rather worrying: From the outset it appeared that all the 'Apostles' were bad tempered, very much against the intention of Tim Rice and thus making little contrast with 'Judas', at least in the opening. This wild attitude also made the sudden calmness of 'Everything's Alright' and the 'Apostles'' actions within rather odd.
'Jesus' is also quite a violent figure - he manhandles people and throttles 'Judas' in the 'Last Supper' and threatens vendors with a knife in 'The Temple'. By all means I can understand that 'Jesus' can be seen as a revolutionary but one has to balance such extremes within the material that is written.
'Judas' was presented pretty much as seen in the Edwards' production although the actor here subdued the more miserable aspects of the role which was appropriate whilst 'Mary' (Vicky Robertson) was presented as one of the 'Apostles' and a strong figure amongst them. Thus it made her attempt at slashing her wrists during 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' all the more problematic, indeed worrying, not to mention unsightly. In fact I felt this was utterly irresponsible and quite unbelievable - why should someone who is presented as a reformed prostitute decide her life is not worth living simply because she loves someone for the first time? Yes, the emotion troubles her and unsettles her but even contemplating suicide is far beyond any truth within the role after all she states within her big number how she'd handle the situation ('I'd turn my head, I'd back away ... '). Applying a shot of violence here and there for nothing but shock value is not good direction.
Given there was so much violence of some degree or another throughout the show it made the appropriate violence in Act II ('The Trial') less effective than if there was more contrast beforehand. 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' also ended with 'Jesus' giving a full on kiss to 'Mary' - thus making 'Mary's' motives and lyrics in her big number a bit questionable. Given that 'Judas' plants a similar kiss on 'Jesus' in the betrayal I had to wonder whether this 'Jesus of Nazareth' was a bit easy.
'Caiaphas' (Dougie Muir) and 'Annas' (Stephen Jannetts) were probably the most successful portrayals with 'Caiaphas' blessed with a strong, deep, bass voice although the director choose to obscure his lines in 'Hosanna' by having the crowd shouting over him (a 'school-boy' error).
'Pilate' was played a little too weakly for my liking, a bit too free-and-easy if you will, although there were glimpses in Act II of the darker, heavier edges that the role requires.
'Herod' (David Robertson) was the least appropriate I felt and emerged as a Liberace-style figure with a distracting lisp which partially obscured some lyrics. During the dance section of his number, however, 'Herod' was revealed to be an S & M creature that looked like a 'Rocky Horror Show' reject. Both impressions brought laughter but I don't think for the correct reason. 'Herod' was overly camp (some lyrics became unintelligible because of this when the actor started screeching his lines) and probably played into everything that Andrew Lloyd Webber especially hates about such portrayals of the character. Of course 'Herod' should be seen as a debauched, spoilt figure but this was an overly heavy-handed and ham-fisted way of portraying that. Frankly Tom O'Horgan's original staging of the number on Broadway in 1971 must have been more subtle. And choreographically we were treated to another Charleston-inspired dance which was uninspired although the cast appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Given that no-one in the cast seemed to be giving less than 100% (even 'Herod' albeit not in an appropriate manner) it puzzled me as to why I was left emotionally untouched and disbelieving. I can only blame the director whose work had actors often doing pointless or clichéd things (e.g. 'Jesus' striking a cruciform image several times throughout the show). To be honest, as nice as the voices were, there was not a huge amount of the edge or rawness that a rock score requires. 'Judas' was certainly more the exception than the rule with his more appropriate image and vocal.
Aside from 'Herod' I got the impression (true or not) that the actors were generally restricted within the confines imposed by the director adding to the lack of truth in virtually all performances, sadly none more so than in the portrayal of 'Jesus' which is a shame since these actors are clearly better than the direction they were given here.
The Musical Direction started well but as soon as we got to the first number proper, 'Heaven On Their Minds', the problems emerged. The opening section (with the infamous riff) was slowed inexplicably down giving the opening to the show anything but an exciting start especially given the frantic energy of the 'Overture' immediately prior. As the start of the show proper it seemed to take forever to get the show stared and it felt to me that it was only when 'What's The Buzz' began that the show really started. A big error given that 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is ostensibly told through 'Judas'' viewpoint.
The tempo of 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' was also played with, having the ending of the intro and of each verse suffering a rallentando thus killing any momentum in the music. The reprise of 'Everything's Alright' immediately prior was also interminably slow, much like the 2000 film.
The first verse of 'Superstar' was also slowed killing the energy and momentum of the show, disastrous given that this I basically the peak of the show, although the common tempo returns for the chorus and continues throughout the remainder of the number.
Given that the guitar work was quite wonderful throughout, the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber had already drastically reduced the original orchestration, it's a shame that for most of the time the more subtle instruments went almost unheard - the woodwind and synths especially. The band also had a trumpet player who seemed to, most of the time at least, take a while to find the actual note he or she was supposed to be playing. Not a good thing especially during the brass heavy parts (the opening of 'Superstar' was particularly painful).
The costumes by Graham Burn were, deliberately, both 'Biblical' and 'modern' but not in a successful way as was the case with John Napier's costumes for the 1996 London revival where they assimilated into each other. Some, such as 'Simon's' (Kris Morrison) and those of the 'Soul Girls', immediately brought Edwards' production to mind.
I also had to ponder as to why they put 'Jesus' into an unflattering wig which did nothing for the actor or the role except occasionally obscure his face.
Jonnie Clough's lighting was serviceable without really enhancing the rather dull set and could have done with being more defined and concentrated at times which would have made the set more exciting.
Anyway, I know this was an amateur production but I know the capabilities of such companies especially one who claim to work to the standards of professionals. Thus I shall treat them as such. After all, I've seen professional productions which have been worse than most amateur shows.
This is, of course, only my opinion but, given the overheard conversations upon exiting the theatre, it is not a lonely one.
Thus I ultimately must say that there was much promise within many aspects of the production but it was ultimately let down by some rather clumsy directorial choices.
Monday, 8 December 2014
Friday, 5 December 2014
Written for Backstage Pass.
"Musical Comedy" sounds like a rather out-dated phrase these days but is an apt term for the rapturous, effervescent production that is "Top Hat" which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 2013. It is hard to dislike such an upbeat production, although those with a dislike for tap-dancing may wince here and there, and there is much to enjoy in this elating musical.
The plot revolves around American performer "Jerry Travers" (Alan Burkitt) who journeys to London to star in a new show produced by "Horace Hardwick" (Clive Hayward). Once in London his tap-dancing above the hotel room of "Dale Tremont" (Charlotte Gooch) wakes her and she promptly rushes upstairs to complain, whereupon he falls in love with her. A case of mistaken identity follows and "Jerry" must follow "Dale" to Venice in order to win her heart. The plot may be quite thin but it is blessed with sharp and humorous dialogue and elicited many a laugh from the audience. The adaptation by Matthew White and Howard Jacques from the original RKO film is spritely, full of wit and consistently entertaining.
As director, Matthew White has constructed a staging that is never lazy or uninteresting to the eye and together with choreographer Bill Deamer he creates some truly wonderful moments onstage including an excellently executed form of 'shadowing' which is used to great effect. It is no wonder that Deamer won the Olivier Award for his choreography as it is simply beautiful to watch and executed precisely. Each number is performed by the strong ensemble who work together uniformly, creating extravagant musical numbers not too often seen these days. The ensemble are even used as part of the transitions between scenes thus creating a smooth fluidity to the show.
The entire production exudes class and elegance; the set design of Hildegard Bechtler encompasses beautiful art deco scenery and natural imagery and creates a cinematic quality to proceedings allowing smooth scenic transitions and swift changes with sleekly moving architectural screens; The costumes of Jon Morrell compliment the scenery effortlessly and are beautiful in themselves and Peter Mumford's lighting is stylish and adds another depth to the onstage imagery imbuing the stage with evocative colours.
The musical score is, of course, by Irving Berlin and boasts some of his most famous numbers including "Puttin' on the Ritz", "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and "Cheek to Cheek" and is expertly directed by Jae Alexander. The orchestrations by Chris Walker accurately replicate the sound of the 1930s jazz score and is another element that adds to the authenticity of the whole. My only quibble with the orchestra is that in some of the more string-heavy sequences I thought I detected a synth which intruded upon the faithful sound of the orchestra. Gareth Owen's sound design is encompassing and appropriately allows the tapping to become another instrument of the soundscape.
Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch are excellent in their roles and are a joy to watch. Their vocals also echo the sound produced by singers of the 1930s, a touch that lends credence to their performances which are consistently exciting and alive. Clive Hayward as "Horace Hardwick" and Rebecca Thornhill as his wife, "Madge", are also perfectly suited to their parts with Thornhill getting some wonderful lines which she plays for all they're worth! Amongst the funniest performances of the evening were those of John Conroy as trusted valet, "Bates" (who becomes a 'master' of disguise throughout the evening and who offers many familial quotes to live by along the way), and Sebastien Torkia as Italian designer, "Alberto Beddini", who almost steals the scenes he's in of act 2.
There are a number of moments that the show can claim as highlights but, perhaps, the most quintessential is the musical number "Cheek to Cheek" (more commonly known as "Heaven") which is an utterly entrancing and beautiful sequence. A total joy to experience, "Top Hat" is a perfect example of a jubilant night out at the theatre and one could do far worse than see this happiness-inducing production.