Saturday, 30 April 2016

Half an hour with "Funny Girl", 28/4/16, Savoy Theatre, London

Following its sold out (in 90 minutes!) run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, "Funny Girl" transferred to the West End's Savoy Theatre in a slightly expanded production. Starring Sheridan Smith, whose name is emblazoned above the title on every advertising board going, the West End production is also very nearly sold out.
Booking a ticket early was essential and this was done last November (the transfer was announced before the Menier run had actually begun) so the wait was a long one. But, only one week following its opening night, the day finally came. Much preparation and cost had gone into seeing the first revival since the original London production back in the 1960s which was the sole purpose of our visit to London. We had to finance the cost of travel to and from London, accommodation for the night whilst there and, of course, the tickets themselves. I absolutely refuse to pay "premium" prices since the very idea is nothing less than a con by money-hungry producers. None the less the cost was not cheap!

So it was we got into London with enough time to check into our hotel and grab a bite to eat before we headed off to the Savoy.
Let me say now that the theatre staff were far more welcoming to us than they had been a year before when we visited the same theatre to see the revival of "Gypsy".
It was interesting to see the variety of merchandise available for the show - t-shirts, mugs, umbrellas, bags etc. Yet "Funny Girl" still had no souvenir brochure on offer!

We settled into our dress circle seats with a great view of the stage with much anticipation.
The lights dimmed and the 13-player orchestra (complete with strings!) struck up with the Overture. The presence of the strings was most welcome, even if the sound remained a little thin.
Smith appeared as "Fanny Brice" and the show started proper. Smith gave Brice a pronounced Bronx accent which appeared to limit her diction somewhat with quite a number of words muffled. This accent also seemed to interfere with her singing which was curt and not always in tune. For certain the final note of "The Greatest Star" was off, yet quite flawless in the brief reprise that soon followed. Smith was certainly amusing in the role, although not outright hilarious, and she was given to acting more like a desperate idiot out for attention (even being rather sexual with some of the male dancers - let's be frank; she was groping their crotches!) rather than a natural comedienne letting her talent speak for her. Given I was not a natural fan of Smith (unlike many I had come for the show) I was actually starting to warm to her and, flaws and all, she was certainly proving that "Funny Girl" need not rely on the spectre of Barbra Streisand.    
The rest of the cast were quite ebullient in their roles but we were sadly given little time to appreciate them as, following Fanny's stage debut with the "Cornet Man" number (another somewhat slogged performance from Smith), immediately following Fanny's introduction to "Nick Arnstein" (a dashing Darius Campbell) and her singing of the twiddly "Nicky Arnstein" lines when the stage was emptied (apparently a simple exit as per usual) when the show suddenly stopped. There was a dead stage for a minute before an announcement was made over the speakers: A technical issue had prompted a brief delay. The safety curtain was lowered.
After 10 minutes or so the front of house manager made an announcement that the delay was taking longer than expected so patrons were free to use the lavatories and bars. 
Audience members became restless not long after and there were some confrontations with the front of house staff. Some irate man was shouting at the young woman at the coat check/merchandise stand. Approximately 30 minutes later the dreaded announcement was made that due to "Technical Difficulties" the show had to be cancelled. This was greeted by boos and jeers from various factions in the audience, some of whom shouted "no! no!" when the front of house manager advised that the box office should be contacted the following day for refunds as it had been closed for the evening. His brief speech was previously interrupted by noisy, talkative audience members which prompted other patrons to shout at them to "shut up!" so the f-o-h manager could be heard. 
Frankly it was bordering on chaos, but the Savoy Theatre staff were nothing but courteous and as helpful as their limited information allowed.

Given the apparent technical naivety of the production it was instantly puzzling as to what technical problem could have caused such an issue as to prompt the show's cancellation. Almost immediately rumours began circling that the issue was perhaps more to do with Smith herself and the media soon started commenting on these rumours.
It is unfortunate that the producers have allowed the very vague term "technical difficulties" to persist when a more exact explanation might have put paid to the rumours before they started.

It is, of course, greatly disappointing when a show is cancelled only half an hour into a performance as it's too short a notice in order to make other plans. It is also annoying when such efforts and costs have gone into a trip whose sole purpose was to visit the production. 
That said, it is always possible that technical issues can happen. Likewise it is always possible that a headlining star may have to pull out of a performance due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances (as was the case in the ENO's production of "Sunset Boulevard" that starred Glenn Close) and people are only human, after all.
I'd like to think that the rumours about Smith are only that and nothing more and that it was indeed a technical issue - whatever that may be - that prompted the unfortunate cancellation.
What adds salt to the wound is that some ticket vendors have been rather unhelpful in assisting affected audience members in obtaining refunds or exchanging the tickets (and given the limited number of tickets remaining this is an anxious issue for some) to the point where telephone lines have been extinguished.

A most unpleasant experience all told.

UPDATE 2/5/16:
There have been reports in the press regarding the alleged behaviour of Sheridan Smith at this particular performance and, if they were found to be true (which could possibly be substantiated by the various reports Stage Managers and Company Managers keep), it would prove to be a most upsetting turn of events. I can forgive a true "technical difficulty" but if a "star" is being disrespectful not only to her fellow cast members but also to the orchestra, crew and theatre staff - not to mention the PAYING AUDIENCE - then it is deeply disturbing and I sincerely believe that the producers, if the reports are indeed true, have a duty to provide every audience member with compensation.
It was bad enough trying to deal with the ticket vendors (in this case Ambassador Theatre Group) whose procedures and staff made the process a vexing experience and also a time consuming one.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

"Thriller Live", Glasgow King's Theatre, 18/4/2016

Reviewed for Backstage Pass:

It is no surprise that "Thriller Live" continues to thrive in London's West End given the strength of the material: The songs of Michael Jackson. What comes through (too) loud and (not quite) clear during the course of the production is how many varied hits the late artist actually had - that and the adoration he and his material elicit from others. Cynically one could look at this production as a glorified tribute act, albeit with top-notch production values, but it is certainly more than that. "Thriller Live" is a fitting tribute to the "King of Pop" performed as a quasi-chronological presentation of some of Jackson's most popular songs sung by four principal singers and a dance ensemble performing his unique style of choreography.
The concert style setting and lighting (by Jonathan Park and Nigel Catmur, respectively) creates a perfect environment, including video walls, in which to present some outstanding musical numbers although the costumes by Shooting Flowers, whilst obviously influenced by and reflecting the various looks of Jackson, leave something to be desired: There is certainly a case for designs attuned more to each individual performer. That said, some of the ensemble costumes, especially during the "Thriller" and "Bad" album sequences, are spot-on.
It is unfortunate that the sound mixing still requires work as the bass-heavy music overwhelm the vocals of the singers onstage. Given most of the voices featured exist in the Treble range it is surprising that the sound could be so clumsy.
The band itself are sharp: Not a single off-note and the arrangements are superbly performed.
Gary Lloyd's choreography echoed Jackson's authentically whilst he seamlessly weaves in his own work to compliment the pre-existing material. His direction, however, is a little lacking. There are times throughout where his staging becomes static and uninteresting, especially in the first act where the space is used to little advantage. Act two, however, springs into renewed life; no doubt because the material is from Jackson's most successful period - the "Thriller" and "Bad" albums. Here the staging and choreography become intensely dynamic, almost verging on becoming full-blown musical numbers and it is here that the show coalesces into a complete whole and works perfectly.
Every now and then a little dialogue on the history of Jackson and his career is presented but this is nothing more than filler material for the most part and frankly wouldn't be missed if excised. All told, given that so much musical material is crammed into two and a half hours, the show does feel a bit long in both acts and wouldn't suffer from a little trimming here and there.
The company are nothing short of excellent and each ensemble dancer is able to present themselves both as an individual dancer and as part of a core of tightly drilled dancers performing in unison. It is also refreshing to see a company of performers who look age-appropriate.                    
When not drowned out by the band the four singers (Angelica Allen, Adam J Bernard, Shaquille Hemmans and Rory Taylor) soar almost effortlessly and do due justice to Jackson's original vocal stylings although many of the lyrics are lost in the wall of sound. But, occasionally, a singer - Taylor especially - is able to punch through the bombast and leave an impression and Taylor's solo number "She's Out Of My Life" is one of the many highlights.
When dance and vocal performances gel it is truly an excitingly thrilling experience and there is many a time throughout the show when this is the case.
One of the better concerts-for-theatre "Thriller Live" is a great reminder of the dynamic force that was Michael Jackson and is a surprisingly energising show that creates something akin to a party atmosphere amongst an audience ready and willing to lap up the pure Michael Jackson energy produced.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

"Priscilla Queen of the Desert", King's Theatre, Glasgow, 29/3/16

Written for Backstage Pass

 Ostensibly an adaptation of the movie, "The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert", this colourful and exuberant musical utilises pre-existing songs and elements of the most exquisite Australian drag show to create a production that is exciting, entertaining and thoroughly engaging.

We follow Sydney drag artist "Tick/Mitzi" (Duncan James) who is engaged by his secret wife to bring his act to the middle of Australia, bringing along two fellow performers; the outrageous "Adam/Felicia" (Adam Bailey) and transsexual former "Les Girl", "Bernadette" (Simon Green). Traveling across the outback in the eponymous bus, they encounter positive and negative reactions towards them from various factions as they travel to the 'heart of fabulous'; discovering love for each other and for themselves along the way.
The current tour captures the essential brilliance of the London West End production - albeit in a typically slightly reduced form (common for UK tours given the venues available) - and the direction of Simon Phillips (reproduced here by James Capewell) stands up strong, as does the book by Stephen Elliot (writer and director of the original film) and Allan Scott. With energetic choreography by Ross Coleman & Andrew Hallsworth and the stunning Tony-winning costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (based on their original, Oscar-winning, designs) "Priscilla" is a show with never a dull moment and even the design, adapted from Brian Thomson's original, is colourful and humorous.

Credit must also be given to the orchestrator/arranger Stephen 'Spud' Murphy (& Charlie Hull) for making the eclectic songs gel as a musical score, working to the benefit of the plot (as opposed to many a musical of the juke-box variety) whilst ensuring the musical material functions as an essential part of the show.

The cast is more than ably led by the trio of Adam Bailey as "Adam" and Simon Green as "Bernadette" who play polar opposites and exude energy and unexpected emotion whilst Former "Blue" member Duncan James is really quite a revelation in the part of "Tick", a role he clearly relishes. 

The ensemble is a thoroughly integral part of the show and there is not a single weak link. Indeed there is much to enjoy from the company; the ensemble dancers; the glorious "Divas" of Lisa-Marie Holmes, Laura Mansell and Catherine Mort through to the cameo roles including "Bob" (a pleasantly underplayed Philip Childs); the "Miss Understanding" of Matt Crandon and, of course, the saucy "Cynthia" of Julie Yammanee. Throughout the production there are many moments where the ensemble and its various members are given a chance to shine.

It's true that some of the choreography could do with tightening in places and it is a shame that the production sometimes feels shoe-horned into a theatre really too small for it given there are various elements of the production that have had to be adapted, and even omitted, for the relatively small King's Theatre. That said, the show remains outrageously entertaining and it is no surprise that this production has been spruced up and revived for another tour and it remains one of those musicals that serve as a positive tonic to modern life, ensuring that every audience member leaves with a huge smile upon their face. Fabulous!!