Wednesday, 30 November 2016

"Kinky Boots", Adelphi Theatre, London, 25/11/16

My second return visit to what has become one of my all-time favourite shows proved just how astoundingly joyful and uplifting the show really is.
This is the first time I've seen the production since its first cast change and I think I noted a few minor little changes here and there, although I could, of course, be wrong.

'Charlie Price' reluctantly takes over the his family's shoe factory and must work to find a way to save the factory and its workers. Unexpectedly encountering drag queen 'Lola' an idea is born which may just be the answer. 'Lola' and 'Charlie' join forces and face adversity and bigotry head-on, both external and internal, leading to the realisation that finding and accepting one's self is as important as accepting each other.

Matt Henry remains from the original cast and he just gets better and better; his comic timing, his physicality, his glorious voice and the powerful emotional performance he elicits is brighter than ever and he truly deserved the Olivier award for his performance. He is magnetic as 'Lola' and the dimensions he brings to the role seem forever fresh.
David Hunter has taken over as 'Charlie' and he is simply perfect for the role. His everyday charm and warmth, his physical presence and his honey-like vocals, together with his natural appeal indicate that he was born to play the role and he manages to elevate the standing of 'Charlie' when next to 'Lola' with the energy and chemistry between the two perfectly attuned. Hunter fits even more naturally into the part than his predecessor and this is equally true of Elena Sky who has taken over as 'Lauren' who bestows a more naturalistic take on the part as does Alan Mehdizadeh as 'Don'. Michael Hobbs is another holdover form the original cast and his 'George' is even more enjoyable and humorous than before.
The entire ensemble, whether new or old members of the company (and including the young actors), all work together to create a powerfully effective ensemble and this is never truer than in the portrayal of the various 'Angels' who are the back-up singers/dancers for 'Lola'; each is a clearly defined individual and their interactions, even when not the primary focus of a scene, are little gems amongst a treasure trove of glories that constitute the cast of 'Kinky Boots'.

The orchestra is equally on fire and the sound they produce is one of the pillars that holds the production up so well. The sound design of John Shivers works perfectly in tandem with the musicians and I have a greater appreciation for the music and lyrics that Cyndi Lauper which prove to be irresistible and sublimely suited to the production. Harvey Fierstein's book seems to work even better than before and this may be due to the fresh influx of performing talent that performs it.
Gregg Barnes' costumes are as radiant as ever and are set off against the set design of David Rockwell which morphs effortlessly as required and is complimented and set off by the lighting design by Kenneth Posner who lights the cast stirringly.
Jerry Mitchell's direction and choreography is clear and concise allowing his performers, both new and old, to take ownership of their characters in the best possible way. His staging is sympathetic to the requirements of the story-telling whilst also providing a conducive environment for the company to thrive in. Mitchell's contrasting use of lively action and stillness is well executed and he handles the comedy with ease. Though, at times, it may seem that the production is a little light-handed given the plot and themes, this is ultimately not the case as Mitchell delicately and deftly balances the more frivolous aspects with the more heavy material and ultimately all is perfectly appropriate to the nature of the show.

There is such economy in the story-telling and staging and the music so ultimately uplifting that is hard to see how this cannot be classed as perfect entertainment material. The fact that the message behind the plot is deftly handled without being in any way preachy makes this a production that has many levels and one that can appeal to one and all.
I cannot shout loudly enough at how outstanding 'Kinky Boots' is and I cannot recommend it highly enough; it is a show that, for many a reason, should be seen by as many people as possible. Especially in this day and age. 
I have now seen the production thrice and I shall see it again. And again. And ...

So: 'Just Be!'

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Shawshank Redemption, Glasgow Theatre Royal, 21/11/16

Written for Backstage Pass:

Falsely imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover, Andy Dufresne faces years behind bars at Shawshank prison where he will encounter both uplifting joy and vicious horror at the hands of the various inmates and prison officials, including the enterprising Red and the corrupt Warden Stammas. Andy comes to find an inner strength and resolve and discovers that the true meaning of freedom lies within the unbroken spirit.

Based on the novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption", from Stephen King's "Different Seasons" collection, and the 1994 movie, the theatrical version of "The Shawshank Redemption" is adapted by Owen O'Neill and Dave Johns and uses material drawn from both sources so feels fresher than if it were based solely on one or the other. The script is rather episodic in its telling of the plot and can seem a little heavy on the exposition at times which can be a little lazy and tiresome to watch. 

David Esbjornson's direction seems at odds with the episodic storytelling and his more naturalistic approach extends into the design of Gary McCann with these elements combining to create some uneasily paced moments onstage with the momentum often stalled and restarted, though this is more or less rectified following the interval to the benefit of the production. But together with the presence of dead space on the stage and cumbersome, slow transitions this all adds up to uneven staging and one wonders if a more abstract, Brechtian approach would be a more appropriate storytelling device. 

More successful was the lighting design of Chris Davey and the sound design of Dan Samson which was aurally effective and well balanced with great choices in the music selections played throughout the production (used to cover scene changes or to denote a change of era). 

Paul Nicholls as 'Andy Dufresne' is an attractive lead but his performance is unsure and is played at a stuttering pace in the first act. He does improve greatly in the second act, however, and begins to come into his own by the end of the play. Ben Onwukwe as 'Red' is far more successful, handling the exposition easily. His is the true central role and it is through 'Red' we come to know the other characters so Onwukwe's performance is the most important in the play. Thankfully he is adept at the task and, though a trifle restrained by the occasionally clumsy piece of direction, is deftly able to bring the audience along with him as the play progresses. As 'Warden Stammas', Jack Ellis is underused and is never really given time to make the impact required of the character. In the moments he has, however, he makes the most of them and is able to project the necessary elements of the role.

In what is, for all intents and purposes, something of an ensemble piece the remaining cast members are a boon for the production and they are essential in keeping the stage alive with each character a unique figure in a world that could easily be populated with non-entities. Andrew Boyer's moving 'Brooksie', Daniel Stewart's strong 'Hadley' and Nicholas Banks' energised 'Tommy Williams' are among those who make an impression but the whole ensemble is a strong and vitally necessary one.

"The Shawshank Redemption" is sadly let down by serviceable direction but performed by a cast that, for the most part, rises above this limitation to perform a script that shows real promise which, given a little revising, deserves a more appropriate staging. "The Shawshank Redemption" deserves better and hope springs eternal.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

"Little Shop Of Horrors", Glasgow Theatre Royal, 16/11/16

The popular cult musical makes a welcome return to the UK touring scene more than five years after the previous tour (produced by the Menier Chocolate Factory) in a brand new production co-produced by the dynamic Sell-A-Door theatre company.

Telling the tale of Skid-Row florist 'Seymour' (Sam Lupton), his love for the dizzy 'Audrey' (Stephanie Clift) and the magnetic plant he calls 'Audrey II' who turns out to be a blood-devouring creature from another world. Based on the 1960s Roger Corman film and featuring songs by Disney legends Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (who also wrote the book and directed the original production) the musical is an affectionate homage to the B-movies of yester-year and the musical styles of the 1960s.

Sam Lupton is a perfect 'Seymour' capturing his charm, awkwardness and devoted passion for the girl he works with. He is heart-breaking at times and effortlessly delivers a dynamic central performance that centres the production with a real sense of humanity. His appearance covers both the ideals of the geeky nerd and the geek-chic that allows us to believe that 'Audrey' could fall for him (as the audience must surely do).
As 'Ronnette', 'Crystal' and 'Chiffon' - essentially the greek chorus of the play - Cassie Clare, Sasha Latoya and Vanessa Fisher are pretty damned perfect and each possess powerful vocals and engaging stage presence.
The 'Mushnik' of Paul Kissaun is also welcomely underplayed with a very measured performance and vocal quality to match.

Headlining the tour is Rhydian Roberts who excels as' Orin Scrivello (DDS)' and other characters. His performance is dynamic, animated and he is able to adapt his vocals to the various persons he plays but as the sadistic dentist he is another perfect piece of casting. With each new production Roberts undertakes his acting becomes stronger and stronger and here he shines stunningly.
Stephanie Clift is not entirely successful as 'Audrey' in that hers is a somewhat uneven performance despite her rich voice. The problem really lies with the comedic elements required for the role - there are moments where her control of the comedy is perfect and others which miss the mark. That said she is still endearing to behold and her chemistry with Lupton is palpable.
Of course the major centre point of the show is 'Audrey II' herself and the puppet design is attractive and the performance especially alluring with puppeteer Josh Wilmott expertly controlling the larger puppets with apparent ease and gracefulness of movement confirming believability in the creature.

Tara Wilkinson's direction, whilst successful in most areas, does lack a complete understanding of the relationship between comedy and timing and she doesn't adequately mine the comedy gold inherent in the script and lyrics and she allows moments to pass by unmarked. For example; during "Somewhere That's Green" we are treated to the only use of projection in the production to illustrate the daydreams of 'Audrey' which, whilst charming to look at, does detract from the central performance of Clift as 'Audrey' which is where the audience's attention really should be focused rather than on the staging which it is at present. This, I feel, is partly the reason for Stephanie Clift's problems. Wilkinson could also do with re-examining the pace of the show which is near-hampered at times by some uncomfortable transitions and her staging does also have its clumsy moments and this is partly due to the comic design of David Shields which, whilst appealing to the eye, does create some awkward staging situations. The lighting of Charlie Morgan Jones also suffers from the odd misstep with certain corners of the flower shop often in some inappropriate shadow. All three of these production aspects are inextricably linked and it is testament to the strength of the writing and the strong cast that, for the most part, the show remains a powerfully engaging and enjoyable production. Matthew Cole's choreography is precisely attuned to the show and becomes so natural to the production that one forgets its existence as 'choreography'. The tiny band that performs the musical score is an exciting one and the musical direction is assured even if one or two of the numbers could do with a slightly faster tempo.

Despite the (very) few unsuccessful aspects of the production 'Little Shop Of Horrors' doesn't fail to entertain and is replete with a score and script that still feels fresh and engaging. This production is ultimately a fine presentation of a show that really does deserve to be seen more often than it has been in recent decades.

"Million Dollar Quartet", Glasgow King's Theatre, 14/11/16

A review composed for Backstage Pass:

Memphis, Tennessee, December 4th 1956. At the Sun Record Studios rock and roll history is made as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash serendipitously converge and engage in an impromptu jam session which will go down in rock and roll history. Written by Colin Escott and Flloyd Mutrux, 'Million Dollar Quartet' dramatises this event and is a celebration of rock and roll music and the greats who performed and lived it. 

Each of the quartet members plays and sings live and their talent is a wondrous thing tobehold, each inhabiting their roles with unbridled energy, especially Martin Kaye as 'Jerry Lee Lewis' who is outstanding in the part, bringing much comedy along the way together with outstanding skills on the piano. Matthew Wycliffeas 'Carl Perkins' also shines with his portrayal of the professional rivalry Perkins has with the other quartet members is another stimulating aspect of the production. Ross William Wild and Robbie Durham, as 'Elvis Presley' and 'Johnny Cash' respectively, are equally gifted and all four are exciting to watch. Katie Ray makes a sizable impact as 'Dyanne', the only woman onstage, and her voice is dynamite. The cast are expertly supported by Ben Cullingworth on drums and James Swinnerton on bass.

As the emotional core of the drama, Jason Donovan as 'Sam Phillips' maintains a strong presence amongst the excitement going on about him and he is able to centre the production whilst appropriately delivering the bulk of exposition; his central part in the culmination of the dramatic events enables its convincing execution to an emotionally appropriate end. If acting really is about re-acting then Donovan has nailed it in a role that utterly demands it.

Whilst a sizable chunk of the script by Escott and Mutrux serves as exposition and back story for each singer - threatening to become little more than linking material in doing so - it does become more dramatically resonant in the second act enabling the show to reach an appropriately sombre ending satisfyingly lifted by a rousing rock-out-finale that leaves the receptive audience on a high. 

Ian Talbot's direction is unfussy and clear, serving the script fittingly whilst allowing his cast to bloom and thrive and David Farley's compact unit set of the Sun Records Studio serves and functions well and is complimented by a sharp lighting and sound design, by David Howe and Ben Harrison respectively, that can barely be more appropriate for the production.

True, the script is a bit contrived at times and deserves more of a solid structure throughout but the musical quality and the cast make 'Million Dollar Quartet' a rousing, energetic production that seeks to risebeyond the ordinary jukebox musical, adding a dash of humanity and drama in the telling of a real-life event.
And it succeeds much better than expected. Much!