Saturday, 14 October 2017

"Hairspray", Glasgow King's Theatre, 2/10/17

A massive success when it premiered on Broadway 15 years ago, Hairspray is based on the cult John Waters film and revolves around the rotund Tracy Turnblad who refuses to let her size stand in the way of her dreams and inspires those she meets to stand for what is right. Along the way she falls in love and becomes a driving force for good in a story that deals with race, integration, acceptance and dance.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book is respectful of the original film and is filled with humour and warmth whilst the music and lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman perfectly encapsulates the bouncy, soulful sounds of the 1960's with a few anthemic numbers to boot.

The cast, led by Rebecca Mendoza as Tracy, Matt Rixon as Edna and Norman Price as Wilbur are pretty much faultless with stirring vocals, precise comedic timing and sterling performances throughout with standout moments from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle including her rousing rendition of I Know Where I've Been.

As Seaweed, Layton Williams exhibits true star power in his lithe gymnastic performance which plays perfectly opposite his love interest Penny played by the charming Annalise Liard-Bailey. Jon Tsouras also stand out in his role as Corny Collins presenting some brilliant faces in his asides. The remainder of the cast are no less appropriate to their characters and purvey rounded performances.

The direction by Paul Kerryson is unfussy but it is the choreography of Drew McOnie which really brings events alive. Given that Hairspray is a vibrant and uplifting show set in the 60's it is unfortunate that the production is so ugly. The design by Takis is dull and uninspired and is rather unsympathetic with the nature of the musical. It is a clumsy design of unattractive angles which inhibit staging and sight lines and comes complete with dodgy projection and, sadly, the lighting of Philip Gladwell can do little to redeem it. Takis' costumes rarely do any better and, frankly, the production deserves better.

Given the promise contained within the material and the talents of its cast this production rises above mediocrity but could have been so much better again if it were not for such a dire design concept. Perhaps the next tour will look to rectify this.

"The Addams Family", Glasgow King's Theatre, 10/10/17

Based on the macabre single-panel cartoons of Charles Addams the revised version of the musical tours the UK in its premiere professional production. With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice we join the Addams clan just as turmoil is about to hit the (un)happy household when eldest child Wednesday announces that she is - bizarrely - in love with a typically all-American boy and plans to marry. Cue a meeting of the parents and revelation of secrets to disturb one and all and anarchic chaos ensues.

The book is appropriately simplistic and relative to the nature of the original Charles Addams cartoons whilst Lippa's songs have suitable variety and wittiness and include some really heartfelt numbers.
The set by Diego Pitarch is economic yet elegantly shambolic and is used well throughout whilst his costumes are quirky and reverent to the original cartoons. Ben Cracknell's lighting design perfectly compliments both and adds dimension to the rotting visuals.
Matthew White's direction is affirmed and creates many interesting visual pictures though there are times when some of the jokes fall a little flat and he could tighten some places within the first act. The second act, however, moves at an extraordinary pace and is near perfection. Add to this the vibrant choreography of Alistair David and the parts make up a sumptuous whole, even if the King's stage felt a little cramped at times.

The production boasts an excellent cast led by the dynamic Cameron Blakely as Gomez and the resolute Samantha Womack as Morticia. Blakely is a bundle of energy on the stage and cements his prowess with ease whilst Womack is suitably stone-faced and economic until the role demands otherwise when she reveals just enough of the underlying passion within the character. Carrie Hope Fletcher's Wednesday is ostensibly the catalyst for the evening's proceedings and she handles the role with aplomb and gives Wednesday a depth and variety to match her outstanding vocals. The other members of the family shine equally in the smaller roles with Valda Aviks' Grandma a visual and dangerous treat to behold and Grant McIntyre making Pugsley a rather tender character mourning the potential loss of his sister to another boy. Oliver Ormson plays that particular boy, Lucas Beineke, with verve and gloss and Charlotte Page and Dale Rapley as his parents also add a dynamic that enhances the drama. The ensemble who play the various (un)dead clan members who flit in and out are varied and add much to the production with their dedicated and assorted characters. One of the long-running jokes within the production is the mute butler Lurch, played stoically by Dickon Gough who has a number of surprises in store. Special mention must also be made of understudy Scott Paige who played Uncle Fester at this performance. His performance was exemplary with superb comedic timing and charm and it's hard to say how Les Dennis, who usually plays the role, could be any better.

Though not perfect, The Addams Family is a wacky and thoroughly enjoyable musical treat with a life-affirming heartbeat at its core. With strong performances and a suitably grubby visual style this is another case of a top-rate production doing the rounds once again proving that one need not journey to London's West End to enjoy a cracking production.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

"Sunset Boulevard", 3/10/17, Edinburgh Playhouse

Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton's musical, based on the Billy Wilder film, portrays the story of hard-up screenwriter Joe Gillis and his fateful encounter with former silent movie goddess Norma Desmond. Desmond ostensibly employs Gillis to rewrite her comeback return whist he elects to make the most of the situation while alternately engaging in another partnership.
The original movie contained elements of film noir and melodrama and these are retained for the musical's book and are promoted in Nikolai Foster's stunning production.

The production boasts an orchestra of 16 which is quite an exception these days (but would be seen as small some years past) and is all the better for it; Lloyd Webber's score is inherently cinematic and as such relies on string and brass orchestration for emotional and physical prowess which pulsates throughout the piece. The sound design further enhances the power of the live musicians.

This production is blessed with a beautiful design which is both evocative and striking and perfectly encapsulates Foster's concept of a theatrical film production; with the set moving fluidly, cinematically at one time; then physically, theatrically the next, the mix is a sublime blend. Added to that are exceptional projections brilliantly used to add further depth as well as some contrasting lighting which furthers the experience. In tandem they create some exciting sequences including the care chase which was at once both cinematic and theatrical. Foster is a director who really knows how to work a set and his use of space and dimension is second to none and I am always excited by his production, even the ones that don't quite hit the mark.

The ensemble cast lend great vocal power to the musical and portray many varying roles, including the stagehands who lurk about the sound-stage set, silently observing an occasional moment before engaging in the next scene-change. There are occasions when an older actor would be more appropriate (as in the studio figures Norma recalls from previous days) but this is a small niggle.
Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer, a wannabe screenwriter, lends an amiable yet determined air and a sweet voice that manages to harden as the plot reaches its resolution. Adam Pearce is a strong and centred Max with a voice that is both powerful and tender. His precise movements are appropriately attuned and something that leading man Danny Mac should learn from; Mac is too energised as cynical Joe Gillis with lots of arm gestures and bouncing throughout the production. There is an economy of stillness that he should learn which would make his performance all the more powerful. As it is he is adequate in the role even if his vocals are unremarkable for the most part.
Ria Jones however has an awesome presence and exceptional vocals in the role of Norma Desmond, the part she originated in the musical's early workshop. When she sings As If We Never Said Goodbye she really means it. Jones captures the melodramatic elements of Desmond with aplomb and the only negative is that she really doesn't play the various descents in to melancholy with enough darkness until the final scene. That said, she stalks the set and hovers over all her scenes like some decrepit vulture eagerly anticipating the next opportunity - be it in Joe Gillis or her reunion with Cecil B. DeMille. Hers is a mesmeric performance and she demands attention every time she opens her mouth to sing.

The production is nearly perfect aside from a few small issues; I was surprised to see that the scene for much of the Act I finale - Artie's apartment - was replaced with Schwab's Drugstore requiring some slightly clunky dialogue changes and though the use of projection was, in the main, inspired there were occasions where it was overused and none more so than in the sequence where Betty journeys to Norma's mansion where we are treated to projection that was reminiscent of The Matrix's falling letters. Here the chosen images were out of place with the remainder of the production. At other occasional moments the amount of projection threatened to become distracting from the onstage action. There is also a need for the final scene to be played at a more suitable pace as it felt too rushed and it should be where we see Norma completely deconstruct, and the audience should have the time to appreciate the awful tragedy of it all. Elsewhere in Act I pace could be picked up here and there, though in reality this may be an argument for some trimming of the musical's book/score (There is at least one small part that I feel could be cut without any damage to the piece's structure at all).

Sunset Boulevard remains one of the best of Andrew Lloyd Webber's canon and this production is as near perfect as such a production can be and extols how, with the right director and design team, a touring production can match - even excel - much of what London's west End can offer. Exquisite design and conception matched with (for the most part) exceptional talent has created one of the best productions to emerge for many a year.