Saturday, 15 September 2018

"An Officer And A Gentleman", Glasgow King's Theatre, 10/9/18

A review written for Backstage Pass:

Once most new musicals were based on pre-existing plays and/or novels but nowadays the trend leans towards adapting motion picture titles and one of the newest is An Officer And A Gentleman based on the 1982 film starring Richard Gere. This is actually the third musical version following a Japanese adaptation in 2010 and an Australian production in 2012 which featured an original score whereas this new tour utilises pre-existing songs.

Zack Mayo is one of a new group of US Navy trainees who face several obstacles before achieving their dream of graduating - none more formidable than drill sergeant Emil Foley. On top of all that romance materialises for Zack and his friend Sid in the form of local factory workers Paula Pokrifki and Lynette Pomeroy who only add to their turbulent experiences.

As a piece of stage work this adaptation's book by Douglas Day Stewart (writer of the original film) and Sharleen Cooper Cohen requires tightening and it is to director Nikolai Foster's credit that he elects to bring out the humour of the script whilst creating some strong moments onstage - including the simple yet rousing finale. 

Michael Taylor's set design has some strong elements but does become bland at times and the lighting of Ben Cracknell is likewise a bit hit and miss with chaotic choices existing alongside more refined options. Sadly the sound design also requires tinkering with as it was nigh impossible at times to hear the vocals above the incredibly loud - though proficient - band. The orchestrations by George Dyer are first-rate and the choice of songs is pretty well on the mark though some are not as organic to the plot as others. Regardless the musical numbers are incredibly enjoyable and bring intense energy to the production.

Once again Foster has assembled a fine ensemble led by Jonny Fines as "Zack Mayo" and Emma Williams as "Paula Pokrifki" both of whom possess tremendous vocals and stage presence. They also share a palpable chemistry that is essential to the story. Ian McIntosh ("Sid Worley") and Jessica Daley ("Lynette Pomeroy") are equally as enjoyable especially as their story-line comes to a head. Ray Shell is a huge presence within the show and is on fine form as the domineering "Emil Foley" and he is clearly enjoying himself onstage whilst the company as a whole ably rise above the limitations of the libretto.

Though somewhat lacking as a piece of stage drama An Officer And A Gentleman is still enjoyable fun - if only for the dynamic performances of the various rock and pop songs by the superb cast.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

"Love From A Stranger", Glasgow Theatre Royal, 26/6/18

Written for Backstage Pass:

First performed in 1936, Love From A Stranger presents us with Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) who, following a financial windfall, heedlessly abandons her old life in search of adventure when she encounters titular stranger, Bruce Lovell (Sam Frenchum), moving with him to a remote country cottage. Cecily will come to learn, however, that Bruce is more than the romantic she thought him.
Adapted by Agatha Christie and Frank Vosper from an earlier Christie short story and play, Love From A Stranger is not one of Christie's typical whodunits though it is constructed around Christie's oft-utilised theme of identity with a naive woman at its centre. Some dialogue and situations may be somewhat dated and hard-to-believe for a modern audience but, as with all Christie, it is the mystery that continues to grasp the spectator.

Director Lucy Bailey's staging is a little uneven with the opening scene, apparently played for realism, a little staid. The remaining scenes, however, are more lively and entertainingly directed and include subtle farcical moments. But it is the final scene - a tremendously gripping tour de force - that is something else entirely: superior in every way, it is executed with precision even whilst it islightly mind-boggling.  
The moody, evocative sets by Mike Britton are used cinematically by Bailey and they are enhanced by Oliver Fenwick's lighting. Bailey, besides introducing some staging contrivances, also elects to rely on sound to create atmosphere and tension. Fortunately sound designer and composer Richard Hammarton handles his duties well and often with subtlety.

There are strong, solid performances throughout the play with Helen Bradbury ably leading the troupe as seemingly naive 'Cecily' whilst Molly Logan ('Ethel') and Nicola Sanderson ('Louise Garrard') pepper welcome light relief throughout. Justin Avoth, as jilted fiance 'Michael Lawrence', and Sam Frenchum, as 'Bruce', proffer arresting performances with Frenchum reaching great heights in the denouement. That the assured company can bring so much out of Christie and Vosper's 1930's dialogue is nothing but a credit to all of them.

Though a little muddled in its staging, Love From A Stranger nevertheless evolves into a riveting, suspense-filled thriller with some awesome performances and it captures that mystery magic for which Agatha Christie remains justly famous.

Monday, 25 June 2018

"Sunshine On Leith", 19/6/18, King's Theatre Glasgow

Written for Backstage Pass:

Sunshine on Leith peppers the songs of The Proclaimers throughout an adroit, humourous and moving script by Stephen Greenhorn which has been slightly updated since its premiere in 2007. 

Following a tour of military duty overseas Davy and Ally return to their hometown of Edinburgh and have to adapt to life as 'civvies' but, perhaps, their most difficult struggle lies ahead - love. Life is not so simple for their families either and they, too, must answer the questions, 'How far would you go for those you care about?' and 'What constitutes home?'

Director James Brining stages the musical in an eclectic and thrilling way, keeping the stage alive with movement, action and moments of physical theatre. Brining handles Greenhorn's finely tuned libretto with a deft hand and perfectly tailors each scene with suitable care and attention. The musicians are also brilliantly integrated and Emily-Jane Boyle's illuminating choreography emerges seamlessly from the action.  Colin Richmond's design is surprisingly versatile and is refined by some beautifully evocative lighting by Tim Mitchell.
For a 'jukebox' musical the songs by The Proclaimers are incorporated so successfully that one forgets they were not written especially for the stage. The variety of songs is also surprising and they range from the majestically moving to the ebulliently joyous and, with the script, serve to create one of the most dramatically and theatrically successful musicals ('jukebox' or otherwise) of modern times. Kudos must also be given to music arranger David Shrubsole, sound designer Richard Brooker and musical director Toby Higgins who, jointly, service the score eminently providing several spine-tingling moments.

Phil McKee's Rab and Hilary Maclean as Jean handle one of the most dramatic story-lines with skilled ease, masterfully creating a meaningful relationship that movingly speaks to an audience. 
Jocasta Almgill's Yvonne and Neshla Caplan's Liz are executed with rounded precision, rising beyond mere love interests and catalysing the denouement with their characters' various choices. 
The ensemble is comprised of outstanding artists, some of whom augment the brilliant band becoming actor/musicians led by a dynamic Tyler Collins and John McLarnon.
As Ally Paul-James Corrigan crafts an adept performance, formulating a character ultimately tortured by frustration. Well known for his role in television's River City, Corrigan here proves himself a versatile and engaging musical performer.
That former Casualty actor Steven Miller is not a bigger name is something of a puzzle: as Davy he is a sterling leading man with a beautifully lyrical voice and deft physical prowess with a sincere acting style absolutely in sync with the piece - something true of every performer onstage.

A splendid entertainment that provides an uplifting force whilst simultaneously impressing a more sober message of family and home, Sunshine on Leith is a superbly constructed modern musical executed with sublime magnificence. One not to be missed!

"The Last Ship", 18/6/18, Glasgow Theatre Royal

Written for Backstage Pass:

Four years after its premiere in America The Last Ship makes its way around the UK in a new production retaining the music and lyrics of Sting but with a brand-new book by director Lorne Campbell (original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey).

Stemming initially from Sting's own Northern childhood and his 1990 album, The Soul Cages, the fall of the great shipyards becomes a reflection on mortality with the musical portraying a community, fronted by foreman Jackie White, facing the reality of life without their shipbuilding industry. Simultaneously, we also follow the re-emerging romance between Meg and Gideon who returns to his hometown after 17 years away at sea.

Director Lorne Campbell creates some eloquent moments on stage with the pace generally well sustained, although Act One does require refining and some trimming of the musical score is needed. Campbell's new book comes into its own in the second act, dramatically and emotionally, and ultimately transforms the production into a powerful, political statement.
59 Productions' design, complimented by Matt Daw's lighting, is a stunningly beautiful and evocative environment with impressive projections that enable a cinematic sense of movement within which the working-class nature of the characters is appropriately echoed in the movement of Lucy Hind.

There are some gripping scenes, notably when the book finds its feet and becomes political - as when we see Susan Fay as a Thatcher-like Baroness Tynedale - and the ensemble are wonderful in them. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, several lyrics are unintelligible and sometimes - as in the case of Kevin Wathen channelling a drunk Oliver Reed as Davey - dialogue is equally as indecipherable.
Richard Fleeshman's vocal quality is not necessarily conducive to musical theatre but he nevertheless comes across well as Gideon, especially in Act Two, with a sincere performance that is more than equalled by a dynamic Frances McNamee as Meg. Joe McGann is a solid, rousing Jackie White and he is superbly partnered by Penelope Woodman as his wife, Peggy, who is a powerhouse in the role.

The Last Ship is a little muddled to begin with but, ultimately, surprises with some beautiful songs supporting a plot that metamorphoses into a spirited call to arms for the working class and the conscientious.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

"Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell - The Musical", Dominion Theatre, 30/5/16

Bat Out Of Hell is resurrected at London's Dominion Theatre and rocks bigger than before! A futuristic, rock retelling of the Peter Pan fable, we enter the world of "Obsidian", an island city separated from the mainland following chemical wars, whose inhabitants form two factions - dictator Falco, his family and followers/employees and The Lost, a group of perpetual 18 year-olds - victims of the chemical warfare - led by Strat, who rebel against Falco's real estate ambitions. As Falco's daughter, Raven, turns 18 she encounters Strat and the two fall in love. Confrontations ensue as various members of the factions struggle to live and love dealing with issues of love, loss and revenge along the way.

The production is leaner than ever, although "It Just Won't Quit" is still missed and some of the edits are unnecessary - particularly Zahara's prompting Strat to return to Raven - and ideally should be reinstated. The new elements, however, only enhance the production and clarify plot elements further filling the stage with a mass of exciting details to observe: Director Jay Scheib has added many little details of business that create even more depth to the staging and supplement the characters and their development within Jim Steinman's story; the distillation of his ethos, more commercially viable than the previous versions (Neverland, The Dream Engine), retaining the elements that excite him.
Scheib continues to sculpt a mesmerising physical production that is part musical, part rock concert, part opera and it's perhaps the latter form that best describes Jim Steinman's opus. Steinman and Scheib have grafted the larger than life elements of high-brow art onto the rock concert form and melded it with the mega-musical and they have continued to hone the staging to further the story and Scheib's direction is perfectly attuned to making the best of it. Emma Portner's choreography has also been tweaked and remains an enjoyable element as part of the whole.

On a side note, the newspapers that have been part of this show since the Coliseum last year were not in evidence at this particular performance. They were created to provide the audience with a little exposition and insight into the environment before the show starts and have had several revisions since their first appearance. Frankly, as nice as they are to have as a memento they really aren't required as the exposition is treated well throughout the first act for an audience to gauge what's what.

Alternate Jordan Luke Gage brings an ethereal quality to the role of Strat, looking and acting less mature (appropriately) than Andrew Polec, and his vocals also bring a new aspect to the part. Gage's youthful appearance also adds credence to his portrayal and his confidence in the part grew exponentially as the show progressed. Gage need only work on the irreverent physical abandon that erupts from Strat at particular moments but this will come with more experience in the role.
Christina Bennington surpasses herself as Raven digging deeper into the role whilst retaining the essential elements of the part and continuing to provide a voice of diverse features.
Danielle Steers continues to arrest the viewer as Zahara and steals scenes easily with the slightest of efforts benefiting greatly from the retooled direction with her various facial asides worth the ticket price alone, never mind her million dollar voice.
Understudy Christopher Cameron as Jagwire brought a gritty, raw vocal and an earthy honesty to the role he was playing for the first time ever, having been a last-minute installation following regular actor Wayne Robinson's indisposition. A remarkable performance that grew before our eyes and I have no doubt he'll exceed himself again and again the more he undertakes the role.
Alex Thomas-Smith is visually more believable than his predecessor as the pre-pubescent Tink (thanks, in part, to a redesigned costume) but, like the other new actors, he brings a different quality and sweeter voice to the part. This new Tink, aided by subtle changes in direction, is at once more fragile and more dangerous than before though, for some reason, there is an unfortunate sense that the role has been reduced, which is untrue, but this must certainly be due to cutting "It Just Won't Quit" and the graveyard scene which aided keeping his spirit within the show.
The veteran company members continue to find new depths in the lines and lyrics they voice and their acting through song is superior and Sharon Sexton and Rob Fowler as Sloane and Falco lead the pack, continuing to excel as the mature couple searching for what they've lost. The new ensemble members have integrated seamlessly and blend well as members of The Lost.
The production's superb casting enables each performer to be unique and there are no mere look/act/soundalikes here; even the understudies and alternates bring individual takes to the lead roles which further the variations on offer to the audience - so much so that many fans 'collect' performers and try to see as many different actors in a role as possible. The divine cast are surely one of the many strengths in this immense production.

Jon Bausor's design has also undergone some minor tweaks and it continues to impress as one of the boldest, metamorphic sets to ever grace a stage. That it was overlooked for an Olivier Award (in fact the show only received one nomination for Sound) is, frankly, mind-boggling. The costumes have been further refined and the video and lighting designs are still perfect for the production. Likewise the orchestra - or, perhaps, band is more appropriate for such a rock opera - persist in their brilliant execution of Steinman's monumental rock score and kudos must be heaped upon musical director Rob Emery and the orchestrators and arrangers Steve Sidwell and Michael Reed.

Whilst Bat Out Of Hell is, in many ways, the same show as that which occupied the Coliseum, it is also something else entirely, with an added dimension and depth brought about by a superlative cast and creative team.

An epic, ethereal, surreal, comic-book rock and roll fantasy faerie-tale, "Bat Out Of Hell" is every bit of wonderful. Rock and roll dreams really do come through ...

Friday, 8 June 2018

"Chess", English National Opera, London Coliseum, 31/5/18

For such a well-loved musical it is surprising that it has taken so long for a West End revival of Chess to materialise. Then again, given its endless revisions, perhaps it isn't such a wonder. But, finally, it has been revived, albeit in yet another version that aims to bring the material closer to its original source material - the concept album. To a great degree it succeeds and the fact that the orchestra of the English National Opera are involved ensures a rich musical sound.
Tim Rice has said that the addition of Walter de Courcey in the original stage production was an unnecessary complication and this new version in removing him does indeed feel more streamlined and uncomplicated. That said it is not a perfect production but it does hold so much promise.

Directed by Laurence Connor who also, presumably (as there is no credit given), created the new book. He does a competent job but his construction is a little stunted in the dialogue department, which tends to promote the necessary without any real flair. Connor even rewrites some of Rice's original dialogue unnecessarily. The blunt, sometimes abrupt, nature of the scenes also crosses to Connor's song placements and lyrical choices which are also a little questionable if we look at them for dramatic purposes and I wonder if this was an early issue given the production was billed as "semi-staged" even if the final product was far from "semi". But whatever the cause, these are elements that should be easily rectified should this production re-materialise at some point.
Connor's actual direction is serviceable and he does have some interesting staging ideas but he is certainly blessed to have a brilliant choreographer in Stephen Mear whose musical stagings are witty and intelligent and include the best staging of "Merano" I've seen. Perhaps Connor needs to learn to take more daring risks in his work.
Connor is also fortunate in the design of Matthew Kinley which is beautifully supplemented by the  extraordinary video designs of Terry Scruby. Kinley's is an abstract design upon which realistic fixtures are essayed and one wishes they had gone the whole hog with an abstract production, but Connor is clearly uncomfortable with this idea (much like Trevor Nunn in the original production) and has only one abstract sequence throughout. Patrick Woodroffe's lighting is also another element that brings further dimensions to Connor's sometimes stilted staging. Christina Cunningham's costumes perfectly represent that period of cross-over that existed between the 1970s and 80s though why so many of the male leads wore similar spectacles is a bit of a strange puzzle. Anders Eljas' ornate orchestrations, naturally, sound thrilling and the synth sounds are evocative of the period and come through brilliantly in Mick Potter's excellent sound design.

The ENO ensemble do a fine job in adjusting to a more non-operatic sound and it would be difficult to identify them amongst the veteran musical theatre performers though, surprisingly, the ensemble is not used as much as they could have been.
Michael Ball heads the cast as Russian Grand-master "Anatoly Sergievsky" and he does a fine job of portraying a man weary of the political machinations of his government. Ball also acts through the melodies and lyrics rather than just singing them though he is sometimes limited by static direction. As his wife, "Svetlana", Alexandra Burke offers a powerful, though somewhat breathy in the lower register, voice and peppers her moments with soulful trills which can be a trifle distracting. She emotes appropriately but is a little too big in the role. Connor should have advised her that sometimes less is more. Cedric Neal is a wonderful "Arbiter" with a stunning vocal performance and presence and Phillip Browne brings a threatening deep tone to the Soviet "Molokov". Browne's performance is appropriately mannered and charming but we also get moments where we see "Molokov" reveal his other aspects, notably during "The Soviet Machine". Tim Howar's "Freddie" is something of a revelation, despite Connor's clunky handling of the character. Howar's voice has the appropriate rock edge and easily handles some of the highest notes in musical theatre for a male. He is also charming and vulnerable in the role yet simultaneously dangerous. What was once the lead role of "Florence" is played here by Cassidy Janson who, unquestionably, brings a dynamic voice and presence to the role. Janson is also able to play "Florence" as hard and as soft as and when required and it's just unfortunate that the role comes across as lesser under Connor's hand. But when Janson is given those moments to shine, she blazes and none more so than with her duet with Burke, "I Know Him So Well".

A sometimes brilliant production, this new version of Chess is ultimately a flawed work - though not necessarily due to its original authors and whilst the new book certainly retains a simplicity it does feel a little pressed in bringing various plot-strands together at the very end. There are, however, moments of theatrical bliss but, sadly, also tepid staging in Laurence Connor's uneven direction which is inevitably salvaged by Stephen Mear's brilliant choreography and the work of the various designers. Still not perfect, but Chess is clearly on the right road to redemption.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

"Titanic - The Musical", Glasgow King's Theatre, 28/5/18

A review written for Backstage Pass:

Some events are so monumental they become seared into the consciousness of history and the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic is one. Famously dubbed "unsinkable" it proved as fallible as every other human creation when an iceberg struck just before midnight on April 14 causing the passenger liner to sink beneath the waves of the freezing Atlantic Ocean less than three hours later. Approximately 1500 people lost their lives in the tragedy which would go on to inspire numerous artistic endeavours.
The musical "Titanic" premiered on Broadway in 1997, the same year that a movie of the same name
coincidentally appeared. The musical is not an adaptation of the latter, which creates a fictional plot within historical events, but instead focuses on the real-life persons on board to forward a deeply moving and affecting representation of the brief life of Titanic and the aspirations of those aboard. 

Historians have oft viewed the Titanic as a microcosm of Western society, with its trivialities in sharp focus, and the musical's authors also take this approach but further it by giving us an insight into the emotional lives of selected representatives from each social strata, humanising the names in history books, manifesting them before an audience who bear witness to the tragic events and, where James Cameron invented an emotional focus for his film's audience, Peter Stone (book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics) have us empathise and invest in the characters' fates so that when the inevitable happens it strikes more bitterly than can be imagined leaving the second act infinitely poignant.

"Titanic" is a remarkable ensemble piece with Yeston and Stone creating a commonality within each social group, focusing the material and furthering the drama, negating the need for a single lead character for the audience to follow and it is through the deft structure of Stone's book and the emotional impact of Yeston's compositions that we can engage with the numerous figures onstage.
The musical boasts a cast (who double various characters) without a fault among them and there are beautiful performances throughout with an abundance of standout moments, including the three "Kates" of Emma Harrold, Devon-Elise Johnson and Victoria Serra leading the third class passengers in the aspirational "Lady's Maid", the tender "Harold Bride" of Oliver Marshall and Niall Sheehy's robust "Frederick Barrett" singing "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" and the emotional "Still" performed by Judith Street and Dudley Rogersas "Ida" and "Isidor Straus" to name but a few. Lewis Cornay's "Bellboy" also makes his mark as does Claire Machin as would-be-social-climber "Alice Beane". 

Director Thom Southerland has great command of his company and his confident staging is simple yet inventive with Cressida Carré's musical staging seamlessly integrated. David Woodhead's design is uncomplicated in the best sense and used with great imagination. Likewise the sound generated by the six-person band, simultaneously echoing a period ship orchestra whilst executing a superbly deceptive small orchestration (Broadway originally had more than 20 musicians), which, when coupled with the company vocals, is an astonishing listen.

More than a simple retelling of one of history's greatest tragedies, "Titanic" is a masterwork of musical stage drama that reflects on mankind's desire for progress at all costs and the human tragedy it engenders and is a musical that deserves better recognition and is here presented in a superb production replete with stunning theatricality. Musical theatre at its best.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

"Evita", Glasgow King's Theatre, 15/5/18

Another review written for Backstage Pass:

Originally premiering as a concept album in 1976 Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita hit London's West End in 1978 making a star of Elaine Paige before arriving on Broadway with Patti LuPone in the title role. Evita (which means "Little Eva") portrays the rags to riches real life story of Eva Duarte who rose from poverty to become first lady of Argentina, alongside president Juan Perón, before reaching near-sainthood in the eyes of her beloved descamisados ('the shirtless ones') whilst simultaneously evoking the hatred of the upper-classes.
Evita continues as the pinnacle of the union of Rice and Lloyd Webber with an exciting, melodic score by Lloyd Webber and some of Rice's best lyrical work. Bill Kenwright's current touring version utilises the reworked material developed for the 2006 West End revival and continues to prove how iconic and powerful the musical is. 

It's a bit unfortunate that Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright's direction is uneven with clumsy and melodramatic staging sitting alongside more poetic, economic renderings with some of the best ideas originating in Hal Prince's original staging or Michael Grandage's revival but the stuff that works here works brilliantly, almost effortlesslyBill Deamer's choreography is witty one moment and understated the next and one yearns for more of it whilst the design serves the production perfectly well. The sound balance needs more work in the first act where some stage business overpowers the vocals - unfortunate in a musical where every lyric needs to be heard. 
Another occasional downside is the musical director's knack of reducing the tempo of some numbers rendering them intermittently flaccid. And yet, at other times, the musical direction explodes with energy, as in "A New Argentina". Perhaps the most unfortunate victim is the musical's most iconic number, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina", here bizarrely staged before a crowd of oligarchs rather than Eva's natural audience, the workers, whilst the song itself is conducted at a slower pace than usual, further troubled by the choice to pause before each chorus interrupting the dramatic impetus constructed by Lloyd Webber. 

Yet this production remains a solid, engaging, exciting piece of theatre and is fortunate in its cast who tend to rise above any creative flaws: Cristina Hoey has only one number to sing as the teenage mistress of Perón but she more than makes her mark with a striking rendition of "Another Suitcase In Another Hall" which is the emotional highlight of the first act. Jeremy Secomb brings a strong presence and vocal to the role of "Juan Perón" even if he is ill-served by mundane direction. Gian Marco Schiaretti's "Ché" is a striking narrator-figure with a voice evoking memories of the movie version's Antonio Banderas though he is also left adrift at times by the direction. Madalena Alberto is a powerful figure with a powerful voice in the eponymous role but she is perhaps too refined at the start of the show to be entirely convincing as the earthy teenage "Eva" of small-town Junin, but when she shines she radiates and never more so than in her heart-breaking performance of "You Must Love Me" and the stunningly staged and sung "Lament", perhaps the strongest, and simplest, moment in the entire production.

This may be a bit of an uneven presentation of Evita but forty years on the material remains powerful enough to move and thrill its audience as one of the most triumphant works of musical theatre.