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 CarrĂ©'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.