Monday, 31 August 2015

Review: Mrs Henderson Presents, Theatre Royal Bath

"Where's that damn woman?"

That woman is of course Laura Henderson, a rich widow who in 1937 decides to save the Windmill Theatre from closure and together with Jewish entrepreneur Vivian Van Damm, introduces a continuous variety revue called Revudeville. And seeking to keep their nose ahead of their competitors, nudity is added to the bill, a la Moulin Rouge though unprecedented in the UK, but the censorship battles with the Lord Chamberlain’s office pales into insignificance once war breaks out and the theatre becomes a landmark, refusing to close even as London is battered by the Blitz. 

Terry Johnson's book for Mrs Henderson Presents wisely adapts Martin Sherman's screenplay from the film of the same name to create a more tightly encapsulated world centred on the backstage lives of the theatre folk. It dives straight into the main story from the outset and switches things about just enough to keep anyone familiar with the film on their toes. And George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s score dances around the period beautifully, pastiche songs evoking the 30s spirit perfectly with a smattering of vaudevillean fun here and driving musical theatre anthems there, always remaining tuneful. 

Cast of Mrs Henderson Presents continued

Review: My Eyes Went Dark, Finborough

“You’re not to blame, but that doesn’t mean someone else is”

From an original concept by Matthew Wilkinson and Bob Goody, Wilkinson’s self-directed My Eyes Went Dark is an admirably ambitious and complex study of revenge and redemption and the true cost of forgiveness, playing at the redoubtable Finborough Theatre. Based on a true story, architect Nikolai Koslov’s world is shattered when an air disaster robs him of his wife and two children and the pursuit for his version of justice leads him to perilously close to the world of terrible vengeance. 

Matching Nikolai’s psyche, the play’s narrative is equally fragmented with scenes scattered over three countries and at least five years and Wilkinson makes us work hard for it with a stark and spare staging from Bethany Wells and little in the way of visual cues. But it is extraordinarily effective, especially with the powerful end-on lighting design from Elliot Griggs. Exposed as it is by the traverse stage, to watch how it illuminates the space without as much as the space within is most illustrative. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Review: McQueen, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Am I going to make it?
‘You already know the answer to that question’”

One of the more surprising transfers of the year has to be McQueen's journey from the St James to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, its commercial success over-riding a (largely) critical drubbing (here's my original review). The play has been rejigged to insert an interval, rewritten to extend some scenes and add one whole new one, and recast to bring in fosterIAN award winner Carly Bawden for Glee's Dianna Agron - this last change proving the most effective in altering the show for the better. My full 3 star review for Cheap Theatre TIckets can be read here.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 7th November

Thursday, 27 August 2015

TV Review: Life in Squares

“We’re living in extraordinary times Virginia”

I think Rachel Freck and I would be very good friends, given the exquisite job she did in casting BBC1 miniseries Life in Squares very much according to my preferences. Phoebe Fox and Eve Best, Lydia Leonard and Al Weaver, James Norton and Rupert Penry-Jones and Elliot Cowan, plus bonus Deborah Findlay and Emily Bruni amongst many more – the stuff of my dreams. So I was already very well-inclined towards this retelling of the travails of the Bloomsbury set, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Simon Kaisjer, before it had even started.

Fortunately it also delivered well over its three hour-long episodes, giving us costume drama with a bit of a difference (and a smattering of raunch as its publicity campaign unnecessarily blurted). Kaisjer’s vision was less opulent fantasy than lived-in reality, albeit through an artistic filter, and so handheld camerawork mixed with everyday costumes to achieve this more rooted ethos. And Coe’s script putting one of the lesser celebrated of the set - Vanessa Bell née Stephens - at the heart of the narrative gave the narrative the freedom to stretch out across multiple timeframe, remaining fresh all the while.

Cast of Life in Squares continued

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Landor

“Give me the meat without the gravy”

Based on a film from 1967, the musical of comedy pastiche Thoroughly Modern Millie actually only dates back to 2000, though a substantial deal of its humour harks back to an uncomfortably old-school era. Set in 1920s New York, Millie Dillmount arrives determined to marry for money instead of love but finds herself mixed up in a white slavery ring run by a faded actress pretending to be a Chinese woman (as you do). The Landor has a sterling record in successfully mounting small-scale productions of big musicals but Matthew Iliffe’s production doesn’t always hit the mark. 

Full of fresh young faces, the company brims with youthful vigour and there’s lots of potential on show. Sarah-Marie Maxwell displays wonderful comic timing, Samuel Harris could do with a little more volume but his patter song is good and in a number of small roles, Charlie Johnson stands out in the ensemble. But even with ethics aside, Steph Parry can’t quite carry off the jaded persona of Mrs Meers, nor Chipo Kureya invest bon vivant Muzzy van Hosmere with enough personality to really fill the room. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Review: Hamlet, Barbican


“The play’s the thing”

See, after all the kerfuffle and an insane (and irresponsible) amount of press scrutiny during its three week preview period (I hope all the hit chasing was worth it for everyone concerned), there’s still a regular piece of theatre at the heart of it. A company of cast and creatives trying to make art under the most trying of circumstances, a simple truth but one that seemed to have been largely forgotten in the rush to tap into the self-perpetuating frenzy around this production of Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner. 

Visually it is undoubtedly stunning, you can see where at least some of the inflated ticket price has gone (and whilst I’m on, £65 for stalls seats with a restricted view about which there was no warning, shame on you Barbican and Sonia Friedman Productions). Es Devlin’s opulent set has an enormous palatial grandeur about it which is latterly, spectacularly, crumbled in ruin, Jane Cox’s lighting carves out performance space beautifully from the stage, and Luke Hall’s video work is impressive too. But the play’s the thing remember, not just the production.

Cast of Hamlet continued

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Review: Splendour, Donmar Warehouse

“If there’s a seam, tell her it’s usually where the anus was.”

An early play from Abi Morgan, Splendour premiered at Edinburgh in 2000 but is only now receiving its London debut at the Donmar Warehouse as part of a season of works by living playwrights. Directed by Robert Hastie who works such wonders on the all-male My Night With Reg, it also marks a nice rebalance with its all-female cast delivering four sensational performances as Morgan replays a single scene four times to allow us into the mind of each of the characters.

They’re in an unidentified dictatorship - perhaps redolent of somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps not – and as we come to realise, it is in its final days. And in the presidential palace, beautifully realised by Peter McKintosh, the president’s wife and her best friend are waiting increasingly apprehensively with a photojournalist and her interpreter. As time restarts and replays, Morgan expertly layers up a gripping story whilst exploring the fascinating inner lives of these women.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Review: The Trial, Young Vic

"Innocent men like you are found guilty all the time"

The joy of my own blog (even if I can't seem to release myself from the self-imposed tyranny of mentioning at least something about every show I see) is that I can write what I want. And on leaving the Young Vic on the penultimate day of the The Trial's run, the prevailing opinion was 'well that was a trial' and 'Kate O'Flynn wasn't half bad'. And so that's your lot. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)
Booking until 22nd August

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Review: Sweet Charity in concert, Cadogan Hall

“You're a blockbuster buster"

It’s been five years since the Menier’s glorious revival of Sweet Charity so London has been waiting a wee while for the misadventures of Charity Hope Valentine to return to our stages but with this semi-staged concert version at Cadogan Hall, it’s been largely worth the wait. A cast led by Denise Van Outen, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, and an ensemble of bright young things from ArtsEd Ensemble combine to joyous effect and with barely a week’s rehearsal, it’s all the more impressive for that.

Van Outen makes a great Charity, infusing a wonderfully wry sense of humour into her demeanour which cleverly reinforces her indefatigable spirit. Supremely confident vocals and a smooth move or two in Matt Flint’s choreography make her a constant joy to watch and one could well imagine her nailing the role in a full-blown production too, especially if she were joined by Michael Xavier as the various men she encounters. Never mind the frozen peaches and cream, HE’S the stuff of dreams whether the appealing nerdishness of Oscar or the hapless lothario that is Vittorio, his lusciously rich voice undoubtedly one of the best in British musical theatre.

Cast of Sweet Charity in concert continued

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Review: Ladylogue, Tristan Bates

“I’m a pretty normal sort of person”

In a theatre world reveling in David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell and Craig Revel Horwood’s Miss Hannigan, one has to be grateful for companies like The Thelmas and their unflagging resolve to readdress this balance. Their particular focus lies more in encouraging new writing and none more so than in Ladylogue, their evening of six one-woman shorts, all written by emerging female playwrights, playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe.

And a vivid and vibrant collection they make too in Madelaine Moore’s production here. From Maria Yarjah’s self-performed Family (Mis)fortunes tracing a young woman’s trials on social media once her parents have discovered Facebook to the poetic swirl of Sarah Milton’s The Night Tella, expertly delivered by Joana Nastari’s edgy narrator, the mood shifts considerably throughout the evening but never failing to place women’s stories at their heart.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Review: Sinatra - The Man and His Music, Palladium

"I'm feeling so bad
Won't you make the music easy and sad"

Traditional theatre shows seem to be struggling in the London Palladium at the moment so it was little surprise to hear that it would be once again filled by something more akin to entertainment than solid West End fare. Sinatra - The Man and His Music is that show and my two star review for Official Theatre can be read here - safe to say I was not a big fan.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Booking until 10th October

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Review: The Iliad Online, Almeida/Live-stream

"You can't kill me
I can't ever die"

After three weeks away, all my initial thoughts were on a cosy night in catching up on the first two episodes of The Great British Bake-off and I couldn’t imagine anything changing my mind – how wrong could I be! When the Almeida first announced their durational performance of Homer’s Iliad, it sounded like a madcap plan, a morning ‘til night affair in association with the British Museum and featuring over 60 actors – the only thing stopping me from booking was it being the last day of my holiday!

But fortunately, the good folk of the Almeida decided to livestream the whole shebang – all 16 hours and 18,255 lines of it – so that people could dip in and out to their heart’s content as well as attending at the British Museum for free during the daytime. I switched on at about 8pm as Bertie Carvel started his section, intending just to sample its wares but sure enough, I was there until the bitter end around 1am, having been sucked into its unique brilliance and unable to miss a minute more of it.

Cast of The Iliad Online continued

Cast of The Iliad Online continued

Cast of The Iliad Online continued

Cast of The Iliad Online continued

Friday, 14 August 2015

CD Review: The Postman and the Poet (2011 Concept Album)


“Now is the time when the people of Chile come together” 

I'm going to put it out there, I have no idea why new musical The Postman and the Poet hasn't received a major production yet. This concept album was recorded in 2011 and has to rank as one of my favourite things I've listened to over the last few weeks of all these cast recordings, if not the whole year. It's even based on source material that has Oscar-winning connections to endear it to risk-averse audiences - if From Here To Eternity can make it to a West End theatre, I'm sure The Postman and the Poet could make a decent stab at it too. 

The show is based on Antonio Skármeta's novel Ardiente Paciencia, on which the 1994 Oscar-winning film Il Postino was based, but Trevor Bentham and Eden Phillips' book keeps the story of the musical in Isla Negra, a small fishing village on the Chilean coast and in the early 1970s, when political turmoil threatened to overwhelm this South American country. And Michael Jeffrey, a composer new to me, has pulled together a hugely exciting and accomplished score that blends its Latin influences seamlessly into a grand musical theatre style.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

CD Review: James and the Giant Peach (World Premiere Cast)

“Have you even begun to wonder?”

In an act of great generosity and canny marketing, an all-star recording of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score for James and the Giant Peach was made available as a free download for a time earlier this year and though it may have taken me a little while to get around to it, I can safely say it is one of my favourite new musicals that I have listened to all year. Roald Dahl novels seem to lend themselves to strong musical adaptations but there’s something magical at work here that means James is closer to Matilda than Charlie in the grand scheme of things.

It’s all the more surprising considering how much I wasn’t a fan of Pasek and Paul’s breakout hit Dogfight, highly lauded in some corners after its Southwark Playhouse premiere last year but not by me. Here though, their musical language has a gorgeous sensibility to it, full of buoyant energy and fresh harmony and interesting orchestration that really makes it stand out from the crowd. Utterly contemporary but avoiding chasing trends, there’s a sophistication to the writing here that really does, for me, recall the heights of Tim Minchin’s score for Matilda.

CD Review: Sex and the Village

“It’s more village, less sex if I’m honest”

Set in the tiny Dibley-like hamlet of Chatterly which is being threatened by supermarket development, Rebecca Applin and Susannah Pearse’s Sex and the Village is a rather delightful little musical developed by Perfect Pitch and recorded here by a mixture of professional actors and singers from the Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society who won the right to present the premiere of this show which they did in Suffolk in November 2013.

Applin’s music is largely straightforward and sweet in its structure and as such, soprano Charlotte Wakefield’s crystalline clarity is perfect as its lead exponent. As Chloe, the young woman conflicted between a desire to explore the wider world but also to maintain fidelity to her beloved village, she’s wryly amusing in observing the minutiae of ‘Country Life’ and moving in the affecting emotional swirl of ‘They’re Only Dreams’ and ‘The White Elephant Stall’.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

CD Review: Bluebird (2009 Concept Album)

“He came so close to me”

I first became aware of Gareth Peter Dicks’ music through The Music Box, a compilation of some of his musical theatre tracks sung by a ton of West End faves, which served as a neat introduction to this composer. It’s a tough old world out there for new musical theatre and so people have to find the best way they can to get their music out there and noticed – showcase CDs are one, and concept albums are another, what Dicks did with his musical Bluebird a few years ago.

A love story set throughout the turmoil of WWII, Sarah Lark’s nurse Roberta Jones is like so many others in having to bid farewell to her husband Pete as he leaves for the frontline and her daughter who is evacuated to the country. Pete keeps in touch via regular letter-writing but a charming US serviceman Ben fills the void for companionship in her life but as their relationship intensifies, Roberta is forced to question what and who she wants. 

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

CD Review: Singin’ in the Rain (2012 London Cast Album)

"Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo
Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo
Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo
Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo"

Having had a near-perfect experience in on the front row at Chichester for Singin’ in the Rain, I didn’t think it could be topped by visiting the London transfer – sometimes I think it is best not to go back. But listening to the cast recording released by the London cast in 2012, I’m kinda wishing that I had. It is a cracking musical whichever way you cut it but this is a brilliant record of a dazzling production that, dare I say it, I listen to just as much as the original film soundtrack. 

This CD features 19 tracks, marking a slightly different tracklisting to previous theatrical productions, with most of the reprises included too. Larry Wilcox and Larry Blank’s orchestrations sound just luscious under Robert Scott’s musical direction, making the instrumentals just as vividly vibrant to listen to as the iconic songs we’ve all come to know and love and in Adam Cooper, Scarlett Strallen and Daniel Crossley’s expert hands, they are gloriously great. 

Cast of Singin' in the Rain Cast Recording continued

Cast of Singin' in the Rain Cast Recording continued

CD Review: Lend Me A Tenor (Original London Cast Recording)

“Life is like opera, it’s hard to keep the drama from seeping through”

The West End is a tough nut to crack at the best of times and despite its best efforts, the musical version of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor lasted barely 2 months at the Gielgud in 2010. It’s strange, especially in light of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ relative success, as it occupies a similar groove with its traditional, even old-school, vibes, aping a classic era of musical theatre with japes and jolliness but somehow, it just didn’t connect with audiences – not everyone loves a farce…

Its old-fashioned humour and madcap antics are well served by Brad Carroll’s score and Peter Sham’s lyrics and book, which follows the trials of the Cleveland, Ohio Grand Opera Company as a world famous tenor scheduled to sing in their Otello goes AWOL in the hotel just hours before he’s due onstage. Is there a schmuck who can step in at the last minute and pretend to be Merelli, of course there is, but there’s also jealous wives, lovelorn girlfriends and conniving co-stars aplenty to thicken the plot.

Cast of Lend Me A Tenor Cast Recording continued

Monday, 10 August 2015

CD Review: Pal Joey (Highlights from Original 1980 London Cast)

“I’ll plant you now, dig you later”

Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey hasn’t had a major London production since this 1980 revival at the Albery (now the Noël Coward) and on the evidence of this selection of highlights from that production, it’s not terribly difficult to see why it might not seem the most likely target for revitalisation. It has a very old-fashioned heart, not a problem in and of itself especially when that includes songs like ‘Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered’ but the bigger problem is the style of orchestration which has a somewhat tinny sound, possibly just a legacy of its early 80s genesis.

It’s hard to truly warm to Denis Lawson’s performance as the title character though, a very expansive and swaggering vocal that feels rather forced – the accent doesn’t work for me - and thus a crucial part in the success of the show falling flat from the off. Siân Phillips is much more effective as Vera, her gravelly voice always touching to listen to as she puts infuses acres of heart into her character but I do wonder how much not knowing the show affects my judgement in both these cases (Joey seems an unlikeable sort, and I’ve long loved Phillips anyway).

Still, it was worth the 50p from the charity shop that it cost me!

CD Review: Desperately Seeking Susan (London Cast)

“One way or another I'm gonna lose ya"

There’s something perverse about wanting to have been there for shows that have been deemed a flop, to see if it really was that bad (in Too Close To The Sun’s case, it really was, and worse) or more often than not, just discover that they’re not really working that well (c.f. any number of big title musicals of recent years). Arriving late 2007, Desperately Seeking Susan came at a time when I still only saw a couple of shows a month and so I didn’t get witness its full glory before it closed a scant month after opening.

Much like double denim, its twin hit of 80s classics was a lot to take: an adaptation of the 1985 film starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna with a soundtrack of Blondie songs bolted on for good measure. By all accounts it was a troubled mixture, as evidenced by its early closure but listening to the soundtrack, there is at least the bonus of not having to figure out how the book (by Peter Michael Marino) fits in. What’s left is the jukebox selection of Debbie Harry’s band’s finest tracks (plus a few others), performed by a well-meaning cast.

I say well-meaning because they are largely ill-suited to the task of wrestling Blondie’s iconic eclectic style into the world of musical theatre. Emma Williams is a fantastic singer but her strengths lie in a classic purity rather than the downbeat punkiness of Susan – her ‘Rapture’ sounds amazing but entirely wrong for the purpose - and likewise Kelly Price’s Roberta always sounds too good, too clean, to convince on the Lower East Side – she delivers probably the best enunciated ‘Heart of Glass’ there ever has been. Neither are helped by a series of arrangements that don’t always play to the songs’ strengths. 

Oddly enough, it is two male covers that stand out as the show’s best. Steven Houghton’s ‘One Way or Another’ injects a wealth of creepy personality into its stalkerish vibe and then Mark McGee’s rough-edged but wonderfully raucous ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ brings the one authentic note of punk in the entire score. It’s interesting to see such familiar names as Alex Gaumond, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and Kaisa Hammarlund in the ensemble and try and pick out their contributions but by and large it is not terribly hard to see why the show didn’t work even from the music alone. 


Sunday, 9 August 2015

CD Review: If/Then (Original Broadway Cast Recording)


“I know all the odds and even so..." 

One of the temptations with cast recordings, and something that’s been facilitated by the dawning of the digital age, is to make a playlist of your favourite songs and then forget about the others. I am terrible for doing this – it’s why I’m word perfect on only half of Wicked – and yet I never seen to stop. If/Then is a good example of this – the edited highlights on my iPhone give the impression of a great show whereas the reality is more just good

Predictably, these excerpts mostly include Idina Menzel’s inimitable vocal, around which Tom Kitt’s score was crafted. The delicate duet of ‘Here I Go’ with the lovely James Snyder, the stirring ‘You Learn To Live Without’, the irresistible melodic force of ‘Always Starting Over’, she’s so at home in this world of emotionally swirling tunes that it is impossible not to get swept up with her, especially in the last song’s slow-building climax.

Cast of If/Then Cast Recording continued

CD Review: Legally Blonde (2010 Original London Cast)

“You must admit that Elle Woods should join the chosen few"

Part of the fun of delving back into these soundtracks, so many of which I’ve had for a while, is challenging the preconceptions that I’ve allowed to build up in my mind. Sister Act the musical is the perfect example, mentally I didn’t rate it so hadn’t listened to it for an age but upon taking the time, I discovered it to be better than I remembered. That works both ways though and I’ve long rated the Legally Blonde the musical soundtrack on this basis, even though it really stems from me having my favourite four tracks from it on my most listened to playlist.

So yes, ‘Omigod You Guys’ and ‘What You Want’ are two brilliant songs and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. Their glossy joie de vivre setting the scene perfectly for this camp-as-tits show and book-ended by the highly amusing ‘There, Right There!’ and the emotive title track which segues from its gorgeous ballad treatment into an energetic 11 o’clock number, there are some cracking musical moments in this show and with national-treasure-in-the-making Sheridan Smith at its helm as the determined Elle Woods, how could it be otherwise.

Cast of Legally Blonde Cast Recording continued

Cast of Legally Blonde cast recording continued

Saturday, 8 August 2015

CD Review: City of Angels (Original London Cast Recording 1993)

“I'm one of a long line of good girls"

I was no real fan of the Donmar’s recent production of City of Angels, Josie Rourke’s direction ending up rather po-faced with all its noirish elements played deadly seriously, hardly the introduction one wants to a musical that many had acclaimed highly to me. But turning to the 1993 Original London Cast Recording of Cy Coleman, David Zippel and Larry Gelbart’s show, their quite different take on the material made me reappraise the show completely.

One might not be able to tell exactly how Michael Blakemore’s direction played out from listening to this CD but the sprightliness of Billy Byers’ orchestrations and the lighter touch of Richard Balcombe’s musical direction makes the whole thing seem like a much more fun affair. City of Angels is a pastiche after all, or an homage for the more earnestly minded amongst us, and played with a more warm-hearted and less self-conscious approach, it connected much more with me.

CD Review: Sister Act the musical (Original London Cast Recording)

“Queen of Angels is not your grandma's church anymore. God help your grandmother if it were."

It was quite the unexpected pleasure returning to this soundtrack. My abiding memories of Sister Act the musical were of initial disappointment that it wasn’t a retread of the film (one of my all-time favourites doncha know), the randomness of Whoopi Goldberg jetting in for a week of shows and the subsequent tour being rather good (if a little spoiled by the women behind me not shutting up for a minute). But listening to Alan Menken’s score, I was amazed how much of it I was able to easily recall – I may have seen the show 3 times but the last trip was back in 2012.

And how. From the raucous girl-group energy of openers ‘Take Me To Heaven’ and Fabulous, Baby!’ to the (only slightly) more sedate musical offerings of the nuns’ choir in ‘Raise Your Voice’ and ‘Bless Our Show’, there’s a roof-raising joyousness to many of the songs that brings larger groups of the cast together. And leading from the front, the glorious Patina Miller is a full-throated pleasure to listen to as the divine Deloris, her voice soaring like a heavenly host but also capable of tenderness as in the stirring simplicity of the title track.

Cast of Sister Act Cast Recording continued

Cast of Sister Act Cast Recording continued

Friday, 7 August 2015

CD Review: Lift (Concept Album)

“One minute in a lift..."

Craig Adams and Ian Watson’s Lift played the Soho Theatre early in 2013 but before then, a concept album of the show was released with Perfect Pitch. The conceit of the musical is ingeniously simple – 8 strangers taking a minute-long trip in a lift in Covent Garden tube station but as they rise to the surface, we visit into the innermost thoughts of all of them and see how precariously poised their lives are, one little word or action could change everything if only they were brave enough to actually do it.

At not much over an hour and with a lot to fit in, not only is there the establishment of character but also a decision to show how interconnected their lives all are, Lift isn’t always as successful as it promises to be. Songs get fragmented and finish too abruptly as the perspective needs to swivel onto the next character, and it relies on a great deal of contrivance to force the narrative throughline into place very much at the expense of making us engage with this motley crew.

CD Review: Gay's The Word (Original 2012 London Cast)

“It's bound to be right on the night”

I remember being thoroughly enamoured of Gay’s The Word at the Finborough back in 2012 and its leading lady Sophie-Louise Dann before I really knew who she was. Now I’m a full paid-up member of her fan club, I wish I had been able to appreciate how great (and rare) a leading lady performance it was. This 1951 Ivor Novello show received its first ever revival here but whereas sometimes one can tell exactly why something has been collecting dust on the shelf, Stewart Nicholl’s production revealed a hidden gem.

As with much of Novello’s work, it is sparkly and silly but sweetly and sincerely done so that its genuine warmth elevates the whole affair. It helps that he was poking fun at his own reputation for daffiness in his writing and the show-in-a-show conceit allows for a wider variety of musical styles to be incorporated. But it is classic, old-school musical theatre through and through with songs that sound as instantly recognisable as if they’ve been played over and over in music halls and theatres across the country for decades.

Cast of Gay's The Word Cast Recording continued

Thursday, 6 August 2015

CD Review: Witches of Eastwick (Original London Cast Recording)

"Waiting for the music to begin"

Throughout this whirlwind tour of cast recordings, one of the more interesting things has been listening to shows that closed early, or at least relatively so. The Witches of Eastwick managed a 15 month run in 2000-1 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and then the Prince of Wales in a slightly revised version and I have to say that on the evidence of this original London cast recording, it deserved more.

Dana P Rowe's score and John Dempsey's lyrics captures much of the small-town mania of John Updike's source novel and performed by a crack cast as it is here, it is often thrilling to listen to. Ian McShane may have been cast as the devilish Darryl but it is Joanna Riding, Maria Friedman and Lucie Arnaz as the titular triumvirate whose innate powers are unleashed by the nefarious influence of this charismatic stranger, with troubling results for both themselves and those around them - the harmonies that accompany their joint numbers are just scintillating.

Cast of The Witches of Eastwick Cast Recording continued

CD Review: The In-Between

“There are worlds that you’ve never dreamed of…“

Laura Tisdall’s self-penned musical The In-Between received the concept album treatment back in 2012 but has remained unproduced since then. An original story about 19 year old orphan Flick Wimple and the dilemma she faces when an unexpected move places her in the space between parallel worlds – The In-Between – and she’s given the choice to leave all her problems behind but at no small cost to the older sister who has raised her. Helping her on her way is Calicus, someone who has guided many along a similar path but sees something different in Flick.

Musically, it cleaves a little too close to the pop-rock genre for my personal taste. It’s also hard to replicate that sound effectively on disc and so the production can sometimes sound a little cheap, especially in the opening couple of tracks. That said, Dianne Pilkington and Cassie Compton bring a real sense of character to the feisty ‘She’s My Sister’. The more keyboard-based songs feel stronger – Lauren Samuels’ gorgeously evocative voice is an ideal fit for the stirring ‘Someone You’d Be Proud Of’ and as the song expands to an epic reach, it’s hard not to think she’d be a great Flick. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

CD Review: Just So (2006 Chichester Festival Theatre Cast)

“The questions raised at every turn show there's always more to learn”

This production of Stiles + Drewe’s Just So, their musical adaptation and conflation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was a well-received one at Chichester Festival Theatre, coming almost a decade after the show was originally written. Their historically family-friendly back catalogue has served them well over the years – and is bearing significant fruit now in their Trio of Trios, and some elements of this well-cast recording are just lovely.

The heartfelt simplicity of ‘Does The Moment Ever Come?’ is perfectly suited to Richard Dempsey’s sweetly earnest Elephant Child, Julie Atherton might never have sounded better (or more wonderfully northern) on the nervously apprehensive ‘Wait A Bit’ and John Barrowman’s Eldest Magician has the charisma to make his life lessons a little more holistic than hectoring. His singing on ‘Just So’ and ‘If’ wisely warm-hearted.

Cast of Just So Cast Recording continued

CD Review: Zorro (Original Cast Recording)

“Djobi djoba
Cada dia te quiero mas"

2008 musical Zorro lasted nine months in the West End, which may not seem a fantastic run but in retrospect, it lasted longer than From Here To Eternity, Stephen Ward, I Can't Sing...any number of big musicals. Written by Stephen Clark and Helen Edmundson from Isabel Allende's origin story, the tale positions the pulp legend as a folk hero and romantic lead, and is aided in the task by a highly atmospheric score from the Gipsy Kings and John Cameron.

Recorded live, the score has a slight feel of probably being much more fun to experience live than simply listening to in your living room. the flamenco rumba of the instrumentals impressively played but would be unquestionably improved with its accompanying choreography. So too the set pieces of pre-existing Gipsy Kings tracks Bamboléo and Djobi Djoba - both led by a fiercely charismatic Lesli Magherita - being exhorted to "baila, baila" just doesn't quite work on record. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

CD Review: Merry Wives the musical (2006 RSC Cast)

“He stinks of drink and urine
And thinks he's so alluring”

One might have hoped that a musical version of William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor by the RSC with a cast that includes Dame Judi Dench, Haydn Gwynne, Simon Callow and a Strallen (natch) would be an enjoyable thing to experience to but on listening to it, it's clear there is abundant reason I was able to pick up the CD of the live recording for the princely sum of £1 in the RSC shop.

Paul Englishby's score is an unholy mess of a pick'n'mix bag that someone else has chosen for you - its conflicting styles a dizzying confection that sprawls across the narrative rather than supporting it. Not knowing whether the next song is going to be a tango or a madrigal, take its cues from Big Band or Brecht, or recall Andrew Lloyd Webber or an East London music hall is a most bizarre experience and the cumulative effect is extremely wearying - I have to say it was a real struggle to listen to the whole album in one go.

Cast of Merry Wives the musical continued

CD Review: The Three Little Pigs

“The world is perfect, perfect, perfect for a pig!”

Listening to their newly released cast recording of Goldilocks And The Three Bears, I was reminded that I have had Stiles and Drewe’s The Three Little Pigs on my ‘to listen to’ pile for ages now and with a theatrical production about to start at the Palace Theatre, what better time than now to finally get round to it. 

A response to a commission from Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Little Company, The Three Little Pigs is the first in Stiles & Drewe’s fairytale-based Trilogy of Trios – the bears are the second instalment and next year should see The Three Billy Goats Gruff receive the same family-friendly treatment.

But though these are family shows by their nature – coming in at just under an hour – they are no less sophisticated pieces of musical theatre, indeed the simplicity with which this composing duo work is so effective that it ought to be taught far and wide as Musical Theatre 101. Distilling their customary melodic brightness into a pocket-sized soundtrack, with key tunes reprised making it easy to hum them later on, and putting their own spin on the story that adds a contemporary appeal whilst remaining recognisable from any cherished bedtime storybook. It’ll doubtless look good on the stage but it is also a great listen in its own right. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

CD Review: Tomorrow Morning (Original London Cast Recording)

“How the hell could you expect us to fight and then connect”

The magic of a good set design - Chris De Wilde’s innovative use of the space of the Landor for their production of Tomorrow Morning is still crystal-clear in my mind despite being nearly five years and god knows how many shows ago. Laurence Mark Wythe’s show premiered four years before that though in 2006 at Hampstead’s now-defunct New End Theatre and that production, directed by Nick Winston and MD Matthew Brind, got the official cast recording treatment.

The show tracks a day in the life of John and Kat, 20-somethings on the verge of getting married, and Jack and Catherine who are older and about to get divorced. Are they the same couple at different stages in their relationship or two separate couples, well that would be telling but Wythe’s book, lyrics and music take us through a range of musical influences to paint the vast scope of emotional experiences on display here.

Not a CD Review: Taboo (Original London Cast)

"My father said: 'don't panic, it's a phase'
'Phase one' I said"

I did want to love Boy George's Taboo, I really did, but something about it just holds me back. I felt that way when I saw it live and I felt it again when listening to the original London cast recording so there you have it.

CD Review: Candide (1999 Royal National Theatre Recording)

"I'll show my noble stuff by being bright and cheerful!"

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Both in terms of writing, Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide (with its multiple literary contributors from Voltaire’s novella) dates back to 1956 and an entirely different age, and in terms of production too, Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre liked its big, grand musicals and this 1999 adaptation – co-directed by Nunn and John Caird – was lavishly done with its lush orchestrations fortunately recorded for posterity.

My only previous experience of Candide is with the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production in 2013 so I can’t really comment on the different versions of the show (although having done a little reading, I realise that this is something people have strong opinions about!). Instead, I’m listening to it with pretty much fresh ears, revelling in Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations and Mark W Dorrell’s musical direction which sound utterly gorgeous, especially with a cast of this calibre.

Cast of Candide RNT Recording continued

Sunday, 2 August 2015

CD Review: Saturday Night (Original London Cast)

“I guess the man means more than the means"

For a still-living composer, Stephen Sondheim’s back catalogue has been mercilessly picked over and bastardised for many a cabaret and compilation show – a consequence perhaps of the chequered history of many of his shows as well as his increasing and enduring popularity over time. So even though a show like Saturday Night, written in 1954 yet not receiving its first production until 1997, remains something of an obscurity, many of its songs have become familiar due to inclusion elsewhere.

It would have been Sondheim’s debut production and in many ways, one can see the rawness of this composer. For one, there’s a gentleness to it, a romantic sense of fun that is very much atypical for a man much better known for his cynical view on the world. And for another, there’s a more direct tunefulness, the music lacking the complexity that has characterised his oeuvre but in all honesty, not much the worse for it.

CD Review: Follies (2011 New Broadway Cast Recording)

“I wanted something when I came here 30 years ago but I forgot to write it down”

Is Follies a show you can really just listen to? Many clearly agree but having got through this double-disc cast recording of Eric Schaeffer’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s show from 2011, I’m not sure enough of it really translates on record. This is quite possibly coloured by the fact that I saw it for the first time earlier this year in a most fun semi-staged concert version at the Royal Albert Hall and memories are that are still strong.

So the interplay of past and present, the ghostly presence of the showgirls and the younger selves of the central foursome, doesn’t really come across. This recording tries to address that by including lengthy passages of scene-setting dialogue but without that initial familiarity with the material, it’s hard to see how much it would really help – plus there’s something moving in the sight of a group of veteran actors given such agency on a stage, it should definitely be produced more, difficult or no.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

CD Review: Sunday in the Park with George (2006 London Cast Recording)

“Everyone gets along with him, that’s the problem with him”

In listening to cast recordings, one can get struck wondering who are they for. For fans obviously, those who saw the show or those who weren’t able to make it along and as a legacy of those productions deemed worthy enough. But what about casual listeners, those simply dipping a toe into the world of musical theatre, could one honestly recommend the complexity of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George?

Perhaps not, but that’s not to say it isn’t an excellent thing. Some call this show one of Sondheim’s more accessible but I’m not convinced - its pointillist nature and time-jump format are inventive but still challenging and the inclusion of passages of dialogue – something Sondheim recordings often do – are as much of a hindrance as a help, they add to a fuller understanding of the story but also have an alienating effect – I was banned from listening to this out loud in the flat!

CD Review: Company (1996 London Cast Recording)

“It's things like using force together,
Shouting till you're hoarse together,
Getting a divorce together"

Sam Mendes’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company was a big success at the Donmar Warehouse in 1995 and subsequently transferred to the Albery Theatre (now the Noël Coward). A recording of the show can be found in full on YouTube at the moment but I restrained myself to just listening to the cast recording, which I have to say was something of a disappointment in the end despite seeming promising.

It’s quite an odd thing to listen to, often frustratingly inconsistent as in the normally reliable Anna Francolini’s ‘Another Hundred People’ in which a broad Noo Yoik accent fades in and out in a most distracting manner. Sophie Thompson battles gamely with ‘Getting Married Today’ but without the assured brilliance of her acting to complement it, the vocal alone doesn’t really pass muster.