Archive for the ‘Musical’ Category

Early this year my boyfriend and I were discussing theatre, as I am wont to do. As a film critic he is perfectly at home in the world of cinema, but prior to meeting me the world of theatre was something he was largely unfamiliar with. I didn’t exactly take it upon myself to teach him, that would be horribly condescending, but I did want to share with him what had been, until I met him of course (ahem), my one true love.

We went to various plays, saw various dramas, both classical and modern, but eventually talk turned to musicals. It’s not surprising really- these are most peoples only exposure to theatre, with the big blockbuster musicals spending thousands on advertising, running for years and years and building a pretty hefty fan base along the way. When he was younger, James had seen a particularly dreadful musical that shall remain nameless, and was put off ever since. However, being a nice sort of fella, he humoured me and agreed to come along to a musical.

We started with Les Miserables. This was my favourite musical for many years and I maintain that it has the most beautifully written score on the West End. We saw the show when Alfie Boe was in the role of Jean Valjean, and I can’t think of a better way to introduce a theatrical newbie to musicals. Les Mis has lost none of the passion that made it such a smash-hit, and the story of the convict on the run, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, remains compelling and rich, though the staging and sets have become quite dated.

The score is rousing and certainly never dull, tripping easily from ballad to an energetic call to arms. Because the score is so familiar, the cast do have a job making it their own, and some manage more successfully than others. Alexia Khadime as Eponine attempted a soulful rendition of On My Own which fell flat, the warbles and trills jarring against the classical style the rest of the cast were adopting, but she still gave an emotional performance, and no one could argue that by god the girl can sing. Stand out performances included Hadley Fraser, who brought me to tears as Javert, and Fantine, who in my opinion has never been played better than by Caroline Sheen, but I don’t think anyone in the audience would argue that the show belonged to Alfie Boe.

Boe is just a force of nature, belting out the tunes with seemingly no effort at all. He was just incredible. Not only was his powerful tenor voice perfectly suited to the role, but he managed to pack each moment he was on stage with such emotion that it was difficult to focus on anything other than him. He also holds back from unleashing his voice completely in order to blend into the cast better, which shows great restraint and made a big difference to the show as a whole.

There is a reason Les Mis has lasted the test of time, and it’s certainly worth another visit. My only regret is that certain elements are a bit dated, certain set pieces and sequences jarring slightly on someone who is used to pared down staging. Javert’s death is an excellent example of this, the rolling off the stage looking ugly and messy when his stance beforehand, arms raised to the heavens at the bridge rises behind him, could have been a perfect farewell to my favourite character. The barricades look a little old – but until I think of a suitable alternative I won’t slate it completely.

From an old favourite, to a new contender! Our trip to the New Theatre, Oxford was the first time I have seen Sister Act on stage, but have heard nothing but good things so thought it was worth a punt.

The show follows the same story as the hit film – Reno lounge singer, Delores Van Carter witnesses her boyfriend killing a man in the midst of a shady deal, so flees and it placed in the witness protection programme, hiding in a convent. There, she manages to transform a group of seemingly tone deaf nuns into a soulful gospel choir that brings new life to the church.

For fans of the original film, it is worth noting that none of the songs feature in this stage version. However for me, that is not a problem, in fact, it works in the shows favour. Alan Menken’s score is great fun, perfectly evoking the spirit of 1970’s disco and soul classics, where this is now set.

I really enjoyed this version of Sister Act. Cynthia Evro as Dolores was outstanding, belting out each song with power and emotion, and the cast seemed to work incredibly well together, lighting up the stage with energy and fun. I just couldn’t help thinking that touring this show must be one of the most fun tours around at the moment.

However, I seem to have missed a trick. This show was good, very good in fact, but anyone that had already seen this on the West End emerged decidedly glum. Apparently this is a pale comparison of the West End version, being incredibly restricted by the smaller stage. I didn’t notice this at the time, but thinking about it, certain elements did seem a bit cramped. There were also comments that Evro wasn’t as good as the West End’s Dolores, but once again, I didn’t have that comparison so loved it.

There’s always a risk of this kind of criticism when a show this big goes on tour, but I think for the most part these criticisms can be ignored. Of course the West End show is on a larger scale, but that doesn’t detract from what has been achieved here. There was a really warm reaction from the audience on the night I was there, and as we were leaving young and old alike were laughing and still dancing as they walked down the street – what more could you ask for?

So there you go – I don’t do musical reviews particularly often, but there’s a double bill for you. Two vastly different shows, showing my non-theatrical boyfriend the range of musicals on offer. See James? They aren’t all like Martin Guerre…I’ve said too much.

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18/05/11

Little Bulb Theatre have been quietly moving from strength to strength – Sporadical was my Edinburgh Fringe highlight, and their most notable success, Crocosmia highlighted the loss of innocence in a way that this show also touches on (though from a very different angle!). I thought it would be difficult to top the kind of runaway successes they have already enjoyed, but they seem to have done it again. From the over-enthusiastic, slightly crazed version of the prophecy of Isaiah, right through to final talent show performance, Operation Greenfield is a non-stop cannonball of a show.

Little Bulb’s latest offering tells the story of a Christian band, beginning humbly as a funk duo, but growing to a folk foursome. The band decides to embark on a quest to win their local village talent competition; they have been thwarted once already, and this time they are certain they are going to succeed. Unfortunately life and the trials of adolescence keep getting in the way.

This show is a joy from beginning to end. Daydream guitar solo’s, imaginary conversations with Elvis, and the temptations of smoking are all hurled into the melee as these four try to control the runaway train that is adolescence. My initial concerns about the piece appearing somewhat inconsistent were quickly put aside – this show might look chaotic and unplanned, but it certainly is not. The script cleverly uses the Christian faith, as well as pop culture to better explain the fixations and worries of youth.

There is a kind of soft-cynicism here that Little Bulb handle perfectly – they seem to attempt to keep proceedings two dimensional, but as their lives progress, the sincerity of the characters becomes increasingly clear. However, there are flaws to this production – it’s a little bit too long, and the company sometimes venture too far into indulgence at the expense of the story. The performance style also means that we never quite connect emotionally with these characters in a way that some might crave – but they are a young company, and these elements are something I can readily forgive when faced with such a joyous and anarchic show.

As with all of Little Bulbs shows, the musical element to this show cannot be faulted. Aside from the enviable recorded soundtrack, each member of the group plays multiple instruments, and the composition seen here wouldn’t be out of place on any festival stage this summer. I genuinely loved every song, and laughed with sheer delight as the group finally, and exuberantly, entered Stokeley talent competition.

One suspects that Little Bulb are getting away with quite a lot simply by being so darn endearing.  When watching them you can’t help but feel that they are all having tremendous fun – even when depicting the horror that is being a self-conscious adolescent. The performance mode lends a certain element of absurdity to the proceedings, with each character appearing as almost a caricature of themselves – squirming with awkward energy and delivering some gloriously deadpan dialogue with a wide eyed and startled expression that is simultaneously hilarious and touching.

This company is embarassingly talented and incredibly brave. In Operation Greenfield they have created a musical that highlights their numerous strengths, and creates a world for its audience that many will find worryingly familiar. It is silly, sublime, and essential viewing.

The show is at Soho Theatre until 4th June – Beg, borrow or steal for tickets if you have to, just make sure you don’t miss this glorious production.

 

26/04/11

“Have you ever heard the story of the Johnstone twins?”

Yes. Yes I have. In fact I first heard the story of the Johnstone twins around 12 years ago when my school took me to see Blood Brothers in Birmingham. It wasn’t a successful trip (not least because the school bully was sitting behind me and saw fit to kick my chair/pull my hair for the duration of the performance) but I still left with the songs echoing in my cranium. Many years have passed, and I hadn’t seen or heard Blood Brothers since – so it was with a strong sense of nostalgia that I went to the New Theatre to see the latest touring production.

Set against the backdrop of ’60s Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of twins Mickey and Eddie, separated at birth when their mother, known simply as Mrs Johnstone, gives Eddie up to her wealthy employer with the promise of a better life for one of her sons. The twins grow up at opposite ends of the social spectrum, though they are inexplicably dawn together throughout their life, leading to tragic conclusions. The script encapsulates the dichotomy of rich and poor, with the inspired theme of superstition and fate running throughout.

This production represents a challenge for actors, especially the eponymous brothers, who play the characters at seven, fourteen, eighteen and finally as grown adults – the journey they take us on is remarkable, particularly Sean Jones as Mickey who plays both his adult character and a convincingly child-like seven-year-old with aplomb. Niki Evans is also outstanding as Mrs Johnstone, managing to capture the vulnerability of the twin’s desperate mother and moving between the upbeat and the heart-wrenching numbers with ease.

There were a few issues with the production. I was a little disappointed with Paul Davies as Eddie – his characterisation was too subtle for the large stage, and his voice was barely audible, even with a microphone. Also there are some aspects of the show that are now dated, most notably the narrator – who dips in and out of the story, forcing the narrative to pause in a freeze frame while he rambles on about superstitious elements that aren’t really relevant. It feels like a very 80’s motif, and one that could do with an update. In the same way, the score sometimes dips into 80’s nostalgia, and we are treated to a rathery unnecessary saxophone solo at one point which lays the echo on a bit too heavily.

Despite these issues, Bill Kenwright’s production remains exciting and intense, and has more familiar songs than you perhaps realise. The sleek combination of comedy and tragedy is done with finesse, and the overriding theme of class is approached with taste.

Willy Russell’s lyrics and dialogue is powerful, and captures both humour and emotion. His colloquial way of writing endears him to just about everybody and the audience instantly empathize with his characters. It is unfortunate, in a way, that the key themes of this play still pack a powerful punch. The examination of nature vs nurture debate has never been more clearly spelt out, and the role that class has in this debate make the tragic tale of the Johnstone twins incredibly relevant.