"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Thursday, 22 March 2012

SW19 Pacific

If you thought £92.50 including booking fee was going it a bit for an average Stalls seat at the Barbican’s Lincoln Center production of South Pacific you’ll be delighted to know that substantially the same show, with the same leads, is currently available for less than half that and your Zone 3 Oyster.

When successful London musicals set off ‘on tour’ it’s generally to places like Manchester or Newcastle where despite lower seat prices the train fare would cripple any opportunity to see them on an awayday, but the bonus ball of producers ATG is that they also own theatres in Wimbledon and Richmond to which they bring their number one tours (first rate King’s Speech, Madness of George III both recently at Richmond, top price £35). South Pacific docks at Wimbledon for the rest of the month, tickets £15-45.

It’s a richer and darker South Pacific than you’ll have seen at your mum’s amateur operatic society – Bartlett Sher's production isn’t shy of highlighting the casual racism and sex tourism of American military personnel in wartime postings. Even though a bit fortyish for a newly-recruited Navy nurse, Samantha Womack handles well the anguished reaction of the dumb blonde from Arkansas (racially segregated until 1957) to a lover with two Polynesian children, and the direction, underscore and lighting of the pimping of Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat to Lt Joe Cable is carefully studied too.

As well as the Barbican leads Womack, Alex Ferns and a fetching upcoming Australian Daniel Koek (you’d change that, wouldn’t you?) as Joe Cable there are two outstanding performances – one from Hawaiian actress Loretta Ables Sayre who I saw as Bloody Mary in the original Lincoln Center production and gives a sensational rendition of the complex character, with stunning singing particularly in ‘Happy Talk’ which suddenly doesn’t seem a one-dimensional number any more.

The second is truly a highlight of the show since the new casting of veteran Jean Valjean/Phantom Matthew Cammelle is perfection. He has the dashing forties movie-star look for Emile De Becque, and a glorious combination of unclouded operatic baritone with excellent musical theatre diction. South Pacific is an odd show in that it gives away its money shot number ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ barely ten minutes after the overture, but the second act climax of Cammelle’s powerful and emotionally resonant ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ brought the house down with shouts of ‘bravo’.

If that isn't incentive enough to pop down to Wimbledon, here's a video of Joe Cable/Daniel Koek with his shirt - and everything else - off, for a charity photoshoot.

This review written for www.londonist.com

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Gypsy, girl, you ALMOST got it made ...

The world is divided between those people who hear the declamatory phrase “I had a dream …” and think first of Martin Luther King, and those who in their heads automatically append “… I dreamed it for you, June” and call to mind Ethel Merman’s career-defining role as the ultimate tyrannical stage mother in the 1959 Jule Style/Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy. It charts the childhood and early career of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and the latest revival, well timed for Mother’s Day, just opened at Leicester’s funky Curve theatre.

Broadsheet critics (Spencer, Billington) fell over themselves to discredit the popular suggestion that Gypsy is the King Lear of musical comedy – yet the fact remains Mama Rose is the part you assail at the very peak of your powers because the physical demands and the emotional engagement require tremendous stamina as well as half a stage lifetime of craft experience. Many actresses leave it too late to play credibly the indefatigably pushy three-times-married stage mother of teenage girls, but at 49 Caroline O’Connor has the lungs and the legs to nail it.

Does she? Yes and no. In Paul Kerryson’s curious production the style wavers between modernity and an urge to reiterate the original, and O’Connor seems caught in the same dilemma – whether to channel the fully-leaded Merman she imitated so well in ‘De-Lovely’ or strike out a line for herself and decorate the songs with darker and more original references to motives drawn from Rose’s troubled past which could have led to a disturbingly climactic breakdown in the final number.

Perhaps she’s still working it out, but it feels a shade tentative this early in the run, and at times it seemed as though she was playing someone else playing Rose. With her tiny clenched fists and habit of shaking her head before speaking, you get a glimpse of how Julia McKenzie might have done it given the chance.

One of the great benefits of having an actress in her forties play Rose, is that the relationship with agent Herbie can be more palpably romantic. On Broadway, Tyne Daly made Rose actually sexy and both ‘Small World’ and ‘You’ll Never Get Away From Me’ became more highly charged as a result. I couldn’t warm to David Fleeshman’s sturdy suburban Herbie, he seemed under-charismatic for a man who could distract Rose from her fiery purpose, and there’s no chemistry between them.

The roles of Louise/Gypsy and dancing sidekick Tulsa are both a blessing and a curse: they’re great showcases for talented singers and dancers and yet apart from Tammy Blanchard (Louise in the Bernadette Peters version) currently supporting in How To Succeed In Business , I can’t think of a single actor or actress who graduated from those parts to West End or Broadway fame. Jason Winter has the moves for sure, in David Needham’s energised choreography, but no warmth or depth. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is so convincingly dowdy as Louise that it’s a genuine surprise when, almost too late, she blossoms into such a fine and self-mocking Gypsy channelling perfectly Natalie Wood’s measured intonation from the film.

The trio of strippers as usual steal the show: the ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick’ number usually belongs to Mazeppa, here made copious flesh in Lucinda Shaw’s bullishly comic performance, but Geraldine Fitzgerald more than makes her mark as Tessie Tura. Elsewhere in the ensemble it feels a bit understaffed with just 13 actors covering so many parts – Stuart Ramsay gives exceptionally good value – and the local children pressed into service as young June, Louise and their troupe are excellent although it’s a pity more actual boy ‘newsboys’ couldn’t be found.

The understaffing extends to the pit where the orchestrations have been re-worked for a ten-piece band led from the keyboard by Michael Haslam. This is such a lush and epic score, that it’s not best served either by this downsizing or the pace: the show’s pushing three hours.

Transfer? No, but it’s been forty years since the West End saw Gypsy and we should look to the National Theatre, arguably the only outfit that could give this heavyweight of a musical the resources and the staging it demands. If I were Trevor Nunn, I’d also rotate the actresses playing Rose to give “the greys and the gays” in the audience their opportunity to pay twice to see the same show.

Ms. Staunton, Ms. Friedman, Ms. Criswell: how are your diaries for 2014 ?

(This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk where it gets 4 Stars - but the production hasn’t yet been loaded into its database)

Friday, 16 March 2012

The 'National Pie Week' Musical: 3 Stars

Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's equivalent of Shakespeare's 'Problem Plays' wherein the protagonist struggles with a moral dilemma or social problem, in Todd's case precisely how many throats to slit in revenge for his deportation to Australia. As such, it requires a feat of both acting and singing that prove challenging to the strongest performers, and despite critical acclaim at Chichester, it still seems Michael Ball's stretched.

First of all, and disappointingly for his seat-wetting coterie of housewifely fans, he doesn't seem like Michael Ball.

Uncharacteristically dark and straight-haired, with a dyed goatee, it could occur to you he has sent comedian Phill Jupitus in his place. When I met Ball at Wimbledon towards the end of his Hairspray tour, he admitted he was nervous at the prospect of playing Todd because it was so far out of his normal vocal range, and he's not a trained singer.

Perhaps rightly he hasn't attempted the continuous stentorian delivery of Bryn Terfel or Denis Quilley in the role, because his voice wouldn't support it, but his brooding and introverted performance leaves a hole in the centre of the show which is now filled by a breathtaking Mrs Lovett from Imelda Staunton.

Staunton's ascent from comedy maids to 'national treasure' is well charted but this is something else: when you consider how many fine actresses have essayed Mrs Lovett, from Angela Lansbury to Patti LuPone you would think no-one could wring any more out of the sock of the part ... but Staunton finds nuances and subtleties in the script and the songs that simply weren't there before. It's a marvel to watch particularly, in the darker second half, the equal quantities of maternal affection and murderous creepiness with which she infuses 'Not While I'm Around', and her frantic harmonium playing and perfect Ball-straddling comic timing of 'By The Sea'.

The support is variable: there seems a casting mistake between John Bowe (Judge Turpin) and Peter Polycarpou (Beadle) because Bowe's by far the stronger actor and Polycarpou an infinitely better experienced musical theatre singer: I'd have had them swap roles. Weak contributions, too, from a softly boyish Luke Brady as sailor Anthony, and a frankly dreadful shrill and colourless Johanna from Lucy May Barker, but a scary and strong Old Woman from Gillian Kirkpatrick.

Underlit and over-directed (Jonathan Kent is determined to make it an opera) the piece is bizarrely costumed with 1930s garb, and Pirelli arrives in a motorised van - yet the atmosphere is still Victorian grinding poverty. No one around me could suggest what the 30s (or 50s, who could tell?) hair and clothes did for the show, apart from to wonder if Imelda had come dressed for 'Vera Drake: The Musical" and to put the price of pies up to 'thruppence'.

"Who knows if it's going to run" sings Todd in the pie song ... it's clearly an expensive package, but at over thirty years old the dust's on the script as well as Mrs Lovett's pie crusts, and without Ball playing to his gallery of admirers, it may have a tough time filling the Adelphi across the summer. The producers have some gimmick casting in mind, though, comedian Jason Manford (who as far as I know can't sing) arrives as Adolfo Pirelli in June whilst Robert Burt does a real job at Glyndebourne.

Was the 'Go Compare' man (Wynne Evans) not available?

This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk