Tag Archives: musical theatre

In The Heights – Kings Cross Theatre

I’ve found it – my favourite musical of 2015.

“Gail, would you like to come and see [insert show here]? I know you don’t like musicals, but…” so begins almost every musical invitation from theatre friends. It’s not that I don’t like musicals, it’s just that I’m very picky on the ones that I do like. This year I’ve really enjoyed Thoroughly Modern Millie, Memphis, The Producers and Once – but they all pale into insignificance in the shadow of In The Heights. I’ve been dancing salsa and bachata for about 9 years, so for me, the music style is very familiar. At the What’s On Stage Awards in February, the original cast did a small showcase which left me half rapt with joy at what I was watching, and half in despair at what I’d missed when it was on at Southwark Playhouse. I have been waiting for this show to return for London ever since, and it didn’t disappoint.

It’s summer in Washington Heights, New York’s latino district. Everyone is just about getting by, but they’re surrounded by poverty and have been hit hard by the economic crisis. With money tight, businesses going under, properties being bulldozed for regeneration and power cuts becoming increasingly regular, low morale is starting to get the better of them. But there is hope, love, passion, flirting, dancing, and a sizeable lottery win: with nothing left to lose, the populace of this tight-knit neighbourhood dare to dream about the future.

Played in traverse at the Kings Cross Theatre (usually home to The Railway Children), it has that feeling of a story far more ancient – similar in staging to Greek theatre. From the lilting salsa soundtrack playing in the bar, I step into the auditorium which has a few bits of set at either end of the stage to suggest a shop, a flat, a taxi rank and a beauty salon, leaving plenty of space in between for flexibility of locations.

By far and away the strongest aspects of this show are the music and dancing. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cool fusion of latino and hiphop has the audience around me tapping their feet, and is a perfect backdrop for Drew McOnie’s exceptional choreography: salsa, merengue, reggaeton, contemporary, hiphop, and even the bewilderingly complex footwork of Cali-style are all delivered with energy and attitude. Both the solos and large ensemble pieces are jaw-droppingly good and the atmosphere is electric.

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Photo by Johan Persson

Sam Mackay reprises his role as Usnavi, oozing a cool demeanour, making light work of the irregular rhythms and colloquial Spanish in his songs, bouncing rhymes off Sonny (Cleve September) with effortless charisma. September matches him beat for beat, and the rapport between them is a real joy to watch. David Bedella (last seen in The Producers) makes for a fiercely proud father as Kevin Rosario who looks to sell his taxi business when his daughter cannot keep up with her college fees. This does incur the wrath of his hotheaded tiger of a wife, Camila (Josie Benson) who is determined to find another way – and heaven help anyone who tries to argue with her!

By contrast, their daughter Nina (Lily Frazer) exudes a real lightness and warmth, but also the complex range of emotions as she finds herself trapped in a vicious circle between ambition and funding. Jade Ewen is a self-assured Vanessa, slowly giving in to Usnavi’s tongue-tied advances. The progression in their love story feels far more real than the typical West End schmaltz, with endless stumbling blocks and hiccups. But the character that we all fall helplessly in love with is Eve Polycarpou as Abuela Claudia. Honorary Grandmother to all, she is brimming with affection, and is the much respected epicentre of their community. It is her trajectory through the show which has the most profound effect on the audience – it has been a long time since a musical moved me to tears.

Musical highlights include the salsatastic In The Heights, the punchy hiphop beats of 96,000, the beautiful harmonies of Blackout, subtle ballad Sunrise, and the explosively defiant Carnaval Del Barrio.  I need to get myself another ticket to see this. It is truly deserving of its extension through until April and a great antidote to the cold miserable weather.

Now if this is the sort of thing pouring out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical box of tricks, who do I have to harass for them to bring over Hamilton from Broadway?

In The Heights is on until 10th April 2016 at the King’s Cross Theatre, Goods Way, London, N1C 4UR. For tickets and more information, go to intheheightslondon.com/

American Idiot – Arts Theatre

Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award winning album American Idiot is brought to the stage with explosive panache, and is targeted squarely at fans of the band. In the uncertainty of a post-9/11 world, three boyhood friends take very different paths in life, searching for meaning and purpose in their choices – one to drugs, one to the military, and one reluctantly to fatherhood. Although the show is packed with high-energy accomplished performances, the narrative does take a back seat. But that’s not what we’re here for. Give coherence the night off, and sit back for a riff-fuelled, foot tapping musical assault on the senses.

For those familiar with the album, everything about the show feels right: the grimy, divey, graffiti-covered set, the worn dishevelled punk-rock costumes, the battered skate shoes, the Mohawks and grown-out bleached spiky hair, the general “f***-the-world” demeanour of the ensemble, the delivery of the songs, the sound of the live band – all of it brimming with authenticity and anarchy. The creative team have definitely done their homework, and it’s a treat to have a cast on stage who can all play guitar.

Aaron Sidwell in the lead as Johnny is full of swagger, and finds every way possible to press the self-destruct button. His well-observed descent into drug addiction yanks at the heartstrings, with everyone else around him powerless to do anything. The atmosphere is tense and you can hear a pin drop as he staggers about the stage on the verge of collapse. His friend Tunny (Alexis Gerred) becomes a soldier and is injured in the line of duty, travelling from bravado to pitiful vulnerability. Last of the trio is Will (Steve Rushton), a no-hoper who makes a mediocre job of being a new parent.

Photo by Tristram Kenton

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – to read the review in full, please click here.

Miss Saigon – Prince Edward Theatre

Miss Saigon swept up a record 9 gongs at the What’s On Stage Awards. Even as a die-hard “plays over musicals” type, I couldn’t help but be curious to see it for myself.  Thankfully the wonderful people at Official Theatre had managed to snaffle some tickets at short notice, so I and some of the #LDNTheatreBloggers went along to see what all the fuss was about.

Set the sleazy brothels of Vietnam in 1975, the girls are forced into prostitution, and American GIs are looking for a good time and an escape from the horrors of war.  The recently orphaned Kim falls for a soldier, Chris – but when Saigon falls, the military pull out and the two lovers are torn apart.  There is love, loss, injustice, hope, despair, joy, unfortunate timing and complications.  As tear-jerking, heart-wrenching formulas go, Miss Saigon has every base covered.

Eva Noblezada and Alastair Brammer

Eva Noblezada gives a detailed and complex performance as Kim – from naive, vulnerable and complicit right through tentatively lovestruck to angry and force to be reckoned with – all of this echoed in her immense vocal range.  She commands the stage with great skill, but she is at her most striking during You Will Not Touch Him, filled with a primal determination to protect her child. Chris (Alastair Brammer) ticks every box on the all-American West End good guy checklist, torn between love and duty. His scenes with Kim are full of warmth and tenderness – completely at odds with the chaos erupting around them.

Rachelle Ann Go as stripper Gigi oozes sex from every pore – she confidently gyrates amongst the customers during the very graphic The Heat Is On In Saigon and this is contrasted heavily with her troubled bitterness in her haunting ballad The Movie In My Mind. The Engineer (Jon Jon Briones) is an abhorrent weasel, pretending to be everyone’s friend, but the only person’s side he’s really on, is his own.  Briones imbues him with a vile slipperiness that makes your skin crawl, especially when other characters have no option but to trust him.  He’s like a Vietnamese Fagin, but with better-looking urchins.

Jon Jon Briones

Jon Jon Briones

John (Hugh Maynard) undergoes quite a transformation from hardened soldier to a humanitarian worker, trying to make amends for the terrible mess left behind. Tamsin Carroll makes a brief but good performance out of her underused character Ellen, Chris’ American wife of 2 years. For someone written purely as the plot device to prevent the simple reunion between Chris and Kim, Carroll is genuinely likeable – crucial, in order for the ending to have its full impact.

A special mention must also go to the very young child playing Tam – his close rapport with Eva made their parent/child relationship very believeable and he was on stage during some very traumatic scenes, maintaining an incredible stillness – a big ask for a kid of his age.

As with many musicals, there’s a lot of “singing a conversation” – something which I tolerate rather than enjoy.  However, the sound, lighting and stage design all work together as one, culminating in some truly terrifying moments – helicopters seem to thunder through the air above our heads, lights evoke the murky grime of the crumbling shanty towns, the tacky glitz of Bangkok and the warm glow of a comfortable hotel suite.  The sets move in and out with ease, often leaving a large bare stage for the big displays of military might, and letting the space speak for itself at the end of Act 1 as Kim, Tam and the Engineer dare to hope that they might go to America.  It would take the hardest of hearts to be completely unmoved by the projections of footage from the orphanages during the swirling crescendos of Bui Doi.

helicopter

The final scene left me choked up – I was ready for the big finale (a devastatingly poignant reprise of Bui Doi perhaps), the bombastic company number with the entire cast belting with everything their lungs had left to give. I might prefer plays, but I want – and expect – musical theatre to move me to tears.

But it didn’t happen.

The ensemble filed onto stage in silence, took their bows (to rapturous applause), followed by individual walkdowns for the lead roles. Still nothing. The orchestra strikes up, but no one sings. They shuffle backwards, take a last bow, the curtain comes down and the house lights come up. Some would call it subtle, understated, less is more – I found it strangely clinical and unsatisfying.  I wanted to be overcome and cry my eyes out – but I was denied that release.

A great show, a phenomenal cast, all very worthy of their 9 WOS Awards – I’m sure there will be many more trophies to come. I can see this being in the West End for a good few years. But how can you end a musical without a musical number?

Miss Saigon is currently booking until 19th December 2015 at the Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street, London, W1D 4HS.  Contains strong language, violence and scenes of a sexual nature.  Not suitable for children under the age of 12.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.miss-saigon.com/ 

Lost Boy – Finborough Theatre

If I told you that I was going to see the world premiere of a brand new musical in London and to sit in the middle of the second row for just £16.00, would you believe me?  I thought not.  But the Finborough Theatre (small, yet perfectly formed) holds about 50 people and allows everyone a close-up of the stage.  As we are now into 2014, the Finborough have a whole season planned that includes plenty of new and old material to mark the centenary of the First World War.  Lost Boy is the story of the characters from J M Barrie’s Peter Pan now that they are all young adults.  For playwright Phil Wilmott, it struck him that the children who grew up reading Peter Pan would’ve been amongst the youngest to fight in the trenches; would their childhood of escapism and make-believe be to their advantage or their detriment as they are about to face one of the worst conflicts in human history?

We begin on the battlefield with J M Barrie’s adopted son, Captain George Llewelyn Davies (Steven Butler) and his fresh-faced troops as the horrors of war begin to take hold.  With other men taking turns to be on watch for the night, he drifts off to sleep and in his dream, he is a grown up Peter Pan.  There is something strangely chilling about the juxtaposition of the khaki green officer’s uniform and his mischievous demeanour – legs astride, hands on hips, chin up – ready for acts of derring do and thwarting enemies.  There is a subtle emphasis on how for the young men who went fearlessly on an ‘awfully big adventure’ to the trenches, the warmth and security of home must have become their Neverland.  Butler strikes just the right balance between excitable petulance and vulnerability.

Wendy Darling (Grace Gardner) is prim, proper and inadvertently finds herself falling back into the ‘mother’ role; John Darling (Richard James-King) makes for a likeable Edwardian geek with a touch of eccentricity.  Michael Darling (Joseph Taylor) has a real gentleness to his character – he couldn’t possibly be less suited to warfare – in the opening scene I was most drawn to the sheer terror in his face.  Mr Darling (Andrew C Wadsworth) is stern with a hint of warmth, but he also doubles as Captain Hook where he gets to really exercise his panto villain muscles as a devious military man.  Tinkerbell (Joanna Woodward) has gone from flighty fairy to broken, vengeful harlot – in spite of her bile, she somehow manages to be a sympathetic character.  The remaining cast play multiple smaller roles with good characterisation from all.

Musical highlights include Lost Boys Reunion about an Edwardian lads night out, and John and the Ensemble singing Jungian Dream Analysis, an inspired wordy foot-tapping song, reminiscent of Tom Lehrer.  Act One closes with the whole company singing Once More, a song that almost feels too big for such a petite stage and threatens to burst the walls of the theatre.  The song First Aid is perhaps one of the most distressing of all, not least for the expressions on the faces of the cast; for the young women who also grew up reading Peter Pan, nothing could possibly have prepared them for the horrors they would face working in the field hospitals as nurses.  There is also a beautiful contemporary dance section performed by Luka Markus and Lauren Cocoracchio.

The only niggle I have (and it’s a very tiny one) is the way that this musical toys with your emotions.  I mean this in the sense that as we hurtle towards the inevitable devastating end, where the audience are choked with sadness and willing to be moved, an ill-timed bit of comedy cabaret snuck in and broke the illusion; at that point I really feared that the play was going against its purpose.  Thankfully this was short lived and Mr Darling returns to deliver some truly poignant and profound words: that the real George Llewelyn Davies is believed to have died with a copy of Peter Pan in his pocket – possibly the one source of comfort into which he could retreat.

This is a pertinent new musical to mark the 100 year anniversary of the First World War.  I really hope it pops up again beyond its current run and I might just have to see how compares when it transfers to the Charing Cross Theatre in mid January….

Lost Boy is on at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London, SW10 9ED until Saturday 11th January and then transfers to the Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London, WC2N 6NL from Monday 13th January to Saturday 15th February.  Suitable for ages 12+. For tickets and information go to http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2014/lost-boy.php

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Theatre Royal)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Wednesday 22nd May 2013charlie

 I’m very picky on my musicals.  I haven’t seen ‘Phantom’ or ‘Les Mis’ and as it’s unlikely that they’ll be closing any time soon, I don’t have the same sense of urgency to see them as I do with plays that get a 10-week run.  So it’s a rare thing indeed for me to book to see a brand new musical on its first preview night.  But I grew up reading books by Roald Dahl, so as soon as I got word of stage version of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, my inner child frogmarched me to the internet demanding that I booked tickets at once.

It is impossible to separate Roald Dahl stories from the accompanying illustrations by Quentin Blake.  So it brought a huge smile to my face to see the show open with a cartoon sequence all about chocolate, drawn by Blake himself.  Even though Dahl mostly wrote books for children, we can sometimes forget how dark these stories really are – but playwright David Grieg and director Sam Mendes have brought out the best of the morbidity and black humour.

We first meet cheerful urchin Charlie Bucket sifting through the rubbish dump looking for useful things to take home to his poor-but-happy family.  The ramshackle house is gloomy, but filled with the love and tentative optimism of Charlie’s parents and 4 bedridden elderly grandparents, the latter providing much of the black comedy e.g. in the song ‘A Letter From Charlie Bucket’ they softly sing: “Off to bed, counting sheep….hope we don’t die in our sleep”.  There was a small technical glitch (getting the beds lined up again on the trapdoor) but I think this is forgivable on the first preview and will hopefully be ironed out in the coming weeks before the show officially opens.

There is a dose of bitter realism in the story; Charlie gets a Wonka bar for his birthday – but there is no golden ticket.  This provides great contrast to the introductions of the 4 children who win the first 4 golden tickets – the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, precocious Veruca Salt, gum-chewing diva Violet Beauregarde and joystick-happy Mike Teavee – all great caricatures and all instantly dislikeable.  But Charlie gets his golden ticket, so he and Grandpa Joe (Nigel Planer) set off to Willy Wonka’s Factory.

charlie 1

Under the colourful, gregarious exterior of Willy Wonka (Douglas Hodge) there is something that hovers on the border between mischievous and sinister, almost dangerous.  Wonka, the 5 children and their adult chaperones weave through the factory, with Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike meeting their sticky ends.  This is greatly theatrical and the way they create the Oompa Loompas is truly inspired – it’s a technique I’ve seen used before, but it requires 3 C’s: Coordination, Cooperation and Concentration.  I am in awe of anyone who can do it well!

I was quite surprised at how much of Act 1 is spent in the Bucket household rather than at the Factory.  The show is none the worse for it, but I think most people in the audience were expecting to skim through that aspect of the story and get straight to the chocolate.  But you have to finish your dinner before you can have dessert and it’s worth the wait.  The vast majority of this musical is a brand new score – it’s very difficult to tell whether any of them will become classics in their own right when you’ve only heard them once, but stand-out numbers include ‘Don’t Ya Pinch Me, Charlie’ and ‘It Must Be Believed to be Seen’.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but I think you can make an educated guess at which classic song has been included.

The cast are excellent, but the biggest credit must go to the young actor playing Charlie Bucket – the role demands a lot of stage time and lines, plus getting the audience on your side without them feeling sorry for you.  I only wish my programme had included a slip of paper to say which of the 4 boys was playing him!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently open for preview, but officially opens on Tuesday 25th June 2013

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Catherine Street, LONDON, WC2B 5JF

http://www.charlieandthechocolatefactory.com