Tag Archives: musical

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/

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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.

Vote For Me – London Theatre Workshop

With the UK general election over and done with, you’d think that’d be enough voting for one week – but step inside the London Theatre Workshop and you’ll find Vote For Me: A Musical Debate, a wickedly funny satire on US politics from the writers of Avenue Q. Watch the presidential candidates weave through the minefield of difficult questions in “the world’s biggest popularity contest”, aided (?) and abetted by political advisors and ruthlessly ambitious spouses – and then vote for your favourite at the end.  For those unacquainted with the US political system, this is a very accessible production. A reference guide in the back of the programme is even provided to assist you.

Hans Rye as inept Republican candidate Buddy Rounsaville frequently turns to his advisor to find out what he thinks, yet comes across as a very amiable, jovial man of the people, backed up by his tigress of a wife, Amy (Jennie Jacobs), whose ruthless streak frequently bubbles over, to great comic effect.  By contrast we have the neurotic, try-too-hard Democrat Janet Tilghman (Emily Lynne) who wavers beautifully between the desire to do the best for her country and the pressures of being the first woman president.  As the show progresses, the vulnerability in her eyes becomes ever more evident.  At her side is her beta-male husband, Roger (Arvid Larsen), resplendent in bland beige, equally unsure of how to fulfill his duty and be “…the First First Lady, who stands up when she pees.”

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/ 

My picks for 2015

With 2015 only days away, I’ve already got my eye on several shows coming up in 2015:

The Railway Children at King’s Cross Station
16th December 2014 to 6th September 2015
Already in preview at its new specially built home in King’s Cross, I first saw this stage adaptation of E. Nesbit’s famous tale when it was at Waterloo’s old Eurostar terminal.  If the words “My Daddy! Oh my Daddy!” cause you to have something in your eye all of a sudden, you should definitely make time to see the wonderful staging of this enchanting family show.

The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Studios
16th January 2015 to 11th April 2015
James McAvoy returns to the stage as Jack, “a possible paranoid schizophrenic with a Messiah complex, who inherits the title of the 14th Earl of Gurney after his father passes away in a bizarre accident. Singularly unsuited to a life in the upper echelons of elite society, Jack finds himself at the centre of a ruthless power struggle as his scheming family strives to uphold their reputation.” 

The Nether at The Duke of York’s Theatre
30th January 2015 to 25th April 2015
A very well-earned transfer of this exceptional play from its stint at The Royal Court earlier in 2014 – the vast majority of the original cast will be reprising their roles.  Set in the unspecified near future, the script tackles the uneasy subject of how to deal with paedophilia.  It presents the audience with a very real dilemma – yet it never tells you how you should feel about it.  You decide that for yourself.  I will definitely be going back for a second viewing.

The King’s Speech – UK Tour
5th February 2015 to 8th June 2015
This is the stage adaptation of the film which won more awards than you could shake a sceptre at. It had an outing on the West End a few years ago, but it was perhaps timed a little too close to the DVD release for it to fly. This production is starting in Chichester and touring the country from there, with Jason Donovan playing Aussie speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Perhaps now the time is right for this show to return to the stage.

Jason Donovan King's Speech

A View From The Bridge at the Wyndham’s Theatre
10th February 2015 to 11th April 2015
A recommendation from a fellow theatre blogger, Jake Orr.  In his words: “The most breathtaking synergy between direction, design and text I’ve seen in theatre… …Seriously, if you’ve not seen the show it is transferring to the West End in 2015, book now and hold your breathe at the end, you won’t have a choice but to.”  I’m prepared to take it on good faith that it’ll be every bit as amazing as described!

The Producers – UK Tour
6th March 2015 to 11th July 2015
Much as I hate to be swayed by a celebrity cast, I do love Ross Noble (he joins the cast from 18th May). A musical about making the worst musical ever – with songs like Springtime For Hitler is my kinda show.

Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre
28th March 2015 to 25th July 2015
Just about all of my more musically-inclined theatre blogging friends have been raving about this ever since they saw it at the Chichester Festival Theatre.  Again, I’m willing to believe them that this is going to be good.

Imelda-Staunton-Momma-Rose-co-in-Gypsy.-Photo-Johan-Persson-e1413325106852

The Audience at the Apollo Theatre
21st April 2015 to 25th July 2015
I saw the cinema screening of The Audience starring Helen Mirren – a fantastic play based on the imagined conversations between Her Maj and the Prime Minister du jour.  All 12 of them.  Kristin Scott Thomas takes to the stage in a play which is a fascinating insight into the woman who has the right “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn”.  For those who would happily do away with the monarchy, this play might persuade you that there’s a lot to be said for one piece of continuity that holds fast from one government to the next.

Shakespeare’s Globe New Season
From 23rd April 2015
In a bid to repair the damage done by my English teachers at secondary school and sixth form college (and University, to be honest), I’m slowly working my way through seeing lots of plays at Shakespeare’s Globe in the hope that they’ll be less boring on stage than they were in the classroom.  The Merchant of Venice was the first play I saw when the Globe opened (I was studying it for GCSE, which kind of ruined it) and I’m also looking forward to Measure For Measure, which has some familiar characters like Falstaff, so I’m hoping it’ll be funny rather than the painfully dull chore that it was for A-Level.

You Me Bum Bum Train
Dates to be confirmed
All aboard! YMBBT – one of the greatest immersive theatre companies in existence – have set the wheels in motion for a 2015 show. It’s all very secretive, but reportedly, audience members are sent through one by one into a series of situations which you probably wouldn’t encounter in your everyday life. From driving a JCB digger to conducting an orchestra to leading a dawn raid with armed police, you become the star of the show. What they have lined up this time is a closely guarded secret and the less you know, the better.  Apparently.

Of course there’s loads I want to see – the full list is here.

Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre

My face hurts.  This is a good thing.

I fully intended to see Forbidden Broadway when it was at The Menier Chocolate Factory earlier this summer.  But I was performing in a play myself and tickets were like gold dust, so that plan was scuppered.  It was a huge relief that they transferred it to the West End – right on the doorstep of the very shows it parodies.  I like musicals (rather than love them).  Well, some of them.  I prefer plays.  I’m not systematically trying to see every musical in order to tick them off some sort of list.  Some of my more musical-obsessed friends are horrified that I haven’t seen Les Mis, Phantom, Cats, The Lion King etc.  So in some ways I’m a pretty good litmus test on how well the jokes in Forbidden Broadway work.

Ultimately, this is a spangly satirical revue which gleefully tears several strips off showtunes with wit and perfect mimicry.  Our talented and versatile cast of 4 are Christina Bianco, Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, with Joel Fram at the piano – they contort their voices into all sorts of styles, impersonating everyone from Idina Menzel to Liza Minelli to Hugh Jackman.  The show bounces along at a merry pace with a relentless stream of costume changes (all with a deliberately low-budget look) to complement every single scene.  The format has been running off-Broadway since 1982, but this version has been tailored for the West End and its current shows in residence – it appears there may have been some minor updates since the transfer in response to current events (e.g. the casting of Ronan Keating in Once).  Whether you like, love, hate or haven’t seen many musicals, there is something in this show for you.

We begin with “Everybody Thinks They’re A Critic” – aimed squarely at people like me who take it upon themselves to write about theatre (I smiled a wry smile), neatly followed by a reworded Matilda song “Exploiting Children” about pushy stage parents and merciless producers.  There’s a riff on the tongue-twisting lyrics of Sondheim, a tribute to Wicked in “Defying Subtlety”, and a whole section on Les Miserables which takes a pop at the fact that it’s been cluttering up the Queen’s Theatre for so long.  In spite of having not seen Les Mis, I was cackling helplessly at them shuffling round and round in a circle (I’m assuming they use the stage revolve quite a lot).  No musical is safe – not even West End must-see The Book of Mormon.  If you’ve seen the musical in question, you’ll get the references straight away – if you haven’t, the content is generally accessible enough for you to get the jist.

Anna-Jane Casey, Ben Lewis and Damian Humbley. Photo by Alastair Muir.

Most of it is an affectionate send up of the West End – e.g. “Can You Feel The Pain Tonight?”, a nod to the cumbersome headdresses in The Lion King, and “Walk Like A Man, Sing Like a Girl” from Jersey Boys, but there are a couple of skits which really don’t pull their punches.  I adored Once when I saw it (that music haunted me for days after), but their ruthless attack on the angsty-yet-subtle melodies elicited several pained “ooohhhs” and sharp intakes of breath from the audience around me rather than the belly laughs.  Clearly London audiences have taken Once to their hearts!

But perhaps my favourite guilty pleasure was when they took several chunks out of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory: “…Come with me, and you’ll see, a show with no imagination…”.  Sorry Sam Mendes, but they are right – beyond the song pinched from the film, the score is completely unmemorable.  I howled with laughter (no one else did) at their take on the great glass elevator, which was plagued with technical difficulties in the early shows.  I saw Charlie in preview, when they simply had to do without their showstopping set piece – they sat on a black stage all but for a generous scattering of twinkling fairy lights and sang “Pure Imagination”.  It was simple, beautiful, classy and a piece of understated theatrical magic.  When I saw it a second time, the same scene was completed with a hideous glowing turquoise phonebox which juddered clumsily out over the audience, with about as much elegance as a bloated walrus.

Overall the show is well judged – acerbic without being too malicious.  There were a few scenes which were utterly lost on me (I just didn’t get the references), but in some ways, it was nice to have a few minutes respite in amongst the relentless torrent of hilarity just to give my cheeks a break from laughing.  An evening well spent.

Forbidden Broadway is playing until Saturday 22nd November 2014 at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 The Strand, London, WC2R 0NH.  For tickets and more information, go to http://www.nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre/forbidden_broadway/

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