Category Archives: London

“Parade”

Donmar Warehouse, London • 27 October 2007 • 2:30pm
Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Book by Alfred Uhry. Co-conceived by Harold Prince.

Director & Choreographer: Rob Ashford. Musical Director: Thomas Murray. With Bertie Carvel (Leo Frank), Lara Pulver (Lucille Frank)…

I missed Parade when it originally opened on Broadway in December of 1998 because it folded after two months for lack of an audience. It was awarded two posthumous Tony Awards (one for Best Book of a Musical and another for Best Score of a Musical… although the Tony for Best Musical strangely went to Fosse). The Donmar Warehouse is giving the show its UK premiere in a production directed by Rob Ashford, who was the original production’s Assistant Choreographer.

As was already evidenced by the CD, Parade is a brilliant and deeply disturbing show. It deals with the Leo Frank case, the story of a Jewish man convicted of murdering a 13 year-old factory girl in Georgia in 1913, who was lynched by a Ku Klux Klan mob when his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after it surfaced that some of the evidence against him had been forged. (To this day, the controversy hasn’t ended, although there is very strong evidence pointing to Frank’s innocence, most notably the late confession of a factory worker in the 1980s.)

Parade combines a hauntingly beautiful score and a strongly built book. From the first song, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” sung magnificently by Stuart Matthew Price and Steven Page, soon joined by the entire company, it is obvious the show is going to be no ordinary experience. Rob Ashford has conceived a staging in which the story unfurls cinematically in the Donmar’s tiny but highly theatrical space. The cast is tremendously good, with glowing performances from Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver as Leo and Lucille Frank. My only complaint is that nobody even tries to use convincing accents.

Parade is contemporary musical at its best. It is also, at times, theatre at its best. The fact that it didn’t manage to attract an audience in New York is a sad sign of the times. It is playing to sold-out houses at the Donmar, but this is only a limited run. Here’s hoping London can give this wonderful show the chance that it deserves.

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“Bad Girls, the Musical”

Garrick Theatre, London • 29 September 2007 • 3pm
Music & Lyrics: Kath Gotts. Book: Maureen Chadwick & Ann McManus.

Director: Maggie Norris. With Sally Dexter (Yvonne Atkins), Laura Rogers (Helen Stewart), Caroline Head (Nikki Wade), David Burt (Jim Fenner), Helen Fraser (Sylvia “Bodybag” Hollamby), Nicole Faraday (Shell Dockley), Amanda Posener (Denny Blood), Julie Jupp (Julie Saunders), Rebecca Wheatley (Julie Johnston), Chris Grierson (Justin Mattison), Emily Aston (Rachel Hicks), Camilla Beeput (Crystal Gordon), Maria Charles (Noreen Biggs)…

It isn’t often that I go see a musical that I know absolutely nothing about before entering the theatre. Bad Girls, the Musical is based on a British TV series taking place inside a women’s prison that aired on ITV from 1999 to 2006. The plot of the musical is based primarily on the characters and storylines of the first season and includes a lesbian love story between one of the inmates and the wing governor. The musical originated at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2006 and is now being presented in the West End.

The result is hit-and-miss.

On the one hand, the book cleverly balances drama and comic relief, prison cell grittiness and typical sitcom humour. The characters are strongly delineated and the overall dramatic structure is strong. The score, although derivative, is pleasant. And the clever use of projections makes the staging very effective.

On the other hand, the show frequently fails to meet West End standards. As good as the show becomes when it uses second-degree humour, it can be quite a drag when it is more literal-minded. Several of the individual performances are weak. And the novelty of the situation and characters becomes too thin in the second act to really sustain attention.

The show isn’t bad. It isn’t quite good either.

But it’s a treat to see Maria Charles, who played the part of Dulcie in the original production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend… a few years ago.

“The Boy Friend”

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London • 1st September 2007 • 8pm
Book, Music & Lyrics by Sandy Wilson.

Director: Ian Talbot. Co-director & choreographer: Bill Deamer. With Anna Nicholas (Madame Dubonnet), Claire Carrie (Hortense), ? (Percival Browne), Rachel Jerram (Polly Browne), Richard Reynard (Tony), Kate Nelson (Maisie), Chris Ellis-Stanton (Bobby Van Heusen), Ian Talbot (Lord Brockhurst), Margaret Tyzack (Lady Brockhurst)…

I’d already seen this delightful production last year, and the magic worked all over again. There probably couldn’t be a more perfect and more loving tribute to the musicals of the 1920s. Sandy Wilson’s score is a treat from the first to the last bar, and Ian Talbot’s staging wisely avoids too much second or third degree.

The Boy Friend is a recipe for happiness: one can only leave the theatre with a warm heart, light feet, and enough positive energy for a month.

“The Lord of the Rings”

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London • 1st September 2007 • 2pm
Book and Lyrics by Shaun McKenna & Matthew Warchus. Music by A. R. Rahman, Värttinä, with Christopher Nightingale.

Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreographer: Peter Darling. With James Loye (Frodo Baggins), Peter Howe (Sam Gamgee), Malcolm Storry (Gandalf), Michael Therriault (Gollum/Sméagol), Laura Michelle Kelly (Galadriel), Jérôme Pradon (Strider/Aragorn), Steven Miller (Boromir), Jon Tsouras (Legolas [understudy]), Alex Bonnet (Arwen [understudy]), Sévan Stephan (Gimli), Ben Evans (Merry [understudy]), Stuart Neal (Pippin [understudy]), Terence Frisch (Bilbo Baggins), Jennie Dale (Rosie [understudy]), Brian Protheroe (Saruman), Andrew Harvis (Elrond), Michael Hobbs (Treebeard)…

I had missed this show by a few days when I last went to Toronto, so I was sort of curious, especially given what I’d read about it.

First of all, it is a spectacular with music rather than a bona-fide musical. There are few actual songs, like the Hobbits’ song at the very beginning, which is quite good, but most of the score feels like underscoring. The staging of the first act is breathtaking, with several disappearing acts and a finale which made me wonder how they were ever going to top it.

Well, they don’t. The second and third acts are a bit underwhelming. Of course, the ever-moving 17-part turntable is used deftly and imaginatively, but there’s only so much a turntable can achieve, no matter how sophisticated. And the story can get quite dense in the last 90 minutes or so, even if the writers have tried to trim it to the minimum. Having seen the movies definitely helps.

The cast do their best to pretend they feel comfortable sporting medicinal-sounding names like Boromir, Sargenor Aragorn or Legolas. Take a spoonful of Boromir once a day. I quite enjoyed James Loye’s performance as Frodo: I think he made a better job than Elijah Wood at conveying the incongruity of having a Hobbit deal with such a gigantic task.

All in all, the show is pleasurable spectacular… but they shouldn’t have let everything out of their bag of tricks by the end of the first act.

“Take Flight”

Menier Chocolate Factory, London • 26 August 2007 • 3:30pm
Music by David Shire. Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. Book by John Weidman.

Direction: Sam Buntrock. Musical Direction: Caroline Humphris. With Sam Kenyon (Wilbur Wright), Elliot Levey (Orville Wright), Michael Jibson (Charles Lindbergh), Sally Ann Triplett (Amelia Earhart), Ian Bartholomew (George Putnam), Clive Carter (Otto Lillienthal), Christopher Colley, Ian Conningham, John Conroy, Helen French, Edward Gower, Kaisa Hammarlund.

Given the amount of crap we’re subjected to at each and every corner these days, a show with such a high level of craftsmanship is a knock-out, no matter how flawed it is.

Simply put, Take Flight is the Assassins of aviation. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Assassins, actually. It ties together the three stories of the Wright Brothers, of Charles Lindbergh and of Amelia Earhart in a non-linear libretto that also uses a manner of balladeer in the person of Otto Lillienthal, the German inventor of gliding. Their common passion, of course, is flying.

The first act is the less successful of the two, as the quality of the development of the three stories and their level of “integration” is very uneven. But all starts to come together at the end of the first act in a beautiful song called “Before the Dawn”… and the second act is outstanding in its ability to stitch the various threads of narrative together and have everything come full circle. The show ends, with little respect for chronology but a strong sense of dramatic efficiency, on the Wright Brothers’ first successful attempt at flying one of their aircraft.

There is tremendous talent involved, and it feels in many ways miraculous that some people are still so literate in the art of writing a musical. The score is gorgeous, especially when it manages to get past the “Sondheim complex” that it exhibits from time to time. It is highly enhanced by Shire’s own orchestrations for an 8-piece orchestra and by his superb choral writing. The music frequently soars and is especially good at expressing longings and aspirations. There are a few very clever numbers in the second act, most notably a vaudeville-type song for the Wright Brothers called “The Funniest Thing.”

The lyrics are frequently funny, at times a bit a surprising, like when Maltby rhymes “Crusoe” with “do so” or when he writes that “Range means going far” (which is supposed to be comedic in context). And I wonder if any other lyric ever contained the phrase “pi square.” There’s also a line that goes “How can we be wrong? We’re the Wright Brothers!” which I saw coming from miles afar. But I guess they couldn’t help themselves.

Even if all the parts are not written with the same virtuosity, the level of acting is excellent. Particularly outstanding (and blessed with the best-written part) is Sally Ann Triplett. She sings wonderfully and develops her character very nicely. I have slight reservations about the actor who plays Lindbergh, Michael Jibson, last seen in the Sheffield A Chorus Line (playing Bobby). But maybe that’s because his character is a bit more enigmatic. The Wright Brothers are written like a Vaudeville act and they work together nicely, even if one of them, Orville, has slight problems with his singing, which is not always entirely in key.

I was also very impressed by Ian Bartholomew as George Putnam (Eaverhart’s husband). And I hardly recognised Clive Carter, who has aged a lot (and taken some weight) since I last saw him. He provides some excellent comic relief as Otto Lillienthal and he has the best song of the first act, “Pfffft!,” about the many failures of people who have tried to fly aircraft.

Sam Buntrock’s staging makes the most of the reduced space available given the subject matter of the show. The lighting, by David Howe, is particularly enchanting.

It is somewhat fitting that the Menier Chocolate Factory uses the same model of programmes that the late Bridewell used to: they are offering the same sort of classy and skilled productions, probably getting it even more right.

“Carmen Jones”

Royal Festival Hall, London • 4 August 2007 • 7:30pm
Oscar Hammerstein, II (1943). Music by Georges Bizet.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, John Rigby. Director: Jude Kelly. With Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi (Carmen Jones), Divine Harrison (Joe [understudy]), Sherry Boone (Cindy Lou), Rodney Clarke (Husky Miller)…

This was advertised as a “fully staged” production of Carmen Jones, which gave a misleading representation of the show. Since the orchestra is in a shallow pit built in the middle of the stage, there is only limited space around it for the singers to “move” around it, surrounded by some minimal, static scenery.

Bizet’s music is played beautifully by the RPO (which alternates in the pit with the Philharmonia). But that’s about as far as the list of good points goes, except maybe for the very good performance of Sherry Boone as Cindy Lou.

About everything else is underwhelming: appalling acoustics, a cryptic directorial concept, hugely uneven performances… Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi is an acceptable Carmen, but the quality of her voice doesn’t quite compare with her stunning good looks. Unfortunately, Divine Harrison, doesn’t have the sufficient operatic training to tackle the difficult part of Joe. And the staging badly lacks inspiration.

“Lady Be Good”

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London • 4 August 2007 • 2:30pm
Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton & Fred Thompson.

Director: Ian Talbot. Musical Director: Catherine Jayes. With Chris Ellis-Stanton (Dick Trevor), Kate Nelson (Susie Trevor), Norman Bowman (Jack Robinson), Hattie Ladbury (Josephine Vanderwater), Charlotte Warren (Daisy Parke), Giles Taylor (Bertie Bassett), Paul Grunert (Watty Watkins), Rachel Jerram (Shirley Vernon), Thomas Padden (Manuel Estrada), Steve Watts (Rufus Parke)…

The gods of scheduling have been good to me: right after The Drowsy Chaperone, they allowed me to see the very kind of show that Drowsy pays tribute to. The 1924 Lady Be Good boasted a score by George & Ira Gershwin and a cast led by Fred & Adele Astaire. It is the quintessential 1920s musical: fun and light-hearted. The score of Lady Be Good may be an early effort by the Gershwin brothers, but it already contains much of what made their songs so unique.

The setup of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park doesn’t allow for elaborate set changes or for a large orchestra. But the charming score, the energetic cast and a respectful staging which doesn’t resort too much to a defiant second degree combine to make the experience highly enjoyable.