Category Archives: UK (Regional)

“Babes in Arms”

Festival Theatre, Chichester (UK) • 15 June 2007 • 7:30pm
Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Book by George Oppenheimer. Adapted by Martin Connor.

Directed by Martin Connor. Choreographer: Bill Deamer. Musical director: Mark Warman. With Lorna Luft (Phyllis Owen), Sophia Ragavelas (Baby Rose Owen), Rolf Saxon (Seymour Fleming), Mark McGee (Valentine La Mar), Donna Steele (Billie Edwards), Matthew Hart (Gus Fielding), Kay Murphy (Dolores Reynolds)…

The first musical I saw at the Chichester Festival was Divorce Me, Darling! The year was 1997 and the delightful show was my first encounter with Liliane Montevecchi. I’ve gone back to Chichester several times over the years, as there is always a musical offering in the festival programme. The most brilliant show I’ve ever seen there is My One and Only with the wonderful Tim Flavin and the wonderful Janie Dee, one of the most enjoyable experiences of my theatre-going life, thanks in no small part to Gareth Valentine’s felicitous musical direction.

This production of Babes in Arms is a very enjoyable addition to the string of Chichester musicals. It is, of course, a gem of a show: no other score, except maybe Pal Joey, can boast more Rodgers & Hart standards (“The Lady is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Where of When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Imagine…”) Both the direction and choreography are very respectful of the show and full of interesting and surprising ideas. There are some outstanding performances in the cast, most notably the comic duo of Gus and Dolores, played expertly by Matthew Hart and Kay Murphy. Lorna Luft gives the expected powerhouse performance and wins the audience over, deservedly. The part of Mrs. Owen is somewhat reminiscent of the part of Mama Rose in Gypsy, which she has played.

Although some dance numbers are entrancing (especially the “Light on Our Feet” tap routine), others are less impressive, presumably because of the heterogeneous dancing skills of the cast. I am grateful that they did the full “Imagine” ballet (a wonderful number expressing the young performers’ love of performing — the first one in a series going up to A Chorus Line), but there were moments when it was less than breathtaking. Also, the sound coming from the 12-piece orchestra was at times regrettably thin.

But that didn’t prevent the show from being a very enjoyable experience. The build-up to the finale, in particular, is expertly done, and it lets the audience go out into the night with their heads full of enchanting music, clever and touching lyrics and a wonderful feeling of warm-hearted dizziness.

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“Merrily We Roll Along”

Derby Playhouse, Derby (UK) • 5 May 2007 • 7:30pm
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Based on the original play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Directed by Karen Louise Hebden. Musical director: Andrew Synnott. With Glyn Kerslake (Frank Shepard), Glenn Carter (Charley Kringas), Eliza Lumley (Mary Flynn), Julie-Alanah Brighten (Gussie Carnegie), Cheryl McAvoy (Beth Spencer), Michael Beckley (Joe Josephson)…

Merrily seems to affect me more each time I see it, and not only because it has a superb score. Life is about making choices, accepting compromises and going different ways — that, of course, gets all the clearer as time goes by. With its backward-moving story, Merrily ends as the young protagonists, aware that “their time” has come, get ready to engage life, strong in their certainty that their dreams will come true. Of course, we’ve just witnessed what’s going to happen in their lives. The contrast between their youthful idealism and the audience’s awareness of reality creates a hell of a powerful blow.

The Derby Playhouse continues its Sondheim series — after good productions of Company and Into the Woods. (I think there has been another show that I haven’t seen.) This production of Merrily We Roll Along shines mainly thanks to its focus on the dramatic aspects of the play. The strong work on the psychology of the characters pays off very powerfully in the end.

Among a uniformly strong cast, I was particularly impressed and moved by Eliza Lumley’s magnificent impersonation of Mary. Her metamorphoses throughout the show, as well as the countless ways in which she shows her love for Frank while he apparently hasn’t got a clue, are truly remarkable.

Sure, it was a shame to have to do with only six musicians… and the set design looked slightly awkward… but this fourth encounter with the show nonetheless left me shaken and disturbed. Which is a compliment, by the way.

“Fiddler on the Roof”

Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (UK) • 6 January 2007 • 7:30pm
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the Sholem Aleichem stories. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.

Director: Lindsay Posner. Music Director: Dane Preece. With Henry Goodman (Tevye), Beverley Klein (Golde)…

When I heard that Henry Goodman was to play Tevye in this production, I became curious. He drew considerable attention to himself when he got fired from the Broadway production of The Producers after much hype about his replacing Nathan Lane. I remember his giving a fine performance as Nathan Detroit in the beautiful production of Guys & Dolls at the National Theatre… and also playing a somewhat frantic Buddy in the Royal Festival Hall production of Follies. Well… his Tevye is also a bit on the nervous side, but overall I found his performance to be a success.

The Crucible Theatre’s production is slick and winsome. Its great cast does justice to Bock and Harnick’s masterpiece. I was particularly happy to see that Beverley Klein had been cast as Golde: her Old Lady in the National Theatre’s production of Candide remains as one of my best theatrical memories ever. She is a fine Golde… and really managed to bring out the emotion in “Do You Love Me.”

Too bad the production could only afford an eight-piece orchestra: the glory of Bock’s score was lost in places. Also, for the first time in a very long time in the UK, I thought that the sound design was not completely satisfactory.

“Merry Wives, the Musical”

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (UK) • 9 December 2006 • 7:30pm

Adapted from Shakespeare by Gregory Doran. Music by Paul Englishby. Lyrics by Ranjit Bolt.
Direction: Gregory Doran. With Judi Dench (Mistress Quickly), Simon Callow (Sir John Falstaff),…

Now approximately halfway through their “Complete Works” festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company have decided to turn The Merry Wives of Windsor, generally considered as one of the least successful of Shakespeare comedies, into a musical. It’s interesting to note that The Merry Wives has already influenced a significant number of operas, including of course Verdi’s Falstaff or Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love… but there was no known adaptation into a musical yet.

I’ll take the short route and state that the result will remain as one of the most exhilarating theatregoing experiences of my life. I was thrilled by the ingeniousness of the staging, the quality and diversity of the score, the dazzling choreography and the breathtaking amount of talent on stage.

Most musical numbers are so well designed they create a sense of ceaseless amazement. Among them are the opening number of the second part of the show and the “title song,” “Merry Wives,” which culminates in a wonderful percussion number.

And, of course, there is the ever magnificent Judi Dench. At one point in the show, she demonstrates how just one look can throw a complete audience into spasms of laughter. I swear it was just one look, and I swear I could hardly catch my breath afterwards, just as about everybody sitting around me. I call that priceless theatrical magic.

Simon Callow replaced an injured Desmond Barrit at the last minute, and he gives a hell of a performance as Falstaff. Unfortunately, he is only a passable singer, even though he cheats his way through in a satisfactory manner. And there are several glorious singers in the rest of the cast, most notably Martin Crewes as Fenton and Alistair McGowan as Frank Ford.

This is definitely one of the best new musical comedies I’ve seen in recent years, up there with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Drowsy Chaperone.

“Follies”

Royal & Derngate (Royal Theatre), Northampton (UK) • 4 November 2006 • 7:45pm

Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Book: James Goldman.
Director: Laurie Sansom. Musical Director: Jonathan Gill. Choreographer: Nick Winston. With Louise Plowright (Phyllis), Julian Forsyth (Ben), Jan Hartley (Sally), Alex Giannini (Buddy), …

The Royal & Derngate has chosen to stage Follies to celebrate its reopening after a thorough refurbishment. The Royal Theatre and the Derngate Auditorium are now linked by a spacious and well-designed lobby, and both auditoria have been completely renovated. The Royal Theatre is spectacular: a gem of a Victorian theatre restored to its original glory.

I have seen several productions of Follies over the years, and each of them seemed to bring fresh ideas to the show. The much-publicised characteristic of this production is the use of local amateur performers for the string of secondary roles, which works really well. The real strong point of this version, however, is a strong directorial work on how the ghosts of the past should interact with their older selves. There’s even an extra character: Young Dimitri Weissman!

The quartet of leading performers is outstanding. I was most impressed by Louise Plowright’s Phyllis and by Julian Forsyth’s Ben. “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and “Live, Laugh, Love” were absolutely remarkable. Too bad the choreographer decided that Phyllis should be replaced by her younger self for most of the song’s dance section. I thought Sally and Buddy were very good, too… except that Jan Hartley added a most unbecoming high note at the end of “Losing My Mind.”

As for the music, well, the trumpet player took a long time to warm up, which resulted in a somewhat disappointing orchestral performance at the beginning of the show. But things got better after a while.

“Crazy For You”

Royal & Derngate (Derngate Auditorium), Northampton (UK) • 4 November 2006 • 2:30pm

Music: George Gershwin. Lyrics: Ira Gershwin. Libretto: Ken Ludwig.
Presented by the Northampton Amateur Operatic Company. Director/Choreographer: Martyn Knight. Musical Director: Paul Truman.

I have a very special relationship with Crazy For You, one of the first shows that I saw in London, in 1995. I was overwhelmed then by the luscious Gershwin score (enhanced of course by Bill Brohn’s orchestrations), the superlative production values, the inexhaustible inventiveness of Susan Stroman’s choreography (I can still feel my eyes get misty the moment those spotlights pinned the girls-turned-basses in “Slap That Bass”) and even by the cleverness of the libretto. To this day, Crazy For You remains one of the CDs that I will play when I need to cheer myself up.

I saw two other professional productions after the original London production (one in Millburn, New Jersey and the other one in Amsterdam). It came as a surprise when I heard that the Northampton amateur operatic society would be doing the show right when I was there to catch a much talked-about production of Follies (see next post).

I think I’d only ever seen two amateur productions in my life (not counting France), both in Windsor, Ontario: Once Upon a Mattress and The Wizard of Oz… so I didn’t really know what to expect, especially since C4U (as it’s also known) is a demanding show.

There was no need to worry. The minute the orchestra started playing the overture, I knew I was in for something special. The sound coming from the pit was spectacular… with one significant exception, the ugly synthesiser used to replace the string section (there was a real double bass, of course). Ten excellent brass and reed players, most of them playing two, three or even (it seemed) four instruments. And these guys are amateurs?

The overall scenic design was great and allowed for the smooth scene changes that the show requires. There were only two awkward scene changes in the whole show, which is a feat. The sets were greatly enhanced by a lighting scheme that seemed to bathe the stage in rather spectacular swashes of colour.

The acting and singing was mostly of near-West End caliber, with some especially strong performances (Lisa Simpson as Irene Roth, for instance). What was lacking, sadly, is the dancing. Sure, you can’t probably expect amateurs to be first-class dancers, but Crazy For You was designed as a showcase for Stroman’s choreography, and when everything else is of such great quality, well, you tend to become demanding. Most of the dance scenes, especially those involving Bobby, seemed to have been choreographed in slow motion.

But that orchestra was really something…