Category Archives: US (Regional)

“Half a Sixpence”

Theatre Royal, Brighton • 6 October 2007 • 2:30pm
Music & Lyrics by David Heneker. Book by Beverley Cross, based on Kipps by H. G. Wells. New version by Warner Brown.

Directed by Bob Tomson. Musical Direction by Tom de Keyser. With Gary Wilmot (Kipps), Claire Marlowe (Ann Pornick), Zara Plessard (Helen Walsingham), James Dinsmore (Young Walsingham), Gaye Brown (Mrs. Walsingham)…

I consider myself lucky to have been able to see a production of this classic British musical, which originally opened in 1963 and was made into a movie four years later.

The title role is forever associated with Tommy Steele who, interestingly enough, is currently touring the UK in Doctor Dolittle. But Gary Wilmot makes the part his own with great finesse and panache. He is a thoroughly likeable actor, capable of conveying a broad range of emotions. His eleven o’clock number (more like five o’clock, under the circumstances), “What Should I Feel?”, was a knockout.

This touring production is far from opulent, of course, but the sets, costumes and lighting look professional and the small orchestra (six musicians) somehow manages to treat David Heneker’s score with some due respect. A score which is in turn joyous, atmospheric or sentimental.

Bob Tomson’s staging keeps the flow moving and Jason Pennycooke’s elegant choreography raises the energy level when necessary. A very enjoyable show altogether.

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“Merrily We Roll Along”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 9 Septembre 2007 • 2pm

Went to have a second look at this attractive production. Since I was closer to the stage, I got a better look at Robert Perdziola’s beautiful costumes, their interesting colour scheme, and the way they evolve (or regress?) between the first and the second acts. The performance was a tad less polished with a few minor flubs here and there, and the absence of amplification was definitely a problem at times (some audience members complained during intermission)… but, again, I was overwhelmed by the sheer strength of the emotional denouement of the show. Well worth a trip.

“Merrily We Roll Along”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 8 September 2007 • 8pm
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography: Karma Camp. Musical Director: Jon Kalbfleisch. With Will Gartshore (Franklin Shepard), Erik Liberman (Charley Kringas), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Mary Flynn), Tory Ross (Gussie Carnegie), Bayla Whitten (Beth), Christopher Bloch (Joe Josephson)…

There is something incredibly powerful about the way Merrily We Roll Along leads us to reflect upon roads not taken and choices that cannot be unmade. It is, unfortunately, not the most frequently performed of Sondheim shows, even though I was lucky to catch the very good production at the Derby Playhouse about four months ago.

The Signature production unfurls on a sleek and chic circular set that could be the interior of Mame’s mansion (huge staircase, grand piano, monumental door), bathed in surprisingly raw colours that seem to imply a voluntary distance from a realistic depiction. It is blessed by countless displays of directorial brilliance that contribute to make the show even more affecting, especially in Act 2. The clever choreography frequently winks at styles of the past, and there are pretty clear references to the “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity a couple of times.

There are uniformly good performances from the cast. Erik Liberman, in particular, handles the tricky part of Charlie competently, even though it is of course difficult to erase the memory of Raúl Esparza at the Sondheim Celebration a few years ago.

The 13-strong orchestra gives a joyous rendition of Sondheim’s jewel of a score. I got the impression that some scenes, especially some musical numbers, lacked pace and could still be made a little bit tighter, but it is relatively early in the run, and they are still presumably working on making the necessary adjustments.

Additionally, this production raises the interesting question of amplification — or lack thereof — in musical theatre. Although an intimate space like the Signature Theatre lends itself naturally to a non-amplified performance, there are two obstacles that are particularly obvious. Firstly, most younger singers haven’t been taught how to project their voices without amplification. There are tremendous differences in the way the various actors handle this, and some numbers like “Now You Know” lose some of their strength because of that. Secondly, Merrily was written at a time when amplification was a given. There are songs where a line sung by a solo voice segues into a choral passage, itself followed in short succession by another solo. In spite of Jon Kalbfleisch’s commendable efforts to avoid drowning the voices, there are instances when the overall impression is one of awkwardness rather than the fluidity one would expect from such a bunch of talented people.

“The Witches of Eastwick”

Signature Theatre, Arlington VA • 15 July 2007 • 2pm
Book and Lyrics by John Dempsey. Based on the novel by John Updike & the Warner Bros. Motion Picture. Music by Dana P. Rowe.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical Director: John Kalbfleisch. With Marc Kudisch (Darryl Van Horne), Emily Skinner (Alexandra Spofford), Christiane Noll (Jane Smart), Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (Sukie Rougemont), Karlah Hamilton (Felicia Gabriel), Harry A. Winter (Clyde Gabriel), James Gardiner (Michael Spofford), Erin Driscoll (Jennifer Gabriel)…

I saw the original London production of The Witches of Eastwick twice and never quite understood why it failed to find its audience. Why is it that a show so filled with laughs and which is the ideal showcase for four strong comedians has, to this day, failed to survive? Sure, it may not have the greatest score ever, and not the greatest book either… but neither has The Phantom of the Opera, which is a lot less funny!

Kudos to the Signature Theatre for giving the show its American première. Eric Schaeffer has infused the show with tons of extra wit. Beside, he’s done what the London production had failed to do: give the show four impeccable leads. I am not usually a big fan of Marc Kudisch, but he is giving the performance of a lifetime. He never misses a beat, lands his lines perfectly… and has both the perfect looks and the perfect voice to play Darryl Van Horne — who happens to have the best songs in the score.

Now if somebody would please fix the few faults in the show, it would make perfect Broadway material… provided of course nobody felts the show’s lewdness factor has to be brought down, because that lewdness is exactly what makes it funny. And I was not the only one to think so during that performance.

“Into the Woods”

Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia • 8 February 2007 • 8pm
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical Director: Jon Kalbfleisch. With Priscilla Cuellar (the Witch [understudy]), Daniel Cooney (the Baker), April Harr Blandin (the Baker’s Wife), Lauren Williams (Little Red Riding Hood), Stephen Gregory Smith (Jack), Donna Migliaccio (Jack’s Mum), Stephanie Waters (Cinderella), James Moye (Cinderella’s Prince / Wolf), Erin Driscoll (Rapunzel), Sean MacLaughlin (Rapunzel’s Prince)…

So the Signature has moved to its brand new home in Shirlington Village, not far from its original location. The irony is that the main stage is very reminiscent of the old black-box garage space; even the corridor that led to the auditorium in the original space has been lovingly recreated! But the facility is now state-of-the-art, with better seats, top-notch acoustics and ample backstage facilities. Plus there’s a smaller performing space beside the main stage.

This was my sixth production of Into the Woods and my fifth (I think) Signature production. Two reasons why I knew I would love it, and love it I did. There is no stage per se: the action takes place very much in the middle of the audience. That intimacy creates the perfect environment to showcase the outstanding quality of Sondheim’s lyrics (and, to some extent, of Lapine’s book). Many more “clever” lyrics hit home than in any other production I’ve seen.

The cast is very good, particularly on the male side: Daniel Cooney as the Baker, Stephen Gregory Smith as Jack and James Moye & Sean MacLaughlin as the Princes all give superlative performances. On the female side, Lauren Williams as Little Red Riding Hood was my favourite. The Witch was played by the understudy, Priscilla Cuellar, who did very well in spite of a few glitches considering the intricacies of the part, which involves manipulating a firing stick, doing a quick change on stage and disappearing screaming into a trapdoor.

Eric Schaeffer did his usual gret job and has managed to bring out a few nuances that I’d never seen in other productions. The whole show whizzes by like in a dream. Well done again!