Web Series review: Jade Dragon

“You all look Chinese to me”

Just a quickie for this web series which I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages now. Written by Rebecca Boey (with Daniel York contributing one of the nineteen short episodes), Jade Dragon is a mockumentary series set in a Chinese takeaway which does a couple of crucial things.

One, it represents a much-needed, and still all-too-rare, opportunity for actors of East Asian heritage to work in a British media that feels stubbornly resistant to crossing this particular Rubicon of diversity. But it also offers up a non-judgemental, matter-of-fact presentation of what that British East Asian experience looks like in all its varied racism from overt violence to subtle othering. Continue reading “Web Series review: Jade Dragon”

Album Review: Rachel Tucker – On The Road (Deluxe)

“Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

 

Proving that you don’t need to win the reality show that you’re in to set your career, and that it’s your talent that matters, Rachel Tucker’s success is testament to just how far hard work and a hella big voice can take. Headlining shows in the West End and Broadway, including playing Wicked’s Elphaba in both, 2017 has seen her play a series of dates on a UK tour with musical director Kris Rawlinson, which in turn produced an album – On The Road – which has recently been digitally released with some bonus tracks in a deluxe edition.
Reflecting the diversity of a live show, the record opens with a potency and confidence that could see her take her place among the Rat Pack as she swings confidently through classics like ‘Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable To Lunch Today)’ and ‘The Candyman’. New musical theatre gets a look in with the searching emotion of Dear Evan Hansen’s ‘Waving Through A Window’ and then the intensity is dialled down for a moment with Randy Newman’s heartbreaker ‘When She Loved Me’.
And it’s a sense of variety that never lets up, from a finger-clicking, easy listening take on Oliver!’s ‘Where Is Love?’ to the growling determination of ‘That’s Life’ on which she partners with the marvellous Rebecca Trehearn. It means that highlights are many and mixed – the controlled fury of ‘The Man That Got Away’ is spine-tingling as is, in a completely different way, the haunting acapella take on Irish air ‘She Moved Through The Fair’
Personally, the restraint with which she explores new writing like ‘Another Life’ from Jason Robert Brown’s adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County is where she shines strongest. And we’re blessed with two numbers from Sara Bareilles’ gorgeously plangent score to Waitress (does this count as Tucker’s audition for Jenna…?!). ‘You Matter To Me’ sees her duet nicely with a good, if slightly too polite Lee Mead but she soars on ‘She Used To Me Mine’, all its fragility and self-doubt conveyed with utter conviction.
Naturally, there’s a nod to Wicked in a heavily re-arranged take on ‘No Good Deed’ but it is the subsequent ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, an astute bit of sequencing there, that lands with real heartfelt eloquence, rounding off an eclectic and entertaining collection (the less said about Ed Sheeran the better…). Rawlinson’s arrangements fit Tucker’s voice like a glove and the record has deservedly been nominated as one of CurtainUp’s solo albums of the year. You could do far worse than consider this as a stocking filler for the music fans in your life.
On The Road is available from iTunes here and is also on Spotify and Amazon Music

 

Midlife Crooner Crisis Album Reviews

With Top of the Pops cruelly taken away from us, I’ve rarely much of a clue as to what in the charts. But I doubt even the most knowledgable of experts could have predicted that one of 2016’s biggest albums would come from the presenter of The Chase. Chasing Dreams ended the year as the second biggest UK debut and perhaps unsurprisingly given his key demographic, achieved that with predominantly physical sales.

So the arrival of a follow-up was never in doubt but it brings with it competition, from a whole raft of middle-aged white male presenters seeking to tap into those CD sales. And me being the kind soul that I am, I’ve listened to some of them, mainly so that you don’t have to…as it’s not a field overflowing with the kind of music that floats my boat. Each to their own though. 
I already reviewed Jason Manford here, and now we have Bradley Walsh – When You’re Smiling, Alexander Armstrong – In A Winter Light, and Anton Du Beke – From The Top for your reading pleasure. (I’m not counting Michael Ball and Alfie Boe’s Together Again in this category as they’re singers by trade but I’ll link to the review anyway as that would be my pick of this bunch).

Album Review: Anton Du Beke – From The Top

“Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?”

There doesn’t seem to be anything that can stop the dead-eyed determination of Anton Du Beke to try and become the kind of all-round entertainer that his website proclaims him to be. Best known for his regular mid-season finishes on Strictly, he’s dipped his toes into the world of presenting (whatever happened to Hole in the Wall…) and now it is the record industry that has to avert its eyes politely for a wee while.
Released in time for Christmas, From The Top contains zero surprises. If you were thinking of getting for someone who likes him, then they are going to be satisfied. Du Beke has an inoffensive smooth tone that suits the more undemanding choices of standards here (‘Beyond The Sea’, ‘More’, ‘It Had To Be You’), Strictly singers Lance Ellington and Hayley Sanderson make guest appearances as does Connie Fisher, and there’s bags of that inimitable charisma of his.
It’s not my thing though – no one needs grunts and exhortations to the band as we get in ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, his diction is shockingly poor in places (it’s ironic that ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ is retitled ‘Putting On The Ritz’, given that it is sung ‘Puttin onna Ritz every single time) adlibbing might amuse live audiences but has no place being recorded as in the faux bonhomie at the end of ‘Me and My Shadow’. And for someone whose established shtick is of cheeky showman, there’s something of a desperation to be taken more seriously as a singer, which results in the album’s low points. 
A misguided trip through La La Land’s ‘City of Stars’ exposes a voice that doesn’t have the necessary emotional colour, (though Fisher almost aches enough for the both of them). ‘Moon River’ and ‘Pure Imagination’ are just painful, glibly superficial, though the swing-lite arrangement of ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ is the biggest crime here, wrangling the song out of shape in order to fit an interpretation entirely lacking in feeling and capped off with an arrogant ‘hey’ at the end.
Ultimately, the big band version of the Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 hit ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ typifies From The Top. There’s a small amount of novelty value but even at 2 minute 42 seconds long, it outstays its welcome. But if it’s your kind of thing, then that’s absolutely fine!

Album Review: Alexander Armstrong – In A Winter Light

“I was following the pack”

Alexander Armstrong has many a string to his bow – actor, comedian, presenter and singer – and following a couple of albums that have hit the Top 10, he now makes the move that seem de rigeur for the middle-aged male entertainer this year, in releasing his first Christmas album In A Winter Light
The album is nearly completely stymied by its song selection, misguidedly mishmashing its genres so that we’re taken from traditional carols to easy listening to the Fleet Foxes to original compositions pastiching them all. A different kind of performer might have been able to tie such a collection together but there’s a stiff formality to Armstrong’s singing that means he is not the one.
There are some beautiful moments here, mainly reflecting the years he has spent performing in choirs. The exaltation of ‘O Holy Night’ soars with the assistance of the Trebles of The Choir of New College Oxford, the simplicity of ‘Silent Night’ is enhanced by the big band of The Royal Air Force Squadronaires and his baritone suits ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ perfectly.
But the Fleet Foxes’ gorgeous ‘White Winter Hymnal’ is rendered with a painfully enunciated precision and that same stiffness plagues the likes of ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)’ and ‘Let It Snow’, recalling nothing so much as a grim determination that show that he’s no fuddy-duddy. It doesn’t work. As for including the light jazz of ‘Little Girl Blue’, too much eggnog must have drink that day.
The sad thing is that it’s completely unnecessary too – there’s nothing wrong with the solemnity of choral beauty. The brief instrumental passages set the tone perfectly and if he’d played to his strengths, utilising the much-trumpeted classical training as in Herbert Howells’ ‘A Spotless Rose’ or even his own track ‘This Glorious Morrow’, In A Winter Light would have been a much more effective album. 

Album Review: Bradley Walsh – When You’re Smiling

“I’m living in a kind of daydream”
No-one could accuse Bradley Walsh of resting on his laurels. Between hosting The Chase, appearing in his regular Peter Pan panto and preparing to become one of the 13th Doctor’s new companion, it’s a wonder he’s managed to find time to record a new album. But such was the success of his first that you could guarantee this was a trick not to be missed and so When You’re Smiling is now selling well in the few places that still actually sell CDs.
And it is a perfectly serviceable album that is as enjoyable to listen to as these things get. Walsh has a richly strong voice but more importantly, a keen sense of what is suited to it. So we get an album full of standards from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, plus a smattering of hits from musicals such as Cabaret, The King and I, and Guys And Dolls.

Impressively, there’s no real clunkers here. The only thing that made me wince was the spoken credits, oh, and the misapprehension that so many of these crooners labour under, that anyone wants to hear them say ‘hey’ or ‘take it away lads’ or have any kind of embellishment beyond the lyrics. But from a chirpy ‘Get Happy’ with his band of Bradettes to an effectively impassioned ‘Maybe This Time’, you can’t fault him for doing what he’s good at and giving more to an audience hungry for it.

Album Reviews: Marisha Wallace – Soul Holiday / Leslie Odom Jr – Simply Christmas (Deluxe Edition)

“Drive the dark of doubt away”

By all accounts, Marisha Wallace has had quite the couple of weeks. Taking over as Effie White in Dreamgirls, delivering a cracking performance on the Strictly results show and somehow finding the time to fit in two solo concerts to support the launch of her debut album Soul Holiday. I was otherwise occupied on Sunday but I have been able to listen to the album and it is a delightfully warm and happy collection, destined to put smiles on faces this Christmas.

As the title suggests, the dominant mood is a soulful one and it is one which reinvigorates this familiar material with a fresh spirit. Festive standards like ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’ shimmer with new feeling, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ somehow becomes more glorious, and a subtle take on ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ with British jazz pianist Ross Stanley is a truly beautiful affair, deeply heartfelt throughout.
Just edging it as a highlight is the hymn ‘Joyful Joyful’, made famous (to my generation at least) from the finale of Sister Act 2. Roof-raising and raucous, it imbues much of what you imagine Wallace’s personality to be in all its exuberance and, well, joy! And if the inclusion of Dreamgirls‘ ‘I Am Changing’ feels a little cheeky, this new arrangement makes it more than worthwhile, an extra little stocking filler to what is already a substantial gift.
And piggybacking onto the end of this review, it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr has re-released his own festive album from last year – Simply Christmas. It was one of my favourite Christmas albums of last year (review here) and now features four new songs. A delicate duet on ‘Edelweiss’ with his wife Nicolette Robinson (a performer in her own right) is really lovely, as is ‘Christmas’ from The Who’s Tommy, and there’s also new versions of ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Waltz’. That said, the album remains completely worth it for the slinkiness of his outrageously smooth ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.

Album review: Gavin Creel – Goodtimenation (2006)

“Most everyone goes the same way as you

Just love me as I go mine”
You gotta love a musical theatre performer who doesn’t take the easy route into a recording career by making a record of the same old standards and pop songs that have been recorded by so many before, no matter how heartfelt their interpretations. And the Tony- and Olivier-award winning Gavin Creel is one such chap, going down the self-penned route with his 2006 debut album Goodtimenation.
And it emerges as a solidly entertaining pop record whose only real weakness is that it perhaps tries to cover too many bases in the spread of songwriting styles. So we go from gorgeous Beatles-inspired choruses on ‘Rocket Ride’ to the ill-advised aping of Madonna’s rap from ‘American Life’, there’s a smattering of frat-boy summer pop on tracks like ‘Radio Lover’ and more cheery radio-friendly material like ‘Might Still Happen’.
Connecting it all is Creel’s smooth tenor, which is consistently at its best rocking the acoustic, almost folkish energy of songs like ‘For Nancy’ and ‘Molly’s Song’ which highlight his innate musicality. At times, the sound turns a little towards the overproduced, the programmed drums being the greatest offender but at the same time, the down and dirty vibes of ‘You Pretty Thing’ are pretty much irresistible.

Album Review: The Woman In White (2004 Original London Cast Recording)

“There’s only one thing one has to have

One has to have no shame”
Hitting the West End just before I moved to London and well before I started blogging, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman In White has the ignominy of being one of his less successful shows. With lyricist David Zippel and book-writer Charlotte Jones, this adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel failed to capture the ongoing attention of UK audiences, shuttering after 19 months, but downright flopped on Broadway where it lasted just 3. 
The Woman In White has now been announced as Thom Southerland’s major project over Christmas, running for 12 weeks at the Charing Cross Theatre with Laura Pitt-Pulford onboard, and it got me to thinking that I hadn’t actually ever listened to the show at all. The cast recording was made on the opening night and as the show underwent considerable redevelopment even whilst playing, the ending on this record does not reflect the ending that audiences saw in theatres.
I have a certain amount of affection for the selection of Lloyd Webber’s music that I listened to as a kid but it is hard not to feel that the majority of his output this millenium has been somewhat stodgy. And though there are moments of real elegance here – the harmonies on ‘Trying Not To Notice’, and Maria Friedman’s impassioned work on the self-lacerating ‘All For Laura’, too much of the music sounds uninspired and in some cases, highly derivative.
‘Evermore Without You’ might as well be titled as a leftover from Sunset Boulevard, ‘I Believe My Heart’ echoes any of Christine’s duets from Phantom and to exacerbate the problem, when things get a bit more original they go way off-piste – the faux-rusticana of ‘Lammastide’ is just painful. Michael Crawford’s ostensibly comic numbers are way off base, though I can see how they might have their fans – all in all, I’d say Southerland’s got quite the job on his hands but if anyone can do it, he can.

Album Review: Annaleigh Ashford – Lost in the Stars: Live at 54 Below

“The little dark star in the wind down there”

Though she’s yet to pop her head over this side of the ocean, I’m pretty sure Annaleigh Ashford is an absolute darling. It’s part of the legacy of playing Lauren in Kinky Boots I think, such a lovable part and what I’ve seen and heard of her since has only confirmed that for me. Her acclaimed cabaret performances also won over new audiences, resulted in a live recording of Lost in the Stars: Live at 54 Below being released late last year.
Supported by the superb musicianship of Will Van Dyke and The Whiskey 5, Ashford is an effortlessly delightful performer, whether ripping through the vocal splendour of Dreamgirls‘ ‘One Night Only’ or a Donna Summer medley, nodding to Studio 54’s illustrious past. There’s actually a lot of pop on here, The Everly Brothers’ ‘Love Hurts’, Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ mixed with Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ 
Live recordings always have to tread a careful path of replicating the atmosphere of a live show whilst acknowledging that not everything will always translate. Such it is with an audience participation version of Alanis Morissette’s ‘Hand In My Pocket’ which doubtless was great fun to be part of, but which quickly loses its charm here. And as lovely her solo trip through Wicked’s ‘For Good’ is, it feels like a muted mis-step so late in the programme.
But I’m just being picky, for when Ashford is good, she is just superb. The medley of Sondheim’s ‘Another Hundred People’ and Elton John’s ‘Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters’ is tenderly perfect, the treatment of ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ with an interpolation of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ is exquisite, and Kurt Weill’s delicate ‘Lost in the Stars’ is a subtle yet impassioned ending. Someone cast her in something in the UK please (or bring over her Sunday in the Park with George with the delectable Jake Gyllenhaal).