Review: John Barrowman with Seth Rudetsky, Leicester Square Theatre

This weekend only, John Barrowman and Seth Rudetsky deliver conversation and concert realness at the Leicester Square Theatre in London

“Passionate as hell 
But always in control”

I hadn’t originally intended to go and see John Barrowman in this intimate concert setting but my Aunty Jean is a big fan and so decided to make a day trip out of it, and I got to go along for the ride. This micro-run of three performances fell under the aegis of Seth Rudetsky’s intermittent Broadway @ Leicester Square Theatre series, mixing performance with conversation to create a unique and relaxed vibe.

Barrowman’s force of personality means the anecdotes flow out of him with barely any prompting from the wonderfully acerbic Rudetsky but with such a storied career, he’s certainly earned the right to tell them. Continue reading “Review: John Barrowman with Seth Rudetsky, Leicester Square Theatre”

Review: Assassins, Pleasance

As Sondheim celebrates his 70th birthday, his musical Assassins is revived at Pleasance Theatre, London

“Every now and then, the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then, a madman’s bound to come along”

It was interesting to discover in the post-show Q&A that an explicit reference to Trump has been excised from this production of Assassins – a picture of his head removed from the shooting gallery that provides the stark image, and framing device, that opens and closes the show. But given that that above quote comes in very early on, contemporary political resonance is rarely too hard to find, should you wish to look for it.

That’s all the more impressive given that Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) constructed this show back in 1990. And the allure of this slice of Americana, as much musical history as it is socio-political, has proven enduringly popular as it explores something of the people behind the nine recorded attempted assassinations of US presidents. Continue reading “Review: Assassins, Pleasance”

Album Review: Helen Power – Enraptured

“There is joy in the air
So be gone with dull care”
What to do to make your album stand out in a crowded marketplace of musical theatre-related albums? Get Auburn Jam’s Joe Davison in to do your arrangements, that’s what. A glimpse at the tracklisting of Helen Power’s new album Enraptured may not initially suggest a great adventurousness but on first listen, its playful and subtly daring nature soon become apparent.
A relaxed take on Porgy & Bess’ Summertime is a strong opener, full of bold musicality and Power’s confident soprano, but it’s the next of couple of tracks that set out the vision here. A Latin-inflected ‘The Sound Of Music’ has no right to be effective but as Davison introduces silky bossanova rhythms and elastic double-bass lines, it’s impossible to resist its easygoing charm. And if less radical, his Bond-esque re-arrangement of the title track from The Phantom Of The Opera is no less exciting, its duelling brass section and violins building to a breathless climax that thrills just as much as Power’s soaring top E.

Continue reading “Album Review: Helen Power – Enraptured”

Album Review: Michael Ball and Alfie Boe – Together Again

“I hang suspended
Until I know
There’s a chance that you care”


It is no secret that I am no great fan of a booming tenor and so it was little surprise that Michael Ball and Alfie Boe’s album Together was not really my cup of tea. But it was however what many other people wanted and following its success and reaching number 1 in the charts, the pair have collaborated again to produce the imaginatively titled Together Again. And in the spirit of open-mindedness, plus the acknowledgement that there’s a more adventurous tracklisting, I steeled myself to listen.

I have to hold up my hands and say I was pleasantly surprised by more than a few of the songs here. The first two-thirds of ‘The Rose’ are genuinely spine-tinglingly lovely and even when the bombast kicks in for the finale, it stills maintains a heartfelt sincerity. A stroll through ‘White Christmas’ is marvellously restrained and all the more effective for it. Even the big band swing through ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ has a gentleness to it that allows both men to demonstrate their performative range.

Re-review: Follies, National Theatre

“Darling, shall we dance?”
Not too much more to say about Follies that I didn’t cover last time, suffice to say it’s just such a luxuriously fantastic show and I think I could watch it over and over! The head-dresses! Everything Janie Dee does! The orchestra! How no-one seems to be falling down that staircase! The staging! The shade of mint green in Loveland! The Staunton’s icy bitterness in ‘Losing My Mind’! The amount that Josephine Barstow has now made me cry, twice! The Quast! Just get booking now, while you still can.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 3rd January, best availability from 6th November

Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

Review: Follies, National Theatre

“All things beautiful must die”

Well this is what we have a National Theatre for. For Vicki Mortimer’s set design that both stretches towards the heights of the Olivier and lingers some 30 years back in the past; for the extraordinary detail and feathered delights of the costumes; for the lush sound of an orchestra of 21 under Nigel Lilley’s musical direction; for a production that revels in the exuberance and experience of its cast of 37. And all for what? For a musical that, despite its iconic status in the theatre bubble, is more than likely to raise a ‘huh?’ from the general public (at least from the sampling in my office!).
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Goldman’s (book) Follies is a show that has a long history of being tinkered with and more often than not, is as likely to be found in a concert presentation (as in its last London appearance at the Royal Albert Hall) as it is fully staged. Which only makes Dominic Cooke’s production here all the more attractive, not just for aficionados but for the casual theatregoer too. Using the original book with just a smattering of small changes, this is musical theatre close to its most luxurious, and a bittersweetly life-affirming thrill to watch.
Follies is set in the decrepit surroundings of the Weismann Theatre in 1971. Scheduled to be demolished the very next day, a party is being held for the performers who once graced its stages but as present company reunite and reminisce over champagne, ghosts of the past haunt their every move. And what Cooke does is to remind us that we’re all surrounded by memories, the might-have-beens and the shoulda-coulda-wouldas, it’s how we deal with them that differentiates us. And for long-suffering couples Buddy and Sally, Phyllis and Ben, it’s almost too much. 
The doubling device is achingly beautiful and threaded so assuredly into the production it seems a no-brainer. So as the 11 showgirls being celebrated make their entrance in ‘Beautiful Girls’ in the present day, we also see their past selves mirroring their movements, making their own arrivals in their own time. The glorious tap routines and kickline of ‘Who’s That Woman’ sees 7 of them hoofing it magnificently with their respective young’uns. And in the case of Josephine Barstow’s Heidi, there’s emotional interaction, a duet (with Alison Langer) on a simply exquisite ‘One More Kiss’, a gorgeous making of peace with the past.
For our central quartet though, things are much more tangled. Past and present frequently collide as Sally’s long-held passion for Ben bursts free with shattering consequences for all concerned, cutting through any notions of faded showbiz grandeur. Imelda Staunton invests her contained ‘Losing My Mind’ with so much psychological damage it breaks the heart, Philip Quast’s Ben is no less shattering as his swaggering Ben steadily loses his composure, and Janie Dee (getting to show off how great a dancer she is) is dry as a bone throughout and cold as ice in a brilliantly furious ‘Could I Leave You?’.
I could go on listing the things I loved – Tracie Bennett’s stunning reinterpretation of ‘I’m Still Here’, Di Botcher’s adorable take on ‘Broadway Baby’, Fred Haig, Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen and Alex Young as the younger quartet…but I’ll stop and encourage you to get booking while you still can. There are still some slight weaknesses inherent in Follies itself – its sprawling dramatis personae some of whom we barely meet, the leap of faith you have to take as the show ruptures into its final third – but played without an interval as it is here by Cooke, you can’t help but be carried along a gorgeous wave of marabou, melancholy and musical theatre at its best. 
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Booking until 3rd January, best availability from 6th November
Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.


Album Review: Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle (2015)

“How could I behave as if we’d never met?”

Recorded just after he completed his 2014/5 return to Cabaret at Studio 54, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs – Live at the Cafe Carlyle is one of the best cabaret records I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Surprising but superb song selection, threaded through with a real sense of personality and personal revelation, draws the listener in right from the off, even if he storms just a fraction too quickly through Annie Lennox’s glorious solo hit ‘Why’, he next invests Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ with a genuinely rueful quality that hints at what is to come.
And if the label ‘sappy’ might suggest something inconsequential, make no mistake that this is deeply emotional work. From Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’ to the plangent ‘Complainte de la Butte’, to showier material that Cumming more obviously has an affinity with, like Kurt Weill’s ‘How Do Humans Live’ and the utterly gorgeous ‘You You You’ from Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, to the almost unbearable emotion underpinning the likes of Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Dinner at Eight’.
His anecdotes also rise above the average due to their humour – Cyrus winning his respect, spoiling the mid-season finale of The Good Wife which was airing that night – their candour – that tattoo tale! – and the real insight that they provide to the song choices in the much more personal revelations of family history. Horne’s arrangements are beautiful throughout, making the absolute most of Eleanor Norton’s gorgeous cello playing, especially in the surprisingly beautiful Adele/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry mash-up. 
So too in the irreverent Sondheim pisstake ‘No One Is Alive Not While I’m Around’, Cumming’s innate musicality, aided and abetted by Horne’s musical direction, just shines through. And none more so than in the affecting trifecta that closes this set – Billy Joel’s And So It Goes into Noël Coward’s If Love Were All into an eventually rousing take on Sondheim’s Ladies Who Lunch. It really just a superb record and one I highly recommend.

Losing my mind over Losing My Mind – 10 top interpretations of the Sondheim classic

“Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor”

With the National’s highly anticipated production of Follies (Dominic Cooke directing a cast of 37 and an orchestra of 21, lest you forget) about to start previews in a week’s time, I thought I’d listen to about a hundred different versions of perhaps its most famous song – ‘Losing My Mind’ – and try and decide on a top ten, with the assumption of course that whatever Imelda Staunton will do with the song will be completely, utterly, life-changingly extraordinary (no pressure Meldz).

1 Marin Mazzie

I may as well start off being controversial but this is my absolute favourite version of the song. Taken from Sondheim’s 80th birthday party filmed live at Avery Fisher Hall, New York City in March 2010, it is just spell-binding. The purity of her performance, the way she lets her voice crack towards the end, those two tear-jerking breaths as the song finishes, sheer perfection. Also, find yourself someone who looks at you the way Donna Murphy looks at Mazzie at 4.07 #lifegoals

2 Barbara Cook

A choice made all the more poignant by Cook’s passing last week, this rendition comes from the 1985 recording at the Lincoln Centre where she played Sally in a staged concert. Cook manages the not-inconsiderable feat of making her impassioned interpretation seem entirely effortless, her shimmering soprano flowing with beautiful emotion.

3 Julia McKenzie

London’s original Sally, McKenzie played the role at the Shaftesbury Theatre and was nominated for an Olivier (losing to Nichola McAuliffe for Kiss Me Kate). The fullness of her tone creates a much richer sound to the song which is, well, just lovely. Check out this live version too.

4 Liza Minnelli

The Pet Shop Boys.
Those dance moves.
What more could you ask for? I either want to walk down the aisle to this or have it played as my coffin goes into the flames.

5 Maria Friedman

Friedman is surely one of our finest interpreters of Sondheim’s work but I don’t think she has ever had the opportunity to play Sally. Fortunately for us, she has tackled this song in concert and here she nails it, with the brilliant Jason Carr on piano.

6 Tim Curry

A rare male version (for this list at least). You might find stronger voices but none with this much charisma oozing from every line.

7 Charlotte Page

Taken from the 2013 Opéra de Toulon production, which was conveniently recorded for posterity, the relatively unheralded Page offers up some powerhouse emotion which is thrillingly melodramatic (plus David Charles Abell’s band sound amazing here).

8 Jeremy Jordan

A much freer interpretation than most of the others and in Jordan’s delectable hands, it is dreamy indeed.

9 Ute Lemper

Ute’s version from her City of Strangers album also makes it on for the audacity of Bruno Fontaine’s jazz arrangement, perfectly suited to the inimitable voice of this most superlative of interpreters.

10 Bernadette Peters

Love her or hate her, Peters’ relationship with Sondheim is unquestionable and the way in which she wrestles with the song here in compelling, especially in the anger of the final lines which suddenly dissipates into something exquisitely heavenly with its floated final note.

Bonus mentions

Speaking of final notes, Rebecca Caine’s here is a thing of real beauty. and I was lucky enough to see it live at this 80th birthday concert at the King’s Head.
Another version for which I have great affection as I heard it live, Ruthie Henshall played Sally at the Royal Albert Hall in 2015 and though this is rehearsal footage, her voice still sounds glorious.
And last but by no means least, Dorothy Collins‘ classic version from the first ever production of Follies in 1971 has the beauty of being the closest to Sondheim’s original vision. (and interestingly, you see just how strong the songwriting is that it has endured so strongly in the 40 plus years since it was written).
So over to you Imelda, what delights will you offer up…
(c) Johan Persson

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’. 

Continue reading “Album Review: Annaleigh Ashford – Lost in the Stars: Live at 54 Below”

Review: A Little Night Music, Watermill

“It’s but a pleasurable means
To a measurable end”

Sondheim’s reputation as one of our finest living composers rests not only on the delicious complexity of his music but also on the superlative performances that it draws from actors who must delve extraordinarily deep to rise to its challenges. Not every performer is able to ascend these heady heights but it gives me enormous pleasure to report that Josefina Gabrielle delivers one of those utterly transcendent moments with a nigh-on perfect interpretation of Desiree Armfeldt at the Watermill. 
As a once-famed actress not quite getting the gigs she believes she should, she presents the facade of ‘The Glamourous Life’ beautifully – a touch self-deprecating, two touches self-assured, she knows how to rule a room. But try as she might, she can’t always rule the hearts of others as evinced in the bittersweet ‘Send In The Clowns’ which is made to feel brand new here, Gabrielle finding fresh textures and feeling (the startled emotion of ‘I thought that you’d want what I want’ seems to surprise even her) to completely and utterly break the heart (the song’s final line has never been delivered more affectingly, and I’m including the Dench in there!). 
Given the name of this blog, it should come as little surprise that I find it hard to resist productions of A Little Night Music, even when they’re in deepest Berkshire. But Paul Foster is a director I admire and actor-musician productions are often superb in their ingenuity. And so it proves here, Sarah Travis’ arrangements for this company of 13 (playing piccolos to double basses) are meticulously done, losing none of the music’s majesty even as it is considerably reconfigured in some parts.
The magic comes from all sides though – Foster’s desire to create an intimate and seductively romantic chamber piece is brought to glorious life in the burnished wood of David Woodhead’s design and the stunning lighting work from Howard Hudson, which mixes the naturalistic glow of Swedish midsummer with more abstract tableaux of painterly grace. With Matt Flint’s elegant choreography in there as well, the show looks ravishing pretty much from start to finish.
And though I’ve singled out Gabrielle, this really is an ensemble piece full of real quality. Alastair Brookshaw’s nerdish lawyer Fredrik is beautifully sung but crucially has a keen sense of the character’s tragicomic nature, especially in the physical mismatch with Alex Hammond’s rakish Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, his rival in extramarital attentions from Desiree. Hammond is also well-matched with Phoebe Fildes as his long-suffering wife Charlotte, whether solo in a nuanced ‘Every Day A Little Death’ or as part of the intricate interplay of the superb ‘Weekend In The Country’. Plus Dillie Keane is acerbically brilliant as Madame Armfeldt, Christina Tedders is no less scene-stealingly good as the maid Petra, there really are no weak links here at all.
I’ve rarely felt as connected to the emotion of A Little Night Music as I was here, with a production that is as in tune with the nature of its comedy as its tragedy, at once rueful and romantic, deeply sensual and utterly irresistible. Don’t wait for a transfer that won’t necessarily come, book now!

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Philip Tull
Booking until 16th September