CD Review: Mamma Mia (Original Cast Recording 1999)

“It’s the best I can do”

It’s easy to be dismissive about Mamma Mia and all it has wrought in revitalising the jukebox musical as a form but the numbers don’t lie. 17 years and counting in the West End, the 8th longest running show on Broadway (it occupies the same position on the UK ranking at the moment too), a wildly successful film adaptation that became the highest grossing musical ever…it’s impressive stuff.

And listening to the Original Cast Recording from 1999, subsequently re-released with bonus tracks for the 5th anniversary, I’d say it’s fairly easy to see why it has endured so long. For all you may mock Catherine Johnson’s book, which hangs oh so lightly on a varied selection of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ iconic music for ABBA, it actually does interesting things with it, in telling its own story rather relying on the songs themselves (I’m looking at you Jersey Boys…!)

So to say you’re better off listening to ABBA’s greatest hits is to miss the point. As light as the plot may be in its girl-wants-father-to-walk-her-down-the-aisle-but-finds-there’s-three-potential-candidates frothiness but there’s something genuinely tender in hearing ‘Chiquitita’ repurposed for two friends comforting a third, maternal lament ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ actually sung between mother and daughter, the stag v hens vivacity of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’.

And yes, they sound different to the originals, of course they do with a full orchestra and chorus to back them up, not to mention the lack of Swedish accents. This recording is a little blessed too in having the film’s soundtrack with its interesting casting choices to easily surpass, but that’s not to take away from the delightful vocals of Louise Plowright, Jenny Galloway, and Siobhán McCarthy as the leading trio, the latter’s Donna a fabulous leading lady from heartbreak to happiness.

Plowright’s cougarish ways enliven ‘Does Your Mother Know’ no end and Galloway’s equally predatory stance toward Nic Colicos’ Bill in ‘Take A Chance on Me’ is a delight. Lisa Stokke’s Sophie, the bride-to-be is charm personified and in keeping with the show’s female-friendly ethos, her intended – Andrew Langtree’s Sky – is somewhat sidelined. For me, ‘Our Last Summer’ has always been one of my favourite ABBA songs and remains so here, ruefully sung by former rocker Harry, an appealing Paul Clarkson, and McCarthy with a gentle loveliness that seems to stand in for the show as a whole.

Review: The Stationmaster, Tristan Bates

“The train is coming…”

The third year of the From Page To Stage season of new musical theatre is now well underway at the Tristan Bates Theatre and the centrepiece of this year’s festival is a production of The Stationmaster with book by Susannah Pearse and music and lyrics by Tim Connor. The musical is an adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day (last seen in London at the Almeida in 2009) but moves the action to a small town in the Lake District in 1958.

Life in Kirby is all homemade jam, cake competitions and friendly pints down the local and railway stationmaster Thomas Price is at the heart of the tight-knit community. But behind closed doors and the net curtains lies a certain disenchantment, his marriage to Catherine is under strain and a chance encounter with the equally disaffected Anna sends their lives hurtling down the wrong tracks, a disaster further compounded by the tragedy of their ensuing actions. Continue reading “Review: The Stationmaster, Tristan Bates”

Album Review: City of Angels (Original London Cast Recording 1993)

“I’m one of a long line of good girls”

I was no real fan of the Donmar’s recent production of City of Angels, Josie Rourke’s direction ending up rather po-faced with all its noirish elements played deadly seriously, hardly the introduction one wants to a musical that many had acclaimed highly to me. But turning to the 1993 Original London Cast Recording of Cy Coleman, David Zippel and Larry Gelbart’s show, their quite different take on the material made me reappraise the show completely.
 

One might not be able to tell exactly how Michael Blakemore’s direction played out from listening to this CD but the sprightliness of Billy Byers’ orchestrations and the lighter touch of Richard Balcombe’s musical direction makes the whole thing seem like a much more fun affair. City of Angels is a pastiche after all, or an homage for the more earnestly minded amongst us, and played with a more warm-hearted and less self-conscious approach, it connected much more with me. Continue reading “Album Review: City of Angels (Original London Cast Recording 1993)”

Album Review: The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

“We had such hopes…”

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Phantom of the Opera decamped to the Royal Albert Hall for 3 performances, the highlights of which were spliced together to give a full CD/DVD release package which contains as full a rendering of the entire score as it currently available. Maybe it was a rush job though as the sound quality on this CD really isn’t good enough for it to be genuinely recommendable, even for a live recording. 

I also had mixed feelings about the production itself. I just can’t get on with Sierra Boggess’ voice, her soprano voice always erring to the too shrill for my liking and the vibrato she employs has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Christine isn’t the strongest-written of roles at the best of times and Boggess just feels too emotionally vapid to be the inspiration of such all-conquering adoration as she is served with in this story. Continue reading “Album Review: The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall”

Film Review: London Road

“Everybody’s very very nervous”

The theatrical production of London Road was a major success for the National Theatre, the opening run first extending in the Cottesloe and then being rewarded with a later transfer to the much larger Olivier – I was first blownaway by its originality and then later comforted by its message in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. So the news that director Rufus Norris was making a film adaptation was received with apprehensive anticipation, could this strikingly experimental piece of theatre possibly work on screen.

Writer Alecky Blythe uses a technique whereby she records interviews with people which are then edited into a play but spoken verbatim by the actors, complete with all the ums and aahs and repetitions of natural speech. And in 2006, she went to Ipswich to interview a community rocked by a series of murders, of five women in total, all sex workers, and set about telling a story not of salacious deaths but of a community learning to cleave together in trying times. Oh, and it’s all set to the most innovative of musical scores by Adam Cork, elevating ordinary speech into something quite extraordinary. 

The material has been considerably reshaped for the screen – Moira Buffini assisting as script consultant – resulting in a much more straight-forward narrative through-line than was seen on stage. This linear development is reflected in Danny Cohen’s cinematography which tracks the wintry gloom of the beginning into the verdant bloom of the climax with a real visual grace. Straightening out the storytelling reduces the theatricality of the presentation too, making this feel much more like a piece of documentary realism.

Where the stage show had a cast of eleven each playing a resident and multiple other roles, each character is played by someone different here, meaning the focus is teased out a little from the tight circle of the London Road residents and their outrage about their street turning into a red light district, to give a more fully realised sense of the wider community. They consequently get more of their own voice heard – the nervy teenagers suspecting everyone around them, the sex workers shaken up by the attacks on their own, the journalists tiptoeing around the sensitivity of the issue whilst always on the lookout for a scoop. 

The experience of the residents does remain central to the film though, Blythe digging back into her archive of interviews to find ways of ensuring at least of them appears in every scene and Cork rejigging the score where necessary too. And this is where the writing is at its strongest, in always showing the complexity of the collective response. Though the story moves towards a happy(ish) ending with the London Road in Bloom street party as the culmination of their efforts, there’s no pretence that a solution to the inherent problems has been found, they’ve just been moved away from their doorstep. 

This ambiguity comes across particularly well in characters like Olivia Colman’s Julie and Nick Holder’s Ron, barely apologetic in their unspeakable thoughts yet rooted in small-town authenticity. Paul Thornley’s inscrutable Dodge, Linzi Hateley’s pragmatic Helen and Clare Burt’s dithering Sue remain a delight, Anita Dobson is daffily wonderful as June, Michael Shaeffer and Rosalie Craig’s journalists both stand out and the original Julie, Kate Fleetwood, plays the new role of Vicky, a haunting figure representing the spirit and presence of the working girls, both alive and dead. 

And delving a little deeper, clever little touches abound in the production. The two schoolgirls singing ‘It Could Be Him’ (see clip below) are the daughters of Burt (Eloise Laurence) and Hateley (Meg Hateley Suddaby); Blythe and Cork both get cameos as a newsreader and a pianist respectively; and the final street party mixes real residents of both the real London Road in Ipswich and the fictional one in Bexley in with an ensemble that folds in any number of faces that seasoned theatregoers might recognise.

Elements of choreography by Javier De Frutos are used sparingly but most effectively to sprinkle pathos or humour into sequences as required, David Shrubsole’s sharp musical direction keeps the singing (nearly all done live) on point, and Norris’ direction constantly takes on inventive new directions to expertly but sensitively reshape the material for this new medium. I can’t imagine what it would be like to come to this film without prior experience of the show (and I’d be fascinated to hear from you if that’s you) but as a fan, it is undoubtedly a beautiful extension to one of the most innovative musical theatre experiences of the last decade.

Full cast list

Julie – Olivia Colman
Sue – Clare Burt
Kelly McCormack – Rosalie Craig
June – Anita Dobson
Seb – James Doherty
Vicky – Kate Fleetwood
David Crabtree – Hal Fowler
Helen – Linzi Hateley
Tim – Paul Hilton
Ron – Nick Holder
Councillor Carole – Claire Moore
Simon Newton – Michael Shaeffer
Rosemary – Nicola Sloane
Dodge – Paul Thornley
Terry – Howard Ward
Gordon – Duncan Wisbey
Mark – Tom Hardy
Hayley – Rosie Hilal
Natalie – Amy Griffiths
Colette McBeth – Gillian Bevan
Jessica – Anna Hale
Schoolgirl 1 – Eloise Laurence
Schoolgirl 2 – Meg Hateley Suddaby
Kath – Angela Bain
Margaret – Jenny Galloway
Alan – Sean Kingsley
Imelda – Jayne McKenna
Jason – Richard Frame
BBC Newsreader – Alecky Blythe
Grahame Cooper – Mark Lockyer
Harry – Barry McCarthy
Shop Assistant – Abigail Rose
Evening Star Girl – Maggie Service
Radio Techy – Alexia Khadime
Radio DJ – Dean Nolan
Stephanie – Ruby Holder
Alec – Calvin Demba
Stella – Helena Lymbery
Wayne – Mark Sheals
Graeme – Morgan Walters
Ivy – Janet Henfrey
Steve Cameraman – Jonathan Glew
Chris Eakin – Jason Barnett
Policeman – Andrew Frame
Anglia Newsreader – Rae Baker
 
Ensemble
Abby Rose Bryant, Adam Dutton, Adam Vaughan, Alan Vicary, Alicia Woodhouse, Alistair Parker, Amanda Minihan, Ameer Choudrie, Andrew Spillett, Andy Couchman, Anita Booth, Annette Yeo, Audrey Ardington, Barnaby Griffin, Basienka Blakes, Bob Harms, Carl Patrick, Carly Blackburn, Carol Been, Cassandra Foster, Charlotte Broom, Chloe Bingham, Chris Akrill, Clare Humphrey, Clemmie Sveaas, Connor Dowling, Coral Messam, Corinna Powlesland, Cornelia Colman, Courtney Crawford, Cris Penfold, Cris Snelson, Cydney Uffindell-Phillips, Daisy Maywood, Daniella Bowen, David Birch, David Stroller, Debra Baker, Don Gallagher, Edward Baruwa, Elaine Kennedy, Eleanor Clark, Ella Vale, Ellis Rose Rother, Emily Bull, Emma Brunton, Eva Lamb, Faye Stoeser, Frank Stone, Gary Forbes, Graham Hoadly, Haruka Kuroda, Hayley Gallivan, Helen Colby, Hendrick January, Ian Conningham, Ilana Johnston, Ilse Johnston, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Jack Edwards, Jackie Marks, James Ballanger, Jess Ellen, John Brannoch, Johnathan Fee, Jon Ponting, Joshua Lacey, Judith Paris, Julie Armstrong, Karianne Andreassen, Kayleigh Clayton, Laura Cubitt, Leah Ellis, Leah Georges, Leanna Wiggington, Lee Nicholas Harris, Linda Lewcock, Louis Fonseca, Louise Lee, Lucinda Shaw, Luke Fetherston, Lynne Wilmot, Marc Antolin, Margarita Reeve, Melanie La Barrie, Michael Fox, Michelle Wen Lee, Miles Mlambo, Miroslav Zaruba, Morgan Crowley, Natalie Victoria Dungan, Nathan Amzi, Nathan Harmer, Nathan Rigg, Nicholas Marshall, Oliver Roll, Paul Blackwell, Paul Bullion, Paul Shea, Perry Moore, Pete Meads, Philip Howard, Rachel Ann Davies, Rajesh Kalhan, Rebecca Scarott, Rebecca Sutherland, Rebecca Thomas, Reuben Williams, Rob Smithson, Sarah Heyward, Sarah Stanley, Sidney Livingstone, Simon Fee, Simon Humphrey, Stephanie Natufe, Stephen Webb, Steve Carroll, Steve Elias, Stuart Angell, Susan Fay, Susan Lawson-Reynolds, Tim Coldron, Tom Lyle Severn, Tomos James, Tony Pankhurst, Tony Timberlake, William Rossiter, Yinka Williams, Zoe Uffindell
 
Additional Choral ADR Group
Bethan Nash, Callum McIntyre, Daisy Maywood, Edward MacArthur, George Ikediashi, Hannah Genesius, Patrick Tolan, Perry Moore, Steve Rostance, Toby Webster,   

 

Review: Wonderful Town, Milton Keynes Theatre

“Here we live, here we love, this is the place for self-expression”

Providing a much needed, strong reminder that large-scale musical revivals can come from north of the Watford Gap as well as below, Wonderful Town marked a major collaboration between Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, The Hallé Orchestra and The Lowry on this Leonard Bernstein show, which I have to admit to never having heard of before. As many a musical that has gone before and come after it, it is gossamer-light in plot but this is more than made up for with a richly evocative score, some nifty design and best of all, sparkling choreography from Andrew Wright who is now consistently making the case to be considered one of the best choreographers working in the country.

Connie Fisher and Lucy Van Gasse play Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, sisters from Ohio who are determined to escape their boring lives and move to New York City. Of course, on arriving in the Big Apple, following their dream ain’t quite as easy as it seems but in their quest for success, romance and a free meal or two, they meet and charm a wide range of colourful new friends and neighbours who help them through their trials. And matching the creative and production expertise on hand, director Braham Murray assembled a cracking ensemble which included particular favourites around these parts (albeit for different reasons) Michael Xavier and Tiffany Graves. Continue reading “Review: Wonderful Town, Milton Keynes Theatre”

Review: Phantom: Love Never Dies, Adelphi

“Beneath this mask I wear, there’s nothing of me”

I hadn’t originally intended to get a ticket to see Phantom: Love Never Dies, being appalled at the ticket prices when it was announced, but when the National Lottery gods smiled on me and I got four numbers and £64 (the price of a middle stalls tickets plus booking fee) I decided to take the plunge to see if indeed love never dies or whether I needed a defibrillator in my manbag.

It has been billed as a stand-alone story, ie not a sequel despite the strapline being ‘the story continues’… and most of the main characters being taken from Phantom of the Opera, the only new addition amongst the leads is Gustave, Christine’s 10 year old son. The action here takes place ten years after the events of Phantom, the masked man having fled to New York and set up a fairground/freakshow at Coney Island called Phantasmaland. Madame Giry and daughter Meg travelled with him, Meg being one of the performers in the show and looking to make it big in showbusiness through being showcased here.

However, Phantom anonymously invites Christine Daaé to come and sing at this prestigious new venue, an offer she is forced to accept as husband Raoul is now a heavy gambler, and a drunk. So they arrive in New York with son Gustave, and it soon becomes apparent that there’s more than just singing on the menu, as secrets and lies from the past rear their head, long-suppressed feelings rise to the fore and frustrated ambitions boil over with shocking results. Continue reading “Review: Phantom: Love Never Dies, Adelphi”