How to solve a problem like a compilation – my alternative Unmasked

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Unmasled

I make my own suggestions about interpretations of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs that could have been included on his new compilation album Unmasked

“They must have excitement, and so must I”

In a world of Spotify and iTunes and other online music services, compilation albums ought to have died a death. But the enduring success of the Now That’s What I Call Music series puts the lie to that, showing that while the idea of curating your own content is tempting, many of us prefer to let someone else do it for us.

So Andrew Lloyd Webber’s decision to release new anthology Unmasked is a canny one in that respect (read my review here), tapping into the desire to have a nicely pleasant set of musical theatre tunes to pop on in the car. And as with any compilation, it’s as much about what hasn’t been included as what has, that stands out. Continue reading “How to solve a problem like a compilation – my alternative Unmasked”

Review: The Braille Legacy, Charing Cross

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité”

The uninitiated might take the existence of braille for granted but Sébastien Lancrenon and Jean-Baptiste Saudray’s The Braille Legacy dramatises the fascinating and moving true story behind its invention. Translated by Ranjit Bolt, the musical slots neatly into Thom Southerland’s takeover of the Charing Cross Theatre and supported as it is by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, it makes for an interesting piece.

Blinded in a childhood accident, Louis Braille’s keen intelligence saw him ruffle feathers at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth where he resided, mainly because prevailing societal attitudes considered the blind to be untrainable. Frustrated by the limits of the opportunities open to him and his schoolmates, he began to develop the tactile code which would unlock the key to reading text – it would be, however, a far from simple journey. Continue reading “Review: The Braille Legacy, Charing Cross”

CD Review: Elf the Musical (2015 Original London Cast Recording)

“You gotta remember that December is the time for glitz”

I have to say I was sceptical about Elf the Musical, not least because it was Bonfire Night (5th November for you heathens) when I saw it but to my pleasant surprise, I was soon won over by its classic charms. If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know that its soundtrack was a dip into the Christmas chapter of the Great American Songbook – Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Sleigh Ride’, Ray Charles’ ‘Winter Wonderland’ etc – but the score for the musical is original yet pays great homage to those standards.

Matthew Sklar’s music and Chad Beguelin’s lyrics succeed by being entirely both warm-hearted and open-hearted and in this recording, is powered by the practically Duracell-bunny-like enthusiasm of Ben Forster’s Buddy, the kid who found his way into Santa’s bag of presents and ended up being raised at the North Pole. The heart of the story is his re-entry into the human world to find his birth father and in tracks like ‘World’s Greatest Dad’, you realise just how big and real his emotions are.

And that feel-good feeling is carried across the whole record – Jessica Martin as his mum matches him for sincerity in both ‘I’ll Believe in You’ and ‘There Is A Santa Claus’, Kimberley Walsh’s velvety smooth voice sits well as sceptical love interest Jovie in Never Fall In Love (With An Elf) and the big band feel of Stuart Morley’s musical direction keeps ‘Nobody Cares About Santa’ from ever getting too dark for the (big) kids. Indeed in a world where things are often ‘Sparklejollytwinklejingley’ , everyone is a winner. 

A strong cast recording that definitely bears repeated listens to its classic song-writing – it’s not just at Christmas that “singing loud for all to hear” spreads cheer.

Review: Bad Girls the Musical, Union

“You won’t get that out a book on prison procedure
When those suits get caught on the hook, that’s when they need ya”

Bad Girls ran for eight years on ITV, covering the whole gamut of women’s prison storylines from the sublime to the senseless, and now the women of HMP Larkhall live on in Bad Girls the Musical, written by original creators Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus with music and lyrics by Kath Gotts. Taking many of the characters and fashioning its own story from a range of plotlines across the lifetime of the show, Will Keith’s production for the Union makes for an effective translation from screen to stage.

Perhaps naturally, given the size of the 17-strong company and the number of introductions that thus need to be made (even for those familiar with the TV show), the main thrust of the story takes a little time to come into focus. The corrupt practices of prison officer Jim Fenner, fond of doling out privileges in return for sexual favours, eventually crystallises the motives of the diverse cast of inmates but there’s also the slow burning relationship between lifer Nikki and reformist governor Helen that adds to a book which may seem slight but is ultimately dramatically satisfying.  Continue reading “Review: Bad Girls the Musical, Union”

Review: Elf the musical, Dominion

“I always get a special glow when the snow comes falling down”

There’s something a little perverse about a show as intrinsically Christmassy as Elf the Musical opening on Bonfire Night but with a limited run finishing sharply on 2nd January, the time to get festive starts now. Based on the 2003 film starring Will Ferrell and directed by Jon Favreau, the musical capitalises on the feel-good charm of the movie to create something deliciously old-school in feel but with a definite contemporary spin on things. My four star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets can be read here.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 2nd January

Review: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse

“Come begin in old Berlin”

Finally, a traverse staging that feels properly justified. It’s still highly dependent on where you sit – despite being a little late, I was able to secure a great vantage point from the middle of the back row from where the full length of the stage for Grand Hotel was suitably visible and I was glad for it. Thom Southerland’s musicals at the Southwark Playhouse have become something of an annual fixture now, becoming big hits for them (Parade) even if they haven’t always floated my boat (Titanic…).

Based on Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, the book by Luther Davis swirls around the residents of this Berlin establishment in 1928 over one fateful weekend. A grande dame of a faded ballerina, a typist dreaming of Hollywood, an aristocrat who has lost his fortune, a businessman facing ruin, a man who has little time left to live, their stories and more intertwine elegantly and fluidly in a constantly moving state of flux which captures some of the unpredictability and increasing darkness of interwar Germany. Continue reading “Review: Grand Hotel, Southwark Playhouse”

CD Review: Words Shared With Friends

“I’m not a man who finds gestures of affection the natural thing to do”

Over the past decade or so, writer and lyricist Robert Gould has worked with a wide range of composers from across the globe and amassed quite the contact list of performer friends, so the progression to recording a collection of his songs feels like a natural one. Words Shared With Friends thus takes in collaborations from the USA to Sweden and Israel, with excerpts from eight different shows and some stand-along songs, and features a roll-call of exciting musical theatre talent including the likes of Laura Pitt-Pulford, Kit Orton, Joe Sterling and Rebecca Trehearn. 

The 16 numbers range from impassioned musical theatre to straight up pop-rock songs and through the diversity, it is the British composers who shine most. Sarah Galbraith and Kit Orton duet gorgeously on ‘I Cannot Lose You’, a newly written song from Orton’s own My Land’s Shore; Joe Sterling breezes through the effortlessly perfect pop of ’Reasons’ from the self-penned Roundabout; and Ben Stott captures the bruised fragility of Ben Messenger’s ‘Here It Comes Again’, a ruefully beautiful ballad of self-reflection and resignation.  Continue reading “CD Review: Words Shared With Friends”

Review: Crazy For You, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“I’ve just got a feeling, tonight’s the night!”

Much of the attention on London fringe musicals goes to the pocket powerhouses south of the river like the Union and the Landor but some of the most exciting productions are to be found above a pub in Highgate. Under John and Katie Plews’ artistic directorship, they have regularly secured the rights to host the first London fringe productions of such massive shows like Buddy and Guys and Dolls and have done so to great acclaim. And they’ve done it once again by putting on the fringe premiere of Gershwin songbook musical Crazy For You, last seen here at the Open Air Theatre and then the West End.

Although based on the Gershwin production Girl Crazy, this is a relatively new show that was reconceived to feature more gems from the Gershwin back catalogue. Ken Ludwig’s book is a frothily light thing, a boy and a girl from different worlds fall for each other even though his family bank is about to close down her family business, including a theatre, and the only way to save the day and any chance of love is to put on a show. It’s silly but charming, wit and warmth are the order of the day and John Plews’ production never loses sight of that. Continue reading “Review: Crazy For You, Upstairs at the Gatehouse”

Review: The Wizard of Oz, Palladium

“And my head I’d be scratchin’ while my thoughts were busy hatchin’

I could have quite happily given The Wizard of Oz a miss, it wasn’t ever really on my list of shows to see but the combined news of a visit from a family member who wanted to see it and Hannah Waddingham’s imminent departure from the ensemble meant that I found myself there on a Saturday evening… There’s something a little odd about its choice as Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s third reality casting show, Over the Rainbow, as the show is not really a fully-fledged musical, no matter how famous some of the songs but he persevered nonetheless. What is even odder is his assembly of a strong musical theatre cast around the eventual winner, Danielle Hope, given the paucity of many of the roles around Dorothy.

Lloyd-Webber’s way around this has been to write new songs, with long-standing lyricist Tim Rice, to beef up the roles of characters like the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West and justify the casting of Michael Crawford and Hannah Waddingham respectively. But despite looking a picture with some tricksy staging and wirework, the end result is curiously banal, exceedingly bland and one which rarely excited me. The focus is so much on the stagecraft that the heart of the story is rarely engaged: Hope’s Dorothy is sweet but rarely interesting, there’s little of the ‘star quality’ evident this evening but then the role is not one that really encourages it; Michael Crawford made very little impact either as the Wizard or the cameos as Ozians and so it went, emotion taking second-place to spectacle. Continue reading “Review: The Wizard of Oz, Palladium”