Album Review: Lea Michele – Christmas in the City

Jonathan Groff and Darren Criss elevate Glee star Lea Michele’s first holiday album Christmas in the City

“In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas”

It’s definitely that time of year, as Christmas albums start to pop up left, right and centre and getting in there early is actress and singer Lea Michele with her debut holiday album Christmas in the City. It’s a very New York take on the festive season, tending towards the secular than the sacred, and the result is smoothly satisfying, especially in its strong choice of collaborators.

Michele sounds at her best when partnered by former Glee co-stars Darren Criss and Jonathan Groff. On their respective duets of ‘White Christmas’ and ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’, there’s a beautiful lightness of touch to these interpretations of such familiar material. Trading lines and harmonies with all the elegance of Torvill and Dean, the musical beauty here is just lovely. Continue reading “Album Review: Lea Michele – Christmas in the City”

Album Review: Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers

“I have dreamed what a joy you’ll be”

Who knew that exploring the soul of Richard Rodgers would reveal a Lauryn Hill sample and a guest rap from upcoming Bronx rapper Zaire Park? And that’s just on ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ alone. But that’s exactly what you find on Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers, a project co-produced and co-curated by Billy Porter, the Tony Award-winning Broadway actor and musician.

With lyricists Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart, legendary composer Richard Rodgers redefined the American musical theatre with now-classic musicals like Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and The King and I. And now Porter pays tribute to his legacy by reinterpreting his songbook with an entirely more contemporary soulful bent. In his own words, “I like to think of this as the Richard Rodgers version of the Hamilton Mixtapes.”  Continue reading “Album Review: Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers”

CD Review: The Color Purple (2015 Broadway Revival Cast)

“They see more ’bout how things really are now”

After garnering Tony Awards for Best Revival and Best Actress in a Musical, the revival of The Color Purple is even more of a hot property so it is little surprise that a cast recording was made to crystallise this extraordinary reimagining of the show. The album was made late last year so actually came before award season but the writing was already on the wall at that point.
And it’s interesting to now have this to compare the Original Cast Recording, one which hasn’t gone down in history too well although I thought it sounded exemplary on listening to it recently. What John Doyle’s revival does seem to do though, is to strip away some of the Broadway-isms of the show to drill down to something more elemental. Something that was in ample evidence when I saw it at the Menier and which has been heightened here.
Notions of authenticity when it comes to theatricality are always bogus but there is undoubtedly a stronger feeling of Georgia in the air here, the smaller orchestra proving grittier in these arrangements and a new set of performance imbuing new, different, life into these characters. Cynthia Erivo took that Tony home and it is easy to see why, the raw truth in her voice perfectly suited to Celie’s arduous journey, finally flourishing into beautiful, soaring, warmth.
But it is Danielle Brooks (another escapee from Orange is the New Black – Kimiko Glenn is currently in Waitress and Uzo Aduba starred in The Maids on the West End) as Sofia who is the real revelation here (Erivo’s talents are of no surprise to UK theatregoers after all), a stunning performance of character that crackles with life and demands that you listen to every damn word she got to say and she needs to say…
Joaquina Kalukango’s Nettie is well done and it’s no crime that she’s not Renée Elise Goldsberry, but I do have to say that I was disappointed in Jennifer Hudson’s Shug, a vocal turn that does little to delve into the heart and damaged soul of this woman, beyond the superficial sass of ‘Push Da Button’. I’d love to be able to hear Heather Headley’s take on Shug instead, she’s now playing nightly at the Bernard B Jacobs Theatre as Hudson’s replacement, the only lead to have thus far left the production. 
So it’s a bit of a Celie’s choice – I like both of the Cast Recordings for The Color Purple in different ways, you should probably invest in them both!

CD Review: Alison Jiear – Inspirational

“I’m on your side”
Truth be told, I wouldn’t normally listen to anything that falls under the Christian label on iTunes and so Alison Jiear’s album Inspirational hadn’t quite registered on my radar until someone passed me a link to the stunning version of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ that sits in the middle of this collection. A gospel adaptation on which she duets with Cynthia Erivo, it just crackles with fervour, from its gorgeous unaccompanied intro to its ecstatic finale and made me want to investigate more.
And it’s a fascinating collection (produced by Steve Anderson, how could it not be), not least because its ‘inspirational’ content is generally unfamiliar to me. The soaring slow-build of One God, popularised by Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand, is undeniable; hymn ‘How Great Thou Art’ has a certain rousing power; and if Christian rock anthems like ‘I Can Only Imagine’ don’t really do it for me at all, the passion which with Jiear imbues ‘Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) really makes you listen to every single word. 
And when things are more secular, they’re no less heartfelt. Gently stirring songs like the rather beautiful ‘I’ll Keep You Safe’ and ‘To Where You Are’ suit the clarity and purity of Jiear’s voice here down to the ground, as does the powerful ‘Remember Me’ (An Anthem for Alzheimer’s Disease), the poignant subject matter close to her heart as her father fought the condition for 4 years before passing in 2014. A slowed-down ‘Both Sides Now’ is genuinely ruminative, its wisdom hard won and all the more affecting for it. The Christian label is thus unfair, or rather my presumptions about it are, as Inspirational shows off faith at its best, in its all-encompassing openness no matter what you believe in. 

70th Tony Award winners

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play 
Frank Langella – The Father as Andre – WINNER
Gabriel Byrne – Long Day’s Journey into Night as James Tyrone
Jeff Daniels – Blackbird as Ray
Tim Pigott-Smith – King Charles III as Charles
Mark Strong – A View from the Bridge as Eddie Carbone

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Jessica Lange – Long Day’s Journey into Night as Mary Tyrone – WINNER
Laurie Metcalf – Misery as Annie Wilkes
Lupita Nyong’o – Eclipsed as The Girl
Sophie Okonedo – The Crucible as Elizabeth Proctor
Michelle Williams – Blackbird as Una Spencer

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical 
Leslie Odom, Jr. – Hamilton as Aaron Burr – WINNER
Alex Brightman – School of Rock as Dewey Finn
Danny Burstein – Fiddler on the Roof as Tevye
Zachary Levi – She Loves Me as Georg Nowack
Lin-Manuel Miranda – Hamilton as Alexander Hamilton Continue reading “70th Tony Award winners”

70th Tony nominations

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play
Frank Langella, The Father 
Gabriel Byrne, Long Day’s Journey into Night 
Jeff Daniels, Blackbird 
Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III 
Mark Strong, A View from the Bridge

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Jessica Lange, Long Day’s Journey into Night 
Laurie Metcalf, Misery 
Lupita Nyong’o, Eclipsed 
Sophie Okonedo, The Crucible
Michelle Williams, Blackbird

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical
Leslie Odom, Jr, Hamilton
Alex Brightman, School of Rock
Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof 
Zachary Levi, She Loves Me
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical
Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
Laura Benanti, She Loves Me
Carmen Cusack, Bright Star 
Jessie Mueller, Waitress
Phillipa Soo, Hamilton

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play
Reed Birney, The Humans 
Bill Camp, The Crucible 
David Furr, Noises Off 
Richard Goulding, King Charles III 
Michael Shannon, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play
Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans 
Pascale Armand, Eclipsed 
Megan Hilty, Noises Off 
Andrea Martin, Dotty Otley
Saycon Sengbloh, Eclipsed

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Brandon Victor Dixon, Shuffle Along 
Christopher Fitzgerald, Waitress
Jonathan Groff, Hamilton
Christopher Jackson, Hamilton

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple 
Jane Krakowski, She Loves Me
Jennifer Simard, Disaster! 
Adrienne Warren, Shuffle Along

DVD Review: Beyond the Lights

“Do you want to be a runner up, or do you want to be a winner?”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw may be tearing up the stage in Nell Gwynn at the moment but by rights, she ought to have been dominating cinema screens in last year’s Beyond the Lights, baffling sent straight to DVD here after a botched US cinematic release. Quite why this is is beyond me, aside from speculating that those responsible for such decisions thought that it wouldn’t appeal to audiences, presumably because of its perceived innate BAME focus.

But like all great stories, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film far exceeds the world it depicts, emerging as a hugely affecting modern romance full of sharp commentary about what passes for celebrity in the 21st century. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a budding singer winning awards as a featured artist before her first album has even dropped but whose experiences thus far in the music industry lead her to try and take her life. Saved by a policeman, Nate Parker’s Kaz, facing his own pressures from a family who dream of a political career for him, a relationship sparks that forces them to face their mutual demons. Continue reading “DVD Review: Beyond the Lights”

Review: Songs for a New World, St James

“I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly 
The way you used to look at me”

Like many things in real life, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World defies easy description. Not really a musical, not quite a song cycle, it’s an abstract anthology of diverse songs that circle around a similar theme of making a decision. One of his first shows to be produced and now 20 years old, it represents perhaps the purest distillation of his piano-based pop-rock stylings even as we skip between the various times, places and people woven together into the patchwork of this one emotional journey.

A show like this stands or falls by its cast but director Adam Lenson has cast it to the hilt. Fresh off the hugely successful Here Lies Love, Dean John-Wilson brings real energy; perhaps a little undersung, Damian Humbley has built up a hugely impressive musical theatre CV; Cynthia Erivo has been making waves for a while now and this is her last UK engagement before heading to Broadway to reprise her role in The Color Purple; and Jenna Russell, oh Jenna Russell, as fine an exponent of Sondheim as she is of Bart Simpson, she’s the kind of performer who illuminates the stage even with just a hint of her presence. Continue reading “Review: Songs for a New World, St James”

The 2014 Ian Charleson Awards

First prize

Susannah Fielding, for Portia in The Merchant of Venice (Almeida Theatre)

Second prize

Tom Mothersdale, for Yasha in The Cherry Orchard (Young Vic)

Third prize

Cynthia Erivo, for Poins and Earl of Douglas in Henry IV (Donmar Warehouse)

Commendations

Stefano Braschi, for Soranzo in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe)
Rebecca Collingwood, for Blanche in Widowers’ Houses (Orange Tree Theatre)
Ncuti Gatwa, for Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (HOME, Manchester)
Emma Hall, for Phaedra, Aphrodite, and Artemis in Hippolytos (Antic Face, at The Colepit)
Jennifer Kirby, for Lady Percy in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Daisy May, for Celia in As You Like It (Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol)
Frances McNamee, for Finea in A Lady of Little Sense (Theatre Royal, Bath)
Ekow Quartey, for Hans in Spring Awakening (touring production by Headlong/West Yorkshire Playhouse/Nuffield Theatre)
Michael Shelford, for Willie Mossop in Hobson’s Choice (Octagon Theatre, Bolton)
Thalissa Teixeira, for Chorus in Electra (Old Vic)

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Liverpool Everyman

“We will make amends ere long”

After The Faction’s Romeo and Juliet that stretched out beyond the three hour mark, here’s a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is similarly lengthy – I’m really hoping this isn’t the emergence of a trend because it does no good to anyone in all honesty. Notions of textual fidelity are all well and good but they can also lack dramatic focus – the ever-evolving mutability of Shakespeare’s text is one of its key strengths and it is a mark of directorial nous to be able to harness that potential and deliver it onstage (and if it is going to be long, then it needs not to feel long).

But here, for every innovation that Nick Bagnall comes up with for his production at the Everyman in Liverpool – and there are many of them – there’s an overcooked scene that drags unbearably. It makes for an occasionally difficult piece of theatre but one that also has imaginatively exciting moments too. Ashley Martin-Davis’ design also embodies this conflict in its amorphous undefinability, no particular time or place evoked but rather a vaguely futuristic, dark carnival-esque atmosphere for an unfamiliar Athens and a strange forest of scattered white paper that is a great idea but not quite pulled off. Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Liverpool Everyman”