Review: Hairspray, Orchard Dartford

“You can try to stop my dancin’ feet”
This mahoosive new tour of Hairspray started in the middle of last month and stretches right through to June 2018 and it certainly feels like it has the potential to be a great success. There are some cracking performances which really elevate Paul Kerryson’s production of this most effective of shows (music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan) and choreography from hot-shot of the moment Drew McOnie.
And given how dance heavy Hairspray is, it is an astute move from Kerryson as McOnie’s inventive use of movement establishes and reinforces so much of the febrile mood of simmering racial tension and potential societal change. In the hands of the likes of Layton Williams’ Seaweed and an effervescent ensemble, it’s hard to keep a smile from your face as the sheer toe-tapping enthusiasm of it all as fabulous group numbers shake and shimmy their way across the stage.
Slight reservations about men taking women’s parts aside (*cough* Craig Revel-Horwood *cough*), Matt Rixon’s Edna is sensitively portrayed in locating real heart within the broader character moments, and Gina Murray’s Velma is a vivacious villain against her. And it is hard not to be thoroughly impressed by Brenda Edwards’ ferocious vocal performance as Motormouth Maybelle – really selling the weight of the socially conscious material. 
But for all that I enjoyed, I couldn’t help but feel that the central couple here are still feeling their way into the show. Rebecca Mendoza is making her professional debut as Tracey Turnblad and she does do well in establishing a genial stage presence. Her singing voice doesn’t quite match up to the full breadth of Tracey’s ballsy confidence at the moment, similarly Edward Chitticks doesn’t have the full measure of Link Larkin’s innate charisma yet – as the tour progresses though, you can imagine they may well yet both grow further into their roles.
Given the length of the tour, I can easily see myself going back to reassess Mendoza and Chitticks, such is the joy of the production around them. And it is a real pleasure to see the work of one of our brightest choreographers in Drew McOnie proudly taking centre stage across the country, not just in a London where his reputation is deservedly fixed.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 9th September,then touring to…
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin 11 September – 16 September 2017 
Winter Gardens, Blackpool 18 – 23 September 2017
Sunderland Empire Theatre 25 September – 30 September 2017
King’s Theatre, Glasgow 2 October – 7 October 2017
Birmingham Hippodrome 9 October – 14 October 2017
Leicester Curve 16 – 21 October 2017
Buxton Opera House 23 October – 28 October 2017
Belfast Grand Opera House 30 October – 4 November 2017
Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury 6 November – 11 November 2017
Sands Centre, Carlisle 13 November – 18 November 2017
Bradford Alhambra 20 November – 25 November 2017
G-Live, Guildford 27 November – 2 December 2017
Theatre Royal Plymouth 15-20 January 2018
Mayflower Southampton 22-27 January 2018
Sheffield Lyceum 29 January – 3 February 2018
Eden Court, Inverness 5-10 February 2018
Theatre Royal, Nottingham 13-24 February 2018
Wolverhampton Grand 26 February – 3 March 2018
Bristol Hippodrome 5-10 March 2018
Edinburgh Playhouse 12-17 March 2018
His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen 19-24 March 2018
Opera Theatre, Manchester 26 March – 7 April 2018
Milton Keynes Theatre 9-14 April 2018
Liverpool Empire 16-21 April 2018
Hull New Theatre 23-28 April 2018
Venue Cymru, Llandudno 30 April – 5 May 2018
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 8-12 May 2018
Cliffs Pavilion, Southend 14-19 May 2018
Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe 21-26 May 2018
Cheltenham Everyman 29 May – 3 June 2018

Review: 42nd Street, Théâtre du Châtelet

“Musical comedy — the most glorious words in the English language!”

It may be in the English language but this production of 42nd Street is in a French theatre, the glorious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris which, under Jean-Luc Choplin’s artistic directorship, has arguably entirely reshaped the Parisian relationship with musical theatre. He’s brought Sondheim there for the first time in a big way (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods) and has staged a number of classic Broadway musicals like An American in Paris (soon to open in London after its New York transfer) and last year’s Singin’ in the Rain.
42nd Street actually marks Choplin’s final show here, as the theatre will soon shutter for a couple of years to undergo major renovations, and Stephen Mear’s production certainly has the visual flair of a fitting finale. With a company of over 40, the tap-dancing routines are a absolute vision, a joyously heart-swelling parade of well-drilled precision, the likes of which we see so rarely these days even in the biggest shows. Combined with dazzling visual effects and gorgeous costumes courtesy of Peter McKintosh, the lavish aesthetic is an absolute treat.
But there’s no hiding from the fact that Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book, from Bradford Ropes’ novel, is paper thin, lacking real humour or grit in its script or any real sophistication in its plotting. Set during the Depression, director Julian Marsh is launching his new show Pretty Lady and when his leading lady breaks her ankle just before opening night, will inexperienced chorus girl Peggy be able to step in and save the day? It’s all rather hackneyed and lacking in any kind of suspense, more of a problem than one might expect with a classic.
Played entirely straight as it is here, 42nd Street just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. An ironic edge might bring some humour, more earnestness might bring it real heart (although that’s questionable) and so it never catches fire as often as one feels it might. Monique Young’s Peggy sings and dances well without blossoming into the star she needs to be, Ria Jones and Alexander Hanson both play it a little too safe with their stagey characters, only Dan Burton of the leads really lives up to the star billing and Jennie Dale’s writer is a rare supporting character who stands out.
Musical director Gareth Valentine ensures his orchestra sound never less than superlative and even if you’re not buying the story, then the visual impact of Mears and McKintosh’s work is always on hand to bring the wow factor. With London getting its own production of the show next year though, directed by Bramble no less, I’d struggle to recommend making a trip especially to see this particular version, even with choreography delivered as well as this.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Marie-Noelle Robert 
Booking until 8th January

Review: Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore, Hackney Empire

“The gentleman is quite right. If you please” 

If you have seen one of Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, then you know exactly what you’re getting with HMS Pinafore; if you haven’t, then there’s many a pleasant surprise in store. This production of the evergreen show has been seen before, at the Union in 2013 and on tour in 2014 but is being reprised here for another UK tour stretching from Yorkshire to Cornwall and it remains as refreshing as a Fisherman’s Friend.

Regan’s approach sees Sullivan’s score stripped back to solo piano, musical director Richard Bates doing sterling work from the keys, and Gilbert’s book performed by a set of 16 strapping sailors, the conceit here being performance as a way of passing the time, to lift spirits flagging a little after receiving letters from their loved ones. It’s a canny framing device and one which works effectively with hardly any tinkering with the plot at all. Continue reading “Review: Sasha Regan’s All Male HMS Pinafore, Hackney Empire”

Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Landor

“Give me the meat without the gravy”

Based on a film from 1967, the musical of comedy pastiche Thoroughly Modern Millie actually only dates back to 2000, though a substantial deal of its humour harks back to an uncomfortably old-school era. Set in 1920s New York, Millie Dillmount arrives determined to marry for money instead of love but finds herself mixed up in a white slavery ring run by a faded actress pretending to be a Chinese woman (as you do). The Landor has a sterling record in successfully mounting small-scale productions of big musicals but Matthew Iliffe’s production doesn’t always hit the mark. 

Full of fresh young faces, the company brims with youthful vigour and there’s lots of potential on show. Sarah-Marie Maxwell displays wonderful comic timing, Samuel Harris could do with a little more volume but his patter song is good and in a number of small roles, Charlie Johnson stands out in the ensemble. But even with ethics aside, Steph Parry can’t quite carry off the jaded persona of Mrs Meers, nor Chipo Kureya invest bon vivant Muzzy van Hosmere with enough personality to really fill the room.  Continue reading “Review: Thoroughly Modern Millie, Landor”