Album Review: Leading Ladies – Songs From The Stage

“Lock the door and stop complaining
Gather ’round and listen well”

Between them, Amber Riley, Beverley Knight and Cassidy Janson have racked up Olivier Awards and accolades aplenty and their mutual respect has led to them joining forces to create musical supergroup Leading Ladies. And working with producers Brian Rawling and Paul Meehan through East West Records (Warner), their debut album Songs From The Stage is about to be released.

Across the 14 tracks of the collection, there’s a variety of approaches as they tackle songs from a wide range of musicals. Each singer gets a couple of solo numbers, and they all chip in with backing vocals on some of those, but the highlights come when the trio sing together. And none more so than on an utterly transcendent version of Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ whose close harmonies are goosebump-inducingly extraordinary, the marriage of their voices a perfect alchemy. Continue reading “Album Review: Leading Ladies – Songs From The Stage”

Album Review: Memphis (2014 Original London Cast Recording)

“Open your eyes, I got a surprise!”

It was fascinating to revisit Memphis, a show that I enjoyed on seeing but in all honesty, isn’t one I’ve given much thought to since it left the West End after just over a year at the Shaftesbury Theatre (I went back once). I remarked then that David Bryan’s score was “highly tuneful if not instantly catchy” so was surprised that a fair few of the songs had managed to work their way into my subconscious and so provided that ‘ping’ of recognition which is always nice.

It was also interesting to listen to the songs in isolation from the show, as more of them than I remembered felt somewhat disconnected from the narrative, just happy in their sprightly pop song-ness. And thanks to the quality of the cast assembled here – leads Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly, supported by the likes of Jason Pennycooke, Tyrone Huntley and Rolan Bell plus Claire Machin, it is a consistently enjoyable record to listen to. Continue reading “Album Review: Memphis (2014 Original London Cast Recording)”

Review: The Toxic Avenger, Southwark Playhouse

“Let me tell you a story about a man with a strange complexion”

Baby, can’t you see, I’m calling. A show like this, should wear a warning…that warning should be avoid the front row if you’re squeamish about having your face touched by strangers! For The Toxic Avenger is nothing if not hands on, drawing its Southwark Playhouse audience right into its B-movie world, the poison paradise of the New Jersey town of Tromaville. And as we come to see, whether just a taste on the lips or a full-body dunking, the effects of toxic waste are clearly having an impact.
Based on the 1984 film of the same name, a cult classic of which I hadn’t heard, its hero is Melvin Ferd the Third, a geeky scientist determined to clean up the town but who soon finds himself the victim of such a dunking. Transformed and deformed, he emerges as Toxie, the Toxic Avenger – all rippling abs and dangling eyeballs – and newly fortified to tackle the dastardly Mayor whose scheming has caused the pollution and also take the plunge with hot blind librarian Sarah who rejected him as a nerd.

But don’t let anything as prosaic as an age-old plot get in the way of how silly and schlocky the fun here is. Benji Sperring’s direction is witty and warm, ridiculous and yet still reverential to the musical form to which it constantly pays homage. Both the staging and the writing (Joe DiPietro’s book, David Bryan’s music and shared lyrics) feel rooted in a long tradition of cultish entertainment and it’s hard not to get swept up in the exuberance of it all, especially given the brightness of Alex Beetschen’s musical direction.
If it falls down a tiny bit, it’s in not quite having enough heart to its central romance. Little Shop of Horrors works so well because you’re so invested in Seymour and Audrey and whilst the emotional transformation of Mark Anderson’s Toxie is wryly done, Hannah Grover’s brashly funny Sarah ends up a little one-note, you crave more character to go with the comedy and perhaps a little less reliance on the gags about being blind. They’re still an engaging couple but the attention is pulled elsewhere.
Namely to the other three company members who steal pretty much every scene they enter. Lizzii Hills gets the show’s standout moment in ‘Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore’ when her Mayor duets with Melvin’s mother, who is also played by her, it’s thrillingly well done as is the number that precedes it ‘Evil is Hot’. And Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering as the two ‘dudes’ who cover the dozens of townsfolk in the story are just genius, waiting to see who they would emerge as next was always an absolute delight and without fail, hilarious.
With musical influences from gospel to folk augmenting its rock’n’roll and a keen ear for a memorable chorus sending you humming into the night, The Toxic Avenger is actually a more substantial musical than you might expect and so marks an astute choice for Aria Entertainments to import here for its European premiere. And receiving as strong a production as it does here makes it a successful one too – I think I’m ready now, intoxicate me now.
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Claire Bilyard
Booking until 21st May

Re-review: Memphis, Shaftesbury

“Have a beer drop a time in the blind man’s jar”

Never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, the offer of a return ticket to Memphis (the show, not the place sadly) was one I was happy to accept and I was glad for it too. The show remains a hugely impressive showcase for its cast and creatives whilst never quite engaging satisfactorily enough with its subject matter (see my original review here) but the overall effect is certainly one that is entertaining and should set the show up for a successful UK tour in 2016 after it finishes in the West End.

The main change has been the arrival of X Factor winner (and stone cold fox – who knew) Matt Cardle in the cast as Huey, replacing Killian Donnelly who has headed over to Kinky Boots. And as a musical theatre debutant, he is very good indeed, slipping into the role of the fast-talking, highly charismatic DJ with great ease, nailing an adorkable charm that is most appealing. It helps that he shares great chemistry with Beverley Knight as rising star Felicia, herself now off to the latest revival of Cats, further cementing her own MT reputation. Continue reading “Re-review: Memphis, Shaftesbury”

Review: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Above the Arts

“Have you just lost your way?

‘Repressed confused or gay?’”

Just a quickie for this, a late-hours performance late in the run in a vilely hot tiny auditorium perched atop no-one’s favourite West End theatre. I hadn’t been Above the Arts before and I remain unconvinced that it is an essential addition to our theatres, especially in this heat. Fortunately, Kirk Jameson’s production of Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro’s off-Broadway stalwart I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change was good enough to almost take my mind off it.

With old Avenue Q friends Julie Atherton and Simon Lipkin joined by Gina Beck and Samuel Holmes, this is about as good as musical theatre casting gets, especially for a fringe production and the quality of this quartet smoothed over most of the weaknesses of the show. A revue-ish song cycle type of thing, it whips through a set of loosely connected vignettes about the various trials and tribulations between a man and a woman.

And it really is paper thin material, it is to cast and creatives’ collective credit that it becomes such a good showcase for their considerable skills. Atherton’s comic charm is beautifully served here, so too her soulfully expressive eyes; Beck’s powerful presence nails ‘Always A Bridesmaid’ plus her Jewish widow picking up men at funerals ain’t too shabby either; Holmes hits a home run with his nerdish set of guys; and Lipkin – swoon – remains an unpredictable delight, thoroughly watchable whatever he does.


Scott Morgan’s musical direction benefits from the intimacy, the harmonies a scintillating thrill, but though Jameson’s direction and Sam Spencer-Lane’ choreography works as well it can in the space, it is frankly ridiculous that somewhere so small can such restricted views (no rake) – I’ll be sure to choose my seat much more carefully next time (who am I kidding, I never arrive early enough to beat unreserved seating!)


Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 18th July

Review: Memphis, Shaftesbury Theatre

“Rock ‘n’ roll is just black people’s blues sped up”
 
Though much of the US civil rights movement’s achievements came through political means, this time of huge shift in American society was also underpinned by significant cultural change and it is this that the Tony-award-winning show Memphis focuses on, in exploring how white radio DJ Huey Calhoun sent shockwaves over the airwaves of this Southern city in the 1950s by ignoring the entrenched racial divisions and playing ‘race’ music for all to hear. And as rock and roll began to capture the attention of the nation, so too was Huey’s attention completely captured by the soulful energy of upcoming singer Felicia Farrell and the underground blues club in which she performs (which belongs to her brother).
 
That she is black and he is not doesn’t matter to him but it sure as hell does to everyone else (they may sing that ‘Everybody Wants To Be Black On A Saturday night’ but there are still laws preventing mixed marriage) and it is this that provides the dramatic heft to Joe DiPietro’s book, such as it is, to this musical that otherwise puts its focus squarely on the music. And what an unexpected place that music comes from – David Bryan, who just happens to be Bon Jovi’s keyboard player – has compiled a fully original score which pulls in influences from Motown-flecked pop, gospel, R&B and 80s power ballads naturally (I mean, look at the guy’s hair!) – it’s highly tuneful if not instantly catchy but delivered with the conviction it is here, it demands the attention and will doubtless reward relistening (if not rewatching as well ;-)) Continue reading “Review: Memphis, Shaftesbury Theatre”

Review: The Thing About Men, Landor

“Who has an affair with someone who isn’t good in bed?!”

The Thing About Men is a US musical comedy about the unexpected bromance that develops between Sebastian and Tom when the latter moves into the former’s New York apartment. Unexpected, because Sebastian, a would-be bohemian artist, is having an affair with Lucy, who is married to advertising executive Tom but tired of his philandering ways. When Tom finally twigs that his wife has been having some fun as well, he moves out and somehow manoeuvres his way into identifying Sebastian, adopting the name Milo and moving in with him. But his plans for sabotage are derailed when the process of getting to know each other turns into the beginnings of a much-needed male friendship.

Billed as a musical comedy affair, Joe DiPietro’s book is based on a German film Men by Doris Dörrie and along with Jimmy Roberts songs’, makes for an enjoyable evening in the intimate surroundings of the Landor Theatre. It may be warmly funny rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious and pleasantly tuneful rather than instantly catchy (on first listen at least) and there’s a definite randomness to much of the story, but the creative team assembled by director Andrew Keates play very much to the venue’s strengths to elevate the production into something more than the sum of its parts. 

Martin Thomas’ design creatively allows a useful flexibility and shows a nice inventiveness; Joanna Cichonska’s musical direction of her band of four bounces with a great freshness; and Keates has cast extremely well. Peter Gerald somehow manages to make Tom/Milo a protagonist we connect with despite borderline psychotic tendencies and brims with vocal confidence; John Addison’s loved-up Sebastian also has great appeal and their unlikely friendship ticks over in a most satisfactory manner. Kate Graham sounds beautiful and does well, but is undoubtedly a little hamstrung by the role of Lucy, who is most compromised by the show’s tension between the love triangle and the bromance, and deserves more stagetime.


Most of the laughs come from the efforts of Steven Webb and Lucyelle Cliffe who work their way through over 20 characters between them in a series of cameos sprinkled through the story. These are often hilarious interjections, as in Webb’s officious maître d and his persistent waiter or Cliffe’s ditzy neighbour Edith, but there’s a couple of rather misjudged ones too but fortunately Keates has kept a tight rein on them so that any excesses are mostly curbed and the pace kept at a merry trot throughout.

For a piece of entertaining musical theatre,The Thing About Men certainly fits the bill. Where the writing may not always be the most revelatory, the plotting frequently keeps you on your toes and the confluence of cast and creatives means that it is never less than amusingly engaging.  

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 9th June
Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: F**king Men, King’s Head

Thanks to the folks at whatsonstage.com, I got free tickets to F**king Men at the King’s Head theatre in Islington, a place I have been to several times and to be honest, usually find quite overpriced. So free tickets meant that I had no problem in trotting along to this play by Joe DiPietro, despite my reservations about both fringe theatre and gay theatre.

Firstly, whilst I do recognise that there is much good work being done in fringe theatres across London, I was quite badly burned on several occasions last year by some terrible experiences, and the main problem that I have is that their tickets are not sufficiently cheap for me to be forgiving. When somewhere like the National Theatre regularly has £10 tickets available, I find asking for £15 or £20 somewhat hard to stomach, especially when one is not assured of the quality. Continue reading “Review: F**king Men, King’s Head”