Review: John Barrowman with Seth Rudetsky, Leicester Square Theatre

This weekend only, John Barrowman and Seth Rudetsky deliver conversation and concert realness at the Leicester Square Theatre in London

“Passionate as hell 
But always in control”

I hadn’t originally intended to go and see John Barrowman in this intimate concert setting but my Aunty Jean is a big fan and so decided to make a day trip out of it, and I got to go along for the ride. This micro-run of three performances fell under the aegis of Seth Rudetsky’s intermittent Broadway @ Leicester Square Theatre series, mixing performance with conversation to create a unique and relaxed vibe.

Barrowman’s force of personality means the anecdotes flow out of him with barely any prompting from the wonderfully acerbic Rudetsky but with such a storied career, he’s certainly earned the right to tell them. Continue reading “Review: John Barrowman with Seth Rudetsky, Leicester Square Theatre”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Specials 2008-2010

“Because your song is ending, sir…It is returning. It is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor? Oh, but then… He will knock four times.”

Cos he’s special, David Tennant got to spread his farewell over 4 specials from Christmas 2008 to New Year 2010, and as this also marked Russell T Davies’ departure from the show, the stories start off grand and rise to operatic scales of drama by the time we hit the megalithic The End of Time. That finale works well in its quieter moments but does suffer a little from an overabundance of plot and whatnot. The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead are good value for money romps but it is The Waters of Mars and all its attendant darkness that stands out most, teasing all the complex arrogance of a God-figure gone wrong.

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Episodes, in order of preference

The Waters of Mars
The End of Time
The Next Doctor
Planet of the Dead

Top 5 guest spots

1 Bernard Cribbens’ Wilf, graduating from guest appearances to fully-fledged companion for The End of Time was a masterstroke – their ruminative conversations a powerful counterpoint to all the bombast
2 As the would-be Doctor in The Next Doctor, David Morrissey’s pained eloquence was just lovely, all the more so for its initial unexpectedness

3 Lindsay Duncan’s intense Captain Adelaide Brooke and her defeat of the Time Lord Victorious and all his hubris – wow.
4 Velile Tshabalala’s Rosita – another to add to the list of companions that could have been
5 This series also saw the last appearance of Lachele Carl’s US newsreader Trinity Wells, a constant since the reboot whose brief reports were always nice to see.

Saddest death

I’m probably supposed to say Ten here but the portentousness of the farewell tour was too much even for me, so Adelaide’s demise gets the nod for being so fantastically dark 

Most wasted guest actor

Catherine Tate – given the sledgehammer of Donna’s departure, bringing her back so minimally in this way felt like a slap in the face

Most important thing that is never mentioned again

Are the Weeping Angels Gallifreyan in origin as hinted here? Or is it just me?

Gay agenda rating

F – with the focus on Tennant’s (and Davies’) departure, I think they forgot about the gays (Alonso and Jack’s implied hook-up aside)

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4

“Donna Noble has left the library. Donna Noble has been saved”

 

And here we are, my favourite series of Doctor Who. So much huge wonderfulness and even its less good moments are still more than halfway decent. Key to the series’ success is Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble – gobby and one-dimensional in her introductory episode the Christmas special The Runaway Bride, her character journey throughout this season is magisterially constructed, a true awakening of self (with thankfully no romantic inclinations towards our Time Lord) and one given unbearable poignancy due to its frustratingly tragic end.
It’s also one of the best constructed series in terms of its over-arching season arc, its warnings and clues layered meaningfully into several stories and building into a momentous and properly climactic finale, which lands just about the right level of grandiosity. There’s also the first companion-lite episode (the superbly creepy Midnight) to go with the Doctor-lite one (the achingly beautiful dystopian Turn Left); a typically brilliant Moffat double-header in  Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead with gorgeous work from Alex Kingston as the soon-to-be-hugely-significant River Song; and if the return of Rose undoes some of the emotional impact of the Series 2 finale, Billie Piper’s work is spikily powerful. These are episodes I can, and have, watched over and over again.

 

Episodes, in order of preference

Turn Left
Silence in the Library
Forest of the Dead
Midnight
The Unicorn and the Wasp
The Stolen Earth
Journey’s End
Planet of the Ood
The Fires of Pompeii
Voyage of the Damned
Partners in Crime
The Sontaran Stratagem
The Poison Sky
The Doctor’s Daughter

Top 5 guest spots

1 Fenella Woolgar’s marvellously layered Agatha Christie
2 Ryan Sampson’s brattish teenage genius Luke Rattigan
3 Sarah Lancashire’s nanny in the stars Miss Foster
4 Lesley Sharp’s technical brilliance (along with everything else) as Sky Sylvestri
5 And serving up Winifred Bambera-style realness, Noma Dumezweni’s Captain Erisa Magambo

Saddest death

You have to admire Kylie’s gumption, not only securing a guest star role as Astrid Peth but securing her place in the annals as one of the few companions to perish in the line of duty. Special mention to the truly haunting demise of Talulah Riley’s Miss Evangelista in The Library.

Most wasted guest actor

O-T Fagbenle’s Other Dave, I just love him too much to be satisfied with anything less than a lead role.

Most important thing that is never mentioned again

THE REALITY BOMB – yet another all-powerful weapon that no-one else has tried to use

Gay agenda rating

B – loving the casual references to characters’ sexualities (ie Sky in Midnight) and the pointed recognition of the contemporary difficulties – of the flirting boys in The Unicorn and the Wasp

 

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 3

“You 

 

Are 

 

Not 
Alone”
There’s something perhaps a bit perverse in some of the strongest episodes of new Who emerging from the series which (arguably) had the weakest companion. Freema Agyeman was ill-served by writing that couldn’t let her be a companion in her own right, as opposed to the-one-in-Rose’s-shadow, and consequently never felt entirely comfortable in the TARDIS.
Series 3 has real highs and certain lows – the introduction of Doctor-lite episodes (to ease the production schedules) produced the inventive wonder that was Blink (and further proved Steven Moffat’s genius), the unashamed grab for the heartstrings was perfectly realised in the Human Nature / The Family of Blood double-header, and the re-introduction of one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes was well-judged. That said, we also had the inevitable return of the Daleks who already feel like they’re in danger of over-exposure.

 

Episodes, in order of preference

Human Nature
The Family of Blood
Blink
Utopia
The Shakespeare Code
Gridlock
The Sound of Drums
Last of the Time Lords
42
The Runaway Bride
The Lazarus Experiment
Smith and Jones
Daleks in Manhattan
Evolution of the Daleks

Top 5 guest spots

1 Dean Lennox Kelly’s rugged and omnisexually flirtatious Shakespeare was hugely charismatic
2 Almost unbearably poignant, Jessica Hynes’ Joan Redfern’s love story with the human John Smith is magnificently done
3 A pre-Hollywood Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow – the best companion that never was
4 Tom Ellis all stubbly is always a treat
5 Derek Jacobi’s Professor Yana – I still get chills thinking about the epic reveal at the end of Utopia

Saddest death

A tie between the Face of Boe’s heroic demise in Gridlock and Chipo Chung’s gently elegiac and courageous Chantho.

Most wasted guest actor

Bertie Carvel’s three seconds as The Lazarus Experiment’s Mysterious Man is egregious, as is most every choice for Miranda Raison’s New Yoik flapper.

Most important thing that is never mentioned again

 

I think most things in this series made sense or had their time and place, even the paradoxes, after all it’s just “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey….stuff”.

 

 

 

Gay agenda rating

B – Shakespeare and the Doctor makes for the kind of fanfic that (some) people dream of.

 

CD Review: The Fix (1997 Original London Cast)

“The economy, crime, taxes!”
I’ve seen The Fix twice now – once at the old Union and once at the new and to be honest, it’s not a show I particularly love. With a rock/pop score by Dana P Rowe and book and lyrics by John Dempsey, its political shenanigans schtick has now been overtaken by the real-life ridiculousness in the political spheres on both sides of the ocean and in any case, aimed for a kind of melodrama that never really worked for me as far back as the comparative calm of 2012.
A big issue for me is the score and its magpie nature, beginning with the power-pop chorus of ‘One, Two, Three’ with its forceful guitars and then dipping in and out of the worlds of vaudeville, lounge jazz, straight-up balladry, even folk songs. Sprawling in such a manner means we never really get a sense of the kind of world that the show is trying to conjure – only in Philip Quast’s charismatic ‘First Came Mercy’ with its Kander + Ebb sharpness does The Fix express its identity.

It’s interesting to hear John Barrowman here at an early stage in his career, clearly expressing a rock edge to his voice which has now long been smoothed out in the name of showmanship and Kathryn Evans is a Machiavellian delight as his manipulative mother Violet. Krysten Cummings as the jazz singer mistress also sounds lovely but incongruous, in a cast recording that doesn’t really do it for this listener.

CD Review: Just So (2006 Chichester Festival Theatre Cast)

“The questions raised at every turn show there’s always more to learn”

This production of Stiles + Drewe’s Just So, their musical adaptation and conflation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was a well-received one at Chichester Festival Theatre, coming almost a decade after the show was originally written. Their historically family-friendly back catalogue has served them well over the years – and is bearing significant fruit now in their Trio of Trios, and some elements of this well-cast recording are just lovely.

The heartfelt simplicity of ‘Does The Moment Ever Come?’ is perfectly suited to Richard Dempsey’s sweetly earnest Elephant Child, Julie Atherton might never have sounded better (or more wonderfully northern) on the nervously apprehensive ‘Wait A Bit’ and John Barrowman’s Eldest Magician has the charisma to make his life lessons a little more holistic than hectoring. His singing on ‘Just So’ and ‘If’ wisely warm-hearted.

But to be brutally honest, Stiles’ music doesn’t always carry such charm in some of the minor numbers and sharp as Drewe’s lyrics often are, the book as a whole has too much of a tendency to lecture, to insist its story-telling points over-ride Kipling’s originals to its detriment. And the overall feel of the show became somewhat wearisome to me which I found most surprising, especially I had fond memories from the one time I’ve seen it at the Tabard back in 2010. 
From this vantage point, one is tempted to observe that their more straight-forwardly children-friendly work of recent years seems to be a better distillation of what they’re trying to achieve and likewise with Betty Blue Eyes for more grown-up audience members. Just So feels a little caught between these two schools, an early work from a composing duo still in search of their true voice.

CD Review: Godspell (1993 Studio Cast)

“See ya later I’m going to the front of the thee-AY-ter”

Full disclosure, I’ve been listening to this version of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell for more years than I care to remember and before anyone really knew what luminaries many of these performers would become – Clive Rowe, Ruthie Henshall, John Barrowman…though perhaps we’ll skip past Darren Day. Using the composer’s original arrangements and conducted by himself, it is perhaps a tad traditional for the taste of some but for me, it hit the marks from top to bottom. 
Henshall going full-on Mae West in a vampy ‘Turn Back O Man’, Elisabeth Sastre and Jacqueline Dankworth complementing each other well in a beautifully harmonised ‘By My Side’, Day and Glyn Kerslake’s amusing romp through ‘All For The Best’, it’s all highly slick and professional. The air of reverence is strong throughout, mark Paul Manuel leading ‘All Good Gifts’ or Dankworth’s ‘Day By Day’ for example, classically done almost note for note from the sheet music.
This does perhaps mean it can seem a little staid at times but personally I like the fidelity to the music as written, there’s versions enough elsewhere for a greater sense of originality and it just means that here, there’s just the joy of unalloyed pure melodic singing, John Barr and Clive Rowe letting the delicacy of ‘On The Willows’ just wash over us with great beauty. An unexpectedly timeless and still powerfully effective account of a grand score.

DVD Review: Torchwood – Children of Earth


“It’s the children…”
Well I don’t think anyone saw that coming. A darker spin-off from Doctor Who that took a little while to find its feet in its first couple of years, the third series of Torchwood – sub-titled Children of Earth – saw the show graduate to BBC1 (all the more impressive given its original BBC3 origins) with a 5-parter of some considerable drama that pushed the boundaries of anything previously shown in the Whoniverse (apologies for that word!) And though it is here due to being one of the first times that Lucy Cohu entered my consciousness, I was pleasantly surprised to find it populated with actors that I have latterly come to admire – Ian Gelder and Cush Jumbo in particular.


Children of Earth was so successful for me because although its main premise is rooted in the sci-fi world – a mysterious alien presence arrives on Earth, seizing control of the minds of all its children and demanding their sacrifice – so much of the conflict comes from the human drama, the moral ambiguities that arise as times of crisis require difficult decision making. And having established a Spooks-like level of turnover with its cast with the Series 2 finale, it added another, even crueller, twist of the screw, made all the more distressing for its unassuming nature.

Events start with the effective device of all the children in the world stopping dead still and speaking in unison and as the extra-terrestrial investigations unit of Torchwood and the British government spring into action to try and work out what is happening, it becomes clear that no-one is as innocent or unknowing as they seem, as years of collusion and complicity threaten to come to light as Nicholas Farrell’s Prime Minister and Peter Capaldi’s bureaucrat try to negotiate new terms with the alien and John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness and his team try to steer a more moral course of action.
But the ethics of the matter are far from clear-cut as personal agendas come into play with several characters trying to protect their own, even Jack unexpectedly gains a daughter (played by Lucy Cohu) and grandson here although they are hardly fully developed characters for reasons which later become clear. And as various characters are called upon to decide what they think is worth fighting for – Cush Jumbo’s new government official, Ian Gelder’s wearied scientist, Liz May Brice’s fearsome soldier, Deborah Findlay’s selfish politician – the larger question of whether sacrificing some for the greater good is ever acceptable is brought into terrible focus. 
And after the brutal, quiet devastation of the ending of episode 4, the final segment ascends to near-operatic heights as the repercussions of acts both present and past come crashing down on all and sundry. Davies’ writing lends itself to such grandiosity but it works so well here, allied to some cracking performances – Capaldi making the crushing realisation of Frobisher’s helplessness desperately heart-breaking, Susan Brown’s constant presence as his aide justified with some sensational speeches and last but by no means least, Cohu giving voice to the most terrible anguish as she is forced to pay the most horrendous price by a grim-faced Jack.
If anything, the quality of the ensemble around him exposes Barrowman a little, his acting doesn’t necessarily convey the deepest depths and in the coda appended to the end, there’s an uneasy attempt at justification as he and Gwen bid their farewells and reckon over the losses suffered. There’s something a little self-serving which doesn’t sit right, the depth of the final sacrifice not sufficiently explored and feeling a little too close to a get-out-of-jail-free card where the poignancy of the final shot of Alice walking away from Jack served as a more appropriate ending. Here, there’s too much of a sense that Barrowman and Davies are sanitising the morally grey areas of Jack’s actions where more daring writing and acting would have left more ambiguity. Still, I enjoyed re-watching this immensely and if you pretend Series 4 never happened, it makes for a powerful ending to a programme that really came into its own.

DVD Review: Hey Mr Producer

“Do something special, anything special…”

This charity shop malarkey is proving to be a veritable treasure trove of theatrical goodies, of variable quality I should stress, but after the delights of Ms Paige – which will be continued shortly with an upcoming DVD review – I was given this DVD of the 1998 Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza Hey Mr Producer which cost a whole 99p from a British Heart Foundation shop in north west London. A benefit concert ostensibly put together for the RNIB but also honouring and celebrating the work of producer Mackintosh (although oddly he was involved in putting the show together – honouring himself…) by bringing together excerpts from many of the most famous shows he has been involved in and pulling together an extraordinary cast of the musical theatre glitterati, many of whom originated the roles, the like of which has rarely been seen since.

And it really does come across as something special, at times a little frustrating but it is often the way with concerts like these that tantalise with little glimpses of shows and when the calibre of performer is such as it is here, one barely minds as there is much pleasure to be had. It is impressive how much was packed into the single evening, multi-song sections from shows were interspersed with single songs from others meaning that over 20 shows were showcased here. Whether it was shows I love – Little Shop of Horrors, Oliver!, Les Mis, ones I’m ok with – Phantom of the Opera, Company or even ones I’ve never actually seen – My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, Martin Guerre, Carousel – the sequences that had more than one song worked surprisingly well, getting across something of the flavour of the shows even with the rapid pace and semi-staging. I would have loved to have seen and heard more from Anything Goes, Godspell and The Boyfriend and for Salad Days, Mackintosh’s favourite show apparently, to have gotten a proper treatment, but then I guess the three hour show would have gone on for days.

The main personal highlight for me was seeing Bernadette Peters performing, someone who I really would love to see live one day. Her rendition of Sondheim’s Being Alive was superb as I suspected it would be but the way in which she sings Song and Dance’s Unexpected Song is quite simply staggering: possibly one of the greatest interpretations of a song I’ve ever seen. She pummels it into submission creating something completely new and incredibly moving that I instantly hit the replay button to soak it all in once again. And offering a completely different, but equally awe-inspiring, take on a song was Judi Dench’s version of Send In The Clowns, dripping with bitterness and resentment and acted so perfectly that the lack of a showstopping singing voice actually feels like the perfect characterisation. I loved seeing Julia McKenzie and Jonathan Pryce onstage too and even Ms Paige’s contribution – Memory of course – fitted in well, a touch of classy restraint in the performance for once.

And the reason I found it so entertaining was that it also provided a little musical theatre history lesson for me. It may only have been 13 years ago but I wasn’t engaged in the world of theatre in any way near as much as I am now and so the chance to see performers who I am seeing on stage now, earning their reputations ‘back in the day’ as it were, was lots of fun. Whether it was Clarke Peters doo-wopping with the best of them in Five Guys Named Moe, Joanna Riding melting hearts with You’ll Never Walk Alone, Ellen Greene’s quivering emotion as Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors or even recent resident of London Road Hal Fowler as a leading man in both Carousel and Les Mis, it was really nice to get that chance to do a little time-travelling to see performances from the past.

Not all of it worked for me: I thought the Lloyd-Webber/Sondheim skit Duelling Pianos was overlong and under-funny, the recurring Christopher Biggins was an addition too far, I wasn’t a fan of John Barrowman’s number from The Fix nor Michael Ball’s rather glib rendition of Losing My Mind and the way in which some imagination had been put into some sections highlighted the lack of it in others. The fun way in which the women of the company came together for Broadway Baby had a unique energy that never really re-appeared and the cheekiness of how Five Guys Named Moe segued into Oliver! made me wish a little more of this had been done. And nothing could have prepared me for how odd it was to see Hugh Jackman in full musical theatre mode. I knew this was his background but I have to say it felt quite an awkward performance of Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’, him seeming a little at odds in the space which I’m sure isn’t a fair representation of his talents.

The nature of these sorts of events, especially in the age of YouTube, means that I can’t really imagine people actually buying a DVD like this and sitting down to watch it from start to finish more than once. Perhaps that just speaks more to my lack of attention span but regardless, it was a fun DVD to watch and nicely illuminatory in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

If you only watch one clip on YouTube ;-), make it…Bernadette Peters’ Unexpected Song

CD Review: Elaine Paige and Friends

“This is the nearest thing to crazy I have ever known”

There’s something rather amusing about the idea of Ms Paige leafing through her address book to decide who made the grade to appear on her latest duets album, last year’s Elaine Paige and Friends. We are most definitely in MOR territory here instead of musical theatre and the guest list reflects that with names like Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka, Michael Bolton and Paul Anka popping up. There’s a couple of nods to her theatrical background too with John Barrowman and Idina Menzel on board too but the idea that either US country star LeAnn Rimes or controversial Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor stretches credulity just a little – it is however not surprising that Ms Dickson does not return here…

I must state for the record that this CD was purchased in the AgeUK charity shop in Sheffield for the princely sum of £1.99 – it was not one that I had envisaged buying previously but the combination of the unlikely aspects of the tracklisting and the simply delightful cover images meant that it was irresistible. And boy am I glad it was bought for me as it is one of the most amusing things I have ever listened to, as well as being one of the greatest crimes in recording history. The ways in which this CD, produced by Phil Ramone, offended are many and varied so I’ll just get right in there.

As if the world ever needed a cover version of Katie Melua’s Closest Thing To Crazy, we are granted to the wonder of Ms Paige singing the line about she is “feeling 22, acting 17” with no apparent sense of irony. Madonna’s Take A Bow is destroyed with a plinky-plonky synthesised arrangement which sounds just horrific, Idina Menzel sounds just lovely on it but for some reason the original structure of the song which lends itself so well to duetting has been jettisoned in favour of some frankly horrific harmonies. The song Amoureuse with Olivia Newton-John is just one of the oddest things I have ever heard – lyrically it is insane “I feel the rainfall of another planet” and musically it jumps all over the place in a nasty way. The bossanova backing for Just The Way You Are is a direct copy of one of the preset tracks that I had on a keyboard when I was little, the list just goes on and on.

At the same time though, it is clear that I am not really the target audience for this recording as so many of these guests are people I would never normally choose to listen to. That said, Barry Manilow’s lumbering through The Prayer has precisely zero subtlety, Neil Sedaka feels ill-placed in Make It With You and Michael Bolton is just kidding himself on Sinatra’s All The Way. Billy Ocean alone manages to emerge with some dignity from You Are Everything. The main problem is that Paige rarely connects with her guests, there’s a real sense of dislocation between the pairings, genuine emotion being extremely rare in the overly polished performances and soulless arrangements. Matters aren’t helped by a set of song choices that are predominantly love songs which just feel so very awkward.

Chief amongst the crimes though is Where Is The Love with John Barrowman. The lyrics have been gender-swapped so that they are singing this love song to each other which is wrong on so many levels but things reach an nadir with the freestyling ending with its ad-libs that degenerate into a smug laugh-fest and declaration of love for ‘EP’ – simply vile.

That this is immediately followed by the one decent song on the album throws up the stark contrast even more and indicates the path that could have been taken to create a much more interesting album. It’s Only Love, written by Tim Rice and Gary Barlow, is a curious, darkly string-laden enigma of a song made more intriguing by the presence of Sinéad O’Connor as duet partner. The blend of their voices is really quite effective and by keeping far away from love as a subject matter, it is one of the rare moments where everything falls into place.

It is almost worth keeping an eye out for this CD in charity shops as it has perversely given me so much pleasure in listening to it: it really is so bad it is good. It’s an odd choice for Paige to have made and replete with such questionable decision-making that one does get the sense that no-one has said ‘hold on a minute…’ to her for quite some time. Maybe her fans liked this, I have no idea, but they shouldn’t, this is a truly terrible piece of work.

If can only download one song, make it… It’s Only Life with Sinéad O’Connor