CD Review: Mamma Mia (Original Cast Recording 1999)

“It’s the best I can do”

It’s easy to be dismissive about Mamma Mia and all it has wrought in revitalising the jukebox musical as a form but the numbers don’t lie. 17 years and counting in the West End, the 8th longest running show on Broadway (it occupies the same position on the UK ranking at the moment too), a wildly successful film adaptation that became the highest grossing musical ever…it’s impressive stuff.

And listening to the Original Cast Recording from 1999, subsequently re-released with bonus tracks for the 5th anniversary, I’d say it’s fairly easy to see why it has endured so long. For all you may mock Catherine Johnson’s book, which hangs oh so lightly on a varied selection of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ iconic music for ABBA, it actually does interesting things with it, in telling its own story rather relying on the songs themselves (I’m looking at you Jersey Boys…!)

So to say you’re better off listening to ABBA’s greatest hits is to miss the point. As light as the plot may be in its girl-wants-father-to-walk-her-down-the-aisle-but-finds-there’s-three-potential-candidates frothiness but there’s something genuinely tender in hearing ‘Chiquitita’ repurposed for two friends comforting a third, maternal lament ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ actually sung between mother and daughter, the stag v hens vivacity of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’.

And yes, they sound different to the originals, of course they do with a full orchestra and chorus to back them up, not to mention the lack of Swedish accents. This recording is a little blessed too in having the film’s soundtrack with its interesting casting choices to easily surpass, but that’s not to take away from the delightful vocals of Louise Plowright, Jenny Galloway, and Siobhán McCarthy as the leading trio, the latter’s Donna a fabulous leading lady from heartbreak to happiness.

Plowright’s cougarish ways enliven ‘Does Your Mother Know’ no end and Galloway’s equally predatory stance toward Nic Colicos’ Bill in ‘Take A Chance on Me’ is a delight. Lisa Stokke’s Sophie, the bride-to-be is charm personified and in keeping with the show’s female-friendly ethos, her intended – Andrew Langtree’s Sky – is somewhat sidelined. For me, ‘Our Last Summer’ has always been one of my favourite ABBA songs and remains so here, ruefully sung by former rocker Harry, an appealing Paul Clarkson, and McCarthy with a gentle loveliness that seems to stand in for the show as a whole.

Review: Pure Imagination: The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, St James

“Don’t know whether it’s mornin’ or night;
Only know it’s soundin’ right”

The numbers around composer Leslie Bricusse stack up most impressively indeed – over 1,000 songs written over a period of more than 60 years, including the book, music or lyrics for 40+ musical films and plays, winning 2 Academy Awards and being nominated for a further 8. So one can certainly indulge him in a moment of reflection in Pure Imagination: The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, a career retrospective that merely skims the surface of that mighty back catalogue with 50 numbers but giving a glorious sense of the formidable and unerring quality of his undoubted talent.

Devised by Bricusse along with director Christopher Renshaw and producer Danielle Tarento, the show eschews any kind of formal narrative, instead collecting songs into loose groupings which give the ideal opportunity to show off the vast breadth of material and leave even the most knowledgeable saying ‘I didn’t know he wrote that one as well’. So the theme to The Pink Panther rubs shoulders with Doctor Dolittle’s ‘Talk To The Animals’ and Willy Wonka’s ‘Oompa-Loompa Doompadee-Doo’, and a sing-song around the old joanna features such classics as ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ and ‘The Good Old Bad Old Days’.  Continue reading “Review: Pure Imagination: The Songs of Leslie Bricusse, St James”

Album Review: The Postman and the Poet (2011 Concept Album)

“Now is the time when the people of Chile come together” 

I’m going to put it out there, I have no idea why new musical The Postman and the Poet hasn’t received a major production yet. This concept album was recorded in 2011 and has to rank as one of my favourite things I’ve listened to over the last few weeks of all these cast recordings, if not the whole year. It’s even based on source material that has Oscar-winning connections to endear it to risk-averse audiences – if From Here To Eternity can make it to a West End theatre, I’m sure The Postman and the Poet could make a decent stab at it too. 

The show is based on Antonio Skármeta’s novel Ardiente Paciencia, on which the 1994 Oscar-winning film Il Postino was based, but Trevor Bentham and Eden Phillips’ book keeps the story of the musical in Isla Negra, a small fishing village on the Chilean coast and in the early 1970s, when political turmoil threatened to overwhelm this South American country. And Michael Jeffrey, a composer new to me, has pulled together a hugely exciting and accomplished score that blends its Latin influences seamlessly into a grand musical theatre style. Continue reading “Album Review: The Postman and the Poet (2011 Concept Album)”

Review: Sweeney Todd, Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop

“Did you come here for a pie sir?

Tucked away in an unassuming side street in Tooting, Harrington’s Pie and Mash shop has incredibly been serving the locals for 106 years – a venerable local institution and now the location for a strikingly unique interpretation of Sondheim’s masterly Sweeney Todd. With room for just 32 inside, Bill Buckhurst’s production for Tooting Arts Club is shockingly intense, literally so given the constricted space and the predilection of the performers to jump up on the tables, get right in our faces or even rub a dab of some hair tonic in the case of one noted critic- this sure ain’t for the fainthearted.

As the company of eight command us to attend the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street (well, Selkirk Road actually!), there’s no escaping the compact world that they create but it is hard to imagine that you’d want to. It’s like a concentrated shot of musical theatre perfection, the operatic scale of the show distilled into an almost personal experience and led by the magisterial, menacing presence of Jeremy Secomb’s Sweeney whose eyes bore unblinkingly into the very soul, the intelligence of this immersive production shines throughout.

Not only allowing Secomb to verbally and vocally accost us up close and personal, the intimacy of the venue also works perfectly in suggesting Todd’s delusions of grandeur. One perfectly realised moment sees him leap on to a table, dramatically uplit by Amy Mae Smith’s highly theatrical lighting for a grandstanding finale to a song, only for the mood to be brilliantly punctured by an unconvinced Mrs Lovett who is just the other side of the counter, sweeping up offcuts with a sceptical raised eyebrow. Siobhán McCarthy is just marvellous in the role, wryly comic and passionately forthright, she sounds like a (twisted) dream and looks stunning.

Continue reading “Review: Sweeney Todd, Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop”

Review: Company, Southwark Playhouse

“Everything’s different, nothing’s changed, only maybe slightly rearranged”

Marking the first ever musical to play at the Southwark Playhouse, Stephen Sondheim’s Company is one of the few shows that didn’t receive an airing in London last year (aside from the Donmar concert version) but receives a fringe production here from Mokitagrit, who are riding high on the recent success of Double Falsehood which is now transferring to the New Players Theatre for a brief extended run. It contains some of Sondheim’s greatest songs, but with its tricksy structure and book by George Furth, I have found it a difficult show to love.

The story centres on eternal singleton Bobby who is just about to turn 35. He is juggling three girlfriends and the 5 sets of married couples that make up his best friends are keen for him to settle down, but as the show progresses through a series of vignettes that look at each couple in turn, we see that each couple has their own story, their own take on marriage and their exhortations for Bobby to give up his bachelorhood masks issues in their own lives. Continue reading “Review: Company, Southwark Playhouse”