Review: The Addams Family, New Wimbledon

“Hold your decaying
Hear what we’re saying”

Sad to say, what I’m saying is that I was not a fan of The Addams Family at all. After a cracking opening number which promises oh so much, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book grinds to a juddering halt in a first half which does nothing but interminably set the scene. And Andrew Lippa’s score offers little respite as it fails to really nail any definitive sense of identity and ends up really rather forgettable. Things do pick up a tad post-interval but it’s too little too late by then.

It all could have been so much better. The Addams Family are an iconic set of characters, previously immortalised on cartoon strip, on television and on film, a legacy which goes some way to explaining the commercial success of the show on Broadway in the face of a scathing critical reception. But classic characters need classic storytelling and here, they’re marooned in a schmaltzy neverland which captures nothing of the golden age, nor has anything to say to audiences today. Continue reading “Review: The Addams Family, New Wimbledon”

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.

Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 4”

Album Review: Funny Girl (2016 London Cast Recording)

“So ‘stead of just kicking me why don’t they give me a lift?”

The Menier Chocolate Factory’s extremely well-received production of Funny Girl has been as much beleaguered as blessed as it wound its way into the West End, garnering acres of extra publicity that the show barely needed given its impressive ticket sales and subsequently announced UK tour. But so relentless has the focus been on leading lady Sheridan Smith and her absences from the show whilst looking after her mental health, that you begin to doubt the maxim that all publicity is good publicity.

Doubtless, a conversation needs to happen about the expectations that are raised when a show is sold on the name of its star. You can argue convincingly that a production is always bigger than its star name, and understudy Natasha J Barnes deservedly got much acclaim for filling in for Fanny but the case is undermined somewhat when the producers put that name above even the show’s title on the publicity (on Broadway, you’re entitled to a refund or exchange if an above-the-title star is off…). Continue reading “Album Review: Funny Girl (2016 London Cast Recording)”

Review: Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory

“I guess we’re both happy, but maybe…we ain’t”

As recently demonstrated with Adele’s 25, there comes a point where commercial success just trumps critical response even before the reviews have been published and digested. The Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of Funny Girl broke box office records in selling out its entire run in mere moments, announcing its transfer to the West End and then selling a vast majority of tickets for the Savoy all before the show had even opened, such is the draw of star Sheridan Smith.

So in some ways it doesn’t matter that Funny Girl really isn’t a great show, one unseen in the West End for nearly 50 years. Musically, Jule Styne’s score front-loads its hits fatally and dramatically, Isobel Lennart’s rather insipid book runs out of steam well before the end, even with Harvey Fierstein’s newly introduced revisions. And for all of the strengths of Michael Mayer’s production, there’s little it manages to do paper over these cracks. Continue reading “Review: Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory”

CD Review: Witches of Eastwick (Original London Cast Recording)

“Waiting for the music to begin”

Throughout this whirlwind tour of cast recordings, one of the more interesting things has been listening to shows that closed early, or at least relatively so. The Witches of Eastwick managed a 15 month run in 2000-1 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and then the Prince of Wales in a slightly revised version and I have to say that on the evidence of this original London cast recording, it deserved more.

Dana P Rowe’s score and John Dempsey’s lyrics captures much of the small-town mania of John Updike’s source novel and performed by a crack cast as it is here, it is often thrilling to listen to. Ian McShane may have been cast as the devilish Darryl but it is Joanna Riding, Maria Friedman and Lucie Arnaz as the titular triumvirate whose innate powers are unleashed by the nefarious influence of this charismatic stranger, with troubling results for both themselves and those around them – the harmonies that accompany their joint numbers are just scintillating. Continue reading “CD Review: Witches of Eastwick (Original London Cast Recording)”

CD Review: Weird and Wonderful

“”You seemed uplifted but a little upset”

Alexander S Bermange is a composer and lyricist who has been working away for over a decade without ever really breaking through into the mainstream here in the UK. He had a show – The Route to Happiness – at the new musical theatre writing festival at the Landor last year but he has generally had more success in Germany though his contact list is top rate, as the roll call on his most recent CD Act One certainly attests.

Predating that collection though is 2004’s Weird and Wonderful which again boasts a fine collection of interesting performers – Anna Francolini, John Barr, and Richard Dempsey to name but a few – perhaps not as starry as some, but catnip to a theatre nerd like me. The focus here is on Bermange’s comic writing which gives a weird balance to the CD over its 19 tracks which can get a little bit wearing.  Continue reading “CD Review: Weird and Wonderful”

Review: Once, Phoenix

“Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice”

Unusually for a West End musical, Once gently pulses rather than powerhouses its way into the affections, beating very much to its own unique rhythm with a sublimely sensitive story of the power of music and the pain of untimely love. From the working bar on stage that welcomes the audience into the auditorium of the Phoenix with a makeshift ceilidh to the presence of quality names like Enda Walsh and John Tiffany, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary film-to-stage transfer.

Augmented and adapted by Walsh, the book covers the brief but intense journey of a guy and a girl, named Guy and Girl, who connect strongly but find that what they can sing to each other, they cannot say once the music has stopped. He’s a busking vacuum cleaner repairman missing his girlfriend in New York, she’s an unhappily married Czech mother searching for purpose and when she spots his potential, starts up a project to get him to record a demo but their feelings soon threaten to pull them onto the cusp of new possibility.  Continue reading “Review: Once, Phoenix”

Re-review: Sweeney Todd, Adelphi

“There’s no place like London”

Last year was undoubtedly a great one for Chichester Festival Theatre’s musicals – Singin’ in the Rain and Sweeney Todd both figured very highly in end of year lists and both were granted West End transfers after their sell-out runs. But there’s always a danger in revisiting shows one has loved, there’s no guarantee that the magic will be recaptured again especially in larger theatres. So I’ve currently avoided going back to Singin’ in the Rain in its new home in the Palace (though never say never) and hadn’t thought I’d go back to Sweeney Todd which has just started previews at the Adelphi. But when kindly offered a ticket, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

My original review can be read here and in many ways, much of what I said still stands. It’s a highly atmospheric, effective production of Sondheim’s classic revenge tale which lives on its luxury lead casting in a transformed Michael Ball as the titular Todd and an incandescent Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett. Staunton truly is epic here, thoroughly attuned to the comedy especially in the one-upmanship of ‘A Little Priest’ but also movingly desperate as her inclinations remain unfulfilled and she is possibly better here than in Chichester. Michael Ball didn’t quite live up to the memory of his performance, missing some of the necessary malevolence, though he still sings the part well. Continue reading “Re-review: Sweeney Todd, Adelphi”

Review: Sweeney Todd, Chichester Festival Theatre

“No denying times is hard sir, even harder than the worst pies in London”

This may surprise some people but Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is actually the same age as me given that I have been 29 for the last 3 years! As one of the few not to receive a major production in London in his 80th birthday year, the 1979 show Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street now receives attention from Chichester Festival Theatre with an excellent revival that will surely end up in the West End in due course. Jonathan Kent’s production relocates Hugh Wheeler’s book to the 1930s, playing on the overtones of economic crisis and undertones of emotional fascism, whilst Sondheim’s classic music and lyrics create worlds of emotional intensity. The story centres on Benjamin Barker, a skilled barber falsely charged and sentenced to transportation to Australia by a corrupt judge. Fifteen years later he returns to discover he has lost his wife and child, and so reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd, searching out for ways to be avenged. A chance meeting with former landlady Mrs Lovett sees him set up shop again as a barber in the room above her pie shop and the unlikely pair find a mutually convenient business arrangement as Todd finds it impossible to control his murderous urges and Lovett is in desperate need of cheap fillings for her pies…

Imelda Staunton is ideal casting for Mrs Lovett: younger readers will certainly recognise her as Dolores Umbridge but may not be aware of her outstanding musical theatre credentials which formed a major part of her earlier career, including an Olivier award winning turn as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, also by Sondheim. The comic business of the first half with her discovery of the first body and the later ‘A Little Priest’ is as good as you would dare hope it could be, but where she really excels is in the second half as she delves into the darker side of this woman. The desperation exposed by Todd’s lack of enthusiasm for her seaside dream cuts deep but then as her young charge edges ever closer to the truth of what is going on, the ugly truth rears its head with a frankly terrifying rendition of ‘Not While I’m Around’ – don’t make eye contact with her at the end of the song, it will scar you for life! And Michael Ball as the titular Demon Barber is also terrifically good, he’s undergone quite the makeover and is virtually unrecognisable, looking more like a brownshirt than anything. He captures the laconic cruelty and the glowering menace of a man shorn of his moral framework and his rich voice swoops around Sondheim’s score with consummate ease. Continue reading “Review: Sweeney Todd, Chichester Festival Theatre”

DVD Review: Les Misérables in concert

“There’s a reckoning to be reckoned”

Forming the culmination of the 25th Anniversary celebrations of Les Misérables was a pair of concert versions of the show taking place at the O2 centre in Greenwich which brought together the company of companies, over 500 actors and musicians joining forces to pay tribute to this enduing classic of a show. The cast and companies of the touring production and the West End production joined with a massive choir and orchestra and a hand-picked international cast performed the lead roles in this concert presentation which was also relayed live into cinemas and later released on DVD to be enjoyed by those who chose not to go (or couldn’t get tickets).

Concert versions of shows are always a bit funny, performers singing songs to each other but looking straight out at audiences and limited opportunity for acting so they can often feel a little constrained in their presentation. Here, the cast were in full costume and projections and clips from the show used to fill in some of the gaps that the songs could not fill. And it is all really rather good if not quite the self-proclaimed “musical event of a lifetime”. Continue reading “DVD Review: Les Misérables in concert”