Guys And Dolls – February 2017

Experience: 8/10

Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows

Based on the writing of Damon Runyon

Company: Guildford School of Acting

Directed by Samuel Wood

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: 23rd February 2017

It was lovely to attend a performance of Guys And Dolls again, and this performance by the talented students of the Guildford School of Acting was great fun and brilliantly performed. We sat front and centre (row C – to make room for the band) and enjoyed ourselves enormously, and we were not alone.

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A Chorus Line – August 2013

Experience: 8/10

Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett

Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante

Music by Marvin Hamlisch

Lyrics by Edward Kleban

Originally co-choreographed by Bob Avian

Directed by Bob Avian

Venue: London Palladium

Date: Wednesday 21st August 2013

This isn’t my favourite musical, but Steve likes it a lot so I was happy to join him on a visit to the West End to catch this production. I’m still not smitten; I recognise the originality of the style and content, and the music is better than average with some good humour and several very moving scenes, but I found it hard to fully engage with most of the characters, especially when some of them had very little time in the spotlight. Steve enjoyed it more than I did, and as it was his choice I’ve put his rating on the experience; I would have gone for 7/10.

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Barnum – July 2013

Experience: 8/10

Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, book by Mark Bramble

With revisions by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble

Directed by Timothy Sheader

Chichester Festival Theatre in association with Cameron Mackintosh

Venue: Theatre In The Park

Date: Monday 29th July 2013

When we left this performance we were as one with our rating of the experience, but not for the usual reasons. Tonight things had gone wrong, and our enjoyment had been vastly improved as a result. Not the usual effect, but then this is theatre.

To begin with, this was our first visit to the Theatre In The Park, Chichester Festival Theatre’s temporary home while the main building, itself a ‘temporary’ venue, is given a large dose of TLC. The old dear doesn’t look well at the moment with the lettering removed and the boards up, but I’m sure she’ll be back in action next year as promised, and in much better shape.

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Miss Nightingale – June 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Matthew Bugg

Directed by Peter Rowe

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 6th June 2013

This was an enjoyable musical burlesque, a bit like Funny Girl does Cabaret in WWII London. A young woman, Maggie Brown, was trying to make it as a singer while working during the day. Her composer friend George was a Jew who fled Germany before the Nazis made it impossible to get out. He was also gay and earning a bit on the side as a rent boy. One close encounter with a posh chap turned into a close encounter with a policeman, as George allowed himself to be caught to save the other man’s reputation. This good deed was returned later, when the posh chap, Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe, turned out to be the owner of a new nightclub who was looking for talent to entertain his discerning clientele. Maggie and George were a perfect fit, and once Frank got over his concern that George was trying to blackmail him, the three of them developed a mutually beneficial relationship.

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The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice – September 2012

7/10

Written and driected by Jim Cartwright

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd September 2012

This was only the fourth performance of this production, and it’s shaping up well overall. There were plenty of laughs, and a fantastic turn by Jess Robinson as Little Voice was worth the price of admission on its own. The only down side for me was that the story only allowed for this one spectacular musical section, with a few other glimpses of Little Voice’s ability, and I would have liked a lot more. Still, this modern-day Cinderella story kept me engaged well enough and assuming the performances come on as they usually do, this should have a very successful tour.

The set had a cut-away house with the sitting room and Little Voice’s bedroom on the left, stairs in the middle and kitchen with overhead rooms on the right. The decor was 1970s, appropriately enough, and the kitchen was disgustingly dirty. Little Voice’s room was hard to see from the front row, but the record player, records and bed were just visible.

Around the front of the stage was a flooring made of vinyl records, and this area served as the stage of the local working men’s club. When we took our seats, the evening had already begun (get to your seats early both halves for the raffle tickets and bingo cards) and Duggie Brown as Mr Boo was warming us all up. He did a really good job, using jokes that were older than any of us, and introducing assorted acts who were both good and bad, giving us a strong sense of the working men’s club experience. I enjoyed the combined talents of the spoons player and tap dancer, not an act I’m likely to see anywhere else, and the only female George Formby impersonator was followed by a rock guitarist. Almost forgot the raffle, won by the chap next to us – a jar of pickled gherkins!

The main story started slowly, with Little Voice’s mother Mari being more central than I’d expected. Beverley Callard did an adequate job in this role and hopefully she’ll strengthen up vocally, as we missed some of her dialogue tonight even sitting in the front row. Her portrayal of an alcoholic slag with no maternal impulses whatsoever was OK, though there were pauses in the performance which should disappear when the speed picks up. Her dancing, to an old Jackson 5 track, was very funny, and she provided a strong enough character for LV’s final outburst to work.

It seemed to take an age before we heard LV singing herself, but there was a lot to set up first; the regularly blowing fuses, the new telephone, the tender blossoming of romance between Little Voice and young Billy the telephone installer, the non-relationship between mother and daughter, the neighbour Sadie. Once Mari’s new boyfriend Ray arrived, the elements were in place for the real storyline to start. Ray was a showbusiness agent who only had a few low-grade acts but once he heard Little Voice singing he knew he’d spotted a great talent, his chance to hit the big time. His change from a seemingly decent-ish bloke to a controlling manipulative bastard was charted really well by Joe McGann, and his final song on the club stage was impressive.

Ray Quinn played Billy, the shy young man with a passion for lighting who helped Little Voice to stand up for herself and break free of her limitations. His light display was lovely, and a fitting setting for her rendition of Papa Can You Hear Me?, finally sung in her own voice. But it was Jess Robinson’s solo turn as a host of great female singers which really made the evening for me. The songs had been woven together in a very clever way so that Little Voice didn’t have to do a full number, but she didn’t just sing the songs with the characteristic voices, she impersonated the singers as well. Dressed in a sparkling silver dress, slit to the thigh, she slinked and stomped her way across the stage, belting out the numbers brilliantly all the while and giving us a fantastic experience. Her performance as the nervous young woman was also good and I hope her career takes off after this; she deserves it.

The story ended happily for Little Voice and Billy, and I frankly didn’t care about Mari and Ray. The whole play had a fantasy feel to it, enhanced by the choice of music, and we left feeling happy and uplifted. There’s more to come in the performances, but they’re off to a good start and I would be interested to see how it develops. Didn’t win the post-interval bingo, sadly, so we missed out on a can of condensed milk. Ah well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Kiss Me Kate – August 2012

9/10

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

Directed by Trevor Nunn

CFT and Old Vic co-production

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 9th August 2012

As predicted, this was a much improved performance. The whole production was much clearer, and seeing it from a central position gave us a much better view. The scene changes were quicker and the dances covered the action better, and although there were one or two very minor fluffs early on tonight the whole show went very smoothly. Because of that, and possibly because of our improved position, I could spot the deliberate errors this time. There was a running gag that one of the dancers couldn’t get her steps right, and they had several extra practice runs to help her. She fell over and knocked into the other dancers, but eventually she cracked it! And of course there are deliberate mistakes during the onstage musical when Lilli/Kate throws her tantrums, and these showed up better tonight as well.

Kate’s I Hate Men was even better than before, and all the songs and dances had come on. Bill/Lucentio was fully up to speed, and First and Second Man were much better. The dialogue was much sharper, and I caught a lot of the lines and lyrics that I’d missed first time round. It wasn’t so clear to me that the General wasn’t right for Lilli tonight – don’t know what’s changed there – but I found Lilli’s leave-taking and Fred’s reprise of So In Love very moving. We were a noisy audience tonight (including some surprising coughs) and were treated to one encore for Always True To You In My Fashion and two for Brush Up Your Shakespeare. And we applauded mightily at the end as well, with more sniffles on my part. Great fun.

Post-show:

There was lots of humour, especially from the General (Mark Heenehan). Hannah declared they were a very happy company, then Gremio ratted on her ‘voice resetting’ noises backstage. She retaliated with the way he frequently changed his lines, and it wasn’t long before the General was remarking that her earlier comment about it being a very happy company…..  Clive Rowe kept disagreeing with everyone else, and with Adam Garcia apparently dancing despite a slipped disc (an earlier performance) you might be forgiven for thinking that life backstage resembled the story of the musical. Fortunately the humour shone through, and they clearly are enjoying themselves very much. Mind you, the backstage action with all the very quick costume changes is a whole show in itself.

On the transfer to the Old Vic, the cast are looking forward to it. Most of them are going, and will get another two weeks to rehearse the changes. The choreographer hasn’t seen the Old Vic stage yet, so doesn’t know how things will change on the proscenium arch stage. At least the Festival Theatre stage gives them plenty of room for the dances. The costumes needed some changes to accommodate the dancing; apparently there was no coordination between the designer and the choreographer beforehand. The slanted set has given the cast some problems as well. There’s a mark on the stage to tell them where the centre is, but it’s hard to see and this may explain some of the difficulty we had on our first viewing.

After the general had finished wowing us with the casual mention of his chat with Kevin Spacey the other day (get her!), he was able to say that this is the first production from Chichester to transfer to the Old Vic since the days when the Old Vic was the National Theatre. (Hopefully they’ll know it by then, he added.)

Trevor Nunn’s experience with Shakespeare came in very handy; he gave the cast a day workshop on delivering Shakespearean dialogue, and apparently changed the script in some way to make it closer to the original play. He also chose to have Taming – The Musical done in Elizabethan costume, which hadn’t been done before (I’m not sure if that’s true, but that’s what was said).

It’s hard for the cast when they have several days off while Heartbreak House is on; as we learned from the Singin’ In The Rain post-show, the muscles need regular use to keep the performance standard up. Didn’t manage to ask if they’ll be doing a cast recording – I do hope so.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Kiss Me Kate – June 2012

Experience: 8/10

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

Directed by Trevor Nunn

CFT and Old Vic co-production

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 22nd June 2012

If there’s one thing that Chichester are doing really well at the moment, it’s musicals. This is another gem, and given that this was only the 4th performance and it’s likely to improve, get your tickets now because they’ll soon be sold out.

We didn’t have the best angle to watch from tonight. Our seats were right of centre, normally an excellent position, but the set was slanted across the stage to the left, so we felt we were sitting much further round to the side. God knows what the people actually sitting round that way saw! The set was fabulous all the same. It combined the backstage area, the stage itself and a small area outside the stage door, all in the one set. The proscenium arch was placed across the stage facing diagonally left. For the scenes on stage there was a backdrop with a small exit on the right hand side, while cloth drapes, boxes and chairs completed the onstage set. At right angles to the proscenium arch were a couple of boxes, fortunately not blocking anyone’s view on that side. For backstage scenes, the backdrop was raised and we could see the open area with brickwork and doors, or the dressing rooms would be turned round so we could see those scenes. On the far right were the stage door and a small strip of stage down to the stairs which served as the outside world. Lighting changes emphasised one area or the other, and with dancing and one or two songs covering the scene changes, they kept some momentum going. Even so, the changes were a bit clunky, but they’ll improve for practice.

To set up a location in the musical-within-a-musical, they brought on, amongst other things, a box which they placed in the middle of the stage. A spotlight picked it out – this didn’t always happen tonight, but I assume it was intended – a white-gloved hand would open the box with a flourish, and then take out a strand of cloth to start the process. Others would come in to help attach the corners of the cloth set, and then it would be lifted up to give a wall and door (Petruchio’s place), an overhanging cloth (Padua) and a lovely cloth tree, with the patterns of leaves printed on the cloth as well as scalloped strips of cloth arranged all round it. They will find it easier in time, but tonight these sections were a bit too messy and held the energy back a little.

The costumes were lovely, and in period for the 1948 sections. The Elizabethan look was cunningly woven into the m-w-a-m costumes, though they wouldn’t pass muster at the Globe. The band was above and behind, as usual, and the set completely obscured them this time, but they were a strong presence, naturally. The dancing was fine – the opening number of the second half was about fifteen minutes long! – but the singing and dialogue need to be clearer; I lost a lot of Cole Porter’s witty lyrics, but again this will come on in time.

There isn’t an overture for this show, at least not in the usual style. The chorus sings the opening number, Another Op’nin’, Another Show, adding snippets of later songs, and taking practice runs at the choreography. It was a lively start, and the following scene, with Fred Graham giving some pre-opening notes and taking them through their bows, was good fun. The pre-show scenes continued to fill in the relationships. Lois and Bill (Bianca and Lucentio) are an item, but he gambles (and she’s susceptible to expensive presents, as we discovered later – not that it came as a surprise). Fred and Lilli are always sniping at each other, but she loves him deeply, despite having an ongoing relationship with a mystery man. When she was brought some flowers which were clearly a gift from Fred, as they were the same as the flowers she had in her wedding bouquet, she softened towards him; unfortunately he had intended the flowers for Lois, and although he tried to get back the note he had written for them, Lilli slipped it down her bodice as a good luck token, planning to read it later.

The first m-w-a-m scene, We Opened In Venice, involved the cast moving a load of boxes around the stage on a trolley (I assume). It was messy and lacked sparkle, but didn’t become too boring. Then they did the first set-in-a-box process, and it worked OK. Allowing for massive changes to the original, we then saw some of the opening scenes, with Baptista, Gremio, Hortensio, Lucentio, Bianca and Kate going through a sizeable chunk of Act 1 scene 1 (no Grumio or Tranio in this version), and with Lucentio making himself known to Baptista as a suitor for Bianca.

Bianca then made her feelings clear about her various suitors, and seemed to be happy to marry anyone, anyone at all, in Tom, Dick Or Harry, although there was a definite emphasis on ‘Dick’. At one point a suitor, Gremio I think, tore some cloth off Bianca’s skirt, leaving her with a leg-revealing gap. It looked odd, though presumably it would be easier to dance in, and it’s not unknown for musicals to show off the eye candy to best advantage. Fortunately that extended to the tight tights worn by the fit young men who leapt about the stage, definitely a treat for us ladies.

Petruchio arrived as the suitors were arguing about Lucentio, and broke up their quarrel. He was Lucentio’s friend this time, which meant poor Hortensio had very little to do. He sang I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua well enough, but the staging hasn’t stuck in my mind. I forget the exact order of events now, but Petruchio was introduced to Baptista, they left to have a drink, and at some point Kate and Bianca did a brief version of their argument, with Baptista breaking it up very quickly – this may have happened earlier.

With Kate left alone on stage, she used the table, chairs and drinking cups left behind as ammunition for I Hate Men. As Baptista and Petruchio came back on stage for the preamble to the wooing scene, Lilli went off stage, happily opening the note she had kept down her dress. This was where things started to go so very wrong. Having promised never to call Fred a bastard again, Lilli broke that promise a few moments later; we heard her from backstage. Baptista and Petruchio both looked alarmed, and then Kate came back out for the wooing scene, loaded for bear. She didn’t hold back on the pretend slaps, and with the scene being played almost in full, there were plenty of opportunities for her to inflict damage on the ‘bastard’. Finally he’d had enough, and after threatening her with a spanking, he actually carried it out, right there on the stage. The next song, Kiss Me, Kate, had her refusing to do any such thing, and so to the interval.

The second half started with Too Darned Hot, a number that didn’t advance the story but certainly got the energy up again after the break. Paul, Fred’s dresser, was the lead singer and dancer, and he did a splendid job, while the dancing was not only good, it went on for a long while. Hattie, Lilli’s dresser, also added some humour. She was sitting by the front of the stage, sewing something, and when Paul tried to get close to her, she made  several pointed comments, such as “you see this needle”, which did the trick  and kept him away. She also joined in the dance, briefly; singing was her forte.

With Lilli/Kate nursing a sore behind, the next scene was at Petruchio’s house. He nicked the cushion that someone brought on for her, took away what little food she managed to get her hands on – Lilli had been asking for a sandwich since before the show – and had a cloth door slammed in his face when Kate stormed off into their bedroom. His song, Where Is The Life That Late I Led?, was good fun, although I didn’t catch all the lines, and he used the full width of the stage to get us all involved.

Lilli’s mystery man, General Harrison Howell, arrived to take Lilli away – I’ll get to that part later – and after expressing his chauvinistic attitudes to Fred, he was recognised by Lois. She had featured strongly in the General’s R&R during the war, although she didn’t remember much of the ‘rest’ part. With Bill overhearing some of her conversation with General she had to explain herself to him, hence the number Always True To You In My Fashion, which they did very well.

Lilli’s attempt to leave the theatre had been scotched earlier, and since Fred had persuaded the General that Lilli’s request was just a whim, Howell wasn’t too supportive of her as they talked in her dressing room. He wouldn’t call the FBI, he wouldn’t let her eat after 21:00 hours, and fancy French hats would clearly be a thing of the past for the wife of the next Vice president of the United States of America! (No chance of that – he’d picked Dewey.) Despite this, they sang a sickeningly smoochy version of From This Moment On, a song inserted in the 1999 Broadway revival.

While Lilli dressed to leave, the rest of the cast entertained us with Lucentio’s love poem to his adored, Bianca. It has gloriously rubbish lyrics, but the tap dancing and singing were good, and as tap is my favourite I enjoyed this number the most. Lilli left via the stage door, and with Howell being so precise and demanding I was aware that this was a completely unsuitable match for her. Fred went back in for the end of the show, and then came the bit we’d all been waiting for.

To go back a little: Bill’s gambling was not successful, and he’d signed an IOU for $10,000 using Fred’s’ name. The gentleman holding the IOU, Mr Hogan, sent round two of his employees, known to us as First Man and Second Man, to collect on the debt. At first Fred denied all knowledge of the debt, claiming it wasn’t even his signature – they all say that – but when Lilli was planning to leave, he saw an opportunity. While acknowledging the IOU, he explained that he couldn’t pay it back till the end of the week, and with Lilli leaving, the show would fold immediately. The two gentlemen, well read in matters Shakespearean, were unhappy about Lilli’s career choice, and made their displeasure known by means of waving their guns around. Until her General arrived, there was nothing Lilli could do but soldier on, with two preposterously dressed minders watching her every move. Their spats didn’t really go with the Elizabethan style of their tabards, and First Man’s sunglasses simply had to be removed.

During the second half, these two men were checking in with Mr Hogan when they learned of a change of management. Mr Hogan’s debts of honour died with the man, so Fred was in the clear and the two men could leave, after changing out of their costumes of course. As they made their way out of the theatre, they found themselves in front of the curtain, facing the audience. Unsure of what to do, they whispered for a bit then launched into the impromptu (but wasn’t it lucky the band had the music ready) Brush Up Your Shakespeare. It went pretty well, though again it should improve with some more performances.

That done, and despite Fred telling someone to get Lilli’s understudy ready to play Kate, there was an empty seat for the final scene. The tree had been set up well enough – they are fiddly, those cloth sets – and the cast had an air of dejection, while Fred was deeply unhappy. With no Kate to supply her lines, and no widow for Hortensio (poor man), Bianca left the stage on her own and the men fell to arguing about the relative merits of the two wives. Lucentio sent for Bianca by one of the women who were in attendance; she didn’t turn up, natch. After Petruchio sent for Kate, there was a long pause, after which Bianca crept back on at the side of the stage and shook her head. Fred sat on a chair, head in hands, and the rest of the cast didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. Then Kate came on from the back, in full costume, and walked to the front of the stage, with the rest of the cast reacting to her arrival. When she spoke her line “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?”, Petruchio leapt to his feet (pause while I blow my nose, sniffle, sniffle) and was overjoyed to see her. It felt absolutely right that she’d come back, and her song I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple was more a declaration of love for him than an expression of the sentiments in the lyrics. They finished with a rousing version of Kiss Me, Kate, and this time they did kiss, long and hard.

This was great fun, and despite the rough patches it looks set to be a winner. The cast are all excellent. Hannah Waddingham (Lilli/Kate) has an amazingly powerful voice, even allowing for the mike. She has the looks and the figure to be a 1950s star, and can also do the comedy and the anger. Alex Bourne matched her very well as Fred/Petruchio, with enough charm to offset both of his characters’ arrogance (just) and a strong voice. Holly Dale Spencer’s Lois/Bianca combo was very good, although it took me a while to get used to her facial expressions when she was dancing. She showed Lois’s chorus line background by always standing with one leg in front of the other, foot resting on the toes, and she sang and danced really well. Adam Garcia was another good match as Bill/Lucentio, although I felt his part wasn’t as clearly defined as the other three. Still, he sings and dances well, and isn’t hard to look at. David Burt and Clive Rowe made a good start as the two gangsters, and there’s more to come there too, while Wendy Mae Brown (Hattie) and Jason Pennycooke (Paul) gave excellent cameos in their small but entertaining parts, probably the best defined characters at this time.

Of the rest I particularly liked Paul Grunert who played Baptista; his looks of concern when things started to go wrong added to the fun, along with his attempts to get things back on track by repeating his lines. [From the post-show on 9thAug he has trouble remembering the exact lines anyway…]  The whole ensemble looked good, though, and with practice this show should come on tremendously. We’ve already booked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me