Singin’ In The Rain – September 2011

10/10

Screenplay and adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Directed by: Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th September 2011

I found I was humming some of the music from this show during the day, which is a good sign. I reckon Gene Kelly had put me off this musical – I just don’t like the guy, sorry – but now I’ve seen it on stage, I’ve really taken to it. I was certainly looking forward to another splash fest tonight, and as it turned out, the show had come on so much that I can only reflect my experience by giving it full marks. I’ve added in some corrections to my earlier notes, so here I’ll concentrate on some extra details and any changes I noticed.

Some things that were in the earlier performance, but which I forgot to mention last time include the two young boys who act out Don and Cosmo’s early days, the gorilla and Robin Hood walking across the sound stage just before Make ‘Em Laugh then joining in the song later, and the way that Cosmo gets the idea to use Kathy’s voice instead of Lina’s was from the ‘Yes, yes, yes. No, no, no’ section of The Duelling Cavalier, where the sound had gone out of sync, giving the man Lina’s voice and Lina his. This section came after Good Morning, when the three leads are lying on the ground in front of the bench; they come up with the idea for the musical, sing the song, then realise they have to contend with the problem of Lina’s complete lack of vocal talent.

The technical side of things had also improved, as the water tank didn’t overfill before the first Singin’ In The Rain this time – no seepage – and I reckon there was less water in the basin than before. Adam Cooper focused much more in the dancing tonight which was great, although that didn’t stop him spreading the water far and wide in the process. One minor hiccup – the wind machine in You Were Made For Me didn’t work tonight, so the mist threatened to become a fog, blocking our view. I suspect they turned it off pronto because it soon cleared.

The biggest change overall was that the cast had grown into their performances tremendously. It was much tighter, the storyline was much clearer, and all the singing and dancing was just as fabulous as before. With a post-show discussion to follow, the audience was packed with many of the keenest Chichester Festival Theatre supporters, so we were a very friendly crowd and responded warmly throughout, applauding at the end of many of the scenes. I was particularly glad that we applauded Katherine Kingsley’s performance as Lina several times. It’s such an important part, and she did it magnificently, even better than the first time we saw it, which was only the second preview. Her singing of What’s Wrong With Me was clearer, and still dreadful without being so hard to listen to. The rest of the cast were brilliant too, and I only hope they can keep most of them together for any London run.

I loved every minute of tonight’s performance, and there was more! The post-show was held towards the back of the auditorium this time, as the crew needed to clean up the stage. In fact, they managed all that before we got started, but as we were settled they didn’t try to move us again. The choreographer Andrew Wright, the musical director Robert Scott and assistant director Luke Shepphard were on hand to get things started, and several of the cast joined us as well, once they’d dried off. They talked us through the original intensive creation period, and some of the problems they’d had with the flooring. It had to be able to handle all that water yet be suitable for dancing – a lot to ask – and they still don’t have an ideal solution. The control bits for the radio mikes were wrapped in plastic bags, apparently, and for the title song Don’s hat successfully keeps the mike dry.

We were surprised that Robert Scott hadn’t seen the film – everyone else had – but he does keep the music on his iPod, and listens to it constantly when he’s preparing a show. They’re hoping to transfer to London – no one would be specific about the venue – and there may be a cast recording – hooray! The cast’s stamina was commented on; they’ve got fitter with all the performances they do, but having the show in rep actually makes it more difficult for them, as they have to keep their stamina levels up during the off days. They seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot on stage, and they claimed to be a happy bunch of bunnies, with lots going on backstage to keep them entertained. Even the foyer area saw some action, with the final quick change being an eye-opener for any audience members who left early! On that revealing note, the post-show ended.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Singin’ In The Rain – July 2011

8/10

Screenplay and adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed

Directed by: Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th July 2011

[with some corrections from seeing it again on 8/9/11]

This is a fantastic production, so good that it’s hard to believe that Singin’ In The Rain wasn’t a stage musical from the off. The set was great, the performances brilliant, and the staging had some lovely touches of the film about it without being a slavish reproduction. I don’t think I’ve seen the main house so packed for a long time, and despite the inevitable soaking for the front rows (we were in Row C and not out of range!) it was great fun. I’m not a huge fan of musicals per se, so I wouldn’t give it top marks, but I can understand why the musical aficianados were standing and cheering at the end. A great night out.

The set was both elaborate and simple. At the back of the stage there was a central proscenium arch frame with lots of lighting built in. This could act as the arch of a theatre or a general doorway, and there were sliding door panels or a curtain which changed the location instantly and effectively. Above this was the orchestra, largely obscured by the set but just visible through the gaps. Around the archway and to the sides were general building sections, which could look like a townscape or a film studio according to how the stage was dressed, and to the extreme sides, above the side seating, there were cut outs of hills, and on the left hand side the Hollywoodland sign. Other signs lit up on either side from time to time, but these were mostly out of my eye line, and I wasn’t aware of them so much.

Then there was the floor of the stage to consider. A raised pavement ran all the way round the outside of the stage, and this represented the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside the Grauman theatres, Chinese and Egyptian, both of which feature in the musical. The handprints I saw included Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood, the fictional stars of the musical, and also Charlie Chaplin (cameo appearance), Douglas Fairbanks (whose films provided research material for the creative team), and Tom somebody and his horse (one hand print, one hoof print) [8/9/11 – Tom Mix and Tony, the Wonder Horse]. But you had to go right up to the stage to see them. There were also light panels built in which were used during the initial Singin’ In The Rain sequence.

Inside this raised pavement was a boarded section which contained the water during the rainstorms. Just before each downpour, you could see water starting to seep up from underneath, and we realised that the tank below had to be full during the rainstorm or the water would all drain away instead of bouncing off the floor. This led to Cosmo Brown getting the back of his waistcoat wet when he lay on the ground shortly before the big number. The cleanup operation during the interval was pretty slick, and you’d hardly have known there had been so much water everywhere when they’d finished.

In fact, the whole production was very slick when it came to getting people and furniture on and off the stage for each scene. I found I rarely noticed the arrival and departure of even quite big pieces of furniture, such as desks and lampposts, and although it took a little longer setting up the filming set, that worked well as it would need to be set up anyway in the context of that scene.

One final thing to mention was the lovely airplane which flew across the auditorium at the start, trailing the banner advertising the new Lockwood and Lamont movie whose premier opens the piece. This was very cute, and also great fun. The costumes were all suitably glamorous, and fitted perfectly, both in terms of the cast and the time and place.

The overture had been choreographed, with the dancers showing us a film studio at work, which was a good start. Then we were into the real opening sequence, with Dora Bailey, swathed in a voluminous fur coat which must be hell in the heat [8/9/11 the coat only had a fur collar – not so bad], introducing the characters to us as they walked down the red carpet to the premier of The Royal Rascal. It was clear immediately that Lina Lamont was being kept well away from the microphone, and this helped to built up suspense for the first time we hear her speak. The first number, Fit As A Fiddle, was OK, and then we got a chance to see the two stars in action. The filmed bit of The Royal Rascal was wonderfully funny, and they got the style just right.

After the showing, the principals head off to the studio boss’s party. Lina’s first grating lines were delivered really well, or really badly if you prefer, and she’s clearly not the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer either. She actually believes the studio’s publicity that she and Don are an item, and can’t grasp that he’s not keen on her at all.

With Don choosing to walk instead of taking the car, we move into Hollywood Boulevard, and his first meeting with Kathy Selden. They played this very well, with her being dismissive of his fame and talent while showing glimpses of being a fan, and him being smoothly arrogant and humble at the same time. We also get our first sight of the policeman at this point. The musical number, You Stepped Out Of A Dream, was pleasant enough, if a little bland, but then Don gets mobbed by the chorus of passers-by and escapes with a few tears to his jacket.

When Don finally turns up to the party, R F Simpson, the studio boss, presents him with a big surprise – a tower of champagne. Actually, it’s a dummy tower, which opens up to reveal a dancer, who’s then joined by a whole troupe to perform All I Do, which they did very well. The only thing is, the lead dancer is none other than Kathy Selden who was so snobby to Don earlier, claiming she was a ‘proper’ stage actress. This was a brilliant performance by Scarlett Strallen, as she not only danced and sang really well, but also included expressions of total embarrassment and outright anger amongst the dazzling smiles the piece required. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Nor could Don, of course, and he grabbed her at the end of the number to stop her disappearing. When Lina walks in on their conversation a short while later, she’s just in time to get the perfect pie in the face from Kathy, who intended it for Don, but he ducked just in time. Lina’s attempt at a dignified exit was ruined by her foul-mouthed exit line, finishing with the word ‘ass’. [8/9/11 ‘Dignity my ass’]Very funny.

Kathy runs off, naturally, and when we next see Don it’s a couple of days later at the studio [8/9/11 three weeks, actually]. He’s unhappy. He hasn’t been able to find Kathy anywhere, and Lina made sure she was fired from her job. To top it all off, Don took her criticism to heart, and he’s convinced he’s no good as an actor. Asking Cosmo for advice is a great lead into the wonderful Make ‘Em Laugh. It’s hard for anyone to follow the film version of this song, but Daniel Crossley did a pretty good job. He’s an excellent dancer, with good comic timing, but he has to perform this show time after time and can’t be hospitalizing himself after each performance, so inevitably it’s lower key than the film. Even so, they did a good job with the various ‘accidents’, and their homage to the wall sequence at the end was just brilliant. Two stage hands brought on a section of wall and held it mid-stage. Twice Cosmo ran towards it as if….. and then backed off. For the final attempt, at the very end, he completed the run up and then carried right on through the flimsy paper wall. It was a great way to end the song without doing too much damage.

The next scene shows us the filming of the next Lockwood and Lamont blockbuster, The Duelling Cavalier. A strip of grass, a bench, some flowers, and voila, we’re back in 18th century France. Such is the magic of film (and stage). The magic doesn’t extend to the dialogue though, as this is still a silent movie, so Don and Lina can indulge their bitchiness to their heart’s content while pretending to be rapturously in love with each other.

It’s a very funny scene, but things are changing in Hollywoodland. [8/9/11 During the post-premier party,] R F Simpson showed his people the shape of things to come with a short movie which actually includes spoken words! They mostly tied up with the presenter’s lips, but there was a bit of ‘drift’ which was funny, and reminded us of how things were in the very early days. There are lots of people who think the new technology is just a fad and for now, The Duelling Cavalier stays silent. But R F does start using the new technology, as the next scene shows.

Monumental Pictures is shooting a scene reminiscent of Flying Down To Rio, with lovely ladies perched on the wings of a plane, singing and dancing along with the pilot to the song Beautiful Girls. There’s lots of pink, soft mist (it smelled dreadful tonight), and plenty of dancing. It’s a lovely scene, with Kathy Selden well to the fore. Her talent has been spotted, and when R F turns up he’s asked to hear her sing, which leads us into You Are My Lucky Star. He likes her, and despite the pie-throwing incident, hires her on the spot, as long as she stays out of Lina’s way. Don had turned up during her audition, and now they get together for the love duet You Were Meant For Me; I think this is where Kathy is up a ladder for the first part with Don using the sound stage to create a romantic effect as he sings to her. Then they dance for a bit – it wasn’t the most memorable scene for me.

It turns out The Jazz Singer is a hit, and now R F decides to change to talkies, so his stars have to take elocution lessons to ensure they can deliver the lines correctly. Don is working with a diction coach when Cosmo turns up and starts turning the tongue-twisters into song – Moses Supposes. The dancing was really good here, with David Lucas, who’d played the pilot earlier, matching the other two throughout.

We also see (and hear!) Lina’s attempts to say her lines in a more refined accent – no luck, I’m afraid. So when the actual filming gets underway, it’s probably a blessing when things go wrong. This was a very funny section, and Katherine Kingsley’s performance as Lina was brilliant. To reproduce the effect of the sound cutting out when she moved her head away from the microphone, she had to deliver parts of her dialogue out loud and then mime the rest, and she did this to perfection. There were several takes, and the problems were many and varied. The microphone had to be moved several times, her heartbeat came through loud and clear – nice to know she has one – and finally R F himself trips over the microphone cable and yanks it out, complaining that it’s in the way!

When the sneak preview is underway, we see the stars watching from chairs in the middle of the stage, facing forward so we can see their reactions, and there are other audience members to one side. The film itself is shown on the screen behind them, and it’s as dire as we would expect from the filming that we’ve seen. The public start walking out before the end, making their views known, and apart from Lina, everyone knows it’s a big fat turkey. Lina has been chomping away on her popcorn, happy as a lark at her magnificent performance, but once she’s gone, Cosmo, Kathy and Don have a wander along the Boulevard, wondering what they can do to make the film work.

I forget what triggered it, but Cosmo is the one who comes up with the idea to use Kathy’s voice to replace Lina’s. He demonstrates this by having Kathy stand behind him talking or singing while he mimes, and when Don catches on, they soon have the plan in place – they’ll redo the film as a musical, and with Kathy dubbing Lina’s voice they stand a chance of producing a halfway decent movie. This takes us into the well known song Good Morning, which they staged really well, finishing up with a nod to the film version when they clamber over the bench and lie down on the other side. This leads Don and Kathy to get close again, and when Cosmo realises he’s a third wheel on their bicycle he slopes off, leaving Don to walk Kathy home. The storm clouds are gathering, however, and the water is already seeping up through the floor, so once Kathy’s gone, we can start to enjoy one of the most famous scenes in musical history.

This was so well done that I found I could almost forget the Morecambe and Wise version. When the rain came down, it came down heavy, and in no time at all there’s quite a lake in the middle of the stage. Apart from the occasional person running across the stage to get out of the rain, and the policeman, of course, Don has the stage to himself, and he splashes away to his heart’s content, soaking many in the front rows on the way. I didn’t mind the water myself – well, we weren’t in the front row, so we were hardly touched – but if I have one quibble it’s that Adam Cooper spent so much time splashing the audience that we didn’t get to enjoy as much of his dancing talent as I would have liked. This is an opportunity for the leading man to show off his skills, and it would have been nice to have had more of that, but he was so focused on wetting us that I felt the scene became all about that instead of the dancing. Mind you, it was good fun, so it’s a fairly minor complaint. There was nice touch at the end with Don putting his hat full of water on the policeman’s head and then realising what he’d done – oops!

With the place dripping wet, the interval had to be taken after this number – no surprise there – and then the restart quickly takes us into R F’s office where Cosmo finally persuades him to try their plan to rescue the movie from turkeydom. We see Kathy dubbing Lina’s part for both song and speech, and then there’s a scene in Lina’s dressing room, where we see her being told about Kathy’s presence on set and then hear her croak her way through What’s Wrong With Me?, which concludes with her determined ‘nothing’. So much for Lina’s softer side.

As they’r reworking the film, RF decides he wants a big dance number in the show. After some thought, Cosmo comes up with the idea of merging 18th century France with modern-day New York, via a dancing hopeful who gets hit on the head and wakes up as a French aristocrat – entirely plausible! As he starts to demonstrate his idea to R F, Don steps into Cosmo’s place, and then he and the company perform the Broadway Melody section, including an extended dance section featuring Ebony Molina. This was well done, and I do like this style of dance. At the end of this, Cosmo steps back into Don’s place, and R F gives the go-ahead.

With the film remade, the premier gets a wonderful reception, and Lina is determined to claim the limelight. She insists that Kathy will do her voice from now on instead of having a career of her own, which threatens to ruin everything, but Cosmo has a sneaky plan. With Lina out front unable to carry a tune, the audience are starting to get restless, but then Kathy’s singing kicks in and all is well. Then Cosmo raises the curtain behind Lina so that the audience can see who’s really doing it, and the fraud is exposed. Happiness all round, except for Lina, of course. There’s a rousing chorus of You Are My Lucky Star, and then the cast come through in small groups to take their bows, rushing off immediately afterwards. The water has started seeping again, so we know we’re in for another soaking.

Sure enough, the cast return wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, and proceed to dance their way through a reprise of Singin’ In The Rain. With the stage so full, the water travels much further – are they trying to set a record for how far back the water goes? Finally they’re done and take their final bows, and we can head out into the dry night, humming happily to ourselves.

The whole production was great, and the cast looked like they were having a good time too, even with the soaking they all get. Sandra Dickinson and Michael Brandon as Dora Bailey and R F Simpson respectively were good in their roles, and the dancing and singing were top class. We’ve booked to see this again in September, and I’m looking forward to it, even if we are in Row C again!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Fiddler On The Roof – July 2011

9/10

By: Joseph Stein,  Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock

Directed by: Kenn Oldfield

Musical direction by: Martin Waddington

Company: Guildford School of Acting Graduate Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 15th July 2011

This was a three-hanky production, and very enjoyable with it. I started sniffling during Tevye’s first monologue, and then I was wiping my eyes loads of times. The graduates from the Guildford School of Acting were superb, and I do hope they go on to have good careers; they certainly have a lot of talent.

The set was the regular one, with lots of wooden slatted buildings, a milk cart and the marvellous sewing machine. The choreography also seemed traditional, appropriately enough. The cast involved us in the story right from the beginning, and although it was obvious that a number of them were much younger than the parts they played, I wasn’t put off at all by the false beards. Of course the music is fantastic, which helps, and the small band also did an excellent job, which made the evening just about perfect.

There was plenty of humour, although I do find myself wondering with this musical whether I should really be laughing at some of the jokes, especially between Tevye and the Constable, but the spirit of the piece and the resilience of the characters are just too infectious. Despite their suffering, I always feel uplifted at the end of Fiddler. Long may it be performed.

People to single out – Jacob Baumila as Tevye did a very good job. I was just a little distracted at first because he looked so much like someone I know, but his singing was excellent, and he delivered the lines very well. Natalie Lipin played Golde, his wife, and she was very good, though it took me a little while to spot that she was the mother as she looked a bit too young to begin with. The daughters, Tzeitel (Alia Grace), Hodel (Alys Metcalf) and Chava (Charlotte Mason-Apps) were all good. Alia Grace had more acting to do, and was very good at that, Alys Metcalf was a very good singer as well as actor, while Charlotte Mason-Apps danced as well as sang and acted – she should go far. Of the rest, I particularly liked Ben Riddle as the rabbi, ever ready to say absolutely nothing, Joe McCourt as the student, Pieter de Groot as the young Russian soldier who falls in love with Chava, and Louise Olley as the matchmaker. They were a great ensemble, and it was a very strong production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

She Loves Me – June 2011

6/10

Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Directed by: Stephen Mear

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th June 2011

This was an excellent production of an above average musical. As we’re not great fans of musicals, I haven’t rated it that highly, but I don’t want to imply any lack of professionalism or talent on the part of the performers – they were all top-notch, and managed some amazing dance routines on a very cramped stage. The singing was excellent too, and other audience members were clearly enjoying themselves enormously; at the post show, several had seen the show at least once before.

The story is the familiar one of two people who think they don’t like each other gradually realising they’re in love and getting together. It’s done via letter-writing through a dating service, so although they work together every day, they don’t know who they’re writing to until an arranged meeting which leaves one of them still in the dark. Around all this is wrapped the story of a shop which sells all sorts of potions and creams to beautify women, and the characters who staff this shop. There’s some good songs, including one which uses Ravel’s Bolero as part of the tune, and a fair bit of comedy, although I found I didn’t laugh as much as the person behind me, who clearly loved the show.

Set: circular tiled pattern on floor, echoed by circular curved wheel structure above with globe lamps. The backdrop of a street perspective is screened by another curve, this time windows with a central door. The windows also have elaborate curved patterns on them, with bird images and coloured bottles on shelves creating a stained glass effect. The words above the shop door were “Maraczek, Parfumier”. The shop front was on a revolve, and there was another counter-revolve outside that, so the location could be changed pretty quickly, but from the post-show I gathered the cast needed a lot of practice to be able to walk on them. Most of the action takes place inside the shop, but we also visit a hospital room and Amalia Balash’s flat. The band was split between left and right balconies. The setting is an American version of a European city in the 1930s. The accents used were mostly American, as this fitted better with the dialogue, although the names were middle European and the prices shown were good old LSD! Such is the magic of theatre that we didn’t particularly mind.

I particularly liked Annette McLaughlin as Ilona Ritter, the good-time girl shop assistant who finds one man who’s disgracefully unfaithful and another who’s more the marrying kind, and Steve Elias as Ladislav Sipos, the only married shop assistant who has some of the best lines. His comment about the anonymous letter – next time, I’ll name names! – was really funny. But there were many good performances, though sadly, no more chances to see them as no transfer has been arranged. Shame. This was a good start to the season at the Minerva though, so if the rest are up to this standard we’re in for an excellent summer.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Matilda – December 2010

5/10

By: Book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Directed by: Matthew Warchus

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 13th December 2010

Not our cup of tea, but it was an excellent production, with very good to excellent performances. I preferred the adult bits – I found it hard to make out what the children were singing or saying most of the time, so I tended to lose interest when they were on. I didn’t know the story, and I’m not a fan of Roald Dahl’s work anyway, but I was glad to see so many others enjoying themselves. A lot of youngsters stood up at the end to applaud, which was great for the cast.

I also liked the fact that real children were cast in this production. It’s usually adults playing young, which is also fun, but I think this allowed the kids in the audience to feel more involved. I was surprised to see the way the young actors (and some of the older ones) were allowed to throw themselves onto the swings and float out over the audience. Where was health and safety when this was being set up? Not that I disapprove – it made it much more alive and exciting –  but in previous productions the actors have been padlocked to anything that might lift their feet off the ground by even a few inches! As I say, I was surprised to see them get away with all this risk taking – long may it continue.

The set was good, with its constant emphasis on books, books, and books. All sorts of contraptions were brought on and off without disturbing the flow, which helped a lot. The costumes were just perfect, although Rudolfo’s was perhaps less revealing than I (and I suspect many others) would have liked.

The performances of the real youngsters were very good. I particularly liked Lavender – she had good comic timing – and hope she has a long career ahead of her.  Matilda tonight was Kerry Ingram, and she was fine, though the problem with real children on stage is that they lack the range of expressions to convey emotions clearly. I managed to fill in the blanks well enough, though.

Bertie Carvel is one of our favourites, and it’s fair to say we haven’t seen him play the same character twice. Miss Trunchbull was certainly a mile away from anything we’ve ever seen him in before, although we know he does both musicals and comedy very well. His physical comedy was superb, and although Dahl’s style of villains isn’t to my taste, Bertie played this one to perfection. I even heard one woman say to her child as she left for the interval, “OK, then, man or woman?”. I think we know who she was talking about!

Mrs Wormwood was very good, and her song, Shout, was a great example of the barbed wit that was aimed more at the older audience members. Style over substance was her mantra, and don’t we just know all about that today! The contrast between the way the children were treated by their doting parents (little angels) and the way the outside world was going to lay into them (maggots) was spot on, as was the way the parents fussed over their little darlings, leading the teacher to smoke a fag on the steps by us, making faces at the things the parents said. Mrs Warchus (hire one, get the second half price?) was also a very beguiling Miss Honey, the nice one, and her voice worked beautifully with this music.

Overall, it wasn’t something I’d choose to see again, but it’s the last production we’re guaranteed to see in the Courtyard, and it wasn’t too much of an ordeal.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

42nd Street – June 2010

9/10

Music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin, book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble

Directed by Paul Kerryson

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 28th June 2010

This was great fun. We may well have seen this before, and if so, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it. This was an excellent production, full of excellent performances, with a great set and costumes. The story is a bit of flim-flam, but with fantastic songs and great dancing, mostly my favourite tap as well, who cares?

The set did a star turn on its own. The back of the stage had a large art deco frame, with six moving panels making a sliding wall, which opened at the start to reveal the band – sorry, orchestra – snuggled into the space behind, giving the overture plenty of welly. At other times, the panels rotated to show a shiny side, giving a mirror effect which showed us ourselves. And a fine bunch we were too. We laughed out loud at many of the jokes, clapped long and hard at every opportunity, and many of us stayed behind for extra homework, or in this case, the post-show discussion.

Apart from the dancing panels, the stage was relatively free of clutter – great for dancing. The rehearsal piano lurked back left, there was the odd table or chair brought on, and they also used the central area with the swivelling trapdoors to bring up special sets, such as the dressing room and the bed for the dramatic shooting incident in the dance section. The rear panels were also used as a screen, where newspaper headlines about the Great Depression were shown during the opening to We’re In The Money, just in case the younger members of the audience didn’t know what was going on in the 1930s. Incidentally, I felt this version of We’re In The Money was a bit weak – it may come on for more practice, and one of the woman dancer’s coin hat fell off during the dance, which gave the impression that there’s a bit of work needed. (See also the post-show point below)

So we sat there, enjoyed the songs, loved the dancing, and laughed at the humour. What more could we ask for?

The post-show was enjoyable enough, but didn’t reveal much that was new. I did learn that the stage surface will need to be reworked, as the dancers kept slipping on it tonight. They have to paint it with something to make it right for tap dancing, apparently.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Oklahoma! – June 2009

5/10

By Rodgers and Hammerstein

Directed by John Doyle

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 22nd June 2009

Musicals aren’t Steve’s and my favourite type of entertainment, and while this performance was enjoyable it didn’t change our minds on the genre as a whole, although we would be happy to see another production of Oklahoma! in the future. The set was as minimalist as one could possibly get; just two grimy sheets slung across the stage at angles to suggest a wide open sky and a floorboard mound to suggest a field of wheat and the like. The director is well known for his economic use of resources in the Watermill Theatre (we hope to attend that one soon) and old habits evidently die hard.

The staging was similarly pretty sparse, and from reviews I’ve read the costumes were positively niggardly, with only one outfit per cast member (Ado Annie excepted, if I remember right). I thought the singing was great, and I especially loved Ado Annie (Natalie Cassidy) and her various partners in dialogue or song. Natalie Cassidy has such an expressive face, and she brought out the character and the humour really well.

From the post-show discussion, it was clear that the director had decided to bring out the darker side of this piece, and while that can make for an interesting evening it isn’t always appropriate. With this musical, I think the darker side is so under-written that it seems silly to emphasise it so much instead of giving the punters a rollicking good evening’s entertainment, but that’s just me. At least Steve and I had nothing to compare the production with, unlike many in the audience who could remember the original West End production, never mind the one at the National several years ago. Generally speaking, those who’d seen a more upbeat, lavish production found this one dismal and disappointing, while those of us who came to it relatively fresh (we had at least seen bits of the movie) found it more enjoyable.

On the whole, I felt the characters were pretty uninteresting, apart from Ado Annie and Ali Hakim (Michael Matus) the Persian pedlar who occasionally took off his makeup and spoke in a regular American accent. I felt he was worth more attention, compared to the bog standard Oklahomans. Aunt Eller in particular seemed to be on stage a lot but spoke and did very little, despite being a main character apparently. Ah well, better luck next year.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Piaf – September 2008

5/10

By Pam Gems

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Wednesday 3rd September 2008

The set was very simple, as often happens at the Donmar. An elaborately carved rectangular stone arch framed the very back of the stage, while the back wall looked like it belonged in one of those underground tunnels that Don Wildman is always investigating on Cities of the Underworld. It was dark, with an unfinished texture, and just the word ‘Piaf’ in faint lettering running down the lower right hand side. The floor had cobbles and rough concrete to match.

We were in the back row again(!) – must book earlier next time – so we were actually feet away from the action, instead of inches! Never mind, this didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the play. What did spoil it a bit was the way a perfectly good bio-drama, with songs (she was famous for her singing after all) had been edited down to a Greatest Hits compilation, with a few bits of dialogue tying it together. [And I read in the play text that it was the author herself who did this!]

To be fair, the performance of Elena Roger as Piaf was excellent. She aged herself tremendously over the course of the play, with only a little help from makeup and wigs. Her singing voice was powerful and could easily tackle Piaf’s songs, and she was also small, which helped the impersonation. The rest of the cast also sang well, and we know them to be good actors from past experience, but with so little for any of them to do this time around, you’d be forgiven for thinking that neither the author nor the director had any of our confidence in them.

I liked the finale very much. From the point when her old mate Toine turned up, with Piaf looking at death’s door, to the closing chords of ‘Je ne regrette rein’, the emotional impact that had been conspicuously absent so far suddenly hit me, and as the music for her final song started up, my tears began to flow. It was enough to leave me feeling reasonably happy with the production, but I still don’t know why they had to cut out so much good stuff. I particularly missed Piaf and Toine’s discussion of crabs (the genital variety).

In fact, apart from a couple of good jokes, the humour had largely disappeared. This was a determinedly bleak view of a woman who had faced many tough times, and proved herself to be even tougher. She drank like a fish and got hooked on drugs after one of her car accidents – she would let reckless young men drive her about. Many of the men in her life just used her as a money machine, and she had a habit of cutting herself off from anyone who really cared for her. Even so, there was still a spirit there that could fight back against the odds, and a talent that could captivate thousands. Where was that spirit today? I felt the whole production had been made deliberately unsentimental, with very little warmth, and practically no time to get to know the characters and relate to them. This is why it took till nearly the end of the performance for me to feel engaged with it. It didn’t help that the dialogue was often too rushed for me to make it out, even when it was in English, and the songs, though sung very well, didn’t move me much at all.

Having said all that, it obviously pleased a lot of Piaf fans, with several standing at the end, and I did enjoy it well enough to give it 5/10. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this again though, unless it’s closer to the original version, which we saw many years ago and enjoyed better than this.

P.S. I caught up with some reports of Pam Gems’ comments. Apparently she was adding in new information about Piaf’s relationships and her activities during the war that weren’t available last time. Doesn’t change my opinion, but interesting all the same.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Music Man – July 2008

7/10

Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson

Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey

Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st July 2008

A number of people had been telling me how much they enjoyed this musical, and that can sometimes lead to disappointment, but fortunately this time it didn’t. I loved the music and the singing, especially Scarlett Strallen as Marian, the librarian. She has a lovely voice, and hit her notes perfectly, without the off-key sliding that is so prevalent nowadays. I also enjoyed the hen chorus, where the women of the town are done up with little mini-bustles at the back that look like tails, and walk around like chickens while gossiping away. The story was good too, with some decent characters and a believable setting.

The set was very good. Wooden facades curved round the back of the stage, with lots of doors and windows, and two bigger doors plumb centre. Telegraph poles stood forward of this on our right, but blended into the walls as they went further back. Apart from this, and a small platform over to our left which served as the porch for Marian’s mother’s house, the stage was bare, and picket fences, benches and the rest were brought on as needed. When the Pony Express wagon arrived bringing the uniforms, I had hoped they’d bring it through the big doors with some sort of horse attached, but sadly they just had the townsfolk a-pushing and a-pulling. Shame.

One other slight disappointment was that having seen Six Characters earlier in the month, we’d had a preview of the finale for this production in the video clip they showed, so there was no surprise for us when everyone turned up at the end wearing their uniforms; in fact I found I was waiting for it towards the end. Also, I didn’t hear all the lyrics clearly, though I did still enjoy the singing, and for once I was surprised to find that I knew a lot of the songs, including Till There Was You, one of my favourites (I’m a mushy sentimentalist at heart). All the performances were excellent, although Steve felt Brian Conley wasn’t quite right for the lead part. Certainly his singing could have been better, but as a character who’s meant to be non-musical perhaps his standard of singing was too good!

I’ll finish with the opening of the performance, as that was my favourite bit. A group of people, mostly travelling salesmen, are sitting on a train, and as it chugs along, they debate the issues of the day until one of them asks if anyone knows the whereabouts of a certain Harold Hill, a disreputable salesman who’s giving his more honest(-ish) colleagues problems by cheating a town’s population out of their money and scarpering. This guy wants to track him down and put him out of business. At the very end, as the train’s about to pull out of River City station, Harold reveals himself, and announces his intention to stay in town and do what he does best. It certainly took me by surprise, and got a good reception from the audience.

But the thing I enjoyed most about this opening was that the train was simply the suitcases placed on the revolve, which turned round slowly while the passengers and guard jiggled about to show the movement. This, combined with the singing, which went from person to person so fast I could hardly keep up, was entrancing, and just the sort of thing I love in the theatre. I’m looking forward to next year’s offering already.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Funny Girl – May 2008

7/10

Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Isobel Lennart

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 13th May 2008

I’m not a great one for musicals, but I was interested to see this one. Barbara Streisand made the part of Fanny Bryce so much her own that it’s understandable that there’s been no major production of it for many years, so as I haven’t seen the film, this was pretty new territory for me.

Of course, many of the songs were familiar, and the story, despite being based on Fanny Bryce’s life (or parts of it), was incredibly familiar. Piaf, Marie Lloyd, etc. all seemed to have similar themes to their life stories. But here we only get to see the unpromising beginnings, the rise to stardom and the glory days – no descent into post-stardom for this show.

To get across the show-biz nature of the piece, most of the sets showed the back wall of the theatre itself, which also doubled as the outside walls of the apartment blocks in the run down area Fanny comes from. There were some more opulent sets as well, for when she’s made it big, but I really don’t remember noticing the changes, they were done so slickly.

The story is one long reminiscence, as Fanny prepares to go on stage. Starting with her early attempts to get a job, we see her shoehorn her way into a tall, leggy chorus (she’s short and plump), take over the act completely by improvising comic business, and gradually make herself the star of whatever show she happens to be in. She’s helped in this by a tall, good-looking chap, Nick Arnstein, who seems to be well-off, and is certainly charming. He bids up her salary with the current management by claiming to represent another theatre, so she’s naturally grateful. Not that that matters, as she fell hook, line and sinker for the guy as soon as she clapped eyes on him. He, of course, is a chap with no real job, who just loafs around the theatre circuit taking advantage of whatever’s on offer. He soon realises that Fanny is an all-you-can-eat meal ticket, and it’s not long before they’re married. Naturally, there’s another chap who adores Fanny, but whom she regards as a good friend, and who would have been a much better match for her.

To do him justice, Nick does actually want to make his own way in the world; he’s just hopeless at doing it. He invests Fanny’s money in at least one get-rich-quick scheme (a golf course or hotel or casino, or some such), and loses it all. Later on he gets an amazing offer of a job that seems to be right up his street, but he realises it’s too good, and that Fanny has arranged it to give him some self-respect. That proves the clincher, and they split up. Fanny had even given up her career to be Nick’s wife, but now she has to go back on the stage to earn her living, and the play takes us up to her return.

It’s a moving story, with some very good songs, and this cast do it pretty well. The musical numbers with the dancers were all excellent, some of the duets were a bit weaker, but Samantha Spiro gave us a very good Fanny Bryce. Her voice isn’t as strong as Streisand’s, obviously, but she got the vulnerability across, and still got my toes tapping to the songs. I prefer musicals like this which do at least have some depth of character to them, so I enjoyed myself more than I expected.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me