Ruthless! The Musical, Arts Theatre, London.

'Ruthless' Musical performed at the Arts Theatre, London, UK

Ruthless! The Musical, first opened off Broadway 26 years ago. It is the almost archetypal off-Broadway show. It makes the fact that it is a low budget show in a small theatre part of its appeal. So, I was worried that the Arts Theatre, although it is the smallest theatre in the West End, would be too big for it.

Having said that, Ruthless is a great show, with a wonderful part for an aspiring young actress as  the 8 year old, Tina.  Given the importance of understudies in the storyline, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the first two understudies for Tina when the show opened in 1992 were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. This being the UK, with child protection laws, we have 4 Tinas and no understudies. Anya Evans played Tina on the night I attended and she was very good, great dancing and a frighteningly bright smile.

It has become usual for the role of Sylvia St Croix to be played by a man and Jason Gardiner makes a good job of it here, his movement is excellent and he can certainly dance in heels. Kim Maresca is fantastic as Tina’s mother, very Stepford Wife in the first act and very Liza Minnelli in the second. In fact,  all the acting in this production is top notch, Tracie Bennett and Harriet Thorpe are both pantomime villain good as theatre critic Lita and drama teacher Myrna.

The musical numbers are mostly good, two standout songs are “I hate musicals” sung, with many funny reprises, by Lita and the title song, Ruthless! by the whole company. The set and costumes are both “fabulous dahling”, 1950’s crinoline petticoats in a 1960’s Formica living room.

The real stand out thing about this show is the references, Shirley Temple, All about Eve, Bob Fosse, interpretive dance, Judy Garland – far too many to list – all get a mention in some way. It’s enjoyable trying to spot them and there’s no way that you will get them all.  Everything about this show is kitsch, but if you didn’t know that before you arrived, you should have done more research before buying the ticket. The humour is camp and low brow, but still great fun. This is good production of a good show, perhaps it could have been even better in a more intimate theatre.

 

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Bat Out of Hell – The Musical, Dominion Theatre, London 2018

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Bat Out Of Hell – The Musical is a full-on, no holds barred show. It is not afraid to take risks, it is prepared to appear ridiculous and one has to admire that bravery. Sometimes these bets pay off and there are moments of stupendous, over-the-top brilliance. Most of these come in the songs that are on the Bat out of Hell album, when the spectacle and choreography seem to step up a gear. The original LP was about forty minutes long and this show runs a little under three hours including the interval.

All the tracks from 1977 are done well, and some of Jim Steinman’s other early songs fit in well. Surprisingly “It’s all coming back to me now” made famous by Celine Dion is a real highlight. However some of the other songs are saccharine, subpar Disney, teenage angst repackaged for the late middle aged.

The storyline is poor, difficult to follow and uninventive. The characters are all two dimensional, composite caricatures. Despite this, some of the performances are outstanding. Andrew Polec has the perfect rock bearing as Strat. Christina Bennington, who plays Raven, has a lovely voice and can act well, a more traditional musical might suit her talents better, I’d love to see her sing Sondheim.  Rob Fowler is outstanding as Falco; a camp, overblown baddie – who can really sing. Perhaps it’s true that the devil has all the best tunes. Danielle Steers steals the show as Zahara, she has an amazing rock voice and rock attitude, she commands the stage whenever she sings.

The set is excellent, the huge stage at the Dominion allowing it to be up to four different areas, all at the same time. The special effects are among the best I have ever seen in a stage musical, although I suspect that those who sit in the front few rows miss parts of the show because of the amount of dry ice rolling off the front of the stage. The choreography is mostly wonderful, especially in the big set pieces and the songs that end each half ensure that you leave the auditorium on a high.

The audience adored it. The cheering began when the first backing singer arrived on stage, even before the start of the show and there was an instant standing ovation at the end. I can understand why it is such a hit wherever it goes, it is a big overblown, melodramatic rock opera and it does that wonderfully well. I think it could have been even better if it cut the emotionally manipulative ballads and ran maybe an hour shorter.

 

 

Young Frankenstein, Garrick Theatre, London, 2018

Young Frank

Young Frankenstein is written by Mel Brooks and based on his 1974 film starring Gene Wilder, so don’t go in expecting any deep insights into the nature of the world. What you get is a smutty, slapstick, laugh-a-minute show, full of quick, clever, off-colour punchlines. It is packed with song and dance routines, which come along so swiftly that you haven’t time to notice the poor ones before you are being entertained by the next one which might be more to your taste.

There are some good performances, Hadley Fraser shows that he can do farce in a rare comedic role. His voice is excellent as you would expect from an actor who has previously been in “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera”. Lesley Joseph is as good as Frau Blucher, hamming it up just enough, without going too pantomime. Cory English has taken over from Ross Noble as Igor and he is very good indeed, his experience of playing the role on Broadway working to his advantage.

The jokes are sometimes obvious and often telegraphed but the direction is clever in making us enjoy the expectation of the punchline as much as the delivery itself. This is particularly evident in the scene involving the monster and the blind hermit. There are also nice homages to bygone musicals in the songs, “there ain’t nothing like a brain” and “the Liths in Lithuania, do it” are two lines that spring to mind. The show stopping number however, is the one song that is not an original. Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is fantastically choreographed, inventive, surprising and funny; it will have you smiling at odd times for hours after you leave the theatre, remembering the routine.

Young Frankenstein is not profound, it is not ground-breaking, it is not even particularly original, but it is funny, it is fast and it is a very good evenings entertainment. I enjoyed it and judging by the reaction at the close, the rest of the audience enjoyed it too. Recommended.

Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, Apollo Theatre, London

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All the publicity that goes with “Everybody’s talking about Jamie” mentions what an  uplifting feel good story line it has, and that it taps into the current zeitgeist, and to be fair they are right but, really it has so much more than just that.

The songs are brilliant, “It means beautiful” will surely win an award for best new song in a musical. “He’s my boy”, “Work of Art” and “If I met myself again” are also wonderful, I think Dan Gillespie Sells is going to be a huge success as a songwriter for musicals. The lyrics are lovely too and are written by Tom Macrae, so perhaps this is a new partnership to look out for.

The whole cast is great. Obviously John McCrea is excellent as Jamie, a strong voice and a big stage presence. There are also outstanding performances from Josie Walker as his Mum, who has two big songs and a spectacular voice with which to deliver them, and from Lucie Shorthouse, who has an endearing part as his BFF, Pritti. I enjoyed Phil Nichol’s portrayal of Hugo Battersby too.

I also really liked the choreography, it is vibrant and up to date, break dancing with a hint of Justin Beiber video. The set design is good as well, a great mixture of simple, clever and efficient. She show finishes very well, the audience loved it and left the theatre wanting more.

I thoroughly enjoyed this show and I hope it is a huge success!

Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky, The Other Palace, Victoria, London

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Hershey Felder has spent the last two decades recreating, on stage, the lives of great composers, while playing their music to highlight salient moments from those lives. Tchaikovsky is the sixth in this series. The genre is part biography, part piano recital.

The stage is set to resemble a room in his dacha in Klin, with rugs, cabinets and a baby grand piano. There is a large portrait over a writing table, whose likeness changes to whoever he is speaking about. The backdrop to the set also has illustrations which change to reflect different periods of his life.

Felder begins the show by coming on to the stage with a letter he has received from the Russian Government inviting him to bring his story of the life their greatest composer to be performed in his home country. He asks the audience whether he should do this.  This is a rhetorical question, as the difference between his account of Tchaikovsky’s life and the official Russian version is vast, and it seems unlikely that Hershey Felder’s telling of events would prove popular there.

Tchaikovsky’s story is told by picking out individual snippets of his life, mostly in chronological order, and combining them with music that he was writing or performing at the time. The effect is like an entertaining lesson combined with a piano recitation by an inventive and musically talented professor; imagine one of the best university lectures that you have attended and you won’t be far wrong.

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Hershey Felder has chosen which events to recreate, so we are given the narrative from his point of view, and he makes us aware that others may look upon his life differently. For me, who liked Tchaikovsky’s music, but who knew hardly anything about his life, it was a perfect combination. I was given an insight into the man while listening to an accomplished pianist playing his greatest hits.review

Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Zigger Zagger, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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From the second the opening whistle sounds and the cast of 50 begin their football chants, the audience is dragged in – to a world of youth tribalism, disaffection and tough choices. Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect size for this play, large enough that the cast doesn’t outnumber the audience, small enough that the cacophony of sound envelops you to feel part of the crowd.

Zigger Zagger is a late 20th century parable, ostensibly about football hooliganism but also about loyalty and fitting in. The protagonist, Harry Philton, excellently played by Josh Barrow, is a school leaver searching for belonging and is drawn to the local football terraces. He is aware of its limitations as a life choice so investigates the alternatives.

Among these are: Police, Army, Religion, Apprenticeship and, settling down. These options are caricatured, often in musical or poetic form. Adam Smart is particularly funny as the Youth Careers Officer. In between each option we are brought back to the terraces for a song and each time we feel the allure of being part of the crowd.

The soundtrack is great, T.Rex, Mud, Bay City Rollers even the Sex Pistols. The crowd songs are classical and traditional, with some chanting thrown in for good measure. Zigger Zagger is a boisterous and entertaining evening, with some great performances, and an interesting reminder of a specific moment in this country’s development.