When? Wednesday 24th April 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Clare Rickard, Melissa James, Lily Fraser, Alice Redmond, Alicia Beck, Dawn Williams, Nicholas Pound, Ben Palmer, Oliver Savile, Joseph Poulton, Paul F Monaghan, Barnaby Thompson, Ross Finnie, Jessica Buckby, Lizzi Franklin, Joal Morris, Richard Astbury, Cameron Bal, James Darch, Will Lucas
I am always reminded of that (in)famous Andrew Lloyd Webber/Michael Parkinson interview. You know the one – where Parky asks the then-future Lord if his new production, Cats, an ensemble dance piece based on ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by T.S. Eliot, would see actors dress up and prance around the stage pretending to be, well, cats – “like in a pantomime”? Well, naturally a young Andrew guffawed at such a frivolous thought, assuring Parky – and the British public – that the show would bear witness to no such thing. “Oh, no, of course not” were his exact words.
Thankfully he lied, and the result of said prancing is a rampant, charming and downright fun evening of dance theatre, which I don’t believe has been bettered since the show’s 1981 premiere. Away from the original thrust staging of the much-admired residency at the New London Theatre, this is undoubtedly the best Cats to be seen with a traditional proscenium staging, and therefore, outside of the West End. In straightforward talk, I found this to be the best production of the show yet to tour.
The dancing from the talented twenty-strong company, in particular, is outstanding. The technical aspects of the dancing are impeccable – but the characterisation is equally as vivid; each cat is clearly identifiable throughout, with consistent traits affected for every character track, varying interactions with other cats, and so forth. The ensemble cast looked fresh as a daisy collectively and deserving of the highest praise. The “Jellicle Ball” segment in the finale of Act I was particularly memorable for the quality of the ensemble’s dancing, but I found each number charming in its own way. This, despite understudies filling two major roles – Dawn Williams stepping in adequately as the cheeky Rumpleteaser, and Alice Redmond as the arguable lead – in that she gets to sing the best and most famous number – Grizabella. I must admit to feeling a somewhat childish pang of disappointment when informed that headliner Joanna Ampil (excellent as Kim in Miss Saigon, Fantine in Les Misérables) was indisposed, but I was more than appeased by Alice Redmond’s tragic Grizabella. Rather than the Elaine Paige-originated ‘tragic forgotten movie-star’ inspired schtick, that I certainly suspect is directed to Ampil, Redmond’s relatively young age forced her to do something a little different, and what a success her choices turned out to be. Redmond’s Grizabella is the star that never was; the thirty-something just at the cusp of realizing her glory days simply aren’t ever going to materialise. Backed by a strong and dynamic voice, which comfortably holds its own in the alto verse, before bursting free into a spectacular crescendo as she powers “Memory” home, Redmond snatches her chance to shine with both hands. Well, paws.
The action takes place on an approximation of John Napier’s traditional set designs, being that of an over-sized garbage dump, which spills out over the orchestra pit, covering it completely and prompting the enthusiastic pre-show reminder that the music is performed by a LIVE! on-stage orchestra, hidden behind the scenery. The nine-piece band themselves are terrific throughout.
A common criticism of Cats is that there is no real plot. Whilst this is true, the character consistency I alluded to earlier actually fills a lot of the gaps, allowing one to really get to know these quirky characters and take interest in their stories. For example, Joseph Poulton is so bubbly and his dancing so smooth, that by the time he is paraded in his own number ‘Mr Mistoffelees’, the character feels already firmly established in the universe. Nicholas Pound, as Old Deuteronomy gives a lovely turn and acts somewhat as the anchor of the production. It is this work by Trevor Nunn – coupled of course, with Gillian Lynne’s quite remarkable choreography, which make the whole show work narratively. Some of the scenes are simply the poems themselves, quoted verbatim to music, which should be awkward but somehow ends up almost hypnotic.
The music is certainly light on showstoppers, “Memory” aside, but is easily one of Lloyd Webber’s finest complete scores. Much like Joseph, Lloyd Webber dabbles in various genres and, much in keeping with the structure of the show, this works wonderfully well in giving each poem – or ‘scene’ – its own unique charm. Switch off for a number? No problem, here’s something completely different. I didn’t switch off though; I was rapt throughout.
With a strong triple-threat cast, this UK and European tour of Cats is a must see before it closes on Saturday May 4th.
- Harry Zing
When? Thursday 11th April 2013
Who? Liam Neeson, Marti Pellow, Jason Donovan, Ricky Wilson, Kerry Ellis, Will Stapleton, Anna-Marie Wayne, Michael Falzon, Lily Osbourne
In a World First (note: may not be a world first), I decided to review a production exclusively via Twitter. Yes, Twitter – very 2013! This obviously is an artistic choice and nothing to do with the fact that WordPress decided to crash and lose all but the FIRST SENTENCE of my lengthy, in-depth comparative review. The review itself, naturally, was full to the brim with witty wordplay, astute theatrical observations
and musing on how much Will Stapleton looks like Tim Minchin. I mean, seriously, they could be brothers. Also, did anybody else notice that the principal guitarist looked suspiciously like the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files?
The re-written short version: Jeff Wayne’s dad-dancing is more entertaining than all the cheesy, 1990′s early PC-CD ROM game inspired blurry low-resolution CG graphics in the whole show – combined. ‘The New Generation’ is just a pointless re-hash of the superior 2006 tour – which boasted a stronger cast and didn’t have Marti Pellow in it.
And the rest: I wrote a whole lecture comparing the cast too – it was magnificent. Full of fond anecdotes about many evenings spent playing bridge last October with Marti (note: may not be true), while he made singing one song last three hours. The song was “Forever Autumn”. Get it? I wrote how Jason Donovan is an absolute revelation as Parson Nathaniel and steals the show, ably supported by Kerry Ellis as Beth who sings beautifully. The pair rescued the second act from the doldrums of the first, before the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson gave a surprisingly well-acted turn as The Artilleryman with “Brave New World”. He managed to keep his imitation of David Essex’s mockney accent to a minimum, too. Kudos!
The whole time I kept thinking to myself, “hmmm, I’ve seen this before”. Because I have. Last week on DVD. They released this exact tour – with a few pyrotechnics less and without tissue paper being dropped on the audience – on DVD in 2006. An arena tour I found one of the most enjoyable I have ever seen, when I saw it at the Sheffield Arena seven years ago. So it seems ‘The New Generation” isn’t new at all. It’s old. They should’ve called it “The Old Generation”. Or “The Same Generation”. What is technically new is Liam Neeson’s performance as the Narrator. Except it isn’t. His tonal quality and mannerisms borrow heavily from the iconic Richard Burton, whose performance is synonymous with the material, making his casting rather pointless, truth be told. The 3D holographic effect is rather cool and wisely used sparingly to keep the audience goggle-eyed every time he magically popped up in the middle of the stage. Some minor changes and improvements were made to the sets, the huge 35 foot tall Tripod fighting machine now moves a bit more and is positioned differently. The “Brave New World” set is bigger and better. Also new were some hammy dialogue scenes, designed to add some back-story to characters I don’t care about. One of the characters is played by Jeff Wayne’s daughter. I’m only saying(!). There are some new martian antagonists ripped right out of a low-budget 1980′s science fiction movie, whose scenes in the introduction feel jaw achingly (from all the yawning) long. They should’ve called it “The B-Movie Generation”.
In short, only the hardcore War of the Worlds elite or obsessive fans of the individual performers could ever need to buy the DVD (out November 25th, get it in your diaries, all you Marti Pellow fans) of this performance. The score is near-as-damn-it the same as the remastered 1978 original concept recording, which had frankly the definitive cast. Not new enough for you? Buy the 2006 DVD and CD soundtrack of the tour and try not to let the horrible computer graphics burn your eyes. The key demographic for the 2013 DVD/Blu-Ray release would appear to be Obsessive-Compulsive War of the Worlds/Jason Donovan fans with too much money, who couldn’t get front-row tickets for the tour.
Obviously, the actual review was a lot more detailed and serious. I really felt that it was the one to win all those theatre writing awards I’ve been hankering after. I guess we’ll never know.
The War of the Worlds: The New/Old/Same Generation – Alive on Stage! was filmed at The o2 in December 2012. Available on DVD/Blu-Ray on November 25th 2013.
- Harry Zing
With the news that the very public falling-out between sacked Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark director Julie Taymor and the show’s producers has finally been settled, I can’t help but feel there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye. Whilst we will we never know the details of the agreement between the two parties, it would appear to a layman that with an “agreement” being reached, Taymor’s initial lawsuit had at least some foundation. Spidey was an odd case full stop, of course. The lengthy list of big name producers involved, the strange attitude towards the critical press, the alleged ‘plan x’; it conjures images of clandestine meetings in candlelit back rooms at midnight – dozens of shifty-looking suits plotting Taymor’s demise. A fanciful, unrealistic image but one which the producers themselves have done nothing to dispel – perhaps because there was no clear figurehead. Taymor has proved surprisingly protective of a production which is not only her worst, but one of the biggest financial and PR disasters in Broadway history. I nearly managed not to mention money. Taymor isn’t concerned with money, either, according to her legal position.
So where exactly does this leave a) the individual artist Julie Taymor and b) the perception of theatre producers in general? Well, both could do with a serious charm offensive. If Spiderman was Taymor’s vision; whose fault is it that it’s absolutely dreadful? Who exactly are the ‘producers’, which one had the biggest share or executive involvement? Who was there at every rehearsal saying “this is really poor, I’m worried”? How much does the average suited-and-booted theatre producer know about creating quality theatre?
The question here, surely, is the role of the modern theatre producer as an influence on a production. Much like a ceremonial director or non-executive chairman of a large company is used to gain credibility, how much are ‘big name’ theatre producers just a name on a poster? And how much work are the individuals doing to cash those fat paychecks? In Spiderman’s case, was it enough to throw $75m at a show, hire the (then) biggest name in musical theatre and hope for the best? Evidently not. Spiderman got what it deserved and it certainly lacked leadership from the top – missing that person who stopped for a moment and said ‘wait a minute, this is rubbish’. With Spiderman conceivably going to close on a loss when it eventually grinds to a close, hopefully some lessons will have been learned.
Cameron Mackintosh, arguably the most successful producer in modern theatre history, jumps at the chance to tell the story of his rise to success. How he began sweeping the stage of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and worked his way up the ladder thanks to an intense love of theatre, hard work and dedication. Is it any coincidence he has overseen some of the best musical theatre productions ever staged? Of course, the likes of Cameron Mackintosh. Bill Kenwright Ltd – even Andrew Lloyd Webber – are the names. La creme de la creme, overseeing productions worth millions of pounds and with CV’s to back it up. Okay, forget Lloyd Webber. He wrote some cracking tunes in the 1980′s, though. I’ve had the pleasure – and misfortune – of meeting numerous theatre producers of both AAA and ZZZ list productions. They have ranged from the bumbling, “isn’t it all marvellous, jolly good show” Etonian types, who I suspect know nothing about theatre whatsoever but have a bit of money and time to spare, a respected name in business and consider theatre producing a terrific gas – and wonderful opportunity to get drunk at press night parties. And there’s the Max Bialystock “please give my show a good review, I’m desperate” types who, believe it or not, are the more likeable, passionate variety. Normally with their own money invested, which they saved from working in the real world. #dear
Some theatre producers never cease to amaze me. It is like the old jokes about Fox television executives in the States: they consider every viewer to have the intelligence of a gnat. Some producers expect us to be starstruck by the latest Hollyoaks/EastEnders/X-Factor reject and favour a desperate stunt cast special to actually investing time in their own production. I know of producers in long-running shows who have literally not been to see their own product in years. Are some ‘theatre producers’ really doing any producing at all – or are they focused on chopping that extra £10k per week off the running cost. Do we really need a band of seven, when we could have four? Is theatre production solely risk management in 2013?
So, there are the hard-working theatre career progression types, the ‘fabulous show, darling’ brigade and the ‘I just want to make rent’ triers. And then there are some nasty pieces of work… I know of one unnamed producer who owes a well-respected and experienced West End performer over £5000. Despite sending countless e-mails, requesting payment of the monies due, the performer received no reply. After several weeks of silence, the performer resorted to visiting the local theatre playing host to the producer’s current show, in the hopes of speaking about the matter. Said producer then went on to publicly allege on Twitter that the performer was acting aggressively – making a potentially libelous accusation, that the performer is rightly prepared to dispute in court. What a way to treat a seasoned professional – and one who is still out of pocket. I suppose there will always be cowboys in all trades.
Maybe some lessons haven’t been learned after all.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 9th April 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Crispin Redman, Michael Matus, Tony Boncza, Indra Ové, Simon Holmes, Jonathan Kemp, Elliot Chapman, Paul Fuller, Sarah Lambie
I am (naturally) too young to remember the hit BBC television show Yes Minister which, along with its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, were considered must-see comedy television in the 1980′s. Lauded by critics and adored by viewers for the best part of a decade, the satirical – often biting – political comedy’s legacy lives to this day. The new 2013 television reboot, running presently on digital channel Gold, follows hot on the heels of this stage production, which is fresh from a critically and commercially successful West End run.
British Prime Minister and European something-or-other Jim Hacker (Tony Boncza) is a troubled man. The economy is collapsing around him, half of his own coalition government want his head and – worse luck – he hasn’t got a clue what to do about any of it. He depends on his Cabinet Secretary, the cunning and devious Sir. Humphrey Appleby (Crispin Redman), for answers. Answers which are always tinged with a healthy dose of self-interest and unquestionably laced in brutal cynicism. Aided by his slightly awkward and bumbling Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley (Michael Matus) and his shrill but loyal Special Policy Advisor Claire Sutton (Indra Ové) the PM must step up and deliver for his public by any means necessary. Even if that means chartering the Royal Helicopter to courier some very unlikely passengers!
All the action takes place on one very striking set (Simon Higlett), that of the PM’s office at Chequers. Beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, the set design marks just one of the wonderfully realised pieces of symbolism in the production. A stuffy, old-fashioned room. Filled with stuffy, old-fashioned men sipping fine whiskey, who have been forcibly pushed into the 2013 political world against their will. A huge flat-screen LCD television sticks out like a sore thumb in the opulent surroundings. The men poke awkwardly at their Blackberry phones as if prodding a dead rat and mention Twitter as if it were a futuristic technology they, as old Etonians and born millionaires, could never possibly need to bother themselves with. In the real world Sir. Humphrey, the sly old dog that he is, could well have hired Youth PCC Paris Brown personally; as a diversion, to hide a multitude of other sins…
Co-writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have crafted a beautifully balanced evening of contemporary satire – and I absolutely adored this production. The laughs are numerous, hearty and most importantly varied. There is some incredibly sharp wordplay, particularly from Sir. Humphrey, mild slapstick, sleaze, parody, satire and serious political comment. A vehicle for some wonderful characters? Yes, undoubtedly – but a worthy vehicle fitting for the fine bottoms gracing the upholstery. The story was engrossing and opened up some wonderful opportunities for classic situation comedy. The clearly non-religious PM signing off a desperate prayer to God as if he were writing to his bank manager springs immediately to mind.
The dreaded white-slip-of-doom greeted us with news of Tony Boncza covering the indisposed Michael Fenton Stevens as Jim Hacker. But what a performance he gave. Beyond confident – nuanced, even – Boncza played the part of the well-meaning but rather hopeless PM to perfection. He shared wonderful chemistry with his co-star and, unfortunately for him, show-stealing counterpart Crispin Redman as Sir. Humphrey. Whilst I have nothing to compare the performances to, I honestly can’t imagine a better pairing than these two. Redman is a tour-de-force as the sly but eminently likeable would-be fascist. I never thought I’d type that sentence! Redman is beyond good; he really owns the role. I was frequently reminded of Kevin Spacey’s performance as Richard III, due to the almost Shakespearean quality the actor gives the part, with dry wit oozing out of every pore. Yes, the writing is outstanding on both counts, but without the world class actor delivering the lines expertly, even the best writing can fall to mush. The support from the ensemble cast was also very strong, but against Redman’s Humphrey, it is hard to be seen.
I honestly can’t recall a comedy play offering so many laughs – nor one which captivated me so thoroughly for two solid hours. The new touring cast are outstanding and I cannot recommend this production highly enough. See it while it’s hot!
- Harry Zing
When? Thursday 4th April 2013
Where? St. George’s Hall, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Brad Henshaw, Chris Chandler, Alexus Ruth, Janessa Qua, Jenny Fitzpatrick, William Hazell
There is something timeless and – dare I say – extremely cool about The Blues Brothers. John Landis’ iconic 1980 movie, spearheaded by memorable performances from John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, is as firmly embedded in popular culture as any movie I can think of. Whilst the movie memorably boasted slapstick comedy, epic police car chases (and parody thereof), it is the fantastic score which sees the film rightly claimed as an important staple in the movie-musical canon.
The huge scale of the movie, with it’s lengthy action scenes and incredible stunts, has prevented the staging of a full-blown musical theatre adaptation. Instead, this production is one of many ‘tribute concert’ style productions over the years which gives a ‘best of the Blues Brothers‘ vibe. All Jake and Elwood’s best scenes from the movie are present and correct, encompassing the entire song catalog of the movie – and some. On the night, often simply quoting the movie verbatim gained better results with the slow-to-warm audience than the original in-character attempts at modern satirical humour. By Jake’s third reference of ‘horse burgers’ the joke had lost its snap somewhat.
Fully staged on a striking single-tiered set, a lot of concession is given to the theatrics of the production. The lighting and sound cues are tight to a fault and the way the production breathlessly zips along leaves little room for improvisation. I’d like to have felt I was in a smoky old bar watching the boys do their thing; instead I felt an impatient director was tapping his watch behind me and sighing every time the cast took a breather or the lighting stayed fixed. The extremely talented band of eight, on stage throughout, are forced to take choreographed swigs from beer bottles filled with water.
But there is no denying that, purely as a concert judged on the band, cast and incredible music, The Blues Brothers: Approved is a riot. It’s hard not to go wrong with the likes of “Soul Man”, “Think”, “Gimme Some Lovin’”, “Shake Your Tail Feather”, “Freedom” and the list goes on and on, to choose from. The cast are very able; Brad Henshaw (Jake) and Chris Chandler (Elwood) are certainly on the same page and share some lovely moments, working with great chemistry. The latter steals the show with the evening’s strongest number – with an impromptu and largely out-of-character rendition of ‘Under the Boardwalk’ rightly earning a huge ovation. It is ironic, then, that this moment of unashamed, melancholic musical theatre should win out in an otherwise far more raucous affair. The Bluettes backing trio: Alexus Ruth, Janessa Qua and Jenny Fitzpatrick, are all terrific throughout and don’t disappoint when given their chance to take centre-stage over the course of the evening. William Hazell has a touch of the blue-coats about him, but was visibly trying very hard in his supporting roles.
Undoubtedly fans (including myself) will come away happy enough – an evening of typical Blues Brothers fayre with everything you would expect from a production such as this. It is just a shame that, in my view, the production falls somewhere in the middle of a concert and a musical. A little more focus either way and this production would have a niche that I haven’t yet seen in any of the (three) previous Blues Brothers tributes I have seen. The involvement of Dan Ackroyd and Judith Belushi in the production (giving it the ‘approved’ status) will be enough to secure visits from casual fans to this decent Blues Brothers tribute.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 2nd April 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Jill Armour, Sophie Bould, John Bowles, Steven Butler, Matt Corner, Keiron Crook, Zoe Doano, Carol Heffernan, Lucy James, Teddy Kempner, Ashley Knight, Katie Lee, Anthony McGill, Craig Pinder, Michael Praed, Ben Redfern, Rachel Spurrell, Alex Young
In 2011, an ambitious new adaptation of Irving Berlin’s 1935 comedy musical Top Hat showed just how fantastically well a classic movie-musical can be adapted for stage – some seven decades after its initial cinematic heyday. Much like Top Hat, High Society – Cole Porter’s 1956 movie-musical adaptation of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story – boasted a stellar cast, with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra sharing top billing. The joint force of three legends of the movie-musical genre prove to be the difference between a feather-light (under-two-hour) technicolor movie caper and a tame two-and-a-half-hour musical.
High Society is almost a living, breathing trope in its own right. We all know Cole Porter musicals; they are recognised as the epitome of musical comedy. A wild and wacky cast of well-to-do characters are introduced as either love interests or comedy relief, and proceed to sing and dance – often at the same time – their way to a happy ending. The main plot is so thin as to merit only one double-spaced paragraph on Wikipedia. Three men fall for the same socialite – and self-described ‘princess’ – but which will she marry? Throw in some drunken hijinx and a portly womaniser quite willing to wiggle his bum at the drop of a hat and the recipe is success.
Or so you would think. As an admirer of Cole Porter’s work, and as the only major show in the Porter canon I hadn’t yet seen on stage, I really wanted to like High Society. Regrettably, the show – enfeebled with painfully stiff direction and one of Porter’s weakest scores – simply offers so little to enjoy. It took until the back-end of a protracted first act before I felt even the actors themselves were starting to have a little fun – the wonderfully silly ‘She’s Got That Thing’ briefly bursting through the act’s otherwise po-faced seriousness. The heart-breaker? High Society simply isn’t very fun to watch. The acted scenes seem to go on forever and when a musical number does arrive, it usually disappoints. Exceptions come in the second act’s ‘Well, Did You Evah’ and first act marquee number ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’, but the staging was as low-key as to be instantly forgettable. If wanton, camp, sequined frivolity isn’t on offer, exactly what’s the point in a Cole Porter musical in 2013?
Even Francis O’Connor’s sets and costume designs are more practically efficient than they are showbiz glamorous. The pillars used to re-dress scenes are a nice touch and a convincing first act swimming pool are memorable. Similarly, the cast are functional rather than inspiring. Michael Praed, terrifically commanding and sincere in The Sound of Music, is oddly wooden and forced as Dexter Haven. He can be forgiven for not possessing the kind of voice old Bing had, but I’d hoped he’d at least par with his acting. Sophie Bould tries to add a boundless energy to her role as Tracy Lord but, perhaps in fault of the character, comes off as insincere and aloof rather than spiffy and limitless. It is up to Teddy Kempner as Uncle Willie to add comic zest – his antics are amusing and at least his scenes entertained somewhat. Katie Lee does well as Dinah, registering with her dancing in particular. Due to the (you couldn’t make it up) indisposition of Daniel Boys and the absence of Marilyn Cutts, young understudies Matt Corner (Mike Connor) and Rachel Spurrell (Marilyn Cutts) performed their respective roles without incident. Unfortunately, taking two away from the already modest-sized ensemble left the cast looking a touch stretched.
High Society in truth doesn’t have great source material, many of the songs – the ballads especially – are forgettable and the plot is too thickly spread and too thin in substance to merit the effort. It is hard to vilify anything about the production and staunch fans of the movie will probably find much to enjoy. The best musical comedies have – give or take – been around since they premiered. But when High Society belated joined the party back in 1998, the material was already sadly dated and as a book musical trying to sustain two-and-a-half-hours of interest, it simply doesn’t cut the mustard. There is a home for the likes of Cole Porter musicals in the UK theatre scene – but perhaps not this one.
- Harry Zing
When? Wednesday 13th March 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Mark Benton, Lucy Benjamin, Freya Sutton, Sandra Marvin, Josh Piterman, Paul Rider, Luke Stiffler, Gemma Sutton, Lauren Hood, Wendy Somerville, Daniel Stockton, Gabrielle Brooks, Amelie Adams-Pearce, Jocasta Almgill, Lori Barker, Piers Bate, Arun Blair-Mangat, Sophia Brown, Andrew Bryant, Georgia Carling, Rhiannon Chesterman, Francesca Hoffman, Samantha Hull, Claudia Kariuki, Lewis Kirk, Sam Lathwood, Fela Lufadeju, Simone Mistry-Palmer, Nathaniel Morrison, David Ribi, Noel Samuels, Laura Thorogood, Nikki Pocklington
Hairspray is one of the most joyous, fabulous musicals ever written. It is this short (spoilerific, in a review outcome sense!) sentence which best sums up my feelings about Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s kitsch tale, set in 1960′s Baltimore, which was originally popularised by none other than Ricki Lake in the 1988 sleeper-hit movie of the same name. Hairspray gently prods forth a message of tolerance, love of all people – and, most importantly for a rather camp feel-good musical, the importance of a really good song-and-dance number to bring all people of all races closer together.
Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Freya Sutton) – a chunky and intelligent, if naive, teenage girl living in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962. She is determined to make good – and not let her size stop her from achieving her ambitions, including dancing on the ‘Corny Collins Show’, winning the heart-throb boy Link Larkin (Luke Stiffler) and even becoming the first ‘Woman President of the World’. Her self-belief and positive outlook never wane, despite dire warnings from her equally curvacious mother Edna (Mark Benton), of the difficulties to come from being seen an ‘outsider”. The story itself tells a positive and consistent message – but thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously, a trap director Jack O’Brien wisely steers clear of. The songs are catchy and memorable and the staging glossy and ultimately extremely attractive. Hairspray is a production which simply screams “smile, damn it!” – and you inevitably will. David Rockwell’s sets are suitably vibrant and colourful, wonderfully lit by Kenneth Posner. William Ivey Long’s costumes range from stunning to hilarious – both outcomes intentional – and Paul Huntley still deserves six-years worth of kudos for his eccentric hair and make up designs.
This touring production is considered a replica of the previous 2009/2010 UK tour, which in turn was a replica of the now sadly-departed West End production. Whilst it is a replica in terms of the sets and costumes, this new production clearly been re-directed and positive changes have been made across the board to keep the production fresh and interesting – with plenty of treats for returning audience members. One major change comes in a key plot point, as the plot-centric ‘Miss Hairspray’ competition section has been re-worked with a new outcome to the previous tour. Another (and one I am particularly grateful for) is the trimming right back of the staged corpsing in “(You’re) Timeless to Me”, an unwelcome addition in the past which grated and devalued an otherwise strong number.
Everything feels fresher, tighter and more energetic than my previous visit to the 2009/2010 tour, thanks in part to the inspired directorial changes above, for which I presume Associate Director Matt Lenz can give himself a hearty pat on the back. But also thanks to the biggest improvement in this tour: the cast, who absolutely shine in this outing. Television and stage regular Mark Benton heads up the cast as Edna Turnblad and gives an earnest actor’s performance, taking no liberties and playing the part with a consistently straight bat. Whilst he undoubtedly lacks the singing power of the likes of Michael Ball to call upon, he offers a performance so rooted in method as to find little if any fault with his excellent turn. Freya Sutton excels as wide-eyed Tracy, singing with gusto and dancing with the best of them. Unfortunately, a front of house notice board discreetly informed patrons that Marcus Collins (The X-Factor), would be indisposed for the evening. His understudy, Fela Lufadeju performed admirably and particularly shone with his dancing, earning laughs as the cheeky Seaweed. Josh Piterman is outstanding in his UK debut as Corny Collins and Paul Rider is a geeky, likeable Wilbur; the little and large trope with Edna is played to maximum effect in latter scenes. Lucy Benjamin is not a patch on the Olivier award winning creation of Velma Von Tussle given by Tracie Bennett, and can look a touch awkward at times, but gives her all and is stronger with her acting than her dancing and singing. But it is Sandra Marvin as Motormouth Maybelle who steals the show with an outstanding second act rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been”; Marvin has a powerhouse voice and the swagger to match.
I liken Hairspray to another great musical adaptation, Oliver!. Both are musicals which deal with very serious themes including child abuse, domestic violence, racial prejudice – even the NAACP get a shout out in in Hairspray’s case – but both are remembered respectively in earnest for their incredible scores, unforgettable characters and huge production numbers. The variety in Marc Shaiman’s score is superb and ranges from pastiche to homage, with every major popular musical style of the period acknowledged. By the time the showstopping finale number – “You Can’t Stop the Beat” – a song which happens to be the best of the night – has brought the house down, my head was once again swimming with the gorgeous showtunes Hairspray has to offer, as I’m sure it will be for days. “Without Love”, “Welcome to the 60′s” and “(You’re) Timeless to Me” also shone as tight, downright grin-worthy numbers.
Curmudgeonly critics could have a field day with the linearity and shallowness of it all, though. This Baltimore is one where centuries-long patterns of racial hatred are wiped out in the space of a few in-universe weeks – where everything is literally happy-ever-after for everybody, thanks to one overweight teenager, arguably initially driven by lust and a bruised ego as much as a sense of civic responsibility.
Some six years since my first Hairspray experience, this 2012/2013 tour didn’t let me down. It is simply a fabulous feel-good show performed here by a talented cast who are clearly enjoying themselves. You’ll have to go a long way to find a better evening out at the theatre than taking in Mark Benton, Freya Sutton and co. in Hairspray – one of my favourite musicals.
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 4th March 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Julian Forsyth, Anthony Eden, Audrone Koc
The late Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost novel The Woman in Black has been thrilling UK audiences for over twenty-five years. Robin Herford’s replica touring production, returning to haunt the Alhambra, absolutely does justice to the atmosphere and charm of the West End original, which is still going strong at the Fortune Theatre. Even today in 2013, The Woman in Black provides an evening of storytelling flair and high-drama to which no other ghost story can compare on stage.
The elderly Arthur Kipps (Julian Forsyth), a retired solicitor, has enlisted the services of a skeptical but enthusiastic young Actor (Anthony Eden), to help him tell a ghost story – a true story, and one which has given him nightmares for decades. Kipps seeks closure, which he plans to get by recounting his terrifying tale for his friends and family on stage. The action takes place on a single static set, that of an empty theatre, as the two rehearse and form a bond together. With the framing device established, the story proper is allowed to begin; a wet-behind-the-ears Kipps, played by the Actor, is dispatched to the desolate Eel Marsh House to retrieve and examine the legal documents of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow. Searching an old chest, amongst an old bundle of papers, he encounters a terrible secret – one which ultimately changes his life forever.
The two-hand cast, armed with just a handful of props on a simple yet effective period theatre set (Michael Holt), and some dramatic, eery lighting (Kevin Sleep) create some of the most iconic and lasting imagery in popular British straight theatre. Who could forget the recreation of a horse and trap, rattling its way through freezing fog in soggy marshland? Or the spine-tingling rocking chair scene? The imagery, with the aid of a few naff projections and ‘recorded sounds’ to seal the ‘play within a play’ set-up, is as memorable as some large-scale productions I have seen produced on ten (fifty?) times the budget. After all, as the Actor explains to Kipps, the audience does have an imagination after all.
Fascinatingly, original director Robin Herford still clearly takes pride in directing each new cast of The Woman in Black as if he were directing a new production. Albeit, perhaps if partly for his own personal financial security – but who can blame him? It is perhaps this freshness, with actors generally being re-cast every nine month season, which keeps the play feeling as fresh and dynamic as it does. Despite being billed as a ’25th Anniversary Tour’, the production is identical to previous tours, so those expecting new effects or major directional changes will be disappointed. Despite this, the production feels and looks fresh as a daisy and the casting as enjoyable as any previous visit I have made to the West End or touring production, of which I have made several. Julian Forsyth is terrific as Arthur Kipps and does a splendid job of playing the bumbling yet stoic victim; Forsyth’s Kipps is one you can genuinely feel for. Anthony Eden is a good deal less hyperactive than some of the previous incarnations of The Actor I have seen, and is all the better for it, drawing off the audience’s fear – his timing expert. Both actors have West End prior with the play and their experience showed beautifully. Finally, Audrone Koc takes the hardest-to-review turn as the Vision – but I won’t say more, as I don’t want her coming after me!
Much like fellow long-runner Blood Brothers, The Woman in Black certainly packs in the schoolchildren and regularly features as a GCSE text. This, combined with strong repeat business (I certainly plan to see it again some years in the future) and the 2012 motion picture adaptation (for what it was worth) almost guarantees we’ll be seeing The Woman in Black for many more years to come. Great news for theatre lovers, terrible news for a certain Mr. Kipps…
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 19th February 2013
Where? Foxwoods Theatre, NY, orchestra landing zone
Who? Reeve Carney, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Katrina Lenk, Robert Cuccioli, Michael Mulheren, Stephen Lee Anderson, Isabel Keating, Dan Sharkey, Jake Epstein, Emily Shoolin, Jake Odmark, Dwayne Clark, Aaron LaVigne, Ashley Adamek, David Armstrong, Kevin Aubin, Gerald Avery, Julius C. Carter, Adam Ray Dyer, Drew Heflin, Dana Marie Ingraham, Kourtni Lind, Ari Loeb, Kevin C. Loomis, Kristen Martin, Jodi McFadden, Monette McKay, Jessica McRoberts, Kristen Faith Oei, Maxx Reed, Adam Roberts, Brandon Rubendall, Jennifer Sanchez, Josh Sassanella, Jamison Scott, Whitney Sprayberry, Cassandra Taylor, Brett Thiele, Christopher W. Tierney
In the continuing spirit of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark’s troubled existence, writing this review has also been troublesome for me. Not my opinion of the show which, as you’ll soon see below, is pretty black and white. No, the difficulty has come in that I have reached the limit of my writing ability; I believe it simply takes a far more skilled wordsmith than I to accurately convey just how desperately, eye-stabbingly bad Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark really is. So I’ve decided to do something a little different to a standard review; instead I will be focusing on the pros and cons of what exactly makes Spidey the… product… it is today – as it enters its third excruciating year.
My Spidey Sense is Tingling (Pros)
- Ambition: Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is a hugely ambitious project and one of a kind. The producers, of which there are seventeen listed in the Playbill, have spared no expense in the staging with many hugely costly effects being used sparingly, rather than bludgeoned on the audience with “wow, look at me” subtlety. In short, Britain got The Lord of the Rings, Broadway got Spiderman. Both are shows which will rightly never see the light of day again, but deserve merit solely for the scale and boundary-pushing that many producers would consider career-suicide. After all, if a cheapo revival of Anything Goes or Evita will do similar box office on a fraction of the price, why bother? Kudos to you all, misguided fools.
- The Sets: There is no denying that the sets are magnificently successful in creating original director Julie Taymor’s now largely decimated vision. The distinct styling of George Tsypin’s ‘work in progress’ comic book is simply gorgeous at times, and brilliantly and strikingly lit by Donald Holder. The Brooklyn Bridge is stunningly brought to life in true ‘pop up’ style, another huge undertaking and enormously expensive set piece which is used just twice, including in the (frankly epic) battle finale. In short, if you are able to ignore the other 99% of things which are wrong with Spiderman, and can sit and make up your own story with your own songs in your head while looking at the lovely scenery – I suggest after several pre-show drinks – then maybe you could enjoy yourself at this show.
- The Visual Effects: Not to be confused with the set pieces, the show boasts some terrific visual effects, if not perhaps the stage magic and trickery I had been expecting. The, again, scarcely used HD screens wheeled around the stage playing the pre-recorded video segments (it’s better than I’m making it sound) was particularly impressive, especially in the Act II ‘chaos’ scene.
- The Aerials/Stunt Performers: It had to come up. At least in classic theatre terms, I have never seen anything like it and Aerial Choreographer Daniel Ezralow and Aerial Designer Scott Rogers each deserve credit for at least this area of work. Yes, Chitty whirred and clunked ominously above the audience for a similar length of time per performance (roughly eight minutes), true, and aerials are becoming more common in mainstream theatre, but some of the stunts are truly remarkable and memorable in the show. The final battle sees Spiderman battling the villainous Green Goblin atop the Chrysler Building, fighting hand to hand in mid-air above the orchestra stalls, before landing on tiny platforms on the mezzanine/dress circle and upper circles, then swooping back down to the stage. Obviously, this requires a huge technical undertaking and I strongly recommend watching one of the many behind-the-scenes documentaries available on The YouTube and the like, to see just how much effort goes into staging each performance. Obviously, the performers are held safely (ish) with thick steel cables which are visible from the moon, so don’t expect miracles. From my seat in the ‘landing zone’ in the orchestra, I could see up to three Spidermans (Spidermen?) on occasion, hiding in the wings or being readied to perform a stunt. In my opinion, these performers deserve credit for putting their lives on the line each show, quite literally.
- The Theatre: The Foxwoods is a gorgeous modern theatre, actually built with the patron in mind. There are ample, clean toilets (although the queuing system used during the interval is poorly conceived, hundreds jumped the queue by entering through the exit while staff looked on) and even mirrors you could see your face in. Free WiFi (I think, we just guessed the password – it’s ‘Spiderman’) and the seats in the landing zone were terrific because for 99% of the show, you can practically lie down in your seat (handy for sleeping through the show). The staff are brutally honest about the show, too – but I don’t want to get anybody into trouble, so I won’t elaborate. The auditorium is huge and it is clear what the producers meant when they said the Foxwoods was the only show which could physically receive Spiderman.
- The Length: Without being at all pithy or sarcastic, I am genuinely delighted that this show isn’t much longer than two and a half hours with one fifteen minute interval. The most comparable show, The Lord of the Rings, ran at upwards of three hours, and for all the good in there, all anybody could realistically think about was getting the heck out of the theatre.
The Green Gobshite (Cons)
- The Book: Frankly it’s a disgrace. A dreadfully disjointed amalgamated mish-mash of the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman films, with some pop-mythology and shockingly poor and sporadic attempts at humour thrown in. The primary antagonist is a Deep South (why?) Norman Osbourne (Robert Cuccioli) who meets and seemingly falls in love with the dreamy “emo” Peter Parker (Reeve Carney – think Andrew Garfield in the superior 2012 reboot). Peter, who is being bullied by big tough and rough boys with less floppy hair than him, is in love with Mary-Jane (Rebecca Faulkenberry – channeling Kirsten Dunst), who loves him back (who wouldn’t? he’s dreamy). Parker is stung by a spider (hilariously lowered down on a string from the rafters) and turns into one overnight and becomes Spiderman. Oh, and there is some very elementary ‘here’s my motive!’ stuff involving his Uncle Ben. No, not THAT one. A change here, a splice there, but the first act is essentially the first half of Spiderman (2002) without Harry Osbourne. The confusion comes with the addition of a completely pointless new character, Arachne, a mythical Spiderwoman, who appears a couple of times floating in a web with mechanical legs. She sings a bit and leaves, and actress Katrina Lenk takes fourth-top billing. Which is probably fair, seeing as she managed to get through the performance without laughing. Norman Osbourne, being the Texan mad scientist type, is conducting crazy tests, messing around with DNA and such. He transforms into the Green Goblin (more on this later, he types with rage). Throughout this, the ‘action’ is interspersed with…
- The Music and Lyrics: Frankly they’re a disgrace. None – not one – of the songs written by Bono and The Edge are good enough. For once, I actually yearned for a jukebox musical and a tune I could remember by the time I’d left my seat. With the song list in front of me, I could not hum one of the songs from the dreadfully phoned-in score. But then, surely there is a huge conflict of interest here? U2, like them or loathe them, are hugely successful and the cynic in me says surely if they stumbled across another “Beautiful Day” during the writing process for Turn Off the Dark, it would be stowed safely away for their next album? In fact, one big hit from the next album would surely eclipse any possible fees, rights and royalties earned from a show that Julie Taymor and other sources have alleged U2 didn’t ever have their heart in? The songs have a repetitive, chiming, jarring nature to them which irritates too. The dreadfully poor ‘Bullying By Numbers’ seemed to consist of people shouting (rapping?) then repeating the phrase ‘Bullying By Numbers’ with cod-Californian beach boy accents. ‘Bouncing Off the Walls’ is similarly repetitive. The rest I barely remember. The only redeeming parts come when nobody is singing; during battles, video vignettes and during the curtain call. The lyrics are obvious, childish and do absolutely nothing to advance the plot through song. Rather, the songs just sort-of happen before another ‘acted’ scene. The music and lyrics could’ve been written for a completely different show. Awful, awful, awful.
- The Acting: Frankly it’s… look I can hand-on-heart say that you will be hard-pressed to pay less for a ticket and see worse. The acting alone is, at times, akin to a secondary school production or mediocre amateur dramatic society. This runs throughout the cast. Does the blame lie with ‘current’ Director Philip Wm. McKinley? It’s hard to say, I didn’t see the show under Taymor’s tenure, but I can say this, the acting is as bad as anything I’ve seen – and that includes The Lord of the Rings. Specifically;
- Reeve Carney looks like he’d rather be anyone else but Spiderman. His acting is beyond wooden. Aside from one minor hissy-fit with Uncle Ben (no, not that one) I can’t remember him showing any emotion in the entire duration of the show.
- Rebecca Faulkenberry sounds and looks the part, if she is perhaps does look slightly older than the role requires. Her delivery though seemed particularly forced and contrived, and she had no rapport whatsoever with Carney on stage. They barely made eye contact.
- Robert Cuccioli was a big disappointment for me, being excellent on the Jekyll and Hyde Broadway Cast Recording. Really struggled with a garbled Southern accent and complete lack of presence (especially as the Green Goblin).
- Michael Mulheren gets J. Jonah Jameson completely, horribly wrong. You know, the editor of the Daily Bugle. He doesn’t look like him. He doesn’t sound like him. He isn’t funny. He doesn’t talk fast. He doesn’t do anything. I’ve got absolutely no idea how this happened.
Whether the actors, the director(s) or the many interfering producers are to blame is unclear. But in short, there is not one noteworthy performance from the ensemble.
- The Singing: Isn’t horrible… but neither is it of a Broadway standard. Reeve Carney has a steady rock belt which is safe if unspectacular. Rebecca Faulkenberry is a touch on the shrill side. Across the ensemble, though, the singing was less than stellar. Due to the need for energetic, triple-threat performers (who often perform stunts, etc) this could be given if…
- The Dancing: …is a mess. In the opening ensemble scenes I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Some of the loosest, messiest dancing I’ve seen on Broadway and again, with no real excuse. It got no better.
- Laughably Bad Moments: There are a shed-load of these, the aforementioned spider sting, and Spiderman boxing an inflatable blow-up doll in the middle of the stage (yes, seriously, Spiderman boxing an inflatable blow-up doll in the middle of the stage) were my personal favourites.
- Just Plain Bad Moments: I’ve mentioned the musical numbers are universally dreadful. As are the acted scenes. But the Green Goblin’s character in particular is a train wreck in green tights. He is given the role of comedy Panto villain; breaks the fourth wall, is put on hold when calling up to make death threats, etc. I can hand on heart say, I don’t think I heard a single person laugh at any of the criminally poor attempts at humour. Why is the Green Goblin playing a piano atop the Chrysler Building? Why is he able to create “Swiss Miss”, a woman made of knives, by blending human DNA with… knives? Why does a snippet of U2′s “Beautiful Day” play? A treat for all the hundreds of U2 fans in the audience sickened by what they have heard so far? Why does the (rather good) previous actor to play the role, Patrick Page, still appear in the second act video vignettes, despite Cuccioli joining the cast eight months ago? Why at one point was I watching a guy dressed like a bee, a girl dressed like a Swiss Army Knife, and a guy with a giant prosthetic Dinosaur head on running around in circles on the stage?
- The Show Doesn’t Know It’s Bad: I’m under the troubling impression that those involved with Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark are actually unaware just how poor a show it is. It seems the show is now ‘locked down’ – i.e. no further changes will ever be made to change the mile long list of problems. If I were a producer of Spiderman and I’d invested $Xm into the show’s success, I’d be demanding improvements, even at this stage. Similarly, if I were a backer I’d be trying to get the hell out of there. Spiderman is well on its way to dying a slow, but inevitable death at the Foxwoods. The show is at TKTS for every single performance, and the show I attended was by no means full. Heavily discounted tickets are being sold on the show’s official website and the show is, allegedly, running at a sizable weekly deficit. In short, it’s a sinking ship – and nobody cares. They are ‘happy’ with the final product – dreadful as it is – and nothing more will be done until it crawls to a close either this year or next.
- How much?: A minor gripe but the price of merchandise is absolutely reprehensible. $40 for a wafer thin t-shirt; $25 for a brochure (compared to the $10 at The Phantom of the Opera). They are even charging children upwards of $30 for a printed photograph in the lobby with ‘Spiderman’. Absolutely scandalous.
And to summarise:
Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is a rotten show which is offensive to fans of Broadway musicals and Spiderman. Flawed in nearly every single department, you would be better off watching the films, buying a comic or seeing anything else on or off Broadway. I can’t quite believe how poor the show was, or how it is still running.
And now I’m off for an Uncle Ben’s (yes, THAT one)
- Harry Zing
When? Saturday 9th February 2013
Where? The Studio (Alhambra), Bradford
Who? Paul Tonkinson
I’m sure in the stand up comedy circuit there is an unwritten book of ground rules among performers, e.g. Rule No.1: Don’t be late to your own gig. Unfortunately, the evening got off to a bad start when Tonkinson was seen running through the Studio Bar five minutes after he was due on stage. When he did make an appearance, almost twenty minutes late, the Yorkshire comedian appeared visibly flustered and distressed, blaming his SatNav for his tardiness. Struggling to get into his rhythm for twenty uncomfortable minutes, which he constantly apologised for, Tonkinson promised that this would not be the “worst gig of the tour”, despite the hurrendous start and flat, thinly spread audience.
After he had warmed up, however, Tonkinson got into his stride and put on a safe evening of tried and tested comedy. Subjects included the joys (and perils) of being a Father, his journey to “fame” and plenty about being a Yorkshireman gone south.
However, much of Tonkinson’s material seemed oddly irrelevant; most notably a fairly lengthy segment on Tim Henman (who cares?) which could’ve been funny back in the mid-to-late 1990′s (where much of Tonkinson’s life experience was seemingly learned). At one point the comic asked the audience if they liked football, referencing the Premier League, before immediately talking about rugby, seemingly confusing the two sports completely. I am completely flummoxed by the show’s lead title “Fancy Man” as he did nothing at all to expand on this, but perhaps I’m missing something there. A couple of times Tonkinson uncomfortably straddled the line between self-deprecation and awkwardness. opening the second act by pointing out a couple (who may or may not have been gay) had left at the interval; he appeared genuinely hurt. I like Tonkinson as a presence, but this was disappointing.
A gig to forget for Tonkinson, who I’m sure is capable of much better, and not one that many of the thin audience will be writing home about, despite the occasional moment of wit and charm.
- Harry Zing