Category Archives: musical

Streaming South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre

South Pacific - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

Now that was some enchanted evening! The Chichester Festival Theatre revival of South Pacific, delayed from 2020, made a critically acclaimed debut a few weeks ago and in early August offered its first streamed performances, a handful of which are available throughout the run. A true piece of hybrid theatre, it was filmed on opening night and is made available to ticketholders for 24-hours at the designated time – a compromise position given the possibility of isolation rules causing live performance cancellations later in the run. But the streamed performance is gloriously managed, capturing the visual spectacle of director Daniel Evans’s vision as well as the darker themes in the story that quite carefully reconsider the effect of combat and conquest in what can now be a troubling piece.

An early adopter of digital streaming, Chichester was among the first to make some of its archive shows available at the start of the pandemic which ultimately became a useful revenue stream when the free availability of the beautiful Flowers for Mrs Harris resulted in a socially distant and audience-free cast reunion at the venue to produce a saleable soundtrack recording. Other pre-recorded shows followed and soon the commitment to live-streaming Carol Churchill’s Crave proved a savvy decision when the venue reopened for only a few days before the second lockdown in November 2020 and all remaining performances were moved online.

Now relative experts at capturing their shows on film, Chichester has learnt much about live editing and the demands of creating a show that will be watched simultaneously online and in the theatre. The result is South Pacific, a digital stream that may not be live but feels almost like being there. In fact, in some ways it may even be advantageous, giving the home audience a better-than-front-row view of the performance that immerses us in the story and creates a tighter focus around this interpretation’s particular themes.

Favouring the love affair between Nellie and Emile, like the Open Air Theatre’s Carousel, this Rodgers and Hammerstein reimagined for a twenty-first century remote audience without losing the immediacy and sweeping romance of this luscious score – arguably one of their greatest and most haunting combinations of melody. The transfer is seamless, managed by Evans to ensure the show’s more intimate and psychological moments are treated with the same care as capturing the big set piece numbers which are arguably enhanced by the proximity of the camera and its ability to create pace, energy and fluidity to reflect some of Evans’s more fascinating creative choices.

Often a light-hearted and sprightly piece, this version of South Pacific has a real understanding of the complexities and darker impact of conflict taking place in this deceptively dangerous paradise. It is striking how well Evans has understood and represents the combat experience in blue-tinged official spaces filled with maps, data and military rigidity that serve as a permanent reminder of quite how much is at stake both for the soldiers individually and the balance of power in the war. Part of Chichester’s approach to repositioning the troubling elements of South Pacific – that reflect its 1940s origins – is to really focus on the changing service experience as the allure of the islands and the relative leisure time of the men and nurses becomes increasingly consumed by the business of war, and Evans’s approach finds greater darkness as the shadow of invasion creeps in.

A master stroke is to turn the chirpy mid-show ditty Happy Talk performed by Bloody Mary into a tearing tragedy, a minor key triumph that entirely recasts the song and finds a whole new resonance that utterly transforms the piece and the trajectory of Lieutenant Cable in particular. Rather than a distracting love affair full of youth, romance and exoticism – and let’s not forget the queasier knowledge of a man old enough to know better cheating on his fiancée with an adolescent sold as a virtual prostitute by her mother to the highest bidder be they marine or French plantation owner – instead becomes a grand but doomed romance that reflects Cable’s later malarial malaise, something which condemns him from the moment the relationship is contracted. What is so fascinating in Evans’s production is the extent to which they both know it right then, hence the somber tone in which Bloody Mary now so perfectly expresses her song.

As a digital viewer, you are given an intimacy with this moment that no present audience member can experience. A tight focus on the trio and the fatal effect this has on all their lives. Placing a camera in the midst of that swirling of emotion at the point of damnation and with that taste of disaster on their lips is astonishing, amplifying their soured happiness in a way that entirely transcends the screen between you. Rob Houchen’s performance of Younger than Springtime is outstanding but when, later, Cable’s fate is sealed, the weight of this earlier moment hangs over them all taking on the proportions almost of Greek tragedy in the extent that Cable’s self-sacrificing determination following his incapacitation is in direct response to his consumption with Liat. It adds so meaningfully to the brutal aspect of the paradise island and, while they may be the heroes of this story, it questions the impact that American soldiers and sailors (themselves invaders of this land) had on the landscape and its people. It is an extraordinary emotional and moving repositioning of one of the show’s liveliest songs, and one that thematically and politically makes absolute sense in this smart reimagining.

But if its spectacle you’re after than this digital screening doesn’t disappoint, showcasing the energy and beauty of Ann Yee’s choreography which uses the revolve to create storytelling moments, ones that are always underscored by the mixed emotion and unachievable fantasy that this Tonkinese island offers. Notably in the show’s opening moments, a beautiful lone dancer whose peace and serenity is woven through the choreography finds her space overtaken by naval officers and marines abseiling into position and surrounding the local woman with their marching dance rhythm. As we see elsewhere in this classy interpretation, Americans may be on the winning side but they too are enforced aliens claiming temporary control of this land.

This version of South Pacific finds a visual, almost cinematic, language in these moments to convey the mixture of fun and fantasy that the Polynesian islands represent captured in the sprightlier numbers like Nothing Like a Dame or I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair as the American characters have a jolly time. On screen these exude comradeship and community – and let’s not forget this is not a group of friends together by choice, but a company of naval personnel thrown together for a strategic, combative purpose who grab the opportunity to live in the moment because, for some of them, it may be their last. That knowledge makes these numbers feel so alive and within their gendered groups they are entirely at ease with one another in these strange and strangely beautiful circumstances, giving it a Technicolor glory that really shines on screen. But then the shadows fall, sometimes physically, and Evans ensures every moment is tinged by the reality around them, with each stage picture edged with black as though these are brief memories picked out amidst a massing inevitable darkness.

The counterpoint to that is to bring such warmth to the relationship between Nellie and Emile so their attraction to one another feels far more substantial than ever before. Some of that is certainly enhanced by the proximity of the camera which shows their growing attraction to one another and builds quite a realistic connection between them. But this Emile is also a far warmer and less remote figure than earlier interpretations, helped by a less pronounced age gap than on film which brings a new perspective to this couple.

Rossano Brazzi certainly made for a debonair love interest in the movie, suave, charming and with a romantic vocal swell, yet he retained a forbidding quality, an aloof diginity that played better in the 1950s than perhaps it does now. Chichester’s central couple are on a more equal footing, one not solely based on her beauty and his wealth, but by finding complimentarities in personality and eventually their mutual ability to reassess their values in light of their love for one another. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck bring a wonderful lightness and sense of humour to their roles which explains why the lonely Emile would be drawn to the wholesome American exuberance that Nellie offers. They laugh together, find joy in the same things and feel far more like a meeting of minds than in previous versions.

On screen that chemisty is just luminous, their scenes together the absolute heart of this wonderful show and utterly transporting. Lit by Howard Harrison on Peter McKintosh’s wonderful villa set design, Emile undergoes a Bogart-like transformation within the narrative, and just like Rick in Casblanca his journey becomes one of welcoming him ‘back to the fight’, a transition that Ovenden manages with particular care, even a delicate beauty. The sincerity of his almost too innocent love for Nellie, reverberating so powerfully through Some Enchanted Evening (the song of songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon) reels into aching heartbreak in This Nearly Was Mine, prompting his decision to put himself in danger to help the American marines. That Ovenden’s Emile is a man of passion and sensitivity who is thus awakened to dignity, bravery and manly decency earns his happy ending in much the same fate-guided way that Cable’s questionable choices decide his.

Beck’s role-sharing Nellie is a difficult character to sell to modern audiences as well, sweet as apple pie for most of the show but displaying a fiercely racist and unbending attitude that is both narrow-minded and quite damning for a leading lady. But Beck navigates through it all with real skill, demonstrating a thoughtless quality in Nellie rather than a malicious belief system that undercuts some of the troubling elements of her character and makes her transformation more convincing when being on the island opens her eyes to broader, more tolerant ways of living. Beck and Ovenden have a wonderful chemistry, giving their love songs a tender feeling that makes you root for them to shift just enough to live happily ever after.

Perhaps Evans’s most interesting and welcome advancement is to reconsider how the Tonkinese characters are represented by offering a restrained and more humanly rounded impression of a mother and daughter trying to survive. Gone are the comedy accents and wistful, nubile compliance and instead Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary becomes both an entrepreneurial woman taking advantage of the strangers on her island to exploit them while seeking to build a future for her family knowing that they will soon be gone. Liat (Sera Maehara) too is given choreography exploring her innocence, a love of nature and self-contentedness which the arrival of Cable upsets, and while there is still much that remains uncomfortable about the way Mary brings that relationship about, these women have become far more then vessels for male desire or the two-dimensional butt of their jokes.

The dawn of hybrid theatre and the opportunity to watch current shows from home has naturally caused some concern about the longer-term effect on in-person audience attendance but offering a handful of digital performances is no threat to that, it even encourages future engagement. This joyous production of South Pacific is a case in point because however impractical all you’ll want to do at the end of this stream is jump on the next train to Chichester to see it all over again, live.

South Pacific is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September with a selection of streamed performances throughout the remaining run from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Carousel – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Carousel - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (by Johan Persson)

In a mini-season of nostalgic musicals looking back to mid-twentieth century song and dance styles, Carousel probably least deserves its cosy reputation. While the racial politics and untrammelled heroism of South Pacific is troubling, its love story plots and messages of acceptance have a contemporary resonance, at least in Chichester Festival Theatre’s carefully pitched production. Over at the Barbican, Anything Goes is a frothy, tap-dancing delight and while there may be cartoonish gangsters and farcical shenanigans aplenty, Cole Porter’s tunes are pure escapism. Even the return of Singing in the Rain to Sadler’s Wells will find little to offend in arguably the greatest dance musical of all time which itself is wistfully nostalgic about the origins of movie-making.

But not so Carousel, a new version of which opens at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this week. It may be part of the Technicolor musical canon but Rodgers and Hammerstein’s redemption story needs to look a little different in 2021 as themes of domestic violence, strict gender division and crime are the focus of a rare story of working class industrialisation, disillusion and the ultimate emptiness of masculine expectations.

No summer is truly complete without a musical at the Open Air Theatre, and a stunning Evita in 2019 directed by Jamie Lloyd and the returning Jesus Christ Superstar that so movingly reopened West End performance last August were choreographic magic in spite of social distancing requirements imposed on the creative choices of the latter. Carousel is a harder show to sell on the grand scale given its tighter focus on a small, early twentieth-century fishing community. And while the dance choices are impressive, spectacle for its own sake gives way to storytelling as dance is used as a narrative device and the simpler staging offers plenty for the audience to mine in what is an intriguing story of male control.

Set nominally in America, Timothy Sheader all but relocates the drama to what feels like a midlands industrial town in the 1910s. The cast retain their UK accents but still refer to clam bakes and trips to New York that situate the play somewhere between the two. And while on film, the big studio movie went for a sanitised rural affair not dissimilar to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Sheader’s production owes more to D.H. Lawrence and Patrick Hamilton that it does to the Hollywood golden age. This is a world in which men do the manual work, often hard labour of some kind, drink beer with their friends and expect to be obeyed, while the women do chores, have the children and accept their lot in life.

In Sheader’s production, the relationships between them are frequently tinged with sadness as the early promise of romance is merely romanticism, and marriage rapidly becomes an unshakable burden to both husband and wife. While protagonists Julie and Billy are hardly swept away in a dreamlike fantasy, their hasty marriage declines within two months and a different feeling seems to lie between them. Even the starry-eyed Carrie who spends most of Act One dreaming of marrying her beloved Enoch, is soon oppressed by the tribulations of marriage of which she bears the brunt in Act Two.

And all of this is thematically focused around different forms of control displayed and imposed by several of the male characters. Enoch may be polite and well-bred but here he is also shown to be manipulative, forcing his own expectations of behaviour onto Carrie, ones that she must comply with in return for marriage. He forces her to subdue her sunny nature and friendliness to appear right and proper in Enoch’s eyes, an unreasonable standard he sets for her. Later, in Act Two, we discover the hoped-for union has done nothing but oppress her and, having complied with his restrictive vision of wifely duty, she is held in little esteem, bearing his many children and forced to trail along behind him. It may be hidden beneath layers of supposed decency but Enoch’s coercive nature is demanding and damaging, setting patterns of behaviour ready to be inherited by the next generation.

But Billy is understandably Carousel’s biggest problem, a man haunted throughout the play by what he claims is a single incident of abuse against his wife, for which she forgives him. What follows is quite interesting and while Sheader’s production stands firm on it being inexcusable, there is an attempt to psychologically understand how someone like Billy is created. What this version of the musical cannot do is offer him any redemption for it and the show’s original ending is curtailed to close-off that possibility.

So this is where Sheader looks to Lawrence and Hamilton in considering the construct of early-twentieth-century working class masculinity, based largely on the ability to provide for a family and the opportunities to demonstrate physical manliness through acts of brute strength. Billy’s difficult relationship with friend Jigger brings out the worst in him, immersing him in a very particular experience of unforgiving competitive dominance in which status and acceptance depend on compliance with the social norms that men created for one another. That much of this happens in places of recreation nods to Hamilton’s interest in male leisure.

Billy however takes on the complex structures of Lawrencian masculinity in which these notions of innate brutism conflict with the creative instinct and a more thoughtful, even soulful recognition of alternative ways to be a man. While Billy can never lay claim to be as intricate a character study as, say, Paul Morel or even his father Walter, there is nonetheless a duality in Billy that this production draws out, recognising the shutting down of opportunity that affects his estimation of himself and others. This is exacerbated by his friendship with whaler Jigger who draws his own power from his gruff leadership of other men and, as we shall see in the forthoming TV series The North Water, this world without women curdles male ego so it exists only to compete and dominate.

That Billy becomes trapped in these externally imposed conceptions of manliness is clear and his need to exert physicality on the spaces around him, something he is unable to perform without paid work. This confines him to such an extent that the boiling frustrations and the limitations imposed on his unspecified creativity forge the conditions in which his anger is channeled into a physical act of aggression first against his wife, later in the intention to commit a criminal act and finally, with nowhere left to turn, against himself.

But none of this in Sheader’s production allows Billy to escape the censure he deserves. Whether, as he claims, his act of domestic violence was a single occurrence is left to the audience to determine, but it continues to hold him to account and heap a rightful sense of opprobrium on him from neighbours, his celestial all-female judges and later from the next generation, meaning it is almost the only thing for which he is remembered. That he reacts with frustration every time it is raised and with a detemination to clear his name is reflective of the shame and guilt that follows him – but it is not enough this time to give him the ending that Rodgers and Hammerstein originally offered.

It does create a rather sudden conclusion to this Open Air Theatre production in the slightly truncated narrative that arguably makes Billy’s Act Two journey rather redundant, yet as an exploration of character it becomes painfully clear that Billy’s impression of himself is quite out of kilter with his true nature and he is far from the man he thinks he is. When history repeats itself during his encounter with Louise towards the end of the show, it is a thunderclap moment for the protagonist and one which the Director decides must be a watershed for the audience as well. Billy is, then, quite correctly denied the redemption towards which the show is actually shaped, but in excising material from the story an alternative conclusion for Billy is left unresolved.

Julie is a more mysterious character, given a few moments to explore her love for Billy and some tinge of regret but far less psychological insight into their attraction and why she is determined to stand by him regardless. Instead, the local community fill the other half of the show, using some of the bigger set pieces including This Was a Real Nice Clambake and Carousel’s most famous number You’ll Never Walk Alone to set the scene, a tight-knit but divided town who finds moments of peace and celebration amidst its starkly gender-segregated activity.

Drew McOnie’s subtle choreography may not have a big showcase group number to dance for the sake of dance itself, but his choices are stunning in their ability to tell stories through different kinds of movement. McOnie reflects Molly Einchomb and Tom Scutt’s costume design for the townspeople using broad, country dance shapes as he fills the stage with bustles of activity that has a crowded coordination. Often, these form into segregated numbers that doesn’t noticeably draw a distinction between the male and female experience, even if Rodgers and Hammerstein do, giving similar structures across the Ensemble sections.

Some of the standout moments include the all-male Blow High, Blow Low with a scooping movement that captures the experience of the industrial workforce, and the finale reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone in which the cast form a circle and, one-by-one, the women turn to face outwards throughout the song in case you had any lingering doubt about the underlying strength of purpose this interpretation gives its female characters. McOnie’s greatest moment is a beautiful ballet sequence that summarises Louise’s story, staged among set designer Scutt’s twisted carousel poles that briefly fill the dance space, as she battles the same limitations as her parents, fending off the attentions of other young men while trying to find her own identity, all told entirely and beautifully through movement.

After a powerful performance as a role-sharing Jesus last year, Declan Bennett returns to the Open Air Theatre as the complex and troubled Billy. It’s not easy to play a character without hope and Bennett gives Billy plenty of layers that make his journey through the story interesting but never forgiveable. What Bennett does so well is to understand the separation between Billy’s impression of himself and his right to behave as he chooses, and the unconscious nature that for so long remains a mystery to him so that recognition when it comes is shocking. Bennett brings every bit of power to his vocals with particularly moving renditions of Soliloquy and If I Loved You that are highly romantic but note the life he could have had if he’d been a better man.

Carly Bawden equals that vocal quality, even with a rather underdeveloped female lead, bringing real emphasis to the melancholy What’s the Use of Wond’rin and the self-deceiving duet If I Loved You. There is a quiet endurance and certainty in Julie which we largely observe in her silent ability to get on with life, whatever the suffering it causes her – a Lawrencian heroine, full of fragile strength. Craig Armstrong gave a notable performance as the fathomless Jigger (as understudy) whose presence changes the nature of the show, while Joanna Riding is the heart of the community as Nettie Fowler who leads the mournful uplift of Carousel’s best-known tune.

Sheader stages Carousel with relative simplicity and with a decent pace, helped by Scutt’s rotating stage that moves almost imperceptibly throughout, referencing the fairground attraction of the title as the characters find themselves unable to stop the revolve. A steep wood-slatted surround gives the show height and variation, implying a town surrounded by hills that also creates space for the female Ensemble as the deities presiding over Billy’s last chance for absolution.

While the backdrop of the Open Air Theatre adds its usual touch, Carousel may not be quite as nostalgic as you remember. The exploration of context, social expectation and the confines of gender add a greater understanding to character choices without detracting from problematic and indefensible behaviour. Taking a hard line on a troublesome musical is smart work and Sheader has given considerable thought to reconfiguring Carousel for twenty-first century audiences.

Carousel is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 25 September with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cinderella – Gillian Lynne Theatre

Cinderella - Gillian Lynne Theatre (by Tristam Kenton)

Cinderella may well be the most talked about not talked about musical theatre opening in years; during 2020, teaser songs were released, casting announcements were made and the show has been surrounded by publicity since its original West End run was cancelled last autumn and its official Opening Night moved to July. Yet most of the coverage in recent weeks has little to do with the show and more its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who insisted he’d go to jail rather than delay full reopening, sent a public message to the government by refusing to participate in test events without other producers being included and has been rattling sabers all over town. But what is a little controversy? Lloyd Webber has championed theatre throughout the pandemic, trialing audience safety measures and test performances for the press at the Palladium last autumn. But with arts advocacy and politics dominating the headlines, is his new musical Cinderella going to be any good?

Opening with a socially distanced auditorium after all, the show is now ten days into its run with another week before press night, and Cinderella already has quite a few things to offer. Not least, it is a new ‘spin’ on the classic story giving Cinderella and her fellow female characters more agency and individuality than the traditional tale which prioritises beauty as the key attribute that ultimately leads to marriage – the preconfigured destiny for all good fairy-tale women. In fact the obsession with beauty becomes a price to pay for this Cinderella, reimagined as a spirited goth with a wicked wit.

With a book by Emerald Fennell who recently won an Oscar and a Bafta for her screenplay Promising Young Woman, a film that takes a stand against the culture of predatory men, Cinderella tries to flesh-out some of the other female roles as well, replacing the King with a powerful and determined Queen while showcasing the ingenuity and determination of Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother with a backstory that places her and the Queen on par – for these women to shine, however, it means the others must be viewed as pretty but generic or empty-headed, ensuring that for the Prince, it is Cinderella’s alternative approach that stands out.

The idea of perfection becomes a shared obstacle for the male lead as well, contrasting the ideal physical heroism and masculinity of Prince Charming whose loss in battle dominates the opening number with his brother Sebastian who becomes his underwhelming replacement with no grand tales of derring do or rippling muscles to attract a suitor. Applying these same standards of beauty and expected physical shape gives Cinderella a more contemporary feel in a world where the chiseled Marvel superhero is now the standard Hollywood aspiration for men and as equally infeasible as the tiny-waisted sirens long foisted on women. Within the show, this plays out at Court as the warrior-like attendants to Sebastian goad and belittle his lack of strength and machismo while parading their own – much to the delight of the Queen.

With Cinderella and Sebastian made into childhood friends unable to see their true feelings for one another, the story becomes a tale of two people suffering under the weight of external expectations to be something they cannot. That both struggle to live up to standards of feminine and masculine beauty, actively rejecting these traits for something more meaningful but are forced to pursue the wrong course creates new dimensions in a well-worn premise. And while many of the fairy tale’s original pieces are in place – some of the same characters, a ball, a fairy godmother and glass slippers – the narrative is shifted and slightly recast to create a greater power balance between the central couple that relies less on social status and more on self-discovery and appreciation.

Fennell’s book also adds a cheeky wit to the exchanges, the detail of which will go over the heads of any children in the room, to create a few risque moments including barbed exchanges from The Stepmother and a dry sarcasm given to a generally no-nonsense Cinderella that underscores her more broad-ranging personality – there’s no singing to dressmaking mice here or simpering about being rescued from her drudgery. Why she stays to clean for her step-family is less clear and, other than it being her father’s house, the flashes of temper and rebellion sit uneasily against her continued role as the family skivvy – a position someone of her determined personality would have quit long ago.

With the central narrative unlikely to change substantially ahead of its official opening, the overall effect is occasionally patchy. Lloyd Webber’s composition and David Zippel’s lyrics draw on several different music styles as the show evolves, mixing guitar, piano and harpsichord-led numbers that sometimes look to pop and, once or twice, even rap with the fuller orchestration and soaring strings that support the more successful songs. Lloyd’s Webber’s best scores have a compositional and stylistic consistency running across them whether that’s the rock ferocity of Jesus Christ Superstar, the orchestral grandeur of Phantom of the Opera, the tango and Latin rhythms of Evita or the stirring classicism of Sunset Boulevard, and it is their musical cohesion that makes them great, drawing together the big company numbers with the soliloquies and moments of introspection.

Cinderella doesn’t have the same coherent basis for the development of its songs and so it lacks a centre of gravity that pulls all of the numbers together. When they’re good, they are very good including a couple of the pre-released numbers such as Only You, Lonely You sung by Sebastian which is classic Lloyd Webber, filled with those familiar rising strings and room-filling emotion that gives the audience an insight into the character’s emotional state and psychology with a subtle nod to Sondheim’s Loving You. Cinderella’s own post-ball disaster song I Know I Have a Heart is also a big moment as the character realises her feelings for Sebastian are greater than she knew which the song expresses with clarity.

But the best songs really belong to the wider cast and will be a delightful surprise to audiences who won’t yet have heard them. A very fine and spiky duet entitled I Know You between The Queen and and The Stepmother is a comic highlight as two titans battle it out, both revealing something of their shared past, the clamber to the top and refusal to be cowed by it, while a late number Marry For Love provides a nice ensemble moment that fills the stage with big 50s Technicolor movie musical sounds. The Godmother has a fierce pre-interval number in which the real cost of beauty is visited on the naive Cinderella, while the men of the court perform an amusing thigh-slapping number, cavorting around the Queen in homage to the manly memory of Prince Charming.

But not all of the songs have quite the same verve which occasionally flattens the drama. With several big characters among the secondary cast and the chemistry between Cinderella and Sebastian not yet working as well as it could, their sometimes lengthy moments of introspection, including the protagonist’s regretful Far Too Late, don’t quite match the spectacle in other parts of the show. This same variability is also evident in Joann M. Hunter’s choreography with some numbers – particularly those that include ballroom dance sequences – still needing a bit of polish to maximise their impact and harmonisation, although this is a relatively small Ensemble with a lot of ground to cover.

In staging Cinderella, director Laurence Connor generally balances the big set pieces and the individual emotional trajectories very well, easily transporting the show from town square to The Stepmother’s kitchen, the woody rendezvous between Cinderella and Sebastian and the Palace. The latter is a memorable coup de theatre at the start of the second half as the front-on staging transforms into an in-the-round space for the famous ball scene, a smart piece of stage management that emphasises the decisive nature of the event for the characters and offers its audience a bit of magic.

Set designer Gabriela Tylesova creates a half-world somewhere between fairy tale, gothicism and historical fantasy epic to bring Cinderella’s town to life – think a mash-up of The Grinning Man, pastoral ballet and Game of Thrones with touches of contemporary shapes which also infuse Tylesova’s elaborate costume design with cut-aways skirts in bejeweled eighteenth-century gowns, elaborate couture styles and some 1950s and 1980s shaping as well as Cinderella’s distinctive Emo look constructed from black net, firm boots and checked fabrics. Most memorable are The Queen’s outstanding scarlet corseted gown with long tiered skirt, the Godmother’s sharp power suit referencing the Wall Street pinstripe and The Stepmother’s fitted gowns that threaten to trip her up but give her character a style that purposefully contrasts with everyone else.

Carrie Hope Fletcher is building a great character in Cinderella, a more spirited and grounded version of the blandly perfect fairy tale. But this Cinderella is rebellious and often sarcastic which in dress and attitude separate her from the other women of the town. The story explores the simultaneous desire to be different to everybody else and at the same time accepted within the same standards of beauty, and Hope Fletcher’s performance navigates those contradictions well, showing how Cinderella’s head is (albeit momentarily) turned by conventionality.

The chemistry with Ivano Turco’s Sebastian is something to work on and while both sing beautifully, conveying their character’s inner uncertainties and lack of confidence, their scenes together still feel like words being spoken in a play rather than two people unable to express their feelings in the moment. Elsewhere, Turco suggests all the pressures of being the disappointing second son thrust unwillingly into the limelight and forced to question his own purpose in the face of the imposing almost offensive manliness of his attendants. With a couple of great solos and an exciting dance number later in the show, Turco well captures the nuances of a different kind of prince.

There are are some terrific performances among the supporting cast who in many ways dominate the show, not least Rebecca Trehearn as The Queen whose sparkly regal charm belies a firm determination to dominate her son and the kingdom in several impressive song and dance segments. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt channels some late Judy and Liza while performing as The Stepmother, whose traditional wickedness is given just enough of a social climbing backstory to give greater purpose to her scheming, while Gloria Onitiri is fabulous and arguably underused as The Godmother whose main song is a twisted turning point in a show that could use more of her energy to cast darker shadows across the entire piece.

Press reactions may well be mixed when this much delayed show officially opens and this could be one where audiences and critics part ways with early reactions from theatre-goers already quite positive. With social distancing currently slated to end in a few weeks time and a very long run available to book, no one will have to go to jail for seeing this musical and, as a developing production, Cinderella is definitely on its way to the ball. With a week of performances before Opening Night, there is plenty of time to rebalance and smooth out the performance kinks by really polishing-up those glass slippers.

Cinderella is at the Gillian Lynne Theatre until 13 February 2022 with tickets from £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Hairspray – London Coliseum

Hairspray - London Coliseum

In January 2020, three Tracy Turnblads gathered at the BFI for a special screening of John Waters cult 1980s dance musical movie Hairspray. On the panel were Leanne Jones, the UK’s first stage Tracy when the full-blown song and dance version of Hairspray arrived in London in 2007, Lizzie Bea eagerly anticipating her own stage debut in April 2020 in the first major revival and the very first Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake. It was a very special event, one that cemented the enduring appeal of a feel good show dedicated to body positivity and racial integration in which a 60s schoolgirl dances her way to social revolution. A dance film that became a stage musical that became a musical film, Hairspray’s enduring legacy, echoed by three decades of Tracys, is a message for our reviving theatres – ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’

It is fourth time lucky for Jack O’Brien’s much delayed revival at the London Coliseum originally scheduled for April 2020, soon after debutante Bea’s promotional appearance at the BFI. But April became September, which became April 2021 and eventually June, where after a full week of performances to a reduced capacity audience of 1000, the show officially opens to the press later this week. And it is an absolute treat. The production may have been battered by the elements in the last 14 months, but this Hairspray is holding firm.

And there are few better shows to welcome fully-staged musicals back to life. It may be set in a cartoonish version of the past, filled with larger-than-life characters bouncing between chirpy ditties, but Hairspray’s story echoes the duet sung by Tracy’s parents; it is ‘timeless to me’. Its underlying social messaging about body image, teenage bullying and feeling like an outsider is ever-relevant, while the characters’ campaign to end segregation on a television dance show through protest and even imprisonment, is as pertinent as ever. And after a long and tiring period of uncertainty, its determination that a changed future is coming is the sliver of hope that audiences want to believe in.

The London Coliseum is an enormous auditorium that in recent years has housed starry summer revivals of Sunset Boulevard and Chess, so O’Brien’s production feels quite at home in a venue that did much to support the continuation and development of musical theatre during the pandemic. Several digital concerts were filmed here and streamed online, while a revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the premiere of new musical After You were presented against the ornate backdrop of the theatre. The dates may have changed many times, but this production of Hairspray remained at the forefront of the Coliseum’s reopening plans.

Staging Hairspray

O’Brien and set designer David Rockwell have employed a little ingenuity in limiting the vastness of this stage and utilising their small cast of six principals, a handful of secondary roles and around 20 ensemble members to fill out the dance numbers. Often used for ballet, the relative intimacy of Tracy’s Baltimore home could easily have been lost on the Coliseum stage, but Rockwell creates a sizeable frame that contains the action within a smaller central television-shaped box that valuably reduces the width of the playing space by about a third to create an illusion of fullness that works very effectively. It gives the show a useful balance between the big, energetic numbers that fill the stage with bright colours, people and activity, and the smaller relationship-based songs that showcase the growing emotional connections between individuals which add heart to the political and entertaining elements of the musical.

Rockwell leans into the 60s aesthetic to create a deceptive flatness in the set that mimics animation from the era with houses in particular given tapered dimensions to create the illusion of height and scale. It is deliberately unreal to reflect the different kinds of bubble that the characters live in, where self-realisation is their path to enlightenment. Small islands are wheeled onstage to change location, moving between the streets of Tracy’s beloved city which whiz by in Good Morning Baltimore or the furnished illustrative platform containing a television set and ironing board to represent the Turnblad’s home, there is a simplicity to the set design and construction that creates fluidity.

Larger venues such as Corny Collins’s television studio and Maybelle’s record shop as core dance locations use far more of the floorspace with podiums containing their presenters’ DJ booths, hanging signs and freestanding doors doing just enough to create the illusion of place as Tracy and her friends go beyond the boundaries of their usual locations. Rockwell compensates for the minimal staging of the love songs with additional activity including silhouetted jailbird dancers seen through the backdrop for the prison in a nod to Chicago as Tracy and Link perform Without Love, later joined by Penny and Seaweed.

But Hairspray is a show that is ultimately about spectacle and O’Brien delivers some of the major set pieces with flair. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs mirror the aesthetic that Rockwell has created in the set, drawing on the clash between traditional 50s shapes and the swirling patterns and extravagant trimming of the show’s 1962 setting. The transformation of Edna from drab housewife and laundress in shapeless dress and lank hair to glamorous ‘momager’ is a key moment, one which Long and Huntley manage with panache during Welcome to the 60s, and while Tracy’s own sartorial development is more subtle, her new found celebrity and romantic awakening are reflected in the clothing and wig choices.

Costume becomes a shorthand for characterisation in much of the show, just as it was in Waters’s original movie, and in this slimmed-down staging, costume is a visual tool to create status, personality, confidence and emotional depth. From Velma’s fitted fish-tale suit in vivid yellow, matched to Amber’s girl next door dresses in a similar hue, to Link’s drainpipe trousers and slicked hair, the PE kits in the sport scene, Wilbur’s dogtooth-patterned jacket and Maybelle’s luxurious fabrics, Long’s costumes sit neatly within the history of these characters in performance while reflecting the social tension between tradition and change, as well as the various sides of Baltimore life that reflect distinctions made in the show based on class, race and physical shape.

Choreography and Performance

By including Waters film in their movie musicals season, the BFI made the case for Hairspray to be viewed as a dance musical and its stage choreography is an important point of connection with the original non-singing film which uses the group routines and moves of the 1960s as its base. This revival retains Jerry Mitchell’s original stage choreography which does the same, drawing the distinction between the ‘cleaner’ moves performed by the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’ on the Corny Collins show dancing the ‘bird’ and the ‘mashed-potato’, and those evolving from Tracy’s response to music as she explores the more sensual rhythms of blues and soul with Seaweed and Maybelle which infuse the mainstream as the story unfolds.

With major musicals and new work largely limited to concert versions for many months, the opportunity to experience a full West End dance musical performance have been limited, so Hairspray is one of the first shows to stage big full company numbers on this scale for some time and it has a galvanising effect on the audience. The controlled complexity of the Hop scene in which the dancers are separated by race is particularly well achieved. Moving the shape of the dance around the stage to create character perspectives without mixing the segregated blocks looks effortless but is intricately done, while the ferocious spirit and pace of the finale number You Can’t Stop the Beat is a zesty riot of fluid movement, coordination and complex synchronisation as the cast deftly move around one another to bring the conclusion of different sub-narratives to the front of the stage before blending into the pack once more.

These larger-scale numbers never detract from the individual skill of the dance performers including Ashley Samuels as the fluid-hipped Seaweed whose nimble rendition of Run and Tell That is a dance highlight, along with showcase appearances in the detention scene, the Hop and Maybelle’s record shop. The Ensemble give the show its choreographic breadth and depth, performing as members of the Council for the formal TV show numbers while filling-out the world of Baltimore from street scenes to integration protesters, prisoners and the audience for the Miss Teenage Hairspray finale pageant where the full cast create a rousing song and dance spectacle to end the show.

Making her West End debut, Bea captures all of Tracy’s charm and carries the audience with her through the story, no easy feat in a show with experienced performers in front of an expectant crowd. A character that the audience instantly adores, Bea’s Tracy has very little self-doubt and is resolved to achieve everything she wants – whether that’s joining the Corny Collins Council, dating Link or ending segregation. Bea is comic when she needs to be, brings out Tracy’s naive and romantic sides at times and conveys her character’s infectious enthusiasm for music, new experiences and social change. Bea hits her stride early, landing her first big number – Good Morning Baltimore – while her performance of I Can Hear the Bells is a fantastic proclamation of Tracy’s ambitious delusion, earning her place on the panel of Tracys alongside Leanne Jones and Ricki Lake.

Michael Ball established the role of Edna in the UK in 2007 and his return is a triumph. His second trip down memory lane in recent years following a period in Les Miserables: The Staged Concert, Ball is clearly having so much fun as Tracy’s sweetly underrated mother who follows her daughter’s lead and transforms into a confident and sexy modern woman. Ball’s finest moment is the duet You’re Timeless to Me with Les Dennis (replacing Paul Merton as Wilbur) which turns into a comic masterpiece. The pair have a wonderful stage chemistry and, performed in front of the curtain like a Music Hall act, they fill their big number with cheeky jokes, a bit of improvisation and pure joy at being able to perform for a live audience once again – this number is a showstopper and, as the actors heroically avoid corpsing, it has the audience in fits of laughter.

Hairspray has an accomplished supporting cast including a slickly villainous turn from Rita Simons in fine voice as Velma and, making his own West End debut, Jonny Amies proves a great partner for Bea as heartthrob Link. Ahead of Press Night, Marisha Wallace as Motormouth Maybelle and Georgia Anderson’s Amber could slightly reduce the throttle in their acted scenes which for Anderson particularly doesn’t give her character anywhere to go but Wallace’s vocal on I Know Where I’ve Been is extraordinary, a goosebump moment that fills the room with sound as only live musical theatre can.

14 months and four attempts later, Hairspray is finally back in the West End – the energy, sentiment and exhilaration of the show is completely irresistible. So many tentative steps have been taken towards the revival of live theatre focusing largely on monologue and two-person pieces, so it is almost overwhelmingly wonderful to see a full song and dance performance that showcases the very best creative talent in set design, costume, choreography and performance. Concluding with a rapturous standing ovation in which a thousand socially distant people made the noise of three times as many, whatever the hardships and struggles that theatre has endured, Hairspray sends a message of hope because you really can’t stop the beat.

Hairspray is at the London Coliseum until 29 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Film Preview: In the Heights

The stage to screen transfer is never a straightforward process and what a show loses in immediacy, direct flow and the intensity of live performance, a movie director must replace with imaginative shot choices and enough visual flair to not only fill the expanse of a cinema screen but to overcome the physical separation from its arguably more passive audience. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s much anticipated filmic treatment of their own stage musical In the Heights has much to recommend it, a rare opportunity to see representations of and diversity within New York communities centered around the deprived but beloved neighbourhood of Washington Heights. And while the film never entirely overcomes the flaws in the original stage show, Director John M Chu’s contemporised soundtrack and integrated choreographic sequences speak to emerging trends in the style and impact of twenty-first-century movie musicals.

It may not have been universally admired but La La Land was a game-changer for the genre, repurposing a cliched format for modern audiences while simultaneously paying homage to the great technicolor song and dance films offered by the big studios during the Golden Age of the movie musical. Director Damien Chazelle’s techniques – which arguably pay their own debt to Baz Lurhmann’s equally genre-busting Moulin Rouge – were deliberately and effectively disruptive both within the story and the wider musical movie industry. In particular, the playing of instruments and the process of creating music becomes as dynamic as the character stories within his films.

The creation of dreamlike states and glamorous locations in La La Land were enhanced by swirling, even fizzing camerawork, and big, sweeping tracking shots that move to the beat of the music rather than the path of the character, following its leads, for example, through a giant house party that even takes the audience into the obligatory LA pool and underwater to create the almost riotous excess of this lifestyle. Similarly, Chazelle offers grand romance in the finale section as Mia and Sebastian travel through a fantasy sequence that distills their lives and speaks to what might have been if only the Director wasn’t really contrasting these unashamedly grandiose moments with the drab and disappointing reality that the lovers were really living in which he uses sophisticated cinematographic styles to burst the bubble of the Hollywood dream.

In the Heights employs some of these same visual narratives to tell its story, understanding the centrality of the big set piece moments when the neighbourhood comes together at the local swimming pool, in after-dark festivals and in celebration to create vibrant and fast-paced dance sequences reminiscent of La La Land as Chu feeds his camera into, above and around the big movement numbers to emphasise and partially create the heat, mass and intensity of the action.

It gives these parts of the film an immersive energy, a chance for the audience not just to aesthetically admire the precision and skill of the dancers from a respectful distance, but to imagine the proximity of the camera and, through rapid cut and track shots, create the feeling of being in the action as well – something which distinguishes modern movie musicals. A fantastic Busby-Berkeley-inspired sequence sees the characters decamp to the local swimming pool to fight the heat and dream of winning the lottery as they sing 96,000. The final segment staged in the water uses synchronised swimmers, floating lilos and reclining songstresses to create one of the film’s strongest visual spectacles.

And like La La Land, the fantasy sequence retains its place within In the Heights including a sequence that directly echoes Mia and Sebastian’s ability to defy physics and waltz through the stars at the Griffith Observatory. In their parting number, College-student Nina and taxi operator Benny sing When the Sun Goes Down from a balcony overlooking the Hudson river and the bridge that will soon take Nina back to the city and some other life. Here again, physics gives way to romance as the couple find themselves in a Christopher Nolan world of rotating buildings and changing perspectives as the couple dance up the side of their tenement block, over the windows of their astonished neighbours’ flats and across the balconies. The CGI isn’t quite as sharp as La La Land nor the concept as rich as perhaps Gene Kelly’s layered dream sequences from Singin’ in the Rain, but this fantasy premise in which love allows people to view the world differently is part of the visual language of In the Heights and its more contemporary choreography.

In fact, where Chu’s film particularly excels is in these big dance moments peppered throughout the film, and on screen these complex creations which sometimes involve what at least is made to look like hundreds of people are visually arresting and energetic while emphasising the community spirit that sits at the heart of the film. The influence of Chazelle and his musical director forebears is notable here too, not least in set pieces staged on the streets of Washington Heights including Carnaval del Barrio and Abuela Claudia’s fantastic dream sequence during the blackout in which she leaves the style of the film behind and moves into an imagined world of beautifully designed ghost figures in 50s and 60s styles dancing in rooms and endless corridors, a stylised representative memory of her life and one of the most impactful pieces of jazz choreography in the movie.

The influence of the LA highway opening number from La La Land is clear, focusing in on individual stories within the overall narrative of the dance but retaining control of the camera to also take in the bigger picture when everyone comes together in unison in what are both show-stopping and traffic-stopping sequences. But while Chazelle phases out these grand numbers through the film as the Hollywood dream slowly curdles into a greyer vision of a lonely city, Miranda and Hudges’s story retains a sense of hope and as characters start to move on, In the Heights variously uses dance as a tool for community building, as a memory of something that is fading away and for sustaining dreams that all of the characters somehow retain of a better life out there somewhere.

In the Heights is tapestry drama uniting collective memories of the area, its people and their Dominican and Cuban heritage with a common American dream of getting out, of finding a better life through hard work, perseverance and a, perhaps, naive belief in meritocracy – a notion questioned in the second half of the story. The show underscores this wider kaleidoscopic examination of community drivers by charting the individual paths for a group of characters each planning different routes out of the borough. But a patchwork narrative can sometimes be patchy and, like the stage incarnation, this filmed version stumbles when trying to strike a balancing between the personal and group levels of storytelling.

The experiences of the younger characters are foregrounded – Vanessa looking to be a designer in Manhattan, Nina unsure about continuing at Stanford and Usnavi who runs the shop and wants to move back to the Dominican Republic, the latter fulfilling dreams set for them by their parents and grandparents. And each of these perspectives is richly told as individuals struggle to get a foot on the ladder, questioning their ability to endure and noting the incipient racism that holds them back in the world beyond the Heights. And while these emotional and romantic entanglements have much to say about the formation of immigrant communities and the complexities of hybrid identity in second and third generation families born in the US but immersed in the heritage of their forbears, they don’t have quite the same fizz as the group numbers when Chu looks at the bigger picture.

Partly this is the minimal time given to characters beyond this core group and while gossipy beauty salon owner Daniela or taxi firm owner Kevin (Nina’s father) feature, their own experience is either downplayed or absorbed within the neighbourhood sections. This affects the group numbers because the audience is less familiar with and therefore less invested in these trajectories. As a result, the intense emotional response that the film wants the audience to feel for Nina, Vanessa and our guide to Washington Heights Usnavi, is not replicated as effectively amongst the wider group of central characters who become comedy sideshows or barriers to the happiness of the core group.

Hamilton-alumnus Antony Ramos plays Usnavi who is the film’s eyes and heart, retelling the story not to the audience but to a group of children in the future from where he reflects back on the events of a few years before – a new frame for the narrative that also advances the stage show’s original conclusion. Ramos is a charismatic lead and whether mooning after love-interest Vanessa, caring for his beloved Abuela Claudia or serving the needs of his, often cheeky, customers, Usnavi anchors the film, connecting the sometimes disparate embroidery. Ramos captures all of the pride his character has in the neighbourhood as well as the conflict he feels between his heritage, the present and the future.

Melissa Barrera is a sympathetic Vanessa whose big dreams of a downtown apartment and entry into an elite world of New York trendsetters is well managed as the character explores a future identity that she wants to adopt. Barrera captures the hope and pain in those aspirations well, and, while rummaging in bins for fabric off-cuts and painter’s rags, Barrera simultaneously demonstrates Vanessa’s ambition and talent with just how far she still has to go in achieving it. Leslie Grace’s Nina and Corey Hawkins’s Benny are a slightly diluted second couple but Nina is a projected version of Vanessa, and having tasted society beyond the Heights, Grace captures all of Nina’s feelings of displacement, the pressure of her father’s expectations and need to overcome her own fears to fully claim the intellectual place she has earned.

As a modern movie musical, In the Heights employs many of its shot, direction and choreographic techniques to create a swirling visual experience that immerses the audience in the story. And while it doesn’t always strike quite the right balance between spectacle and emotional investment, Miranda and Hudges’s film is still a relatively rare example of a musical about working class lives and aspirations that also expands on the experience of immigrant communities with multifaceted identities. With so few of these on stage, it stands to reason that even fewer make the transition to the screen. A significant step forward then, and one that Steven Spielberg’s reprised West Side Story later in the year may advance as movie musicals continue to evolve.

In the Heights is released in the UK on 18 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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