Tag Archives: Andrew Lloyd Webber

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

Sunset Boulevard in Concert – Curve Leicester

Sunset Boulevard - Curve Leicester (by Marc Brenner)

There are many reasons why Curve Leicester’s digital production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert is the most fitting end to a year in which theatre and film have moved closer than ever, regional theatres have grasped the opportunities of digital performance far quicker than the West End and musical theatre has been most adaptive to the plethora of pandemic restrictions. After a summer advocating and lobbying for reopening and testing equipment to make venues Covid-safe for audiences and performers, it felt entirely appropriate that an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was the first professional production staged in London in late summer – the stunning Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Lloyd Webber also facilitated the first indoor public musical at the Palladium, Songs for a New World (perhaps now tentatively) scheduled to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in February, and now the online premiere of Nikoloai Foster’s version of Sunset Boulevard sees out the year.

Filmed within the last fortnight, Curve Leicester puts a new spin on the hybrid theatre-film approach by using all the possibilities of its empty auditorium to expand the playing space to create a production that retains the simplicity of a concert staging focused on characters and plot with only costume to suggest era and place. At the same time, Foster deliberately takes the audience out of the story, making visible the cameras, lighting rigs, crew and fellow cast members creating this digital version of Sunset Boulevard in Concert as the actors traverse the front and non-stage spaces of the venue. Almost Brechtian in style, it takes a few minutes to get used to but soon becomes a clever representation of the musical’s circular genesis from extraordinary 1950 movie by Billy Wilder to musical theatre production to now, once again, being committed to film.

Sunset Boulevard with lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s five greatest scores, sitting alongside Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technnicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, all of which have music that immersively characterise their protagonist and their experience within the story. Often referencing the musical rhythms of their location, these shows use their score purposefully to reflect the interior emotional trajectory of their lead(s). Still within the bounds of musical theatre, Phantom, for example has an operatic pomp full of baroque stylings, threat and romantic innocence drawn to the bass notes of darkness, while Evita‘s quite different political style captures the verve of revolution tempered by the complex dance rhythms of the Argentine tango and choral intensity of the Catholic requiem – but both create, reflect and enhance the psychological experience of the story.

Drawing on the sweeping styles of Silent Movie scores, Lloyd Webber does something quite different with Sunset Boulevard, eschewing the song and dance numbers that musical theatre law determines should open and close each Act, and instead draws inspiration from the small-scale intimacy of Wilder’s film where the narrator Joe Gillis and the tragic-strength of Norma Desmond are the focus. Sunset Boulevard has a couple of full-cast numbers about the lure of fame as desperate starlets, screenwriters and directors hope to make their mark but these events merely swirl around the central characters giving focus and context to their purpose in the story.

And that is not to say that the music is in any way smaller or quieter than Lloyd Webber’s other work; in fact Sunset Boulevard is akin to Phantom in its grandiosity using the sweeping and soaring of a full orchestra to open out the musical’s central themes of delusion, fantasy, the brief lifespan of stardom and the emotional truth beneath the facade of celebrity. Within its two Act structure there is a fragile bombast that entirely captures the contradictory notes in Norma’s personality, the grand dreams and memories that rouse and stir as she reflects on the life she had, with minor key reflections on the tragedy of her fall and the destructive tumult of her deluded self-awareness.

In scoring his leading lady, Lloyd Webber also notably draws on Middle Eastern sounds to reflect Norma’s obsession with Salome and there are hints woven through the instrumental elements of the score that emerge in As If We Never Said Goodbye as well as the famous conclusion. But there is also verve and energy that musically creates the whirl of Hollywood and life on a movie set, seen in the faster-paced title song sung by Joe at the beginning of the second Act and the frenzy of Joe’s escape from the baliffs with Act One’s car chase.

Foster for Curve Leicester pins the shape of his production around these musical cues from Lloyd Webber, adding layers of film to these sections that create a rush of energy during the chase scene or flicker with black and white images of Paramount Studios in its heyday. But what sets this hybrid production apart is its emphasis on the specific theatre origins of this production. Many of this year’s attempts to digitally represent a stage performance have, like an NT Live showing, taken an immersive approach, trying to take the audience as close to the story as possible while still maintaining the illusion of theatre.

This version of Sunset Boulevard instead makes a virtue of its scratch staging, denuding the production of elaborate scenery and setting to utilise (and thereby promote) the various spaces of the Curve auditorium, as though activity, encounters and plot devices spring from the building. And Foster’s approach serves a duel purpose, showcasing the facilities of the in-the-round space created to house the company, orchestra and camera crew while the theatre remains closed, while purposefully reinforcing the themes and purpose of Wilder, Lloyd Webber, Black and Hampton’s story that focuses on the mechanics of film making, the underbelly of Hollywood and the fairweather nature of fame.

Designed by Colin Richmond, with the orchestra placed in the stalls, scenes occur on the central circular platform, in various points in the seating on three sides of the stage, along the audience walkways and most atmospherically in the Circle where Norma Desmond makes her dramatic first appearance. This movement around the front of house performance space gives Foster’s production an added verve, suggesting the changing locations from the main-house and room above the garage within Norma’s extensive mansion to the Paramount lot and Schwabs Drug Store where Joe first encounters Betty, adding drama and intimacy that builds a considerable emotional and dramatic effect as the story unfolds.

The viewer is Joe’s confident, addressing us through the camera as he narrates his own history, a reliable if critical narrator who becomes increasingly aware of the compromises of his own character. Returning continuously to this device throughout, it grounds the production ensuring the we retain Joe’s point of view as the camera actively seeks him out, finding him in the stalls and gantries or underneath the seat rigging where his encounters with other characters come to life or Joe watches his life unfold with powerless hindsight.

It sounds frentic but underneath the layers of film, what emerges from these intriguing staging choices is a deepening emotional connection to and between the characters, one that immerses the audience in the unfolding tragedy of Norma Desomond’s determined comeback. The show really comes alive with her arrival theatrically lit by Ben Cracknell in the Circle where she delivers one of the show’s biggest numbers With One Look, and the balcony location proves to be a vital one for Norma, the only character (apart from butler Max) featured there and vital to her famous finale walk down the steps towards the baying news cameras.

Ria Jones offers superb vocal and performative range as Norma, grand, ostentatious and determined, in love with her own fame and its once potent effect on others but now fragile, tentative and almost agoraphobic in her inability to interact with the modern world. Jones shows a woman trapped in her own past, almost frozen in time and deeply deluded about her value and allure, as well as the practicalities of 1950s talkie film-making. Norma Desmond is a crazed figure but Jones never lets her seem entirely disassociated from reality – certainly not until the show’s intense conclusion – and there is real style and strength in her presentation of Norma, a woman not to be gainsaid or duped, admirably certain of her value and what is owed to her status.

Her relationship with Joe, though arguably one-sided in terms of genuine feeling, is given credibility by Jones, showing Norma as a once desirable prize still able to bewitch Joe with more than just money and lifestyle, a quality that pulls him back to her at the fateful New Year party. Her knowing attempts to manipulate him feel calculated in Jones’s interpretation, a selfish certainty that only her needs matter, and these contradictions only make Norma’s behaviour and pointed refusal to ‘surrender’ more understandable though nonetheless tragic. Musically, Jones is triumphant, delivering some of the best songs Lloyd Webber has written with incredible range while her return to Paramount number As If We Never Said Goodbye becomes quietly moving.

Danny Mac gives Joe plenty of causal swagger in the early part of the show, though besieged by creditors and down on his luck, this is Joe at his most assured and cheeky. But one fascinating aspect of this Curve production is to show how keenly this story is as much about Joe’s delusion as it is Norma’s and how violently that comes crashing down for the both of them. When Joe’s absorption into Norma’s lifestyle increases, we see a more cynical film noir hero, with Mac showing a character ashamed of himself, almost surprised at how quickly he sold out for easy comforts, but so enmeshed in them that he refuses to go back to the bleak life he once had.

This more compromised version of Joe emerges before us in Mac’s charismatic performance, overwhelmed not so much by Norma’s unwavering attention and demands but stifled increasingly by his own guilt as the months pass. What saves Joe from appearing grasping and unsympathetic is the sensitive and heartfelt connection he develops with very likeable fellow-writer Betty Schaefer (a rounded performance from the excellent Molly Lynch) that develops subtly over a few scenes in Act Two and quickly becomes the impossible escape from his situation that Joe still dreams of but recognises can never be. Admitting their feelings in Too Much in Love to Care is sweetly performed here by Mac and Lynch while their parting moment is gently devastating.

Jones’s performance may be the showpiece one, but Mac pins the show together, mirroring the experience of the audience as we encounter the strange events of this story and its characters, while charting the development of Joe from worldly but free writer to kept-man disgusted with his own nature. Joe’s own Hollywood dream is shown to be every bit as unlikely as Norma’s, and finding that he is unable to make it on his own despite plenty of friends in the business and Betty’s guidance which comes too late, Mac’s Joe reaches his tragic breaking point.

By presenting the complexity of its characters, Foster’s production of Sunset Boulevard in Concert builds to a powerful and emotive conclusion. Like Sondheim’s Follies, this is story about the ghosts of the past haunting the present, where characters filled with regret reflect on what they have become. This very different approach to hybrid performance centers on the sweeping emotional turmoil of Lloyd Webber’s music, pays tribute to Wilder’s original film and showcases the Curve Leicester venue; it certainly offers ‘new ways to dream,’ proving a beautiful and fitting finale to a year of considerable change for theatre.

Sunset Boulevard in Concert is available digitally from Leicester Curve until 9 January and tickets cost £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar - Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Anything describing itself as a concert version is usually being modest and the first major London production in five months is an exhilarating return to live performance. Last year when its regular home was being spruced-up and renamed, Les Miserables badged its all-star interim summer show as a concert production due to the limitations of the much smaller Gielgud stage, and while there may have been microphone stands and a reduced visual aesthetic, in reality it was staged, acted and sung with as much conviction as any performance in its 30-year history. Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre may say concert on the poster but there is singing, dancing, performing and storytelling nine shows a week.

Created under socially distant conditions and with a reduced cast that shares several of the leading roles, director Timothy Sheader weaves the various health and safety measures seamlessly into the show. Dancers are placed 2 metres apart at all times, singers the same, while handheld microphones, stands and the occasional smattering of props are only touched by the performer using them. If there weren’t a sea of face masks around the auditorium you would hardly notice the difference, the production choices easily passing for those of an edgy director and choreographer looking to create impact with a small cast.

But one thing that is different is the audience response and as the performers trickle on stage with bandannas across their faces and Jesus makes his entrance, spontaneous applause erupts from the audience before a single note is sung. It is a glowing and unprompted demonstration of just how important live theatre is to people in a space where capacity is one third of its former number. And after five long months to be at the beginning of a story again, not just this story but any story, feels significant. So, with music and dancing finally taking place in front of you again, knowing that over the next 90-minutes something alchemical will unfold is a thrilling prospect for those present – you may even feel a lump in your throat, but save your tears if you can for you will need them.

This Open Air Theatre production has had its own stellar history, performed three and fours years ago to wide acclaim followed by an equally beloved Barbican-transfer in 2019 and North American tours, returning to Jesus Christ Superstar seems like a savvy move as the venue tentatively feels its way back to new productions. Having previously cancelled its entire 2020 summer season and given Andrew Lloyd Webber’s proactive attempts to restart indoor theatre with Government lobbying and test performances at the Palladium, it seems entirely appropriate that one of his earliest shows should be London’s first major offering.

First performed in 1971 based on a concept album from the previous year, the blasphemous decision to write a musical based on the final days of Jesus’s life could have had niche appeal. Instead, seeing it for the first time you might be struck by how adroitly Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice have translated a sanitised story of sacrifice into an emotional human drama, eliciting all of the complexity, reluctance, fear and pain that its characters experience to bring the greatest story ever told closer to its audience.

And whether or not you believe any of it, Christian, atheist or agnostic, a fan of Lloyd Webber’s music or not, watching Sheader’s production both here and at the Barbican last summer, the potency of its symbolism and its deep integration into everyday society is hard to ignore. The iconography of the cross is everywhere we turn, creating a fundamental basis for how church, politics and state have developed in the last 2000 years, while as an emblem of suffering, hope and redemption the cross exists in art, literature and now theatre as a comfort to millions of believers down the centuries. At the Barbican, a crucifix was raised in the show’s final moments, hauntingly lit and meaningful, while the more limited staging of this revival in Regent’s Park has the character of Jesus strapped to his microphone stand, a reminder of the brutal renunciation of a reluctant man which is the essence of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s long lasting musical.

You see also the alignment of Jesus and Judas as two parallel forces set to collide, both, in their way, instruments of a God who never appears to either of them. The musical looks to recast the story of Judas whose character is given depth and complexity while learning to understand the duel drivers of self-determination and the vagaries of fate that has consigned both men to a particular place in history – or so the writers would argue – without exploring the intimate decision-making and fears that drove their behaviour. Friends, enemies or something far more complicated, Jesus Christ Superstar looks to unpick our school child understanding of the stories while offering-up alternative explanations for behaviour and reactions.

The Open Air Theatre production’s stripped-back, urban visuals designed by Tom Scutt utilises Soutra Gilmour’s tiered stage for Evita with concrete effects and rusted musicians’ box. Scutt’s approach does much to demystify the story, taking events out of their reverential cage by removing the idea of flowing robes, sandals and loincloths to create something much more twenty-first century. The slouchy gym-wear worn by the dancers is both practical and relatable, while Scutt uses costume to create different inflections, traditional cloaks for Caiaphas and his group of dastardly High Priests to set them apart, as do the tabards printed with the head of a statue worn by Roman guards, while Jesus himself is given an off-white colour scheme that eventually dispenses with a longer robe in favour of more practical cut off jeans and a t-shirt.

The most surprising and welcome aspect of this revival is Drew McOnie’s choreography that re-conceives some of the set pieces and crowd scenes to add dynamism to the production. McOnie’s work was recently celebrated by the Old Vic with an all to brief archive showing of his wonderful Jekyll and Hyde while here he employs similar storytelling technique, using quite vigorous and complex dance routines to represent the changing emotions of the crowd and disciples. Some of the greatest moments include the dancers making a socially distanced orbit around Jesus during Hosanna while the Second Act goes from strength to strength with energetic routines for Judas’ DeathTrial Before Pilate, and the title song Superstar. This hardworking Ensemble who sing, dance and play various characters are superb, managing the technical transition between numbers while observing the restrictions to deliver top quality and very welcome dance numbers throughout.

The emphasis in Sheader’s production is on the betrayals within rather than the actions of the conquering Romans in marking Jesus’s fate, and it is abundantly clear, as referenced by Pilate, that first the priests, then Judas and finally his own people turn against Jesus. They demand his death not because they believe it is necessary to save themselves, but as the bloodthirsty act of an impressionable crowd as quick to cast off their former hero as they were to build him up in the first place. The concept of a star burning brightly for a brief time is one Lloyd Webber and Rice would return to in Evita as the lasting impact caused by an untimely death creates a narrative in which the protagonist’s own life and experiences are purified, something which the writers seek to rectify by opening-up the personal story beneath the devotional mythology.

The Open Air Theatre will not confirm performers in advance so who you see playing Jesus, Judas and Mary will vary, but audiences are unlikely to be disappointed whoever assumes the lead roles. For this performance, Pepe Nufrio played Jesus having previously performed the role during the US tour of this production. Nufrio has a softer, more commercial voice than alternate Jesus Declan Bennett but is able to alter the scale and pitch his vocal to suit the tone of each song, hitting some extraordinary high notes in the latter section of the musical as fame gives way to inevitable destruction. Gethsemane proves a crucial moment as it should, powerfully performed and earning a long applause from the audience as Nufrio’s Jesus contemplates the terrible events to come, charting the story of a man already overwhelmed by his responsibilities and the ever-growing demands of others to which he feels unequal. This is taken to a new level as an ultimate sacrifice is demanded from an unseen and seemingly recalcitrant God.

Some of the most difficult elements of the role are in trying to understand and accept the forces beyond his control, the loneliness of his position as the final night leaves him without anyone to accompany him to the Garden and having to rely on his own faith in the brutal events that follow his arrest which Nufrio makes layered and meaningful. Jesus speaks less and less as Act Two plays out, transitioning from the prophet to an almost silent victim as the process of law sweeps him along. The way in which Nufrio reflects his anguish as Jesus is tortured is impressive while his final moments are incredibly moving, not only as his body transforms into that eternal symbol, but for the broken young man reluctant to die whose ‘real’ story we have witnessed.

It is wonderful to see Ricardo Afonso in the cast again as Judas after an outstanding performance at the Barbican. A performer whose vocal strength is extraordinary, Afonso suits the rock-style intensity of Judas’s music as the character grapples with complex notions of loyalty, friendship, the greater good before eventually recognising he has been used. As prime antagonist, Judas performs a similar role to Che in Evita, always there to undercut the heroism of the lead and cast doubt on the untarnished reputation of the celebrated hero, but Judas becomes the other half of Jesus in this production, two sides of the same coin cast by circumstance into ever-connected roles, the fate of each ever-resting in the hands of the other. Afonso’s performance is a full throttle joy, and as the visible silver poison from his bribe covers his hands, the audience has notable sympathy for the unfortunate disciple whose freedom to act may not have been as blameworthy as legend suggests.

As the reduced audience rise spontaneously to their feet for a long ovation, the performers are clearly as touched as we are, thrilled to be back in the theatre delivering a high-quality production. Sheader and the Open Air Theatre team may have pulled this one out of the bag but there are few obvious half measures in this professionally produced show that is concert in name only. There is still a long way to go for most venues and a lot of monologues ahead, but this stirring production of Jesus Christ Superstar is an inspiration, and during a weekend of stormy weather not a single drop of it fell on the Regent’s Park matinee, now that feels like divine intervention. Welcome back to the theatre.

Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 27th September with available tickets from £45. A screen relay will accompany the performance from 19 August for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Evita – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Evita - Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Jamie Lloyd really has the golden touch at the moment and he’s not a director afraid to make a bold statement, in fact they are a trademark. The decision to dedicate a 6-month season to the lesser-known works of Harold Pinter was a huge commercial gamble on a playwright who was not exactly out of fashion but whose writing remains a challenge however much theatre you see. But it was a gamble that paid off, winning over audiences night after night for seven curated collections that proved a revelatory re-examination of Pinter’s variety and legacy culminating in a beautiful and hugely acclaimed revival of Betrayal starring Tom Hiddleston which transfers to Broadway next week.

Hot on the heels of that announcement came the news of a second theatre season from November at the Playhouse Theatre opening with Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy, followed by a series of yet-to-be-announced productions running until August 2020. Before all of that eyes turn to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre where Lloyd’s interpretation of Evita faces the press on Thursday. Although still in preview, the production is already astounding; daring and brilliant, a full audience standing ovation on its first weekend proving that Jamie Lloyd has serious momentum right now.

It’s also been an amazing year for Andrew Lloyd Webber with impressive revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar (also an Open Air Theatre production) appearing alongside West End stalwarts The Phantom of the Opera and School of Rock. This revival of Evita makes five musicals running concurrently. It’s not an obvious step for Lloyd, but with a portfolio full of edgier approaches to classic texts, the choice of a 1970s musical beloved of theatrical divas turns out to be a very shrewd one.

Of all of Lloyd Webber’s musicals, Evita (written with Tim Rice) is the most overtly political, unpicking the cult of Eva Peron and rise to power of her Argentinian dictator husband during the late 1940s as the right-wing government balances the power of English oligarchs, growing military control and the demands of the working classes. It has that rare thing in any kind of theatre, a female lead whose narrative is not driving a romantic love story and happy ending. Instead Evita looks at Eva’s determination to escape her lowly origins by using her connection to the people to become the first lady of Argentina, and during the show she demands the chance to tell and mythologise her own story.

Lloyd’s approach is always consistent, strip away the history of performance, forget how shows have been staged before and get to the underlying truth of the story. Notably, Evita is as much a political warning as it is a biographical drama, and Lloyd’s version amplifies the dangers of too readily believing public narratives. So, the way in which Eva manufactures and then commercialises her own history does as much to keep Peron in power as his military junta.

What we see on the surface – the widespread distribution of charitable goods, building bridges with the unions and a glamorous tour of European leaders – belies the corruption beneath. Examining the motivations of political leaders who claim to act in the name of “the people” but really have only self-interest at heart, and dispelling the myths that those in power weave lies at the heart of Evita, making Lloyd’s revival as much a contemporary warning as a 1940s lesson in history.

Designer Soutra Gilmour clears the stage of unnecessary window dressing leaving only plain terraced steps with the show’s title in rusted Argentinian blue and white at the top concealing the orchestra. There is a deceptive simplicity to the staging created to emphasise Eva’s insistence on her own humble origins. The setting, like her early life, is devoid of frills, bare and straightforward in which Lloyd quietly introduces a concept of class in which certain groups occupy the upper regions of the stage depending on their societal influence. The same is true of Eva’s costume, a simple white slip rather than the enormous gowns of previous productions which psychologically attest to her belief that beneath the Dior dresses she’s still that impoverished urchin from the sticks.

But all is not what it seems because Gilmour, lighting designer Jon Clark and Lloyd know exactly when and how to unleash cavalcades of activity at crucial moments creating quite the spectacle. In the very first line of the show, Che Guevara sings’ “Oh what a circus” and this has been Gilmour’s inspiration – applied with a fairly light touch – along with the riots and victorious parades peppered throughout the story. No Lloyd production is complete without plenty of ticker tape, and here torrents of the stuff is unleashed, along with enough smoke effects to almost obscure the stage and front rows, projectile streamers and plenty of balloons all in the strict pale blue and white colour scheme of this South American nation.

What Lloyd does so well is to so carefully balance these explosions of public sentiment with the show’s more comedic elements and the emotional centre of the piece, the result of which is a first-rate piece of theatre. The visible outpouring of grief following Eva’s funeral where the story begins, are matched by the elation of Peron’s flag-waving victory during ‘A New Argentina’ just before the interval and the frantic enthusiasm of ‘And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)’. But as we saw with the Pinter series, Lloyd pitches the emotive moments with tenderness whether it’s the melancholic resignation of Peron’s dejected mistress in ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ or Eva’s own health struggles later in the show (‘You Must Love Me’), Lloyd clears the stage, focusing intently on the real feeling behind the bombast, the humanity amidst all this political posturing.

Musicals endure a lot of undeserved derision, but Evita is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most arresting scores, full of heavy funereal brass for the Requiem sections, jazzy swing and showstopping solos that quiver with feeling. With the kind of visionary thinking that he is known for, Lloyd has contemporised this show entirely, working with Musical Supervisor Alan Williams to give the songs a modern feel, most notably incorporating tango and salsa rhythms that bring freshness to the songs. These are beautifully performed by the orchestra, particularly during the intensity and pomp of the big numbers which feel vivid and energised.

Fabian Aloise’s hugely accomplished choreography is just a joy to watch, modern, fluid, dynamic and full of storytelling using a relatively small ensemble that represent the working classes, English aristocratic colonists and Peron’s stylised army. Every one of the set-piece moments has been carefully constructed and staged with flair so that many of the big numbers will stick in your mind as those terraced steps light-up and offer opportunities for movement at contrasting levels across the stage.

But Alosie’s work is also full of small moments that create such a wonderful and satisfactory variety of steps and movements throughout, not least in the first act where ‘Goodnight and Thank You’ and ‘Art of the Possible’ give large balloons to Eva’s lovers and Peron’s rivals as they are picked off one by one, while Act Two offers some inspired approaches to ‘High Flying Adored’ and the spray-can filled ‘Rainbow High.’ All of this echoes the grittier, more urban choreographic choices made for Jesus Christ Superstar in 2016 and currently on lone to the Barbican.

Making her UK debut, Samantha Pauly is superb as Evita with the kind of rock voice that brings a different feel to these classic musical theatre songs, delivering the lyrics in more unusual ways. A surface rags to riches story, Pauly plays Eva with a cheeky confidence as she uses her charms to lure Magaldi and break into the Buenos Aires performance scene. But Eva Peron was no Cinderella, and Pauly brings a valuable ambiguity to the role reinforcing the shows central debate about the manipulation of the public image.

This is a woman who refuses to let anyone else tell her story, so Eva and Che indulge in a battle for control of the narrative fought over the possession of hand-held microphones as her star rises. Pauly’s creation is a bundle of so many things, arrogance, determination, spitefulness, revolutionary fervour, comedic timing and sexual confidence as well as a discerning political mind supporting the workers but propping-up a fascist regime, never letting the audience entirely sympathise or detest her. ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ is always a showstopper and here too Pauly makes it her own, a moment of wistful stillness in a frantic scramble for power, matched by the eventual fragility Pauly reveals as the vulnerable Evita reaches her conclusion.

Pauly has great chemistry with Puerto Rican actor Ektor Rivera who plays Juan Peron, almost happily pushed into the background by his wife’s star power, but they make a very handsome couple, easy to believe their youthful glamour would be attractive to the electorate. Trent Saunders is excellent as the disaffected Che Guevara as repulsed by Evita’s social climbing and political regime as he is attracted by the personal charisma and resolve that infect him. While Che’s influence fades as the show unfolds, Saunders’s sardonic quality and strong vocals makes this a compelling battle of wills between the leads.

Lloyd has gathered an effortlessly diverse cast for the secondary roles and a hard-working Ensemble that fill the stage with energy in some excellent dance numbers. There’s also a notable performance by Frances Mayli McCann as Peron’s Mistress – the only other woman in the show to warrant her own song – delivering ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ with a quiet despair in another of those moment’s when we pause to take stock, thinking about the easy disposability of women in this world and how hard Eva had to fight to rise above them all.

What you want from a Jamie Lloyd production is a sense of contemporary resonance, a focus on the emotional and truthful centre of a show, and to be surprised by endlessly inventive staging – Evita offers all of this in spades. The result is a production that delivers on the big moments with style but is off-set by the complex and intimate journey through the competing faces of Eva Peron – the lowly descamisado, the predatory social climber, the mother-figure, greedy dictator’s wife and the saintly Evita – a complicated, rounded, powerful and fascinating woman who burned brightly for a time. With plenty to say about the shallow foundations of political leaders hiding behind their PR machines, Jamie Lloyd’s triumphant Evita is raw, fresh and intense – “oh what a show!”

Evita is at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park until 21 September with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – The London Palladium

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - The London Palladium

A surprising amount of modern theatre is hugely nostalgic, looking back to what seem to be happier, simpler times. While plenty of new writing reflects the here and now, our deep-rooted connection to writers such as Terence Rattigan, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are steeped in our love of the past and rarely seen without the period paraphernalia. But there is a more individual nostalgia in theatre that is also deeply personal, one that connects us to the shows we have loved at different times in our lives, shows that take us back to our childhoods.

Perhaps not many people remember the first West End show they ever saw but a primary school aged child taken to see their then hero Jason Donovan make his own West End debut at the London Palladium in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1991 is not something you easily forget, and it’s possible to overlook just what a huge star Donovan was back then. Having only seen regional panto before including Fiona Corke (i.e. Gail from Neighbours – spot the theme!) playing Peter Pan at the Marlowe Theatre, this formative experience in one of London’s most prestigious venues made a lasting impression.

Produce Michael Harrison and Director Laurence Connor understand the emotive power of that nostalgia and the decision to include Donovan in the latest revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s evergreen musical as the Elvis-like Pharaoh is incredibly savvy casting. But Joseph is a show which has always had a kind of childhood nostalgia baked right in, whether from its early incarnations as a school production through the many iterations and revivals since, its light-hearted melodies and almost cartoonish story have captured the imagination of generations of children. Anyone lucky enough to catch Donovan’s brief run in 1991 or any of the subsequent incumbents – Philip Schofield, Darren Day, Stephen Gately, Lee Mead even Gareth Gates – are, 28 years later, hoping to re-live that experience. Even if this is your very first Joseph, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s not easy to create a show that looks backwards and forwards at the same time, that will satisfy an audience with a decades-old memory of it while offering enough modern application to prevent this highly performed musical feeling like a museum piece. Connor impressively manages both, working with Musical Director John Rigby and Choreographer Joann M. Hunter to update some of the music and dance sequences to include more rap and street dance stylings. This gives the overall show a dreamlike urban feel particularly in the vision for Act One finale ‘Go Go Go Jospeh’ and through the characterisation of the Narrator.

Like the Adrian Mole musical down the road in Covent Garden, Connor also mixes child and adult performers together in unusual ways that work extremely well. Of the eight children who form a fireside circle around the Narrator at the start to hear the story of Joseph, they end up scattered through the action as several of the protagonist’s 11 brothers, the snooty aristocrat Potiphar who Joseph works for in Egypt, as well as the Butler and Baker, Joseph’s dream-plagued cellmates. A large pool of young actors will rotate these roles, lending an additional charm to the show including some great solo moments that add to the comedy of the Potiphar scenes as well as creating an opportunity for one little brother to start the wonderful ‘Benjamin Calypso.’ It’s a smart approach from Connor and Harrison who use their young cast members to create a warm family feel while tying the show back to its school hall origins.

But Connor has more tricks for us and creates a hybrid quality-makeshift production. There is a fluid simplicity to the construction here that belies the technical complexity behind the scenes. The result is a show that actively and warmly welcomes in the audience but similar awes them with a spectacle that it wears rather lightly for the most part. Part of that idea is realised by doubling the Narrator character with several additional roles in the story including Jacob, Potiphar’s vampish wife and a fellow prisoner. It is an interesting but very successful choice, deepening the notion that the Narrator is a contemporary master of ceremonies, controlling and conjuring the story before us, while retaining a playful, dressing-up box feel that runs through the set and costume design.

A lot of time has passed in theatre design since the 1991 production and Morgan Large has clearly been inspired by the bold impressionism of big West End shows like The Lion King. Puppetry has advanced apace as well so the show includes two mechanical camel puppets made from bicycles and some comedy static sheep that look like scaled-up children’s toys. The centrepiece of the design is a huge backdrop filled by an enormous round sun (or moon) that moves rapidly across the wall as required, but is tonally altered using arresting block colours to suggest the burning orange heat of Canaan as the brother’s plot against Joseph, becoming blood red as Reuben sings the Western-inspired ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ and even an emphatic blue at the end of ‘Joseph’s Coat’.

It is a very colourful production in every sense, inspired by the fantastic array of shades in the famous technicolor garment, Large has created a forceful and vibrant experience, full of block primary tones that give a heightened feel to the action, referencing the notion of dreams and storytelling that drive the plot. Again, this looks simple with layers of basic shapes to suggest time and place, but the overall effect is strong, with an almost Van Gogh-like intensity in the way colour has been deliberately chosen to change the mood and tone of the show. Notably in Act One, the humbler presentation of the character’s lives uses an arrangement of reddish patterned cloths to form the  tent-like home of Joseph’s family, later contrasted by the elaborate detail of Pharaoh’s gold palace. Together, they form a considered and impactful production design which speaks to the show’s history in school productions while making it distinct from earlier, more naturalistic approaches. It feels memorably modern.

Connor’s production certainly never takes itself too seriously and every opportunity to make the audience laugh or clap along is seized with gusto by the show’s other big-name Sheridan Smith. A decorated musical theatre star, Smith is an energetic and engaging Narrator, encouraging the crowd at every opportunity and refusing to stand on the side-lines of the story she is telling. Using her comedy background, Smith not only takes on multi-gendered roles with the aid of an elasticated beard but utilises her meta-theatrical role above the story to add a few nods and winks in the right places to increase the humorous effect.

Given modern harem-style trousers and trainers, Smith’s Narrator reflects the more urban feel to some of the music by marking and punching the beat. By far the largest role in the production, Smith’s vocals are richly layered, precisely mapping the tone changes across the quiet varied song styles while joining the larger dance numbers that reference styles as diverse as Can-Can, line dancing and hip hop. Smith is a hugely charismatic stage performer and here that warmth is her biggest asset, using humour to connect with the audience while creating a distinct and sparkling personality for the Narrator, setting and controlling the tone to hold this episodic tale together. Removing the artificial barrier between audience and performers, Smith’s approach is a key asset in the show’s success.

With only a couple of appearances in Act Two, the Pharaoh is a small but memorable role, amplified in this instance by the return of Jason Donovan to a show that solidified his megastar status nearly 30 years ago. And with the ‘Pharaoh’s Story’ given over to silhouette, Connor allows Donovan to make a spectacular entrance carried dramatically through the rear doors on a sedan chair to a rapturous applause from the auditorium. Essentially an Elvis impersonation, the role is really an extended cameo, full of camp silliness the extremes of which actors often have a lot of fun with.

Now an established musical theatre star, Donovan certainly makes it his own, adopting the fairly broad but high energy approach taken across the production to maximise the comedy. So while he employs the Elvis low drawl and inward-facing knees, he keeps the impersonation under tight control. The look of exhaustion Donovan throws the audience as Pharaoh slumps into his throne at the end of song provides additional amusement, as do the several reprises of the ‘Song of the King’ he delivers before finally letting Joseph speak to him. Some of the vocals are lost to over-amplification but no one cares, the room is alight, lost in our own circles of personal nostalgia – not bad for a 10-minute appearance.

With two big names to sell tickets, Harrison and Connor cast the unknown Jac Yarrow in the lead role after seeing a student production. Due to graduate on the final day of the run, it proves a canny decision as Yarrow delivers a confident, star-making performance. Joseph is not always a likeable character, arrogantly bragging about his power dreams and Jacob’s blatant favouritism, so you may feel the tiniest bit of sympathy when his brothers set upon him. Yarrow navigates all of this extremely well as Joseph’s fortunes rise and fall across the story.

It’s not a show that allows the central character to let loose very often with only two solos including the, let’s face it, almost painfully schmaltzy ‘Any Dream Will Do’ which Yarrow delivers well. Buy it is in the more meaningful ‘Close Every Door’ that his performance really shines, building forcefully across the number and showcasing the strength of his vocals. The extended applause that follows the song is well deserved and despite the lyrics you can practically hear doors flinging open to Yarrow all over town.

One of the most likeable aspects of the Joseph soundtrack is the variable but unified musical combination of country, calypso and French cabaret which reveal the interior experience of the brothers. Richard Carson as Reuben gives ‘One More Angel in Heaven’ a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feel that comes through the choreography, while Michael Pickering delivers a brilliant rendition of Simeon’s ‘Those Canaan Days’. There’s good support from the surrounding cast in a variety of guises including the extended central family, Pharaoh’s attendants and fellow prisoners that fill the stage with activity at all the right moments.

Given the rousing reception to this production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and full-house standing ovation for the entirety of the ‘Joseph Megamix’, it barely matters what the press make of this on Thursday. With two much-loved performers in key roles and a bright new talent as Joseph, it’s almost certainly critic-proof. Harrison and Connor may play on our nostalgia, leaning on childhood memories of school productions or Donovan’s run in the 1990s, but the staging and orchestration of the Palladium’s new version looks to the future, as a whole new set of children fall in love with this perennial musical. If Yarrow returns to it in 20 years, his army of new fans will come back with him.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is at the London Palladium until 8 September with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog,  

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