Tag Archives: Musical Theatre

Dear Evan Hansen – Noel Coward Theatre

Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway)

In a very strong year for musical theatre with big revivals and plenty of brand new shows opening in the West End it can be difficult to stand out, especially for young performers looking to establish a career with their first break-out role. But the heralding of a great new talent of any age is always big news and it’s comforting to know that while audiences flock to see their favourite established stars – and this year Jason Donovan, Sheridan Smith, Katherine McPhee and Bonnie Langford have returned to the London stage – important leading roles are still given to graduates fresh from drama school where exceptional performances can set them on the road to a glittering career.

Jac Yarrow’s Joseph was lauded by critics and audiences alike when he all but stole the show from his famous co-stars, instantly everyone knew his name and the show returns to The Palladium next summer. Over at the Noel Coward, the UK premiere of the American smash-hit musical Dear Evan Hansen may well do the same for some of its young cast, several of whom are making their professional debut in one of the year’s most anticipated productions. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the musical theatre force behind hit films La La Land and The Greatest Showman that have arguably done more to modernise and popularise the genre than any other musicians and lyricists of the last five years, creating a cult following that is about to translate to the London stage. What sets Dear Evan Hansen apart is its status really as the first major musical of the social media age.

Where other shows have integrated smart phone and tablet technology into their stories as accessories, plot devices and sometimes staging techniques, Dear Evan Hansen is really the first musical to utilise and comment on the blurring of the boundaries between public and private that our 24/7 exposure to social media has engendered. The creation of online personas, communication channels and engagement is sewn in to every aspect of the show, it drives the plot as the protagonist accidentally unleashes an internet storm he struggles to contain but it also filters through to the way the show is staged, how characters are shown to interact to one another and to the bigger themes that Pasek, Paul and book writer Steven Levensen explore.

Over the course of its 2 hours and 45 minutes, those themes are shown to be increasingly complicated as our muddy relationship with the online world we simultaneously feed and resent is not as straightforward as it appears. So while the show initially looks set to vilify social media and its poisonous influence on image and expectations of behaviour, in fact the writers suggest a far more intriguing proposition, one which argues that it is the characters’ (and our) misuse of these platforms that has become so detrimental. So, even an attempted good deed can rapidly spin out of control. And this is one of Dear Evan Hansen’s most accomplished tricks, to let the audience think that they are watching a slightly cliched High School drama in which a lonely, nerdy 17-year old will transform into a beautiful swan. Instead, the writers take the story quite quickly in an unexpected direction.

Yet, for all its modern credentials, Pasek, Paul and Levensen know that musical theatre is all about human connection, that their technological framework is a structure for examining the ways in which families, friends and strangers interact with one another and the emotional ramifications of those relationships. Dear Evan Hansen is chirpy and fun, it bounces along with archetypal characters and occasionally outlandish scenarios as events unfold, and the creative team clearly enjoy playing with the multimedia staging techniques, but it never distracts them from the basis of the genre, focusing always on the personal examination of isolation, loneliness and self-acceptance at that crucial transition stage from child to adulthood.

Musicals may have a mixed reputation but their popularity resides in their ability to showcase complex or heightened emotional states in a single song, whereas a playwright might struggle to express the same in pages of dialogue or even an entire play. They have a unique ability to affect audience responses to the story through music – something which filmmakers know well and a carefully composed score can do as much as the actors to shape the mood of the piece. The songs in Dear Evan Hansen are a very modern mix of pop-influenced styles rather than the more traditional musical theatre melodies that take their lead from classical music and are more typical of the West End stalwarts. Increasingly, musical writers are looking to fresher, diversified styles to capture a different audience but the choices here also suit the age and personality of the characters they are writing for.

At the heart of this show is the perspective of four teenagers, Evan himself, the hapless and lonely protagonist, Connor whose early (unseen) suicide shocks the production out of its generic High School trajectory and drives the plot, Jared who conspires with Evan to lie to the world and Alana who becomes the self-nominated guardian of Connor’s digital memory project – all played by performers making their professional or West End debut.  Against a backdrop of tweets and Instagram posts, designed by Peter Nigrini and projected all over David Korins very simple set of stationary flies that cut up the large space to create intimate rooms including Evan’s bedroom and the Murphy family home, the character interactions take place both in person and on social media platforms demarcated on the stage in different ways.

Sitting on their laptops, each of the teenagers is shown in a separate projected frame that looks like a smartphone screen as they Facetime each other while updated feeds scroll behind them. When Evan makes his big speech at Connor’s memorial and when Alana updates the blog with new information, TV screens – sparingly used – project their words around the auditorium to represent the hundreds of people viewing the vlog online. But Nigrini also distorts some of these images, making them look warped as they project across different levels of set when the lie takes on a momentum of its own, with strangers reposting, commenting and offering faux sentiment on individuals they have never met.

At other points Nigrini emphasises the power of words that are the building blocks of social media, with text from Evan’s original letter with pertinent words picked out in bold projected across the whole stage, showcasing the starting point for all the ensuing madness and a reminder of the character’s own pre-existing personal desperation, mistaken for Connor’s, and now engulfed in an internet frenzy. When all of that dies down to focus on the Murphy’s grief or other moments of intimacy, the stage can look a little too empty yet the entire effect that director Michael Greif creates is an astute understanding of the pressures that our online presence can create not just for mental health and wellbeing, but also the ultimate emptiness of that outpouring of platitudes and sympathy expressed online by strangers after a tragic event who know neither the context or the person involved, especially when the object of their faux sentiments was previously overlooked and ignored. And while the outcome is a positive memory of Connor, what does it say about our society that his death means more than his life?

This is sure to be a star-making role for lead actor Sam Tutty who will undoubtedly be the one to face the press this week, but Alternate Evan Marcus Harman who assumed the part for this performance deserves as much recognition. In some ways Evan is  a classic teenage role, an outsider desperate to find a place in the confusing school hierarchy and, with divorced parents, grappling with self-confidence issues as he tries to work out who he is. Harman plays the occasionally stuttery and bemused Evan extremely well, charting his increasing panic and befuddlement as the depth and speed of his small white lie eclipses his entire life.

But Harman also shows an Evan emerging from solitude and using his storytelling ability to create on one level a false persona as Connor’s secret best friend who becomes a school star, yet underneath a more confident young adult starts to break through, finally able to vocalise his anger towards his often absent mother and start to accept his own sense of purpose. Some of his fellow characters are more impressionistic but Harman makes Evan likable and a credible adoptee for the Murphy family who fulfill his own yearning for traditional parenting and stability. Harman also sings well, his powerful voice conveying all those mixed teenage emotions to the back of the auditorium  in solos including ‘Waving Through a Window’ and ‘Words Fail.’ Tutty may get the press night glory but if you see Harman’s performance you won’t be disappointed.

Playing his classmates are a fellow group of debutantes who bring plenty of colour to the supporting cast. Jack Loxton as non-friend Jared is primarily a comedy sidekick who helps Evan to forge emails supposedly from Connor, and Loxton’s sharp timing adds much to the performance. Doug Colling as Connor has a larger role than you might think despite his early demise, becoming a conscience for Evan as well as his own personification in the brilliant ‘Sincerely Me’ with Jared and Evan. Finally Nicole Raquel Dennis as Alana goes from barely remembering Connor in her English or chemistry class to Co-President of his memorial website and guardian of his legacy. We discover little about her as a person but her purpose as the human face of the media storm is pertinent and well conveyed by Dennis, at once earnestly self-perpetuating and hungry for revelation while jealously guarding the right to control and determine the right kind pf public response.

Lucy Anderson as love interest Zoe and Connor’s sister belongs more to the family sections and marks Evan growth away from his teenage life and it is a solid debut from Anderson who offers more grit than many female characters in such roles. The adult are more in the background of the drama but there are some touching moments with Rupert Young’s Larry Murphy whose contained grief and cynicism sympathetically crumbles as he gets to know his son Connor (or thinks he does) through Evan and there is a subtle and sweetly played connection with Harman. Lauren Ward as Connor’s mother Cynthia suggests all the hope of a parent unable to come to terms with the loss of a child, while Rebecca McKinnis as Evan’s harassed mum Heidi does just enough in a small role to give context to Evan’s original plight as well as shaming him enough to propel the conclusion.

There are aspects of Dear Evan Hansen that perhaps don’t quite work, the style and lyrics are often quite saccharine, while the overarching story could easily shed a couple of numbers with no material effect on the plot that would help to neaten the running time especially towards the end of Act Two with several story strands to conclude – the depth of some of the wider characterisation perhaps not deserving of so many solos and reprises. But it’s dark and miserable outside – both politically and seasonally – so why actively resist the charms of this feel-good story. The close integration and self-enforcing completeness of story and technology makes this truly the first responsive musical of the social media age with a number of excellent break-out performances. So email, tweet, Instagram and Facebook all your friends and RSVP to Dear Evan Hansen’s message to us all -#youwillbefound.

Dear Evan Hansen is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 May 2020 with tickets from  £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Aspects of Love – Southwark Playhouse

Aspects of Love - Southwark Playhouse

The 1980s gave us some of the most enduring modern musicals, with shows that more than three decades later still dominate the West End. Phantom of the Opera opened in 1986 and still resides at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Les Misérables is celebrating almost 35 continuous years with a nationwide tour and a controversial revamp while a new tour of Blood Brothers (1983) begins in 2019 which also had a notable 24-year run in West End. But there are some musicals that have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by their more steadfast counterparts. But in the last year, first Chess and now Aspects of Love have earned revivals that offer a new generation a chance to see these productions for the first time.

Anyone born after 1980 may never have seen Aspects of Love and know it only for the song Love Changes Everything which made Michael Ball a star, so the Manchester Hope Mill’s garlanded revival which transfers to the Southwark Playhouse for four weeks will be a first for many of us. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart is based on the 1955 novella by David Garnett which charts the incestuous romantic relationships of a group of bohemian friends over almost two decades. Himself a member of Bloomsbury group, it’s not difficult to see the refraction of Garnett’s own experience in the story that is darker than its quixotic title suggests.

The famous strains of Love Changes Everything open the show as former lovers meet once more at a funeral before the years roll back to the beginning of this sorry tale. The song initially seems to signal to the audience that love is a hopefully, positive force, one that will define your life for the better. Heard repeatedly out of context on LP as a child, the lyrics and emotional swell of the music have always implied a happy passion, one in which the singer welcomes the bittersweet thrill of it all. How different the unfolding tale proves to be, and heard now in context it seems Michael Ball was singing about something else altogether.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s revival’s gives you the first clue as you take your seat, what look like foxglove stems hang upside down from the ceiling, lilac and beautiful, they are romantically struck into semi-shadow by the theatre lights. But designer Jason Denvir is playing with us; beautiful on the outside but deadly within, foxgloves are the source of digitalis a dangerous and near traceless poison beloved of Agatha Christie novels and even used against James Bond in the 2005 film of Casino Royale. Love, the company want us to know is a poisonous contraction of the heart.

While providing enough open space to fit 46 songs and indicate the rapid passing of the years, the rest of the set stresses the dreamlike quality of the characters’ lives, sunset colours stream through the shuttered doors at the rear of the stage as Denvir recreates the theatres of post-war Montpellier, the cafes of Paris and George’s restful countryside villa. It has a 50’s technicolor glamour that references the golden age of Hollywood and the artistic leanings of this little group – the actress, the sculptor, the benefactor and the star-struck boy.

Despite all of this, it’s easy to see why Aspects of Love rather fell by the wayside, sandwiched between Lloyd’s Webber’s gold-plated hit The Phantom of the Opera (another novel adaptation) and Sunset Boulevard based on the 1950 film which earned its own revival two years ago with Glenn Close at The Coliseum. The fragmented nature of Aspects of Love is both its saviour and its downfall; relatively short scenes flow very quickly offering only snatches of time before years pass and characters have entirely changed location, status and relationship making it much harder to understand or sympathise with the emotions of this bed-hopping set. Repeatedly characters profess love for one another but that never keeps them from other lovers and the story rarley pauses long enough to properly engage with the psychology of these people, to really explore the multiple versions and depths of love that the show toys with.

This flitting from scene to scene also makes the show feel longer than it really is, with no clear structure to guide the viewer through to the unexpectedly open conclusion. Unlike Phantom or Sunset Boulevard there is a bagginess to the show which, with no obvious driver or drama beyond the various emotional entanglements, lacks shape. Yet, as Denvir so clearly shows in the staging, there is colour in every moment of the show, and particularly so in this Hope Mill production. Over time you start to feel there is a thesis about the changing nature of passion, the fallibility of the heart and frailty of the individual to resist another opportunity to feel loved, a craving for the kind of validation it brings whatever the cost.

And then there is the music. While Black and Hart’s lyrics never quite match the highs of Lloyd Webber’s emotive, swelling score, and the same refrains from the opening number and others are recycled too many times to be entirely satisfactory, nonetheless there is something engaging, charming and, at times, even moving in the way the show builds as a whole. If you’ve watched enough Royal Variety Performances or theatre concerts you may even recognise more songs than you thought ,with numbers including wistful duet Seeing is Believing, the swaying tones of The First Man You Remember and the powerful ache of Anything But Lonely, all of which are as good as anything Lloyd Webber ever wrote, but a shame to hear them with only a piano here.

O’Boyle’s production staged in the ¾ round at the Southwark Playhouse makes a reasonable case for the return of Aspects of Love to the Lloyd Webber canon. There is a playful quality to the first act in which love affairs begin and hearts are carelessly broken with little thought for the consequences. There is no sense of foreboding, no future waiting to claim them, just endless summers, optimism and a couple of love triangles that reek of bohemian freedom, enhanced by some well-staged ensemble numbers.

Aspects of Love is full of slightly troubling age-gap relationships, starting with the connection between the ardent 17-year old Alex and the older Rose who appropriately appears in The Master Builder when they first meet. Sweet and idealistic, it takes place in secluded picnic spots away from reality, but O’Boyle’s production is clear that the characters are on parallel tracks (a trait to be repeated in the love stories to follow), being nothing more than a harmless fling for Rose, while a defining passion for Alex that he is expected to grow out of – everyone needs to get their heart broken at least once. The entrance of the more mature Uncle George offers Rose stability and an open relationship, welcoming his other younger lover Giulietta into the home.

Act II marks a notable shift in tone and, 12-years on, Rose now entertains her own adoring fans in Paris, while married to George who cares for their daughter Jenny at the Pau villa. Giulietta’s unexplained absence after years of happiness is portentous, writing to say she cannot be with them, just as Alex re-enters the picture, forming a connection to the 14-year old Jenny that becomes incredibly problematic both for the strange ménage and for the audience. With the passing of the years, it’s hard to know how this particularly unsavoury aspect was originally perceived by audiences, but the characters take it surprisingly in their stride, whether they just fail to notice or fail to act is never entirely clear but the result is too underplayed for the severity of the subject matter and the implied collusion of her parents leaves a slightly bitter taste.

As Alex, Felix Mosse’s puppy love for a rising actress gives way to jealousy, rage and resentment as he imagines her drifting away before she eventually does. Having spent 30-years hearing Michael Ball’s verdant take on the opening number Mosse’s rendition is rather clipped and quiet by comparison, offering a quieter, guarded performance that gives little away throughout the show. In fairness, there’s not much in the character of Alex for Mosse to get his teeth into so while the experience and then memory of his grand passion for Rose propel the story, Mosse navigates the fluctuations between outrage and mild acceptance as well as he can. Yet, it is not until the far more inappropriate attraction to Jenny, who is more than half his age, that he is able to amplify his inner turmoil most effectively.

It is Kelly Price’s Rose who comes most sharply into view through this production, a woman who craves love in all its forms while searching for a permanency she can return to when her temporary amours are over. Price’s semi-operatic voice fits the range of Lloyd Webber’s music extremely well giving life to songs as well as reflecting the passing years in Rose’s growing comfort and complacency. Price is particularly affecting in the final moments of the show, tearing at the heart with the sorrowful and haunting Anything But Lonely in which her free-spirited exuberance reveals an essential vulnerability that makes sense of her choices, creating genuine empathy for a woman who has had to make her own way in the world by whatever means she can.

The leads are supported by notable performances from Madalena Alberto as artist Giulietta who makes you wish the character had a much bigger role, Jerome Pradon who brings texture and feeling as lascivious Uncle George, as well as Eleanor Walsh as the precocious Jenny who certainly brings an uncomfortable and earnest sexuality to the part even if she doesn’t always suggest quite how young Jenny really is.

This production of Aspects of Love certainly gives rise to a number of conflicting feelings and, troubling as the story now is, the music and energy of it have lasted remarkably well, and there are quite deliberate references to La Boehme, The Master Builder and Chekhov that draw on themes about the liberation of nature, city life and a romantic connection to the past that underlie much of the action. You will remember this as a moment of happiness Alex is frequently told, the convolutions and pain of his love affairs reduced by time and memory. The show itself may perhaps benefit from a modern reworking to iron out the more distasteful elements, but Aspects of Love should be fondly remembered.

Aspects of Love is at Southwark Playhouse until 9 February. Tickets are £27 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Grinning Man – Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

However much theatre you see, it is rare to find something that is truly magical, and in the week before Christmas few things will gladdened the heart as completely as Bristol Old Vic’s production of The Grinning Man now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. If you’re not a panto person, can’t face another version of A Christmas Carol and are by now shouting “humbug” at a festive period that started in earnest in October, then this glorious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s dark tale hits all the right notes to tally with your mood, melting your icy exterior with its focus on pain, rejection and injustice.

There is something very distinctive about a Victor Hugo story and even when translated for the stage, the essential characteristics are the same. Whether you’ve read all 1000+ pages of Les Misérables (and you should it’s stunning), or seen the musical, or even watched versions of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Hugo’s writing manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, covering grand sweeps of history and decades in a character’s life, giving anatomies of entire cities, while focusing on the slog of every day living, the physical and emotional fragility of individual characters, rich or poor united by a common humanity.

The Grinning Man does exactly that, weaving together high and low in a complex story of brutalisation and loss of innocence. As a child Grinpayne is savagely mutilated with his face sliced from ear to ear in a permanent grin. Hidden beneath bandages and orphaned, the boy finds a baby crying in the snow where the two are taken in by a local man who raises them as his own. Years later, at the palace, the three bored children of the King find themselves captivated by the ugly-beautiful face they see at the local fair and set out to know him better. But the man’s history starts to emerge, and very soon the Grinning Man will find out who he really is.

The success of this production lies in the sincerity of Carl Grose’s text, supported by an emotive score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, and an absorbing vision from director Tom Morris that marries a shabby travelling circus aesthetic with warped fairy tale quality. Working with Jon Bausor’s design, and while seemingly set in the eighteenth-century, this is a far cry from the cliched vision of downtrodden urchins in designer dirt. Instead we’re offered a semi-fantastical world driven by the characters rather than the period setting, in which the macabre moments are perfectly balanced with humour and romance. It’s never allowed to be either too maudlin or too light, but is constantly full of complexity as characters, divested of their innocence, aspire to be more than they are.

The notion of dreams runs through the show, uniting the key players in their desire to be someone different, a desire that is shared equally among rich and poor, whether it’s the wealthy royal children craving real emotion and escape from the imprisonment of their privilege, or Grinpayne’s adoptive father Ursus (Sean Kingsley) exploiting his son to take them all to a better life in the new world.

Morris’s production implies a permanent night in which characters and sets appear abruptly from the surrounding darkness. It has benefited from some revision and a slightly shorter run time since its first outing in Bristol, but still focuses on all the classic Hugo themes – a sense of personal injustice, a lifelong quest for truth, father-daughter relationships, the transition between the generations and spiritual uplift in moments of political upheaval – and shrouds them in a carefully conceived gothic wrapping that draws together a variety of innovative techniques to keep the audience enraptured.

Initially, the story of the Grinning Man is told to bored Prince Dirry-Moir who escapes to see the fair, but he soon becomes involved in Grinpayne’s life along with his lustful sister Josiana. Using Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s child-sized puppets, primarily in the first half, the history of Grinpayne’s tragic childhood is brought engagingly to life, partially operated by his grown-up self, played by Louis Maskell. The addition of a giant wolf that the Ursus family keep as a pet, superbly rendered by combining a mask head and front paws with performer Loren O’Dair as the hind-legs, will impress fans of the War Horse puppeteers. This is highly sophisticated work that seamlessly blends marionettes with the real actors to keep the show on the border of unreality, underscoring Morris’s heightened vision.

The audience is told repeatedly that all who look on the Grinning Man are entirely compelled by him, and Louis Maskell’s performance as Grinpayne is the heart of the show. His lower face is covered by a prosthetic sling and, for the most part, a bandage, so Maskell is only able to use his eyes and voice to deliver all the complexity and suffering of a social outcast, pushed beyond the bounds of normalcy by his disfigurement. It is also an intensely physical performance, and Maskell uses his full body to convey the deep-rooted anguish that has shaped Grinpayne’s character, and you frequently see the strain ripple through his neck and upper body, as he conveys an endless contortion of soul.

Yet, he retains an essential innocence, a purity that raises him above the other characters despite his physical shape, reinforcing Hugo’s notion that external appearance and goodness are not always aligned. Maskell’s voice is extraordinary, with a range and depth that display the complexity of his experience, and in a powerful performance he manifests the combination of loss, fear, determination, love and self-discovery that mark his development as the plot unfolds, demonstrating Grinpayne’s charisma and appeal to the audience. It is extremely skilled work to convey all of this with only half a face.

Of the surrounding cast, there are notable performances from Amanda Wilkin as the sex-crazed Duchess Josiana and Mark Anderson as comically arrogant Prince Dirry-Moir, both living a lifestyle of high hedonism but unable to feel real emotion. And while there is plenty of saucy humour in the female role which Wilkin elicits, she avoids making Josiana entirely cartoonish and instead hints at a woman equally pained by her circumstances, as both she and her brother seek a kind of liberation from their encounter with Grinpayne.

Sean Turner’s Ursus must navigate an equally interesting path through the show, taking him from the lonely and noble widower who houses two abandoned children, raising them as his own, to a man who exploits his mutilated son to win the chance for them all to escape abroad. Turner unfolds the intricacy of Hugo’s character, a man shaped by the circumstances of his life, making bad decisions, often for good reasons, with a similar need to find redemption and atonement.

Hugo’s writing rarely has outright villains, and one of the things he shows so well is how characters are driven by different beliefs and purposes that cause them to clash. Grose stays faithful to this idea with Barkilphedro, the sullied clown and servant to the Royal Family, who in Julian Bleach’s performance is a sinister and resentful figure whose unrewarded loyalty drives the machinations of the plot. By contrast, Hugo includes a highly angelic, if deeply insipid, young love interest – think Cosette in Les Misérables –  and here Sanne den Besten assumes that role as Dea, the blind child Grinpayne rescues from the snow, who grows up with him and becomes his intended. den Besten sings beautifully in what is a bland role and the relationship between Dea and Grinpayne is the only duff note in the show. For the more cynical it may be too much to believe that a virtual brother and sister with so unevenly weighted characters are a perfect pairing.

The Grinning Man may not a be suitable for children (it has an age limit of 12 years), and it’s certainly not a Christmas show in any way, but within the grotesque world that Grose, Morris, Teitler and Phillips create there is a rare and genuine theatre magic. Amidst the endlessly enforced Christmas spirit, it is in this half-way world between fantasy and reality that something entirely unexpected happens, a genuine festive warmth emerges from this tale of broken humanity, sending even the most hardened audience members home with thoughts of goodwill to all men. So, kudos to the Bristol Old Vic, the creators and cast of The Grinning Man, you have achieved what no one else ever has, you have broken London and made it a better place… well, at least until the New Year. Happy Christmas!

The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios until 14 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1.


%d bloggers like this: