Tag Archives: Musical Theatre

South Pacific – Sadler’s Wells

South Pacific (by Johan Persson)

A year ago, theatre was tentatively recovering from long months of closure and the possibility of covid disrupted performances that could stop an entire run in its tracks. Under these conditions, Chichester Festival Theatre served up one of the shows of the year – a production that many of us could only enjoy as a pre-recorded digital stream. But the screen was no barrier to the consuming magic of Daniel Evans’s South Pacific, a contemporary and rather savvy reinterpretation of arguably the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of them all, a score in which almost every glorious song is known beyond its original story. Now, the production is touring the UK with many of the original cast members and its original leads, allowing those who only saw it remotely to finally enjoy it live.

Sadler’s Wells rarely stages or accepts musicals although Singin’ in the Rain has stopped here recently and the production values now demanded by Matthew Bourne’s company, Northern Ballet and, most recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet are inherently theatrical and akin to big musical shows – Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote and Kenneth Tindell’s Casanova were a masterclass in storytelling using props, set and costume designed by Christopher Oram who frequently works on drama. And Sadler’s Wells has a vast stage, perfect for the ensemble dance element of shows like South Pacific which require plenty of room for spectacle in which the sweeping vistas of military life confront all kinds of civilians on a mystical Tonkinese island. Evans’s production, even in its touring form, requires a revolve, large set blocks that represent the naval base, Emile’s plantation and the mysterious Bali Ha’i as well as the tonal shifts demanded by acts of war and epic love stories for which Sadler’s Wells provides ample space.

Whether watching at home or in person, South Pacific is a complex proposition, not just in size and scale of its multiple islands setting at the end of the Second World War as American naval and marine forces take on their Japanese equivalents, but any new production must also navigate audience expectation based on the, rather jolly, 1958 film starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brassi, as well as the weight of all those almost too famous songs. Music can take on a life of its own, divorced from the context of it original setting where it resides amongst a suite of related music telling a wider, often more complicated, narrative than a single song can convey. But the popularity of the songs in South Pacific, a favourite at musical theatre concerts, Proms and cabaret performances, mean that the jaunty melodiousness of Richard Rodger’s music can even overcome the weighter meaning of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Seeing these songs out of context or via the lighter 50s Technicolor film, an audience, eager to be entertained, can come to the auditorium expecting to be carried away by the romance and the fun of South Pacific without fully reckoning with the darker undertones and alternative emphasis that has always existed in this music.

What makes Evans’s interpretation of South Pacific so magnificent and so powerful, is how skillfully the creative team draw those elements to the surface without losing a shred of the show’s bouncy and exotic charm. As was so abundantly clear on screen, this production openly grapples with concepts of occupation that the arrival of the US troops represents, it deals with the racism that runs through the show in the attitudes to and presentation of native characters while equally considering the, now queasier, prospect of coercion and powerplay in the interactions between white men with guns and very young women that have only ever represented the male gaze. In short, this South Pacific is remarkably honest about itself while still sending you home with a hopeful heart.

Musical theatre has a troubled relationship with presentations of war, the requirements of the form sanitising the experience of men in combat scenarios. The three jolly sailors arriving in New York for a good time in On the Town or in LA for Anchors Away are not fighters or killers jaded by months at sea but dancers and singers getting into innocent japes with the girls they meet. A similar Gene Kelly vehicle It’s Always Fair Weather features happy-go-lucky veterans as does White Christmas where they form a charming song and dance troupe after the war with no sign of PTSD or survivor’s guilt. Even the now controversial Miss Saigon is a Madame Butterfly-inspired tale of epic love that plays down the business and consequences of war for the combatant and those they encounter.

This production of South Pacific understands the wider impact of occupation better than any musical interpretations of modern times. And in what is initially a happy place of love and larks, the arrival of Lieutenant Cable signals a notable dramatic shift. An harbinger of the emotional doom to come, he casts a shadow over the proceedings, an unknowingly self-destructive figure whose arrival with orders to undertake a special mission behind enemy lines signals the beginning of the end for US forces in the region as well as creating negative ramifications for his own life and those he abandons – with huge ethical consequences for the local people used and then left with little to show for it.

This tension starts to creep into Evans’s South Pacific, barely perceptibly at first, but military need increasingly begins to displace the romanticism of this particular story. Even Cable’s first visit to the enchanting Bali Ha’i has a touch of melancholy beneath the surface despite the stunning design by Peter McKintosh working with Howard Harrison to create a rich and seductive lightscape in tones of purple, orange and blue illuminated by candlelight. Cable may be captivated by Liat – a moment this production ensures we know is fed entirely by his months of loneliness and the impossible distance of real life back home – but in singing Younger Than Springtime he almost knows already that this is a decision he will eventually pay heavily for, a desperation underpinning the way this song is presented that starts to address the problematic presentation of this relationship, the respective ages of the characters and the power imbalance within the show.

That from this point on Cable is seen to pay for his weakness is pointed, soon contracting a malarial infection from which he never recovers and, eventually, choosing duty over infatuation. Unable to say yes to Bloody Mary’s proposition, this is a consequence that feels like a self-inflicted punishment for the wrong he knows he has done to their family, one that perhaps leads him to a noble military sacrifice but a far cry from the traditional military musical male. The downbeat repositioning of Happy Talk becomes a symbol of this more nuanced examination of inappropriate involvement with the local women, one that leaves them with nothing but regrets and only the male plantation owners to fall back on.

But the show also feels this tonal creep in other areas, moving from external relationships to activities principally on the naval base or in its service. While the focus of the first half of the show is primarily on interactions with local civilians and the exoticism of the region, the second part forces military discipline back into the show as the plot moves to the consequences of occupation. It may start with a light-hearted variety show for the men but Evans creates a parting of the ways as the focus shifts to Cable and de Becque’s mission, filling the stage with military paraphernalia, a giant map of the region and, eventually, plans to evacuate the area. Clearly, the party is over and, with a remarkable lack of sentimentality the real reason for the occupation takes over. Once that is achieved, they depart without a second thought for what they have left in their wake, the pain on Bloody Mary’s face a cue for the audience to consider what right they had to be there at all.

Yet Evans may also, like Nellie, be A Cockeyed Optimist, because his production finds a deep and true love between its principal characters, one that contrasts so meaningfully with the terrible toll of Cable and Liat. Even on screen, the centrality of the Emile-Nellie love story was clear and this production makes better sense of it than any before. From the very first moments of South Pacific as it opens on the deck of Emile’s plantation, the complimentarities and connection between these two quite different people are clear, so the trials and tribulations that inevitably follow make their coming together all the sweeter.

It isn’t easy to pitch an epic love story in our more cynical times and while the rest of the production looks to challenge the cosy image of South Pacific, the purpose of this relationship reinforces the glorious sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music for the couple. There is an innocence in their feeling for each other that is far purer, far more reliable than the terrible price of Cable’s semi-lust for Liat and for whom he is a romantic escape from a less suitable man. But Nellie and Emile have a more adult connection in a way, built on a greater openness about themselves that the events of the story reveal while able to overcome the prejudicial barriers that are thrown up between them. What they offer to each other in this interpretation is an honesty about what they want from one another and it gives the show a rich emotional heart that is very affecting.

Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck have an extraordinary radiating chemistry that easily made it through a screen last year and fills the auditorium at Sadler’s Wells, giving depth and meaning to those sung declarations of love and pain that result from their actions. In the great acoustics of this space, Beck’s vocal is beautiful particularly in the heartfelt I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy but just as charming and full of musical joy in the big sequence pieces like Honey Bun and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, capturing exactly Nellie’s likability and spirit as well as the touching certainty of her feeling for Emile. The moral turpitude that Nellie experiences as Emile’s secrets are revealed is given an edge by Beck, an unreasonableness that adds a helpful shade to the simplicity of Nellie’s character, a recognition that she feels deeply and this makes her eventually deserving of him.

Ovenden is equally outstanding, his powerful voice surging through the room in Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine, two gloriously realised ballads that build to a heart-wrenching poignancy. Less remote than some interpretations, Ovenden’s Emile is a far warmer, more jovial character who in turn is a good father and a man decent enough to turn his complicated past into a willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In a character whose essential purity and goodness shines through, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be half in love with this Emile by the end of the show and the essential stillness in Ovenden’s performance has a powerful charisma.

Also reprising their original roles, Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary has real agency, a successful entrepreneur just as happy to do business with the US marines as plantation owners. Ultimately a mother trying to support her family and get the best deal for her daughter, Ampil’s Mary sets the tone with mournful but impactful versions of Happy Talk and Bali Ha’i. Rob Houchen is superb as the broken Lieutenant Cable, quickly dissolving and almost unable to bear either the absence of the girl he loves or the knowledge of his actions. Houchen’s performance of Younger Than Springtime is a treat while his rapid decline is movingly portrayed.

This is a smart and thoughtful interpretation of South Pacific that takes carefully considered approach to some of the problems in the scenario without fully absolving the characters for their behaviour and choices. Managing to balance the sparkle of the big set-pieces and the not so charming effects of military occupation with some serious emotional clout that will leave you wrung through at the end, this sets the standard against which future productions will be judged. With a UK tour running until November, Bali Ha’i is calling you, don’t resist.

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August followed by a UK tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Anyone Can Whistle-Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse is this first major theatre to respond to the recent death of Stephen Sondheim with their new revival of Anyone Can Whistle, one of the strangest and least performed musicals in the canon. This wacky tale of faked miracles, town economics, mental health and social segregation is a puzzling one, combining some really great Sondheim songs and some strong female characters with a cartoonish plot by Arthur Laurents that barely holds together. But with some great performances and more than enough gusto, Southwark Playhouse just about make it worth a two hour and 30-minute investment.

First performed in 1964, Anyone Can Whistle is most notable for introducing (now Dame) Angela Lansbury to musical theatre on Broadway, but the show was deemed a disaster, closing after only 21 performances, a dozen of which can before press night. Southwark Playhouse will hope they fair rather better but the full show has largely been scavenged to provide numbers for out of context cabaret and concert performances including the glorious title song and brilliant melodies including There Won’t Be Trumpets.

So, is it any good? Well as a story, even as a socio-political commentary it is really quite lightweight and, while Laurents’s script taps into some interesting arguments, few of them feel properly developed or particularly tangible in their hugely exaggerated form. The plot is weak at best, even nonsensical and almost criminally basic by Sondheim’s usually rather high standards, lacking depth or even proper purpose. Most characters are either elaborate grotesques or generic concepts that lack individuality and are never fully fleshed out within the story in spite of the wonderful emotional nuance and interior landscape that Sondheim creates for the leads in the music. Yet, there is fun to be had in its broad-brush generality and the amplified silliness of the scenario that stays on just the right side of panto.

Stunted themes about the compromising nature of power are potentially quite interesting as the female Mayoress with the big name – Cora Hoover Hooper – in some senses tries to do the right thing by drumming up business for her economically-compromised town and struggles to manage the nuances of civic action. Here too, there is a sense of the venality of those in authority and Clara’s determination to not only shore-up her personal power but to gain more of it using a team of underlings appointed to civil positions including Comptroller, Treasurer and Police Chief are designed to retain her grip on the town. And it is through Cora’s desire for the personal acquisition of that wealth, that Laurents and Sondheim want to make their points about the intricacies of civic corruption across multiple forms of public office, showcasing the distance between those who govern and the people they are supposed to care for, a note which certainly has plenty of contemporary resonance.

The story hinges on classifications of mental illness when patients of an asylum known as The Cookie Jar are released into society because Cora refuses permission to let them taste the miracle waters for fear of revealing her scam when all 40+ of them remain uncured. Later, the authorities are unable to identify them among the ordinary citizens and, like the corruption theme, there is little subtly here and a great deal of simplification. But Laurents and Sondheim are asking some interesting questions about where the boundary between sanity and insanity lies and by what criteria societies define madness – should Cora and her team in fact be institutionalised for their scheming and lack of empathy?

In developing this revival, Southwark Playhouse plays up the exuberance of it all and chooses to embrace the kooky style. Staged on a thin traverse catwalk, it creates opportunities for the actors to include the audience in the action, physically dividing the auditorium into J. Bowden Hapgood’s Group A and Group 1, moving characters between them to underscore the comedy of their indistinct categorisation. Designed by Cory Shipp, this is a children’s TV world of bright colours as pinks, reds, yellows, bright greens and bold blues filter through the set and costume design, making this an intense visual experience with a carnival feel, all given an extra boost when ticker tape is released on several occasions and bold modernist paintings adorn the end walls.

Directed by Georgie Rankcom, they chose to overcome the shortcomings of the book and plot with a more-is-more approach that makes the best of the material by heightening its unreality. It’s not easy to manage quite a big show filled with dance numbers, multiple group scenes and changing locations in a very thin strip of performance space but Rankcom controls it well, using the length of the room effectively to move the action around as well as playing evenly to both sides of the divided auditorium.

Together, the company do evoke the impression of a much larger town than the dozen people we see as well as the external competition from other municipal centres nearby, each looking to boost their own local tourism. The audience must double for the broader community and Rankcom has the actors appeal to the room as well as distributing the ‘Cookies’ in empty seats as they attempt to blend in. There are a few occasions where unsuspecting members of the public are drawn into the action as readers or even dancers so avoid the front rows if you’d rather not participate. But Rankcom’s choices largely work and with entrances at both ends of the stage, it creates a feeling of distance across the auditorium that allows groups of characters to meet and conspire in what feel like subtly different parts of town. While the raggedy plot requires some considerable suspension of disbelief, the scene setting is more than good enough to at least construct the world of the musical.

Choreographically, Lisa Stevens is constrained a little by the space and what could have been some big showcase numbers are necessarily pinned-back by the thin catwalk and small aisle’s in front of them. As well as scale, Stevens has on the whole limited the complexity of dance, giving performers something they can do without too much movement or needing sequences of activity given how many people are sharing the same stage strip at times. But, drawing out the cabaret and jazzy notes in Sondheim’s more sultry music, Stevens has created a tap-based choreography that leans into A Chorus Line with high kicks, rapid pivots and Fosse long-armed wrist-flicks for bigger numbers with occasion soft salsa for duet moments.

And there is something very characterful in the way Stevens has created specific movements for different individuals depending on their relative allure, power and personality while also allowing the quality of the dance to come from the haplessness or skill of the character. One great sequence at the top of Act Three sees Cora performing an aerobics workout routine with hand weights that has a lovely jaunty comedy when joined by her three stooges who cook up a new dastardly plan and reconfirm their allegiance to one another. It is a bold moment and one that rises to meet Sondheim’s music.

There are moments of real greatness in Anyone Can Whistle and most of them are in the music in which Sondheim gives a tenderness and complexity to leading characters nurse Fay Apple who, somewhat incredulously disguises herself as a French miracle authenticator from Lourdes, and Hapgood, believed to be the new doctor and therefore in charge of the classification of the townspeople. Through the title song, the pair draw closer, suggesting an emotional connection filled with vulnerability and need that is entirely lacking from the text and the silly subterfuge they enter into, but brings some real clout to the show which Rankcom’s production really makes the most of.

Performed by Chrystine Symone nurse Apple is really two characters, one an order-loving nurse who demands respect for her patients and refuses to be brow beaten by the political elite. Symone has a superb voice for Sondheim and her version of There Won’t Be Trumpets is a high point of Acts I and II capturing all the hope and certainty in the song as well as Fay’s grounded belief in justice. Her second character, the French miracle inspector is a tougher proposition, an Allo Allo cliche in lingerie and curly pink wig which Symone shows is essentially her superhero costume, allowing Fay to explore more forthright aspects of her character without fear or reget.

Fay’s duet with Hapgood as they hopelessly fall for one another, With So Little to Be Sure Of, is tender and charmingly performed showing the balance they bring to each’s others lives and quite different but complementary personalities, while the solo See Where It Gets You is another highlight as Symone’s vocals explore the emotional range of her character in way that the book and disguise devices never fully allow. In song, Symone ensures that Fay emerges in three dimensions with a trajectory worth investing in.

This is contrasted by a quite joyous comic performance from Alex Young as Cora who wrings every ounce of amusing malevolence from her character giving her a love-to-hate quality that all but steals the show. Cora may be self-serving, callous and devoid of empathy but Young also makes her glamorous, witty and powerful, controlling the men around her and running rings around the other characters. Even at the end, when good triumphs to a degree, the audience is assured that true survivor Cora still has the nous to find a way out of her predicament.

Young also has a great vocal quality and Sondheim’s tunes suit her very well. The delightful Me and My Town and A Parade in Town have an anthemic quality in which Young encapsulates all of Cora’s ambition, while I’ve Got You to Lean On at the beginning of Act III is a cheeky piece that Young brings extra comedy to through her big but tempered performance. You may even feel a bit sorry for Cora at the end, testament to the way in which Young fills and exudes this role.

Jordan Broatch is also well cast as Hapgood, proving a decent foil for Symone and adding a stranger-in-town energy that explores identity and assumption. The musical complexities of Simple are very well managed while Broatch brings a calm but grounded messiah-like quality that draws on some of the themes in Sondheim’s lyrics. The larger ensemble of Cookies are unfortunately given a collective identity in the story but here are individually distinguished by costume, providing excellent support in the bigger numbers while Danny Lane grows in confidence as the Comptroller.

Anyone Can Whistle is really not the greatest musical and Sondheim’s songs deserve a better vehicle than this strange little tale that isn’t quite abstract or absurdist enough to make its concept work. But this Southwark Playhouse production has more than novelty merit, and by embracing its failings to make it a boldly comic piece, it earns a lot of credit. Fortunately, where plot and purpose are lacking, Sondheim’s timeless music remains enough.

Anyone Can Whistle is at Southwark Playhouse until 7 May with tickets from £16. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Broken Wings – Charing Cross Theatre

A tragic love story is perfect for Valentine’s Day and in Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan’s new musical Broken Wings there are plenty of soaring melodies for lovers and just as many haunted and broken-hearted ballads for the less romantic. Set largely in Beirut – a location rarely seen in musical theatre – Broken Wings is in many ways a very traditional musical that places the classic boy-meets-girl-but-can’t-have-her template in a new location and sets it to a fairly typical, if rather lovely, score. Yet, with attempts to look at the impact of duel nationality on identity and social expectations, the inherent yearning for cultural and spiritual homes, the restrictive consequences of binding traditions as well as the effects of gendered societies on concepts of motherhood and female liberty, Broken Wings has something new to say.

Having played briefly at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2018 and in concert in the Middle East, Broken Wings is back in London at the Charing Cross Theatre in a revised version. Based on Kahlil Gibran’s novel The Prophet published in 1923, this story is set in Beirut at the turn of the twentieth-century, setting Gibran’s wider philosophical discussions about politics, society and self-knowledge within an international tale of love and loss that partially mirrors Gibran’s biography in which the young man is sent back to his birthplace from Boston to learn more about his heritage and the richness of the country he barely knew.

In fact, the musical’s first major number is an exuberant one as the 18-year old Gibran fresh off the boat is flung into the heady experience of a central Beirut, a place alive with colour, light and people that equally overwhelm and delight him. And the richness of the Lebanese culture filters through Naaman and Al Fardan’s story, as the central affair is given both an epic and timeless quality played out against the backdrop of an ancient society on the cusp of a new century that the characters hope will bring change, and about which the writers have much to say.

And while there is plenty of vigour in this story of love denied by status, reputation and the expectations placed on wealthy families to marry appropriately, what really gives Broken Wings its heart is its soulful frame as the older Gibran narrates the story almost thirty years later still feeling the ache of youthful romance and telling the audience from the start what that unhappy ending will be. It is a often-used device but here lends the drama added depth, drawing valuable and often quite meaningful contrasts between the hopeful lovers and the despairing emptiness of Gibran’s future life.

The story then becomes a series of happy but painful memories recast by the older Gibran who stalks the action, preciously protecting the moments he treasures as his only connection to the beautiful Selma. On the sidelines for much of the action, Naaman and Al Fardan use the character well, allowing him to set the scene and move events along, drawing on first person narratives in Victorian novels as the audience’s way into and guide for the story, but still giving him a complex inner life that feels just as real and just as complete as the younger version of Gibran who is actively living the life that the elder merely reflects on.

And it is this that truly moves the drama on, pinning back some of the musical’s more sentimental moments and successfully adding a darker tinge particularly to the cheerier first Act where the lovers declare their feelings for one another. The stakes in fact become even higher, giving a driving inevitability to the plot that sustains the momentum while still leaving the audience waiting to find out how and when it all goes wrong, and why Gibran continues to cling to these memories decades later. Yes the love story is romantic but the contrasting loss of it is where the musical really packs an emotional punch.

Within the show, the writers also explore the contrasting fates of men and women partly using Young Gibran’s experience of living in America to consider what Selma describes as a man’s freedom to follow his dreams while a woman must follow her duty. And this becomes essential to the developing relationship between the lovers, Gibran is infused by US notions of liberty and the necessity to push against traditional boundaries to forge a new path, free to choose a life outside standard moral codes created and imposed by others while Selma is unable and somewhat unwilling to move beyond the familiarity of these expectations and structures while still acknowledging how painfully they restrict her.

There are several points in the show where the lack of choices for women becomes the key focus and while sometimes this is a little heavy-handed and spoken in that very self-aware manner that only people in fiction seem to use, these themes come out more powerfully through the drama itself as Selma is effectively traded in marriage to preserve her father’s reputation and must silently suffer the immediate indignities of being shackled to an adulterous villain, a fate she calmly submits to and becomes a major statement of her character.

But Selma as a creation still needs a little more work. It is very difficult to write purity and goodness while making them seem credible, attractive and dramatically interesting qualities, and while Selma is never bland, more of her decency and perfection is reported by Gibran that the audience ever sees in practice. We are told she is a woman ahead of her time, filled with knowledge and insight about the world as well as a kindness that make a lasting impression on the young man, and yet, performance aside, the musical only gives her love songs to sing or conversations about her feelings for Gibran or her father that make Selma seem less rounded in practice than she is when the men talk about it. And it leaves you slightly wondering whether Gibran is mystified by his own memory of her, over proscribing her qualities because he was blinded by love.

And to a small degree this feeds through to the love story itself and while love at first sight is a musical staple, there just needs to be a little more context to go from that initial meeting to full blown, life changing ardour. Older Gibran tells the audience that the couple met regularly but the audience just needs to see a little bit more of that in presentation, even an extra scene or two that reveal more about Selma’s qualities in particular, just to better ground the romance in their personalities. Les Miserables, of which there are occasional echoes here, has the same problem, Marius’s passion for Cosette is dampened by her complete lack of characterisation again because purity and goodness are dramatically difficult traits to give depth to, but Selma has far more to give.

Noah Sinigaglia however does everything she can to correct this with a full-bodied and vocally impressive performance reaching the depth of feeling in song that arguable the book denies her. Whether in solo or in duets with Young Gibran, Sinigaglia is a powerful presence and ultimately, as her character’s fate is revealed, a very moving one. Lucca Chadwick-Patel matches her in enthusiasm and vocal range as Young Gibran, an ardent boy eager to embrace all the experiences of his homeland while pushing for change in social attitudes. Chadwick-Patel also has one eye on his later incarnation, sometimes singing together and while Chadwick-Patel’s final buoyance seems a long way from the despair Gibran senior inherits, the two men largely work well as a single character at different stages of life.

But for the less overtly romantic in the audience, it is really Naaman playing the 40-year old Gibran who is the emotional and intellectual heart of Broken Wings, a man tormented by years of regret and grief, consumed by memories. Continuously acting and reacting to every moment, even when required to sit on the side of the stage and observe for much of the first half, Naaman brings real gravitas in a deeply felt performance, adding a necessary balance to sharpen the poignancy of the piece.

The score is one of Broken Wings biggest hits, orchestral in composition it leans in to more traditional musical theatre writing to create that epic sweep that supports the towering nature of the love story and the vibrancy of its youth perspective with a rousing quality that underscores the excitement of a changing Beirut in this era. And while it has fewer Middle Eastern influences or instruments in Naaman and Al Fardan’s melodies than you might expect, the contrasting melancholy of the older Gibran’s music adds depth to the soundscape and leaves a lasting impression. Special mention for Soophia Foroughi’s extraordinary voice as a multifaceted and eternal mother figure that adds real texture to the show.

Staged in traverse by director Bronagh Lagan at Charing Cross who uses both sides of the stage with relative balance and makes good use of the revolve for emotional emphasis and to create physical character movement, designer Gregor Donnelly using beige and cream along with occasional shots of terracotta and spice tones to evoke the warm feeling of early twentieth-century Beirut repurposing the in situ pillars that support the musicians’ balconies to create doorways, courtyards and gardens that allow the story to travel easily around the city. Nic Farman’s lighting is glorious, shifting between bright yellows and oranges to reflect the bright days to the more atmospheric blues and purples of romantic night scenes and the intense grief of older Gibran.

Ultimately a memory play, Broken Wings is interested in the power of remembrances to shape the present, not only in the person of Gibran, but through moments of recollection experienced by other characters and how they affect concepts of motherhood, friendship and identity. The female lead needs just a little more time in Act One to establish her qualities but this first full staging of the musical by super-producer Katie Lipson has a notable impact, and Broken Wings should have a greater life to come.

Broken Wings is at Charing Cross Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story – Jermyn Street Theatre

Thrill Me The Leopold and Loeb Story - Jermyn Street Theatre (by Steve Gregson)

A hundred years ago, not long after another world-wide pandemic, Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman took hold and inspired two 19-year old students to kill a child for the thrill of it. Following Darwin’s theories about survival of the fittest and related eugenicist notions that lasted through the Boer and Great Wars into the 1920s, the notion that some men are born superior and are therefore immune from the laws and social customs of lesser folk was sustained. And while later generations may think they are more liberal, reasoned people than their ancestors, we need only look at the news in the last fortnight to see that those notions of elite exemption, that rules needn’t apply equally to everyone, are still very much in evidence.

Stephen Dolginoff’s 2003 musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story was the latest in a long line of cultural products inspired by this infamous murder case in 1920s America. Orson Welles starred as their lawyer Clarence Darrow in the film Compulsion in 1959 while, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock based his 1948 movie Rope on the crime, while Rope itself has gone on to inspire both Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s Psychoville as well as Sam Mendes’ one-shot technique used in 1917. Dolginoff’s musical itself has been continually revived with productions in 2015 at the Greenwich Theatre followed by a 2017 stint at the Arcola directed by Guy Rettalack, then in 2019 at the Hope Theatre led by Matthew Parker which now transfers to the Jermyn Street Theatre for a three week run.

At just 85-minutes, Dolginoff’s musical is a masterclass in succinct and intensive storytelling, a fascinating character study that tries to unpick the reasoning behind what was perceived as a motiveless murder while never detracting from the cold-blooded horror of Leopold and Loeb’s actions. But far from a scientific and remote assessment of their actions, Dolginoff created a production that is filled with emotional complexity as 34-years on Nathan Leopold looks back on his part in this savage murder framed as a parole hearing in which he reveals a story of acute sexual obsession and coercive control that is as dramatically interesting as the superman concept the killers used to justify their lawless spree

Told in flashback from a single perspective, Dolginoff in many ways feeds a societal obsession with the perpetrators rather than the victims of serious crimes and while their target Bobby Franks is named, like his murderers who chose him at random from the school gates, the audience learns almost nothing about him. Instead we are taken into the mind of Nathan Leopold whose testimony to the Parole Board is used to move the story along, seamlessly filling gaps in time and changes of location that maintain the overall pace and shape of the show.

But it also serves as a reminder that everything being presented to the viewer is Leopold’s version of events, and despite being a clever two hander, even the presentation of Richard Loeb is being told from Leopold’s perspective, a structural slight of hand that is easy to forget as you become immersed in Dolginoff’s consuming storytelling. But Loeb is never around to offer his point of view and for those who don’t know the outcome, just what happened to Richard Loeb is one of the musical’s drivers along with the result of Leopold’s Parole Board and learning their true motive in the retelling of these defining months in his life.

Dolginoff spends some time setting the scene, painting a picture of young men who were more than friends but tainted by different notions of superiority that colour their time together. As well as scenes and songs discussing their intellectual belief in Nietzsche’s philosophies of class-like social layers in which individuals are born above the basic existence of others and are therefore more worthy and free of ordinary constraints, as much time is spent establishing the semi-abusive personal relationship between Nathan and the disdainful object of his affection, Richard.

And it is still relatively rare to see this abuse dynamic in a same sex relationship on stage, so while Leopold is by no means a likeable or even emotionally stable personality, Loeb’s callous manipulation of his seemingly ‘weaker’ partner, using his obvious devotion to demand collusion, complicity and, eventually, protection from prosecution, is one of Thrill Me‘s most unusual aspects giving it additional layers that qualify what could have been a sensationalist account of a gruesome crime. It is particularly notable that Loeb casually uses sex as a weapon to coerce his lover into assisting him, withholding it when it suits him despite their blood contract to ‘thrill’ each other with crimes and carnal encounters. As their bargain becomes tiresome to Loeb, his own feelings of superiority over the more emotionally invested Leopold, lead him to make a series of arrogant mistakes that shapes the remainder of the story.

Yet Dolginoff never allows Leopold to become too sympathetic either. He may be in an abusive relationship but Thrill Me asks some unanswered questions about the extent to which Leopold was culpable for the crimes he assisted with – including early thrills such as arson and burglary – and whether he could have stopped them in songs like Way to Far just before the murder which is also reprised later in the show. Leopold’s obvious sexual obsession with Loeb and jealousy of unseen friends adds to our uncertainty about his stability. It marks him as an oddity, a loner who doesn’t quite fit with little to focus on other than his much admired friend, and this marks a particular contrast to the more grounded and measured character he presents 34 years later. Was this a youthful fit of young love or is Leopold skilfully bending the historical record to impress the prison authorities and the audience?

In Bart Lambert’s performance for Jermyn Street Theatre’s production you are never entirely sure. His Leopold is an unnerving creation, a bundle of feelings and thoughts that manifest as tics and expressions that make for a extremely physical interpretation of the character. Lambert is never still, his Leopold never at ease at any point in the story, either anticipating affection or rejection from Loeb in a trembling feeling that courses through his limbs and vocal. He is constantly thinking, the mind appearing to leap from worry to happiness, despair to passion in just moments, giving him a mercurial although not necessarily dangerous quality.

It’s a potentially clever piece of misdirection from Lambert, using the strands of empathy that Dolginoff builds into the character to give Leopold a geeky sadness, a man desperate to be loved by someone who actively refuses to return his feelings. And it builds right into the musical’s point of view, that this is Leopold showing us Nathan as we ought to see him, the poor, misguided student driven crazy by love and forced to go along with a series of terrible crimes. Lambert contrasts this so well with the older Leopold, transforming in a second into the reasoned, regretful prisoner trying to win his freedom by adopting a deeper tone to his voice and more confident stance that adds considerable weight to the revelations that conclude this story.

Jack Reitman’s Richard Loeb is a harder character to pitch in some ways largely driven by an intellectual curiosity and arrogance that, understandably, leaves no room for emotional depth or empathy with his perspective. Reitman presents Loeb as detached, cold even sociopathic, with no evident conscience or concern in the aftermath of his crimes. He becomes more animated during the acts themselves but the brief excitement quickly subsides.

But Reitman’s Loeb has a charisma and easy confidence that makes sense of Leopold’s obsession with him, a need to be the centre of attention, to have the final world that makes him often disdainful of his companion’s advances. There is a weakness underneath, a fear of not doing anything that matters that Reitman feeds through his characterisation which subtly undercuts Loeb’s enjoyment of the power he wields, and while he believes that power gives him freedom to act without consequence, Reitman makes the most of his final song Afraid to explore an eventual dark night of the soul as it inevitably catches up with the deluded boy he always was underneath.

Thrill Me suits the intimacy of smaller venues and Matthew Parker’s production brings a feeling of pacey claustrophobia to Jermyn Street as these two men become trapped in an addictive cycle. Rachael Ryan’s set is a wonderfully evocative police reconstruction wall filled with photos, maps and notes created on Loeb’s crucial typewriter as well as tagged evidence connected by red string that extends across the top of the playing space to create accusatory links into the audience that question our social philosophies, laws and fascination with killers that created and sustain a ghoulish interest in Leopold and Loeb.

Chris McDonnell’s lighting design is incredibly atmospheric moving from a beautiful spring day in the woods when the friends are reunited before slowly sucking the light out of the show, first in dim rooms in which crimes were planned and then the pure multi-level darkness of the central murder moment lit only by the intensifying glare of Loeb’s roadster headlamps. McDonnell also creates valuable and swift locational changes such as the impression of a raging fire in a factory as well as the stripped flickering light of the prison when Leopold is making his final appeal.

Parker’s production is swift but evocative, integrating scene changes into the story as the characters shift boxes and benches naturally to establish the next location and keep Dolginoff’s musical on track while the absence of other actors – besides the pianist (uncredited) providing accompaniment- adds to the notion of being in Leopold’s mind throughout with even the booming pre-recorded voices of authority seeming to come from a distant, unrelated place.

It is such an interesting time for musical theatre, offering real opportunities to rival drama in the successful and meaningful presentation of more complex or tragic stories. From the latest Cabaret revival to Gatsby: A Musical, there is a darker form emerging that suits this timely revival of Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, and at a time when our leaders really do think they are Nietzsche’s ‘supermen’, this Jermyn Street production is a stark warning of just how dangerous feeling superior can be.

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 5 February with tickets from £15 in preview. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

%d bloggers like this: