Tag Archives: musical

Theatre Review of the Year and What to See in 2018

2018

After the political surprises of 2016 it was easy to assume that 2017 would be defined by the fallout. For those in the liberal London bubble, the direct collision of old and new Britain, demonstrated at the ballot box last year, caused a shift in the way we see ourselves, a rethink that put concepts of nationalism, power and societal influence back under the microscope, Naturally, facing what felt like a significant and unbreachable rift, instability and economic downturn was the likely outcome, which for the arts, could only mean one thing –  cultural depletion  – as audience seek safety in comfort and nostalgia.

What actually happened in 2017 theatre couldn’t be further from that prediction, and while the revival of great American dance-led shows continued apace, looking back at this year’s very best productions, they were strikingly new. It has been an outstanding year for fresh, and predominantly political, writing with a West End transfer for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, an ambitious technical accomplishment if not entirely emotionally satisfying play about the encroaching effect of the 1980s hunger strikes on a rural Irish family that opened at the Royal Court in May, before making it to the Gielgud shortly afterwards, where its changing cast has led to two run extensions so far.

Just a tad more fulfilling was the first UK production of Oslo, arriving with its Tony Award winning headline from Broadway and a new British cast. Opening at the National Theatre in September before a prompt move to the Harold Pinter the following month, Oslo is a superb and very human examination of the personalities that created an unlikely peace process, dramatizing the complexity without undermining the entertainment value, an exceptional piece of writing by J.T. Rogers.

Undoubtedly, and for productivity and consistent quality alone, this year has belonged to James Graham with two new plays in neighbouring theatres, and a third announcing a transfer in the Spring of 2018. Labour of Love is one of the few new plays to open cold in the West End this year, premiering to much acclaim at the Noel Coward Theatre in September and innovatively charting the history of the Labour Party since the mid-1980s to the present day through the eyes of grass-roots membership, using a reverse then forward chronological structure.

Unpicking established historical scenarios and carefully controlled construction are Graham trademarks, both perfectly demonstrated in his biggest hit, and, personally my favourite show of the year, Ink, establishing the tabloid newspaper’s current powerbase rooted in its quest for populism in the sales war of 1969. A wonderful and unexpected surprise in its first outing at The Almeida in June, Ink promptly arrived at the Duke of York’s in September cementing Graham’s influence on modern political writing and paving the way for his next big show, and my first 2018 recommendation, Quiz, which is heading to the Noel Coward from April after a successful Chichester try-out, focusing on the power of the television media and the nature of modern justice, framed by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing-Major scandal.

Another stand-out piece of new writing this year was a personal examination of the impact of suicide on three generations of the same family that placed women’s experience front and centre. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide opened at the Royal Court in June and ambitiously reimagined traditional narrative approaches by telling the three separate but inter-related stories side-by-side, upping the emotional investment, while The Barbershop Chronicles at the National was an invigorating examination of black male experience around the world distilled through a visit to the local hairdresser. And finally, The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios arrived in the West End from the Bristol Old Vic just in time to be crowned this year’s best new musical, reimagining Victor Hugo’s dark tale of mutilation and injustice. Genuinely magical, it swept the audience up with its heightened fairy tale quality, charting the story of a tragic outsider to quietly devastating effect.

Emotional and quietly devastating also describes 2017’s best revival, the Sondheim classic Follies that united Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee at the National Theatre. From the very first night of previews, the show ached with regret, disillusion and nostalgia for lost youth that filled the sizeable Olivier auditorium and never has a production suited the awkward space so well. Twice this year, the National has arguably produced definitive productions that will certainly preclude other major revivals for at least a decade, and joining the genuinely heart-rending Follies was the epic Angles in America (Part 1 and Part 2).

Tony Kushner’s two-part 1990s ‘gay fantasia’ was much trailered this time last year, and when it finally opened in a mammoth seven and half hour production it more than lived-up to expectation. Director Marianne Elliot balanced the multiple narratives and hallucinatory elements convincingly, while leads Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in particular gave the performance of their lives as men ravaged by HIV.

Andrew Scott also gave a career-best performance in this year’s superstar Hamlet, opening in February at the Almeida before transferring to the Harold Pinter. Robert Icke’s production was a modern, strongly conceived production that despite a few loose ends and some underpowered interpretations of Claudius and Gertrude, gave its leading man the space to deliver one of the most heart-breaking Hamlets of the 21st century.

Another former Hamlet returned to the stage this year and having established a devoted fan-base as a much-loved TV character and a respected Shakespeare performer, blew it all up to play a dastardly lothario with only his own pleasure in mind. David Tennant’s performance in the revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho divided critics and audiences alike with its crude and gleeful take on an unrepentant wastrel. But Tennant’s joyous interpretation, perfectly matched by Adrian Scarborough’s put-upon servant proved irresistible, making it one of my favourite and most uproarious nights in a theatre this year.

With another cracking Imelda Staunton performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe impressing in the Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and charming returns for An American in Paris and 42nd Street, 2017 has been a cracking year for top-quality theatre. But as we say a bittersweet farewell to one of the strongest years for mainstream theatre in a long time, we can take comfort in knowing that 2018 is already filled with possible treats.

The new Bridge Theatre opens the year with an all-star promenade production of Julius Caesar – one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – starring Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrissey as Mark Anthony which should be an interesting take on well-known tale of power and corruption. The National follows suit in February with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in a new Macbeth that could be the best stage version in years, while more must-see Shakespeare is planned for September with a much anticipated version of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo also at the National.

Another early highlight is the much acclaimed transfer of Long Day’s Journey into Night starring Jeremy Irons and the wonderful Lesley Manville pitching-up at the Wyndhams in January, while in the same month Kathy Burke directs Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, and soon after Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins take the lead in Bryony Lavery’s thriller Frozen, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.

The late spring and summer months also promise much, with a revival of Red starring Alfred Molina also heading to the Wyndhams, while, following the London run of James Graham’s Quiz from April, all eyes will be on the Noel Coward Theatre in July where Martin McDonagh’s the Lieutenant of Inishmore will mark the West End debut of Poldark star Aidan Turner, timed to coincide with the next series of the hit show.

And that’s not even the half of it; later in the year Jim Broadbent will star in Martin McDonagh’s new play about Hans Christian Andersen at the The Bridge Theatre entitled A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the National has announced a version of Brian Friel’s Translations with Colin Morgan, the first London run of the trilogy of plays about Lehman Brothers directed by Sam Mendes who follows his wonderful control of The Ferryman with more new writing, while there is a new play from The Flick writer Annie Baker, who returns to the National with John, and the Royal Court welcomes Carey Mulligan in a new show Girls and Boys, while the Gielgud hosts a gender-swapped version of Sondheim’s Company from September.

So, it may be sad to leave a year of really great theatre, but 2018 has plenty to offer, and looks set to continue the investment in new writing that has been such a feature of the last 12 months. With a constantly shifting governmental landscape and ongoing uncertainty, it’s comforting to see mainstream theatre responding with sophisticated political writing and greater attempts at diversity – that some of the approaches that have long been a feature of the Fringe are finally filtering up. It’s far from perfect and there’s still a long way to go, but with the work of 2017 setting a high bar, the theatre year ahead looks full of promise.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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Follies – National Theatre

Follies, National Theatre

It’s been some time since The National Theatre last staged a major musical and their sensational new production of Follies has been worth the wait. The end of the Nicholas Hytner era and the first two years of Rufus Norris’s tenure have been focused on significant adaptations of well-known plays and new writing, many of which have received considerable critical acclaim. Despite an indifferent summer season in the Olivier Theatre, with Norris now firmly ensconced in his role of Artistic Director, this is a National Theatre at the zenith of its power capable of creating work of extraordinary quality and artistic influence.

Follies is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most loved musicals but revivals have been few and far between. While there may be more Hamlets than anyone really needs this season, the last Follies was more than a decade ago, and, like the recent era-defining production of Angels in America this superlative vision of Sondeheim’s show will surely become one of its best remembered revivals, mixing the wistful showmanship of the Music Hall with the shattered illusions of its four central characters, clinging to false visions and unrealised dreams of alternative lives,

In 1971, a class reunion at the Weismann Follies brings together many of the former singers and showgirls who entertained at the club during the wars at a party to celebrate the last night before the building is torn down to make way for office blocks. 30 years on it’s a bittersweet evening for everyone, as the ghosts of the past emerge all around them, reminding the women of who they once were and where fortune has taken them, with life quelling the hopes and plans they once had.

For Sally and Buddy, now in their 50s, life and marriage has been unremarkable and conventional, with Buddy struggling to fulfil some need in Sally that can never be satisfied. Meeting best friends Phyllis and Ben, a stylish couple whose animosity towards one another can barely be contained, takes the quartet back to their youth where the story of their courtship emerges along with deeply concealed emotions that abruptly resurface. By the time morning comes, the party is over in more ways than one.

Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies is entirely at home on the grand Olivier stage in what feels like a perfectly created world of decaying glamour. The well-utilised stage revolve houses a two-piece walled-arch structure that contains the faded Follies neon sign, and a multi-tiered fire escape which the girls used to parade down onto the stage, allowing Cooke to show scenes taking place in multiple rooms with a quick turn of the Olivier drum.

Vicki Mortimer’s theme-laden design is purposely used to reinforce the text, whether it be the stacked heaps of detritus on the side of the stage and the shabby theatre seats – clearly referencing the characters emotional baggage – or the almost unnoticeably slow clearing away of the structures of the Weismann nightclub during the production to represent not just the destruction of the physical building, but also the breakdown of characters and their long-held fantasies of a better life, leaving only a vast emptiness to see and feel as the story concludes.

Sondheim’s work is not conventional musical theatre and his first focus (and training) was as a playwright, so it is this emphasis on plot and characterisation that separates Follies from the song and dance shows which have been recently revived in London. Lovely as they are, with glitzy production values and incredibly skilled dancers, An American in Paris and 42nd Street just don’t have the same heart-rending ache of Sondheim’s show. Again and again throughout this production, for a variety of characters, you feel powerfully focused emotion filling the cavernous Olivier space, creating an extraordinary intimacy and impact. It’s a rather amazing experience.

At the heart of the show is Imelda Stuanton’s interpretation of Sally, her second major theatre role this year. Sally has some characteristics in common with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who Staunton played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Spring, both are in a long and fruitless marriage where love, it seems, has long since departed, but where Martha is openly vicious, sweet and hopeful Sally clings to a decades-long love for Ben, a dream elaborate and embedded with age which she believes will rescue her from the emptiness of the life she now leads.

Staunton’s power as actor lies in slowly unveiling the layers of deep feeling beneath the surface of her characters, and, as with Martha, she quickly shows the that bubby, excitable, chatty Sally is bundle of false hope and self-delusion. Sondheim uses his songs to advance the story and Staunton understands these rhythms so perfectly that the excitable romance of ‘Too Many Mornings’ leaves Sally exuberant at finally having the long-hoped for relationship, while the slow disillusionment that follows is beautifully and arrestingly charted. As Staunton sings ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s so full of a sorrow that it builds to a state of almost deluded madness as her world collapses in on her. It’s terribly terribly moving and physically painful to watch, but astonishing theatre that will stick in your mind.

In the other corner is Janie Dee’s Phyllis, a once poised and gentle young girl who through lack of love believed she needed to continually improve herself and her mind to be worthy of Ben. While she became a good society wife, full of grace and dignity, Phyllis has also hardened, become cold to any form of emotion, even for her once loved friend, and this manifests in a tirade aimed Ben in the song ‘Could I Leave You’. And as the evening draws on, Dee shows us that Phyllis has become an independent woman who knows she can now survive without the husband she’s relied on and looked up to, that the slow erosion of her love for him solidified in this one decisive night.

Like Imelda Stuanton, Dee’s finest moment comes in the fantasy element of the production which takes place in ‘Love Land’ where each of the four protagonists gets to reveal their inner selves to the audience. In the section dedicated to ‘Phyllis’s Folly’ Dee gets a sultry number – ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ – which is a chance to unbutton the woman beneath the surface as she cavorts with her young dancers, for once the centre of attention. This whole section borrows considerably from Gilda and the famous ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ sequence that allows Dee to channel plenty of Rita Hayworth moves as well as physical nods to her wavy red hair and fitted black dress.

Although Follies is predominantly about the memories and dreams of its female characters, with Weismann himself merely the conduit for the reunion of his dancers, the two male leads are given just enough stage time to give the audience plenty of insight into two rather hopeless marriages and the sacrifices all four characters have made to sustain them. Peter Forbes as Buddy initially seems a comedy aside, a genial and supportive husband, sharing his wife Sally’s wide-eyed welcome back to the big city. But as the story unfolds, Forbes shows us a man who’s spent a lifetime knowing he was second best, trying endlessly and fruitlessly to make Sally happy, worn down by the knowledge he can never be the one thing she wants… someone else. His many failures as a partner stem from loving someone who cannot return his feeling and Forbes’s performance ask whether dependability and fondness ultimately outlast passion as the best foundations for marriage.

In fine voice is Philip Quast as Ben, Phyllis’s lothario husband, now a politician and long-time object of Sally’s affection. Ben is a man who has always relied on his allure, and his attractiveness to women makes him feel powerful. In the growing estrangement with Phyllis, Quast reveals a bitterness in Ben that is initially hard to reconcile with his easy charm, but as the muddles of the evening unfold, Quast’s Ben fears both a lack of love and of not deserving it, that despite his façade he is in fact a sham.  His voice is beautiful in duet with Imelda Staunton and those mellifluous tones are from a golden age of musical theatre long since passed.

A final note on Tracie Bennet as Carlotta, the only ex-Folly who really made it, now a well-known actress, and a fitting contrast to all the meek and mumsy society wives that her fellow Follies became. Glamorous and jaded, Bennett gets the zesty number ‘I’m Still Here’ showing us Carlotta’s scrappy nature that has allowed her to claw her way to the top and stay there. She may have had multiple husbands and now much younger lovers, but there’s a rousing lack of regret that makes this performance one of the moments of the night.

Supported by a fine cast who each get their song, this National Theatre production has perfectly judged the tone of dark nostalgia, of expectant youth and wasted futures, and the danger of trying to recapture the past – a theme that couldn’t be more fitting in post-Brexit modern Britain. Even the tricky ghost or shadow selves are seamlessly woven into the production and avoid feeling cheesy. Instead, each character appears with her younger self in original costume, allowing Cooke to blur the boundary between past and present, hope and reality as if memories have been given physical form one last time.

Sometimes, a piece of theatre will catch you entirely unawares; you see plenty of good or even excellent work, but every now and then something comes along that generates an emotional connection you didn’t foresee. This heartbreaking production, that has earned uproarious standing ovations at every preview, is a National Theatre at the peak of its power, producing work of extraordinary quality and impact. Even at well over two hours without an interval, the time flies by and it’s always reassuring to see the integrity of the work taking precedence over bar sales. There may not have been a major production of Follies for a while, but with an astounding cast, glorious production values and an ache that lingers for days, this is a production you’ll never forget.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 3rd January. Tickets start at £15 and are also available at £20 via Friday Rush every week at 1pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


42nd Street – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

A dastardly diva, conniving chorus girls, the spikey director and the talented young ingenue with little experience who just wants to be a star – it can only be a classic Hollywood musical. The 1933 film of 42nd Street became a bone fide Broadway musical in 1980 and is currently enjoying a glitzy run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Maybe it’s the long years of austerity, maybe the political polarisation that led to Brexit, but the West End is a pretty nostalgic place to be right now with An American in Paris, Dreamgirls and even Love in Idleness transporting us back to a mythical time when all that mattered was love, music and dancing. Any night of the week you can be swept away by showtunes, glitter and misty sentiment, and it’s no bad thing.

There is a darker side to all this of course which most of these shows choose to gloss over; for someone to be the star they have to push someone else aside first, and Hollywood loves to explore the, predominantly female, battle between the established luminary and the bright young thing snapping at her heels. It’s a trope used in All About Eve, as Bette Davis nurtured a calculating young fan who sets about stealing her life – a much anticipated stage version will arrive in London next year starring Cate Blanchett – we saw it too in Phantom of the Opera as diva Carlotta must make way at the Paris opera for the more innocent Christine, in Black Swan as Natalie Portman replaces old hand Winona Ryder as prima ballerina, and even Dreamgirls is the story of supressing one band member’s dream to sell another. Showbiz is a brutal world and the next big thing is waiting in the wings wearing your costume.

42nd Street takes a slightly gentler view of this process of replacement, but the outcome is the same. At an audition for a new show called Pretty Lady hardnosed director Julian Marsh is putting the chorus through their paces when Peggy Sawyer arrives late. Initially sent away, Marsh reconsiders when he sees Peggy dance and invites her to join the troupe who head to Philadelphia for tryouts. Meanwhile, unable to dance as well as she sings, star of the show Dorothy Brock’s poisonous attitude and arrogance manages to rankle with cast and crew alike, especially as her private life threatens the show’s finances. On opening night in Philadelphia, Peggy accidentally scuppers Dorothy’s performance, paving the way for a new star to take her place. As Peggy tries to hide from the responsibility and pressure, will the show go on in New York?

The choreography in 42nd Street is what you’ll remember and, as with the balletic style of An American in Paris, this tap-focused show is at its best when all 50 dancers are on stage delivering one stunning routine after another. Like many shows of its era, we get to see both behind and in front of the curtain as song and dance numbers from ‘real life’ are mixed in with ones from the fictional show they’re creating, which means the plot is essentially paper thin, and don’t ask me what the point of Pretty Lady was meant to be, but you do get a range of sequences that take in everything from 30s Busby Berkeley and Vaudeville to 50s MGM classic musicals with their everyday singing-in-the-street charm.

As the start, the curtain goes up just a few inches to show a line of tap-dancing feet, and from here on in it’s a riot of sound, colour and cartoon-like characters, painted backdrops, gold lamé and good wholesome fun. The very best sections come from the faux musical including the Busby Berkeley-inspired Keep Young and Beautiful in which the dancers lay in a circle on stage, like synchronised swimmers, using their arms and legs to create a series of intricate patterns, while a large mirror is lowered from the ceiling so the audience can see both the stage and aerial view which is a lovely touch – although if you’re sitting higher than the Royal Circle you won’t see the full reflection.

Equally delightful is the I’m in the Money section as chorus girls dance on with their own round podia made to look like coins which they place on the floor and tap on top of, while the male dancers fill in the gaps in top hat and tails. It’s a dazzling spectacle of white, silver and gold that showcases the increasing complexity of Randy Skinner’s choreography that builds on the original work of Gower Champion, which the cast executes with faultless precision.

But it just gets better and better, building up to the final scene in Pretty Lady, the title song 42nd Street which references the fantasy sequences in several Gene Kelly films. Beginning on a black stage with a spotlight on Peggy, it rapidly becomes the street itself with neon theatre signs advertising shows up and down the famous street while mini-stories of New York life are told around the stage; the sailors, the party girls, the Park Avenue set. The pace and movement build frantically until a gunshot clears the stage and a set of steps unfolds. If you’ve seen enough classic musicals you know what happens next, a show-stopping tap routine with steps that light-up as the full ensemble delivers a rousing finale.

Just like An American in Paris, there is so much joy in the dance sequences that any other problems the show has – including its somewhat old-fashioned and sexist instance on youth and beauty –  just evaporate, and with so many musicals really focused on the singing, it’s refreshing to see two in quick succession that remind audiences what a great choreographer can do, and, in our pared back times, the effect of a stage full of people performing completely in sync.

Given that this is essentially a caricature, outside of the musical numbers the characters haven’t much personality of their own which gives the performers very little to cling on to. Clare Halse’s Peggy is perky and talented with no malice in her. She aches to be a star but the slightest knock has her scampering back to her small-town home. Still it’s hard to dislike her and Halse’s tap talent is genuinely impressive. Stuart Neal as Pretty Girl’s male lead Billy sings and dances beautifully but has little to do backstage but make an early pass at Peggy that goes unremembered for the rest of the show.

Tom Lister finds depth in the second act as scary director Julian Marsh, and although he has no chemistry with Peggy, his discovery of her talent and growing affection for her is well charted, while Lister’s voice is delightful. Stealing the show musically is Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock, relishing every sneering put down and hissy fit as the diva, but finding real emotion and sympathy in her love songs as she aches for lover Pat in tunes like I Only Have Eyes for You and You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me which are as touching as they are melodious, and prevent her from being a two-dimensional villain.

The pros and cons of a particular show may seem trivial in light of this weekend’s events, and the previous attacks in Westminster and Manchester, but arts and culture have an important social role; they bring us together and reflect our communities back at us, they create empathy, understanding and the ability to see things from another perspective – not just of people half way round the world but sometimes also the ones right next door – and the more we know about something, the less we fear it. So, shows like An American in Paris and 42nd Street may not have any searing political insight to offer, but they tell us that right now we’re missing something, something we almost certainly never had – sometimes we want to escape to a world in which love, singing and dancing is all that matters. And, honestly, what’s so wrong with that?

42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 10 February 2018 and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


An American in Paris – Dominion Theatre

An American in Paris, Dominion Theatre

With the world back in love with the classic musical thanks to La La Land, the arrival of the 2015 Broadway Production of An American in Paris couldn’t be more timely. After a brief stint in Paris and rave reviews on Broadway, this much anticipated revival, based on the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, has its press night at the Dominion Theatre tomorrow. But this isn’t the standard all-singing all-dancing musical you might expect, and while there are a number of memorable songs, this is really a dance and classical music piece, with choreography drawn from ballet rather than modern dance and tap. But more than that, this tale of soldiers and restoration is couched in the consequences of conflict and its effect on the arts – a romantic fantasy very much grounded in the aftermath of World War Two.

Demobilised in 1945, Jerry decides not to return to America with his colleagues and to pursue his career as a modernist painter in Paris, where he unexpectedly meets Lise after rescuing her from a pushy crowd. He falls instantly in love with her but she disappears into the night and instead Jerry becomes involved with fellow American Milo, who offers to help him promote his work to local gallery owners and as a set designer at the ballet. Meanwhile Lise has also caught the attention of pianist Adam who is charmed when she becomes principal ballerina in a work he is composing but Lise is engaged to Henri whose mother is patron of the ballet. When Henri, Adam and Jerry become friends and with the ballet premiere approaching, how soon before they realise they’re all in love with the same girl and who will win her?

Most musicals open with some big all-cast number with another either side of the interval and a rouser to send people home at the end. But An American in Paris has a more muted trajectory, opening with only a piano on a dark stage because this is one man’s memory, the story of Adam reflecting back many years later on what appears to be a lost love affair, a happier time not just for him personally but for the whole of France as it emerged from occupation. That piano becomes a key focal point throughout the show moved skilfully around the stage, identifying times when the audience is privy to Adam’s direct memories. But, as it’s clear from the start that we’re seeing things from his point of view, crucially the piano’s absence implies events between other characters that he has imagined – such as any private encounter between Jerry and Lise – which adds to, and partially explains, the heightened fantasy element of the sections where Adam is not present.

In many ways this is an intimate show, concerned with the relationships and developing affections among a small group of artists in post-war Paris, and while this bigger picture is an underlying theme it’s really the smaller human interaction that is the focus. With that in mind, the size of the Dominion Theatre stage is frequently a problem with even the largest dance numbers looking a little swamped amidst the acres of empty space, although surprisingly that’s not always the case with the duets. That aside, the dancing is beautifully choreographed by Director Christopher Wheeldon, perfectly capturing the lyricism and romance of Gershwin’s score mixing fun upbeat numbers such as I’ve Got Rhythm set in a local café during a power cut, with the extraordinary I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck in the department store where Lise works as three sets of display cabinets whirl around the stage allowing Jerry to hop between them as dancers parade and spin in the latest ‘new look’ fashions creating the sense of the old counter-style service in a busy store as well as the disruption Jerry causes by turning up out of the blue. As a set-piece its elaborate glamour is very much in line with things like the Ascot race from My Fair Lady and Beautiful Girl from Singing in the Rain.

But Wheeldon also brings genuine tenderness and emotion to Jerry and Lise’s interactions, demonstrating their growing connection and the somewhat wistful nature of their romance as they meet in secret by the Seine. He christens her ‘Liza’, encouraging her to take more risks and their dance along the riverbank is beautifully staged. It’s a classic 50s musical concept of love presented in an emotionally touching but chaste way.

Yet, the traditional dream-like quality of the romance is constantly buffeted by the realities of post-war France and the intrusion of modernist notions which we see particularly in Jerry’s art and how this is reflected in the design of the extraordinary ballet sequence. While this type of art first emerged as a response to the First World War, rather than the Second, its use here emphasises the idea that the world has been fundamentally changed by the experience of conflict, where new ideas and freedoms, driven by the young, are demanded to challenge the cosy traditionalism of the elder generations. So the way in which Jerry’s painting captures the imagination of Milo Davenport leads quite naturally to the fully modernist ballet that in look and feel entirely eschews more classical approaches, is redolent of this new wave of art and interpretation that pits two halves of Paris against each other in this show.

Like The Red Shoes (wonderfully staged by Matthew Bourne at Sadler’s Wells recently), An American in Paris contains a lengthy ballet within a ballet as the audience gets to see the show composed by Adam, designed by Jerry and danced by Lise. And it makes for a striking contrast with what has gone before as the stage is filled with geometric shapes in bold primary colours – reflecting work of artists like Mondrian – while the dancer’s costumes are similarly unusual if you’re used to traditional ballet. It’s an incredible piece of work and although it doesn’t add anything much to the direct plot, it is one of highlights of a show that emphasises the integrity of the dance and the emotional turbulence of the characters primarily.

If you’ve never seen the film, then there is a genuine uncertainty about who will end up with who, with the three supporting players nicely fleshed out, giving them proper rounded characters and a realistic stake in the eventual outcome. There are benefits and downsides to this however which slightly take away from the eventual resolution.  As our narrator, Adam is already a highly sympathetic character with the audience deliberately on his side from the start and David Seadon-Young really draws on the luckless and lonely composer who writes beautifully but cannot translate his feelings into a real relationship. His unrequited affection for Lise is subtly portrayed and his generosity to his good friend and fellow veteran Jerry make him highly sympathetic.

Likewise the semi-cuckolded Milo becomes Jerry’s rebound love interest which is given considerably poignancy by Zoe Rainey. It’s clear to the audience that she’s just a passing thing but her continued efforts to enhance his career and a growing sense of hopelessness are nicely charted. Joining her is Lise’s fiancé Henri (Haydn Oakley) who is doggedly devoted to his ballerina girlfriend, offering her a less explosive but steady and consistent love. And while the French accents get a bit Allo Allo at times, these characters and their stake in their mutually dependant future are very nicely drawn, which adds considerably to the audience’s dilemma over who to root for.

As a consequence though, and despite beautiful dance performances from Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise, it becomes increasingly difficult to be entirely on the side of the leads when they deliberately and wilfully string other characters along until they can be together. This did happen in the original film of course but then that was Gene Kelly, and how can you not want smiley charming Gene Kelly to get whoever he wants. Here, Cope and Fairchild are a convincing pairing, but maybe we’re more cynical or we take a more rounded perspective these days, so even if the happy couple dance off into the sunset as the curtain falls you can’t help but think ‘what about all those poor people you hurt.’ And because of the sympathetic portrayal of these other characters, this for me slightly undercuts the “love conquers all” tone of the finale.

The technical design by 59 Projection is stunning helping to create a variety of locations, show big events and reflecting the particularly French style of visual design which add considerably to the atmosphere, bringing a different sense of spectacle and innovation to the West End than we’ve really seen before on this scale. And while the first half is arguably a tad lacklustre, the second draws you into the emotional heart of the story. It may look small on the Dominion stage and while the central romance may not be as transporting as it once was, An American in Paris utilises Gershwin’s beautiful score to offer something quite different to the standard musicals format.

An American in Paris is at The Dominion Theatre until 30 September. Tickets start at £17.50 with reduced prices until 31 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Dreamgirls – Savoy Theatre

dreamgirls

Growing up, my house was always full of music, predominantly Motown, which even now always takes me back to being eight years old listening to my mum play her records. Stevie Wonder, Billy Ocean, Marvin Gaye all featured regularly but the artist I most remember hearing is Diana Ross, her silky, hauntingly romantic voice pleading with some unknown man to keep loving her while she looked unbelievably glamorous on the record covers. But most of this music came from Ross’s solo career, long after she left The Supremes to go it alone, as so many former band members seem to do, and it’s easy to forget how she got there.

The last couple of years in London have been a fantastic time for lovers of the origins of soul and RnB music, and the fight for equality with several plays and musicals that chart their development. From the Royal Court’s Father Comes Home from the Wars to The National Theatre’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Shepherd Bush Theatre’s The Royale, to all singing all dancing productions like Memphis, Motown The Musical and now Dreamgirls, these productions have shown us greater diversity by telling stories about the (largely American) experience of segregation, slavery and the role of music in breaking down racial divides. All of which have been reinforced by the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, as well as perfectly timed Black Star season of films currently at the BFI.

The shamefully late arrival of Dreamgirls in the UK may seem astonishing seeing as it premiered on Broadway 35 years ago, but actually it is, in many ways, perfectly timed to coincide with this growing momentum. The show, still in preview at the Savoy Theatre, will be a sensation combining an engaging semi-real story that utilises its songs to advance the characters emotions, with sequin-bedecked visuals – including sets and costume – that look as though they have stepped right out of one of Shirley Bassey’s dreams.

Ettie White is the leader of three-piece girl group The Dreamettes in 1960s America who enter a local talent competition in front of big record producers. But spotting the girls, manger Curtis has other ideas and wants them to sing backing vocals for established singer Jimmy Early rather than have their own career. As relationships form and tempers fray the group begins to separate and when they finally get the chance to go it alone, someone is left behind. The consequences are played out in the 1970s-set Act Two as we see what happens to the characters and whether any of them can ever really break free to pursue their dreams.

Perhaps unexpectedly, one of the most striking elements of the show is just how much it deals with the experience of the men surrounding the group and as many of the scenes are about them and their struggle for political and musical acceptance as about the development of the group. Central to the changing dynamics of the plot is the character of Curtis Taylor loosely modelled on Berry Gordy, the former manager of The Supremes, who is both the key to the success of the Dreamgirls and eventually the one holding them back.

The 60s and 70s were still a period when men ruled the world and certainly the music industry, and as this show suggests the same was still true in the black community. Curtis’s world is entirely about fulfilling his dream to merge soul music into something with a pop focus that will make it more tenable to the Hit Parade – gaining radio play and traction among a white-dominated industry. Joe Aaron Reid’s performance makes the character ambiguous enough that you hate his methods but admire his attempt to pioneer musical cross-over, as well as having a degree of sympathy for his motives. Boxing drama The Royale recently asked whether a few casualties are worth it if you start to chip away at the wall and create heroes, and I think Dreamgirls, perhaps unexpectedly, has some of that political edge in places.

While many will be here for Amber Riley, the finest and most intriguing performances of the night comes from Adam J Bernard as Jimmy Early, the soul singer whose backing group begins to outstrip him. Already nominated for a Whats On Stage award, despite the show still being in preview which only started a week before nominations were announced, Bernard’s scene stealing performance as the confident diva becomes increasingly sympathetic and multi-layered. His character is a metaphor for the treadmill nature of fame, where stars strive for years to “make-it”, shine briefly before being unceremoniously spat-out by the industry and left struggling for an audience. Bernard’s Jimmy has an Elvis-like sex-appeal which gives his songs considerable dynamism, but he struggles to contain his personality and soul-roots to conform to white ideas of music which add a valuable contrast to the success of the Dreamettes.

The story of the female characters is two-fold, seen both as an issue of race – forcing them to change their look, set-up and style of music – and ideas of gender relations being played out in their narratives, as the men in their lives control and direct them, regardless of their burgeoning fame.  Ettie (Amber Riley) may be the original lead but her sass and overconfidence are ultimately her undoing. There is a lot of talk of dreams being stolen throughout the production, with Curtis reminding Diana Ross-based Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) repeatedly that she is fulfilling his dream to produce the kind of music he wants, while Ettie sees Deena living the life she aspired to, yet Deena’s plans to act remain unfulfilled. Likewise third member Lorell (Ibinabo Jack) embarks on an eight-year affair with the married Jimmy when all she wants is to settle down with him. So, based on the decision made by men in the more restrictive society of the 60s and 70s, for much of the production the women are hampered by things outside of their control.

With another week of previews much can change but the production is already a gratifying one for audiences with Riley’s performance as Ettie enthusiastically received. Each Dreamette gets a few solos and Riley’s character has a number of emotional belters that have the audience clapping and whooping from the start. In fairness to the production, Riley’s star power doesn’t overwhelm it and Casey Nicholaw’s direction blends scenes smoothly to ensure the action resumes rapidly, so it really is a team effort telling a story rather than a concert for Riley which it could have become. And pleasingly as the narrative continues the audience begins to show equal appreciation for all the leads because there are some genuinely superb vocal performances particularly from LaFrontaine and Bernard as well as Riley.

With any musical you always want a spectacle and visually Dreamgirls more than delivers the goods. Set designer Tim Hately has created two contrasting worlds with a simple, pared-down set, largely in black for the pre-fame storylines, while his staging of the big concert numbers are full of colour and sparkle. Gregg Barnes’s stunning costumes and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting combine well with Hately’s vision to emphasis the shows core themes, while being practical enough to allow for speedy changes and rapid removal of podia and glitter-curtains.

All of that clearly costs a lot to run, and ticket prices are the big concern with this one. Even in preview, a restricted view seat at the back of the stalls costs the best part of £45 including ATG’s exorbitant booking fees, while those nearer the stage will have parted with £60 to £80 for a single seat. It’s pretty much sold out through December when after press nights the best seats will be £145 while even Grand Circle seats at the very back are £40, all plus booking fee. There is a ticket lottery however and a lucky few may get front row seats for £15 but this will be an expensive night for everyone else.

Dreamgirls is predominately a plot-focused piece so there isn’t always enough time to linger on emotional depth and consequences of events, but the songs and performances give enough of a hint to make the characters more rounded. Yet the overall effect is impressive and at times dazzling. In just over a week’s time the critics will have their say, but audiences are already on their feet about this one. It may have taken 35 years to reach the West End but its central messages are as relevant now as they were in 1981. It may be a bubbly musical, but it has plenty to say about inequality and not letting others stand in your way – and with the year we’ve had, that’s something we all need to hear.

Dreamgirls is at the Savoy Theatre until 6 May and tickets start at £20, although deals are available from other vendors, and a ticket lottery is in operation. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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