Tag Archives: The London Palladium

Songs for a New World – London Palladium

This weekend the London Palladium became the first central London theatre to offer live performance after successfully advocating new audience safety measures during the summer and conducting a trial event for journalists a couple of months ago. Songs for a New World written by Jason Robert Brown was performed live on stage for one day only, a matinee and evening show that once again puts musical theatre at the top of theatrical agenda.

Staged without sets or scenary this felt like a cabaret-concert performance with the band placed on stage and a smattering of chairs that remained empty for one final surprise. Its dual purpose worked well, giving the performers the freedom to move around the space and create variation in the way numbers were staged, while also nodding to the still empty chairs and venues around the country as restrictions thin companies to essential teams and reduce audience capacity.

And while this industry has been indirectly described as not viable by the government, they have vastly underestimated not just the economic and creative contribution of the performing arts but also the pure joy it brings to millions of patrons. That joy was more than evident among the uproarious Palladium crowd on Sunday afternoon as an extended ovation of applause and whooping followed a (presumably) pre-recorded announcement that the show was due to start. The musical itself became a participatory event as performer introductions, song openers, long notes and character quirks were greeted with the same rapture among an audience starved of indoor live performance and, in spite of the reduced capacity, making as much noise as a full audiotorium.

To be back in the London Palladium and a traditional West End theatre clearly means so much to everybody in the room and Jason Robert Brown’s music provides the perfect uplift, a beautiful song cycle that could almost have been designed to galvanise a more than half-empty theatre space. Drawing on Motown, funk, blues and gospel as well cabaret and old Broadway, Songs for a New World is a collection of thematically related numbers about the difficulty of relationships and the possibilities of new beginnings where change and breaking free of old patterns is something to embrance.

And London is enjoying a mini Brown revival with The Last 5 Years not only resuming live performance at Southwark Playhouse after a terrific staging earlier this year, but now extending its run and offering a filmed stream in late November open to an international audience. Now, with this one-day revival of Songs for a New World, previously performed by most of this cast online during lockdown, Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics and music are already shaping whatever our new theatre world will look like.

This Palladium production divided into two 45-minute Acts with a 30-minute interval (arguably superfluous but it does eek out the joy of it) is an outstanding musical experience that becomes a part-theatre, part-concert show that places as much emphasis on the music as the singers and characterisation. It feels like a live gig as the toe-tapping sounds of piano primarily (for which Brown especially likes to compose), drums, bass, keyboard, cello and guitar fill the room accompanied by five extraordinary voices.

As musicals along Shaftesbury Avenue look set to reopen before Christmas with Six, There’s Something About Jamie and a freshly announced return for Les Miserables: The Staged Concert with last year’s brilliant cast, Songs for a New World serves as an all-to-brief reminder of how it feels to listen to live music in an enclosed, traditional theatre space, feeling the sounds thrum through the seats, filling the air around you as it echoes and reverberates in a room full of people – even as few allowed to be in this one – responding to every note and beat.

It opens with the title number performed by Cedric Neal, Rachel Tucker, Rachel John and David Hunter arriving onstage one-by-one and lit dramatically by a circle of rear lights like a film set. The New World is a song the recurs throughout the performance setting the tone for a selection of work about key moments where decisions are being made by individuals and couples that have potentially life-changing consequences, some of which, as this first piece suggests, can come as a surprise.

There is considerable variety across this abstract but interlinked selection of stories and messages, and Brown plays with narrative perspective, dramatic intensity and musical styles to create range and depth across Songs for a New World that make it ideally suited to this more simplistic concert-staging where direct connections between numbers are intangible and songs have their own individual impact as well as a collective effect as a single musical.

Some of the most crowd-pleasing numbers are entirely comic and in the first half Just One Step performed by Tucker is staged on a step ladder in lieu of a window ledge as a harassed wife insists she is leaving her neglectful husband, quite literally taking her first steps down the ladder as she bemoans his treatment of her. Tucker proves a comic delight throughout, also bringing an amusing acidity to Surabaya-Santa, a early song in Act Two for an increasingly embittered Mrs Clause as she rails against husband Nick and drinks away her cares while clambering over the piano.

The audience is equally enchanted by the other solo performances including Cedric Neal’s soulful voice on King of the World, a man wanting to resume his rightful place in the hierarchy and leading Flying Home about repatriation. John’s voice is incredibly powerful earning some of the loudest cheers for the sensitive Christmas Lullaby that has a choral feel and particularly the rousing I’m Not Afraid of Anything in Act One that fills the auditorium with her defiant vocal. Completing the cast is David Hunter whose She’s Cries moves from a comic shrug to a more interior piece about the cost of love while later opens Act Two with The World Was Dancing in which Hunter emphasises the twin demands on his character to support his struggling father and his fiancee.

But some of the best moments in Songs for a New World are those that bring the different but complementary voices together to create moving and meaningful relationship portraits. One of the best is Hunter and John’s tender performance of I’d Give it All for You, a beautiful tale of two people gone their separate ways willing to sacrifice their now more exciting lives to be reunited once more. Hunter and Neale also performer the bouncier The River Won’t Flow while John and Tucker combine voices on Transition I / Stars and Moon that creates lots of different textures across the piece as the cast work together, frequently providing backing vocals and support for each other’s performances along the way.

There are some lovely surprises as the show unfolds, including a brief appearance from Shem Omari James partnering with Neale on the fantastic Act One finale The Steam Train as both play the same character dreaming of a future as a sports star, the inevitability and driving certainty of which they both evoke. James certainly holds his own during his brief appearance on stage adding a small choreographed dance section before dropping in for a later number. For the final song, The New World / Hear My Song director Séimí Campbell fills those empty chairs with a young choir who enhance the vocal power in the room creating a fitting spectacle to end the show.

Given the limitations of socially distanced performance for those onstage and no set, Campbell makes some interesting choices to keep the show moving while helping to create intimacy between the performers as songs demand. With boxes at the four corners of the stage and close to the piano, Campbell moved the singers around to create a balanced sound coming from all sides of the performance space. Sometimes clambering onto these boxes to create height, at others moving their microphone stand to different positions in all three portions of the stage as well as roaming with handheld mics which frees the performer to go where the story and their instinct takes them. Like a simply staged Shakespeare monologue, sometimes less is more; performer, writer, voice is all that is needed.

The entry process was a tad chaotic with four separate queues and little signage as lines stretched all the way round to Regent’s Street, so depending on which direction you come from you might find yourself in the wrong queue more than once. In theory, separate queues for each level of the theatre and the Box Office makes sense along with timed entry, but in reality this was the most arduous entry process among the handful of venues open so far, taking around 30-minutes to pass through the long queues to reach the momentary temperature and security checks.

The staff at the Palladium were absolutely doing their best, operating an untested system for a public audience for the first time and this will certainly refine with practice, hopefully before the venue stages its socially distanced pantomime. Other measures worked extremely well including roving ushers taking bar orders delivered to your seat and at last a contactless system for purchasing programmes. Miraculously, the show itself started precisely on time so credit to the Palladium team for managing the process as well as they did.

Musical theatre has the unusual ability to create a show’s tone and feeling in the space of a single song or even a few bars, a feat it can take hours to achieve in drama, and Jason Robert Brown is especially good at immersing his audience in the emotional complexity of his work almost instantly. That Songs for a New World doesn’t have a plot or successive narrative is entirely irrelevant to the connection the audience has to the patchwork of lives and moments that are both separately and collectively affecting.

That this incredible concert version appeared at the London Palladium for just two performances is the only tragedy here and audiences can only implore LW Theatres for an extended run as soon as possible. Musical Theatre really is shaping the new world and, after a considerable ovation that lasted for many minutes, it is wonderful to see just how many people long to be in these rooms once more.

Songs for a New World ran at the London Palladium on 11 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – The London Palladium

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - The London Palladium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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