Thursday, 23 July 2015

Theatre Review: High Society

One of the things I love about the theatre is you never know how you’re going to react to a production.

Regardless of how well you know the show, the cast, the creative team, the theatre or anything else, what happens when the curtain rises always has the potential to completely defy your expectations - good or bad.

Case in point: the Old Vic’s High Society. On paper, this is a production that I should love - Cole Porter, a big old fashioned musical, big band-ish music, set in the 1950s, lots of stuff that ticks my boxes. But, to coin a phrase, shows aren't staged on paper and on the stage, this production didn't quite reach all of my boxes. (That sounds weird. You know what I mean.)

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It did reach some though and, for me, the undisputed star of this production is Nathan Wright’s dazzling choreography, particularly in the set piece production numbers. The absolute highlight of the show by some margin is the sequence built around ‘Let’s Misbehave’ in which the combination of some of the most energetic choreography I've seen in London, ever, with a dazzling piano duel between the show’s top drawer musical director Theo Jamieson and jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe (huge kudos to whoever made space for him in the production - he’s mindblowingly good in this sequence) and a virtuoso piano-top tap routine from the nauseatingly-talented-yet-somehow-fresh-out-of-drama-school Omari Douglas is amongst the most thrilling ten minutes of a musical I've seen. Worth the price of a ticket alone? Not quite, not at Old Vic prices, but damn close.

The cast, too, is uniformly good. The stand out, again by some margin, is Kate Fleetwood who is a sparkling Tracy Lord, perfectly capturing the many contradictions and layers of what is a very complex character (especially in a show where most of the other characters are more or less one dimensional). She has a gorgeous voice and a natural flair for comedy which elevate some of the key sequences hugely. And she’s a very convincing drunk. Rupert Young - voice as smooth as a very smooth thing - is similarly good as Tracy’s love match Dexter, positively dripping coolness and heart in equal measure. Barbara Flynn draws every ounce of comedy from her pretty unsubstantial role as Tracy’s long suffering mother and Jamie Parker is typically charismatic (though a resoundingly unconvincing drunk) as frustrated writer Mike Connor, hoovering up most of the best one liners and delivering them with an enjoyable swagger. And the ensemble cast of miscellaneous servants/posh people are fantastic, carrying off much of the heavy lifting where the choreography is concerned without putting a foot wrong, literally or figuratively.

For all that, though, I struggled to get particularly excited about the show as a whole. At the most fundamental level I don’t like the plot, or many of the characters, which is obviously a problem that no production would be able to overcome. This production in particular deals with the plot in a slightly uneven way. Directed by musical superstar Maria Friedman - which explains why the musical sequences of the show are so much its strongest suit - the entire first act feels like the set-up for a punchline that the second act doesn't quite deliver on. To put it another way, the first act starts to set up a farce but doesn't actually contain any farce, the second act then drops said promised farce (I really like the word farce) and carries on down a different, more serious, path.

The consequence of this is that I never felt that the plot really got going, something that wasn't helped by the fact there are just too many songs in this show. Right, now I'm aware how batshit mental that sounds as a complaint about a musical. But there were so many musical numbers in this production - which, if my understanding is correct, is a choice made by Arthur Kopit who adapted the film of High Society for the stage and not the way Cole Porter originally wrote it - that even though they were all very well done I just got bored of them. It’s almost like the decision had been taken (whether by Kopit, Porter or someone else doesn't really matter) to just cram in as many Cole Porter songs as possible - I'm amazed that Anything Goes didn't crop up, frankly - and just squish the narrative in around them. I found it intensely frustrating as by the end of the two and a half hours I had had enough of the best part of the show - the music.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think High Society is a bad show because it demonstrably isn't. I just didn't think it was a great one either, even if it does have some great moments. Worth a look, but not a must see.

Oh, and if you do go get in your seats early as Joe Stilgoe’s pre-show warm up is fab.

High Society is at the Old Vic until 22nd August.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Theatre Review: The Motherfucker with the Hat

Sometimes the weirdest things motivate you to see a show.

Case in point: I decided I wanted to see The Motherfucker with the Hat the moment that the National Theatre released the rehearsal photos and I noticed that Carlos Solis from Desperate Housewives was playing the lead. Not because I fancy him (although…), not because I thought he was a great actor but just because he was from Desperate Housewives and that show WAS MY LIFE when I was at university. Also I like plays with funny names. And swearing; I love swearing. So this one was an all round win for me, all things considered.

Image source.

Motherfucker, as I shall henceforth refer to it (because yay swearing!), tells the story of Jackie, ex-con recovering alcoholic, who discovers that his girl Veronica is having an affair when he comes home one day to find a stranger’s hat in their apartment. Sent into a spiral of jealousy, he enlists the help of his AA Sponsor Ralph and sexually ambiguous Cousin Julio to help him deal with the emotional chaos that ensues.

Provocative title aside, this is actually a play about honour. Everyone in Motherfucker is flawed but everyone has their own deeply held moral code. Despite the fact that Jackie is a bit of a shit by all accounts including his own, he respects the bro code. Cheating on his own girlfriend with a former sponsor? Allowed. Fooling around with his current sponsor/best friend’s wife? Not allowed. Hashtag bro code. Similarly, despite being summarily abused and mocked by Jackie for most of his life, Cousin Julio stands by him whenever Jackie needs help - be that hiding the gun Jackie’s recklessly borrowed from a maniacal friend or offering his “Van Damme” skills to beat up Ralph when *spoiler alert!* it transpires that he is in fact the motherfucker with the hat who’s sleeping with Veronica - because they’re family and Jackie was once kind to Julio when they were children. Ralph for his part also has a moral code, albeit a somewhat more nihilistic one that allows sleeping around and telling people that his wife has just died. Whatever floats your boat I guess.

It’s the contradiction between these characters’ massive flaws and their professed morality that provides both the funniest and most touching moments in this really enjoyable show. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ writing is quick-fire, very funny and deeply touching. There are some straight up fantastic lines - Jackie to Ralph’s wife Victoria as he rebuffs her advances: “What are we, Europeans or some shit?!” - that deliver both huge laughs and deep silences, often in quick succession. I loved the play’s ability to sandwich a joke in the middle of a really serious piece of dialogue (and vice versa) as a way of keeping the audience on their toes and making the action feel authentic and genuine.

The cast, too, are great. Leading a tiny ensemble of just five Ricardo Chavira (GUYS, CARLOS SOLIS!) is a pleasingly baffled Jackie, all good intentions and gentle physicality conflated with righteous indignation at being betrayed by two of the most important people in his life. For someone who, by National Theatre standards, has done a pretty small amount of theatre (this is his London début, hopefully the start of a long and happy relationship with the British stage) he is really impressive. (Also, he is ageing well y’know? Book a front stalls seat and enjoy the view in the opening almost-sex scene.) Alec Newman and Nathalie Armin (who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite NT company actors) are fantastic as slimy Ralph and bitter Victoria whose marriage seems to be based entirely on mutual hatred. Victoria in particular gets some of the plays best ‘serious’ dialogue and is really effective delivering it. Flor De Liz Perez is frankly kind of terrifying most of the time as cokehead Veronica, until her barriers are breached and she is revealed to be hurt and fragile. Rounding out an A+ ensemble, Yul Vazquez is perfect as the ambiguous and deadpan Cousin Julio, doing his best to steal every scene he’s in and usually succeeding.

The show’s production is sprightly (100odd minutes, no interval) and so evocative of New York in such a subtle way - it’s amazing how much they achieve with a few floating fire escapes, a gentle backing track of traffic noise and three moving micro-sets. With different apartment sets that move on and off the stage as the scene dictates, the contrasts and similarities between the characters - as well as the NY boroughs they live in - is highlighted very effectively without interrupting the action for more than seconds at a time. It’s technically and dramatically impressive.

Overall, then, Motherfucker is a great play on all fronts and yet another thing I highly recommend (I promise I’ll try and see something I don’t like soon, honest). Brilliant writing, brilliant cast AND CARLOS SOLIS.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is playing in the Lyttleton at the National Theatre until 20th August.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Theatre Review: Gypsy

I've wanted to see a production of Gypsy ever since, about 15 years ago, I first heard some of the songs on an episode of Ball Over Broadway on BBC Radio 2.

(Anyone else remember that show? No? Just me?)

Subsequently, I must have heard bits of the score about a billion times courtesy of myriad episodes of Elaine Paige on Sunday (‘IT’S ME, EEEE PEEE’) and, mostly, Anton and Erin tours which borrow from it so heavily that I think Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim should get some kind of credit in A&E’s tour programme. And to be honest, even if you don’t think you do, everyone almost certainly knows at least one song or tune from Gypsy. It’s kind of everywhere, musically speaking.

There’s always a risk when you've been wanting to see a show for ages that, having built it up so much in your mind, any production no matter how good is an automatic let down. I was fortunate, then, that the production I got to see was the current West End one which is one of the best - if not the actual best - productions of any musical I've ever seen.

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I mean this show has superlative laden five star reviews coming out of its ears at this point, all of which are entirely justified. I would actually go so far as to say it’s perfect; I can’t think of a single thing, even a tiny one, that I didn't like about it.

The major thing to like about Gypsy - any production of it - is the incredible music. I can’t think of another show that has so many instantly recognisable songs in it. It’s absolutely incredible to me that amazing songs like Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Some People, Together Wherever We Go, You Gotta Get a Gimmick and All I Need is the Girl are in one show. Hell, even the Overture is famous (and so, so beautiful) which is not something that many shows can boast. The music is, I would argue, the best ever written for a show and the superb orchestrations (and orchestra) in this production really make the most of it.

Of course the other major thing to like about Gypsy is that, if a production is in any way worth its salt, then you have a Major Star playing the lead character, Rose. In this case it’s National Treasure Imelda Staunton (I believe that’s her full name) who is un-fucking-believable. I'm aware this is going to sound gushy and over the top, but there really aren't the words to do justice to her performance.  Her voice is just incredible - so powerful and emotive - which is something I always forget for some reason, despite having seen her in a few musicals now. It goes without saying that she’s an incredible actress (her ‘Rose accent’ alone deserves some awards it feels so natural) too and her performance in this show must be one of her best to date.

Rose is a difficult character to love for most of the show and only really gets her redemption in the big finish of the second act, leaving a lot riding on what is a huge and difficult song. Staunton takes that huge and difficult song and wipes the floor with it. It’s a genuinely extraordinary few minutes of theatre which is thrilling to watch. I'm not sure I've seen anything like it in a musical before - it’s worth the price of a ticket alone.

The rest of the cast is great, if somewhat overshadowed. Peter Davison in particular is extremely touching as Rose’s would-be husband Herbie and Lara Pulver is a great, wounded-but-feisty Louise. A fantastic ensemble - and a really strong kids’ ensemble too - has lots to do and does it well. The dance routines are particularly slick, especially Dan Burton’s (Tulsa) sweeping ballroom All I Need is the Girl routine which would definitely get a ten from Len were he to participate in Strictly Come Dancing for some reason.

The production is astutely directed by Jonathan Kent and the clever design - the use of projection is so effective as is the ‘circusy’ lighting - makes the show look as well as sound great.

I think Gypsy is the best thing I've seen this year (nicking the top spot from Clarence Darrow) and urge you to go and see it too. You could not possibly regret it.

Gypsy plays at the (stunning) Savoy Theatre until 28th November.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Theatre Review: An American in Paris

There’s something special about seeing a musical on Broadway.

For reasons I can’t entirely explain, they just seem more at home amongst the bright lights and the bustle of the Great White Way. Big, glamorous, glitzy ‘traditional’ musicals were born on Broadway and there’s just something unique about seeing them in their natural environment.

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An American in Paris is very much the sort of big, glitzy musical that is just made for Broadway. Based on the 1950s Gene Kelly film of the same name, the show features the extraordinary music of the Gershwins and tells the story of Jerry, an American-GI-turned-painter, who decides to stay in Paris after his stint in the second world war where he falls in love with beautiful dancer Lise - a love which famously culminates in an almost 20 minute long ballet sequence.

Films, even musical films, don’t always make great stage shows - and putting a 20 minute ballet on a Broadway stage is certainly a daring move! - but An American in Paris does work; it works like a particularly glorious dream.

First of all the music - my god the music! - is by the Gershwins and therefore perfect. It’s almost worth calling An American in Paris a jukebox musical based on the number of Gershwin greatest hits it includes - I Got Rhythm and ‘S Wonderful are my personal highlights. They’re surrounded by a stunning score, particularly for the dance sequences and particularly particularly the famous ballet. The whole thing just sounds so gorgeous. The music alone makes the show worth seeing.

Second of all, the wonderful music is performed by a wonderful cast. It’s incredibly hard to believe that both Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) are ballet dancers making their Broadway débuts. I mean don’t get me wrong their dancing is phe-fucking-nominal (quoth my mum: “I never wanted that ballet bit to end”) but their singing and their acting is too. Fairchild in particular is a revelation; so charming and so charismatic that you (I) just want to eat him on a sandwich. He’s a force of nature in this show and I hope more Broadway - and West End, pleaseandthankyou - roles are to follow.

A more established supporting cast back them up with Max von Essen’s lovelorn Henri - who absolutely nails his tour de force solo, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise; the most sublime, elegant production number I've ever seen - and Brandon Uranowitz’s dry, sardonic Adam being my favourites. The whole cast is great though, just dripping with incredible dancers, and I actually feel a bit guilty about singling anyone out. Not guilty enough not to do it, obviously.

Third of all, the whole show just looks beautiful. From the stunning choreography - the big ballet sequence in particular is out of this world, but all of the routines are on point (pun intended) - to the incredible projected scenery to the beautiful 50s costumes everything is an utter delight. It’s so elegant, so glitzy, so smooth and so glamorous that it’s impossible not to get completely swept up in the entire production unless you’re, like, dead inside.

An American in Paris is a joyous production from top to bottom and start to finish. I'm aware that New York might be a bit of a stretch for some of my UK based readers, but for anyone local or who happens to find themselves in the New York area any time soon then this is a must see. And for everyone else, well, you can get a transatlantic flight for well below most people’s credit card limits these days. Just saying.

An American in Paris is playing at the Palace Theatre New York until November 22nd.