It’s Hairspray!

One of the ultimate feel good musicals, I have loved Hairspray ever since I discovered it through the 2007 release of the new film version. Upon receiving the DVD for my birthday I spent many hours (even now) watching the interviews with Marissa Jaret Winokur (the original Broadway Tracy Turnblad) and backstage dance lessons of the cast and have been desperate ever since to see the live show. Opportunity finally came knocking as the touring production arrived in my hometown around my birthday, but with high hopes and expectations for even higher hair, would the show stand out?

In one word: YES! I have a lot of love for this production (reasons for which I’ll explore below) which payed true homage to the exuberant, uplifting tale of a girl with big dreams of effecting change and, along the way, finding stardom. The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman cannot fail to have the audience bopping along in their seats from the word go, but the cast’s sheer, tangible sense of joy took this to new heights in every number. I was incredibly excited upon finding out that Layton Williams was appearing as Seaweed, a technically secondary yet pivotal role within the plot.

From the very start each and every high kick, backflip and vocal harmony was hit with unsurpassed precision, with the costumes throughout perfectly demonstrating segregation without detracting from the characterisation of each individual performer. I did not find there to be a single weak link in the cast, even the corpsing of … and … in ‘Timeless To Me’ only served to add extra sparkle to an already shining production. I do, however, always struggle with the role of the prison warden/gym teacher and sadly not even the quality of this production could save the pantomime-esque characterisation of a character strangely lacking in the essential uplifting portrayal of struggles beginning to be overcome. This minor complaint was swiftly forgotten though!

As predicted, numbers such as ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ were showstopping, but in a show full of upbeat hits my favourite always surprises people. ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ is one of those musical theatre songs that gives me, at the very least, goosebumps every time I hear it and often leaves me in tears. As the only truly slow number in the production the song always carries a weight of expectation and Brenda Edwards’ version was haunting, powerful, and totally, utterly all-consuming.

Musicals are known for being uplifting, life affirming and a positive tool for both reflecting and affecting change in our society. It is only every so often, however, that a show like Hairspray comes along and I cannot recommend buying tickets highly enough.

Sheer, unadulterated joy!

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

I spent the first couple days of this week sorting through the mass of theatre programmes spilling out my book case, reminiscing on both my favourites and those that I found particularly disappointing. It seemed a shame to find all these past shows and not give them a mention, so I have (somehow) managed to choose a few favourites!

🌟 Top Hat

I am a golden era gal, give me Porter/Berlin/Rogers and Hammerstein and I’m immediately happy. I saw Top Hat at the Aldwych and it still remains my all time favourite, and go-to soundtrack. Beautiful costumes and lush set aside, the big dance numbers were spectacular whilst the smaller ones were wonderfully staged (in particular Jerry’s shadow dance). With plenty of comedy, a love story that was easy to invest in and, of course, the show stopping tap numbers, this was a musical that really and truly had it all.

🌟 The Nutcracker

I was given a video of Barbie and the Nutcracker on my 10th birthday and ever since then have adored the music, the ballet and the story. As soon as we were old enough to appreciate it my mum took me and my sister to see the English National Ballet’s version at Christmas time. Tchaikovsky’s score still continues to sweep me away through the lands of snowflakes and flowers, the powerful beauty of the pas de deux giving me goosebumps every time. I love the staging of this particular production, especially the ice skating at the start, with a minimalist set in the second act allowing the staggering beauty of the dancing to truly shine through.

🌟 Mary Poppins 

One of the first musicals I saw in London’s West End, but one that I can still remember clear as anything. The film had, unsurprisingly, been a staple of my childhood and I found the additional plot aspects of the musical thrilling. Laura Michelle Kelly and Gavin Lee (Mary Poppins and Bert respectively) were my first musical theatre idols, and Step In Time the number that I compared many subsequent theatre outings to with its breathtaking mix of dance, singing and, of course, real life walking on the ceiling. The timeless plot and joyful music truly made this production a little bit of real life magic.

🌟 Newsies

So, an admission: I have only seen the cinema screening of this. But it was so wonderfully filmed that I truly felt like I got (nearly) the whole experience and so have decided it deserves a place on this list! Jeremy Jordan is one of my favourite male voices in musical theatre with an effortless capacity and timbre, and this coupled with an outstanding dance ability serves to encapsulate the sheer vibrancy of the production. Having bought my ticket expecting a dance-heavy performance, the power of the vocals, especially in numbers such as Once and For All made this the complete package.

🌟 Chicago

FOSSE! Having first seen the film at the age of 11, seeing the show had been in the works for a LOOONG time. The unforgettable songs and incredible dancing were bound to make this a sure fire hit, but for me the best, and unexpected, component was having the orchestra up on the stage. So often hidden away and under appreciated, character interaction and a particularly fabulous entr’acte ensured this band remained front and centre to the action. I could go on and on about every aspect of this incredible show (edit: I now have, see All That Jazz) but I’ll leave it at saying if you get the chance to see it, GO!

I’d love to hear your favourites – comment below!

Tango Moderno

For a while I debated posting this as I really dislike being negative (ESPECIALLY about anything to do with theatre) but I promised myself I would blog about every production I see so here we are!

I recently went to see Argentine tango champions (and Strictly stars) Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace’s show, Tango Moderno. As two of the most dynamic dancers to grace the screens of the BBC programme, the opportunity to see them on their own terms filled me with excitement and I failed to see how their show could be anything other than spectacular. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The show was not without its highlights – the closing dances of both acts by the two professionals were incredible; their final argentine tango utterly electric and earning a well deserved standing ovation. Rebecca Lisweski on vocals was a joy to behold, effortlessly belting out hit after hit in an endlessly-comfortable range and lending real depth to emotional pieces (such as the stunning rumba to ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’).

The inclusion of live voices however, in particular the male guide throughout the show, seemed oddly out of place in a production centred around dance. The odd poetry did not add anything to the experience and the speaker even stole focus from some of the quiet contemporary numbers which I felt was a huge shame – these had the potential to be both moving and impressive but instead simply melded into an indistinct series.

You could describe how this music of the streets came to be ignored and suppressed, celebrated and exported, loved and loathed.

Mark Fisher on the Tango, 2018

Flavia Cacacae’s costumes were breathtakingly beautiful and, for me, stole the show (I would be interested to know why some of the other dancers were clothed in anything from sack dresses to a tracksuit). Upon arrival the set intially reminded me of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, with railings and vandalised garage doors providing the perfect set up for a dark and atmospheric production: something that wasn’t fully realised until the electrifying final performance which even then seemed to exist independently to the rest of the production.

The biggest let down for me, however, was the pervading sense that no number reached its full potential, and a show that should have sparkled merely… happened. I have spent many a sleepless night listening to Sam Smith’s ‘Lay Me Down’, choreographing routines that I would never have the skill to perform myself yet appeared in my imagination with each swell of the music. In Tango Moderno‘s version I found myself waiting for the dramatic moment of reunion, even a simple but effectively impressive lift, something that never appeared. The routine was beautiful, sure, but lacked anything to determine it as special from any of the other dances. Much of the music throughout the show was not used to its full potential, with many exhilarating numbers hidden behind a bizarre use of props and juxtaposed against a painfully ‘funny’ opening sequences.

Tango is exciting, inspiring, gripping dance. Whilst I strongly believe it is important to bring these art forms to a contemporary audience in fresh, exciting ways, it is equally important they maintain the original spirit of these dances which are rooted in culture and tradition. Whilst the attempt in Tango Moderno was tangible, from mobile phones to packed tube carriages, each routine could have provided so much more for the audience and created a real impact on the dance scene.

When Midnight Strikes

Cinderella was my favourite story as a little girl, and even now the live action Disney version is near the top of my go-to film list. I’ve been having a similar love affair with New Adventures for the last five years, having been introduced to Matthew Bourne’s work through The Car Man.

As a student I have to limit the amount of money spent on theatre tickets, but was still gutted to miss the return of Cinderella to Sadler’s Wells. The filming and subsequent broadcast of the show on the BBC (Boxing Day) therefore felt like an extra special present, and one which I have been enjoying even more since returning to uni and finding the time to sit down and watch it without interruption.

Similarly to An American in Paris, the story of Cinders and her prince has been moved to World War Two London. Bourne’s approach to reusing old stories in new ways is always incredibly exciting to watch, with the cataclysmic ball set in the soon-to-be-destroyed Café de Paris a clever way of joining and separating the two lovers.

I love classical ballet, spending more than I should on Royal Ballet DVDs (which feels a less luxurious expenditure than tickets) and prizing our annual visit to see The Nutcracker as the highlight of my festive season. However, placing more pedestrian dance against the sumptuous Prokofiev score allows for beautifully clear storytelling that sits comfortably between a dance performance and a play.

The idea of time running out; quick, deep love but with an urgency. I spent a long time listening to Prokofiev’s music and, once the idea of the Blitz had come to me, I could hear bombs going off.

Matthew Bourne, 2010.

The fluidity of movement provided by Ashley Shaw as the eponymous Cinderella and Andrew Monaghan as her Pilot Charming both individually and, most crucially, together, is staggeringly impressive and makes time, such an important element in this love story, simply fly. Shaw’s solo number with the mannequin is simultaneously funny and touching – sense of a character breaking free of her confines and demonstrating the spark that makes her subsequent actions totally believable.

Liam Mower turns the role of the ‘fairy godmother’ into a suave male angel, orchestrating both the living and the dead to keep pushing Cinderella forwards, his slick movement and stylish characterisation embodying the character perfectly. The addition of stepbrothers to the step-brood could add a heaviness to the plot, but instead provide comic lightness help to balance the relocation of the piece: the devastation of war is quite dark enough on it’s own without an unforgivable family.

The ingenuity of Lez Brotherston’s sets stand out even on screen (a translation that often fails to compute completely) from the drab interior of Cinderella’s house to the blinding searchlights of a smoking London. The reduction of the glitzy Café de Paris (based on the real life atrocity of 1941) to smouldering rubble is spectacular.

With nods (as ever) to classic, iconic films and the overarching themes of love and light in times of darkness make this a truly enjoyable production for both dance lovers and those new to the art.

Cinderella shall go to the ball. You should too.

The Moment You’ve Waited For

L A D I E S   A N D   G E N T L E M E N . . .

The story of P T Barnum has been told before, notably in Cy Coleman’s eponymous musical Barnum, but here it gets the big screen treatment and a stunning new score from Hollywood and Broadway’s hottest duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. (This seems a good moment to note that I am reviewing this film as a film alone, and not on historical accuracy or the statements it makes about the man behind the name).

I am pretty split on movie musicals: when they are done right they can be absolutely magical: Chicago, for instance. When they are done wrong, however… it can be a major disappointment to say the least.

The Greatest Showman was not one of these disappointments. From Hugh Jackman’s enthralling opening lines, through the vibrant costumes to the big set numbers, this was a totally self-assured, intoxicating musical. The immersive nature of the cinematography only added to this exhilaration, bringing the audience along on the evolving journey of P T Barnum’s Circus.

And all that was real is left behind

Don’t fight it, it’s coming for you, running at you

I’m a sucker for anything based around syncopation; it never fails to get my heart pounding and it took all my self control to stay seated once numbers such as ‘From Now On’ took off. Pasek and Paul’s score is, unsurprisingly, the highlight of the film for me and it is so exciting to have songs that aid rather than simply sit alongside the plot. From ‘This Is Me’ to ‘Rewrite the Stars’, defining moments for each character are observed and joyfully communicated to the audience in often touching, always catchy melodies.  

I found the opening particularly moving – after the spectacle and heart pounding build up of ‘The Greatest Show’ the image of the circus being stripped to a boy staring at his seemingly unachievable dreams was a powerful tribute to the power of both imagination and hard work. The two love stories were both believable and eloquently poignant; the enduring love between Charity and Phineas Barnum alongside the boundary-defying, risk-it-all devotion of Anne and Phillip, heart-renderingly captured in the hospital bedside scene.

The casting is (in my opinion) flawless. Having had issues with Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables my expectations were not particularly high, but here his warmth and zest shone through in the character of Barnum. Zac Efron appeared right at home and Zendaya was a revelation, transcending the triple threat to include stunning trapeze artistry into her repetoire. Her chemistry with Efron was consistently believable and the mixture of pain, love and fear felt by her character utterly consuming. Each actor perfectly complimented the whole company, the inclusive message truly compounded by a cast seemingly delighting in each other’s presence.

You’re dreaming with your eyes wide open

So, come alive!

🌟 Personal Highlight 🌟

EVERYTHING about Keala Settle! I loved seeing a true Broadway gem in a big budget movie musical (star casting is often one of my biggest problems with the genre) and both her talent and exuberant joy shone through in her portrayal of Lettie Lutz, a character who’s journey truly epitomised the message of the film.

Reading this back I seem pretty ready with my praise, but The Greatest Showman truly captured my heart and my imagination. Many critics complained the musical was ‘old-fashioned’ but to me all that means is a wonderful mix of dance, music and acting wrapped up in a moving, uplifiting and thoughtful plot: what could be better?

Uplifting, stunning, eye opening. This is The Greatest Show.

For a significantly more eloquent take on the film, see my favourite review over at Roger Ebert here.

All That Jazz

🌟 Chicago has just been announced as the latest show returning to London’s West End and I am SO HAPPY about it! To celebrate, this is a little reminiscing about the 2016 tour version – one of my all time top picks. 🌟

As one of Fosse’s most well known and well loved musicals, a night watching the national tour of Chicago was bound to be unforgettable. Iconic choreography combined with one of the catchiest scores in the musical theatre back catalogue immediately raises the expectations of the audience, but as the cast exploded onto the scene in the irrefutable opening it was clear the performance was going to be a sure fire hit.

Whilst the action of the plot excelled, for me the best (and unexpected) component was the placement of orchestra on centre stage. These indispensable parts of a musical are so often hidden away and under appreciated, but character interaction and a particularly fabulous entr’acte ensured this band remained at the front of the action.

come on babe, we’re gonna paint the town

Sophie Carmen Jones brought her A game as Velma, the sassy singer jailed for the double murder of her husband and sister. ‘All That Jazz’ remains a timeless showstopper, with the ensemble revelling in the Fosse – inspired choreography, but the lesser known ‘Can You Imagine’ provided a brilliant platform for Carmen Jones’ effortless voice (and some serious ladder skills). ‘I Can’t Do It Alone’ similarly provided a showcase of her dance ability, high kicks swinging with ease and the characterisation that drives the audience’s love of Velma seen in bucketloads.

Of the three ‘celebrity’ castings Hayley Tamaddon was clearly the strongest, her portrayal of Roxie strong, confident and excelling in solo numbers such as the ever-catchy ‘Me and My Baby’. Jessie Wallace competently filled the role of Mama Morton, but lacked the powerhouse vocals necessary to excel. John Partridge as Billy Flynn, on the other hand, was a disappointment. The audience needs to be taken on the same journey as Roxie in regards to Flynn, from imagined nice guy to the ruthless courtroom circus master. Partridge’s portrayal was one dimensional, offering the audience little to like about the character, and as some of my fellow theatre goers noticed even appeared drunk throughout a couple songs.

give ’em the old razzle dazzle

As a touring production the set was bound to be minimal, but the clever use of the orchestra as the backdrop and a few necessary chairs and prison bars were more than enough alongside the brilliance of the performance as a whole. Typical Fosse inspired costumes and makeup completed production’s overall sparkle.

Slick, stylish and full of razzle dazzle!

Shall We Dance?

An American in Paris, 2nd January 2018.

An American in Paris had been on my theatre wishlist since it first transferred to London’s West End, but it wasn’t until the closing performances were announced that I finally got round to booking tickets (in somewhat of a panic).

Very briefly, the story follows a dancer, Lise, and the three men who are in love with her. Based heavily around dance, as well as a beautiful Gershwin score, An American in Paris has been updated from the 1951 film to incorporate the effect of the recently ended Second World War upon Paris, and the healing nature of music, dance and love.

The Dominion Theatre in London is a big space to fill, and a single character on stage with a piano is an unusual start for a big budget show. As the stage transformed into post-war Paris, however, all preconceptions melted away. I am ashamed to say I was woefully lacking in knowledge as to the style of the show, other than the leads being plucked from highly esteemed ballet companies, and was swept away by how the variety of dance genres aided the narrative. The opening scene, depicting the poverty and desperation of war juxtaposed with the hope of a new beginning, was a particular highlight.

Shall we give in to despair
Or shall we dance with never a care?

An interruption in the first half saw Leanne Cope, who originated the role of Lise, taken ill and replaced by Kristen McGarrity. After an understandably wobbly first few bars of ‘The Man I Love’, McGarrity naturally fell into the part and provided a graceful, poignant take on the character. Ashley Day’s interpretation of Jerry Mulligan, whilst arrogant, was carefully built to reveal layers of a personality haunted by war and confused by the love seemingly barred to him. For me, however, the standout performance came from Zoë Rainey’s portrayal of Milo Davenport, the wealthy American benefactor of both Jerry and the ballet. An assured characterisation and beautifully rich voice combined to bring moments of comedy and emotion in a true musical theatre star performance.

🌟 Personal Highlight 🌟

I Got Rhythm is my favourite of the Gershwin songbook and the staging for the number certainly didn’t disappoint (me at least). A raucous cafe scene interrupted by a power cut, and the characters’ fear bred by the recently finished war, movingly noted the setting without being obviously signposted to the audience. The inclusion of a power-creating bicycle and a toe tapping percussive break served to make this one of the biggest and best numbers in the show.

A s’wonderful start to the new year.

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