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!

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.

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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