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!

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!

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.

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