Review: Miss Saigon UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

Miss Saigon UK Tour

Spectacular operatic epic

The Heat is On in Miss Saigon! An operatic epic inspired by a Puccini opera, Miss Saigon is visually and vocally spectacular: Madame Butterfly with bargirls and G.I.s, it tells the tragic tale of Kim and Chris, a romance grown and gutted by the violence of the Vietnam War.

Miss Saigon shares more than its music-makers with Les Misérables: from Schönberg’s motif-rich music to Boublil’s overlying lyrics, Miss Saigon is also sung-through, has a thieving entertainer who thrives on surviving – Red Concepción’s Engineer is magnetising – is thrillingly theatrical, and has the same thematic threat of revolution on intimate romance. Yet, far from a French revolution, the Fall of Saigon is a tragedy from only forty years ago: Continue reading “Review: Miss Saigon UK Tour”

Review: Cilla the Musical UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

Cilla the Musical

A celebration of Cilla Black

‘Something tells me something’s gonna happen tonight’, sings Cilla at the show’s finale, and at the Hippodrome, after a lighting fault and show-halt as two in the audience were taken ill, it’s a line that suddenly felt very close to home. Once resumed, the songs and spirit of Cilla save the evening, but oversimplify the story of a star that deserves so much more.

Based on the TV series, Cilla is a celebration of Cilla Black. Set in, and with a soundtrack from, the sixties, it follows the teenage Priscilla White’s transformation into the chart-topping Cilla Black with a touching tribute to her talent and charm. Kara Lily Hayworth is warm and witty as the Liverpudlian lovely, and her performances of the Cilla classics ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, ‘Alfie’, and ‘Something Tells Me’ are perfectly poised between powerful performance and heartfelt homage.

Though it works for Cilla, elsewhere the impressive musical performances feel more like tribute acts and cameos than fully-formed characters in a well-plotted chronicle. Continue reading “Review: Cilla the Musical UK Tour”

Review: Hairspray UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

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Feels fun but falls flat

‘What gives a girl power and punch? Is it charm? Is it poise? No, it’s hairspray!’ This Hairspray has plenty of punch from its performances, but is light on the power and poise and falls, well, a little flat.

Tracy Turnblad is a ‘big’ girl with some big dreams – to dance, and get out of detention – and her gritty, if ditsy, determination to do so is set against the backdrop of segregation and discrimination in sixties Baltimore. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score has moments of luminous amusement, from the shouts and shakes of showstopper ‘Run and Tell That’, to the body-and-black-positive belter ‘Big, Blonde, and Beautiful’, to the bold exuberance of the show’s close, ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’. All this is fun, but the musical force is in its protest anthem, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, that reflects its politics, and it’s a powerhouse performance from Brenda Edwards’s respected, motherly Motormouth Maybelle that ends triumphantly with all hand-in-hand.

Yet, the force of Hairspray is blunted by its own flashy brashness, and the focus feels as though it’s on all the wrong colours: Continue reading “Review: Hairspray UK Tour”

Review: The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man

Grim and grotesque and gorgeous and gentle

‘It’s so tragic, it must be true’: so goes the tale of Grinpayne, the man with a perpetual grin marked out from ear to ear whose memory of his past is so marred by magic and grief that he can’t remember how he got it. The Grinning Man is a gothic musical that manages to be both grim and grotesque and gorgeous and gentle, so roll up! roll up! to the Trafalgar Fair, and see for yourself how his grin got there.

The Bristol Old Vic production balances the heroics and horror of Victor Hugo’s tale with haunting beauty and hilarious innovation. The Grinning Man amalgamates the mythic and the metatheatric: the streets of Lonnn-donn, the stages of the freak show, the chaises of a corrupt seventeenth-century court, and the trees of a fairytale forest create a folkloric but familiar historical time to face some human truths, but the storytelling is a feast of theatrical talent. From Carl Grose’s gritty but gorgeous prose, to Gyre and Gimble’s magical puppetry – especially James Alexander-Taylor and Loren O’Dair’s impressive performance as Mojo the wolf – to the lyrical and whimsical but rocking music, The Grinning Man‘s many theatrical marvels weave together like the many threads of the tale into a rich and riotous whole.

The Grinning Man revels in horror and hilarity, but also generously reveals its heart and humanity: Continue reading “Review: The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios”

Review: Wicked UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

Wicked UK Tour

Wicked is a richly woven tapestry of top-class entertainment, powerful performances, and unforgettable spectacle

‘Are people born Wicked? Or do they have Wickedness thrust upon them?’ The Wizard of Oz would have us believe the Wicked Witch of the West was born wicked, but Wicked breaks through the walls of L. Frank Baum’s book and the Technicolor musical classic to tell us what really went on in Oz. Based on the book by Gregory Maguire, adapted by Winnie Holzman, it makes use of the politics and ups the playfulness to create its own classic: the ultimate musical about friendship, fighting the good fight, and defying the odds – and gravity.

Wicked is a richly woven tapestry of top-class entertainment, powerful performances, and unforgettable spectacle. Wicked is not so much a prelude but an impassioned and political parallel tale that weaves itself effortlessly and perceptively through the loose threads of The Wizard of Oz: from the silver slippers to the Scarecrow, the musical leaves no stone, or song, unturned. Continue reading “Review: Wicked UK Tour”

Review: Sunset Boulevard UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

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The glitz, the glamour, the agony, the tragedy: Ria Jones is the Greatest Star of All

Sunset Boulevard: the glitz, the glamour, the agony, the tragedy. Based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 meta-cinematic masterpiece about damaging Hollywood stardom, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation makes a star of its leading lady. As the iconic, inimitable Norma Desmond, the faded silent-film star and fantasist who’s lusting after a young man, and her adoring fans, to love her again, Ria Jones is ready for her close-up, and it’s a masterclass.

As in the film, the musical opens with a man floating face down in the pool of Norma Desmond’s mansion, but unlike the film, the pool and the unfortunate man are projected onto two moveable panels that then become part of the infamous Paramount lot that Norma loves so much, lending some metatheatrics to the stage as well as the screen. Douglas O’Connell’s projections are not just crafty scenic design – the excitement of the car chase captured in quick cuts; the street outside Schwab’s Drugstore busy with big-shots and bystanders – but, along with Colin Richmond’s grand-yet-just-past-their-glory sets, they are clever storytelling devices. Continue reading “Review: Sunset Boulevard UK Tour”

Review: Hamilton – An American Musical

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This is not a moment, it’s a movement

This is it: ‘The Room Where It Happens’. It’s here. ‘It is Hamilton, and after a fortnight of previews, the musical chronicling the finding, founding, and fight for American freedom through the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, it’s finally open at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End. With so much hype and hysteria, just what is it about Hamilton that makes us all want to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’?

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes America’s past matter through contemporary music and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With characters and songs taking their cue both from the founding fathers who wrote America into existence and the rappers and musicians who use real-life experience to write their way to respect, Hamilton fuses the present, the past, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, with the story centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his perpetual rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other works non-stop; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives.

Hamilton, like America, is ‘young, scrappy, and hungry’, a nobody who arrives in New York to be a new man, and Burr, his nemesis, is a waiter who will do anything to win but has much, much more to lose. Hamilton, and history, hangs in the balance between the two men. Continue reading “Review: Hamilton – An American Musical”

Review: Crazy For You UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

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Good old-fashioned fun: ‘Gaiety’ in all its glory!

George and Ira Gershwin first composed music for the romantic comedy film Girl Crazy in 1930, at the dawn of the golden age of the cinematic American musical, but the thirties in America were also famous for the Great Depression, and audiences craved the escapism offered by such musicals. Eight decades later, the name might have changed but the escapism hasn’t, as Crazy For You dazzles and delights anew in an age where we definitely need it again.

The story itself has little to say – the tale of budding but blundering performer Bobby, who’s sent to shut up a failing theatre in Nevada but ends up falling for the proprietor’s daughter Polly and putting on a show to save it – but it’s the score that’s literally the star of the show. Full of favourites from the Gershwin catalogue, including ‘Shall We Dance’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, and ‘Embraceable You’, the score is a jukebox of jazz classics that are joyful and filled with infectious rhythm that only catches quicker because it’s performed onstage by a crazily-skilled cast of actor-musicians. Nathan M Wright’s choreography incorporates the instruments into every number, including a wheel-mounted double bass, and Diego Pitarch’s gorgeous designs, set on-and-backstage in the Gaiety Theatre that Bobby sets off to save, go from dilapidated to dazzling under Howard Hudson’s ingenious lighting, and even make use of some meta-theatric tricks in revealing the run-down but once-magnificent theatre auditorium. Continue reading “Review: Crazy For You UK Tour”

Review: Legally Blonde the Musical UK Tour

Legally Blonde the Musical

Great fun with a heart of gold under all that hair

Do blondes have more fun? Legally Blonde the Musical certainly does, but so will you, if you’re blonde, brunette, auburn, or somewhere in-between. Based on the feel-good film about Elle Woods, a fashion-forward sorority sister who heads off to Harvard Law to find her ex-boyfriend and ends up finding herself, the musical is just as fast-paced and fun-loving, but also, just like Elle, has a heart of gold under all that hair.

Nell Benjamin & Laurence O’Keefe’s songs capture all the best bits from the movie and make them ‘So Much Better!’ ‘So Much Better’, sung when Elle sees that accomplishment can outweigh attraction, is as bold and ambitious as an Act I closer should be, the courtroom drama in Professor Callahan’s case descends into criminally-entertaining chaos when the defense can’t decide if the key witness is ‘Gay or European’, and, of course, the iconic ‘Bend and Snap’ – it ‘works every time!’ Anthony Williams’ choreography is flashy and fun and performed with the force of a thousand cheerleaders by a company whose flexibility is equaled only by their enthusiasm. With so much enthusiasm on all sides, some elements seem a little gimmicky rather than genuine, but any grievances evaporate within a few songs as the feel-good fun kicks in – and the feeling couldn’t be more genuine. Continue reading “Review: Legally Blonde the Musical UK Tour”

Feature: Wicked UK Tour Launch

Original feature: Underdog Reviews (26th September 2017)

Wicked UK Tour Launch

Over a century ago, the Wicked Witch of the West first flew into Oz in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; green and ghastly, she was after silver slippers and had only one all-seeing eye. In 1939, she was immortalised, in a certain shade of green and on screen, by Margaret Hamilton in MGM’s musical The Wizard of Oz, this time on the hunt for ruby red slippers to make the most of Technicolor technology.

After frightening families for over fifty years, Gregory Maguire reimagined the green-skinned miscreant as a green-skinned, misunderstood young woman with, for the first time, a name: Elphaba, fashioned from L. Frank Baum’s own initials, in the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. This previously untold story of the Wicked Witch’s life and times prior to Dorothy’s appearance was adapted into a stage musical: Wicked. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, the musical opened on Broadway in 2003, starring Idina Menzel as Elphaba, and was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning three.

Now, on a September day in 2017, it’s over 10 years since Wicked opened at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London’s West End and it’s the announcement of a new Wicked UK Tour, to begin in Bristol in the New Year, and a new Elphaba. Continue reading “Feature: Wicked UK Tour Launch”