Reflection: 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 “Reflection: Wicked UK Tour”

Reflection: 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 “Reflection: Sunset Boulevard UK Tour”

Reflection: 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 “Reflection: Hamilton – An American Musical”

5 Favourites: Scary Stories

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)

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‘Nevertheless life and death are mysterious states, and we know little of either.’

The story in six words lesbian vampiric killer lusts after victim

Something wicked this way comes… Count Dracula has nothing on Carmilla. The ancestor of the innocent-victim-of-the-undead novel, Carmilla unveils its devilish desires with biting and blood in abundance.

Scare yourself silly? Other myths of those that metamorphose into more frightening forms, from vampires in Dracula and the darker, more modern-day Let The Right One In, to werewolves in the Little Red reimagining The Company of Wolves and the growing-up-meets-loup-garou film Ginger Snaps.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Rebecca

‘I could fight the living but I could not fight the dead.’

The story in six words sinister slow-burn about absent ex-wife

Something wicked this way comes… Last night you might have dreamed you went to Manderley, but after reading du Maurier’s Rebecca, you’ll be having nightmares about marital murder, obsessive maids, and burning mansions.

Scare yourself silly? Get really haunted with Hitchcock’s faithful film adaptation starring Judith Anderson as the scene-stealing, spine-tingling, ever-faithful servant, Mrs Danvers.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (1979)

Sondheim's Sweeney Todd‘There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it…’

The story in six words demon barber demands blood as retribution

Something wicked this way comes… Sondheim’s thrilling, chilling, blood-spilling musical follows the Fleet Street barber as he shaves the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again, all framed by a baleful Brechtian ballad that chills to the bone.

Scare yourself silly? There’s many a musical nightmare out there, from the creepy-but-cute The Nightmare Before Christmas to Benjamin Britten’s darkly dramatic and dissonant opera, The Turn of the Screw. 

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)

The Woman in Black


‘I did not believe in ghosts. Or rather, until this day, I had not done so…’

The story in six words darkly dressed woman predicates children’s deaths

Something wicked this way comes… With all the tropes of true terror, this ghost story of strange-goings-on will have you on-edge for a long time, as pages filled with unexplained creaks, cracks and cries will plague even the pluckiest folk.

Scare yourself silly? Ghostly goings-on in the similarly child-centred, story-within-a-story The Turn of the Screw and the psychologically spine-chilling The Haunting of Hill House. 

Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein (2016)

‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.’

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The story in six words who’s the monster, who’s the man?

Something wicked this way comes… Liam Scarlett’s scary yet lyrical choreography for Frankenstein’s Creature fuses lurid monstrosity with human longing, and this dance adaptation focuses on the loneliness at the heart of Shelley’s story, with some spectacular lightning striking the monster and the moment to life.

Scare yourself silly? The man vs the monster is the ultimate fight, so read the original in Frankenstein and find the poignant parallels in the morbidly funny Poor Things.

Reflection: 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 “Reflection: Crazy For You UK Tour”

Reflection: 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 “Reflection: 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”

Reflection: The Addams Family UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

The Addams Family

Quick, clever, and kooky, but more spunky than spooky

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re all together… normal? The Addams Family. Duh-duh-duh-duh *click click*. Andrew Lippa’s musical adaptation is a formulaic but fun-filled frolic focusing on Wednesday, the first daughter of America’s freakiest family, finding love with cookie-cutter conventionalist Lucas, whose ordinariness is disorientating for the rest of the kooky clan when his equally-ordinary family come to dinner.

The plot, from Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, is ‘Pulled’ in perhaps one too many new directions: the difference between the families, as wide as the Addams’ Central Park plot, provides some predictable but funny fodder, but as well as Wednesday and Lucas’s love woes, there’s Morticia and Gomez’s marital discord once she finds out he’s keeping secrets about their daughter from her, Lucas’s seemingly conservative parents needing to rediscover love in their mid-life marriage, Uncle Fester’s loony longing for the moon, and all haunted by a host of historically-attired ancestors. The effect is that the plot feels padded rather than planned, and, although believable, because Wednesday and Lucas are already a couple it feels like a missed opportunity to explore their differences more effectively through their undoubtedly unconventional courtship, rather than a dinner party that’s appropriated by their parents.

The family are terrifically creepy and their kinship is a force to be reckoned with: Continue reading “Reflection: The Addams Family UK Tour”

Reflection: Funny Girl UK Tour

Funny Girl

Smith is The Greatest Star by Far: an inimitable coming-together of actress, character and comic-timing

Who is the pip with pizzazz? Who is all ginger and jazz? Who is as glamorous as? Sheridan Smith, that’s who. ‘The Greatest Star by Far’, Smith is Funny Girl Fanny Brice: an inimitable coming-together of actress, character and comic-timing in a role that seems as tailor-made for Smith as Brice’s stage costumes.

Based loosely on the on-and-off stage life of actress and comedienne Brice, the musical similarly merges backstage and Broadway with some simple illuminations and inspired staging: a spot clicking to life, a ‘stage door’ sign lighting up, and a backdrop that doubles as both the literal back of the stage and a diegetic auditorium. Illustrative of a life lived on stage, the poignant and powerful finale sees Fanny, ever-professional even in the midst of marital strife, resolve to ‘cry a little later’ – because, ‘well, Brice, that’s life in the the-a-tre’ – in the privacy of her dressing room before throwing off her fur coat to take a triumphant final bow facing… the backdrop. In the golden glow of the spotlight, silhouetted against an empty, gilded auditorium, it’s the essence of tragicomedy: the glory of stardom mixed with the ultimate loneliness of life on stage, and Smith smashes it.

Not only a traditional triple threat – authentic and affecting actress, expressive (and impressive) singer, damn good dancer – Smith is, crucially, a consummate comedienne and the audience’s darling, the latter an unteachable talent she shares with Fanny. Smith’s performance is so natural it’s sometimes impossible to tell actress from character, especially when she’s slapping the asses of the Cornet chaps in their powder-blue suits, and, without missing a beat in the marching taps of Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat, makes a monobrow of an unstuck moustache. Yet, the show nor Smith never make Fanny the butt of the joke: she’s a funny girl but a thoughtful one; a slapstick clown with an irresistable charm.

This may be Fanny’s story, and Smith the stand-out star, but she’s supported by a stellar ensemble. Chris Peluso cuts a fine figure as Fanny’s first ‘ruffle shirt’ – and eventual husband – Nick; charming but crooked, Peluso is suitably suave, silver-tongued, and ever-so-slightly suspicious. Joshua Lay – a truly talented tapper – makes a loveable Eddie, Fanny’s longtime friend, and his delightful duet with Fanny’s mother, a proud and protective Rachel Izen, persuades us that they really did teach Fanny ‘Everything She Knows’. The company perform Lynne Page’s Follies-esque choreography with precision and punch in the in-show performances, and with infectious fun at the after party on ‘Henry Street’.

The stage is a zeitgeist of the Ziegfeld era: glittering lights, chorus girls, gorgeous costumes. As the musical blends Brice’s on-and-off stage life, it also allows the audience to be absorbed into this world too: ‘lights up!’ hollers Fanny, and it’s the house lights that come up; it might be a gimmick, but it’s a great one. Jule Styne’s jazzy score is as bold, jubilant, and brassy as it has always been, and by itself is enough to make us believe we’re on Broadway in the early 1900s.

The show is so full of style and fun, that sometimes the story gets a little lost; the same scene bookends the show and Fanny’s story is told in flashback, but it’s not obvious when we’re back there at the show’s finale that we’ve been there before. Yet, what the show lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in performance and pizzazz – I don’t want to rain on this parade.

Bristol Hippodrome, 25th March 2017 matinée, cast includes Sheridan Smith, Chris Peluso, Rachel Izen & Joshua Lay, picture by Johan Persson, click for link to Funny Girl site

Essay: Escape, Colour and Entertainment in The Wizard of Oz & The Wiz

In his exploration of ‘musicals as entertainment’[1], Richard Dyer writes that ‘two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment as “escape” and as “wish-fulfilment” point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism’[2]. Utopic tales of escape and wish-fulfilment are no better epitomised than by two adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: MGM’s 1939 Technicolor classic The Wizard of Oz, and Sidney Lumet’s 1979 screen adaptation of The Super Soul Musical, The Wiz, are both utopian fantasies that reflect upon the colour of their cultural moment.

Released in 1939, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz was part of the ‘breakthrough year for the Technicolor Corporation’[3]. Dorothy’s wish to ‘fly beyond the rainbow’[4] is realised when she leaves monochrome Kansas behind for the bright lights – quite literally, as on-set lighting for the Yellow Brick Road needed to be practically dazzling on account of ‘yellow [being] most saturated at a very high level of lightness, […] quickly los[ing] purity when […] darkened’[5]of Oz, a space defined by colour with its Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, and Ruby Slippers. Furthermore, as Hollywood legend has it, the Ruby Slippers were changed from the silver shoes of Baum’s original novel to showcase and capitalise on the extensive, and expensive, Technicolor filmmaking processes, which, incidentally, it did, as The Wizard of Oz was one of the three Technicolor pictures that made up the ‘most lucrative releases [of] 1939’[6].

Whilst not the commercial nor critical success of The Wizard of Oz, 1978’s The Wiz did reflect on one cultural colour that MGM’s musical and its moment of production did not: black. From the era of Blaxploitation cinema in the ‘70s, The Wiz was part of a bigger picture that painted ‘black America’s […] need [for] an escape from the brutal reality of the past decade’[7]; a decade characterised by Civil Rights, segregation and assassination. The Wiz facilitated that escape by ‘creating a fantasy world on the big screen where black men and women were the heroes’[8], like Diana Ross’s Dorothy and Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow.

Dyer too discusses ‘The Colour of Entertainment’, and argues that it is a ‘given of the fundamental performance elements of the musical – dance and song’[9] – to illustrate the ‘relation both to physical space and to the cultural spaces of other peoples’[10], and thus this study will seek to explore how these two musical texts use dance and song to reflect on the cultural colours of their moments of production. Continue reading “Essay: Escape, Colour and Entertainment in The Wizard of Oz & The Wiz”