The lights aren’t quite out on Avenue Q

Rod and Daniel Boys, Avenue Q

As the final part of our [Show and Stay](http://www.show-and-stay.co.uk/) theatre quiz prize, Ade and I last night ventured to the Gielgud Theatre to see Avenue Q. We had great seats — pretty near the centre of the Row F stalls — but there were elements of the show we couldn’t see. Nor could anyone else, though – as a result of the earlier power cut in the West End, the video screens and some lighting banks weren’t working correctly.

Rather than cancel the whole performance, we were offered free interval drinks — great news for us, possibly less well-received by people who had pre-ordered their beverages before the announcement was made. Despite the technical problems, the show was as fun as ever. And Rachel Jerram, who was understudying as Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut in place of regular Cassidy Janson, was absolutely superb (as, indeed, was Taofique Folarin, understudying for Edward Baruwa as Gary). I haven’t seen Cassidy in the role yet, as this was my first revisit since Julie Atherton left — but it’s hard to imagine how she could top Rachel’s performance last night.

Avenue Q’s days at the Gielgud are numbered, as [Hair](http://www.hairthemusical.co.uk/) is transferring from Broadway and starts previewing on April 1, 2010. Whether it will transfer to another West End venue or head out on a UK tour, I don’t know — but I hope that the Avenue doesn’t shut down for good.

Image of Daniel Boys with Rod taken from my West End Live 2009 collection.

Quick theatre round-up

I know I haven’t been blogging here much lately: these things tend to come in fits and spurts, so I may do some more posts for a bit. That said, it’s coming up to my annual attempt to participate in NaNoWriMo so I may go quiet on the blogging front again.

Anyway, over the last few weeks I’ve had quite a few theatre trips, either for work as a reviewer or — gasp! — for fun. I’m so far behind that I can’t possibly review everything I’ve seen, but here’s a quick round-up:

September 26: Into the Woods, Landor

My first encounter with this Sondheim classic, and it wasn’t a disappointment. One of the most imaginative uses of the Landor’s restricted space, turning the stage into a giant bookshelf from which the classic fairytale characters sprang to life. A joy — Robert McWhir and the Landor team are never better when dealing with Sondheim.

September 30: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical, Palace

My second time seeing this musical (with tickets won via a competition held by the show’s Twitter account). The set pieces are just bonkers (in a good way), the costumes as inventive as ever, and in many ways it’s the perfect way to take a film with lots of music and turn it into a stage musical.

A couple of niggles: Jason Donovan seemed, in a couple of numbers, to be slightly disinterested, almost as if he were channeling a slightly more interested version of Terence Stamp (who scowled through virtually every dance number in the film). The same malaise seemed to be affecting two of the three backing dancers, which made Zoe Birkett’s enthusiasm all the more bizarre.

There were a disconcerting number of hearty laughs from the audience at some of the demonstrations of homophobic abuse, which was worrying in a show which embraces difference. And the boy who was on when we saw it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the lad who played the role on our first visit, who was breathtakingly good (I wish I knew what either of their names were).

October 11: Scott Alan, Leicester Square Theatre

As a birthday treat to myself, I took Paul and myself to see New York-based composer Scott Alan in an all-too-rare visit to the UK. Scott played a number of his songs, accompanied by a number of West End luminaries, including Patina Miller (Sister Act), Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of the Opera), Oliver Thompsett (Wicked) and Alison Jiear (Jerry Springer: The Opera).

I love Scott’s music, so I was rapt from start to finish — even through the first number, when the sound blew midway, forcing Patina and Scott to skip to a hastily-improvised acoustic performance. However, Scott did tend to concentrate on the more intensely emotional numbers in his repertoire. While they are what he’s most known for and certainly part of the reason I adore his two albums Dreaming Wide Awake and Keys, the inclusion of one or two of his lighter numbers, such as Seventeen or What Was His Name?, would have provided a greater variation of pace, which I know Paul (a Scott Alan virgin) found a bit wearing by the end.

October 12: The Unimportant History of Britain, Above the Stag

I didn’t have this down in iCal and wasn’t reviewing it, so forgot about this when I first wrote up this post. Which maybe gives you a clue as to how memorable this sketch show, which purports to portray the history of Britain from the stone age to the present day, is.

Most sketch comedy is hit and miss — sadly, this was more miss, miss, miss, could be a hit with a bit more work, miss, miss.

October 14: The Woman in Black, Fortune Theatre

Ade and I won tickets to Susan Black’s thriller in the Show and Stay theatre pub quiz (a live version of their weekday quiz – follow @WestEndUpdates to join in Monday-Friday at 2.10pm). Ade had seen the production before with a different cast, so some of the “surprises” were not new to him — I don’t think it’s really a show you can see more than once. We were also quite far back in the stalls, such that we were bathed in permanent emergency lighting, which doesn’t really help the atmospherics.

And for me, any sense of suspense was completely eradicated by the behaviour of the large number of teenage girls in the audience. If they weren’t talking to each other in loud stage whispers, they were screaming at anything that might possibly be considered slightly creepy. It was happening so often that anything that could have genuinely be a frightening moment was drowned out. When you get an audience ready to scream at the dimming of the house lights at the start of Act 2 there really isn’t anything you can do.

Still, to the audience’s credit, no mobile phones went off during the show. Well, one did — but it belonged to a very embarrassed member of the front of house staff. Oops.

October 18: Crazy for You, London Palladium

A one-off charity performance, organised by Showtime Challenge. Although roles had been cast in advance and cast had received scripts and scores, rehearsals only started 48 hours before curtain up (while everyone was expected to be off-book by then, they had been forbidden from rehearsing with one another). Sunday’s show was a miracle by any standards.

In many ways, Crazy For You is a perfect show for the format, its “let put on a show right here” themes allowing for a few rough edges here and there. Not that it really needed them: there were a couple of moments where things headed towards the am-dram end of the scale, but mostly it was an incredibly impressive show by any standards. And the sight of 130 actors tap-dancing in unison on the Palladium stage is a sight that remains with you long after the final curtain call.

October 20: Silence! The Musical, Barons Court Theatre

My first exposure to this musical version of The Silence of the Lambs was in Above the Stag’s Blink!, which featured a couple of numbers. The show suffers from not quite deciding if it’s going to be a complete send-up of the film or to be a faithful retelling in song and dance. Other faults included burying the most able cast members in the chorus while giving the lead roles to people who struggled to live up to the iconic portrayals by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins on screen.

There were also some quite bizarre blocking decisions, including a whole solo number delivered with the singer’s back to the audience. A discussion with a couple of the production team suggested that at least one of the badly blocked moments was unintentional, but overall the impression one was left with was of wasted opportunity.

The Above the Stag theatre is mounting its own production in the New Year, with the assistance of some of the original New York team, so hopefully we’ll see a production which doesn’t succumb to the same pitfalls.

October 21: Sister Act, London Palladium

Back to the Palladium for Alan Menken’s new work. I think I’ll in all likelihood do a full review of this, as there’s a lot I want to say about it. For now — the first act drags a lot, never really taking flight until Raise Your Voice (the number in which Patina Miller’s Deloris Van Cartier takes charge of the nuns’ choir). The second act is joyous throughout, although the cartoon villainy of the gangster, Shank, and his henchmen, limits the range of the show.

October 22: Zombie Prom, Landor

The one piece of my recent theatre marathon to require a professional review for The Stage. I won’t repeat that here.

October 25: Proud to Say I Love You, Above the Stag

A revue of gay love songs from the shows, performed by my good friend Josh as part of a company of four. By turns side-splitting and heart-breaking, it was an hour of unalloyed pleasure. This was the last of a series of one-off performances: I hope that a longer residence might emerge in 2010, as it’s a cabaret show that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

October 26: Scenes From My Love Life: A Year of Above the Stag, Above the Stag

A compilation of highlights from Above the Stag’s first year as a producing theatre. Excerpts from some of the musicals and plays that have occupied this new, adventurous space helped accentuate how adventurous the programming has been. We were also treated to a preview of Busted Jesus Comix, which opens next week, and Silence! — which, as I said above, also featured in Blink! before it returns in the New Year.

Which brings us more or less up-to-date, full review of Sister Act notwithstanding. Coming in the next few weeks: a gala concert showcasing the songwriting talents of Michael Bruce, Busted Jesus Comix at Above the Stag, Scouts in Bondage at the King’s Head, my umpteenth visit to Avenue Q, and no doubt much more.

Oh, and I was a guest on Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show earlier this week. Really should write that up as a blog post, too… (Update: I have)

Ella sings Rodgers and Hart

At the end of my last post about Cadogan Hall’s Rodgers and Hart tribute concert, I said:

> searching Amazon or iTunes for some Rodgers and Hart numbers would make for a fruitful weekend.

Let me help you in that task. The best album of Rodgers and Hart songs is by the peerless Ella Fitzgerald:

You can use the widget above to listen to excerpts from each track and to buy the album (or individual songs) for download in MP3 format.

Alternatively, you can go to the Amazon.co.uk website for MP3 download or as a physical CD.

Blink! – the double-take

Last night, Paul and I went back to the [Above the Stag](http://www.thestage.co.uk/listings/venue.php/7934/above-the-stag-london) theatre in Victoria to see _Blink!_, a revue about songs from musicals that closed early. For both of us it was our second time to see the show, although we’d previously seen it on different nights. My first was on press night, when I [reviewed it for _The Stage_](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/25036/blink-).

When I reviewed the show, I said:

> The weakest elements come when the actors must drop out of character and narrate the history of the dud shows direct. While there is an element of humour to be had from their frequent fluffs, more work clearly needs to be done

Thankfully, those bits did seem to have improved since press night – there were certainly far fewer occasions where the actors dried. They still feel clumsy and stilted, though, and it feels wrong to ask a performer who’s just finished belting a number to then switch to a straight narration.

The core of shows like this is not the narration, though, but the performances of the songs. There were points which didn’t work quite as well as on press night, but then you always get variation from show to show. And although there was a full house last night, as there was the last time I saw the show, the audience wasn’t quite as receptive, which has a big impact on the onstage performance.

_Blink!_ is on at Above the Stag until August 16 — which means that current West End flop _[Too Close to the Sun](http://matthewman.net/2009/07/27/ernie-get-your-gun/)_, which will have closed by then, qualifies for inclusion…

To finish, here’s a YouTube version of Debra Monk performing one of the songs included in the show, _Everybody’s Girl_, from Kander and Ebb’s **Steel Pier**. In the show, it’s performed by Julia G Addison (and in the after party, **Legally Blonde** star Sheridan Smith proclaimed, “I’ve found my new audition song!”)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJg7YZHRXtE

Ernie, get your gun

It appears that I will only have a limited time to catch the new West End musical sensation, _Too Close to the Sun_, which is to close on August 8. Press night was only on Friday, and word started to trickle through of the closure over the weekend. That’s quick, even for a musical from the same team behind _Behind the Iron Mask_.

The [West End Whingers’](http://westendwhingers.wordpress.com/2009/07/25/review-too-close-to-the-sun-comedy-theatre/) review (which was based on a preview show, but only released after the press night) is a joy to read, cataloguing both their own experiences of the horror and some of the pre-press night Twitterings about the production.

My favourite quote, though, comes not from the Whingers themselves or the tweets they have collected, but from the FT’s Ian Shuttleworth, in [a comment on their blog](http://westendwhingers.wordpress.com/2009/07/25/review-too-close-to-the-sun-comedy-theatre/#comment-20660):

> I bumped into my ex-wife at the theatre. We hadn’t met or communicated for 17 or 18 years. That was less disconcerting and more enjoyable than the show.

Sister Act – the London cast recording

I’ve yet to manage to get to see **Sister Act**, despite having been at the [press launch back in February](http://matthewman.net/2009/02/04/menken-serenade/). However, I knew enough about the show, the cats and the creatives to know I wanted the cast recording as soon as it came out.

I pre-ordered my copy from iTunes, mainly because the Amazon MP3 store doesn’t (yet) have pre-order facilities. However, now that the release date is here, that difference is somewhat moot, so you can use the widget below to hear extracts from each track, and purchase either individual tracks or download the full album:

Of course, if you prefer physical copy, the soundtrack album is available on CD too.

And if you want a bit more fun, here’s a video for you – the official trailer for the stage show:

httpvhd://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTnPt2QuGQ4

A photoshoot for Edinburgh

Yesterday, The Stage undertook the photoshoot for its annual Edinburgh Festivals issue. We’ll have ten ‘acts’, for want of a better word — actually, it’s seven actors, one cabaret duo, one writer and one director — who were photographed separately, as well as in a group shot that will be used on the cover.

Organised by Paul and with Stephanie on photography duties, I was on hand to do a few audio interviews with which we’ll be putting out as a podcast.

I also took my camera along, though, to (a) take some candid shots, (b) have a bit of a practice photographing people rather than still lives and architecture and (c) to have something to do in between interviews.

I’m not going to bung the whole load of photographs up on Flickr, as to do so would compromise the publication of the full photoshoot, which will be in _The Stage_ in two weeks’ time.

However, a few bits and pieces:

Frisky and Mannish and Paul
Frisky and Mannish and Paul
Photographer Stephanie Methven
Photographer Stephanie Methven
Mannish in make-up
Mannish in make-up
Performer Inua Ellams
Performer Inua Ellams
Frisky (from Frisky and Mannish) and Charlie Cameron
Frisky (from Frisky and Mannish) and Charlie Cameron

Jerusalem at the Royal Court

On Tuesday, I went along to the Royal Court to accompany the lovely Anna to see _Jerusalem_ by Jez Butterworth.

I was going to write up a review here, but there seems little point, as Anna’s sums it up so brilliantly:

> Byron, then, would be a gift to any actor, but few could inhabit him so completely as Mark Rylance. It is a stunning performance that leaves you in no doubt that a gaggle of hangers-on and fair-weather friends really would be utterly in awe of him. The audience certainly are.

[Go read her review now](http://annawaits.blogspot.com/2009/07/jerusalem-royal-court.html).

West End Live 2009

On Saturday, I went to Leicester Square to see some of the onstage performances put together by Westminster City Countil as part of the annual **West End Live** event.

Due to engineering works on train lines, and the long queueing time to get into the Leicester Square stage area, I missed performances by the cast of several big name shows, including **Sister Act** (which I still have not seen yet).

However, I did catch quite a few performances, and have put a selection the resulting photos up on Flickr. A slide show version is below:

The full collection is [available to browse on Flickr](http://www.flickr.com/photos/aggedor/sets/72157620196580994/). Please note that, unlike previous photos, I am not releasing these under any form of Creative Commons licence: if you want to use any of them for other purposes, please [contact me](/about/).

Menken serenade

Tonight, I was lucky enough to be invited to the press launch of **Sister Act: the Musical**, which starts previews in May at the London Palladium after The Sound of Music leaves the West End to tour the UK.

A lot of the usual PR guff — how wonderful an opportunity it is, how great all the cast are, blah blah blah — was, of course, present. Somewhat unusually, we got a preview of some of the new music: unlike the film, most, if not all, of the score is original material rather than the movie’s use of classic soul and disco tracks.

For the females in the ensemble cast, this was an opportunity to use the uplifting choral numbers to raise the spirits of the jaded hacks present; for Patina Miller, who will be playing the role of Doloris so famously taken on by Whoopi Goldberg in the original film, it was a chance to shine. All exceeded any expectations, no matter how high they were set.

A personal highlight, though, was the onstage appearance of Alan Menken, who is scoring this new musical. After sitting down at a conveniently placed piano he proceeded to walk us musically through his career, starting with a medley from **The Little Shop of Horrors** and progressing through his numerous works for the Disney Corporation. It was noticeable, perhaps, that movie scores such as **The Little Mermaid**, **Beauty and the Beast** and **Aladdin** deserved medleys of their own, while less successful fare such as **Pocahontas** got just a single memorable song. But that did not matter: to hear Menken perform his own material (much of it written with the late and much-missed Howard Ashman) was a dream come true. Should Radio 2 devote a Friday Night is Music Night to Menken’s work, as they have so recently to Don Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Strouse and so many other musical theatre greats, I’ll be there on the front row, cheering on the performers and doing my best not to drown them out in my enthusiasm.

I ran into Menken at the bar shortly afterwards. I was a gibbering wreck.

One should never meet one’s heroes.