Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)

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I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I was never particularly taken with Westerns, and back then all the singing and dancing in the world couldn’t counteract all that gingham.

Older and wiser (and less Western averse), I found the current touring production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a delight. As an adult, there are story points that one should certainly feel dubious about: it’s basically about a group of uncultured heathen brothers who decide to abduct the women they want to marry – and whose crime is mitigated by the women collectively and conveniently falling in love with their abductors. It’s only down to the no-nonsense attitude of eldest brother Adam’s new wife Millie that the brothers have any redeeming qualities at all, as her place as a surrogate mother for the brood civilises them so that they can, in effect, rejoin society.

You could spend ages discussing the sociopolitical aspects of the story. Or, you could sit back and enjoy a riot of dance and song that can’t help but lift the spirits. Leading the cast as Millie is Helena Blackman – a friend who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for several years, including working on Rodgers and Hammerstein in London together. Helena’s voice is perfectly suited to this era of musical, her soprano belt coming to the fore several times throughout. She also lends a calm determination to Millie, balancing the character’s independence and spirit with a genuine affection for her new husband and his unruly brothers.

In contrast, her fellow lead, Sam Attwater as Adam, has rather less opportunity for comedy or character, although he makes excellent use of what he’s given. Vocally, he has a much more contemporary vocal style – but whereas this might work against him in a staging of a 1950s musical, the stage production includes a number of additional songs which themselves feel more modern in style, and so the casting feels particularly astute.

However good Blackman and Attwater’s singing and acting, though, it will be the dancing for which audiences will remember this show. The town dance number that forms the climax of Act I in particular, which sees the Pontipee brothers compete in a game of choreographed one-upmanship with their competitors for the ladies’ hands, is that rarity in modern musical theatre: a large group number which is visually thrilling, technically daring, and yet which also manages to propel the storytelling.

With a large ensemble cast performing so well, this is the sort of show that demonstrates the virtues of touring theatre. And for a show that’s set in the Oregon winter, it brings an awful lot of sunshine to Aylesbury Vale.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)4Scott Matthewman2013-10-29 09:17:19I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I w…

Rodgers & Hammerstein in London

Back in 2011, I wrote and produced a special podcast episode for The Stage, celebrating Rodgers and Hammerstein on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music‘s debut in the West End. We no longer publicise or distribute our podcasts, so I’ve gained permission to include it here. Of the 90 or so podcasts I created for The Stage, this is by far my favourite.

Presented by Helena Blackman, who had just released an album of R&H songs (excerpts from which are dotted throughout the programme), the feature also includes contributions from The Stage/Sunday Express theatre critic Mark Shenton, readings from The Stage archives by Adam Lilley, an exploration of the legacy Oscar Hammerstein left to Southwark Cathedral – and an exclusive (if short) clip of Stephen Sondheim himself talking about the influence of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. More background on my original blog post about the podcast.

Presenter: Helena Blackman
Archive Readings: Adam Lilley
Archive Research: Catherine Gerbrands
Writer and Producer: Scott Matthewman
Excerpts from The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein by kind permission of Speckulation Entertainment

The podcast is copyright © 2011 The Stage Media Company Limited. All rights reserved. Uploaded and made available on this site with permission.

Noël and Gertie, Cockpit Theatre, London

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When we think of Noël Coward, we tend to think of the witty older gentleman who had built a reputation as playwright, songwriter and master of the well-turned epithet. We don’t tend to remember that he started out as a young child actor, during which period of his life he first met Gertrude Lawrence, the actress with whom he would come to work on numerous occasions and form a lifelong friendship.

The late drama critic and broadcaster Sheridan Morley constructed this revue of Coward’s work in the early 1980s, using the relationship between Coward and Lawrence to showcase some of the former’s songs and plays. The result is an evening of biting wit, poignancy and unbridled fun.

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Noël and Gertie, Cockpit Theatre, London4Scott Matthewman2011-10-02 16:54:12When we think of Noël Coward, we tend to think of the witty older gentleman who had built a reputation as playwright, songwriter and master of the we…

Happy talk (and a bit of singing)

Something I’ve been working on for a couple of months (longer, counting the times I had to stop and either go on to other projects, or go off and be ill) went live on The Stage website today.

Rodgers and Hammerstein in London is an audio documentary looking at how the famous musical theatre pairing’s shows have been received in London, using archive material from The Stage’s extensive archive of back issues. I was aiming for a half-hour, Radio 4-style arts programme: the finished product ended up as just over 38 minutes, but I didn’t want to edit it down any further.

The project had its genesis when the publisher of Helena Blackman’s Rodgers and Hammerstein album asked if I wanted to interview Helena about the CD, and possibly include some short clips of the musical tracks. While I didn’t mind the idea, it was a format we’d done before – and we’d also been talking about ways in which we could promote The Stage Archive, an amazing resource which stretches back as far as the paper’s first issue in 1880. So the idea moved away from a straight interview to an exploration of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works, with Helena presenting.

Although The Sound of Music’s 1961 opening was the spur, the documentary reaches back to the late 1940s and the debut of the groundbreaking Oklahoma!, as well as coming (relatively) up to date with How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the reality casting show that gave Helena her first break.

It’s been good fun putting it together – I’ve been interviewing people from the Dean of Southwark Cathedral to Stephen Sondheim – but the main focus is the archive readings, which my friend, actor Adam Lilley, very generously did for me. We kept in the original idea of including extracts from Helena’s album, as it helps break up the long, talky bits with a bit of music.

It’s available now from The Stage website, as a free MP3 download or streamed direct from the web page. It’s also available in iTunes as part of The Stage Podcast series.

Coming soon: Michael Bruce’s Unwritten Songs

Speckulation Entertainment seem to be on a real roll at the moment. As well as Helena Blackman’s wonderful collection of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, in a couple of weeks’ time they will release a CD of songs written by composer Michael Bruce.

Michael first came to my attention when he entered a competition they ran (under the banner of their Notes from New York brand) in conjunction with The Stage to find a new Christmas song in a musical theatre style. Michael’s song, Children, is a just beautiful, plaintive ballad that became one of my personal highlights of both the Christmas in New York shows and the subsequent cast recording. Since then, as well as orchestrating some of Speckulation’s other works (including some of Helena’s album, and the musical ads for Confused.com) he’s been working on various projects, the biggest and most recent of which is composing music for the forthcoming version of Much Ado About Nothing which is to star David Tennant and Catherine Tate.

Back in November 2009, a one-off show at the Apollo Theatre highlighting some of his work drew some of the cream of the West End’s young performing talent. I’m pleased to see that on the just-announced track list for the new CD, Unwritten Songs, many of them will be making an appearance on the CD.

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Back to Trafalgar Studios: Daniel Boys & guests

It’s rare that I revisit a show. In terms of West End theatre, Avenue Q and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert are the only recent shows I’ve seen more than once, and then the repeat showings tended to be funded by competition prizes, comps or harshly discounted tickets. 

After last week’s visit to Ordinary Days and Daniel Boys’s highly agreeable cabaret, which was the result of the generosity of one of my followers on Twitter, I decided to book under my own steam for Daniel’s final cabaret on Friday, spurred on by the knowledge that, unlike his previous solo effort, he would be joined by fellow BBC show graduates Helena Blackman and Lee Mead. In the intervening years, I’ve come to know all three professionally and personally, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous I’ve come to consider each of them a friend.

I had thought about rebooking for Ordinary Days too, but had decided against it. However, having a lovely dinner (at Scottish restaurant Albannach in Trafalgar Square – lovely food, but the service was a bit slow for a pre-theatre treat) with two friends who were going caused me to reconsider, only to find out the show was booked solid. Great for the show and its producers – any show that’s selling well makes my heart sing – but I surprised myself at how disappointed I was that I wouldn’t be seeing it again.

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Helena Blackman, Delfont Room/The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein

Last night, Chad and I went to see Helena Blackman perform a short cabaret at the Delfont Room in the Prince of Wales theatre. The event was to promote and celebrate the launch of her new solo album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and so the evening was dominated by some R&H classics – as well as one or two of their lesser known numbers, and a few songs from elsewhere. I particularly liked the inclusion of a number from Saturday Night, the Sondheim musical Helena performed in at the Jermyn Street theatre (and which later transferred to the Arts), as it was in interviewing her about that show that I first met Helena. We have since met often, and last year we were both judges on The Stage’s Musical Voice competition to find a new singing talent.

Most cabaret performances are lucky if they get a guitarist or drummer alongside their piano accompaniment. Helena definitely scored here, with an impressive ten-piece band, led by musical director George Dyer. They were definitely needed, for the orchestrations on the album are one of its key selling points — Helena’s voice being, of course, one of the others.

The new arrangements and orchestrations are, for the main part, as beautiful and lyrical as the source material demands. One or two, though, go that little bit further into the realm of greatness. I love the offbeat start to I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, which grows into a vampish, brassy number. Love Look Away, from the (generally unloved) Flower Drum Song, becomes a smooth ballad that may be one of the least known songs on the album, but becomes one of the standout numbers. I Enjoy Being a Girl, originally from the same musical, is its polar opposite, a light and frothy number that is pitched just right here.

Of the two duets on the album, I much preferred People Will Say We’re In Love (performed with Daniel Boys) to The King and I’s I Have Dreamed (sung with Jonathan Ansell on the album and, due to Jonathan’s absence due to illness, with Daniel at last night’s concert).

The album has been eighteen months in the making, from conception to today’s release. That’s some wait in the scheme of things, but after having listened to the album several times now, it was well worth it.

The widget below includes short extracts from each track, but they really don’t do the songs justice. The album currently costs just £6.99 from Amazon.co.uk’s MP3 downloads site, so I really recommend you try it for yourself.

Saturday Night, Jermyn Street Theatre

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Stephen Sondheim’s first musical, abandoned in 1954 after the sudden death of its producer, has been rarely performed since, but offers a rare insight into the developing talent of one of theatre’s foremost composers.

At the tail end of the Roaring Twenties, just months before the Wall Street Crash, David Ricardo-Pearce’s Gene leads a young group of friends, actor-musicians all, who throw their savings into the only stock which is not rapidly increasing in value. As Gene’s aspirational lifestyle causes him to build lie upon lie and risk the friends’ money, his burgeoning relationship with Helen, played by Helena Blackman, begins to fall apart.

The music has echoes of Gershwin and Porter, showing an aptitude for wordplay that both matches the style of the era and indicates the Sondheim that was to come. They are delivered with precision by a cast that works well together, and exudes enough charm to allow one to overlook the occasional lapse in accent from one or two of the men. Dancer Charlie Cameron, whose speakeasy-loving Florence rarely speaks, manages to steal every scene when she does so.

It is the book, adapted by Julius J Epstein from his play Front Porch in Flatbush, co-written with brother Philip, that proves the weakest part of the production. Events do not really start to get under way until well into the first act and the conclusion seems both perfunctory and out of character for all concerned.

That aside, one is left with the feeling that unlike many rarely-produced musicals, Saturday Night deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

Reviewed for The Stage

Saturday Night, Jermyn Street Theatre3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:56:24Stephen Sondheim’s first musical, abandoned in 1954 after the sudden death of its producer, has been rarely performed since, but offers a rare insig…