Sunday saw Kerry Ellis take to the stage at the London Palladium for a one-off concert – which I reviewed for Musical Theatre Review. Despite the 500-word count, I still had to leave out reference to her guests Rory Taylor and Alex Gaumond, and the support act Woman (or “Woman – the band”, as they insist on calling themselves).
As someone who used to work in online LGBT news media, and who now works in theatrical media, Pink Paper’s “Top 5 gay West End musicals” article piqued my interest for multiple reasons when it turned up on Twitter.
Unfortunately, it’s so riddled with errors that it’s almost laughable.
The West End has never had so much competition attracting tourists as the capital has become the place to be this summer.
Rather than give up, the industry has pulled out all the stops to entice eager theatre fans, and it seems they have followed the advice of theatre producer Max Bialystock, following the manta: “whatever you do on the stage, keep it snappy, keep it happy, keep it gay!”.
Unfortunately, while that quote does indeed come from The Producers, where Max Bialystock and business Leo Bloom attempt to create an über-camp pro-Nazi musical with the hope of fleecing their investors, the line quoted comes from the director they hire, Roger De Bris, and not Bialystock.
And if West End producers really were following the “manta” [sic], surely all five musicals would be gay, or gay-themed? Instead, only one of the five could be said to be gay-themed – and it’s neither a musical nor in the West End.
Last night, Adam and I went to see The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium, with tickets provided by Superbreak, who provide theatre & hotel deals for many West End musicals.
The show itself was only on its third preview, with press night not until March 1. It’s clearly an unfinished work: all the technical aspects of scene changes, onstage automation and flying sequences seemed to be being executed at a gingerly slow pace.
I did enjoy the cast performances, especially Hannah Waddingham as the Wicked Witch of the West. Danielle Hope’s voice, which I adored throughout the run of Over the Rainbow, the BBC1 talent show that recruited her, was everything I hoped it would be. And Paul Keating’s physicality as the Scarecrow nicely echoed that of Ray Bolger’s in the 1937 film.
But it’s the link to the film that concerns me, as I left the theatre not knowing whether the design team want to be inspired by the film, to slavishly copy it or actually produce a grand spectacle worthy of the Palladium stage. At the moment, different scenes take wildly different approaches.
The most effective piece of ‘theatre’ at the moment comes in Act 2, as action moves away from the journey to the Emerald City and into the Wicked Witch’s castle. The production design here is, for the main part, lovely – just the right mix of gothic, with a couple of nods to Wicked without going overboard. Waddingham’s Act 2 outfit shows what this show has the potential to be — a great-looking visual spectacle which takes the elements of the film, builds upon them and presents them in a form that works for a theatre audience. It’s a shame her ‘look’ isn’t consistent throughout — in Act 1, she’s costumed in a manner far more consistent with the film.
To convert what is actually a fantasy film with occasional songs into a fully-fledged musical requires extra numbers. I was really looking forward to Andrew Lloyd Webber reuniting with former collaborator Tim Rice, but (Waddingham’s Witch’s Song apart) the new material seems to accentuate the wrong emotional moments. The show needs a big musical number to open, and one to close — and (as yet) has neither.
A lot can change in a month, so don’t take these comments as a review of a finished product. I’ll be curious to see what sort of work gets put into the show between now and press night — and, if the reworked Love Never Dies is anything to go by, beyond that. After Act 1, I was optimistic enough to believe that the problems the show has were surmountable. By the end of Act 2, I’d reversed my view — but after sleeping on it for a night, I’m prepared to give the production team the benefit of the doubt. For now.
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)