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…

Thriller: Live – 2,000th performance

Last night, Steve and I went to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to see Thriller: Live, which was celebrating the show’s 2000th West End performance.

It was not my first visit – as with my others, we were guests of the show’s PR company – but it was Steve’s. It’s always interesting to revisit a show with someone seeing it for the first time; all the more so with one that traverses Jackson’s career from the early 1970s onwards when your friend is 16 years younger than you, and for whom anything before Bad is a historical document rather than the soundtrack to one’s childhood.

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Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre

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The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. In America, it is New York’s longest-running show, with the original off-Broadway run lasting for 42 years until January 2002, and the current revival continues since opening in 2006.

In the UK, however, it’s a very different story indeed. The original 1961 West End production ran for just 44 performances, and a 2010 revival closed after three weeks. Smaller scale revivals with short fixed runs have fared better, demonstrating perhaps that this is not a West End show, but one which suits the size of a fringe venue. And in the Jermyn Street theatre, which has the intimacy of fringe just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, it nestles pleasantly and inoffensively for a week.

The plot, which is very loosely based on one of Rostand’s, has echoes of a medieval morality tale – indeed, the lovers at the heart of the story are initially separated by a wall that directly echoes the Pyramus and Thisbe production performed by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, it transpires, the wall is a fake – the supposedly warring fathers of the romantic leads are in cahoots, assuming correctly that their being at loggerheads will cause their children to rebel and fall in love with each other.

As the young lovers Luisa and Matt, Emma Harrold and James Irving bring the characters’ naiveté to life. Both have strong voices, full of character, with Harrold in particular possessing a sweet soprano trill that she ought to be able to put into good use once she graduates from the Royal Academy of Music’s musical theatre course.

Brian McCann and Tim Walton give their one-dimensional parent characters their all, but all the principals are dwarfed by the narrator and troublemaker, El Gallo. Gavin James’ character is hired by the parents to pretened to abduct Luisa so that Matt will come to her rescue, and as such he is really the only character that progresses the story along to any degree. Comedy character moments from Seamus Newham as a faded Shakesperean actor and, especially, James Weal as his acrobatic, mostly silent assistant certainly enliven the show’s duller moments, of which there threaten to be rather more than there should. And Greg Page’s permanently exasperated stage manager, while completely superfluous to the plot, bears enough of a resemblance to Michael Billington to wonder if the critic has started taking a hands-on role in a show he panned a few years ago.

Musically, the show is sweet and has plenty of opportunity for the cast to show off their vocal talents. However, because the musical’s stand out songs, Soon It’s Gonna Rain and the more well-known Try to Remember dominate the first act, and the principal story peters out by the interval, it’s a bit more of a stretch for the audience to enjoy the show throughout.

So, for the life of me, I fail to see just why off-Broadway has taken this show to their hearts so much. But I’m glad I’ve seen it, and delighted that I’ve seen some fine performers show what they’re capable of.

Rose Bridge Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks continues at Jermyn Street Theatre until July 27. For more details, visit rosebridgetheatre.com

Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre3Scott Matthewman2013-07-25 13:59:57The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you…

Reviewed: The Color Purple, Menier Chocolate Factory

For Musical Theatre Review, my review of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of The Color Purple:

Alice Walker’s classic novel, adapted first into an acclaimed film and then a musical, makes its London debut in the latter form with an assured production that showcases some of our finest musical theatre talent – while also producing an incredibly moving and emotional tale of abuse and survival, and of rejection of the idea that subjugation of anyone can be tolerated.

Read the full review.

A trio of musical theatre reviews: Barbershopera, Nunsense A-Men, and Bullets and Daffodils

I’ve been remiss about linking out to my reviews elsewhere recently. Here are three that I’ve written recently for Musical Theatre Review.

Bullets and Daffodils

Tristan Bates Theatre, July 1-6

The poetry of Wilfred Owen, born as it was from anger at the cruelty of war, is full of powerful imagery and intense emotion. Sadly, neither are on display in Dean Johnson’s tribute to Owen…

Nunsense A-men!

Landor Theatre, until July 28

The show gives the best moments, the best numbers and the best lines to the Broadway-obsessed Sister Mary Robert, and Alastair Knights takes full advantage. Stealing ensemble scenes with gay abandon, it is his solo numbers – and his wimple-based impressions – which will remain in the memory.

Barbershopera! – The Three Musketeers

St James’s Theatre Studio, July 13 – touring until October 26

Alexandre Dumas’ novel has formed the basis of several musical interpretations before… None has dared attempt to stage it as a cross-dressing, four-person a cappella production, though – and after this riotous evening, one can only feel the other productions are missing a trick.

 

Payback – the Musical

Above are some production shots from Payback – the Musical, which is currently playing at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Press night was last Friday, and my review is available on the Musical Theatre Review website.

Review: Momentous Musicals – Live Cast Recording

Momentous Musicals


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Some of the big name musical theatre stars who release albums of showtunes tend to release studio albums – your Balls, your Barrowmans, your Paiges. They generally sound wonderful, but with the luxury of being able to re-record you’d expect them to. And yet, one of the great thrills of hearing a great musical theatre performance is being able to appreciate them sung live, to thrill at that almost imperceptible change of tone as a performer’s chest swells in response to a receptive audience. And, yes, the occasional moment where they come in a fraction too early or late, or their voice breaks a little. It’s the slight little things, the lack of clinicality, that gives a live performance the edge over a purely studio-bound recording for me.

One drawback with live albums is that the sound quality is often lower as a result, but that’s far from the case with Momentous Musicals. This CD was originally recorded at an evening showcasing the best in musical theatre songs at the New Wimbledon Theatre in 2012 (further dates in July 2013 are planned) – and while Gareth Gates is the only musical theatre performer’s face on the cover of the CD, this is an ensemble of West End performers doing what they do best: along with Gates, the CD features performances from Rachael Wooding, Daniel Boys, Jonathan Ansell and Emma Williams.

Starting with Dreamgirls’ One Night Only – surely the most well-known musical theatre song never to have received a West End outing – the disc rattles through standards old and new, from musicals as diverse as West Side Story and Company to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Legally Blonde.

The balance between uptempo numbers and the big power ballads is just about right, and the orchestrations by musical director George Dyer bring out the best of both the original compositions and the performers on the night. Emma Williams’ Mein Herr is a particular delight, while Company’s Being Alive – possibly my favourite Sondheim number ever – feels safe in the hands and vocal cords of Daniel Boys. Rachael Wooding stands out, though, putting her heart and soul into every one of the several songs she is tasked with performing.

As a record of an evening in the company of great singers – or even as consolation for not being able to be there in person – it’s hard to beat. As incentive to book tickets for the next tour, it’s pretty good too.

Review: Once, Phoenix Theatre

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In general, the vogue for adapting films into stage musicals tends to be looked down upon in musical theatre circles. Ghost, Top Hat, Legally Blonde, Singin’ in the Rain, The Bodyguard, Footloose, Dirty Dancing… the list seems to get ever longer.

The quality of such adaptations varies wildly – and generally, the closer the stage version attempts to remain to the original, the less creative and enjoyable the result for the audience.

Once is the latest movie to make the transition to the stage. One advantage it has is that the film itself is comparatively little-known, despite the song Falling Slowly winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But mostly, its staging ignores that origin, and instead treats itself as a standalone piece of art. The result is a sublime evening of warm humour, great songs and heartbreakingly beautiful romance.

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Review: Once, Phoenix Theatre5Scott Matthewman2013-05-23 14:03:58In general, the vogue for adapting films into stage musicals tends to be looked down upon in musical theatre circles. Ghost, Top Hat, Legally Blonde, …

What’s your problem with musicals?

Great video from Mark Kermode’s weekly video blog, asking why some people have problem with musicals. If you find it odd that the characters in Les Misérables sing, how about Cabaret (where the songs are performed on stage)? How about All That Jazz, where they’re part of dream sequences?

Then how about sci-fi? If you can cope with light sabres, why can’t you cope with a few songs?