Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

Editor’s Rating
Rating

And so, I decided to write this review backwards, starting at the end of the night and finishing at the beginning. How hard could it be?

Are people just going wild for this because it’s Sondheim? Because it’s a Menier production? Can the West End transfer possibly be a success for a show that, if scenes were run in chronological order, would be seen as a rather workaday piece?

But the main problem with Merrily We Roll Along is that its time reversal doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s all very well asking “how did we get here?” – but if we end the night knowing just as much as when we started, you can’t help but feel disappointed.

What you end up taking away from Merrily is Jenna Russell’s performance as Mary, the woman whose unrequited love turns her into a hilariously drunken lush by the start of the play. It’s one of the standout performances, along with that of Josefina Gabrielle as the social climber and Broadway chanteuse who is revealed to have humbler origins.

Sondheim stalwart Maria Friedman, here moving to the director’s chair, brings an assured hand to proceedings. Every comedic punchline is hit, every wink to Broadway and Hollywood cliché is all knowing.

The second act is also where Clare Foster really comes into her own, as Shepard’s supportive first wife in the days before the lure of fame led him astray from his dreams and her life. Her introduction at the end of the first act as an embittered divorcée is a tough one to pull off, but she manages it – and as we follow her journey back to happier times, she lights up the stage.

“You need a hummable melody,” Shepard is told in the second act – to knowing laughs in the audience. Mainly from us.

During the interval, my friend and I discussed how the show isn’t one of Sondheim’s best, no matter how beautiful the score. What annoys us, we agree, is no matter how much you love the music, there’s no standout melody to any of them.

(Maybe I need a haircut.)

As the show’s consistent moral compass, Damian Humbley – who I first met at a party while he was in The Woman in White, and have since seen onstage in a number of guises, including Max in the short-lived but very good Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical – is transformed here: not the handsome leading man that he projects offstage and (usually) on, but a likeable supporting nerd whose bouffant hair disguises his otherwise rugged charms.

Mark Umbers looks, sings and dances the part as Franklin Shepard, the composer whose path we first see ending up a long way from where it was originally planned. I’ve always found Umbers a little too clinical and clean-cut for my tastes: I always get a feeling that I’ve watched a technically accomplished performance, but not one that I could connect to emotionally. Nothing changes here: Shepard is likeable enough, but it’s the worlds that revolve around him that capture the real attention.

Played in the correct order, the musical would be a fun, but straightforward treatise on how composers should eschew commercial work in favour of having faith in the artistic merits of their own work. So it feels like the temporal structure is in place not to add anything, but instead to disguise an emptiness.

To a certain extent, my fears played out.

I’d never seen Merrily We Roll Along on stage before, although I’ve been to so many Stephen Sondheim revues that most of the songs sound familiar. What could a reverse narrative bring to a musical about three friends?

Reverse-order narrative is a tough technique to get right, but I’ve always felt that it needs to have a payoff. If a comedian starts with the punchline, you need him to take you somewhere else in the follow-up, just as magicians Penn and Teller can start a routine explaining how a trick works, only to fool you into watching a completely different illusion. Writer Jonathan Harvey’s new project, Tomorrow I’ll Be Happy, written for young people and being performed via the NT Connections scheme, uses a similar technique to look at the after-effects of a homophobic hate crime. As the play progresses, we are drawn closer and closer to cataclysm. That’s how it should be done.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hS3Cfavpk_g

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory3Scott Matthewman2013-03-06 15:29:17Merrily We Roll Along, playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a story told in reverse – and so is this review

Follies, Pleasance SecondSpace, Islington

Editor’s Rating
Rating

Between the world wars, a group of women performed in a Ziegfeld-style follies revue in a New York theatre. Now, several decades later, with the theatre on the brink of demolition, they reunite to recall former glories, past loves, to relive the follies of youth and, in some cases, to doom themselves to repeating them.

I’ll be honest, 2nd Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies is my first. While I was aware of several of the songs (like all such musicals, you pass your eye down the list in the programme and recognise the titles of some, then realise you know more when you hear them performed) and knew the basic plot, I therefore can’t really comment on how much better (or worse) director Ray Rackham’s interpretation varies from others’.

Continue reading Follies, Pleasance SecondSpace, Islington

Follies, Pleasance SecondSpace, Islington3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:42:33Between the world wars, a group of women performed in a Ziegfeld-style follies revue in a New York theatre. Now, several decades later, with the theat…

Top 10 Disney films that should be stage musicals

Over the weekend came news that Disney’s theatrical division is working on some new adaptations of films from its back catalogue. Freaky Friday, Father of the Bride, The Jungle Book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dumbo are all in development, as is an adaptation of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and a reworked version of The Little Mermaid. Newsies and Aladdin had previously been announced.

Ironically, before that article was published I had been having a conversation on Twitter about Disney films that could be adapted for the stage, as a direct result from having reviewed The Lion King.

While the announcement above includes lots of new projects, I was left thinking: what other films from the House of Mouse could make the transition to the theatre? So here are ten of my suggestions, in a more-or-less-arbitrary Letterman-style countdown from 10 to 1. And note I’ve ignored many of the Perrault-inspired fairytale features (Cinderella, et al), which sail a little too close to the British panto oeuvre.

Which has the potential to be the next Lion King, and which the next Tarzan, I wonder?

Continue reading Top 10 Disney films that should be stage musicals

Six days, five shows, some dancers and a requiem

After Monday’s attendance at Richmond Theatre for Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, this has turned into a theatre-packed week.

On Tuesday, I went to the Soho Theatre to review gay theatre legend Bette Bourne being ‘interviewed’ by Mark Ravenhill. The inverted commas are because, although the evening was based on transcripts of interview conversations between the pair of them, Ravenhill then took those transcripts and cut them down into scripted conversations. Last year, the conversations took place over three evenings: this current production further cuts them down to a single evening. It’s not a particularly successful approach to investigating what is a spellbindingly personal story — but being in the presence of Bourne recounting tales from his life is a privilege, in any case.

Wednesday’s outing was to the West End transfer of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem from the Royal Court to the Apollo. I saw it in its original staging, and I have to say it’s one of the few theatrical productions where a second viewing not only brings out new levels of understanding of the script’s many layers, but also suggests that a third visit would reveal even more. As a metaphor for the changing state of England, some of those levels on my Australian friend Chad. Ah well, his loss.

Thursday was an odd day. During the day, the wonderful feeling of experiencing the St John’s College, Cambridge Choir in the college chapel singing elements of Fauré’s Requiem was tempered by the performance being part of the funeral service for my uncle John, a Fellow of the College, who passed away a couple of weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. Family pre-Christmas trips to the West End helped fuel the interest in theatre I’m lucky enough to be able to draw upon in my working life today, so that’s thanks in part to John. Further connections emerged in that Jez Butterworth went to St John’s, Jerusalem was one of the hymns during the service, and the chaplain ruminated on the implicit meanings of Blake’s words during his sermon.

Later in the evening and back in London, it was off to Hampstead for a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods by the MA Music Theatre students of the Central School of Speech and Drama. A creative use of clothes racks and storage trunks showed that you don’t need a huge set budget to convey a sense of place. The whole piece was characterised by some imaginative staging, from quick changes and disappearing witches to expressionistic dance allowing the ensemble to represent the woods and the beanstalk. The quality of performance did vary quite a lot, though — while we may have seen one or two future West End stars, I won’t feel too disappointed if one or two others decide to pursue other careers.

Tonight sees a break from the relentless theatregoing, which starts up again tomorrow with a trip to see Ghosts starring Lesley Sharp and Iain Glen (who is also directing), in previews at the Duchess Theatre. It will be by first experience with Ibsen, I have to admit, and I don’t know what to expect. After that, it’s back to television, and the grand final of So You Think You Can Dance, which I’ll be live tweeting and writing about, especially after the week’s offstage dramas, which saw finalist Robbie White felled by a dislocated shoulder, briefly replaced by last week’s loser Alastair Postlethwaite, and now replace by Alastair and two other, non-competing, dancers to couple with the three remaining competitors.

And that’s most likely the end of this particular glut of theatrical outings. But there will, in the weeks to come, doubtless be more…

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)

Saturday Night, Jermyn Street Theatre

Editor’s Rating
Rating

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…

Screeny Todd

Last night I took Paul along to see Sweeney Todd at the Union Theatre, which I was reviewing. As someone whose musical theatre experience is much larger than mine, it came as something of a shock that this was to be Paul’s first Sweeney.

As it was, it was only half of his first Sweeney — as he was working nights, he had to leave in the interval in order to start work on time. However, he did say that he was looking forward to the second half, which is a marked improvement to some of the fringe theatre musicals we’ve seen in the past. At one point we did discuss the possibility of his staying for some of the second half, only for him to run out once the blood starts flowing, all to add to the sense of Grand Guignol. Luckily we decided against it, as there is very little blood (and a particularly ineffective barber’s chair) in this production.

It was a good production, all told. Although I did find it a little distracting that Sweeney was the spitting image of professional curmudgeon Charlie Brooker. Speaking of which, his TV criticism series Screenwipe finally returns to BBC4 next week after far too long being absent from our screens.

Sweeney Todd, Union Theatre

Editor’s Rating
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The railway arch cavern of the Union, which so many productions have to work against, provides additional atmosphere to Sondheim’s love letter to the decrepit brutality of old London. Combined with a strong ensemble performance, it creates a winning version of the musical.

Emma Francis plays Mrs Lovett with the requisite amount of good humour necessary to bring the audience onside to her cannibalistic plan. Impressive in comedic timing and singing voice, she dominates Sweeney himself (Christopher Howell), who only seems to come alive when singing. Of the other leads, Leon Kay’s Anthony is strong, while Katie Stokes struggles to make anything of the already thin role of Johanna. Stealing as many scenes as possible is Nigel Pilkington, whose unctuously camp Beadle Bamford lifts the whole production.

With the small venue placing the audience so close to the action, the atmosphere is heightened by the ensemble, who excel both vocally and through Sally Brooks’ choreography. While the set design does not allow for a particularly effective barber’s chair/oven combination, Sophie Mosberger’s use of the space available allows for a satisfying climax, with an emergency exit providing a double use for exits of a different kind.

Reviewed for The Stage

Sweeney Todd, Union Theatre4Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:06:27The railway arch cavern of the Union, which so many productions have to work against, provides additional atmosphere to Sondheim’s love letter to th…