Review – Annie Get Your Gun, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 7th January 2017

Annie Get Your GunFor the second part of our Sheffield extravaganza, Lady Duncansby, Sir William, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our esteemed friends the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield and the young Baron Brownhills. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with friends and family around the New Year, seeing what musical theatre delights the Crucible have arranged each year. In the past, we’ve been spoilt by seeing Company, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Anything Goes, and Show Boat; how will this year’s offering Annie Get Your Gun compare?

agyg1I hadn’t seen this show before. It was always a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, having seen it at the London Coliseum not long after the war. I remember her singing You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun with alarming enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. The show is jam-packed with show toons that are long-lasting standards, but I’d forgotten the rare beauty of I Got the Sun in the Morning which I hadn’t heard for decades. I also realised this was the first time I’d seen a musical written by that much-renowned composer Irving Berlin. It would be fascinating to compare his style with his contemporaries like Cole Porter and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein.

agyg2Production values, as always at the Crucible, would be high. The choreography is by Alistair David, who had added his touch of magic to all those previous Crucible Christmas shows. Playing Annie is Anna-Jane Casey, who’s always a hit whether she’s lampooning others in Forbidden Broadway or stuck in a rut of a relationship in Company or hoofing her way into the talkies with Mack and Mabel. Feisty and dynamic, but also a brilliant singer and dancer, there’s probably no better fit for the role of sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley.

agyg3Ah yes, Annie Oakley. I guess this was the aspect that I had overlooked when I enthusiastically booked all those months ago. Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, the original sharp-shooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So the setting is pure Cowboys and Indians, Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe, and much talk of redface and paleface. And then you have the arguments. Oh my God, the arguments; they’re so tedious. The show predates Porter’s Kiss Me Kate by two years, but the structural similarity between having cantankerous, nay bitchy, arguments between the two leading characters in both shows is obvious. In real life, Annie and Frank had a long, harmonious marriage. The show, however, is powered by the imagined antagonism between the two caused by jealousy.

agyg4I may as well confess it; I really, really wanted to like this show for so many reasons, but I’m afraid I really, really didn’t. It’s not the production’s fault – on the whole – although I think a little more set design might have helped explain and contextualise a few of the scenes a bit more. No, it’s the fault of the show itself. It survives on discord and rivalry. Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song goes. But it’s not portrayed like a schoolyard chant, a little silliness where two assertive people each want to have the last word; it’s portrayed as a serious, permanent rift in a relationship. In Kiss Me Kate, you just know that Fred and Lilli have a powerful physical attraction that’s going to knock everything else sideways. But by the time you get to Anything You Can Do, and Annie and Frank start reopening old wounds yet again, you just want to knock their heads together and tell them to grow up.

agyg5That’s at the end – but let me go back to the beginning. The lights dim, and a disembodied voice from the back starts to sing There’s No Business Like Show Business. Eventually your eyes locate Frank at the back of the auditorium, singing it with pompous gravity as though it were a hymn. The ensemble come out on stage and sing and dance as the number progresses – but there’s no set so you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who they are, and you wonder why the show’s big song gets such an early airing – surely it’s wasted in this warm-up position? They’ve got a solution to that – repeat it ad nauseam a few more times during the evening. [If you’re interested, it wasn’t the opening number in the original 1946 production; the song sequence changed with the 1999 Broadway revival] Maybe it’s a note of respect to the daddy of all 40s musicals, Oklahoma!, and its unconventional opening with Curly offstage singing about a beautiful morning. That works brilliantly, because we all understand the appeal of a beautiful morning without any further context. There’re no people like show people, on the other hand, just comes across as arrogant and self-aggrandising. We’re show people – you aren’t – therefore we’re better than you. You have no context within the show as yet for this outrageous statement but even so you already resent the characters for their big-headedness.

agyg6Now I accept that the first scene after this opening number shows cast members from Buffalo Bill’s show being turned away for accommodation at Wilson’s hotel because they’re showbiz types. They can’t be trusted, so the implied glamour of that overweening first number is turned into a sweet and sour rejection. There’s no business like show business is maybe ironic, after all. But that idea doesn’t get taken any further. Just occasionally, Anna-Jane Casey lets us see a little of Annie’s sensitive side. Ben Lewis, playing Frank, however, gives us a one-dimensional sharp shootin’ suitor, with precious little insight into his motivations or character. Shame – having seen him in Forbidden Broadway and Candide I know he’s capable of much more.

agyg7To mirror the front row disharmony between Annie and Frank you have second row friction between the two show manager rivals, Nicolas Colicos’ Buffalo Bill and Mike Denman’s Pawnee Bill. Mr Denman has a go at bringing a little characterisation and magnetism to his role but Mr Colicos gave me no insight into his character at all. Of the other cast members, only Maggie Service seemed to have any real sense of occasion, portraying Dolly as a lovelorn, overlooked but will-stop-at-nothing type who is both villain and object of sympathy. The ensemble gave it all they’d got though, which really helped me get through it, and their dancing was excellent. But, all in all, I’m afraid I found the show quite boring and lacking in theatrical magic. When Annie’s sharp-shootin’ at balloons, one of them failed to burst, which really did nothing for the overall effect. Nevertheless, it was only the presence of Anna-Jane Casey that made the whole show watchable.

agyg8It really split our group too – Mrs C and the Sheriff agreed with me that it was lacklustre and dated; Lady L quite enjoyed it but couldn’t get into it; Lady D, Sir William and the young Baron all enjoyed it. You might very well too, and it’s on until 21st January. A good enough production but I think the show should be consigned to the history books. Disappointed!

Review – Mack and Mabel, Chichester Festival Theatre, 29th August 2015

Mack and MabelJust as one swallow does not a summer make, one show is insufficient for a proper Chichester weekend. So after a perilously short afternoon nap we braved the Sussex rain and made our way back to the Festival theatre for our evening’s entertainment, Jonathan Church’s production of Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical, Mack and Mabel. I’ve always been interested in the history of musical theatre but for some reason this is a show that’s always passed me by. I remember the overture being used by Torvill and Dean to great effect, but that’s about all.

Michael BallBut then it didn’t set the Broadway world alight when it first hit the stage. It may have been nominated for eight Tony awards, but it didn’t win any of them; and its original run lasted a mere 66 performances. Odd, considering it had something of a dream team with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and choreography by Gower Champion (repeating their joint success of Hello Dolly, ten years earlier). But sometimes great ingredients don’t necessarily make great shows, and even if they do, sometimes, somehow, they just don’t click.

Rebecca LaChanceTo fill you in (and if you don’t want to know what happens, you probably should skip this paragraph): it’s the story of the partnership of Mack Sennett (he of the Keystone Kops) and Mabel Normand, one time waitress, swept into stardom by Sennett as she appeared in many of his very popular two-reelers. They have a romance, even though he’s not the romantic type; but when Sennett refuses to make the film of Molly, in which writer Frank has written her a role of (we suppose) depth and class, she gets ideas above her station and leaves Sennett’s slapstick, pie-flinging studio and takes up with William Desmond Taylor’s more serious and respectful manner of film-making (and, indeed, romancing). As Sennett’s popularity declines (there are only so many Keystone Kops and Bathing Beauties that a nation can take), he entices Mabel back to make the film of Molly but he still can’t resist jazzing it up and turning it into a comedy, so she walks out on him again. Talkies come, and Sennett finally sees the light – not with spoken drama but with music – and he makes one more play for Mabel, but she’s now a drug addict (we saw Taylor giving her cocaine) and she dies before he has the chance properly to make amends, let alone another movie with her.

Anna-Jane CaseySo despite Jerry Herman’s outrageously tippety-tap-happy show tunes, there’s a fair bit of sadness in the story, which makes for an interesting mix. In fact the ending was re-written for the 1995 London production, with Mack and Mabel happily reunited in each other’s arms at the final curtain, and I believe that is now the “default setting” for other revivals; although this Chichester production returns to the more sombre original. Whether that gives the story a little more “bite”, or whether you feel the happy/sad combination is a little awkward, is very much a personal thing. Personally, I quite like the bite. Perhaps what is more controversial about the show is how it very much misrepresents what actually happened in reality. This is definitely a fictionalised account of Sennett and Normand; for example, it suggests to you that the Keystone Kops were brought in to boost flagging ratings (not so, they were right at the forefront of Sennett’s early output) and that the Bathing Beauties were an alternative to Mabel once she had left the studio (again not so, she performed alongside them in their earlier films). There is no mention made of Mabel’s directing and producing career, nor of her marriage to actor Lew Cody. The show would have you believe that she left Sennett’s studios to work with William Desmond Taylor, but in fact it was Sam Goldwyn that she first worked for after leaving Sennett; any dalliance with Taylor came later. The show also implies that it was Taylor who introduced Mabel to the cocaine habit, whereas in fact she was already an addict and had approached Taylor to try to wean her off it. So don’t take the story of Mack and Mabel the musical as Gospel – just think of it as a collection of characters jumbled together in some sort of serving suggestion.

Jack EdwardsThe last time we saw a musical at Chichester (also with Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters) it was the extraordinary Gypsy with the even more extraordinary Imelda Staunton, which has gone on to do great things in the West End. So it was almost inevitable that the four of us would compare Gypsy with Mack and Mabel to see who would come out on top. For me, it’s no question that it’s the former; and that’s nothing to do with the standard of this production of Mack and Mabel, which is superb. It all comes down to the characters. Rose in Gypsy is really complex, giving Ms Staunton a gift of an opportunity to flesh out the character with humour, horror, kindness, dementia and everything in between. By contrast, Jerry Herman’s Mack is one-dimensional. He makes films. He falls in love with Mabel but it’s all on his terms, she doesn’t change him. He is addicted to slapstick. There’s not much more you can say about him. Even comparing with Hello Dolly, Sennett is still a very simple creation, whereas Dolly Levi schemes, manipulates, cajoles, supports and is all things to all men. In Gypsy, both Rose and Louise go on an incredible journey. In Hello Dolly, Dolly starts with an ambition, achieves it, and (I believe) genuinely falls in love. However, in Mack and Mabel, Sennett ends where he started; a retrospective of his career and his relationship, but with no sense of progress. Mabel, for sure, does go on a journey, but ends up in a dark place; but that’s almost irrelevant as the structure of this musical (despite its title) means this is definitely The Mack Sennett Show, and that other characters are relatively incidental. In many ways it’s an unbalanced and under-written show (not in the actuarial sense) and to make a success out of it, you have to heap it with stunning performances and top quality production values.

Kops on the runAnd that’s precisely what they do. From the moment the 15-man orchestra (not being sexist, they are all men) strikes up that glorious overture, your “good-time” endorphins kick in and you just know you’re in for a musical treat. I wasn’t familiar with the songs before the show, but some of them are pure Herman showstopping heaven. Look What Happened to Mabel, When Mabel Comes in the Room, Big Time, and many others all have you itching to get up on stage and hoof along with the rest of them to Stephen Mear’s stunningly entertaining choreography. Robert Jones’ design is a source of constant surprise and delight, as the film studio becomes the observation deck of a train, a pier with a ship in dock, and various abstract celluloid fantasy set-ups. The large acting space that the Festival Theatre provides is perfect for huge set piece moments, with two outstanding scenes; one, where the Keystone Kops run riot – Toby Park and Aitor Basauri from Spymonkey are credited with “physical comedy” and they have their autograph all over this scene; and another, where the company perform the taptastic Tap Your Troubles Away with superb skill and showmanship. I must confess, I’m not a huge tap fan – 42nd Street put me off it for life really – but that scene really was the bees’ knees.

Rebecca LaChance and Ashley AndrewsAnd it’s all brought to life by a tremendous cast. At the heart of it is Michael Ball as Mack, who I don’t think could be anything other than magnificent if he tried. Such a huge stage presence, you can almost feel his delight as the show progresses, as if the cast are his one big family that he is proudly showing off to us. Excellent comic timing, and still with a voice that is just made for this kind of show – simply superb. His Mabel is relatively unknown to us in the UK – Rebecca LaChance, and she’s amazing. She has a wonderful expressive voice, loads of pizazz and is pretty cute too. I really liked how she adapted to Mabel’s various stages of life, like the wide-eyed innocent, the sophisticated actress, the drugged-up victim, with (seemingly) effortless ease. I predict great things!

Girls togetherA bonus to any cast is the effervescent presence of Anna-Jane Casey, brilliant in both Forbidden Broadway and Sheffield’s Company a few years ago. She plays Lottie, a silent character actress in the Sennett squad who comes into her own when the talkies start – her performance fronting Tap Your Troubles Away is sensational, but she always brightens up the stage whenever she’s on. There’s a very nicely controlled comic performance by Jack Edwards as Fatty Arbuckle, another of the Sennett studio actors for whom life would turn sour; and also great contributions by Ashley Andrews (memorable in Drunk), and Rebecca Louis, as the production’s Dance Captains – the ensemble’s overall superb standard of dance is a testament to their ability to keep them on their toes. But the whole cast do a terrific job.

Kops on the watchSo all in all it’s a really enjoyable production, with some stand-out performances and stunning routines. Once it’s finished in Chichester it’s embarking on a national tour until December and I strongly recommend you catch it at either Plymouth, Manchester, Dublin, Edinburgh, Nottingham or Cardiff!

Review – Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th July 2014

Forbidden BroadwayAs soon as we saw that Forbidden Broadway was returning to the Menier, the booking was made in an instant. We saw it last time, in 2009, and thought it was a complete hoot. Well, it’s returned, as is just as hooty as it was before. It’s not the same show of course – it’s been completely rewritten, with loads more musicals to parody and loads more musical performers to tease mercilessly.

There’s no pretension, no back story, no hidden meaning to this show – it just takes the “four performers and a pianist” format, showers the stage with glitzy star lighting, has tinselly curtains on every available wall, and four entrances from which our performers can make continuous star appearances. Actually, given all the quick costume and number changes, this is less like a show and more like a showbiz triathlon. They must be the fittest actors in London.

Anna Jane CaseyA series of musical sketches rapidly follow each other, in which no holds are barred with the extent to which they ridicule, humiliate and lampoon our most beloved musicals. The traditional shows come in for their regular treatment – Phantom, Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Lion King; but we also have new kids on the block in the form of Book of Mormon, Once, Jersey Boys and Charlie (of the Other Chocolate Factory). Obviously, if you‘ve actually seen the show they’re parodying it makes it a lot funnier and a lot easier to understand. We realised that we’ve got a bit behind with our London musicals, and there were probably more shows featured that we hadn’t seen, than that we had. However, for the most part, this doesn’t matter because the sketches themselves are so funny and superbly performed that you can enjoy them regardless.

Ben LewisThere are also some extra numbers that don’t reflect any one particular show – there’s an homage to Cameron Mackintosh (which we understood completely), a showbiz love-in between Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone which nicely took the rise out of those gushing, artificial combinations of stars done purely for “entertainment” that you get sometimes – without actually realising that the two of them really are doing shows together in America; and a slightly odd number combining Hugh Jackman and Peter Allen which we didn’t follow at all. I’ve Googled it now, and discovered that Mr Jackman did a show about Mr Allen about eleven years ago – in America; but I think that’s a bit distant and esoteric even for the Menier. We enjoyed it though, as the teenage Mrs Chrisparkle had a crush on Peter Allen and there’s not many weeks that pass by without an enthusiastic burst from her in the shower of “I Go to Rio”. And of course, we had our traditional, brief appearance of Elaine Paige on the radio, cruel but hilarious. We can only think that EP must be a damned good sport.

Damian HumbleyThe majority of the sketches are pant-wettingly funny, and as a result of this show, we certainly now have no intention of seeing Once – any combination of all those elements must make for the most ghastly night at the theatre. Oh, that accordion. I loved the presentation of Miss Saigon as a shouting contest (that’s another show we haven’t seen) and Jersey Boys looked and sounded hilarious – for all the wrong reasons – again new to me, but Mrs C who saw it in America whilst on business assures me it was a perfect parody. Not sure I’ll ever be able to think of “Walk Like a Man” in the same way. The treatment of Book of Mormon was clever rather than outrageous – but then the original show is so wacky that it must be hard to devise a version that’s funnier than the original. There was a brilliant updating of Guys and Dolls’ Fugue for Tinhorns, a wonderful fantasia on Sondheim (Into the Words), a rather telling number about child exploitation on stage (whilst still keeping it light), a battle (literally) between Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, and Wicked’s fantastic “Defying Subtlety”.

My two favourite sketches were the Lion King – primarily because of the fabulously stupid costumes and the excruciating (this time for all the right reasons) song about wearing the heavy headpieces; but most of all their treatment of Les Miserables, with the perils of the revolving stage and the incredibly funny rewrites to those favourites, On My Own, Bring Him Home, One Day More and Master of the House. To tell you what they did to them would spoil the surprise – but we were completely in tears of laughter.

Sophie-Louise DannNo matter how cleverly the whole thing has been written and assembled it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the four amazing performers – the showbizzy Anna-Jane Casey and Ben Lewis who can also do wry, and the wry Sophie-Louise Dann and Damian Humbley who can also do showbizzy. They’re all magnificent. In amongst all the rest of it, Miss Casey did a splendidly ditzy Liza Minelli which included simulated hows-your-father with the man sitting next to Mrs C – much to his delight; Miss Dann did an incredibly accurate Angela Lansbury, which soared musically and became much more of a genuine appreciation of the Grande Dame than a micky-take; Mr Humbley raised his Sweeney razor directly at me and threatened, and threatened closer, so I had to shrink further back and back in my seat; and Mr Lewis bestrode the stage like the Colossus he is and didn’t mind being referred to as the one we didn’t like in Candide. Not to forget the sterling work put in by Mr Joel Fram on the piano, whose entertaining musical arrangements can summon up any mood you want.

I said there was no hidden meaning to the show – but the final number which draws our attention to the effects of increased commercial sponsorship in the West End, whilst funny, is as hard-hitting as a jackboot in your privates. The fact that the season virtually sold out so quickly, has a two week extension at the Menier until the end of August, and is now scheduled to transfer to the Vaudeville later in the year, tells its own story. One of the funniest things you can see on a stage!

The super production photos are by Alastair Muir.

Review – Company, Sheffield Crucible, 28th December 2011

CompanyCompany is a Stephen Sondheim musical from 1970, jam packed full of his best tunes, most of which I first heard when as a youngster I finally got to see Side by Side by Sondheim (I had a ticket when I was 16 but my mother grounded me and wouldn’t let me go to London by myself because of the risk of terrorist bombs at the time – boy was I furious.) So I’m delighted to have finally seen it, and to contextualise such wonders as “Getting Married Today” and “Barcelona”.

Daniel Evans This is a fantastic production of a fascinating and rewarding show. The premise is that 35 year old Bobby (or Robert, Bob, Robbo, depending which friend you are) is still unmarried and thinks he might just possibly be ready for it, despite his observations of those good and crazy people his friends, who took the problem of life and applied to it the one-size-fits-all solution of marriage, to a greater or lesser degree of success in each case.

According to the programme notes, Sondheim says the whole show takes place in the “now” and consists of various aspects of how Bobby sees his life and his friends. There isn’t a time movement; there is no “journey” as such. Whilst I wouldn’t dare tell Mr Sondheim what his show is about, Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt there was a definite time movement in the show.Claire Price In fact, Mrs C thought the final scene, when the friends are looming with their birthday cake but Bobby is nowhere to be seen, actually takes place the next year, on his next birthday. This comes after the epiphany of “Being Alive” where he actively yearns for life to treat him rough so that he can feel the emotional scars of life. His distancing himself from his friends shows that he doesn’t need them to advise him any more; this is a definite “moving on”. However, it did occur to me after the show – in 1970, Sondheim was still not a fully mature composer and musical-writer. If it had been written ten years later, “Being Alive” would have ended the first act, and the second would have showed Bobby’s married life coming a-cropper. As it stands, it’s almost too clean and easy a way to end to the show. But I’m not complaining.

Damian HumbleyIt’s an officially fabulous set – simple but perfect. The great size of the Crucible stage is just right to represent the expansiveness of Bobby’s New York loft apartment, with a sunken square area in the middle that also represents any other flat, or room, or bar; with bright light panels on the floor around the outside which flash the atmosphere of night spots and other locations; and there is also a balcony type walkway above the stage that doubles as Bobby’s entrance corridor and as other friends’ living spaces. It works really well.

Samantha Seager And at the heart of it all is Bobby, Daniel Evans, who was excellent when we saw him in the Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration show in Northampton last year. Sheffield is remarkably lucky to retain his services as Artistic Director of the Crucible and to have him perform so regularly. He gives one of those performances where you can’t stop watching him. Steven CreeEven when his friends are taking centre stage and acting out their married difficulties you feel you have to keep watching for his reactions to what’s going on. His vocal clarity is superb and he injects great passion and meaning into Sondheim’s admittedly already luxurious lyrics. Even when his character is being a bit of a bastard (i.e. in “Barcelona”) he still carries you with him. Wonderful stuff.

Anna-Jane CaseyAll the roles are extremely well performed and cast. Claire Price and Damian Humbley make a spiky Sarah and Harry whose relationship discrepancies get alleviated by resorting to martial arts; Samantha Seager and Steven Cree’s Susan and Peter are a David Birrellwell-confused couple who are happier together when divorced; Anna-Jane Casey and David Birrell are a very believable Jenny and David, married a bit longer perhaps and stuck in their ways, she trying drugs for the first time and disappointing him because he feels her enjoyment of it is faked for his benefit; Samantha Spiro’s Samantha Spiroriveting performance as the manic Amy whose “not getting married today” is matched beautifully by Jeremy Finch’s well-meaning Paul, who visibly crumbles when she says she doesn’t love him; the magnificent Francesca Annis’ worldly-wise performance as Joanne, supported but never controlled by Ian Gelder’s Jeremy Finchnicely underplayed Larry; and Lucy Montgomery, Kelly Price and Rosalie Craig as Bobby’s three girlfriends, any one of whom the cheeky devil could be bonking at any minute.

To add to our viewing pleasure, we were lucky enough to be in the centre of Row A, which means that so much of the acting is going on at your eye level, very close and with no obstacles. Francesca AnnisI love that feeling of being so physically involved in the play that the actors spit on you. One particularly memorable moment was when Robert’s friends all start ganging up on him, getting closer and closer with their pesky birthday cake, their Ian Gelderintimidating eyes starting to narrow as they get more and more intent on corrupting him with their marriedness. They were looking right at me – I could feel his pain. It’s no wonder the poor chap fled from them.

Lucy MontgomeryThere are some great musical highlights – the way Joanne sings “The Little Things You Do Together” in segments as it reflects the activity on stage; Marta’s broad sweep of urban survival in “Another Hundred People”; Amy’s hilarious but tragic Kelly Price“Getting Married Today”; Joanne’s savage “Ladies who Lunch”; and Bobby’s brilliant interpretation of “Being Alive”, as well as the show-stopping presentation of “Side by Side by Side”. Rosalie CraigBut it’s not just a series of highlights; the whole thing meshes together wonderfully as a whole, and you come away from the show feeling satisfied that you’ve experienced top quality solid entertainment. A super production, that deserves a life hereafter.