As is our usual practice, Mrs Chrisparkle and I spent a few days in London between Christmas and New Year to do some shopping in the sales, have some nice post-Christmas meals out, and – see some shows! Our first choice might seem a little unusual, but bear in mind three things: 1) Mrs C had never been to the beautiful Richmond Theatre before ; 2) ever since A Chorus Line I’ve followed the career of Harry Francis with great interest and 3) we couldn’t resist the prospect of seeing Robert Lindsay as Captain Hook.
It can be difficult to know quite where to pitch a panto. Do you do it purely for girls and boys (Oh no you don’t) or do you do it purely for the mums and dads (can get awkward with the more curious kids) or do you somehow pitch it between the two? This panto was definitely pitched primarily at the kids with a few nuances chucked in for the adults. A very different kettle of fish from Snow White at the London Palladium which we were to see a couple of days later!
No sooner does the curtain rise than we see a very adventurous and clean-cut young Peter Pan, played by Harry Francis, breaking and entering his way into the Darling household, as is his wont. Vikki Bebb’s Wendy is a very maternal young thing who’s willing to get into a few scrapes, but not too many because that wouldn’t be sufficiently responsible for her position in the family. Later on, when she wonders more and more whether she has a chance of romance with Peter, it goes right over his head; typical of a boy who never grows up. Mr Francis is on tremendous form, showing us some fantastic pirouettes as only he can, galvanising the audience into childlike excitement, and creating a very likeable and brave hero at the centre of all the action.
Whereas we’d all like to have Peter Pan as our friend, it’s much more likely that we’d end up with Smee instead; a fast and funny performance by Jon Clegg, with some clever impressions and great interaction with the audience. It’s true, we did all want to be in his gang. Such a shame that front-row Georgie never got to kiss his bum (you had to be there).
Isobel Hathaway is a spirited Tinkerbell who, appropriately, knows her own mind but also needs rescuing from time to time. Keisha Marina Atwell sings beautifully as Tiger Lily, although unfortunately the script doesn’t give her a lot to do. I also wished Rachel Stanley’s Mimi (The Magical Mermaid) had more involvement in the plot, because she’s a right funny lass who brightens up the stage whenever she’s on. Giving great support there’s also an incredibly good-looking young ensemble who sing and dance their way into our affections as well as creating a lot of nice comic moments too.
But it was Robert Lindsay whom we were all excited to see, in his panto debut; he clearly loves every minute of it, and his enjoyment transfers across to us in the audience with ease. He’s always been one of the best song and dance men in the business, so it’s rewarding to see him borrowing his Oliver and Me and My Girl appearances in renditions of You’ve Got to Pick a Pirate or Two, Doing the Pirate Walk (Oi) and – best of all, and which the audience really joined in with – Reviewing The Situation. We were grateful when he likened the young actor playing Michael to Jacob Rees-Mogg because he was only saying what we were all thinking. And he must be due some sort of acting award for looking so terrified as he was about to be gobbled up by what must be the fluffiest, cuddliest looking crocodile that stage engineering has ever created; they must have put the word out that it shouldn’t be too scary.
My only criticism of the production is that perennial problem of amplification. From where we sat in row E of the stalls the sound was hugely over-amplified, enough to make your ears crackle and make everything sound tinny. Can I suggest every sound engineer in the country to go and see Hamilton to find out how it should be done? Nevertheless, it was still a very enjoyable show and perfect for a family night out. It’s on until Sunday 6th January and I guarantee a good time!
P. S. You never know what will happen at a panto, particularly when you involve children. The most delightful moment came when Smee got four children out of the audience for the Old MacDonald sing-song. Having chatted and sung with them all, they played the old trick of only having three bags of gifts for four children, so as to create that moment of tension/sympathy/injustice, however you like to react to it. But no one was expecting the first boy instantly to give his bag to the second boy because he didn’t want his friend to miss out. A heart-warming lesson of true generosity for these grim times!
I had a really bad night’s sleep the night before we saw Barnum. And I know precisely why; even though we go to the theatre a lot (I’m very lucky, gentle reader, and I do try not to take it for granted), I couldn’t sleep simply because I was genuinely so excited to see the show again. I saw the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle back in 1981. Front stalls seats for £8.50… they charged £99.50 for the same seats for Dick Whittington last month. Michael Crawford was always one of my theatrical heroes, and he’s rarely taken to a role with such positivity and enthusiasm as that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. In 1996 Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a touring production at the Wycombe Swan starring Andrew O’Connor. I remember enjoying it; that’s all I remember.
Then a few years ago, Barnum was revived at Chichester, in a big top tent in the park, whilst the Festival Theatre was being refitted. A perfect use of the space, and a magnificent setting for the revival. PTB was played by Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald. Comparisons are odious, but he lacked the showbizzy pizzazz of Michael Crawford, and he couldn’t walk the tightrope. He did, however, invest the part with loads of emotion, so his affair with Jenny Lind, and his bereavement when his beloved Charity dies (oops, spoilers, sorry) were really moving.
So now we have a brand new Barnum, in that amazingly versatile theatre space, the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has been jiggered around so that it now feels like a proper big top. First thing: the staging is superb. Even just entering the theatre, you might bump into the ringmaster or some of his assistants; the bar/reception area recreates Barnum’s museum, with suitable pictures and artefacts; on the way out, his mermaid even shows up to direct us towards the egress. It all makes absolutely perfect scene-setting. Inside the auditorium, various cast members play card tricks with the audience, or create balloon animals for children of all ages; it was one of those shows where I was absolutely loving it before it had even begun.
Inevitably though, with this in the round staging, for every moment when part of the action is right in front of you and you have the best view in the house, there’s another moment when you simply can’t see what’s going on. We sat in seats A 84 & 85, from where you couldn’t see the balcony where Charity often looked down on the action and where (I believe) the blues singer opens the song Black and White. When Tom Thumb’s elephant appears, his right leg completely obliterated the view of the stage so we couldn’t see the final part of Bigger Isn’t Better – and also from that angle, you had no sense of how the theatrical illusion of the elephant worked. So, some friendly and helpful advice: if you haven’t booked yet, and there are still some tickets left for some shows, I’d definitely opt for seats numbers 20 – 36, no matter what row you choose. The Menier is one of the most intimate acting spaces I know, and even if there were a full house for Barnum it can’t seat more than 190 people for one show; so the atmosphere is still magic no matter where you sit.
In the title role is Marcus Brigstocke, whom we’ve seen twice doing stand-up and once in Spamalot, and he’s always a total joy to watch. But what would he make of the iconic role of Barnum, the supreme showman? As you would expect, he makes it his own. Wisely, there’s no attempt to impersonate Crawford, or to go over the top on the pizzazz. Mr Brigstocke’s Barnum is not so much the supreme showman, more the supreme businessman – and I don’t mean that unkindly. Much of the story revolves around Barnum’s building up of his circus/museum empire, assessing the benefits of one act over the next, working out how much they should be paid, going into partnerships with various other businessmen; and also getting his work/life balance right vis-à-vis his good lady wife. In these regards, Mr B is absolutely spot on. For the other aspects of Barnum’s character, I found him perhaps a little staid, a little respectable. I’m not sure he’d ever run away to join the circus, but he’d definitely be their Operations Manager. Credit where it’s due though; on the show we saw, he performed the tightrope trick perfectly, so kudos to him for that, given he’s quite a big bloke!
The character of Barnum has a lot of singing to do, and I’d say that Mr Brigstocke’s singing voice has come a long way since we saw him in Spamalot. Technically, it’s a really demanding role and challenges the performer’s vocal dexterity. For example, he has to enunciate the Museum Song, a patter song with so many words per minute that most people would need a lie down after it. I couldn’t work out whether it was Mr Brigstocke’s performance, or the Menier’s sound system, but quite a lot of it got, shall we say, lost in action. But I’ve no wish to be mean, I really enjoyed Mr Brigstocke as Barnum, he had an avuncular charm and great interaction with the audience; and we got to shake his hand as part of his political rally.
The rest of the cast are outstanding, in all departments. Laura Pitt-Pulford is as splendid as you would imagine as Chairy Barnum, with her beautiful singing voice complimenting perfectly the sentiments of The Colours of My Life, I Like Your Style (by the way, how come it became I liked your style?) and my own favourite, One Brick at a Time. She also teased out all the emotion of the role; you could have heard the legendary pin drop – or indeed, her heart break – when she realised that her Taylor was staying behind to play the jackdaw with the Swedish nightingale. Talking of whom, Celinde Schoemaker is brilliant as Jenny Lind; captivatingly beautiful, an extraordinary voice and really expressing that spoilt, demanding and tiresome character that lurked beneath. The staging of Love Makes Such Fools of us All, within a picture frame, was both beautiful and tragic to witness. Tupele Dorgu is an amusingly young looking Joice Heth – almost throwing Barnum’s humbug in our face to think that she could be 160 years old – and I loved her renditions of Black and White and especially Thank God I’m Old, which I reckon is one of the funniest songs in musical theatre. I remember how when I saw the Palladium production, “Thank God I’m Old” really made the late Dowager laugh her head off; which, if you ever knew her, gentle reader, may well come as quite a surprise.
I was delighted to see one of my favourite performers, Harry Francis, as Tom Thumb; having seen him dance his way through A Chorus Line, Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof, I knew he’d bring something special to this show. I bet no other Tom Thumb has ever performed so many perfect pirouettes, executed brilliantly without travelling from the start position. It was also great to see another fantastic dancer, Danny Collins, so amazing as Dr Jekyll a couple of years ago, as Amos Scudder. Dominic Owen plays the ringmaster more like one of the lads than the boss, which is an interesting way of looking at the role, and his curious Mr Bailey at the end was a picture of awe and wonderment at the wonderful world of circus, rather than the hard-nosed businessman I’ve seen before. The ensemble are vivacious and entertaining, with some great circus performers as well as the musical theatre types. Amongst them I reckon young Ainsley Hall Ricketts is going to be One To Watch for the future! I almost forgot to mention Rebecca Howell’s choreography, which would have been most remiss of me. Funny, exhilarating, inventive, joyful; it matched the music and the story perfectly and was a sheer delight.
It wasn’t until the final song – Join The Circus – was starting up that I remembered quite how much significance and emotion I, personally, invest in Barnum the show. Basically, I’d forgotten how much it reminded me of my old mum; she who was an enormous Michael Crawford fan, she who found the character of Joice Heth so hilarious. Never underestimate the power of the theatre to stir the emotions and trigger the nostalgia button; nor ever underestimate the power of a show tune to get the old waterworks flowing. By the time we were putting our coats on to brave the Southwark winter, I found the tears were fair coursin’ down my cheeks, so they were. Now I wasn’t expecting that!
It wasn’t perfect; few things are. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. No wonder I couldn’t sleep the night before. If you ever dreamed of running away and joining a troupe of acrobats and clowns, this is the show for you. If you love immersive theatre where the action comes up right close to you, this is also the show for you. It runs until 3rd March and I’d be thrilled to go again, if you’ve got a spare ticket.
Sometimes you look at a theatre’s listings for the season ahead and a show stands out like a beacon of must-seeishness. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof twice before; once with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria, starring the iconic Topol as Tevye, and once with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, starring Paul Michael Glaser (and damn fine he was too.) Professor and Mrs Plum (who accompanied us on our Chichester weekend) advised us that they’d seen it on Broadway starring Harvey Fierstein. Gosh! I bet he was amazing.
I’m sure you know the background to this musical. It’s based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem about Tevye and his daughters published in 1894. The author was born in present-day Ukraine, and moved to New York City after witnessing the violence against Jews in southern Russia in 1905. The stories have inspired plays, TV programmes and movies over the years – but none so prominent as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye is the village milkman, with his own philosophy of life that is heavily based on his deep but informal relationship with God, with whom he chats all the time. An upholder and adherent of Tradition, the musical shows you how Tevye copes having daughters who know their own mind and are not afraid to carve out their own way of life. Will he stick with the time-honoured traditions, or will he bend the rules to accommodate their wishes? And what chance does tradition have when it’s up against the outside world of the Czar’s Russia and the violent pogroms of the time?
Sometimes at a show you get that feeling about ten minutes into it when you say to yourself “Wow, I am really loving this!” Gentle reader, I got that feeling. And once that happens you can just sit back and wallow in the pleasure of the whole thing. With all the traditional hallmarks of his Sheffield successes already chalked up, Daniel Evans’ first big show for Chichester – choreography by Alistair David, set design by Lez Brotherston, and a fantastic band courtesy of Tom Brady – is every bit as good as you could possibly dream it might be.
That’s not to say that in any way it shies away from the harshness of the reality of Tevye’s life and the village of Anatevka. If anything, this was the least saccharine portrayal of their day to day existence I’ve seen. The disruption to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration, for instance, stops you dead in your tracks with its mindless cruelty. When the villagers are informed that they will have to leave everything and go away, their desolation is palpable. But so much of the strength of the show comes from that balance of emotions between the sweet and the sour. The strongest moments (and songs) combine that hankering after something you just can’t have (If I were a Rich Man), and making the best of the here and now (To Life). Add to that the blind optimism of Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Miracle of Miracles plus the wistfulness of Do You Love Me and Sunrise, Sunset and you have one of the strongest scores in the history of musicals. Obvious, I know, but it occurred to me that, every time you hear Sunrise, Sunset, you’re just a little – significantly – older than the last time you heard it. My reaction to the stunning performance it receives in this production was to feel remarkably mortal. But when some aspect of a show pulls you up short and makes you question your own reality, you know theatre is doing its job properly.
The production is notable for some mind-boggling staging moments. The Fruma-Sarah dream sequence is extraordinary, with the spectral old biddy hovering large above the bed like a Jewish Sword of Damocles, the eerie presence of an army of demonic ghosts, and at one stage I thought the entire theatre was going to go up in flames! It’s a breathtakingly brilliant scene. Also stunning, but in a much more reflective way, was how the backstage opened up during the Sabbath Prayer so that you could see the other households in the village all following the same tradition; that was extremely effective and rather moving.
Of course, a huge part of the attraction for this particular production is the inspired casting of Omid Djalili as Tevye. He’s a very accomplished stand-up comic – we’ve loved him both times we’ve seen him – who involves uninhibited physicality as part of his humour. He was always going to be perfect in this role and boy does he not disappoint. From the moment you first see him, he’s got that glint in his eye that says we’ve gotta show to do and we’re all gonna have fun whilst never ever coming out of character or indeed turning Tevye into any kind of pantomime.
In fact, for a larger-than-life comedian, it’s astounding how ordinary and normal he presents the character – which is great, because it’s so much easier for the audience to identify with him. He is a real man, with real problems but also a real sense of fun. As you would imagine, he absolutely made If I Were a Rich Man his own, and every time he comes on he lights up the stage. Make no mistake; when he disowns Chava for marrying the Christian Fyedka, his face is like thunder and his fury is undeniable – this is a man pushed to the limit and, much as it grieves him, he is determined to stand by his God rather than his daughter. This unfatherly reaction is uncomfortable for the audience. Apparently not every problem can be solved by a show tune. He is desperate to put the past behind them; and we can see him start to soften when he reminds Tzeitel to say “and God be with you” when she and Chava part; but he never gives in. Stubborn? Pious? Simply human? Tevye has complex emotions and beliefs which Mr Djalili explores and expresses magnificently.
There’s also a tremendous performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman as Golde; funny, wry, spirited, bossy but essentially extremely kind-hearted, holding the household together whilst Tevye’s out working, or chewing the cud with God, or celebrating with Lazar Wolf. And of course she has a stunning voice that comes across so strongly, especially in the beautiful Sabbath Prayer sequence. Simbi Akande, Emma Kingston and Rose Shaloo make a great trio of daughters, presenting their father with challenge after challenge; they give us a fresh and funny Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel sings a spine-tingling rendition of Far From the Home that I Love.
I barely recognised the wonderful Liza Sadovy as Yente; as always, she gives the role a feisty and humorous characterisation. And I loved Jos Slovick’s Motel performing Miracle of Miracles – a couple of minutes of sheer reckless joy in what you sense is otherwise a fairly joyless life. Louis Maskell’s Perchik has just the right amount of confident and disdainful swagger to impress as the intellectual rebel without being a pain in the backside; and you just know that life is nevertheless going to teach him a thing or two as time goes on. And it was great to see Harry Francis again, as the rabbi’s son Mendel, brilliantly integrating outstandingly skilful dance moves into the big numbers.
It’s a huge cast, and everyone performs with absolute commitment and a sense of true enjoyment. It’s already been extended by a week, so the show now runs until 2nd September – but that’s surely not going to be the last we see of it? A credit to all involved. We all loved it.
Forgive me Father for I have sinned; it’s been seven weeks since my last visit to A Chorus Line. All those excited #ACLoholic tweets crossing back and forth cyberspace were making me jealous, but I knew I was pushing my luck suggesting yet another trip with Mrs Chrisparkle. It’s not that she doesn’t love it – it’s just that she has a more balanced (i.e sane) outlook than me. Thus it was that yesterday I went to the matinee with my 16 year old Godson, Bad Wolf (it’s his twitter name, who am I to judge?)
Love for A Chorus Line was instilled in him through the placenta as his mother adores the show; she was introduced to it by her husband who, as a teenager, saw it with me four times during its run at Drury Lane. As Bad Wolf and I enjoyed our pre-theatre lunch in Bella Italia across the street from the Palladium, I asked, “so, are you looking forward to the show then?” He eyed me with teenage derision. “It’s A Chorus Line, isn’t it?” Then he shrugged his shoulders with that “don’t you know anything” look. I took that to mean, “yes I’m looking forward to it enormously Chris and thank you very much for treating me to this nice lunch.”
If you’re looking for an impartial, balanced review of A Chorus Line then I’m afraid you won’t find it here. If you check back on my blogs of our February and June visits, you’ll see how deeply rooted this show is in my soul, and if I were to pick away at any perceived structural flaws, self-indulgent aspects or character criticisms, then I might as well tear my own arm off. And I’m not going to do that. Trust me when I say it is the American Musical Supreme, but more than that, it’s an examination – nay celebration – of vulnerable people under pressure coming to terms with their careers, their relationships, their pasts, their futures, their lives. Add in Marvin Hamlisch’s incredible score, Michael Bennett’s exhilarating choreography and the cast’s superb talent and you’ve got an unforgettable work of theatrical art to cherish.
But sadly, it’s going to close early. A few weeks ago, Mrs C and I took a sneaky week’s Mediterranean cruise, and we were discussing theatre with our dining companions one evening, when I mentioned how fond I was of A Chorus Line. “Ach,” said our softly spoken Scottish friend, “it’s closin’ earrrly ‘cos apparently it’s no’ verry guid”. The poor woman didn’t know what had hit her. “Au contraire, it’s brilliant”, I remonstrated swiftly and sternly; “it’s a fantastic revival, probably better than the original. The main problem is the Palladium is such a huge theatre, and there’s not a lot of money out there at the moment. It’s just another sign of the times, Miss Jones.” I’m not sure she got my Blood Brothers reference.
So when Bad Wolf and I emerged into the stalls on Wednesday afternoon I was half-expecting the place to be empty. Not a bit of it. The centre stalls block appeared to be fully booked, the side stalls were reasonably full and from what I could see the Royal Circle was packed too. Being a midweek matinee, Pensioner Power was out in force; and, without for a moment suggesting any blanket attributes to a sector of the community, there was an awful lot of sweet paper rustling and low-level chit-chat throughout the afternoon. How fondly I recall the happy days of the mid-70s when well-to-do elderly ladies came to the Drury Lane to see that “nice” musical A Chorus Line, and spent the evening tutting with disgust at mentions of tits, ass, gonorrhoea, “I’d be hard” and “I looked like a f***ing nurse”. Today they seem to take that in their stride, if they can hear the words above the chewing clacking dentures.
Every performance of Chorus Line is different – cast members change emphases, cover performers do it slightly differently, audience reactions very enormously. When we saw it in June I was amazed that, at the moment when the lights dim at the end of the show, Zach having chosen his successful 8-strong chorus, there was no round of applause. Silence. Incredible! Never seen that before. Not so on Wednesday, when that moment (rightly) got a big round of applause – as it nearly always does. However, then, when the individual cast members come out and take their initial personal bow before going into the big “One” routine, the whole audience clapped along regularly to the rhythm of the tune, somewhat panto-esque, rather than just clapping each performer. I’ve never experienced that before either.
This audience also reacted well to the show’s “gasp” moments. The main one is during that final elimination scene when Diana gets called forward and then Zach says “I’m wrong, back in line”. That got a great gasp. But there was also a very appreciative gasp at the tumbling sequence in Adam Salter’s absolutely spot-on performance of “I Can Do That”; and also during that wonderful glitzy performance of “One” just before the final chorus – that really high visual impact moment when the lights strengthen and line is in full view at the back of the stage – it was just superb.
It’s always so satisfying to see my favourite show in such capable and responsible hands. I have now seen many of the performers play their roles for a third time and they are so comfortable in those characters’ skins. I’ve already mentioned Adam Salter’s Mike, a really engaging performance of a character who is only lightly fleshed out in the text, but who, despite having the most self-confident dance routine has this surprising underlying anxiety (“I’d like to tell you to start at the end”). Ed Currie’s Bobby is now about as good as it gets, revealing the character’s quirkiness and complete shamelessness. When he’s talking about the kid whom he spray-painted and had to be taken to hospital, you got an increased insight into the weirdness of what he did by some subtle hand gestures – I’m guessing it wasn’t just the soles of his feet that were involved. And hat’s off to him for playing the role in that jumper on one of the hottest days of the year. Bobby really is quite a weirdo in many ways, and I think he might terrify you in real life, but Mr Currie gives the character so much warmth that it’s a delight to witness.
When Bad Wolf and I were talking about the show beforehand, we both agreed that “Sing” is probably our least favourite number, because of its potential to irritate; just slightly. But it occurred to me whilst watching it, that it must be extraordinarily demanding for its performers. You need the verbal dexterity of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, coupled with immaculate comedy timing and, from Kristine, the ability to sing credibly off-key. Frances Dee plays Kristine with superb control and it’s wonderful to watch. We don’t know much about Kristine and Al apart from the little secrets they reveal during “Hello Twelve…” Al’s enigmatic “Dad would take Mum to Roseland, she’d come home with her shoes in her hand” is one of the most evocative lines in the show and you never really quite know what to make of it. Simon Hardwick gives the character real substance by superbly contrasting the more private and thoughtful aspects of Al with his macho Bronx façade – great stuff.
Harry Francis is still marvellous as the young Mark, trying so hard to make a good impression, the perfect blend of exuberance and embarrassment; and I still can’t get over what a great dancer he is. Even Bad Wolf spoke highly of his skills. Daisy Maywood is now a real revelation as Bebe. She performed At The Ballet with more emotion in that role than I have ever seen. It was such a thoughtful and reflective account of Bebe’s relationship with her mother – I got a sense that this Bebe was really wounded by her family life and that the scars haven’t healed yet. And I’m still loving Gary Watson’s Don recollecting his youthful experience with Lola Latores – when she drives up in her big pink Cadillac convertible and smiles you just can’t help smiling along with him. Supersub Michael Steedon was playing Paul at this performance – we’d seen him on our previous visit and he really impressed me. This time he was a complete star. It’s such a skilful performance of Paul’s monologue; assertive, clear, brave, proud – but when he breaks down at the end, the contrast is so strong and moving that, again, I got the tears, dammit. And I was additionally moved by the little shriek of sudden pain that accompanied Paul’s fall – something that’s normally done silently – that made it all the more realistic.
It was the first time I’d seen Jon Tsouras as Greg – he’s normally the boy with the headband who refuses to look up. Andy Rees, who normally plays Greg, is absolutely brilliant in the role; but Mr Tsouras puts a fascinatingly different slant on some of Greg’s material. His Greg is very honest, perhaps less of a show-off than others I have seen, and his account of feeling Sally Ketchum’s boobs was laugh-out-loud convincing. This is a very realistic, less bravado-fuelled, more insightful Greg and I really enjoyed his performance. This was also the first time I’ve seen Katy Hards as Diana. A demanding role, I particularly enjoyed her performance of Nothing, which was both funny and moving in all the right places. And, I’m not sure, but I think it was Genevieve Nicole who was playing Vicki, one of the characters to be eliminated early; her unruly dance steps were hilarious!
The big guns are still going great as well – John Partridge’s Zach was having a slightly more belligerent day, he wasn’t going to let anyone get away with anything. It’s down step, pivot step, not pivot step, pivot step for chrissake! He plays the role with so much conviction and attack, that even just hearing his voice from the back of the auditorium it’s one of the best acting performances you’ll ever be lucky enough to experience. He can invest the word “relax” with unnerving overtones – it could almost be the last words you hear before the Sinister Doctor Zach administers your fatal drug overdose. His sparring with Scarlett Strallen’s Cassie was on absolutely top form, and of course he completely shines in the finale. Miss Strallen was mesmerising in The Music and The Mirror, as usual, and I love the way she copes with Zach and their past relationship; the agony of the memory chokes her voice up and her pain is palpable.
Honestly, what’s not to love? As Harold Hobson said in the Sunday Times in 1975, it’s a rare, devastating, joyous, astonishing stunner and I can’t see any reason to change that opinion. Funny, sad and human to its core and I’m honoured to have seen it again. You’ve got until 31st August to see it too.
A few months ago – on 23rd February to be precise – Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see A Chorus Line at the Palladium. It was the first non-preview Saturday night. I loved it, as I knew I would, having loved it ever since as a slightly insecure 16 year old I sat, by myself, in Row C of the stalls at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and became instantly captivated by this life-enhancing show that taught me so much about, well, everything really. £5.50 that ticket cost me; I must have saved up for weeks. One of the best investments I ever made.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, I’ve kept the faith with this show basically all my life, seeing it not only in London, but also in Oxford, Sheffield and on Broadway. February’s trip was my 12th time of seeing it – and Mrs C’s 4th, bless her. She loves the show too – maybe not quite as fanatically as me. I guess we all have our own definition of “what I did for love”. Thanks to the kindness of a Third Party whom I shall not name – but if you’re reading this, thanks so much! – on Saturday we returned to see it again.
I’ve always been a “front stalls” man; that’s my default setting. But for this 13th viewing of A Chorus Line, we sat in the dress circle, and I’ve never seen the show from this angle before. It’s very impressive! It goes without saying that from the dress circle (Row B) you get a fantastic view of the entire stage. Even though you’re further back and you can’t see the sweat and the spit, there are other aspects of onstage activity that become more apparent. Specific elements of the dance; for example, Diana’s thumping tap moves, in an attempt to make some kind of noise with her sneakers, came across as really funny; and you could see that the accidental twist that results in an injury to one of the dancers was executed absolutely perfectly. The view also brought out the anxiety and buzz of the dancers mingling stage right, whilst they’re waiting for Larry to call them on to dance, or for Zach to choose them for his final seventeen. Absolute big up at this point to Georgie Ashford for a fabulous performance as Trisha during that first number. The resigned crestfallen looks from the dancers not chosen, somehow clearer from above, was something I had never really appreciated before.
If anything, the show is even better than three months ago. Everything flows so naturally and seamlessly. The voices are perfect, the dance moves stupendous. I’ve always loved Michael Bennett’s original choreography, it’s so eloquent yet subtle in comparison with Bob Fosse’s brash showmanship that most other people seemed to prefer at the time. Despite the fact that, as Cassie says, “they’re all special”, some roles are still seen as “starrier” than others and they’re all still sublimely performed. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt especially now really excels herself as Diana. She has taken the song “Nothing” and totally made it her own. With some quirky vocal expression and changes of pace she tells the story of that stupid course and the dreadful Mr Karp with such passion that we can see how that experience has strengthened Diana and shaped the way she copes with life’s problems today. Her “What I Did For Love” still hits home with its plaintive honesty and the whole cast’s backing singing is just superb – major goosebump time.
John Partridge continues to invest Zach with a humanity I’ve not seen in previous actors’ interpretations. His questioning technique of the dancers is rarely straightforward – at times he’s sly, provocative, humorous, compassionate, irate; and his questions in turn seem to elicit a more emotional response from the auditionee. His stage presence is just astounding, and he’s still loving that big number at the end. When Larry asks Sheila for her “I love to dance smile”, it’s Mr Partridge to whom they should look for inspiration.
As Cassie, I loved Scarlett Strallen’s heightened emotions when she and Zach are raking over the old coals of their former relationship; I’ve never heard a Cassie quite so outraged by Zach’s pig-headed selfishness. She’s got to keep on the right side of him because she wants the job, but there are some things she’s just not going to let him get away with! The two actors work together incredibly well in those scenes. And Leigh Zimmermann’s Sheila is still a brilliant portrayal of the slightly temperamental, definitely cynical, at heart vulnerable, brassy lady who knows there aren’t many years left that she can continue to be a chorus cutie. Her last look to Zach still speaks volumes.
The whole cast are superb, but I wanted to mention a few others that I didn’t talk about last time. There’s a terrifically solid and honest performance by Gary Watson as Don, who really brings his experience with Lola Latores and her twin forty-fours to life; it’s fun to imagine the two of them zooming off into the sunset in her pink Cadillac. I also loved the way he reacted to the final casting decision – absolutely right for that character. Ed Currie seems to have now really got to the heart of Bobby, “real weird” in that nerdy jumper, outrageously sending up the wackier aspects of his character but in an absolutely credible way. Frances Dee is a wonderfully out of tune Kristine, no pantomime character this but a real person who genuinely gets uptight through nerves; and Alastair Postlethwaite, who we thought would be destined for great things after seeing him in So You Think You Can Dance, is giving Larry a real character dimension; not just the assistant but someone who has to have a proper working relationship with Zach and with whom you sense he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye. Andy Rees is still a hugely entertaining Greg, and Harry Francis’ Mark – the character I always identified with when I was young – is a brilliant combination of youthful exuberance and awkward embarrassment. His dance skill is astonishing; you sense he could dance rings round the others given half a chance.
In the performance we saw, the role of Paul, in many ways the most sympathetic and moving role in the show, was played by Michael Steedon. Paul has a stunningly written monologue to perform, and every Paul plays it slightly differently, obviously drawing on the actor’s own insights and experience. Mr Steedon is absolutely one of the best. Beautifully paced, sincere; I know that speech like the back of my hand and still it brought tears to my eyes.
A funny thing happened halfway through the show – everything stopped! Judy had just confessed to kissing other girls as a rehearsal for when she wanted to start kissing guys when all the lights went out. Everything went silent; a little torch appeared at the sides of the stage and you heard the shuffle off of retreating dancers. Then, in a tone of immaculate calm, a disembodied voice announced that due to a technical issue they’d had to suspend the show and would get it going again as soon as possible. Well it’s not often that a number literally stops the show! I felt the lighting had gone awry in the “Mother” sequence beforehand; I don’t know if that was the cause. Anyway, for the first time, A Chorus Line actually had an interval! It was about ten minutes before they resumed the show, picking up precisely from where they had left off; and huge admiration to Andy Rees for getting straight back in with Greg’s “Hard” routine without a flicker of anything being wrong. That must have been quite nerve-racking.
One other observation about this production of A Chorus Line is that I really like the fact that we now get an additional curtain call at the end. It was always a source of frustration to the teenage me that the last we saw of the performers was when the lights faded on the high kicks at the end of “One” – you never really felt you were given the opportunity fully to express your appreciation. Apart from the very last night in 1979, that is, when the lights went back up at the end of the show to reveal a stage and auditorium full of weeping cast and aficionados. Now, once the lights have faded, the dancers remain on stage one more time for a proper curtain call. Result: satisfaction all round.
Going back to see it again has satisfied me that the cast are still looking after the show wonderfully well – it’s all in very safe hands. Trouble is, now I’m going to have to go yet again. I knew I’d have to!
Probably not so much of a review, more a reverie…anyone who knows me well – especially if you’ve known me for many years – will know that A Chorus Line is my favourite show of all time. I first saw it featuring the Toronto cast when I was 16 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 29th December 1976 (matinee – yes I am that anal) and before I had reached 17 the following April I had seen it twice more. By the time the run closed I had seen it 8 times, including the last night. I remember spectacular, moving performances from the British cast – including Diane Langton, Michael Staniforth, Petra Siniawski, Geraldine Gardner, Stephen Tate, and many others. Alas some of them are no longer with us. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to see a touring production in Oxford in 1987 (Cassie played by Caroline O’Connor, Maggie was a 19-year-old Ruthie Henshall); there was a production about ten years ago (if not more) at the Sheffield Crucible; and then Mrs C and I saw it in New York in 2008 during a week’s holiday. And now, it has come back to London, and the prospect of seeing it again made me bristle with excitement.
You know the basic story of this show, don’t you? It’s an audition for eight places in the chorus to back the star in some unnamed Broadway musical. Zach the director has the unenviable task of whittling down the 24 or so wannabes to a shortlist of 17, then the final eight. Their personalities are dissected; their dance abilities scrutinised; their attitudes tested. At first, you join in with the selection process, and pick who you would like to get through. But at some point, your admiration for them all means you cannot choose between them, and you just will them all to succeed. My attitude to this show has never changed, all through the decades. It takes young, ambitious and talented dancers who otherwise never get to shine on stage, and brings them into the full gaze of “the line”, thereby giving them a character voice they don’t normally get and exposing the fragility of their lives and careers. It’s full of respect and understanding, and it taught the young me an awful lot about life and people. It’s also very funny, very sad and has the most wonderful expressive choreography by the late Michael Bennett. The songs are showstoppers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s favourite show.
So you can understand that I have some difficulty trying to observe this show and describe it reasonably impartially! What I am genuinely delighted is that it remains more or less precisely the same as it was nearly forty years ago, and that it can still pack out the Palladium and get a standing ovation. Mind you, I’m sure that the audience – first Saturday evening after press night – was full of fans from the old days. As far as I could tell, the choreography and costumes were unchanged, the set (which is just a few mirrors and a sparkly backdrop at the end) is the same, the songs are the same, and there are just a few minor changes to the text.
Those changes are very interesting in themselves. When Judy (a delightfully dotty and heart-warming performance by Lucy Jane Adcock) first introduces herself, she says her name is Judy Turner, but “my real name is Tina Turner!” Cue a “ta-da!” pose and affectionate laughter. This has been modernised from the 1970s’ “my real name is Lana Turner!” Same “ta-da!” pose. I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, today I don’t suppose many theatregoers will be overly moved by likening someone to a film actress who died aged 74 in 1995. However, the show is full of other references to stars of yesteryear – Troy Donohue (died 2001), Steve McQueen (died 1980), George Hamilton (still alive at 73), Robert Goulet (died 2007), Maria Tallchief (still alive at 88). I’m not sure why poor Lana Turner has been kicked into touch whilst the others are still part of the show.
Another text change shows a significant movement in what’s considered humorous material. In the sequence “And….”, Val originally sang, “Orphan at 3, Orphan at 3, Mother and Dad both gone, Raised by a sweet ex-con, Tied up and raped at 7, Seriously, Seriously, Nothing too obscene, I’d better keep it clean”. In this production, the “tied up and raped at 7” line had been replaced by something much more anodyne (I’m afraid I can’t remember the replacement line) but which didn’t really make sense when she went on to say “nothing too obscene” – as the replacement line hadn’t been obscene at all. I guess the powers that be just think that kind of reference is no longer appropriate in the 21st century.
The other change – which kind of makes sense – is that the dancers no longer give the year in which they were born in their introduction. In the first production, they were all born in the early 1950s. That would sound odd to today’s audience, even though the setting makes it clear that we are in 1975. In the Oxford production, if I remember rightly, they brought forward the years by about ten so that it still sounded believable. I think in the Sheffield production they went back to the 1950s birth dates – and at the Palladium, they just say I was born April 13th (or whatever) and I’m 25 (or whatever). The trouble with that is that Zach doesn’t really want to know the birth date – after all, he’s not going to buy them a birthday card or check their horoscope – he just wants to know their age. So the birth date part of this sequence, rather like committing suicide in Buffalo, is redundant.
Apart from that, it very much is the original article. I’m sure back in the old days it used to run for just over 2 hours 10 minutes, but they seem to have shaved five minutes off it now. Maybe they’re dancing a little faster! There’s still no interval – something that Mrs C reminds me I am normally very critical of in other shows – but for me it is completely appropriate that it runs straight through without stopping, as any break would arrest the momentum of the show. Anyway I think it was ground-breaking at the time to have no interval. Any production team nowadays, who simply want to wrap up and go home early, go for the “no-interval” option.
It’s a great cast of superb dancers and actors – I understand they all had to attend “boot camp” held by Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to get into shape before rehearsals started, and it shows. One of the great things about A Chorus Line is that it is “the ensemble show par excellence”. Misleadingly the producers revealed early on who would be performing the “star roles” of Zach, Cassie, Sheila and Diana, which somewhat misses the point of the show itself – as Cassie herself says “we’re all special. He’s special – she’s special. And Sheila, and Richie and Connie. They’re all special.” However, let’s take those star roles first.
John Partridge is Zach the director. Of all the Zachs I’ve seen, he feels far and away the most closely associated with the rest of the dancers. Sometimes Zach can be aloof to the point of hostility, but this Zach works with the dancers’ responses with the greatest sense of understanding and appreciation that I can remember – and it really benefits as a result. Zach’s still a rather scary powerhouse of directorial pizzazz; you wouldn’t choose to waste his time. But I found his reading of the role really credible. It’s full of energy and authority; and when he joins the rest of the cast for the One Singular Sensation closing number, you have never seen a performer look so happy to be out there on stage. Some friends also went to see the same performance – they booked separately and so we didn’t sit together – and they were seated alongside Mr Partridge at the back of the theatre, as his voice booms mystically from the dark. Apparently he genuinely checks all the characters against their resumés as the show progresses. Who knew?
Scarlett Strallen is Cassie – and first of all I must say that she performs The Music and The Mirror with extraordinary artistry and movement; I really loved it. She can pop the hip for me anytime. Her painful recollections of a career that never took off are movingly relived, and the “dirty linen” sequence when she and Zach pick over the remains of their previous relationship has tangible bitterness and disappointment. Again, another superb performance.
Sheila is played by Leigh Zimmermann, whom we last saw many years ago in Susan Stroman’s Contact. Perfect casting for the seen-it-all, done-it-all, world-weary but still with a mischievous sparkle, Sheila. When she opens up her heart in At The Ballet you feel like it’s a genuine insight into the parts of her character she wants kept locked up. And her last distant look at Zach, at the end of the show, says everything about ambition, bravery, distress and sadness. Really beautifully done.
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is Diana, and something of a revelation, as I’ve not seen her before and she’s really terrific! She put her heart and soul into “Nothing” (Mrs C’s favourite number in the show) and she made it a real victory song. Endearing, quirky; and when she is called back in line at the end after Zach makes a mistake, everyone gasps. Of course, it falls to Diana to sing “What I Did For Love”, which is NOT about Zach and Cassie’s relationship as Richard Attenborough’s travesty of a film would have you believe, but is the simple answer to “what do you do when you can no longer dance”. She sings it beautifully – and the searing chorus that builds up around her is just magical. A brilliant performance.
But the whole cast turn in wonderful performances. For example, I loved Vicki Lee Taylor’s Maggie – a voice of crystal clarity, and who invests Maggie’s role in At The Ballet with such empathy and understanding – outstandingly good. Adam Salter’s Mike is called on to do the acrobatic “I Can Do That” early on, and it’s a wonderfully funny and credible performance. You really do believe he didn’t like his mates calling him Twinkletoes. Andy Rees plays Greg with terrific comic timing – it’s a gift of a role, of course, but all the stuff about being (if I may be so direct, gentle reader) “hard” on the bus was really superbly done. I very much liked Harry Francis as Mark. That was the role I always associated myself with, when I were a lad. He brought all the necessary youth and embarrassing earnestness in his wish to do really well in his first major job. He’s also an amazing dancer. There’s a sequence in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…” where he leads an arrow-shaped phalanx of dancers darting left and right across the stage, in true show-off Michael Bennett style, and he does it brilliantly. And James T Lane’s Richie is a little powerhouse of energy and humour, and his (again turn away if you’re likely to be offended) “Shit Richie” chorus was fantastic. I could be here all day talking about every member of the cast – and frankly they would all deserve it.
So I am thrilled to see A Chorus Line back on the London stage after 34 years, and in a production that is a credit to that amazing original creative team, nearly all of whom have shuffled off to that great audition in the sky. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, and I’m sure that won’t be the last time I go to see it!
PS On the way out of the theatre, there was a cameraman and a sound boom man who said they were making a documentary for NBC about the late Marvin Hamlisch. Basically, they were asking for people to sing a snatch of a Hamlisch song for their programme. So guess who got to do a bit of their “Dance Ten Looks Three” routine? I might be on the telly!