Review – Lost Musicals presents Auntie Mame, RADA Studios, 14th July 2019

Auntie MameFirst of all, hurrah for the return of Lost Musicals! We haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since 2013, and I’ve missed them! Looking back, we saw one “lost musical” every year from 2006 to 2013, and it’s a unique form of theatrical entertainment. Taking a show that, for whatever reason, has largely been forgotten despite its merit and quality, a group of dinner-jacketed/posh-frocked actors sit on a row of chairs at the back of the stage, coming forward with their neatly bound, colourfully highlighted scripts to perform it with no scenery but with abundant energy and fantastic characterisations. Each performance is introduced by director Ian Marshall Fisher, with some sneaky and fascinating facts about the original production; and, because a musical isn’t a musical without music, we would be joined by an overworked pianist, gamely reproducing a complete orchestral accompaniment to the entire show.

Elizabeth CounsellThis year, Lost Musicals have dug up a Lost Play (therefore, no pianist). Auntie Mame, a highly successful production starring Rosalind Russell, appeared at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in 1956 and ran for two years. It subsequently opened at the Adelphi in London in 1959 with Beatrice Lillie as the eponymous aunt. But, since then, not a peep. Nevertheless, as the basis of the very successful musical, Mame, which starred Angela Lansbury on Broadway and Ginger Rogers in London, this was a pretty good choice for their next production.

James VaughanWritten by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, it’s an adaptation of Patrick Dennis’ novel, also called Auntie Mame, about the escapades of a boy growing up with his glamorous and outrageous aunt after his own father had died. In the play, young Patrick is exposed to New York Society Parties, unconventional education practices, and suitable and unsuitable suitors, whilst Mame, who loses everything in the Wall Street Crash, is hopeless at ordinary jobs until she meets the wealthy Beauregard Burnside from a Georgia plantation, marries him and goes on a (very) extended honeymoon. When Beau falls to his death taking a snapshot, she returns to discover that Patrick is now a snob and engaged to a revoltingly shallow girl from an obnoxiously racist family. Fortunately, he sees the light and it all ends well.

Myra SandsIt shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how successful the original production was, that this is a hugely enjoyable play. Very funny, with great characters, a sprawling outlook, and tongue fairly firmly placed in cheek most of the way. Mame herself is a strongly, wittily written part; someone who knows precisely where her strengths lie and where they don’t, an intricate mix of selfless and selfish, but always with a kind heart and an unerring knack of knowing what’s right. In this semi-staged production, she was played by the marvellous Elizabeth Counsell, whom I first saw in Marc Camoletti’s Happy Birthday at the Apollo in 1979; Ms Counsell gives Mame just the right dash of cheekiness, exasperation, kindness and that knowing look.

Rebekah HindsAnother stalwart of the Lost Musicals productions, James Vaughan, plays a whole bunch of roles, including Mame’s winning suitor Beauregard (not many Beauregards born nowadays), the slimeball ghost writer Brian O’Bannion, and the short-tempered Stage Manager. Mr Vaughan always gives each character maximum presence, with an instantly recognisable voice, playing up the humour wherever possible, and always great fun to watch. Another postgraduate of the Lost Musicals Academy is Myra Sands, who plays the coarse and demanding Mother Burnside and the hideously uppity Doris Upson, again bringing all the ghastly humour from those roles.

Alfie LowlesThe production had a cast of (I think) eighteen, so I’d be here all day if I mention everyone, but they all gave us a lot of fun and did a great job. Special mentions, however, to Rebekah Hinds for her hilarious characterisation (that voice!) as the comedy gift Agnes Gooch, and to young Alfie Lowles for his very strong performance as Patrick as a boy – it’s a very substantial part that features heavily in the first Act, and he was superb.

Unfortunately, it appears there will be no more Lost Musicals and/or Plays this year, but hopefully they will be back in 2020 with loads more for us to enjoy!

Review – Holly Golightly, Lost Musicals at Sadlers Wells, 15th September 2013

Holly GolightlyIt’s always a pleasure to come to the Lilian Bayliss Theatre at Sadlers Wells for our annual outing to see one of Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals. There are three on offer this year, and I chose Holly Golightly over the others because its creative team of Bob Merrill and Abe Burrows had chalked up some pretty nifty musicals in their time, and also because both of us are completely new to the whole “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” thing. Yes, we’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, so it’s about time we got to know who Holly Golightly is (was).

Holly Dale SpencerThe back story to the musical is fascinating. In its pre-Broadway try-outs it underwent numerous rewrites – nothing particularly unusual about that – but by the time it was to reach Broadway it had suffered the indignity of two book writers being sacked. Nunnally Johnson first, then Abe Burrows; to be replaced by “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”’s Edward Albee, Simone Craddocknot known for his contribution to the frothy world of musicals. After four Broadway previews, producer David Merrick pulled the show and it never saw the light of day again. Even though it was starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, Merrick realised he had a lemon. The version that Ian Marshall Fisher has resurrected has the Abe Burrows book, so it’s the version that never even got to Broadway.

Joseph Wilkins The Lost Musicals setting can expose the weaknesses of long lost Broadway shows. Unable to rely on costumes, sets and a full orchestra, one concentrates heavily on the script, the lyrics, the tunes and the story. When you find a nugget of gold, it’s a pure delight; Cole Porter’s Paris is a fine example. Jonathan Dryden Holly Golightly, on the other hand, really doesn’t work very well. Firstly, it’s very long! At a 3.30pm start we weren’t finished until 6.40pm. The tale is rather plodding and lacking in drama, although Abe Burrows’ book had some witty lines and funny moments. The songs are unmemorable and didn’t seem to illustrate the meat of the story.

Stewart Permutt Wasn’t it someone famous who said a song in a musical must carry the story forward, and that you should come out of the song at a different place from where you went into it? Actually, perhaps it was me. Anyway, that’s a major problem with this work – most of the songs are largely irrelevant to the story moving forward. The song “Travelling”, which was clearly designed to illustrate Holly’s life modus operandi, and gets an end-of-show reprise, is very lame for a signature tune. “I’ve Got a Penny”, on the other hand, nicely contrasts Holly’s fiscal status with her wonderment at the contents of Tiffany’s store. “You’ve never kissed her” sung by the hopelessly smitten Jeff is a charming ballad of unrequited love and “The girl you used to be” is a rather sad account of the love of her former husband Doc, despite the general creepiness of the whole idea of her as a teenager having married her adoptive father.

Paul LincolnI can’t say that the show helped me to understand who Holly Golightly was. I couldn’t work out if she was looking for love, or excitement, or cash, or security; maybe all of the above, maybe none. You may say that’s because she’s an enigma – but I got the feeling that it’s because the character wasn’t particularly well written. The only aspect of her character that was clear to me was that she was a nightmare neighbour. At least Jeff was surely in love with her; and as for the other gentlemen suitors, their frequently repeated lyric that they were “dirty old men looking for dirty young girls” casts a shadow on any notion of romance in this show.

Gareth DaviesAs always, Mr Marshall Fisher has assembled a cast of huge talent who look great in evening wear, seated in a semi-circle, scripts in hand, timing their joint standings-up and sittings-down to perfection. Holly Dale Spencer, as wide-eyed as she was in Kiss Me Kate, sings beautifully as Miss Golightly and it’s no surprise that she bewitches all the guys in town. Joseph Wilkins is a rather subdued Jeff, but he has a great voice; Simone Craddock, who we saw in Annie a few years ago is a slinky funky Mag Wildwood; Jonathan Dryden has a terrific, but totally irrelevant, song “Ciao, Compare” as Sally Tomato; and there’s great support from Stewart Permutt (as always), Paul Lincoln, Gareth Davies, Andy Gillies, and distinguished veteran actor Gary Raymond.

Andy GilliesBut David Merrick was right – if not a complete lemon, the show is pretty citric a lot of the time, and I guess it would have been a massive flop on Broadway. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to watch from a historical perspective; and if you are interested in the history of musicals then you already know that all of these Lost Musicals are always worth a visit.

Gary RaymondFootnote 1: Bob Merrill’s widow was in the audience. She looked as though she really enjoyed the experience.

Footnote 2: They refuse to take interval orders for drinks in the bar before the show. And they also refuse to take them in a remarkably surly way!

Review – Flahooley, Lost Musicals, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadlers Wells, 13th May 2012

FlahooleyIt’s Lost Musicals time again! We always like to go once a year, because no matter what show you see, it’s always a delight. In case you don’t know, every year Ian Marshall Fisher resurrects two or three old musicals that haven’t seen the light of day for donkeys’ years, and gets a bunch of talented actors and musicians to sit in a semi-circle, resplendent in evening dress, scripts in hand, Mark Warman on the piano, no scenery or props, and they enact the forgotten masterpiece. Sometimes they really are masterpieces. Other times you realise precisely why they have been forgotten. But even if they are lost because they’re not that great, the actual choice of which musicals to resurrect will always be of significant historical interest for some reason or other.

Flahooley, which opened this year’s season last Sunday, enjoyed a mere 40 or so performances on Broadway in 1951; but it was written by (inter alia) E Y Harburg, who had enjoyed great success with Finian’s Rainbow, and in his earlier days, had also written the lyrics for the songs in the film The Wizard of Oz. Being (shock horror) a socialist, Harburg had felt the rough side of the McCarthy witch hunts, and this show was a pretty thinly veiled attack on those dark days. It’s an allegorical tale of a young dreamer who creates an amazing new doll for his toy manufacturer employer, but when the market becomes flooded with them because a magic genie misinterprets his wish about how many dolls would be made (don’t ask), the dolls become valueless and are hunted down and destroyed. Are you catching some of the McCarthy allusions? There are other rather bizarre plot elements involving American-Arabian political relations, as well as the love story between Sylvester, the inventor, and Sandy.

Personally I felt the story was a little too over-the-top to take that seriously, even with the prior knowledge of Harburg’s perfectly reasonable vendetta against McCarthy. Musically, I found many of the tunes to be rather delightful, but also many of the lyrics to be syrupy beyond endurance. Still, no matter – the occasion’s the thing, and when the performers march out onto the stage and take their seats, you know you’re in for a treat.

James VaughanI was delighted to see that many of my favourite Lost Musicals regular performers were in the cast. James Vaughan has plenty of opportunities to let rip his stentorian tones in his dual roles as the March of Time voice and the Arab. Stewart PermuttHe has a face and a voice that is just perfect for both being pompous and then allowing the pomposity to be ridiculed. Stewart Permutt plays Abou Ben Atom, the genie, in his usual larger than life way, suitably camp as a row of Arabian NightMatt Zimmermann Caravanserai tents; the kindly and generous aspects of the character are well suited to his highly expressive voice; and of course his jolly mannerisms mean the show always perks up whenever he’s on. Matt Zimmermann Myra Sands(whose performances I have always enjoyed over the last 35 years – gasp!) plays Bigelow the toy manufacturer with subtle gusto. Myra Sands turns in a comic bravura performance as the witch hunting, vigilante organising Elsa Bundschlager.

Emily O’KeeffeOther very enjoyable performances came from Emily O’Keeffe’s sweet looking and sweet singing Sandy and Margaret Preece’s Princess Najla who basically has to sing a load of gibberish all the way through. That’s a take-off of the Princess Zubediyah from Kismet I thought; then I researched and found out that the musical version of Kismet came two years later. And talk about when two worlds collide – Margaret Preeceregular readers will know I’m a Eurovision aficionado; Constantine Andronikou, who is in fine voice with the role of Tonelli, has twice entered the Cyprus National Finals for the Eurovision Song Contest – in 2006 and 2008 – and indeed was one of Annet Artani’s backing singers in Athens for “Why Angels Cry”.

Constantine AndronikouIf I’m honest the show probably looked a little under-rehearsed in comparison with some of the Lost Musicals we have seen, and indeed Mrs Chrisparkle thought the musical director looked thoroughly relieved at the end of the show that they all got through it unscathed. But it is, as ever, an excellent mix of the delightful and the curious, and I congratulate Ian Marshall Fisher and his super cast for recreating this old show so vibrantly.

Review – Lost Musicals, Mexican Hayride, Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells, 31st July 2011

Mexican HayrideJust as every year we treat ourselves to one BBC Prom Concert, we also treat ourselves to one Lost Musical. For many years now, Ian Marshall Fisher has been tirelessly reviving old American musicals that otherwise would never see the light of day, and mounting them as concert performances with actors in evening dress seated around the stage, scripts in hand, and with a man on the Joanna. It works wonderfully well as a sophisticated, informative entertainment. Michael RobertsInterest in this venture has grown to the extent that now they actually do three Lost Musicals a year; but less is more, so we choose just one to attend. This year, we chose Mexican Hayride, a 1944 confection from the piano keys of Cole Porter and the pens of Herbert and Dorothy Fields. And my guess is this year we made the wrong choice, because, basically, it’s a pretty weak musical. In a sense though that doesn’t matter. Without the opportunity to revisit an old show like this, who would have thought that a Cole Porter musical from 1944 that ran for 481 performances on Broadway would actually be a load of old tosh?

Louise GoldThe plot as such concerns a lady bullfighter in Mexico mistakenly believed to be involved in a lottery-fixing racket but whose real perpetrator is an American gangster type guy on the run. Once the story gets going, the only real progression is towards the gangster’s inevitable capture. For sure, there are some amusing characters and entertaining songs, but it really has little to say to a 21st century British audience, and the humour is disappointingly based on that rather now outdated practice of poking fun at foreign-sounding foreigners.

Stewart PermuttNevertheless, I still enjoyed it. The endearing cast perform with such heart-warming joie de vivre that any other reaction would simply be churlish. Michael Roberts reprised his gangster role from a couple of years ago, which he does with panache and amazing self-confidence. Louise Gold gave the character of Montana, the bullfighter, some warmth and personality that might not appear obvious from the text alone. Stewart Permutt, frequent Lost Musicals star, was as usual outrageously and delightfully over the top in his campery, and Wendy Ferguson, currently in Phantom, added a real star quality to the character of Lolita the night-club singer.

Wendy FergusonI’m not remotely concerned that the show wasn’t up to much. The very fact that a show that was the contemporary of Oklahoma! today looks so dated and humdrum by comparison is interesting in itself. Porter and the Fieldses are long gone, and there’s no way that this show could ever merit a proper revival. So it’s a fascinating glimpse into the past, to try to get a feeling of why the show was a success. I look forward to next year’s offerings!

Review – Another theatrical catch-up post

I really must keep up to date with these entries. I’m disappointing myself.

ian maxwell fisherSunday March 28th saw us at the Lilian Baylis theatre at the Stage Door of Sadler’s Wells to see the Lost Musical, Paris, by Cole Porter. If you don’t know, Lost Musicals is a fantastic thing. They dig up shows that haven’t seen the light of day for yonks and then perform them on an empty stage with just chairs and a piano. We’ve seen seven or eight of these over the years and they never fail to delight. Anne ReidThis year’s show, Paris, (it’s the one where “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” first appeared), is one of the funniest and most entertaining we have seen. The cast includes the wonderful Anne Reid who completely steals it. All hail the miraculous Ian Marshall Fisher who puts these things together. There are two more on this year, I confess we haven’t booked for them and I fear it may be too late to get decent seats. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Hedda GablerGood Friday, April 2nd, we saw Hedda Gabler at the Oxford Playhouse. Front of House at the Oxford Playhouse were obviously having a bad hair day. It’s always been a wonderful theatre, I remember it from when I was a teenager going there with Mum. And as a student, I was their College Rep. Happy days. But it’s not a good idea to have just one position where you can buy programmes when it’s a full house, and then only when they require you to have the correct change…. And why have they removed the signs that say Seats 1-10 this way, Seats 11-20 that way, we were all walking over one another to go in the right direction. Sigh.

Tim McInnernyAnyway it was a very good production of Hedda Gabler; Ms Gabler herself played by Rosamund Pike was a very dismal person right from the start. It was never a good idea to let that woman anywhere near those pistols. It was great to see Tim McInnerny again, I last saw him in a student production of Measure for Measure on the very same stage and I am pleased to say I gave him a glowing review in a student newspaper. My hunch was right, he came good. I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as I thought I would, and it brought back memories of a more thrilling Janet Suzman in the role circa 1977, maybe it was my age!

Sondheim Birthday ConcertThen last Sunday, April 4th (Easter Day, you may remember) we saw a celebration for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday at the Derngate in Northampton, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the wonderful Maria Friedman, with the also wonderful (if not quite as much) Graham Bickley and Daniel Evans. It was a most jolly and entertaining affair. They started off with a concert version of Merrily We Roll Along, none of which I had heard before and it certainly made me want to see The Real Show. Maria FriedmanMuch of the rest of the evening brought back memories of Side by Side by Sondheim, but with some twists: a gay version of “Getting Married” – with Amy now Jamie – which worked pretty well. Daniel Evans and Maria Friedman in bed doing “Barcelona” was a hoot, and her “Send in the Clowns” was most moving. There was a fabulous symphonic suite containing about three songs from Sweeney Todd; and then some more Todd songs, including A Little Priest in which Ms Friedman forgot the lyrics, which shows that even the divine are human. It was a great night and left you buzzing for more.