Review – Anyone Can Whistle – Jay Records 2020 CD First Complete Recording

Anyone Can WhistleIn these theatre-starved times, every so often a little spark of light appears to remind us of what we’ve been missing since March. December 4th sees the official release of the first complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s 1964 flop Anyone Can Whistle, timed to celebrate the great man’s 90th birthday. Recorded in 1997, this surreal, fantasy musical explores what can happen when a once-great American local community decides to mire itself in fake news, pretend miracles and corrupt leadership. Incidentally, in 1964, Donald Trump was a pukey youth of 18, medically deferred for military duty, and in 1997, he was a wrestling promoter married to Marla Maples. Can’t think why I’ve mentioned that.

 

Anyone Can Whistle 1964Before getting hold of this (fantastic) 2 CD set and doing a spot of reading around, my knowledge of the show was pretty limited. I knew the three songs that appear in the delightful cabaret show Side by Side by Sondheim, the fact that it was Sondheim’s second attempt to write both music and lyrics to a show, and that it ran for a stupendous twelve previews and nine performances. Was it simply an awful show? A terrible production, perhaps? With a cast led by Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury, you wouldn’t have thought so, although there were tales of unhappiness within the cast, poor reviews in the try-outs, plus the fact that none of the three leads had been in a musical before. Alternatively, you might be tempted to think of it as one of those way ahead of its time shows; however, the presence of two extended ballet scenes – straight outta Oklahoma – together with its very traditional three Act structure, suggests otherwise. The main problem is that there was nothing in the show for the 1964 audience to latch on to and recognise; no one with whom you would choose to identify. Today, in the almost post-Trump era, you can appreciate the satire of a grotesque leader who spins lies, and a populace desperate to believe in miracles. So, the show is both behind the times and ahead of the times – but strangely not of the times themselves. 1964 also gave us Funny Girl (Barbra Streisand was originally a possibility for the role of Cora but chose Fanny Brice instead); it gave us Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof, massive crowd-pleasers one and all, with big showtunes or haunting melodies. Anyone Can Whistle – maybe because of the challenging nature of its themes and musical content – just faded away. Until now!

 

Anyone Can Whistle Lee RemickLike 99.99% (recurring) of the world’s population, I’ve never seen a production of this show, but the release of this new 2 CD set gives you all the excitement and vibe of being about to witness an incredibly significant First Night – and all from the comfort of your headphones. Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie and John Barrowman lead the cast in this sensational audio experience, with the late Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, featuring as The Narrator. Along with the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Owen Edwards, a glimpse down the cast list is like tripping back in time 25 years. As well as the leads, the names of musical theatre stalwarts like Matt Zimmerman, Stuart Pendred, Danielle Carson, Lori Haley Fox and Shezwae Powell pepper the cast, and the result is an incredibly rewarding, musically rich experience, full of surprises.

 

Maria FriedmanIf, like me, you come to the show fresh, from a position of ignorance, you’ll be completely stunned by what confronts you. You think you might know how a Sondheim musical can capture your heart, or your imagination, or your inner fears and concerns; but not this time. Mayoress Cora promotes a faked miracle so that her miserable, bankrupt town can become a tourist Mecca – how that plays out forms one of the two dramatic threads. The other is the rather insensitive notion of the Cookie Jar, the name given to a sanatorium for nonconformists (basically, an asylum); how the inmates (the cookies) are released into the community, with the result that no one can tell who is nonconformist and who isn’t. Whilst on the surface, the nonconformists are treated as though they are mentally ill, you could extend their significance to include any other section of the community who doesn’t abide by society’s norms. This is not comfortable subject material!

 

Julia McKenzieAs you listen to the music unfold the story, at times you have to pinch yourself to believe quite what you’re hearing; and it’s a challenge to the listener who hasn’t seen the show to imagine it progressing on the stage of your mind’s eye. The chaotic lunacy of some parts of the show put me in mind strongly of the Marat/Sade, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, and Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist – even though Anyone Can Whistle predates these latter two. At the end of the first Act the cast round on the audience and mock them – prescient of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience in some respects. Cora’s staccato lines in The Cookie Chase reminded me strongly of Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Additionally, the wonderful showtune-style orchestrations set up a vivid juxtaposition with the savage weirdness of some of the content. The three songs I already knew – Anyone Can Whistle, There Won’t be Trumpets and Everybody Says Don’t – all stand out, but, on a first listen, I was also really impressed by A Parade in Town, I’ve Got You to Lean On, and the reprise of Anyone Can Whistle as part of See What it Gets You which takes its meaning on to another level.

 

John BarrowmanThis is a fascinating and vital recording, and essential for any Sondheim fan, wanting to piece together all parts of the jigsaw puzzle that make up his career. Julia McKenzie is in full pantomime-villain form as the awful Cora; needy, whining, corrupt and totally transparent about it. She affects that tough, East-side hectoring voice that blasts her way through the big numbers and is in perfect contrast to the intimate but repressed characterisation of Nurse Fay Apple by Maria Friedman; what those two performers don’t know about interpreting Sondheim’s work isn’t worth knowing. John Barrowman is in fine voice as the smart-talking, charismatic, and credible Hapgood, who is mistaken as the new assistant at the Cookie Jar. This is going to require a lot of re-playing in order to get to the heart of this surreal, allegorical show – and I know it’s going to be thoroughly worth it!

 

Go to Jay Records to find out how you too can get your hands on a copy!

Review – Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019

CompanyFew theatrical creators have as great a reputation as Stephen Sondheim. With a CV as long as a Baby Grand, he’s done it all from West Side Story (1957) to Road Show (2008) with an ability to write not only incredible music but also deep insights into the human psyche and relationships. My first brush with him was Side By Side By Sondheim, for which the 16-year-old me had a top price ticket in January 1977; but the night before the show thirteen bombs exploded in Oxford Street, including one setting Selfridges on fire, and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle refused to let me travel to London on grounds of safety. I was furious; with her, with the terrorists, with life. But I was barred, and I couldn’t do anything about it; defying her would have had even worse consequences. My lovely Wyndhams’ ticket had to go to waste.

Rosalie CraigBut three months later I got the chance to go again, on the day after my 17th birthday, and I loved it. Such a sophisticated entertainment – and the perfect introduction to the man’s work. I was hooked on Sondheim, and determined to hear and see whatever I could in those pre-Internet days. Many of the songs from Company (1970) were performed in Side By Side By Sondheim, so that was an obvious show for me to track down. But there were to be no London revivals until 1995, and it wasn’t until Mrs C and I took Lady Prosecco to the excellent production at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in 2011, that I finally got to see the show. And, because that was so enjoyable, when I heard that there was to be a new West End production, I wasn’t particularly motivated to book for it, as I already had happy memories of the previous production, which didn’t need wiping from my mind.

Company castBut then I saw the reviews. And the word of mouth, not only generally online, but also from friends who had gone to see it; and to say they were bowled over is an understatement. So we booked; and I can tell you now, gentle reader, that even before the interval had come along, I already knew I had to see it again. And possibly again after that. I have no hesitation in saying that this is probably one of the ten best productions I’ve seen in my life (and, as at today, according to my spreadsheet, I’ve seen 1,751 shows of some sort or other).

Company partyThis Company has a twist. Let me briefly (if you don’t know) explain the story as it’s normally presented. Bobby is 35, all his friends are married, and he’s feeling the pressure to comply. But (and there are two buts); 1) all the people he knows, who could have wife-potential, don’t come up to scratch for one reason or another and 2) all his married friends seem to have totally bonkers relationships, which doesn’t really sell the concept. On his 35th birthday, they arrange for a surprise birthday party for him (which he knows about), and this brings matters to a head. And that’s basically it.

Paul and JamieHere comes the science part. Marianne Elliott’s innovative new production turns Bobby into Bobbie, a 35-year-old woman, which makes absolute sense to me; most 35-year-old unmarried guys in my opinion would be congratulating themselves on successfully avoiding the commitment, whereas a 35-year-old unmarried woman will most definitely be seen as Left On The Shelf by some people. In another twist, Paul and Amy, who are engaged – and Amy is a nervous wreck about it – have been changed to Paul and Jamie; in the sophisticated New York social scene it’s highly unlikely that Bobbie wouldn’t have been friends with at least one gay couple. In fact, we saw the very first performance of a same-sex Paul and Jamie version, at Sondheim’s 80th Birthday Celebrations at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in 2010 (crumbs that means he’ll be 89 this year), where Daniel Evans and Graham Bickley teamed up to perform Getting Married Today together – it worked well then, and it works even better now.

Bobbie and friendsAs a result of the gender switch, all Bobbie’s possible suitors are now guys, which brings a totally new dimension to the gender power struggle. In this scenario, Bobbie has the same potential for control over her relationships as Bobby does; plus it transforms both the pathos and comedy of songs like Barcelona and You Could Drive a Person Crazy. Bobbie is an empowered woman, but the empowerment befuddles her somewhat – and the prospect of settling down with Andy, for example, is, frankly, horrendous (as depicted in a fantastically well reimagined Tick Tock) – so she is left to make the best of a sequence of relationship crises. The final song, Being Alive, is a desperate plea to experience all the mental anguish of a tough relationship which, so far, Bobbie has conveniently excised from her life. No longer a “watcher”, she’s going to be a “doer”. An optimistic ending? You decide. If ever there was a grown-up musical, this is the one.

the setFrom the moment you enter the stunningly beautiful auditorium, the impact of what appears on the stage hits you. In bold neon colours, COMPANY stares out at you like a warning sign, both intimidating and enticing, with its strong coloured border around the word. This visual motif continues with Bunny Christie’s brilliant stage design, which features a brightly lit coloured border surrounding individual pod modules of sets that slide in and out, up and down across the stage, creating interconnecting rooms, that – bizarrely – emphasise both the isolation of the characters and their relationships with each other. Of course, it goes without saying that, technically, everything about this production is of such a high standard that it takes your breath away. Not only the superb set, but also Neil Austin’s vibrant lighting, Liam Steel’s swish choreography, the superb costumes – Bobbie’s flashy red dress stands out for many reasons – and Joel Fram’s fantastic orchestra.

Bobbie and palAnd the cast – they’re just sensational throughout. At the centre of this show, and hardly ever off-stage, is an overwhelmingly fantastic performance by Rosalie Craig as Bobbie. This is the third time we’ve seen Ms Craig on stage – and, boy, hasn’t she come a long way! At that Sheffield production of Company she played Marta, one of Bobby’s three on-off girlfriends; then she was a feisty Miss Julie at Chichester in 2014. If she carries on like this she’ll be the greatest Dame of the Theatre that ever lived by the time she’s 50. She has an instant connection with the audience; we’re completely on her side, no matter what life throws at her character. Not only is she at home with the dramatic intensity of Bobbie’s life, but her feeling for the comedy is immaculate, and her facial expressions are so clear and direct, we know precisely what she’s thinking all the time. And then, of course, she reveals a superb singing voice. She’s just a knock-out.

Patti LuPoneIt’s also a pleasure and a privilege to finally see Miss Patti LuPone on stage – our paths have never crossed but we don’t get that many opportunities to see her this side of the Atlantic. She plays Joanne, the most cynical and hard-nosed of all Bobbie’s friends. We all know a Joanne – she’s the one with no time for fake sentiment, who constantly (and hilariously) avers that if you don’t blow out the candles on your cake, the wish doesn’t come true. Musically, she has two big moments – The Little Things You Do Together, in which she is beautifully acerbic, and The Ladies Who Lunch, where she is impeccably tragic. But all the way through the show she adds fantastic little touches of magic, and I now see why people love her so much. When she’s on stage, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. Absolutely brilliant.

Sarah and HarryMel Giedroyc brings out all the neurotic and sinister humour of the horrendous Sarah, perpetually correcting her long-suffering husband Harry (a great performance from Gavin Spokes), not letting him get away with glossing over the minutest peccadilloes if there’s a chance of making him look bad in public. Their ju-jitsu scene is superbly comic and alarmingly terrifying. Daisy Maywood (fantastic in both A Chorus Line and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk) and Ashley Campbell are also a treat as Susan and Peter, the couple who get on so much better when they’re divorced than married; she’s so composed and he’s so fluttery, with his endless fainting spells – it’s a really funny combination. Ms Maywood is also the vital third part (as the Priest) of the hilarious Getting Married Today, the song that expresses Jamie’s pre-wedding jitters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song in a musical staged so inventively, expressively and hilariously as this number. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s theatrical magic.

the castJonathan Bailey (showing a hugely different range of talents from when we saw him as the self-effacing Edgar in Chichester’s King Lear a couple of years ago) is magnificent as the doubting, uncertain Jamie, and his performance of that song is a total tour-de-force. He is matched by the brilliant Alex Gaumond, one of my favourite actors, as Paul; a completely opposite character – calm, reliable, able to withstand anything that life chucks at him. When it looks like the wedding is off, his quiet, dignified reaction is incredibly moving to watch.

Company in bedIt’s a large cast, so if I mention everyone we’ll be here all day, but I must commend to you Richard Fleeshman’s absolutely brilliant Andy, the air steward himbo who’s as thick as two short planks but kindly as. The lengths to which Bobbie has to go to properly get him into bed should be worth some award of its own. The all-feller You Can Drive a Person Crazy, in which Mr Fleeshman plays a considerable part, isn’t just three guys mimicking three ditzy blondes, but is full of masculine attitude and asides that take that favourite old song and completely reinvents it. I don’t know what more I can say to you to express just how good this show is. For some criminal reason, it’s closing on 30th March, having already had one extension. But I’m sure it could go on for years if they wanted. We enjoyed it so much that it completely blitzed our minds so that we could barely concentrate on our evening show; and we’ve done nothing but talk about it since then. You have to see it!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Review – Follies, National Theatre at the Olivier, 23rd September 2017

FolliesOriginally produced in 1971, and wisely with no attempt to update it in any way, Follies tells the story of a final reunion of the showgirls at New York’s Weismanns’ Follies, one of those Ziegfeld-type revue shows that hold a cult but unique place in the history of theatre. Ever since we all stopped watching the Tiller Girls on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, there’s been precious little remnant of this form of entertainment in the modern era. Even Burlesque has been handed down to us via a completely different route. We really are in another time and another place.

Follies OpeningSally and Phyllis were two friends who worked together in the Follies, and Buddy and Ben were the two boys who would wait for them to finish their show before taking them out for a night on the town. Ben was the prize guy – Buddy was just his mate; whichever of the girls (Phyllis) ended up with Ben will have “won”; the other (Sally) would make do with Buddy. But it was messy; with Ben having a fling with Sally whilst engaged to Phyllis, and their friendships all fell apart as a result. That was many years ago, and the reunion is an opportunity for Sally and Phyllis to heal old wounds. But, somehow, it doesn’t quite work that way. Meanwhile, the old hoofers and belters (aka the former Follies performers) relive their memories, recount how their lives have moved forward, renew old friendships and enmities, and are haunted by the ghosts of their former selves.

Follies Young charactersThis was the very first show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw together after we had tied the proverbial knot way back in 1988; a production at the Shaftesbury Theatre, which we loved. On reflection, it was an interesting choice to start off our married life, seeing as how Stephen Sondheim’s view of marriage, which peppers this show like a bazooka blaster, is so bleak. Those first few days may be full of “you’re going to love tomorrow”, but pretty soon it’s “could I leave you?” Despite that, the show’s overwhelming message is one of survival. At the end, Sally’s dreams of rekindling love with Ben are dashed but Buddy seems willing to try again; Phyllis and Ben stay together because the alternative is just too hard to contemplate. The old-age singers and dancers are still knocking out their powerful songs and kicking their heels to any old show tune. Good times and bum times, they’ve seen them all and my dear, they’re still here. And that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?

Follies Beautiful GirlsEarly on in the show, when the “beautiful girls”, each wearing their year sash, take to the very unglamorous fire-escape staircase for their grand entrance, you realise quite how anachronistic this whole piece is – on the surface. The girls are just being judged, or admired, at that stage for their visual heavenliness and how adroit they are at walking down stairs. The sash lends an element of Miss World to it, which, although it still happens every year, lost its place in the affections of the UK audience decades ago, as being very last century.

Follies CarlottaGoing back briefly to that 1988 production, it boasted a wondrous cast – Julia McKenzie as Sally, Diana Rigg as Phyllis (although we saw her understudy); David Healy as Buddy and Daniel Massey as Ben. Amongst the older, supporting cast, we had Leonard Sachs, Dolores Gray, Adele Leigh, and Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson. A substantial element of the impact of the show is that you must absolutely believe that the supporting cast of ex-Weismann Follies girls were once magnificently glamorous, superbly talented and just magic to watch. Thirty years ago at the Shaftesbury, the fact that they had really well-known performers on stage in these roles, totally emphasised this sense of enormous reputation. Today’s cast, at the Olivier, of old Follies girls, whilst still superbly skilful and a delight on stage, are not quite so famous, nor indeed as old, as in the earlier production. For instance, I know ladies never tell a lie about their age but from what I can gather online, Ms Janie Dee (Phyllis), Ms Tracie Bennett (Carlotta), Ms Di Botcher (Hattie) and Ms Dawn Hope (Stella) are all younger than me, goddammit. No wonder they’re all such great dancers.

Follies Sally and PhyllisIf the framework and structure of the show now seems a little dated, the passions beneath the surface are as resounding now as they ever were. Sondheim’s score for this musical is definitely amongst his best; maybe it is his best. Broadway Baby, Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You, Losing My Mind and the incomparable I’m Still Here are all held together with blood, sweat and tears. Ah, Paris!, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow, and Buddy’s Blues make us laugh with a lump in our throats. The songs support James Goldman’s wistful book which builds up magnificent tension between the four main characters before they explode with emotional devastation. They will survive, against all the odds, because that’s the whole point of the show. But, boy, are they going to get raw first.

Follies PhyllisThis production has Phyllis singing The Story of Lucy and Jessie as her “Follies” number, which was a huge disappointment to us because we much prefer the alternative song Ah, but Underneath. Apparently that song is only used when the actress playing Phyllis isn’t a natural dancer. Ah but Underneath is richly self-deprecatory with astoundingly clever turns of phrases, whereas Lucy and Jessie is just a trite patter song in comparison – something Cole Porter would have written, then chucked away. An odd judgment, in my opinion, to choose a far lesser song over a great one.

Follies Sally seatedAs soon as it was announced that Imelda Staunton would be starring in the new production of Follies, I knew that I finally had a reason to join the National Theatre’s Advance Member scheme, in order to be within a whiff of a chance of getting a good seat. It worked. Ms Staunton, who it seems can currently do no wrong (Gypsy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) chalks up another personal success with this superb mix of heartbreak and old-fashioned stamina. With her brilliantly inelegant dress and tastelessly showy hairdo, you can instantly see that this Sally doesn’t have the personal style of the others, whether it be through lacking the trappings of wealth or simply some natural flair. She’s a most charming, good-natured, walking failure. Her every scene reveals Sally’s desperate lack of self-confidence, and her waspish antagonism towards her unfaithful husband is a painful delight. For such a great singer as Ms Staunton, it’s a shame that Sally only really takes part in two songs; but her Too Many Mornings duet and Losing My Mind solo reveal what an extraordinary re-interpreter of musical classics she is.

Follies Whos that WomanWe’d seen Janie Dee a few times before, most notably as Dolly Levi in Leicester’s Hello Dolly a few years ago, so I knew she was a fine exponent of the art of musical theatre. Here she invests Phyllis with a marvellously supercilious air and a wicked ability to go for the kill in any conversation; and her performance of Could I Leave You is riveting. Peter Forbes’ Buddy is a convincingly wretched piece of scum, as he tells Sally about his liaisons with the lovely Margie, guiltlessly matter-of-fact. The whole presentation of Buddy’s Blues is fantastic, with his Max Miller suit, strobe lighting comedy effect, and the revelation of just how lovely Margie really is. Philip Quast has the tough task of conveying the sullenness of the inward-looking Ben, but he does a good job with the ironic Live, Laugh, Love. And of course, there are the priceless moments of Di Botcher’s Broadway Baby, Dame Josephine Barstow’s One More Kiss and Tracie Bennett’s I’m Still Here. But the number that absolutely brought the house down? Dawn Hope leading all the girls with their taptastic performance of Who’s That Woman.

Follies Young characters arguingEach character has their own younger version, silently observing from close by. This is an intriguing theatrical device; it’s not always easy to tell if the older characters are being haunted by their younger selves or if the young ones are being shown up by the older ones. I think it’s fair to say that as we grow older we do think back to our younger days – after all, it’s quite easy; we remember them; we were there. When we’re young, we don’t so much think forward to our older days, because the future is a mystery; at best, all you can hope for is some comfort and satisfaction in a life well lived. I’m not sure to what extent the younger characters can say that of their older generation counterparts in this show. The delightful Alex Young and Zizi Strallen are almost criminally wasted as young Sally and Phyllis, with excellent support from Fred Haig and Adam Rhys-Charles as their young suitors; but it’s worth the wait for their brilliant rendition of You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through.

Follies HattieI’d read some rather disappointing reviews of this production; well, I don’t know what the hell those people were watching. This is as crisp, as telling, as emotional and as musically rewarding as you could possibly wish for. Irresistibly moving, it’s what musical theatre is all about. Go see it for yourself!

Follies Solange and Young SolangeP. S. The show comes in at around 2 hours 20 minutes with no interval. Apparently, this is in keeping with Sondheim’s original intent that there should be no break; that’s all very well for a youngish man of 41 (as Sondheim was at the time) but it’s tough on a packed matinee full of pensioners. Yes, I can see the artistic merit in taking it through without the distraction of a break, but if you spend the last half hour worrying whether your bladder is going to burst, you might as well have Her Majesty the Queen breakdancing naked on stage and you still won’t be able to concentrate on it. Say, Mr Producer, be kind to your audiences and preserve the very practical tradition of the interval!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Into The Woods, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4th September 2016

Into The WoodsAs a theatregoer of more years than you’ve had hot dinners, one of my pet hates is those rare occasions when, for whatever reason, you don’t get a programme. Alas, the Menier’s printers have let them down and they ran out of programmes for Into The Woods on Saturday afternoon, and don’t expect another delivery until Wednesday. Lack of a programme makes it so much harder to review a show, so forgive me in advance, gentle reader, if I offer up any factual inaccuracies!

Harry HeppleIn case you didn’t know – and I’m sure you did – Into The Woods, rather like the film Shrek (which appeared 15 years later), takes fairy-tale characters and jumbles them up into a preposterous interweaving of all their tales, culminating with the fine achievement of Happy Ever After status at the interval; and then the second act undoes all that good work by showing how Happy Ever After is an unattainable myth. Relationships fall apart; the land is beset by terror; people die.

Laura TebbuttDespite the fact that it’s had a number of revivals over the years, we’d never seen the stage show live before. We’d seen a DVD recording of the New York stage production starring Bernadette Peters; and we saw and enjoyed the film adaptation last year. But it’s never been a show that I have ever felt I’ve properly understood or appreciated. Just as Shakespeare has his Problem Plays, Sondheim has his Difficult Musicals and I think this a prime example of the genre. It’s a show that doesn’t give you a moment to stop and stare, to think and reflect. From the start to the finish you’re constantly processing data, from the variety of its characters to the relentlessness of its music. The lyrics alone are enough to do your head in. You remember the young Mozart being criticised by the establishment in Amadeus for writing “too many notes”? Here Sondheim gives us “too many words”. It’s exhausting. I honestly don’t know how the cast cope with it all (which they do, brilliantly, by the way).

Claire KarpenAs another indication of how good a production this is, yesterday was the first time I’ve seen it and not felt it was way too long. Structurally there is a problem; because the end of Act One ties everything up so perfectly, and everyone lives happily ever after, that you feel there is no need for an Act Two. That’s why it sometimes feels too long, because deep down inside you feel everything is already all done and dusted. No wonder the opening announcement from Prince Charming reminded us that there was an interval and that they hoped we would return afterwards. So many people must just get up and leave at the interval thinking it was one of these new-fangled, 90 minutes, no interval, short, sharp shows. A third indication of the strength of the production comes with the fact that not only is the Baker’s Wife in tears at the end of the show, Mrs Chrisparkle damn nearly was too, and it’s a rare show indeed that can stir such emotion in her.

Steffan Lloyd-EvansThis production comes courtesy of New York’s Fiasco Theater, and is the 2015 Off-Broadway production that has been parachuted into the Menier, with its pared-down, informal, and intimate approach to presentation. The proscenium arch is decorated from top to bottom with piano strings and keyboards; a backdrop of tightly fitting ropes suggest the dense woods that many of the cast will Into at some point; a few chairs are placed around the edges of the set where the actors can sit whilst they’re not engaged in the action (and from where they can make musical and/or vocal interpolations); and on a floating island, moving around the stage, is one central piano for Evan Rees, the musical director, to pound for the best part of two and three quarter hours. Andy GrotelueschenTo add to the informality and intimacy, the cast idle on to the stage in dribs and drabs, some taking up conversation with the people in the front row; we had a nice chat with Steffan Lloyd-Evans about lunch at Wagamama; he assured us not to be scared, he wasn’t going to bring us up onto the stage or anything like that – which I must say makes a nice change for me after my recent Edinburgh experiences. I even looked after his horse for a short while in the first act (no, really). As the second act opened, Liz Hayes (Jack’s mum) spoke to the ladies to our right and declared them to be #TeamBassoon, as that was the corner of the stage where her instrument was kept when not in use – and a mighty fine bassoonist she is too.

Emily YoungThe whole cast give a fantastic ensemble performance as they take on the myriad roles in the piece, swapping musical and sound-effect activities with each other; those sitting to the side largely observing the show dispassionately. Although that was distinctly not the case when Steffan Lloyd-Evans and Andy Grotelueschen as the two princes started teasing each other with silly voices, creating an uncontrollable wave of hilarity that reached our not only to the audience but also to their fellow cast members. I really enjoyed Laura Tebbutt as the Baker’s wife; she completely inhabited the character and emphasised the reality of her predicaments even though she’s surrounded by this fairy-tale world; she also has a great stage presence and beautiful singing voice. Similarly, we both thought Claire Karpen as Cinderella was terrific, performing endless pratfalls because of those awkward crystal slippers, really bringing out the emotion of the realities of how Happiness isn’t necessarily Ever After even in post fairy-tale marriage. National-treasure-in-waiting Harry Hepple (whom we loved in both Privates on Parade and Pippin) is on great form as the rather bewildered Baker, Vanessa Reselandcapturing the nice comedy moments in his understated way but also giving it large with the emotion of the songs. The aforementioned Mr Lloyd-Evans, who had already got me on his side with our initial conversation before the show started, was a brilliant Prince Charming, and made a great double act with Mr Grotelueschen as the two princes expressed their Agony in song. The latter also showed how emotionally you can portray the plight of a cow with just a plaintive moo. I also loved how Vanessa Reseland’s harridan of a witch turns into, quite frankly, a sex goddess. But the whole cast give it everything and it’s immensely watchable and enjoyable all the way through.

Unsurprisingly, the whole season is now sold out, and it chalks up another winner for the Menier – and this is definitely the most entertaining, expressive and emotional presentation of Into The Woods that we have seen. Now I just hope they’ll sell me a programme and send it by post to keep my collection up!

Review – Into The Woods, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 29th January 2015

Into The WoodsIs it me, or are they making films of stage musicals much better these days? Over the years, some of my favourite stage musicals have been made into absolute stinkers – a prime example being A Chorus Line, where they actually changed the story because they thought What I Did For Love worked better as a simple love song between two people rather than being about love for one’s career as a dancer. You did a lot of fantastic things, Sir Richard Attenborough, but I’m afraid that wasn’t one of them. But I found the film version of Les Miserables endlessly more watchable than the stage version, not that being sat in the front row of the dress circle of the Palace theatre with no leg room and with gout is that conducive to theatrical magic. Now into the mix comes Into The Woods, Sondheim’s fairytale fantasy made into an engaging and brilliantly performed film by a first rate cast.

James Corden and Lilla CrawfordI should state that I’ve never seen a live stage production of Into The Woods, although I have seen a DVD of the original Broadway production. I quite enjoyed it; Mrs Chrisparkle found it a bit “relentless” – her favourite word to describe something she doesn’t like because it just doesn’t let up and sometimes less is more. The show hit Broadway in 1988 and the West End in 1990, at a time when we didn’t go to the theatre much – how weird that feels today. The concept of the show is wonderfully inventive and original and appeals to anyone who, as a child, ever read or was told a fairytale; i.e. everyone. Unlike with A Chorus Line, I’m not an Into The Woods Purist; but if you are, you might be disappointed with some of the story tweaking, the dropping of several songs, making it slightly less violent and more family-friendly, which of course has nothing to do with its being made by Disney.

James Corden Emily Blunt Daniel HuttlestoneIn a mythical fairyland, four of our favourite childhood heroes all unite to make a new story. Jack (of Beanstalk fame) has to sell his favourite cow to raise money so that he and his mother don’t starve; Little Red Riding Hood has to visit her grandmother to bring her food (if she doesn’t scoff it all herself by the time she gets there); Cinderella has beastly step-sisters who mistreat her and try to prevent her from meeting the Prince at the Royal Ball (that’s a Festival in Sondheim-speak); and Rapunzel is trapped in a tower but will let down her golden hair for anyone who fancies a clamber-up. Meanwhile, the Baker and his wife despair that they can’t have children, and discover it’s because their neighbourhood witch put a spell on their property in revenge for the Baker’s father’s vegetable- and pulse-based kleptomania. But she will lift the spell if the Baker and his wife can provide her with a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn. I’m sure you’ve worked out where this is going. So they all go into the woods; and eventually they furnish the witch with what she needs, the spell is lifted, the Baker and his wife have a child and they all live happily ever after.

Meryl StreepExcept that they don’t because in Sondheim’s world nobody lives happily ever after. The giant’s wife wreaks havoc (where there’s a beanstalk, there’s a giant, keep up), Rapunzel runs off, Cinderella and the Prince need marriage counselling and the Baker’s wife falls off a cliff. And lots of other people die too. Of course, all this could have been avoided if the Baker and his wife had been mature enough to accept their situation, maybe try a little IVF, or simply change their mind-set from childless to child-free and go out more. There again, there’s no end to what some people will do in order to have kids, as this story proves.

Johnny DeppThe film looks and sounds ravishing all the way through. Disney threw $50m at it, and it shows. There are some very nice special effects when the witch regularly appears and disappears, nothing too cosmic, just some elegantly done whirlwinds. Sometimes, as Robert Frost would have it, the woods are lovely, dark and deep; sometimes they’re utterly terrifying, the kind of place a lascivious wolf would lurk in order to chat up little girls. Musically it’s a treat for your ears from start to finish. The arrangements are sumptuous and the singing is clear, beautiful, funny, and quirky – all the right ingredients for this show. Into The Woods boasts some stonking good songs, including the main theme, an assorted fugue-like piece of fun which sticks in your head for ages afterwards (I woke up at 4.00am this morning with it running through my brain) and which you can use as a commentary on your daily chores (“into the shop to buy some food”, “into the kitchen to make some tea”, etc, etc, ad nauseam).

Emily BluntThe performances are pretty much uniformly superb throughout. James Corden continues to prove why he’s one of our best young actors with a funny, thoroughly believable and surprisingly moving performance as the Baker; and he also provides the narration. Desperate to meet the witch’s demands, he masterminds a cack-handed assault on the roving characters of the woods together with his wife, gaining items from them but losing them on the way too. It’s a bit like an extended, musical round of Jeux Sans Frontières, catching hold of the cape and the hair with one hand but dropping the cow with the other. Emily Blunt gives a wonderfully understated performance as the Baker’s wife with great comic timing and a terrific voice. The two of them become the perfect foil to the mad excesses of Meryl Streep’s witch, dominating proceedings with her sheer energy and attack – although Sondheim gives her some damn good lines to sing too.

James CordenThe two child performers are absolutely sensational. 13 year old Lilla Crawford plays Little Red Riding Hood like an old pro, completely stealing that first scene in the Bakers’ shop, as she discovers and devours cookies with the efficiency of a heat-seeking missile. When she’s interacting with the other main characters she’s equally as assured as the most experienced of actors. Similarly, 15 year old Daniel Huttlestone, who both warmed and broke your heart as Gavroche in Les Miserables, takes to Jack as a duck to water with his fine singing voice and confident cheeky personality. Anna Kendrick does a good job as the stereotypical Cinderella, putting up with the cruelty of her step-sisters and falling in love with the Prince, but with the added dimension of the role’s darker dénouement too.

Chris Pine Billy MagnussenOne of the best scenes in the film was the song Agony, performed by Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, each trying to out-prince each other as their duet gets progressively wetter, the further into a rocky waterfall they blunder. Both suitors are really well cast, Mr Pine having the terrific line about only being trained to be charming, not sincere; and Mr Magnussen doing a marvellously painful descent on Rapunzel’s hair. I confess, when Rapunzel’s tear dropped onto his eye and he could see again, my brain let out a huge soppy “awwwwww” – I just hope my mouth didn’t hear and follow suit. Mackenzie Mauzy is an excellent Rapunzel, changing from malleable daughter to being unable to forgive her mother – and under the circumstances why would you? – and Johnny Depp is a splendidly eerie and foppish wolf, planning main course and pudding before getting his own just desserts. Cinderella’s horrendous household is very amusingly portrayed by Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch as her villainous step-sisters and Christina Baranski as her brutally bossy stepmother (no Baron Hardup here).

Mackenzie MauzyThere’s also a lot of fun to be had spotting famous people in minor roles, like Annette Crosbie as Little Red Riding Hood’s granny, Frances de la Tour as the Giant’s wife, and Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s father. But the biggest blast from the past – for me at least – was when Jack’s mother first appeared and I whispered to Mrs C “could that possibly be Tracey Ullman?” who I hadn’t seen since she was in Three of a Kind (whatever happened to David Copperfield) and since she drove away with Paul McCartney in the “They Don’t Know” video. And yes indeed it is Tracey Ullman and she gives a wonderfully warm and funny performance, with no care at all for the moralities of corporal punishment.

Tracey UllmanJust like when we saw The Theory of Everything last week, my only criticism of the film is that it just goes on a bit too long. Mentally, I did something of a “switch-off” when the witch became beautiful and the bakers got their child. Maybe I’m just a happy ever after kind of person who didn’t need to see all these people’s worlds subsequently fall apart. In the stage production that’s just the end of Act One. Knowing me, I probably needed an interval. When it became clear there was still some distance to go the film just started to tire me. But it’s a bold man who tells Sondheim he’s got it wrong, and I wouldn’t dream of it. All in all it’s a really enjoyable film with great performances and a feast of splendour for the eyes and especially the ears. Making this film guarantees that the show will continue to delight audiences for generations to come.

Review – Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory, 11th January 2015

AssassinsThe musical theatre is a very broad church. Only a few hours ago I was writing about how Anything Goes is a brilliant show but ever so lightweight. Today I am writing about Assassins, also a brilliant show (in a different way) but as dark as dark can be. If Anything Goes can be likened to nibbling at a stick of candy floss (and I think it can), Assassins is like tucking in to a lump of nutty slack. It first hit the UK stage in 1992, at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see much theatre, so it’s great to be able to fill in the gaps of one’s Sondheim knowledge. Up till now the only link I had between the notion of assassins and musicals theatre was a character called The Assassin, who sang “I’m an A double S a double S I N”, from Tim Rice’s long forgotten Blondel. I think I used to irritate Mrs C by singing it a lot. Fortunately it’s a phase I’ve grown out of.

EnsembleSondheim’s assassins are not really in the Tim Rice mould. The show takes several famous assassins (or wannabe assassins), all of whom had a crack at taking out an American President (and I don’t mean on a dinner date). The show gathers them together and makes them confront each other, even though in real life they lived at different times and places. Sondheim forces them to look at their motives, their modus operandi, and their influence on each other. They challenge each other, they support each other, they goad each other on; and, for the most part, they each come to a sticky end. All this jollity set in a nightmare fantasy fairground. Well, where else would you set such a show? In fact when you descend those old steps into the Menier auditorium it’s like going to Luna Park in Sydney – a thoroughly creepy experience. The place is littered with all sorts of fairground ephemera, including those huge open mouthed clown faces and a decrepit old dodgems car. You have pick your way quite carefully to your seat, which may include encroaching on the stage a little -which is in traverse for this performance, something the Menier lends itself to superbly well.

RehearsalsRegular readers (bless you), may recollect my mantra that I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. Well, this is an extremely brave and innovative show, and I certainly wouldn’t class it a failure by any means. To be fair, you couldn’t call it Sondheim’s strongest score, and I can’t really remember any of the tunes; but it’s very enjoyable. However, when it was all over, Mrs C and I looked at each other and just felt completely baffled by the whole thing. If I were to be able to ask Mr Sondheim just one question about it, it would be the one word: “why?” It’s an incredibly niche content – not just murderers, but assassins; not just assassins but assassins of US Presidents. I can’t believe Sondheim had people knocking at his door begging for this to be the subject matter of his latest show. I can only put it down to a huge burst of creative eccentricity.

in your faceOne of the great things about the Menier is its intimacy. When you sit in row A, our usual chosen position, you’re within touching distance of the cast. Assassins has a cast of sixteen, the majority of whom are all on stage at the same time, and when they’re doing fairly intricate and powerful dance moves and gestures in that relatively small area, it feels incredibly close. There’s a lot of bringing your feet in as much as possible so you can’t trip anyone up (never send a murderer arse over tip is a good motto I feel); and there are some sequences when the cast sit on chairs staring out at the audience, which is an opportunity to see if you can out-stare them. They’ve practised that – they always out-stare you back. Much of Chris Bailey’s choreography is quite stompy (not a criticism, merely an observation), and as the cast stomp around you, you can feel yourself literally shaking in your seat. This is an all-round experience production – loud, vibrating, vivid, powerful and literally in-your-face. No one’s going to nod off during this show.

PInch in the Comedy of ErrorsWhilst there are some star names in the cast, it’s very much an ensemble piece, and it’s hard to identify any particular role that outweighs the others – apart, perhaps, from the central character, “the Proprietor”, played by Simon Lipkin, whose fairground (I presume) we inhabit. He spends most of the show standing up to the assassins and getting regularly shot by them, all the time masked in the most terrifying circus make up. If you see Mr Lipkin’s face in the programme, you’d never believe they were the same person. Imagine an elaborately painted clown’s face that has been left out in the rain for an hour or so, resulting in streams of contrasting colours trickling down and ruining his vest. It’s a long shot, but if you remember the RSC’s Comedy of Errors from the late 1970s, his appearance reminded me strongly of Doctor Pinch, the Schoolmaster. I really enjoyed Mr Lipkin’s performance – powerful, terrifying, intense; the stuff of nightmares.

Balladeer and ProprietorAnother slightly strange role is that of the Balladeer. For the first three-quarters of the show, he sings and strums his banjo on the sidelines, commenting on the action, like an Everyman figure; pivotal in the show numbers but neither, as far as one can make out, an assassin nor a victim. However, towards the end he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, antagonised by John Wilkes Booth (who despatched Abraham Lincoln) into committing a crime you feel he had no reason to undertake other than that supreme sense of flattery when everyone knows your name. He’s played by one of our favourite performers, Jamie Parker; you always know you’re in very safe hands with him in the cast.

Catherine Tate Andy Nyman Carly BawdenThe majority of the male assassins are rather dour creatures. David Roberts’ Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley, could be mistaken for Lenin on a dark night, despairingly flitting across the stage in an angst-ridden quest for justice, until he goes all gooey eyed at his heroine Emma Goldman – it’s an unexpectedly amusing scene between them. I was very impressed with Harry Morrison’s performance as John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Reagan; a seething mass of vengeance under a barely concealed veneer of calm – so different from the Mr Morrison we enjoyed a few months ago in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, which is, coincidentally, where was last saw Jamie Parker too.

Mike McShaneSteward Clarke’s Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted assassination on Franklin D Roosevelt, is portrayed as a vicious, angry victim himself – driven mental because of his constant stomach pains., Mr Clarke’s unnervingly wild eyes contribute to a very compelling performance, particularly when Zangara meets his electrifying death. Mike McShane, dressed as a rather bedraggled Santa Claus for a reason I couldn’t quite make out, takes the role of Samuel Byck, the unhinged wannabe assassin of Richard Nixon, whose murderous attempt was somewhat hapless and ended up with him killing himself instead. Mr McShane is a fine actor with a great stage presence, but I found his monologues where he is recording messages to Leonard Bernstein just a bit too long, and lacking in dramatic tension. It’s the only place where I felt John Weidman’s book needed some trimming.

Aaron TveitOn the other hand, a couple of the male assassins were much brighter characters. The always entertaining Andy Nyman (who we’ve seen at the Menier twice before – has he taken up residence?) plays Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield), bouncing around the stage like an excited puppy. He’s obsessed with becoming Ambassador to France, and is clearly a maverick and a charlatan, and immense fun to watch. His death by hanging scene is a great piece of stagecraft, encompassing tragedy and hilarity at the same time. Broadway favourite Aaron Tveit takes the role of John Wilkes Booth, bestriding the stage, moustachioed like Van Dyck, cajoling and coaxing many a wannabe assassin into action. With controlled power, Mr Tveit gives us almost every emotion under the sun; never let him near an empty coke bottle. It’s a very enjoyable performance.

More AssassinsThere are only two female assassins, both of whom acted in collaboration with each other in two separate attempts to assassinate Gerald Ford: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played by the excellent Carly Bawden (unforgettable as Eliza in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady), and TV favourite Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore. Carly Bawden is wonderfully irrepressible as Fromme, balancing no-nonsense serious threats with totally loopy adoration of Charles Manson; and Catherine Tate is hilarious as the rather inept and definitely thick Moore, taking her son and her dog to the assassination, hurling bullets manually at the President when the gun doesn’t work (which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long time). If you like Catherine Tate’s TV show, you’ll love her in this – Sara Jane Moore would fit perfectly into her repertoire of weird and wacky characters. Mind you, I’d better be careful what I say about Moore and Fromme as they’re both out on parole now.

Watch those gunsA big theatrical experience, with a great band, costumes, make up, and set; more gunshots than you would normally expect in a lifetime at the theatre; and a colourful finale that cleverly covers the entire stage and some of the seats in a sea of blood (don’t worry, it’s an illusion, you don’t get wet). A very high impact production and, rarely for me, one of the occasions when not having an interval feels strangely appropriate. Whilst there is some humour, it’s not what you’d call a Musical Comedy; and I can’t say that you leave the theatre on a high – we left it rather shell-shocked at what we’d seen. But it’s certainly a stunner. It’s on at the Menier until 7th March, but if you haven’t booked, it’s too late as the whole of the rest of the run is sold out. There’s got to be the potential of a transfer, surely – but it needs to be kept intimate, so as to preserve the claustrophobic power of the whole thing. Congratulations to the Menier, another winner!

Production photographs by Nobby Clark

Review – Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 7th August 2011

Road ShowThe great news is – it’s a new Sondheim! Well, reasonably new. This show first saw the light of day back in 1999, and has since undergone re-writes and re-titles, all of which made me think – uh oh, here we go, another show that ought to be really great but will probably turn out to be a bit duff. But the even better news is – I was wrong! This is a terrific little show, beautifully played, excitingly staged, with a classy classic Sondheim score emotionally realised.

It tells the story of the brothers Mizner, instructed by their father on his deathbed to go out into the world and make something of themselves, and how they follow their various lucky stars all round the world, through the Alaskan Gold Rush, poker games, rich widows, fabulous success in architecture, dabbling in sports promotion, playwriting, and much more. It would either have to be a monstrously large and long production to get these two vividly lived lives studied in detail; or a 95 minute romp that tickles the surface but gives us just enough information to flesh out the aspects of their lives in our imagination. The 95 minute romp wins; and as such it’s a fast, furious, engaging piece and I loved every minute. Mrs Chrisparkle would have preferred it to be a 115 minute romp to include a 20 minute interval. I have some sympathy with that view. Even improved as they are, the Menier seats are not the most comfortable. Commercially I never understand a decision to do away with the interval and its associated opportunity for food and drink sales. However I can also see that its uninterrupted presentation increases the sense of relentless urgency as the brothers’ lives are played out.

John Doyle has directed it so that the staging is in traverse. Sat in the centre of Row A you are so intimately involved in the production that not a bead of sweat, nor a raised eyebrow, nor a turn of the heel goes unnoticed. When you’re so closely wrapped up in what’s going on, it couldn’t be more thrilling – although the gentleman to my left spent I$300 think 75 of the 95 minutes fast asleep. Must have had a large lunch. Action takes place in front of you, but also to the extreme sides, so that at times you have to dart your attention all round the room like a lizard at a tennis match. But it’s well worth the effort, as the entire cast hold the mood and never let their attention slip for a second; every person you watch at any time is deeply in their role. A major aspect of the staging is the way that people chuck money around – literally. It’s a really strong visual assertion of how much cash went through those brothers’ hands during the course of their lives. I have never seen so many 100 dollar bills scattered around me, even if they are “for theatrical use only”.

David BedellaThe two brothers are very much at the heart of the story. I had read criticism that the two actors are so different in their appearance and expression that it is too much of a leap of faith to imagine they are brothers. Well, I say nonsense to that. Yes they are different, but so – very much so – are the two characters. David Bedella (a real star who we twice saw and loved in Jerry Springer The Opera) as Wilson is brash, charming, a rogue and a villain, with pizzazz written through him like a stick of rock. Michael JibsonMichael Jibson’s Addison, on the other hand, is hard-working, astute, cerebral and restrained. It comes as no surprise that it is he who is left to care for his mother whilst Wilson is gambling and living the high life; and in a knife-twisting moment his mother reveals that despite Addison’s care it’s Wilson’s charisma that gives meaning to her life.

Both David Bedella and Michael Jibson (new to me – a star in the making) are superbly cast and run through the gamut of emotions with watertight perfection. David Bedella’s honey voice oozes confidence and fantasy success; Michael Jibson’s more delicate tones are set firmly in reality and day to day problems. It’s a great pairing.

Gillian BevanGillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake, as their parents, give encouragement and a sense of belonging, both alive and dead, to the sons as they make their way round the world with varying degrees of success and failure. Jon Robyns, as Hollis, who inspires Addison to his greatest success both in career and love, has a great singing voice and presence; and how grown-up it is to have a gay relationship as a central tenet of the plot dealt with completely without judgment or sensationalism.

Glyn KerslakeThe remaining cast are strong musically and in their minor characters, and bring Sondheim’s new songs to life wonderfully well. There are some great songs here – including “Waste”, that sets the opening scene and acts as a finale too; “That Was a Year”, that enumerates the elements of Wilson’s erratically brilliant early career; “Isn’t He Something”, where Mama Mizner reveals her true feelings about Wilson; “You”, where Addison dispenses architectural joy around Palm Beach; and “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”, where Addison and Hollis touchingly and simply reveal their love for each other.

Jon RobynsYay! You can now select your seat online, rather than trust to the Menier’s system to deal with your seat request fairly, which has in the past made one very grumpy indeed. Thank heavens for that improvement. It’s so rewarding to see the Menier back on really top form again too. After a number of flops and so-so shows, it’s back where it should be, hosting one of London’s must-see productions.