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Posts Tagged ‘Arthur Laurents’

I was underwhelmed when I first saw this show in 2003 on Broadway, in Sam Mendes production with Bernadette Peters as Rose. That changed when Chichester presented it in 2014 with Imelda Staunton giving one of her many definitive performances. Now it’s Joanna Riding’s turn in Paul Kerryson’s production for the Buxton International Festival, and she rises to the occasion, commanding the stage, making the role her own. Surely this has to have more than the scheduled eight performances?

It’s the story of the ultimate pushy mom, determined to make her daughter a star, to live her own ambitions through her child. Rose creates a children’s act to showcase her favourite daughter June with other daughter Louise in the chorus of other kids. She takes them everywhere and anywhere to get stage time, but they never make the big time, going on for a long time beyond any definition of child act. June eventually runs away with fellow performer Tulsa, so Rose has to turn her attention to her other daughter. As vaudeville declines and burlesque takes off, she’s even prepared to push Louise beyond the point you’d expect any mom to do. Along the way former showbiz agent now candy salesman becomes infatuated with her, but both he and Louise have their breaking point. It’s based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, which tells you who Louise becomes, but on her terms, with both her and Herbie leaving Rose behind.

It’s a wonderful score, mostly for Rose, and the second show for which Sondheim wrote lyrics before doing both. It requires an actress of immense vocal and acting talent to pull it off and Joanna Riding does it brilliantly. In a career full of high spots, this tops them all, until the next one of course. She gets under the skin of Rose and you can see and feel all that single-minded determination, uncontrollable ambition and ballsiness. Monique Young is excellent as Louise, initially accepting of the background, reluctant to take over from June, becoming her own woman and wresting control of her life from Rose. David Leonard brilliantly conveys the unconditional loyalty of Herbie before he too can take no more. In an outstanding cast, Tiffany Graves shines (again!) as burlesque long-timer Tessie Tura, with great sidekicks in Alesha Pease’s Elektra and Rebecca Lisewski’s Mazeppa, their number You Gotta Get A Gimmick a real comic showstopper.

Paul Kerryson’s production has great pace without losing the power of the fine solo moments when we see the beating heart of Rose. David Needham provides fitting choreography and Ben Atkinson leads a fine thirteen piece orchestra which does full justice to Jule Styne’s music. The design team of Phil R Daniels, Charles Cusick Smith and Jake Wiltshire create the period, locations and aesthetics superbly whilst facilitating the pace of the production. The Buxton Opera House proves to be a great home for this show; it fits it like a glove.

This was such a treat which elevates the show, for me, from one of interest because of Sondheim’s involvement to a master work of 20th Century musical theatre. London, you’ve no idea what you’re missing!

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So the first Sondheim show I’m seeing after he’s left us is his biggest flop, which lasted for just nine performances after its 1964 opening night on Broadway. In recent years, though, the London fringe has been interested in it enough to stage it four times in less than twenty years. This is the fourth, and I’ve seen them all. It’s also the best.

It’s a satire without enough satirical bite. It has a Brechtian quality about it, but that doesn’t quite work either. One could argue it hasn’t stood the test of time, but it’s stage history suggests it never worked in the first place. What this production does, though, is invest it with a more manic quality, much more of a sense of fun and exceptional musical standards. If only someone would rewrite Arthur Laurents’ book.

In a bankrupt town, they search for a miracle that will bring in tourist bucks. A spring provides the opportunity. Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper and her three officials start to exploit their luck, or is it? So far so good. Then there’s the arrival of the residents (cookies) of the local asylum (the cookie jar) under the care of Dr Detmold, led by Nurse Fay Apple, intent on disproving the miracle. This derails it. A new doctor, J Bowden Hapgood, arrives (or is he?) and joins Nurse Apple, now in disguise as a miracle inspector from Lourdes. Let’s just forget the story, shall we?

The show does have three great songs which have had a life outside it, and two of them – There Won’t Be Trumpets and the title song – are sung by the nurse, and Chrystine Symone’s excellent vocals ensure they are highlights. The third – Everybody Says Don’t – showcases Hapgood, and Jordan Broatch delivers this superbly too. I’ve been following Alex Young’s career since she brought me to tears singing Send in the Clowns in A Little Night Music whilst training at the Royal Academy of Music (something Judi Dench and Hannah Waddingham hadn’t previously done!) and here she reveals a real flair for comedy as Cora, and sets the tone of the piece brilliantly.

The show has clearly been cast purely for talent, which makes it an exceptional diverse ensemble. I thought the musical standards achieved by MD Natalie Pound were outstanding and the venue’s troublesome acoustics were mastered by Justin Teasdale. This is a relatively new production team, led by director Georgie Rankcom, who bring new life to a dodgy show. The late Bridewell Theatre did well in 2003, as did Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 and the Union Theatre in 2017, but for me this comes out tops. Sondheim fans should be flocking to Elephant & Castle!

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It’s almost forty years since I first saw this show, in a Broadway revival, and it’s been in my top five musicals ever since, so I was excited to see what this new production by Nikolai Foster, without Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, would be like. The answer is ‘thrilling’.

The story is as timeless as the Shakespeare play on which it’s based, but it seems to resonate more in the UK today, given our struggle with gang culture and knife crime. Even though the setting and period, book and lyrics, remain unchanged, it has a contemporary feel and edgy aesthetic, Ellen Kane’s new choreography contributing greatly to this, which makes it feel very fresh. The design team of Michael Taylor (set), Edd Lindley (costumes) and Guy Hoare (lighting) have respected the period whilst somehow making it feel like now. A luxury fifteen piece band under MD George Dyer do full justice to Bernstein’s brilliant score.

It’s been a great pleasure watching Jamie Muscato grow into such a fine performer and here he is owning one of musical theatre’s great roles, with breathtaking renditions of Something’s Coming, Tonight and Maria. Maria is superbly played and sung by Puerto Rican Adriana Ivelisse, here to study musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, but looking like she doesn’t need to (note to self – RAM student productions in 2020!). Carly Mercedes Dyer is a terrific Anita, leading America with Abigail Climer’s Conesuela and Mireia Mambo’s Rosalia, who both also stand out in I Feel Pretty. Then there’s another fifteen in this superb cast, enhanced by a ‘young company’ of local trainees, who fill the stage, most notably during a rousing, moving Somewhere.

The Curve has been working with the police and the local community on the issues covered in the show (how often do you get a programme note by the Chief Constable?!) which underlines the ongoing relevance of this sixty-year-old show, here feeling like its brand new. Thrilling.

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This was only the second show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and it was his first flop, running for only 21 performances (12 of which were previews!), though in my view it’s lack of success is more to do with Arthur Laurents’ story / book. It’s a satire about corruption in local government which we last saw here at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations.

The nameless US town is bankrupt and Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (the musical theatre debut of Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production!) and her treasurer, judge and head of police invent a miracle spring to put the town on the map and restore its fortunes, and line their pockets at the same time. They have to stop the lunatics (here called cookies) from the sanatorium (here called the cookie jar – this is 1964!) from visiting, lest the lack of a cure becomes too obvious.

What follows is a romp involving cookies, townspeople and the corrupt gang of four, until they are usurped by another miracle in a nearby town. Nurse Apple, with the help of new doctor Hapgood (who isn’t, as we later find out) try to destroy patient records and set them free, but fail. It’s daft, but not daft enough to be good daft and the score is just OK, though here the choruses shone bright, better than most of the solos and ensembles. Sondheim was learning his craft; it’s the work of a novice, but interesting to see where genius starts.

Phil Willmott has more space at the Union than they did in Jermyn Street and he uses it, most notably during a chase on foot when the numbers appear to swell significantly through clever (and exhausting) staging. Holly Hughes’ choreography is energetic, sometimes frenetic, with tap and ballet thrown in for good measure. I felt the production was a touch ragged and might also have benefited from a little more restraint. There clearly wasn’t much of a design budget!

The stand-out performances for me were Rachel Delooze as the nurse and Oliver Stanley as Hapgood, though in all fairness their roles do allow them to breathe rather more than the others. The rest of the mostly young cast sing and dance their socks off.

Just for Sondheim ‘collectors’, I’d say.

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Musical theatre lovers are very precious about this show. Many consider it the greatest Broadway has seen, but I wouldn’t agree with that (Guys & Dolls and West Side Story, to name but two, would be ahead of it in my list). The only other time I saw it, on Broadway with Bernadette Peters as Mamma Rose 10 years ago, right in the middle of the show a huge man stood up, said ‘well, she ain’t no Ethel Merman’ and stomped out of the theatre. It’s forever associated with Merman and Angela Lansbury, who was London’s first Mamma Rose, and any actress attempting it is very brave indeed.

It’s the archetypal showbiz show and Rose is the archetypal stage mom, pushing her daughters forward relentlessly, regardless of their own wishes. She keeps their kids act way beyond its sell-by date, recycling it with variations on a theme. She loses her youngest and favourite June, who escapes and elopes, only to turn her attention to the elder Louise who she had hitherto virtually ignored. The declining standards of the act and the demise of vaudeville happen simultaneously and they find themselves in burlesque, providing cover for the racier stuff. In her final act of self obsessed determination, she puts Louise on stage as a stripper, renamed Gypsy Rose Lee, the real life person on whose memoirs it’s based.

It’s got a very good score by Jules Styne, with a high quota of standards, a book by Arthur Laurents and terrific lyrics by Stephen Sondheim no less. A bit of a dream team, I’d say. Chichester has matched it with their own creative dream team – director Jonathan Kent (responsible for their stunning Sweeney Todd just three years ago), inventive choreographer Stephen Mear and Designer Anthony Ward (who co-incidentally designed my only other Gypsy – which was itself directed by Sam Mendes!). The band under Nicholas Skilbeck make a thrilling sound; I can still hear that wonderful brass.

Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand brought the house down as strippers who Gotta Get A Gimmick, Lara Pulver plays the transition from second string daughter Louise to star Gypsy Rose Lee superbly and Gemma Sutton is great as favourite daughter June growing up before your very eyes. I was surprised to see Kevin Whately cast as Herbie, but he pulled it off. What can you say about Imelda Staunton? Following a definitive Mrs Lovett with a brilliant down-on-her-luck Boston woman in Good People to this truly commanding performance. I knew she’d act it well, but the vocals were a revelation. She started with a great Some People, ended the first act with a stunning Everything’s Coming Up Roses and ended the show with a deeply emotional Rose’s Turn. She inhabits this single-minded woman, combining humour with an extraordinary range of emotions – whilst singing and dancing! You don’t see many performances that good in a lifetime of theatre-going; thrilling stuff.

London producers are now spoilt for choice – should they transfer Guys & Dolls or this or both? I’d put my money on this for sure – London has to see Dame Imelda’s finest hour.

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The pedigree of the creators of this show is second to none. It was composer Richard Rogers first show after the death of his partner Oscar Hammerstein. It was a return to the role of lyricist only, his third, for Stephen Sondheim, after his first two outings as composer / lyricist. It was writer Arthur Laurents fourth collaboration with Sondheim, including iconic shows like West Side Story and Gypsy. Sadly, it turned out to be probably the weakest work all three ever did.

It’s a flimsy story where American and Italian attitudes to love and life are contrasted. We’re at a pension in Venice where five American tourists are staying – a young couple visiting from their new home in Rome, an older more stereotypical American couple and singleton Leona on the look for love. Laurents’ book is weak, Rogers songs mediocre (and more than a bit twee) and Sondheim’s lyrics lack his trademark wit and fail to sparkle.

I’m not familiar with the work of production company Charles Court, but they appear to specialise in opera, Gilbert & Sullivan operetta and ’boutique’ panto – and it shows. The performance style is too broad, with exaggerated gestures and accents and a lack of any subtlety. The two leads have little chemistry, so their relationship lacked plausibility. Putting the piano / percussion duo centre stage (why percussion?), with just a painted backcloth and a couple of tables and chairs, makes it feel more like a concert than a show.

I remember the 2005 Landor production being better than this, so I have to conclude this production brings out the worst in an already weak show.

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