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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Poon’

From the moment the cast tap danced down the aisles onto the stage to Puttin’ on the Ritz, I was in musical theatre heaven. The Mill at Sonning’s Christmas musicals have become a treasured tradition in a very short period of time and waiting two years for this was agony, but it was worth the wait.

The show was made as a film in 1935 and only got on stage ten years ago with the world premiere in the UK, spending 2.5 years in the West End, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical. When I saw it, I wasn’t that keen; I thought the production was too conservative, like a museum piece, with a wooden lead performance from Tom Chambers (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/top-hat). This first revival, directed by Jonathan O’Boyle, is much much fresher.

British producer Horace Hardwick brings Broadway star Jerry Danvers to perform in London, where he meets and falls in love with fellow American Dale Tremont. The trouble is she thinks he’s Horace, and is not prepared to entertain a relationship with her friend Madge’s husband. Things become farcical when Jerry & Horace visit Madge in Venice, where Dale has already gone. Dale rushes into marriage with Italian dress designer Alberto before the truth is revealed, but the marriage proves to be invalid and it all ends happily.

Jason Denvir’s art deco design and Natalie Titchener’s costumes are gorgeous. Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is fresh and vibrant with some terrific tap dancing and fabulous ballroom dances for Jerry & Dale. Jack Butterworth shines as Jerry, with Billie-Kay as his love interest, and Paul Kemble is excellent as the much put upon and bashed about Horace. We don’t see much of Tiffany Graves, a favourite of mine, in the first act but she commands the stage as Madge in Act II. There’s a fine Italian comic caricature from Delme Thomas as Alberto, and a delightful set of comedy disguises from Brendan Cull as Horace’s loyal valet Bates.

Irving Berlin’s score includes such gems as Isn’t it a Lovely Day, Cheek to Cheek, Lets Face the Music and Dance and of course the title song (with White Tie and Tails!) brilliantly played by Chris Poon’s hidden band, which I was shocked to discover was only a trio (including him!).

Matthew White & Howard Jacques’ book is it’s weak spot, it’s a touch long, but its a delight nonetheless, as good as anything on a West End stage.

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I saw a preview of the Broadway production of this show in 2012, with soon to be West End bound Matthew Broderick and the recent Broadway / West End star of The King & I, Kelli O’Hara. I predicted a big hit, but it only ran for 15 months and never crossed the Atlantic, so its down to Upstairs at the Gatehouse to give us the first London look, as they did with Nine to Five fifteen months ago, which is now getting a West End outing.

It’s actually a Gershwin compilation musical, like Crazy For You, with a fairly daft but funny book by Joe DiPietro based on material by P G Wodehouse & Guy Bolton. It’s the days of prohibition and bootleggers are using the Long Island seaside mansion of Jimmy Winter’s mother to stash their booze while the family aren’t in residence. Twice married Jimmy embarks on a third with Senator Evergreen’s daughter Eileen, an exponent of modern dance, and goes home for his honeymoon, so the bootleggers have to don disguises and pose as staff. From here, just about everyone falls in love with someone so that we have four couplings by the end, almost two-thirds of the characters!

Director John Plews and choreographer Grant Murphy work wonders in the small space and Chris Poon’s band sounds way bigger than a sextet, doing full justice to Gershwin’s songs and incidental music, also pinched from his back catalogue. The score includes standards like Someone to watch over me, Let’s call the whole thing off, ‘S wonderful, Fascinating rhythm and the title song of course. The musical standards are as high as the dancing ones, and you can’t help getting swept away by the energy, enthusiasm and sense of fun.

Alistair So is a real find, an outstanding romantic lead with a great voice. His leading lady was ill, so assistant choreographer Amy Perry stepped in. She obviously knew the dances, but had to learn the songs and carried her script. She’s a performer too and her vocals were excellent. A really triumphant stand-in performance. Charlotte Scally is a hysterical delight as squeaky Eileen, her contemporary dance sequences bringing the house down. Then there are two terrific veterans of musical theatre just as at home on West End stages – David Pendlebury as Cookie and Nova Skipp as the senator’s sister Estonia. It’s as fine a supporting cast as you’d wish for.

It might not have Broadway production values, but I think I had a lot more fun above a pub in Highgate than at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway at a fraction of the price. Try and catch the last few performances if you can.

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