Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Ashfield’

I saw this show on Broadway 15 months ago (sorry about the location-dropping!) and was a bit underwhelmed. I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it lived up to the ‘best musical of this century’ hype. It had been running a year at that point. This London clone has been running three months and the first thing that struck me last night was how fresher it seemed – performed with more gusto, energy & enthusiasm.

I’ve never seen South Park or anything else by the show’s creators / writers, so I’m not pre-programmed to their humour. It’s a bit like those Seth Rogan / Judd Apatow films – trying a bit too hard to shock, pushing things a little too far on occasion, hilarious in parts but so relentless that it inevitably lags in others.

I probably don’t need to tell you that it’s about a bunch of newly graduated Mormon missionaries, two of which are sent to Uganda and fail miserably to meet their baptism targets. Most of the humour comes from the clash of cultures and it draws a fine line laughing with /at the Africans. It’s also taking big risks using AIDS (and possible cures) as the butt of a lot of its jokes, one of the things that for me went too far.

It sets up a pace that it’s difficult to sustain, so there are genuinely more laughs than almost any other musical comedy, but that has the effect of making the bits between the laughs seem a lot longer. The music seemed a lot better on second hearing, albeit most of it parodying the genre. It’s particularly good lyrically though. The design is (presumably) a bit of a parody too, but it also makes you smile.

It’s the performances that made this second showing for me. I’d seen and admired Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham on Broadway, but here he was better matched by Gavin Creel’s excellent Elder Price and surrounded by a better ensemble whose sense of fun was infectious. Stephen Ashfield seemed completely at home as Elder McKinley, Alexia Kadime was an excellent Nabulungi (is the running gag about her name new? I don’t remember it) and there were great turns from Giles Terera as Mafala Hatimbi and Chris Jarman as a positively terrifying General.

It is well worth seeing and it does add a lot to the musical comedy cannon (but not ‘most shocking’; a crown still held by Jerry Springer – The Opera). You’ll have a lot of fun as long as you don’t expect ‘the best musical of this century’.

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A musical comedy set in 30’s London & Paris in the style of the period (Noel Coward, Ivor Novello) but where no-one bats an eyelid at same-sex relationships and marriage! Clever.

American journalist and playboy Casey O’Brien misses the story of Edward & Mrs Simpson, so instead chases the story of the forthcoming marriage of American millionaire Clarence Cutler to British Aristocrat Guy Rose, but in doing so he falls for Guy himself. If this was covert rather than overt, you really could be watching an undiscovered Ivor Novello show.

In addition to scenes in iconic 30’s London locations – the Savoy, The Dorchester – we also go to Paris where Guy’s aunt Josephine, black sheep of the family, is a racy entertainer at Les Folies, where Guy briefly entertains too. Casey gets his man and we end at the wedding.

It’s a great score and a good book and Gene David Kirk’s staging in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre is nothing short of miraculous, as is Lee Proud’s brilliant choreography (including a tap-dancing bell-boy who brings the house down). Alice Walkling’s superb design enables them to create a hotel bedroom, church, restaurant, bar, club, station, dressing room and theatre and occupy them with 13 actors dancing in a space not much bigger than my living room!

Stephen Ashfield is excellent – and in great voice – as Casey, with a realistic American accent that no doubt benefits from his period in Jersey Boys. Ben Kavanagh has superb comic timing and gets more laughs from Clarence’s lines than are probably there on paper. Craig Fletcher makes a great transformation from geek to hunk by just removing his specs and rearranging his hair.

It was written in 1975 by Americans Bill Solly and Donald Ward and ran off-Broadway but not even Wikipedia can shed more light, so a huge thank you to MD Stefan Bednarczyk for buying the record and persisting for 27 years to bring this delightful show to us.

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I first saw this Sondheimesque show four years ago at the even smaller New End Theatre in Hampstead where the young couple was Stephen Ashfield (who went on to be a Jersey Boy) and Emma Williams (soon to open in the transfer of Love Story from Chichester – more of her in the footnote!).

The show intertwines the stories of a young couple about to get married with another about to get divorced 10 tears and one son later. Both couples are on stage virtually throughout and there is little dialogue, so it feels more like a songspiel. I found it hard to get into it or even care about the characters in the first half, but things looked up in the second. It’s a clever show – maybe too clever for it own good; this might actually inhibit emotional engagement with the characters – but four years on still seems unfinished.

The Landor have attracted Jon Lee and Julie Atherton, who together with Grant Neal and Yvette Robinson, make a decent job of it. In truth, though, it wasn’t ready at this last preview. The cast do not yet seem comfortable, they and the band didn’t seem to have  quite mastered the complex score and there were issues with lighting and sound. Chris de Wilde’s design, though, is superb – an ‘Ikea’  wall of 45 large boxes onto which there are projections and into which props go in and out. 

It was often far too loud for the style and subject matter, though in contrast Julie Atherton was occasionally inaudible. I’d question the wisdom of amplification in this small space – with the inclusion of percussion, this is probably necessary, but it’s a chamber piece, so maybe a quieter orchestration without amplification would be better.

With hindsight, I wish I’d gone later in the run by which time I’m sure it will be very much the finished article.

* Emma Williams must be one of the most unlucky leading ladies in Britain. After being one of the youngest ever as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang early in career, she was part of the Bat Boy failure (which I actually liked!) then got unsigned as the alternate Maria when Connie Fisher went public on doing all 8 shows a week, then flopped again in Desperately Seeking Susan (where I lost a money!). In between though we got successful fringe outings of this show and Model Girl plus Sweeny Todd (the show, not the role!) with Bryn Terfel & Maria Friedman during the RFH re-opening season.

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