Cabaret – 2013 tour (4.5*)

2013-10-21Ruth’s 4.5* review:

This was my second viewing of this production of Cabaret this year, which seems a little excessive except that Will Young was so extraordinary in it that I had to see it again now it has left the West End and is on tour.

I’ll not go over old ground, it is essentially the same as last time and you can read my thoughts on that here.

The main change was to the female lead playing Sally Bowles.  Last time Michelle Ryan was lacklustre.  This time Siobhan Dillon did a lovely job.  It was a different interpretation of Sally Bowles to either Michelle Ryan or Liza Minelli.  Less desperate and defiant.  Siobhan’s Sally Bowles had a manic sweetness about her – very posh totty, very highly strung, very vulnerable.  And as the show went on, she unravelled.  Cabaret – her swan song – was heartbreaking.

Worth emphasising, Will Young was charismatic and exquisite and this alone is worth seeing Cabaret for.  In particular, his Tomorrow Belongs To Me was wonderful – so pure, and then so appalling.  Has to be one of the best endings to a first act in any musical I’ve seen (except maybe defying Gravity in Wicked).

I’d give this production a 4.5* – up half a star from last time, thanks Siobhan – but still not a perfect 5 because in my opinion the plot lacks a bit of pace.  It may be true that the meandering plot serves to set up the punch of the dark and shocking ending, but it lost my interest in places.

Ian’s 4.5* Review:2013-10-21

I agree with Ruth.

Will Young was mesmerising once again.  Siobhan was much better than Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles.  The production was good but not inspired, and the chorus didn’t quite sell the sexiness of the Kit Kat Club…

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Our House – 2013 Tour (2.5*)

2013-10-17Ian’s 2.5* Review:

We went to see Our House at the Festival Theatre. I LOVED Our House when we first saw it in the West End in London, and the same production again in Edinburgh a few years later. I love the energy, the music, the darkness and the staging.

This new touring production isn’t a patch on the West End production. It’s lost all of the energy, the music has lost its punch, the darkness has been replaced with razamataz, and the staging has become cliched.

The cast didn’t help. It’s small, and most people have to cover many parts as well as playing with the band. Perhaps it’s just too much for them, but the performances all lack real charisma. All of the darkness, irony, sarcasm, attitude, energy and authenticity of the original production has been replaced by blandness and razamataz. One member of the chorus (who also played a secretary and various other parts) looked like she was performing in a musical. The vocals were shaky in places, and downright tuneless at worst. Unambitious choreography lacked crispness of execution.

All in all very disappointing. I still enjoyed the music and spectacle, but it has become a sad shadow of what it was. I’ll be watching the DVD of the original production soon to cleanse my mind…

Ruth’s 2.5* Review:

When I first saw Our House in the West End about ten years back I thought it was a different class of musical.  Often I think the storylines of musicals are a little shallow or silly, but this was something different.  I thought this was a challenging, complicated and gritty play that happened to have songs in it – along the lines of Blood Brothers.  And I thought that (90% of the time at least) the songs added to the play and advanced the plot rather than being shoehorned in.  I bloody hate jukebox musicals, and despite Our House being based on the music of Madness I didn’t consider this to be one.

Well whatever they’ve done to this touring revival of Our House they’ve removed all of the integrity of the original.  It has been dumbed down, as if someone said ‘lets make this *fun*!’ and didn’t actually read the story.  It is now all cheesy High School Musical, except that High School Musical has a bit more charm, intelligence and charisma about it.  And better dancing.  And Zac Efron.

I’m sure if you’d not seen this before you could enjoy it for what it is, and I certainly enjoyed the songs and had a nice time being there.  But… it’s a shame.

On the plus side the set looks great and they do some cool things with some stylised house shaped lights.

From Here to Eternity (3.5*)

2013-10-04Ruth’s 3.5* review:

From Here to Eternity – based on the book and film – is Tim Rice’s new musical in previews in the West End this week. We were just passing through London and bought the cheapest of cheapie tickets (£15) instead of going to the pub or cinema. Then when we got there the balcony was shut and we were upgraded to middle stalls. Win?

I enjoyed From Here to Eternity throughout. The cast were pretty good, the songs were nice, the story was interesting.

Of particular note, the set was understated but very nicely done and the lighting was great and really added to the set and the ambiance.

Darius Campbell did a solid job as one of the leads, he has a lovely voice and it was a confident performance. I was in the same year as Darius at Edinburgh University. I didn’t know him, but I knew people that did. Weird to think.

I really liked the finale – which culminated in a song which was catchy, well presented and poignant. If I’d been more invested in the characters I’d have cried. But I wasn’t, so I didn’t.

Because, honestly, it was all kind of bland. Despite having some racy content and language the production overall felt old fashioned and I can’t say I’ll remember a huge amount about it next week. It lacked… something.

The other thing to mention is that the show was strewn with casual racism and homophobia, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. It wasn’t gratuitous, it was certainly in keeping with the time and often required to advance the plot. But… felt strange to a contemporary (and unashamedly PC-brigade) ear.

Ian’s 3.5* Review:

From Here to Eternity is a new musical by Tim Rice and with Darius in one of the lead roles. It only opened on Monday, and we bought cheap tickets before then in the spirit of adventure. As it turns out we needn’t have rushed, the upper circle wasn’t in use at all and we got upgraded to pretty good stalls seats.

The show is set in Hawaii in the run up to the Pearl Harbour attack, and follows the soldiers of G-company, most of whom have enlisted for a 30-year stretch to escape the great depression, not really expecting war. The story follows the relationships, romances, and tribulations that ultimately end in a series of tragedies almost unrelated to the violence of war. It sounds like all the right ingredients are there for a dramatic and ultimately poignant show, but it never really felt like it got going properly.

The lighting and set are noticeably very good. The quality of the singing is above average although the dancing was a little slack. The pseudo-military physicality and dance seemed weak in comparison to the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch” (which I must watch again on DVD). There are some quite cool bits where the dancers go all slow-motion which are well done. The plot evolves a little slowly and I didn’t really feel involved by any of the characters. There are some good songs, but I don’t remember the tunes today so I won’t be out to buy the soundtrack. A few of the songs seemed to be there to remind any “hard of thinking” audience members what was going on and what everyone was thinking…

A very pleasant way to pass a couple of hours, but not a musical likely to become a new classic! 3.5* from me!

Jesus Christ Superstar (5*)

2013-10-01 Jesus Christ Superstar_0025Ian’s 5* Review:

Tonight we went to see the Jesus Christ Superstar Arena Tour at The Hydro. It was absolutely outstanding. HUGE thanks to Ruth for getting me tickets for my birthday.

I’m going to review this as 5*, which for me means that if on the way out the venue someone said “we’re going to run the show again right now – want to buy a ticket?” I would say “YES!”. It was that good.

The musical arrangement has changed very little from the 20th Anniversary London cast recording, which I considered to be almost flawless vocally before today. The setting has been modernised however, using in very 21st century imagery related to the anti-poverty movements in the UK, Greece and elsewhere during the financial crisis.

To me Judas (not Jesus) is the star of Jesus Christ Superstar. It is by far the most consistently technically challenging role, and a good Judas makes the show while a poor one kills it. Tim Minchin was beyond brilliant – I lack the words to express how good he was. His vocal we intense and emotional from start to end, showing huge range in every respect – whisper to yell, low to high, soft to harsh. His descent from worry into confusion and despair was painful to watch. He completely owned the part, and has ruined it for anyone else. He was the definitive Judas.

Mel C’s rendition of “I don’t know how to love him” nearly had me in tears. Her portrayal of Mary was as a more powerful than I have seen before, but it really worked and her performance was outstanding.

Ben Forster’s performance as Jesus was very good in the first half but felt overshadowed by the brilliance of Tim Minchin and Mel C. That made it all the more surprising when he kicked “Gethsemane” out of the arena at the start of the second part. Intense, emotional and with vocal technique not far off what Tim Minchin was delivering. An excellent Jesus all round, and perhaps a definitive version of Gethsemane.

The rest of the cast were also brilliant – I didn’t notice a single missed note or slipped beat from anyone. Even by Broadway or West End standards they were conspicuously good. Ciaphus stood out with a glorious bass voice and sinister attitude, Pontious Pilate wonderfully straightforward, and Annas suitably slimy. Chris Moyles played well to the crowd and put in a very respectable performance, but he didn’t stand out in this company.

The staging felt much bigger than could be accommodated in a theatre, and although in some ways it is quite simple (there are relatively few elements of scenery) it is stunningly effective. The stage is backed by a huge video screen, and I have seldom seen one used so effectively or with such variety. Sometimes the projected images blend with the physical sets, sometimes they are an abstract complement to the lighting, sometimes they are live video close-ups of the performances. The live video is very artfully, especially in the first meeting between Judas and Ciaphus where the use of clever shooting angles and focus is stunning.

The sound on the vocals was consistently excellent, with the ensemble well balanced with the leads. Given the dynamic vocal range and pitch range of some of the performers, this must have been a huge challenge. The only real criticism I can offer for the whole experience is that at times the band sound felt a little soggy – it lacked a certain crispness especially on the drums.

The Hydro only opened a couple of nights ago, and it seems like a brilliant venue. Most of the seats look like they will have a good, although as usual it will be a bit limited from right at the back in the gods, or right round the side. It seems to be running pretty smoothly, and the new parking garage is great (although some signs wouldn’t go amiss). Getting out of the car park was a bit of a free for all, but better than the old SECC parking arrangements as you can pay before the gig rather than everyone trying to pay at once after. Traffic onto the main routes seemed to flow more freely too.

Ruth’s 5* Review

2013-10-01I have always liked Jesus Christ Superstar a lot.  I wouldn’t say it is really a cool musical to love (if there is such a thing) but I’ve thought the songs were catchy and sat well together, and the lyrics were witty and intelligent.  But it is a tough one to perform – very technically challenging – and consequently productions of Jesus Christ Superstar can be terrible, or perhaps worse, baffling.  I’ve seen a few attempts of varying quality.

A lot of people appear to assume that if you like a musical you will automatically love any production of it, but I tend to be less forgiving and have high expectations for the ones that I like.  My expectations are rarely met.

I must have seen a hundred professional productions of musicals in my time – West End, Broadway and touring productions.  People often ask me which was my favourite and I find it hard to say.  Few are perfect, many have excellent elements and are let down on others.  I usually say the 2003 West End revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie was the best.

Well now the Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour is the best.  This production was absolutely exceptional and it exceeded my expectations in every respect.  It is a tremendous example of how you should perform in a musical, how you should stage a musical, and how you should revive a musical for a contemporary audience.  And crucially the vocal performances were super-strong all round.

This musical was first performed in 1971 and it would be so easy for it to look old fashioned.  But they’ve done something amazing with this one.  I have never seen such a contemporary staging of anything.  It just felt so *now*, as if it were written last week. IMG_0116a

Firstly it looked great.  It was all set up to make one think of the recent anti-poverty movements and protests with dreadlocks and tents and gritty urban imagery.  The set was quite simple, but was supplemented with projections of images, text, and live video footage.  It was very creative and the timings and framing were impeccable.  This was often done very cleverly to increase or decrease perceptions of the size of the stage, to make it appear that there were more people on stage, and for tongue in cheek embellishments. Stuff came down from above.  People flew.  And there was fire.

But it was the cast in combination with the music and lyrics that really made it.

The chorus were spot on, tight and accurate and there were excellent supporting performances from darkly suited-and-booted Ciaiphas and Pilate.

The part of Herod was clearly written for a cameo to bring a bit of razzmatazz, and Chris Moyles has a decent go.  Perhaps in other productions I’d have been raving about him, but despite being absolutely good enough he was thoroughly out-charismaed by the three leads.

TAFKA Sporty Spice, Melanie C, plays a defiant Mary Magdalene with a strangely sordid sensuality as befitting a contemporary protester-cum-prostitute.  Her solo pieces were quite touching and she really captured the essence of a woman who was acting completely out of character because she felt compelled to love a ‘different’ man, and was totally thrown off-balance by the whole idea.

Jesus was played by Ben Forster, winner of ITV’s Superstar.  He gave a very credible performance throughout, and again in any normal production he would have stood out.  To start with I thought he was a little weak in the way of his Jesus-ness.  Yes, a bit cocky, a bit smug, but he wasn’t quite dominating the stage and I wasn’t sure I’d have followed him.  But after the Last Supper, symbolically alone with his thoughts, Ben Forster kicked the arse out of the song Gethsemene by taking us through the five stages of grief in just one song as Jesus accepted his fate.  A decisive but eerie delivery of the conclusion of this thought process – “take me now before I change my mind” – was for me the highlight of the whole production.  Following this, the stoic acceptance of what was yet to come and then what eventually came was masterful.  Having decided, he stood there and took it.  It was brave, and it was terrifying.

IMG_0134aHowever, Tim Minchin as Judas acted everyone else off the stage.  He simply owned it.  From the first song he set Judas out as being a man in turmoil, who simply didn’t know what to do for the best.  He took us from confused desperation (“I remember when this whole thing began.  No talk of God then, we called you a man.  And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died. But every word you say today gets twisted round some other way.  I am frightened by the crowd for we are getting much too loud”) to chaotic despair (“I have no thought at all about my own reward. I really didn’t come here of my own accord. Just don’t say I’m damned for all time”), to desolation (“God I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime”), and out the other side to a taunting and malevolent hallucination of a narrator (“Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned”).  He was physical, he was emotional, and his vocals were exceptional.  He made me believe that if I was in his position I would have done the same thing, and he made me believe that Judas should be the seminal role that every musical theatre actor should aspire to play.

I’ve read the source book, I’ve had a culturally Christian upbringing, and I’ve seen this show several times and listened to the CD even more.  I know what it is about.  But the depth of the performances in this production made me see new things the story – or perhaps more accurately in the songs and in this interpretation.  Certainly I felt it more deeply.

The relationship between Jesus and Judas.  Complicated.  Love/hate.  Uncertainty around whether roles were pre-defined by God or Fate or whether free will led them to this unpleasant conclusion.

The scale of the betrayal.  By Judas, by Peter, by the fair-weather friends who were happy to take from Jesus when the times were good and dump him when the going got hard.

The juxtapositions.  The major “Hey JC, JC you’re alright by me” to the minor “Hey JC, JC won’t you die for me?”.  The silliness of King Herod amongst the precariousness and severity of Jesus’s position.  The rumination around who could, or would, or should be remembered for what transpired.  Both for Jesus: “I must be mad thinking I’ll be remembered”, and yet of Judas: “What you have done will be the saving of everyone. You’ll be remembered forever for this.”

When Jesus died (spoiler!) and the solar eclipse settled over the cross, a light swept across the audience signifying both the exquisiteness of Jesus’s sacrifice and the complicity of everyone who stood by and let it happen.  It was for us, but it was by us.

Overall, the production was laden with doom from end to end, with a feeling that fate and destiny were out of control and rolling towards something horrific.  It was uncomfortable viewing, it was touching and complicated and awful and wonderful.  I was often open mouthed, equally in awe of the performances and stunned by the plot.  If it hadn’t felt so contemporary it wouldn’t have been so shocking.

I loved it, and if someone had given me the option I would have walked straight back in and watched it again.

The cost of tickets for this show is steep and we were lucky enough to get a two-for-one deal on top price tickets (usually £72).  But this was well worth the full price, and more.

The Book of Mormon (4*)

2013-09-06Ruth’s 4* Review:

I absolutely love the cartoon movie musical South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut so was delighted to learn that the writers of this had written an original stage musical in The Book of Mormon.  I tried to see it on Broadway two years ago but tickets were booked out months in advance, and we booked for this and paid a hefty £75 each five months back.

In The Book of Mormon, two naïve young Mormon missionaries (Elder Price and Elder Cunningham) are sent to Uganda to spread the word and baptise the locals.  But of course preaching the Mormon religion in the gritty reality of Africa causes all sorts of shenanigans and a crisis of faith.

To my surprise The Book of Mormon takes a more considered and balanced approach to presenting the Mormon religion than I had expected.  It isn’t an out-and-out mockery and it certainly isn’t cruel or even particularly cynical.  Granted, the naivety of the Elders’ approach to the religion presents it as a ‘self mocking’ religion and this is cleverly reinforced by the African people’s reaction to it.  But this isn’t Jerry Springer the Opera, or even Jesus Christ Superstar in how far it goes.  And the Mormons are cool with that.  Rather than kicking up a fuss they have taken out adverts in Broadway Playbills encouraging audiences to find out more.  Good for them, shows a bit of class.

So they say, Matt Stone (one of the show’s creators) described The Book of Mormon as “an atheist’s love letter to religion.”  I can absolutely relate to that, to me the beauty in the piece related to its hopeful and optimistic message that a lot of religious people are doing their best to do good.  Religion is the tool that inspires them and the specifics of the message are less important than the good they do.  I’m grateful for people in my life who have used religion to do good for me, and this shone through The Book of Mormon and made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Worry not though, The Book of Mormon is filthy and outrageous too.  It is tongue in cheek, and silly, and rude.  In some places it goes well beyond what the audience for stage musicals will be used to.  Lots of laughs, some gasps of horror, and plenty of speechless silence.  And there’s some parodies of the musical genre in there too which is fun for a musical lover.  Overall The Book of Mormon is very coherent and cleverly done.  The songs are great, plenty are catchy enough to hum for days after.  We talked and laughed about all sorts of bits of it afterwards.  For me the highlights were the African people’s AmDram production of the origins of the Mormon religion, plus the song ‘I Believe’ which I think might be genius.

So I enjoyed it, and some of my friends loved it.  The audience gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation.  And I thought it was… pretty good.  A very solid production and decent in all respects.  But.  It could have been better, it almost felt like they were not trying hard enough and coasting along on the hype.  The singing was just about adequate, the dancing was just about adequate.  But that’s all really.  It lacked a certain tightness and charisma and energy.  If the performances were as intelligent and witty as the writing this could have been amazing – and I bet the Broadway version was just that.

Ian’s 4* Review:

I really enjoyed The Book of Mormon, and the humour was clever and generally good-natured enough to get away with being outrageous at times. Given what a huge deal it is in the West End at the moment (after its massive success on Broadway) I was slightly surprised that the cast seemed good but not excellent. The dancing wasn’t that tight, the musical performances were competent but unspectacular and there was a bit of a lack of charisma and chemistry.  A great show with a slightly mediocre cast by the standards of the West End or Broadway.

 

Munch (4.5*)

Ruth’s 4.5* review:

This is how poetry should be done.  Wow.  I would find it hard to fault this except that the venue was a bit cramped and noisy.  This performance was extremely well thought through and performed.  Detailed, pacey, hilarious, varied.  The content was rhythmic and witty and onomatopoeic and it was so well delivered by two charming and talented guys that it was quite mesmerising.  Very good, loved it, but the subject matter is probably not for everyone.

Ian’s Review 4.5*

Absolutely brilliant!

A likeable duo with content varying from prose to poetry and occasionally bursting into song.  Modern, fresh, enjoyable and at times downright hilarious.  I wish I could remember the words of the song they did to the tune of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins, but I was too busy laughing.  Having said all that, the subject matter will not be for everyone – this is about a gay couple’s first foray into the BDSM community!

(title of show) (4*/3.5*)

Ruth’s 4* Review:

A musical about some people writing a musical, and their journey to Broadway.  It had wonderful elements to it in that it was postmodern, tongue in cheek and the singing was outstanding.  It was a musical lover’s musical, with a few bits and pieces of references in there.  Some of the songs were catchy, I’m still humming ‘I’d rather be nine people’s favourite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favourite thing’.  But somehow the whole thing lacked a bit of emotional connection and depth that might have made me love it more.

2013-08-10 Fringe 0001Ian’s 3.5* Review:

We saw a couple of songs from Title of Show at a BBC event a few nights ago, which inspired us to come and see the full show.  The show is a meta-musical which is about the writing of the musical itself.  Quirky and entertaining, the musical performances are excellent but only the song “9 people’s favourite thing” which we had already seen is really memorable.