Tag Archives: 3 stars

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

First and only Sondheim of the season.

MatthewHomquist_Merrill_We_Roll_Along

FRINGE RUN: 12/8-24/8 (not 18th) @ 10:10; Greenside [£5]

Who, Where and When: Red Oak Theatre; Greenside; Saturday 17th August 2013; 10.10am

The Show

One should be under no illusions about Sondheim. His work is genius, but it’s not easy to get right. Merrily We Roll Along follows the life of composer Franklin Shepard, starting at the end of the story as his success crumbles away around him when he realises that on the way to fame and wealth, he has lost the people he cares about the most. The story then travels back in time, reversing the decisions Franklin makes, and ending at the start, where he and his closest friends have nothing but optimism.

As is always the case, Sondheim’s musical score is exquisite, with multi-layered harmonies and a huge range of songs incorporating both lyrical numbers, and more dialogue-based elements. Tying the whole score together, the title song “Merrily We Roll Along” is used to designate the movement back in time.

The story as a whole is typical of the “American dream” genre of American art. In this particular case, some of the American dream rhetoric is challenged (that about wealth and fame being the highest form of success) while others (doing what your heart desires no matter what) are underscored as morally good. Certainly, if this is Sondheim commenting on his experience of success, he implies that his fame as a composer is not as important to him as the musical works he has produced. However, I doubt Mr Sondheim is strapped for cash yet he censures Franklin for making decisions which bring financial gain at the cost of his art.

The Cast

Unfortunately, I feel Stephen Sondheim is in the same category as Jason Robert Brown – best not attempted by amateurs. Although this cast did well to perform the music, I felt there was significant depth missing in their acting performances. I didn’t really believe the depth of the friendship between Franklin (Henry Adams) and Charley (Andrew Horton) – I mostly wondered what they could possibly have seen in each other. Franklin was too business minded, and Charley too geeky, and so they seemed to fundamentally have nothing in common. Equally, though Mary Flynn (Rosie Archer) is supposed to be in love with Franklin, she mostly came off as lonely and desperate, rather than devoted. I felt the direction left this whole show a cast of caricatures, which trivialised the deep and powerful emotions running through the musical score.

There were also significant problems with audibility at times as not all of the cast had mics. Although the central cast were afforded amplification, there was no such grace given to the supporting chorus or peripheral characters and as a consequence there were a lot of lines which were not clear over the volume of the live band. It would have been a better decision to either mic everyone, or no one, rather than having a mixture.

The band, I must say, were brilliant, and I really enjoyed being able to see the musicians on set. I have seen shows of this difficulty suffer from lack of a conductor, but that was not the case here.

Overall

This is not one of Sondheim’s most innovative or exciting musicals, although it is not without merits. However, I was underwhelmed by the performances of this cast. A less difficult show might have seen them produce very good theatre. As it is, this is little more than mediocre. The band, should, however, be congratulated for being the highlight of the show for me – I actually think I spent as much time watching the musicians as the actors!

Notable Songs

  • Franklin Shepard Inc – Charley (Hard)
  • Not a Day Goes By – Beth (Medium)
  • Good Thing Going – Charley (Hard)

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥

Review: Putting It Together

The second of Trinity College London’s Fringe Shows this year, which they also invited me to review.

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FRINGE RUN: 7/8 – 10/8 @ 20:45; Paradise at the Vault (29); [£7.00/£6.00]

Who, Where and When: Trinity College London/The Dance School of Scotland; Paradise at the Vault; Wednesday 7th August 2013; 8.45pm

The Show

There’s not much in the way of the show to review. Three actors performed a linked set of speeches, songs and dance, each centred around a theme. I was impressed with the variety of content, and the way in which the scenes were linked. It certainly inspired me to look more at Trinity musical theatre exams in the future.

The Cast

The first performer, Dylan Wood, chose the theme “As Blue as the Pacific” which was a series of speeches and songs telling the tale of a man spending time in prison. His dancing during “Cool” (West Side Story) captured both the flavour of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and the feelings of his character of being trapped in the prison cell. I’m not sure I loved the interpretation of “Purpose” (Avenue Q), but overall this was a strong vocal performance. The extended monologue about a fork was superb – Dylan shows real talent as an actor.

Our second act of the night was Caitlin Muir on “Battle of the Sexes”. I really enjoyed the opening number, a duet about the titular war. Unfortunately, Google has, so far, let me down in my search for the title and origins of the song (if anyone reading this knows, please do comment below!). I really enjoyed Caitlin’s speech about her husband’s fat arse, which elicited plenty of laughter from the audience. However, I don’t think the songs chosen did justice to her voice, which was had very little belt to it, and would probably be more suited to operatic soprano roles than musical theatre ones. Both Caitlin and Amy, the final performer, were overly nasal which spoiled voices which otherwise have great potential.

The final theme of the evening was “The Single Life” performed by Amy Maltman. Her dancing was great, although she perhaps over-sold “Gimme, Gimme” (Thoroughly Modern Millie) as it isn’t quite such a cheerful song in its original context. Her dancing was excellent, and this was brilliantly reprised with her efforts on “Ring Them Bells” (A Kander and Ebb song from Liza with a Z).

Overall

The performance as a whole was a mixed effort with some excellent performances, but a number of much weaker ones too. Given the age and stage of the performers this was an admirable effort, but too inconsistent to be awarded the highest ratings. All the performers this evening have plenty of potential, and I hope that they will all keep honing their skills in the future.

Of course, you can’t judge this production by any one review (even this one) as there are different performers scheduled every night of the run who will doubtless have different strengths and weaknesses. No matter who is performing, you’ll hear more than enough musical and theatrical gems to be glad you went.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥

Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman

From the writers of Cabaret and Chicago, Kander and Ebb have produced yet another dark, twisty and surreal musical. The group performing are students from UCL.

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FRINGE RUN: 1/8 – 15/8 @ 12:20; C minus 1 (34); [£9.50/£7.50/£5.50]

Who, Where and When: UCeLswhere, C minus 1, Friday 2nd August 2013, 12:20pm

The Show

Being a huge fan of Kander and Ebb’s most famous shows and their general musical style, I looked forward to seeing one of their lesser known works. Kiss of the Spider Woman takes its inspiration from an Argentine novel. This is reflected in the music which makes wonderful use of the Latin American sound to create vibrant song and dance numbers that lift an otherwise depressing story.

The first third of the show felt a little disorientated, and I was struggling to follow what was going on initially. I’m not entirely sure if that was the show or the cast as they got into their stride. However, once it got going, the plot moved along at a good speed and the musical numbers came thick and fast.

The biggest flaw with this show is that the subject matter is exceedingly heavy, to the point where the musical numbers are unable to lift it. There is also not the happy ending seen in Chicago that makes you forget that you just watched a show about women on death row. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, it’s too hard to escape that you’re watching a prison drama about gay men and Marxist revolutionaries. I wonder if this is because although the main characters do sing at times, the central singing role is given to a figment of Molina’s imagination.

The Cast

Given that this was a student production, the cast did a great job. This musical deals with deep adult themes, and many of the leads really captured the sense of both the story and the style in which it was told. Particular mention must be made of Stephanie Epperlein as Aurora as this is a hefty role with lots of singing, and her performance would not be out of place in a professional production. Of the two cell mates, Ben Whittle was a stronger Molina than Thomas Chesover as Valentin but they developed their relationship through the play well (though the latter did, perhaps, have a touch too much of the “Kurt Hummel”s about him…). The notable exception to the directorial choices was that of the Warden played by Jack Oliver Aaron. The character performs a role similar to the Emcee in Cabaret, but the director of this show had him played as aggressive. I felt he would have been more intimidating had he been played as calmly evil.

Notable Songs

  • And the Moon Grows Dimmer – Aurora (Medium)
  • I Do Miracles – Aurora/Marta (Medium)
  • You Could Never Shame Me – Molina’s Mother (Medium)
  • She’s a Woman – Molina (Medium)
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman – Aurora (Medium)

Overall

Kander and Ebb’s thirteenth collaboration is good, but not excellent. While their wonderful musical style captures the Latin American vibe, the source material lets them down. There are no happy endings for the characters as in Chicago, nor is the tragic end left to the imagination as in Cabaret. Kiss of the Spider Woman ultimately leaves you feeling quite down and has no glimmer of hope, which is not what you want from a musical. Overall, the cast were competent but not outstanding. There were some very talented performers which lifted the show, but not enough to overcome the misery of the show itself.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥ (3/5)

Review: 9 to 5

Last week saw the return of 9 to 5 The Musical to the Edinburgh Playhouse. Based on the 1980s film of the same name, this show has music written by Dolly Parton.

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When and where: Edinburgh Playhouse, Saturday 8th June 2013, 7.30pm

The Show

This show was entirely new to me, as I’ve not even seen the 1980s movie, so I didn’t really know what to expect from it. The first half, while opening well with the title song, was a little slow to get into the real plot, but the plot did pick up in the second half, albeit concluding with the most cheesy ending you could imagine. The movie origin also shows as the scenes are shorter than is usual for theatre, though the book has still been creatively adapted to prevent scene changes being too frequent.

The real highlight of this show for me was the music. I’m not a Dolly fan per se, but I really enjoyed all the songs. It’s not often that a show comes along with only one big male solo, verses four female solos, and that alone is enough for me to love it. The songs also carry the emotional depth of the story, and without them the plot would have likely fallen very flat. I would recommend looking out the original cast recording of this show, even if you never see it on stage.

The Cast

Like many musical tours, this show has been “stunt cast” with three of the five lead roles going to people who cut their performing teeth in TV. Both Ben Richards (Franklyn) and Jackie Clunie (Violet) have made the transition to theatre brilliantly. My friend who came with me said that Clunie was the first true alto she’d seen in a musical and, boy, does she have a voice. I’m sure she could have out sung her duet partner, Mark Willshire, with ease! Ben Richards also does brilliantly in the role of Franklyn, which requires more than a little confidence to do well in.

Natalie Casey (Judy) was, unfortunately, the weak link in the casting. Although she clearly has a good, strong voice, and good acting skills, she has been allowed by the director to over do the role of Judy to the point where there is little to no depth left to the character. Instead of being awkward but genuine, Casey’s performance is played for laughs to the point where her emotional moment of “Get Out, Stay Out” is not really convincing.

Of the rest of the cast, who all performed brilliantly (I always have so much admiration for ensemble and swing cast who never get a mention in reviews, but without whom we’d have no show), Amy Lenox as Doralee was the standout performer of the night. Her Texan accent and bubbly outside were marvellous, and yet she still let the confident outside slide away to really share the true feelings of her character in her solo “Backwoods Barbie”.

Dolly herself does make a cameo as a talking head in this show. It’s entirely unnecessary and actually detracts from the show’s content. I’m not sure why it was added in when the show transferred to the UK from Broadway.

Notable Songs

  • Backwoods Barbie – Doralee (Medium-Hard)
  • Heart to Heart – Roz (Hard)
  • One of the Boys – Violet (Medium)
  • Get Out, Stay Out – Judy (Medium-Hard)

Overall

All in all, an enjoyable girly evening, made sweeter by a deal offering a cocktail at the bar in with our ticket. If it’s touring to a venue near you, 9 to 5 is definitely worth a watch.

Rating ♥ ♥ ♥  (3/5)