The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I confess to being one of those people who can get a bit obsessive about spelling, but I definitely don’t come up to the standard of the kids who take part in spelling bees in the US every year. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical about this very concept, with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. It originally debuted on Broadway in 2005.

The Drayton Arms Theatre is a small space above the pub of the same name, but the producers have transformed it into a technicolour school hall (you can see the basketball hoop in the top right corner) with the cast donning cartoonish costumes. We have presenter Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), a former Spelling Bee champion herself, accompanied by official word pronouncer Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Grey) and the glum ‘comfort counsellor’ Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde). Then, of course, there are the contestants, all from very different backgrounds and with their own hopes and dreams, which we get to see and understand during the course of the show.

As the competitors spell their way to a hopeful victory, we get to see what makes them tick. Tightly-wound Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere  (Lottie Johnson) wants to please her two dads, while shy Olive Ostrovsky’s (Thea J. Wolfe) parents haven’t turned up at all. William Barfée (T.J. Lloyd), who had to drop out of last year’s competition because he ate a brownie containing the nuts he is allergic to, has a ‘magic foot’ he uses to spell out the word on the ground. Eccentric Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) wants to prove he isn’t the idiot in the family, Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson) is distracted by Leaf’s sister, while child prodigy Marcy Park (Jeannie May) is tempted to lose so that she won’t have to be perfect any more. There are also several audience members involved (not me, thankfully) who are invited to compete and have a go at spelling increasingly obscure words.

The songs are great fun and often very witty, and many have a touch of sadness, as when Olive sings about the dictionary being her only friend. The wry commentaries and random word definitions were hilarious, and despite the small performance space, the cast really got stuck into the big numbers.

I really got into this show: it was great fun, performed with energy by the talented and enthusiastic cast.

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The Rink

Southwark Playhouse is known for its productions of lesser-known musicals, and when they announced a production of Kander and Ebb’s 1984 show The Rink, I booked straight away. Last night, I finally saw it.

The show, with a book by Terrence McNally, proved very different from what I expected – the publicity image of a pair of rollerskates made me imagine a glittery cheese-fest with plenty of skating. Instead, I got a profound mother-daughter drama with plenty of bittersweet nostalgia.

Anna has sold the skating rink she inherited from her father-in-law, and the demolition team has moved in. As they start packing up, Anna’s 30-year-old daughter Angel arrives; Anna hasn’t seen her for seven years, and the two soon begin to clash. Their turbulent relationship is explored through flashback, as we see how Angel’s father left when she was very young, leaving Anna to struggle on alone. There is plenty of resentment, guilt and bitterness, but there are also several touching moments as mother and daughter realise they aren’t all that different.

The cast are superb: Caroline O’Connor is excellent as the lively, determined Anna, while Gemma Sutton is great as her daughter Angel. The supporting cast of men switch easily between a number of roles, and their highlight is a number in Act 2 when they don skates in a show-stopping number about the grand old days of the rink.

Kander and Ebb’s score is rich, evocative and perfectly suited to its setting. The musical highlight is ‘Colored Lights’, in which Angel sings about her former rootless life and her longing for the bright lights of the rink. The music takes on a hippy-ish, 70s, California tinge when Angel sings about her travels, changing into a more traditional musical theatre mode for the rink itself.

A glorious, nostalgic homage to a bygone age, this is a must-see.

Young Frankenstein

Based on the 1974 Mel Brooks film, Young Frankenstein is a comedy musical which first premiered in 2007, directed by Susan Stroman (who also directs this production). It’s been at the Garrick Theatre for a few months now, and I finally got around to seeing it.

Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronk-en-steen) is the grandson of the original, but he has rejected his grandfather’s wacky experiments in favour of credible scientific research into the brain. However, when he inherits the family castle in Transylvania (a definite overlap with the Dracula story, here), he discovers that his grandfather may have been onto something after all.

With a book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, this is a very funny show, often quite rude – it’s not one for younger kids, but it’s hilarious for anyone a bit older. As Frederick Frankenstein, Hadley Fraser is the perfect leading man: he can do comedy and he can sing. Cory English as his sidekick, Igor, is also very funny.

Dianne Pilkington as Frederick’s American fiance gives a highly memorable performance, as does Summer Strallen as his Transylvanian assistant Inga. Lesley Joseph displays great comic timing as Frau Blücher, bringing the house down with her number ‘He Vas My Boyfriend’. Patrick Clancy is great as the leader of the mobbing villagers and a blind hermit into whose house the creature stumbles, while Nic Greenshields as the monster himself is by turns sympathetic and scary.

Beowulf Boritt’s set is fairly simple (with the notable exception of Frankenstein’s laboratory), but it works well, and I liked the nods to the original Frankenstein novel: the ship on which Frankenstein embarks from New York is called the Mary Shelley, and the family castle is decorated with portraits of Mary, her husband Percy Shelley, and other notable Romantic figures like Lord Byron.

Brooks’ songs are fairly memorable as well as being funny. Overall, Young Frankenstein is a very comedic-Hollywood update of the classic tale, but it’s no less good for that, and definitely worth seeing.

Chess

My earliest memory of Chess is hearing the cover of ‘I Know Him So Well’ by Steps, one of my favourite bands back in the day. I didn’t know it was a song from a musical at the time, and it’s taken me twenty years to actually have the chance to see the show. I suppose if you’re going to see a musical for the first time, seeing it played by a big orchestra at the London Coliseum isn’t a bad way to do it.

Originally written by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with lyrics by Tim Rice, Chess is one of the 80s big-budget shows, a dramatic musical which somehow makes chess, the ultimate complex intellectual game, exciting. We get an entire song dedicated to the history of chess, and a long sequence in which our two protagonists, the Soviet Sergievsky and his American challenger Trumper, glare at one another across a tiny table. Even in the huge Coliseum, it somehow works.

Of course, Chess isn’t just the story of the game itself, but a metaphor for the Cold War, as the USSR and the US vie for supremacy. There’s a personal tale, too, in the narrative of Sergievsky, who defects from Russia, leaving his wife and son to live with his new love Florence. Directed by Laurence Connor, the show works best in the big dramatic set-pieces, with superb choreography from Stephen Mear, especially in the opening number and other ensemble tracks. However, if some intimacy is lost in the more thoughtful moments, it’s worth it for the chance to see this cast in action. Michael Ball is excellent as Anatoly Sergievsky, his ‘Anthem’ a standout part of the show, with Cassidy Janson spellbinding as Florence. Tim Howar plays the brash American Trumper to perfection, while also drawing our sympathy in his big number ‘Pity the Child’. Alexandra Burke doesn’t have much to do as Anatoly’s wife Svetlana, but her solos, along with her duet with Janson – my old favourite ‘I Know Him So Well’ – are among the most memorable parts of the show.

It’s true that the plot is ridiculously complicated and tries to pack too much in: often, things seemed to be happening much too fast. However, this didn’t stop me from loving the show, and being thankful that I finally had the chance to see it.

Twang!!

Lionel Bart’s 1965 musical famously flopped dramatically, but that hasn’t stopped the Union Theatre staging a heavily revised version by Julian Woolford. Based on the Robin Hood legend, it sees Robin (Peter Noden) – who has lost his “twang” – try to stay one step ahead of Prince John (Lewis McBean), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Christopher Hewitt) and Guy of Gisborne (Ed Court), while also trying to win the hand of the lovely Maid Marian (Kweeva Garvey).

A camper musical possibly does not exist: a bunch of men hiding out in the forest together lends itself to jokes and innuendos, led by my favourite character, the exuberant Will Scarlett (Kane Verrall). He leads the troupe in a series of all-singing, all-dancing set-pieces, a group of characters who are knowingly trapped in a musical and loving it. Except Much the Miller’s Son (Joe Rose), that is, who is not a fan of this particular art form. Can the love of Marian’s lady-in-waiting Delphina (Jessica Brady) encourage him?

The Union has a knack for making the best of not-so-great material, and that is definitely true here. The innuendo gets tiring after a while, and the in-jokes and references to other musicals are funny at first but eventually begin to look like a lack of confidence in the show’s own material, a lack which is largely deserved, as there are few really standout songs (‘Silver Arrow’ is a notable exception). Having said that, the cast’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the choreography by Mitchell Harper is energetic and appealing.

In a way, it’s a shame this isn’t the original version of the show, as I’d be curious to see if it really was as bad as its reputation suggests. I’m not sure how closely this show actually sticks to the original, but as a piece of entertainment in it’s own right it’s well worth seeing.

The Grinning Man

One musical based on a novel by Victor Hugo is the most successful in West End history, so it’s surprising that no one has tried to adapt more of his novels before. This omission has been rectified with this adaptation of Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs, entitled The Grinning Man. With a book by Carl Grose, music by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, direction by Tom Morris and lyrics by all four, it’s one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in recent years.

Set in a murky alternate fairytale universe, where revellers flock to ‘Trafalgar Fair’ and King Clarence rules from his palace in Catford, the show takes on something of a twisted circus vibe. This is apparent from the start as we take our seats in an auditorium hung with ragged curtains in front of a stage bordered by a hideous grinning mouth.

Barkilphedro (Julian Bleach) introduces the story of Grinpayne, mutilated as a child and separated from his mother; along with the blind orphan Dea he is raised by Ursus (Sean Kingsley) and his pet wolf, Mojo. There is some beautiful use of puppetry to perform the young Grinpayne, as well as Mojo the wolf, whose every appearance on stage is a joy. Meanwhile, King Clarence dies and his three very different children – lazy Dirry-Moir, sensuous epicurean Josiana and mute Angelica -compete to rule. They all become entangled in Grinpayne’s story as he tries to discover the truth about what happened to him.

The show has an appealing, darkly humorous tone. Sharp and witty, it never wallows in tragedy or sentiment. There are some great performances from all involved, especially Louis Maskell as Grinpayne and Sanne Den Besten as Dea.

The music fits the story well, with ‘Stars in the Sky’ and ‘Labyrinth’ being particularly memorable. Utimately, I really enjoyed this show: a real treat.

Sondheim On Sondheim

The Royal Festival Hall played host to the BBC Concert Orchestra alongside a group of musical theatre stars (Liz CallawayDamian Humbley, Tyrone Huntley, Claire Moore, Julian Ovenden, Rebecca Trehearn) as they performed Sondheim On Sondheim, a revue by James Lapine celebrating Stephen Sondheim’s life and work. First performed in 2010, the show features interviews with the acclaimed composer, both specially recorded and taken from the archive, interspersed with some of his greatest songs.

I enjoyed learning more about Sondheim, and I also loved the performances: it was a treat to hear songs from the likes of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music performed, even out of context.