Hair: The Musical

Hair is one of those musicals I’ve always been aware of, but never actually seen, until now. This 50th anniversary production, which started life at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, has transferred to the Vaults under Waterloo Station, where the whole area has been decked out to resemble a hippy haven. The theatre itself is small and intimate, decorated with multicoloured ribbons.

Hair is very much an ensemble piece: written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot, it centres around a group of hippies who spend their time getting high and going to anti-war demos. The plot, such as it is, focuses on the character of Claude, who has been called up to fight in Vietnam, and whether he will or won’t go off to war. I can only imagine how potent this subject must have been at the time.

The show is certainly very much of its time – several of the racial and national stereotypes it alludes to made me uncomfortable. I also found much of the second half, which is essentially a massive trip, a bit dull. However, there is still plenty to appreciate. The cast are hugely talented: Robert Metson as Claude, Andy Coxon as Berger, and Shekinah McFarlane as a standout among an impressive bunch of supporting case members. When they are all singing and dancing in harmony, under Jonathan O’Boyle’s assured direction, it’s pretty impressive. The essential conflict: between commonly-accepted notions of patriotism versus the desire for peace – is timeless. The ending is memorably bittersweet.

The production is obviously an exercise in nostalgia for theatregoers of a certain age, many of whom were first on the floor during the encore when audience members were invited to join the cast on stage. However, it still has a message to offer younger audiences, and it’s a must for anyone interested in seeing one of the most significant musicals of the twentieth century.

Advertisements

Bananaman: The Musical

So it’s a new year and it’s time to get back to seeing shows. As usual, I booked a theatre trip for my first day back at work. Nothing too demanding though – I went for Bananaman: The Musical at Southwark Playhouse.

Bananaman is one of those cartoons I remember from my childhood, and the team at Southwark play on this nostalgia with a soundtrack of cartoon theme tunes played before the show and during the interval: Jem, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Trapdoor, Count Duckula, and more. Bananaman was also a comic strip, and this is reflected in the set decoration, with its walls plastered with comics and the cartoonish set.

The show, with book, music and lyrics by Leon Parris, is the story of Eric Wimp (Mark Newnham), a nerdy teenage boy who ends up in the path of a meteorite and finds thereafter that he turns into Bananaman whenever he eats a banana. It’s gloriously silly and camp, with daft puns, comic-book action sequences and at the centre of it all, an almost larger-than-life Bananaman (Matthew McKenna).

It’s not perfect – The show is a bit too long, and the songs aren’t always that memorable, though the standout number ‘Evil Plan’ is brilliant fun. As is not uncommon, the villains get all the best bits, and Marc Pickering is standout as Doctor Gloom. I wasn’t keen on the use of modern technology like computers and mobile phones, which sat uneasily with the retro feel of the show, but the puppet Crow was great value and really well performed by Jodie Jacobs.

The show is billed as being suitable for 6 years plus and the kids in the audience seemed to love it. However it’s also perfect for adults who want to wallow in nostalgia for an evening. Bananaman: The Musical was an entertaining show to kick off the new year.

An American in Paris

Despite walking past the Dominion Theatre every day on my way to work, it’s taken me months to go and see An American in Paris, which closes at the beginning of January. The show, based on the Academy Award Best Picture-winning film of 1951, was a success on Broadway before heading over to the UK, adapted for the stage by Christopher Wheeldon. It has music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a book by Craig Lucas.

Ashley Day stars as Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier posted to France during the Second World War who decides to stay there when peace is declared. He meets and falls in love with a young ballet dancer, Lise, but she feels obligated to marry Henri, the son of the people who kept her safe from the Nazis during the war. Will Jerry be able to win her?

The theme of war runs like a dark thread through this production, making it more than just a fluffy nostalgic musical. All the characters are affected by the war in some way: composer and fellow ex-soldier Adam by his damaged leg, Henri’s mother by her need to keep up appearances for fear of being found out. One scene near the beginning of the show sees revellers at a cafe cower down when all the lights go out during a power cut – they are conditioned to expect air raids.

I’ve liked Ashley Day since I first saw him in The Book of Mormon and he does a great job here, making his slightly cocky character believable and likeable. He’s a superb dancer and singer, and works well within the trio of musician Adam and would-be song-and-dance man Henri. Leanne Cope as Elise is also a wonderful dancer, but she isn’t the best singer and I thought her character rather lacklustre. Jerry’s patron Milo, played by Zoë Rainey, was much more interesting.

Clearly all the budget for the show has gone on the cast – it’s a large one, and comes into its own during the ballet sequences which are beautiful and imaginative. It’s at least as much a dance show as it is a musical. Sadly I suspect little budget was left over for the set, which is a bit sparse, and makes heavy use of projections. Many of these are impressive but some just look cheap.

Ultimately I found this show better on paper than in practice. I was a bit bored during the long dialogue scenes and couldn’t bring myself to care about what was happening. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, exactly, but this show didn’t really grip me. It’s certainly worth seeing, but I wouldn’t class it as one of my favourites.

Rags

Rags is a musical with a book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and music by Charles Strouse. It was first performed in 1986; I attended the production by the London College of Music at the University of West London.

The story follows on from Joseph Stein’s previous musical Fiddler on the Roof (albeit with completely different characters), as Rebecca Hershkowitz and her son David arrive in New York City after a pogrom destroyed their village in Russia. They befriend Avram Cohen, his teenage daughter Bella, and Bella’s would-be lover Ben Levitowitz. Rebecca is searching for her husband, who came to America several years before, but ends up meeting Saul, a radical campaigner fighting against sweatshops and worker exploitation.

There were some excellent performances in the musical, which had some very good tunes and a compelling story. I really enjoyed the production.

Hamilton

Victoria Palace Theatre

My most-anticipated show of 2017 has finally arrived. After huge critical and popular acclaim on Broadway, Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about one of the founding fathers of the USA, has finally made it to London, opening at the newly-refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre. I was lucky enough to grab a ticket for a preview performance – though it seemed as polished and professional as if the cast had been doing it for months.

Hamilton programme

The show tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, previously most well known – to Americans – as the face on the ten-dollar bill and the founder of the first national bank. They might also have known that he was killed in a duel by the then-Vice President, Aaron Burr. To Brits, he probably wasn’t known at all. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda read historian Ron Chernow’s biography while on holiday, and reflected that Hamilton’s story – an orphan immigrant working hard to get ahead – as well as his tragic death, was like the life of a modern day hip-hop star. Not to mention that Hamilton’s love of words – one of the central themes running through Hamilton is, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” – reflects the wordplay and richness of language within rap music.

Miranda is something of a musical genius – he wrote the music, book and lyrics to Hamilton, and he also starred in it during the show’s inaugural run in New York – I remain hopeful that he will take part in the London production at some point. The cast album was released last year – I normally make a point of not listening to musicals before I see them, but after the Hamilton hype I just couldn’t wait. Therefore I was already very familiar with the musical before seeing it. I’m still not sure whether this is the best thing to do or not – clearly there were many people in the audience who didn’t know what was going to happen, and I rather envied them that they were experiencing it for the first time. On the other hand, being familiar with the music meant that I could focus on the performances and the staging.

Hamilton follows Alexander as he arrives in New York, takes part in the American Revolution and rises to become George Washington’s right hand man. The second half focuses on the early years of government and Hamilton’s rise, fall and premature death. The music is like nothing else heard in musical theatre before: hip-hop and rap blended with showtunes, pop and R&B to create something completely new and fresh. Cabinet meetings become rap battles; the rules of duelling are listed in a song called “Ten Duel Commandments” which recalls The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ten Crack Commandments’. The lyrics are a joy to listen to, hanging together like poetry, every hearing revealing something new. Miranda references Rogers and Hammerstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare, as well as hip-hop stars – there’s something for everyone.

I was worried that the West End cast wouldn’t live up to the original Broadway cast I know and love from the recording, but I needn’t have worried. As in America, the main characters (except for King George III) are played by people of colour – America in the eighteenth century played by America now. Newcomer Jamael Westman, in his first major role out of drama school, plays Hamilton with confidence and charm, raps superbly and sings brilliantly. Giles Terera portrays Aaron Burr, his rival, with suave appeal – his portrayal is very different from Leslie Odom Jr’s as I’ve experienced on the cast recording, so it took me a while to adjust, but he ended up being one of my favourites. His rendition of ‘Wait For It’, one of my favourite songs, was a high point for me.

The trio of Jason Pennycooke, Tarinn Callender and Cleve September have extremely difficult jobs as they each have to portray two characters. As Lafayette, Pennycooke is superb, delivering the super-fast rap of ‘Guns and Ships’ with impeccable timing, while his Jefferson is confident and highly amusing. The contrast between Callender’s forthright Hercules Mulligan and his quiet Madison is impressive, while September tugs the heartstrings as both Hamilton’s close friend John Laurens and his son, Philip.

Meanwhile, the trio of the Schuyler sisters couldn’t be better: Rachel John is in fine voice as the eldest, Angelica, while Rachelle Ann Go is sympathetic and determined as Eliza, who becomes Hamilton’s wife; her version of ‘Burn’ is hugely powerful. Christine Allado brings out the humour in ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ as her Peggy is overshadowed by her two older siblings. Allado also plays Maria Reynolds with rich sensuality in the second act.

Obioma Ugoala displays all the charisma and power you would expect from George Washington, while Michael Jibson is hilarious as King George III, who pops up every now and then to tell the Americans, ‘You’ll Be Back’. The ensemble are an integral part of the piece, with their beautiful harmonies and smooth dancing. Watching from the stalls, I had an appreciation for every part of the show, from the spare but effective set to the perfectly-designed lighting.

Hamilton is a masterpiece and is honestly deserving of every bit of the hype. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen and is simply magnificent. I already want to see it again, and I will be stalking the website to make sure this will happen.

The Woman in White

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2004 musical The Woman in White (with lyrics by David Zippel and book by Charlotte Jones) is revived for the first time in this Charing Cross Theatre production, a move which pleased me greatly as I never got round to seeing it the first time. The musical is based on a 1859 novel by Wilkie Collins, a dramatic tale of two sisters, one of whom comes under the thumb of the wicked Sir Percival Glyde, while the other vows to protect her – aided and abetted by the mysterious ‘woman in white’.

This intimate production, directed by Thom Southerland, is suitably atmospheric, with a simple but impressive set suggesting in turn the interior of a Victorian country house, a country lane in the dark, and even a railway. It’s certainly different from the book, particularly the character of Marian, who is much more flirtatious than I remember from the novel. Laura, meanwhile, who was always rather a colourless character, comes into her own towards the end of the piece.

Carolyn Maitland, Anna O’Byrne and Ashley Stillburn are all excellent as the central trio of Marian, Laura and artist Walter Hartright, beloved of both the sisters. Chris Peluso, playing the villain for once, is excellent as Sir Percival Glyde, while Greg Castiglioni plays possibly the most memorable character in the show, the unpredictable and lovable rogue Count Fosco. Castiglioni does an impressive job, getting us to root for him despite his actions.

Lloyd Webber’s music borrows from opera and operetta, full of gorgeous melodies; I particularly liked the unearthly tones associated with the mysterious woman in white. I didn’t love the central love song ‘I Believe My Heart’, but there were plenty of others to draw my attention – Count Fosco’s comic ‘You Can Get Away With Anything’ was a treat.

The Woman in White didn’t originally do very well on the West End. Perhaps it needed a small-scale production like this one to show it off at its best – I really loved it.

Animus

I really enjoyed the musical The Clockmaker’s Daughter a couple of years ago, and when I discovered that the composers Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn had written a new musical, Animus, to premiere at the Trinity Laban Theatre, I decided to go and see it.

Judging by the costumes and set, the show is set in the eighteenth century but it has all the twists, turns and bloodthirstiness of a Victorian penny dreadful. Charlotte, the eldest daughter of London wharf owner Ernest Donne, finds that she has been left the wharf when her father dies. I thought the show was going to be about one woman’s struggle to succeed in business in a man’s world, but I couldn’t have been further off the mark. She is attacked and left for dead, her demise framed by means of a fire on the wharf, and from then on the musical is a journey to figure out who did this to her and take her revenge.

Along the way there are some fine songs, performed by a talented cast. There are particularly memorable moments in a brothel, and many fascinating characters such as the brothel madam Fanny Penhaligon and lovable rogue Joe Grey. The twists continue until right to the very end – will Charlotte’s plan for revenge backfire?

I really did enjoy this musical and the students of Trinity Laban did a fine job. I would like to see the show have a further life.