Review: Strictly Ballroom the Musical, Piccadilly

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom the Musical may not be the strongest musical in the world, but it’s a stronger piece of musical theatre, thanks to Drew McOnie’s choreography

“Pam Shortt’s broken both her legs, and I wanna dance with you”

It is fascinating to be able to follow the development of a show, particularly one that has morphed as much as Strictly Ballroom the Musical. I saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the winter before last, where it didn’t quite set my world on fire, so I was intrigued to hear that its arrival in the West End at the Piccadilly would be accompanied by quite the overhaul, still directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie.

The major change to this adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 cult hit movie comes with the introduction of bandleader Wally Strand, played by Will Young, an MC figure and human jukebox who takes on the vast majority of the evening’s singing. And as we skip from Grace Jones to Billy Idol, via Bowie, Whitney and Cyndi, it’s a real pleasure to hear him sing Marius De Vries’ brilliant new arrangements. Continue reading “Review: Strictly Ballroom the Musical, Piccadilly”

Review: Strictly Ballroom, West Yorkshire Playhouse

“I don’t know if you are illusion”

Hoping for a ten from Len and to avoid the dreaded dis-sah-ter from Craig, Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom arrives for its UK premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Best known in its 1992 film version, it actually began life as a play in the mid-1980s when it became big in Czechoslovakia as well as Luhrmann’s native Australia and perhaps appropriately, it is now Drew McOnie who takes the directorial chair, the choreographer-director’s rising star an ideal fit for a musical all about dance.

And what dance it is. We’re in the world of competitive ballroom dancing and we’re treated to a wide range of routines from rehearsals to all-out performances and much inventive work in-between, especially where mirrors are involved. And in all this freedom of expression, there’s a crystal-clear distillation of the story’s message in the sheer joy of dancing for fun and the power of following an individual path. But the show isn’t just dance, it’s words and music as well and there, it is less sure-footed.

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DVD Review: Cinderella

“Perhaps the greatest risk any of us will ever take is to be seen as we really are”

Who knew what the world needed was a live-action version of Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh. It oughtn’t be as good as it is but somehow the fusion of Disney magic and folktale wonder comes together most effectively, thoroughly traditional in its outlook yet somehow still feeling fresh. Chris Weitz’s screenplay is based on Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon but both he and Branagh take lots of inspiration from the Disney version of the story too and the resulting confection is really rather bibbity-bobbity-beguiling.

There’s a cleverness too about what it does in spinning new details like giving us a reason that her step-family don’t recognise her at the ball and weaving much humour into the magic spells that get her to said ball. Ella herself is well pitched by Lily James, not quite too perfect to be true but still hugely appealing. It’s no wonder Richard Madden’s Prince Charming tumbles instantly for her (and she for him, those breeches…those boots!) and their chemistry is palpable, one can see why Branagh has cast them as Juliet and Romeo in his upcoming theatre residency in London.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Cinderella”

TV Review: That Day We Sang

“We want all the spirit of Lancashire, but not the accent” 

One of the most anticipated bits of TV this Christmas was surely Victoria Wood’s adaptation of her musical That Day We Sang, featuring a Sweeney Todd reunion with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball taking on the lead roles of Enid and Tubby. The show is a wonderfully heart-warming tale of extraordinariness coming out of the ordinary as Wood does so well, following two lonely middle aged Mancunians who dare to dream of love when life offers them a second chance.

They’re initially brought together at a special event in 1969 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Manchester Children’s Choir recording Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds (a real life event). Having lost touch and been ground down by the drudgery of life, each puts a long awaited sparkle in the other’s eye though as ever, the path of true love ne’er did run smooth. And Wood contrasts this story with a 1929 narrative that follows the experiences of the choir as they build up to their momentous day. Continue reading “TV Review: That Day We Sang”

Review: Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Once in golden days of yore”
 
In a year celebrating the centenary of Joan Littlewood’s birth, the Theatre Royal Stratford East that she did so much to develop with Theatre Workshop can be forgiven for having a distinctly nostalgic tinge to its programming. But though this 1959 musical was both a critical and commercial success for Lionel Bart before he really hit the big time with Oliver!, it is also very much of its time and so proves a much less likely choice for revival than say, the glorious revisit of Oh What A Lovely War at this same venue earlier this year.
 
Even at the point of its writing, Fings… basked in a glow of barely earned nostalgia, a picture postcard version of the Soho underworld with an almost cartoon-like like approach to violence and absolutely no sense of responsibility or repercussions at all. The book was written by an ex-convict no less, Frank Norman, so one can see from where this longing for the good old days has sprung but it doesn’t undo the unpalatability of the material as it stands. And excusing it because it is a musical and so is all just good fun feels lazy and near irresponsible.

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Review: A Chorus Line, Palladium

“Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch…again!”

When I was learning to play the piano as a young’un, we had a book of tunes from the movies which included ‘One’ and ‘What I Did For Love’, both from A Chorus Line. I’d never seen the film (and still have not) but I loved both of those songs and so practiced hard to be able to play them well. But even when a new production of the show was announced earlier this year, the temptation to go and see it was never too strong. Part of that came from the venue – the Palladium is a most unforgiving of theatres if you don’t have a front centre stalls seat – but there was also a sense that its conglomeration of backstage stories might be a little dated in a world where the audition process has repeatedly been laid bare on our television screens.

I perhaps wasn’t alone in feeling this way as the production was forced into publishing early closing notices, meaning it shutters at the end of this week. But in forcing my hand and making me book via a bargainous deal that got us into the middle of Row C of the stalls, I belatedly came to realise that the show is much better than I thought it would be and perhaps deserves a longer life than it has had. Its set-up is simplicity itself – seventeen Broadway dancers audition for eight spots on the chorus line for a musical and as the director takes them through their paces, we get to hear the tales of these hopefuls, their dreams and aspirations, their fears and frailties, in some cases their most intimate stories about what dance and being a dancer means to them. Continue reading “Review: A Chorus Line, Palladium”

Re-review: Matilda, the Musical – Cambridge Theatre

“Never again will I doubt it when my mummy says I’m a miracle!”

More so than with straight plays, I find musicals tend to benefit from re-views (as opposed to reviews!). There’s just more to take in with book, music and lyrics all demanding the attention, especially if they’re richly detailed, staging and choreography offering much inventive potential and by no means least, a wide range of performances, which altogether offers a lot to soak in on a single viewing. Returning to a show also offers the opportunity to reassess one’s initial reactions to it, and so it was with the RSC’s Matilda, the Musical which has now made its long-awaited transfer from Stratford to the West End.

I saw the show at the beginning of the year, fairly late in the run, so had been unable to avoid the effusive praise coming from all angles and the sense of anticipation that came along with it. So predictably, whilst loving the show, there was a nagging sense of a slight disappointment too, which mainly stemmed from it not matching up with my childhood memories of the book and how I thought the show would go. It was still a strong 4 star show for me though, just not quite the saviour of musicals it was being acclaimed as, and so though I was pleased it gained the transfer it deserved, I felt little need to revisit the show. Continue reading “Re-review: Matilda, the Musical – Cambridge Theatre”

DVD Review: Les Misérables in concert: The 25th Anniversary

“There’s a reckoning to be reckoned”

Forming the culmination of the 25th Anniversary celebrations of Les Misérables was a pair of concert versions of the show taking place at the O2 centre in Greenwich which brought together the company of companies, over 500 actors and musicians joining forces to pay tribute to this enduing classic of a show. The cast and companies of the touring production and the West End production joined with a massive choir and orchestra and a hand-picked international cast performed the lead roles in this concert presentation which was also relayed live into cinemas and later released on DVD to be enjoyed by those who chose not to go (or couldn’t get tickets).

Concert versions of shows are always a bit funny, performers singing songs to each other but looking straight out at audiences and limited opportunity for acting so they can often feel a little constrained in their presentation. Here, the cast were in full costume and projections and clips from the show used to fill in some of the gaps that the songs could not fill. And it is all really rather good if not quite the self-proclaimed “musical event of a lifetime”. Continue reading “DVD Review: Les Misérables in concert: The 25th Anniversary”

Review: Les Misérables, Queens Theatre

No matter how many times I see this show, it never fails to move me: I just love it. It is like Teflon and I will not hear anything bad said about it: a great position for a wannabe reviewer I’m sure but hey, it’s my blog! On its revolving drum set, Les Misérables tells a story of romance and revenge set against the backdrop of the French revolution, two men pursue a vendetta over decades whilst revolutionaries fall in love and die in battle. And boy is it dark, one sometimes forgets just how dark it gets with death never far from any of the characters, making it compulsive viewing.
As a musical, I think it is one of the most rousing that there is. The ensemble numbers are just huge, and there’s so many of them that I get goosebumps virtually every 10 minutes. Do You Hear The People Sing, Red & Black, Look Down and possibly the best song in a musical ever, One Day More, all of them winners. And then there’s the solos, so many of them unfortunately famous as talent audition staples, but in their right context I Dreamed A Dream and On My Own are beautifully moving and Bring Him Home, when performed well as it is here, is a thing of falsetto wonder.


Vocally, Cassie Compton was stunning as Eponine, really making the most of her ensemble parts as well as the solos, On My Own is of course excellent but even her small but vital contributions to One Day More were brilliant. Melanie La Barrie as a pouting, bawdy Mme Thénardier is a comic delight but I was a little underwhelmed by Watson and Baruwa as Marius and Enjolras, not sure what it was but they weren’t convincing me.
But this is Valjean’s show as John Owen-Jones simply owns it with a vocally superb performance and massive stage presence which is all the more remarkable considering how many times he must have played this part by now. Playing off him as Javert is Hans Peter Janssens who more than holds his own with his stern looks and voice, perfect for his rigid approach to applying the law.
I don’t imagine that any review of Les Misérables would change peoples’ minds about seeing this show. It is such a part of the everyday consciousness that you’ll know by now whether you like it or not, and whether you’d spend money to see it. For my own part, I think it continues to satisfy with its evergreen moments of broad comedy, heartbreaking tragedy and life-affirming fidelity.