Geeky ramblings on Les Miserables

Les Miserables is my favourite musical. I first saw it in Manchester in 1999 but didn’t quite get it until 2nd time round in London. There’s so many different plots going on plus the confusion between Fantine, Cosette and Eponine had me baffled. Still nothing could get in the way of the songs which make me feel like my chest is about to tear apart through the pain.

This year it celebrates its 25th anniversary since its debut performance at the Barbican in London in 1985 and celebrates by the touring cast returning to that theatre for 3 weeks. The big day of celebration comes on October 2 when it’s possible to see 3 productions of the show all in the same day – 10am at Barbican, 2pm at Queens and then 7pm at the O2. My kind of mental.

Last night I went to see the touring production at the Barbican which featured Gareth Gates demonstrating some exceptionally odd, flat hair in his role as Marius but unexpectedly some really great acting. Unfortunately there was no encore featuring a mash-up of Anyone of Us and Sunshine.

Tickets are in no way cheap at £65 but this production almost felt like the definitive one. It’s a much re-worked, totally new production which features lush orchestration and, much to the horror of traditionals, no revolving stage. Instead the sets were wonderfully accompanied by a projected backdrop that at points made you feel like you were in an episode of Knightmare (this is a good thing). In particular I love the use of the projector during Do You Hear The People Sing, the sewer scenes and the fascinating, baffling way they used it in Javert’s suicide.

When it comes to music, the West End always sounds like it’s a couple of casio keyboards that are being played off a tape. Here we had a real life orchestra making the songs sound even fuller and effective than normal. ‘Stars’ was given a whole new lease of life with the audience jumping to their feet and the delicate ‘Bring Him Home’ was even more effective. Although ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ was a bit pitchy, the mighty ‘On My Own’ was filled with more oomph and anger than normal as Rosalind James’ poured her guts into a faster rendition of the showstopped. My favourite song from the show is ‘A Heart Full of Love’ and Katie Hall and Gareth Gates played it perfectly with a mixture of shyness and excitement. Still, it’s Eponine that makes me sob like a sad panda.

Les Miserables at The Barbican until 2 October. If I ever spot a man wearing the t-shirt to the left I am immediately proposing.

Lost Musicals: Paris

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-oEA1sK374[/youtube]

Forget people banging on about going to see Rufus Wainwright’s opera at Sadlers Wells in the next couple of weeks; the real hot ticket comes courtesy of Lost Musicals performing ‘Paris’ in the accompanying Lillian Bayliss Studio.

Run by Ian Marshall Fisher, Lost Musicals is a brilliant project. It is designed to find and stage musicals which have been ‘lost’, either literally or in memories, by some of America’s greatest songwriters. Over the last 21 years, the project has staged over 70 different works and does so with the help of actors who give their time for free as well as researchers and Ian himself who trawls the world looking for songs that have been mislaid so he can reconstruct the shows.

I’m a massive Cole Porter fan and last year, Lost Musical’s staging of The New Yorkers first introduced me to their project. The show takes place on Sunday afternoons with actors in evening wear, on a stage with neither a set nor props, reading from their scripts. It’s a very unusual style to watch but utterly captivating.

This year, one of their three shows is another Cole Porter show and I caught it last weekend. Not quite as sharp and lively as ‘The New Yorkers’, ‘Paris’ was Porter’s first Broadway show and revolves around a marriage between an American socialite and a French actress. It’s the show which features possibly Porter’s most famous song ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)’ and showcases his brilliant rhyming wit that really shines in later songs like ‘You’re The Top’. The show is really stolen by the socialite’s mother, Cora, who at Lost Musicals was played by ‘er off the tele’, Anne Reid, probably best known to me as Doctor Who monster, the Plasmavore, who enjoyed sucking people’s blood with a straw.

The Lost Musicals series is totally recommended and I think now a firm spring outing each year in the diary. Paris runs for three more weeks and it’s followed later in the year by Lerner & Loewe’s ‘The Day Before Spring’.

Review: The New Yorkers, Lilian Bayliss Theatre, Sadlers Wells

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Musicals come and go. The lucky ones get turned into films and are immortalised. Everyone’s heard of Oklahoma!, Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls. But what about Allegro, Nymph Errant or Greenwillow? No, us neither.

Since 1989 Ian Marshall Fisher has been a one-man musical preservation industry, every year dredging up unfairly forgotten shows by the great writers of the early 20th century and labelling them the Lost Musicals. His latest project at Sadler’s Wells (Sundays until April 26) is Cole Porter and Herbert Fields’ 1930 society satire The New Yorkers. What hits you first is the minimalist approach. Smartly decked out in evening dress, the company files onto a brightly-lit stage – empty apart from a row of chairs. Each clutches a black folder containing the script. There are no props and only piano accompaniment. It’s almost like watching an early BBC radio drama recording. But the performances themselves are boisterous, especially from the remarkable Michael Roberts in a role originally taken by Jimmy Durante.

There’s a negligible plot: wealthy young New York socialite falls for shady nightclub owner and ends up organising a jailbreak when he is busted. This being the Prohibition, there are plenty of jokes about alcohol and the lengths people will go to for it, including an entire song, ‘Say It With Gin’. The links between the revue-style numbers and story are sometimes tenuous, but sometimes that helps: after one particularly rowdy comedy routine, Corrie Mac steps forward and sings ‘Love for Sale’, Porter’s great, sad song about a prostitute. The effect is devastating.

What’s most surprising though is how funny the show still is. Yes, some of the contemporary references are missed, but the acidic swipes at the uber-rich, the justice system, and above all lovely ‘liquor’, still have the power to raise a laugh. If something as classy as The New Yorkers can be lost, what other musical marvels might still await rediscovery?

The New Yorkers plays each Sunday at 4pm until April 26. Full details here. If you only see one show this month, this should be it.

Review: Blok Busta, New Players Theatre

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Wandering into a London theatre to be confronted by only 14 other people two minutes before curtain call is always a worrying sign. Maybe it’s a hidden gem, we thought to ourselves. Warning: it is not a hidden gem.

‘Blok Busta’ is a brand new musical from TV scriptwriter and record producer Mike Bennett. Inspired by the glam music of the 70s, it tells the tale of a group of friends in the town of Glamsville who are terrorised by the serial killer Busta. His weapon? The power of disco music and a sprinkling of corn flakes (we have no idea). Aiming to be a farcical who-dunnit, the jokes come fast but more often than not create groans rather than laughs. Indeed the whole plot muddles its way from murder through schizophrenia, misogyny, threesomes before an overly intense and nonsensical ending.

Mixing actual glam hits such as Devilgate Drive, Ballroom Blitz and The Jean Genie with new compositions will go some way to satisfy a child of the day but few of the new songs excite. Al Howell’s sweet duet with Delilah, ‘Disco Dispair’, is a rare highlight as is the later power pop of Kandy Girl’s complete with dance routine and lesbian kiss.

In fact, it is only the lively nature of the young cast, who play all their own instruments, that manage to keep us in our seats for the duration. Ignoring a distracting performance from Susannah van den Berg as Tiger Feet and a whopper of a bad note from Mikey O’Connor’s Inspector Stone, the real delight is newcomer Clare Kinson who takes on the duel roles of perky teenager Delilah and saucy policewoman Jean Jeanie. One to keep an eye on.

Blok Busta continues at the New Players Theatre, Villiers Street until April 18 with tickets at £20.

Review: Piaf at Donmar Warehouse

[Originally posted on Londonist.com]

Her last major role was as Eva Peron in the 2006 West End revival of Evita, and now Argentinian Elena Roger has gone from one iconic woman to another undertaking the role of Edith Piaf in Piaf. Opening last night at the intimate Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, Pam Gems’ biopic returned to the West End stage in a revamped format 30 years after it was first performed.

Telling the story of Piaf’s life from being discovered on the streets of Pigalle, through involvement in murder, the resistance, affair after affairs, and ultimately a destructive spiral into alcohol and drug abuse, this was 95 minutes of high drama, albeit with several laugh out loud scenes. Save Roger and the chuckling Lorraine Bruce as Toine, each of the other 8 cast members play various characters throughout Edith’s life. Katherine Kingsley, in particular, is dazzling as Marlene Dietrich and long suffering assistant Madeleine. With sex scenes and swearing aplenty, this is no leisurely ride and at times it felt eerily close to comfort with visions of Amy Winehouse’s current problems easily conjured up, in particular in a scene set in the Ritz.

But ultimately – what a performance. Elena Roger nailed Piaf’s singing techniques and manged to be convincingly French in what must surely be an award winning performance! We’ve never seen a standing ovation last for over 5 minutes as this did, but we were certain it was deserved. Plus, if you’ve not been to the Donmar, we urge you to try it. A blank floor and backdrop are surrounded on three side by seats, with a small three row circle. You can see from everywhere and it’s intimacy made this intense show even more so. Unfortunately advance tickets for Piaf are sold out so it’s down to the 10 day seats, and 20 standing spaces available on the day of performance each day from 10.30am.  A lot of effort, but it’s worth it.

Piaf runs from now until September 20th at Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street. Find out more here.

Review: A Swell Party at Cadogan Hall

[Originally posted on Londonist]

The music of Cole Porter may not be something you would expect to be discussed on Londonist, but every since we sobbed our way through ‘De-Lovely’ in Whiteley’s cinema we’ve been a big fan. So we were excited to see Chelsea’s gorgeous Cadogan Hall promising 4 nights Cole Porter kind of biopic ‘A Swell Party’.

Originally staged at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1991, John Kane’s show attempts to re-create Porter’s life story using a narrator as Cole himself with songs sung by 4 of his friends. Featuring 47 songs in just over 2 hours, there’s a lot to cram in and as such some of our favourites such as ‘Night and Day’ and ‘You’re The Top’ get shoved into medleys.

Simon Green is a commanding Cole with all the dapper swing and flirtnyness you would expect from the man himself. He even deals with forgetting his lines in character with a twinkle to the audience. Accompanied by leading musical directors David Firman and Jason Carr on two pianos, the production is a little old fashioned, but if you’re just after songs rather than a dazzling stage show you’re in luck.

Maria Friedman, fresh from a recent one woman show at Menier Chocolate Factory, puts in a big performance of ‘Blow Gabriel Blow’ from ‘Anything Goes’; while other highlights include Daniel Evans’ once scandalous ‘Love For Sale’ and ensemble number ‘Coffee’.

Review: They’re Playing Our Song at Menier Chocolate Factory

Connie Fisher & Alistair McGowan

Originally published to Londonist.

Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory has well established its reputation with productions being transferred to the West End since opening in 2004. So it is not so much a surprise as you may think that two stars of television and the stage took to the tiny 190 seat theatre last night.

Starring Connie Fisher and Alistair McGowan, ‘They’re Playing Our Song’ was packed with critics and guests (including showbiz theatre producer David Ian) all out to see ‘what Connie did next’. Since leaving the role of Maria Von Trapp earlier in the year, all’s been quiet on the Fisher front and moving to a role in such a small production was not expected.

A semi autobiographical music based around the love affair between composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sagar, the show originally opened in LA in 1978 and hasn’t been in London since 1982. McGowan plays Vernon, the grumpy composer who becomes intrigued and eventually softened by Fisher’s quirky Sonia. Connie’s best Janice from Friends Brooklyn accent may have been a little offputting at first, but her chemistry with the wise cracking neurotic McGowan soon shone through.

Essentially a two hander, the pair are each joined by three inner voices that add to the comedy and help create cheesy but warming dance numbers. Set in the disco era, Matthew Wright’s costumes including Sonia’s various ‘theatre cast offs’ are spot on. Musically you’re probably not going to remember the cute songs for a long time save the show-stopping ‘I Still Believe In Love’ which, if anyone from Syco Records is reading, we recommend you get Leona Lewis to record as soon as you possibly can.

Ultimately a charming and fun night out, we can only wish that the Menier hadn’t left our bottoms feeling quite so numb with it’s uncomfortable benches and squashed seating. Next time we’ll take a cushion.

‘They’re Playing Our Song’ is in production for a limited run from now until 28 September at Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark. Tickets are £25 and avaliable here.

Hated it: West End Whingers, Web Cow Girl
Kind of liked it: Paul in London.

A Treat

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So y’know how I love Billie and all… well on Friday I went to the 2nd press night of “Treats” – her West End stage debut. The play is a short three-hander on one set that centres around Ann and her boyfriend dilemmas. Does she choose the dull but nice one or the mean, bad one? It was quite short, a little funny and pretty good. The lady herself looked far too thin, and BT man looked hot (I seem to have developed a thing for ginger men in the last 2 months), but apart from the man in front of me with too big a head, I mainly couldn’t concentrate because of the really disturbing likenesses Laurence Fox shared with James Sutton (John Paul in Hollyoaks). It was really, really intense – everything from the way he looked to the exact way he let his mouth hang open was exactly the same.