Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A Little Night Music In Concert

I was confused by A Little Night Music at first. Not by the plot - a delightfully simple tale of marraige, infidelity and finding a happy ending - but by how and why such a stellar cast were performing together for one night only in Guildford. It was only when I read the programme after that I realised the debt that we as an audience owe to the producer/musical director  Alex Parker (@alexparker91 on Twitter), who is lucky enough to live the theatre-goer's dream: gathering your favourite cast and putting on a classic, under-appreciated show. I know I would do the same given half the chance!

A recent BMus graduate, Alex has achieved a remarkable amount for someone so young, working on a wide range of productions, including, most recently, The Pajama Game. As a result, he has put together an enviable little black book, which he put to excellent use in A Little Night Music. I realise I'm prone to hyperbole when it comes to blogging about musicals, but when I say stellar in this case I really mean it: Janie Dee (Desirée Armfeldt) and Joanna Riding (Countess Charlotte Malcolm) are both double Olivier award winners, Anne O'Byrne (Anne Egerman) recently starred as Christine in the DVD of Love Never Dies, Fra Fee (Henrick Egerman) is fresh from the barricades of the Les Mis film, and the entire cast have a long and impressive list of stage and screen credits to their name. This concert version - no props, no costumes, and scripts still in hand - displayed just why this cast are so successful. Their vocal and acting performances were strong enough to completely envelope us in the production, to make us laugh out loud or marvel at their singing abilities, without any of the usual accompanimients to a musical of this scale.

Of course, the cast are helped by the material they're given to perform, and A Little Night Music certainly lends itself to a concert version. Essentially the story of a handful of characters in one location over one weekend, the show relies on Sondheim's music and lyrics, which at 40 years old, are as fresh and captivating as ever. With the Menier Chocolate Factory version of Merrily We Roll Along finally bringing Sondheim's classic the acclaim it deserves in the West End, and the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd cleaning up at this year's Oliviers, Sondheim's work is once again proving its enduring worth.

My last brush with Sondheim was the new, fully orchestrated version of Sunday in the Park with George staring Julian Ovenden at Theatre du Chatelet, which I had to listen to on the radio (thank you France Culture) as the ticket price and a trip to France was a bit steep even for an obsessive like me. While there are some great songs (like Move On, which you can watch here), they are interspersed with far too much dialogue. I realise Sondheim wanted to make a point about the nature of art, especially after the original production of Merrily had just flopped, but Sunday just left me cold. Thankfully, A Little Night Music couldn't be further from Sunday. It's HILARIOUS, stuffed full of laugh out loud moments. It's also filthy, opening with a song in which Frederick (David Birrell) considers ways to get his wife of 11-months to finally sleep with him, and continuing in a similar fashion. Yet somehow at the same time, there are incredibly moving moments, full of Sondheim's trademark wry observations on human failings in relationships.

As well as the cast, Parker's concert benefitted from a 31 piece on-stage orchestra who really made the most of the score, full of 3/4 time waltzs. Apart from the ubiquituous Send in the Clowns, the songs from A Little Night Music are not well known, but they should be. Every Day A Little Death, the lament of the cheated yet loyal wife, is one of Sondheim's most heartbreaking ballads, while perhaps the most rousing first act closer ever (though Les Mis fans may disagree with me), A Weekend in the Country, is so catchy that it's been stuck in my head on and off for the last three years now, since I first watched the incredible Stephen Sondheim 80th birthday prom in 2010. 

Alex Parker states that his aim is to produce the highest quality short runs and one-off productions that everyone will be talking about for a long time after. He certainly achieved that with A Little Night Music. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Stupid F*@#ing Bird @ Woolly Mammoth, Washington DC

-          “Is that a seagull?”                                
-          “It’s just a bird. A stupid fucking bird”.

After the thoroughly traditional Newsies on Broadway, I was ready for something a bit more transgressive when I reached D.C. As the title would suggest, Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner's postmodern take on Chekhov’s The Seagull, certainly didn’t disappoint.

The enormous Latin American Studies Association Conference didn’t leave me with a huge amount of free time to explore D.C., so it was sheer luck that on my – rather long! – walk from the National Gallery of Art to the conference I happened to walk past the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and their rather eye-catching posters for their latest production.

You’d be forgiven for guessing from the poster that the play is about Twitter. It’s actually far more interesting and original than that, but social media does have a very important presence in the lobby (see #sfl). With ‘Pinspiration stations’ and tweets projected onto the walls, the audience are encouraged to interact with both the text of the original play and the very idea of art.

The play itself questions the form and purpose of theatre just as Chekhov had done with his original over a century before, while bringing Chekhov's famous subtext out into the open. It is self-reflexive, self-referential, and completely breaks the fourth wall, frequently addressing the audience for input. Further nods to Chekhov include a small pile of leaves hinting at the bucolic setting of his plays, and Banksy style mural of the great Russian playwright on the back wall.

Just like Chekhov's Konstantin, the main character Conrad (Brad Koed) expresses his belief that theatre – at least in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century  - used to have the power to change society. ‘Why would you want to change the world?’ asks Dev (Darius Pierce), the most grounded character in the production.  The question, like the production as a whole, makes us consider what we, as an audience, want to get out of the theatre. While Stupid Fucking Bird won't change the world, it did give me everything I want from a play. Despite the distancing effect of all this experimentation with form, there are still moments when the audience completely lose ourselves in the play; there is shock, happiness, despair and a whole lot of laughs, interlaced with really thought-provoking moments. I was incredibly impressed that one production could have so many different effects on me. Since I saw the production, on the second night of previews, it has unsurprisingly garnered rave reviews.

I later learned that Woolly Mammoth is just one of a host of new experimental theatres that have popped up in D.C. in recent years. Apparently new zoning laws make it far more economically beneficial for developers to turn the first few floors of their new buildings into public arts spaces. If the quality of productions at Woolly Mammoth is anything to judge by, it would seem this law is paving the way for a new wave of exciting, experimental theatre in D.C. It makes me wish the city weren't quite so far away!  

Stupid Fucking Bird runs at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co, Washington D.C. until June 23 2013. Full information and tickets are available here.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Newsies on Broadway

Now is the time to seize the day!  - Newsies.

The last (and first) time I visited New York, my one regret was not having seen a show on Broadway, so when I knew I would have an evening in the Big Apple before heading to Washington for the Latin American Studies Association Conference, I only had one objective, and this song from Smash on repeat in my head: Broadway Here I Come!

One of my main aims was seeing a show that I couldn't see in the West End, as there is a particularly high level of cross-over at the moment. There was certainly a range of shows on offer...

However, one thing I learned about Broadway is that the vast majority of shows are closed on a Monday. That ruled out the spangly new circus version of Pippin, last night's Tony champion Kinky Boots and even the 'so bad it's hilarious' spectacle of Spider Man: Turn off the Dark. Nonetheless, there was one homegrown hit I hadn't had a chance to see in London yet open on a Monday night, Newsies.

The second thing I learned about Broadway is it's WAY more expensive than the West End, and that's saying something given that a stalls seat here will often set you back at least £60. For Newsies, I was offered the choice between $140 for a seat or $30 to stand. Despite having woken up nearly 24 hours earlier and travelled half way across the world, you can guess which option I chose!

My prior knowledge of Newsies was pretty much limited to Kurt mentioning the twirly jumpy dance move that dominates the production in Glee and knowing that it was the show that launched the career of Smash star Jeremy Jordan (singing Santa Fe below). It turns out that the show is a remake of a 1992 Disney film about the newspaper boys whose strike brought down Joseph Pulitzer himself. The original, starring a young Christian Bale, was a box office disaster but became a cult classic.

Newsies prides itself on its Tony-winning choreography, and it certainly is impressive, if repetitive. Those boys are strong and skilled at doing multiple leapy twirly things without getting dizzy! The story is fun, and the historical achievement of the newspaper boys is actually quite inspiring, but the show is almost painfully sweet (it is a Disney production after all). Musically, you could tell straight away it was Alan Menken; although not his best work, it does boast a couple of incredibly catchy tunes (Seize the Day was still rolling around in my head over a week later). My main disappointment, however, was the cast, who were almost entirely Broadway newbies. They could certainly dance, but their voices were weak and often overpowered by the music. While star Corey Cott has the look and charm for newly appointed Union Leader Jack Kelly, having heard Jordan's version, I couldn't help feeling cheated.

Choreography photographed by the NY Times

Besides the show, I was interested in seeing the differences between Broadway and the West End. The stereotype seemed to be true: Broadway fans are more vocal in their appreciation, giving huge cheers after every song, while West End audiences have to work harder for far more tempered applause. I was also amused that Annoying Actor Friend's spoof bios are so accurate; everyone really did thank Telsey and quote Bible verses!

Overall, I'm very glad I saw Newsies! if mainly for the experience of a Broadway show, but it certainly didn't seem worth the extortionate amount they charged for full price tickets. I wouldn't rush to see it when it (according to Baz Bamigboye) transfers to the West End in 2014.