Sunday, 23 December 2007

REVIEW: "Rough Music"

The Victorian period was a horrible time to be a woman unless you were Victoria herself. Controlling fathers, sexist employers, and condescending male colleagues were all that a woman could look forward to if Sylvia Freedman’s Rough Music is to be taken for accuracy.

Not to say that Freedman is far off. In this tale of working class dreams, seamstress Jessie Sanders flees her stagnant family to work in London, only to have her bags and money stolen part way. Retreating to a job at the local toy factory, she meets a pair of charming men...only one is a woman masquerading as a man to get ahead in life. As Jessie faces adversity and the chance to make her wishes of performing reality, the rest of the cast provide a troupe of supporting characters from a slimy owner to cheerfully unlicensed performers and the legal forces who punish them.

Throughout it all, Jessie is surrounded by the subjugation of Victorian sexism: her sister strives to marry well, the women at the factory write off various tasks as men’s work, and even the landlord who hires her to sing first thinks she wants to clean rather than perform. Ideals of chastity and restraint run through the script, even as cross-dressing Chad/Charlotte proclaims her love for Jessie and refuses to face her illegitimate father.

Set on a thrust, John Adams’ direction involves lots of northern accents and melodramatic overacting which serve the piece rather than detracting, grounding it in the era’s conventions. Norman Coates uses a wooden and musty design cast by Chris Ellis in a dim yellow evocative of gas lights. The period setting is enhanced by the use of musical hall classics like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Two Black Eyes”.

Rough Music doesn’t break new ground or teach the audience anything they don’t already know. It does, however, provide a vehicle for some lovely songs and some fast-paced yet old-fashioned entertainment, even if it’s strictly community-level fare.

Where: Kings Head Theatre
When: Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 16:30, Su @ 16:00 through 13 Jan.
How Much: £20 unreserved
Concessions: Usuals for £17.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10.
RZ Other Notes: Rough Music isn’t a bad show, but it feels contrived after Victor/Victoria and a stack of Takarazuka DVDs, as much of the plot revolves around the gender bending secondary. Perhaps the RZ is just sick of every play this time of year featuring cross-dressing. The fact that the actors were getting friendly with the audience beforehand and during the interval didn’t help either, given the show isn’t using a Brechtian or alienating staging, but this is nitpicking.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

FEATURE: Catching Up with Jack, Cin, and Spam

(A catch up post. Things should be closer to normal from here on out.)

Panto season is in full swing, and those with some extra cash to blow and some older children may find themselves seeking out this year’s “posh” panto offerings. The Barbican’s offering, Jack and the Beanstalk, certainly has some nice visuals, but the script by Jonathan Harvey is bland - the jokes fall flat, the double entendre cruder than necessary (oh his majesticles...). Urgency and excitement are missing across the story or Giles Havergal’s annoying character direction - even the slosh scene is dull, but at least Stiles and Drewe have given us some nice songs. Helen Baker is passable as Jack, and Andy Gray tries his best to win the audience over as very Scottish Dame Dolly Deluxe, but it’s just not enough. You could do worse with your panto choice, but there is far, far better.

On the naughtier side of the posh scale, Stephen Fry’s Cinderella is packing them in at the Old Vic. More a play with panto leanings than a proper panto, Fry has packed in the audience callbacks and classy London jokes but trades them off for intellectual ramblings and a defiance of panto tradition (nobody speaks in rhyme). Anne Dudley’s music is lovely, but she skimps out on the singalong by giving us an old standby instead of an original tune. The RZ’s companion (a huge anglo- and Fry-phile) loved it, and he left with a smile on his face which was enough. Stephen Brimson Lewis deserves props for his stunning set designs, and there were more than a few people in the circles (along with the RZ) wishing they could have been closer to see some of the costumes up close and the night after Buttons and Dandini’s wedding. Younger children, however, will be bored by all the big words flying around, but the intellectual families who want to safely slum it will be well served here.

The RZ’s companion also wanted to see Spamalot with Peter Davison, so a trip to the Palace was in order. The RZ saw the show with the OBC and again with Davison in August, and is mixed on returning to this piece: in some ways, it’s always good for a grin, and the RZ is a huge Davison fan. On the other hand, twice is enough to get all the jokes and the ensemble were clearly counting down the days to their break. The big dance numbers need refinement, and Hannah Waddingham’s Lady of the Lake lacks the discipline that a good stage manager or director should be giving her. Still, it’s hard not to laugh during the “Not Dead Yet” song, and it was thrilling to see Davison settle into the role after a tenuous performance over the summer. There’s talk of closing this in 2008 to make room for Priscilla, so book your tickets for the spring now (when the wonderful Marin Mazzie is in as the Lady).

Jack and the Beanstalk
Where: Barbican Centre
When: Varies through 12 Jan.
Cost: £16-£35
Concessions: Kids go half price. Everyone else pays full.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £8 - there’s better out there that’s more deserving.
RZ Other Notes: Princess Melody is insanely annoying, and the Barbican aren’t kidding about starting promptly after the interval (and weren’t kind enough to ring the standard bell) - the RZ barely cleared the ice cream line when they were starting up again and there was a mad dash from all to make it back in.

Where: Old Vic
When: Varies until Jan. 20
Cost: SOLD OUT, £15-£40
Concessions: 100 £12 tickets are reserved for under-25’s at all performances, seniors and disabled persons get £20 for top price tickets.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15 - this is fun panto for grownups.
RZ Other Notes: Blah blah first gay mainstream panto blah blah fanservice yay. If you think that Fry’s full of himself, you’ll hate this. If you like your panto traditional, you’ll hate this. If you like jokes about the class structure of British supermarkets, you’ll love it. And the show curtain? Fabulous.

Where: Palace Theatre
When: M-Th, Sa @ 20:00, Fr @ 20:30, Fri @ 17:15, Sa @ 15:00
Cost: £15-£60
Concessions: Depends on which box office worker you get. Officially there are student matinees on Friday where students are guaranteed discounts. Sometimes they’ll give you a discount with your student ID or equity card 60 min. before, sometimes you can get front row stalls behind the conductor for £17.50 instead of full price (go 20-30 min. before curtain and ask for what’s cheap and ask for something better than what they point out). Sometimes they’ll tell you to sod off instead. If you want to play it safe, find an advance booking code or expect to run to TKTS.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. Add £5 for the first time, £10 if you’re a die hard Python fan or big on a cast member.
RZ Other Notes: As the concessions tag implies, the RZ and his companion were stuck going to TKTS and getting tickets in entirely separate areas due to the confusion over day seat policy. Don’t let this happen to you.

Monday, 17 December 2007

On Holiday...Sort Of

Apologies for the lack of updates recently. The RZ is on post-term holiday, which means that instead of relaxing by the beach or visiting friends and family in the US, he is slaving away at his computer working on end of term assessments. He does have reviews to write, and will try to at least get some thought posts up in the interim, but with foreign company around for the next few days and an end of year trip to the continent (for what else but more theatre), updates will be sporadic until New Year's.

Monday, 10 December 2007

THOUGHTS: "Dealer's Choice"

(Poor Trafalgar Studios. For some unfortunate reason, the RZ always finds himself attending wonderful productions there when he has no time to write proper reviews.)

Providing a nice testosterone-packed filling for a sandwich of David Mamet extravaganzas (the previously reviewed Glengarry Glenn Ross and upcoming Old Vic production of Speed the Plow), Dealer's Choice may not have quite the same punch that its American counterparts offer, but sheds a light on six men and how easily a dream can rise or be crushed nevertheless. With its macho cast and design transferred intact from the Menier Chocolate Factory, the set has been adjusted nicely to fill out Trafalgar 1's stage, and fans of watching behind the scenes work can watch a poor stagehand count chips and set the table during the interval before the play's driving poker game begins. Dealer's Choice may not be the best play in London, but it is far from disappointing.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 1
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £15-£40
Concessions: Thursday matinees all seats £24, usual suspects get best available for £20 same day.
Unofficial RZ "Worth Paying": £15. Add £5 if you know your poker as the details will go over your head if you don't unless you buy the programme.
RZ Other Notes: A good play to pass the afternoon with, but not the stuff of main attractions. See it if it's convenient or you have the money to spare - it's solid, but not exceptional.

Friday, 7 December 2007

FEATURE: Family Theatre Fest

(An attempt to get caught up. Possible double show day tomorrow, and CD/DVD reviews coming this weekend as well.)

Christmastime is here, and with it comes a veritable slew of family friendly entertainment ready for first-timers and infrequent attendees at a wide range of price and production quality options.

For those seeking a budget option, Told by an Idiot are offering Beauty and the Beast at the Lyric Hammersmith. A slightly anachronistic take on the classic fairy tale, Beauty attempts to do panto without the good bits: the jokes are corny, the plot banal and padded: it takes half the first act to set up the story and Beauty’s arrival is the act one curtain. Exposition comes not in a brief scene up front, but in a drawn out re-enactment by a group of barn animals leading to a secondary (read: barely touched on and pointless) romance angle between Beauty’s dog and a duck. There’s not even good eye candy or comic relief: the drag acts are short on camp, and the sets and costumes look cheap. Without the flair and irony of panto, the key idiot here is the artistic director who approved this pap without getting an override on the script. While Beauty entertained the youngest in the audience when the RZ went, it lacks the depth and maturity to cross over from children’s theatre to proper family fare.

It’s a pity, because the cast are talented and try their best with the limited material available to them. Much has also been made of casting the diminutive Lisa Hammond as a disabled Beauty, but given the point of the story (beauty comes from a good heart within), there’s no cause for surprise or amazement: Ms. Hammond is clearly comfortable in the role, despite its saccharine goodness at every turn.

At the other end (more expensive) of the spectrum, the winter holidays are an excellent time to visit the well heated Theatre Royal Drury Lane’s production of Lord of the Rings. Spurned almost universally by critics in Toronto (where it originally ran) and London, this £12.5 million production is by no means the disaster presented in the newspapers.

That said, the RZ is perhaps not the best judge: he found the original novels painfully dull and avoided the film adaptations out of association. As a result, the extreme story compression necessary in keeping the stage version to three hours is a welcome breeze (almost as welcome as the one used in an effects sequence), as it boiled Tolkein’s long, meandering epic into something manageable and approachable as was done twenty years earlier for Les Miserables. Fans of the novels (or films) may find themselves put off by how much is left out, and families with younger children (say below ten) may wish to avoid the show as one must pay constant attention to keep up with the story or be left with little choice but to take a £60 nap and ride it out. Even with a basic knowledge going in, the RZ still couldn’t say who half the characters were afterwards.

Lord of the Rings, though, is not being sold on book alone. Billed as a musical (though more accurately described as a play with songs), the score was created by Finnish folk group Värttinä and Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. As one of the few people who liked Bombay Dreams, it was Rahman’s involvement that drew the RZ to see LotR, and while the score maintains a strong western (specifically celtic) influence, Rahman’s touches are evident in the lush vocal lines and instrumental harmonies, having been played up by orchestrator Christopher Nightingale. While the music primarily underscores dialogue and battle sequences, the few songs that stand on their own are pleasant but ultimately forgettable - none of them stick in your head as you leave the theatre.

In terms of production, everything about Rob Howell’s designs is jaw-dropping and large. From the big sets (including the beautiful forestry that extends into the house and covers multiple boxes) and enveloping sound to the fascinating fantastical costumes (watch out for the trees) and kaleidoscopic lighting, the staging screams money from every corner of the rotating, elevating, and flying stage.

Though Lord of the Rings is a bit too expensive and mature for some family outings, a happy compromise exists in the Young Vic’s touring production of Herge’s Adventures of Tintin, returning to London after last year’s engagement at the Barbican. This particular stage production of Herge’s legendary comic series (of which there have been plenty) is adapted from the 1958 serial Tintin in Tibet, where the young adventurer journeys to the Himalayas after discovering that a friend’s plane crashed in the mountains.

As with LotR, die hard Tintin fans will certainly find issues to nitpick, but the play maintains the adventuresome spirit of the comics, with Tintin staying true to his senses of bravery, loyalty and friendship in the face of unending adversity. David Greig’s script also pays loving tribute to Herge’s humour and warmth. Songs appear sparingly, and also fall into the pleasant but forgettable category.

Having toured for a year, the cast are thoroughly drilled and running at speed. Dominic Rouse is morally upright yet never preachy in the title role, while Stephen Finegold blusters as crotchety Captain Haddock. Miltos Yerolemou plays one of the more childish roles, Tintin’s loveable dog Snowy, but tends to channel another famous white dog from the same era more than Herge’s creation in the later books. The ensemble take on multiple parts from hotel staff to Nepalese porters and Buddhist monks with precision while maintaining individuality (e.g. a comic porter resurfaces as the comic monk).

While the sets and costumes are on the lower end of the spectacle spectrum, a number of clever sequences await within, such as utilising a step-ladder and a scenery cut-out to replicate an airplane and the use of fly wires for the second act’s big climb.

Since most families have only once chance to take in a Christmas time play, and with rising ticket prices making it an increasing gamble, the RZ feels that the best *value* is none of these options, but to journey to Hackney Empire for the annual panto (see prior review). For those wishing to avoid the noise and commotion of the pantomime, tickets are still available for Tintin which only cost £5 or so more.

Where: Lyric Hammersmith
When: Through 5 Jan. Schedule varies. Check the website.
How Much: £10-27
Concessions: Under 16s and OAPs can advance book for £10, Students and 16-25s can advance book for £7.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £1 and only if you’re not the adult who has to go with the kids.
RZ Other Notes: The children in the audience were far better behaved than the adults in front of the RZ who laughed every time someone used Ms. Hammond’s wheelchair. This adaptation is truly banal and nobody over the age of 8 will be entertained.

Where: Theatre Royal Drury Lane
When: M @ 19:00, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 14:00.
**NOTE: The schedule is different for Christmas time. Check the website or with the BO for details.**
How Much: £15-£60
Concessions: Students can get best available same day for £25. Not sure about others.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £42.50
RZ Other Notes: The RZ does not recommend sitting in the stalls due to the stage’s distance and the use of height and depth, and would recommend the grand circle were it not £60 for the entire space. Fortunately there are always discounts available, and the RZ heartily recommends taking advantage of them. Make sure to arrive early as there is a pre-show scene as people are seated starting 15 min. before curtain. Easily shocked patrons should avoid sitting on the aisles, as there is a scene where orcs go through the auditorium jumping around trying to scare people. The RZ stared one down when it got close and his row was left alone, which may help as well. Also, watch out for low seats that get uncomfortable towards the end of each act.

Where: Playhouse Theatre
When: Through 12 Jan. M-Sa @ 19:15, W/Sa @ 14:00
**NOTE: The schedule is different between 24 Dec. and 5 Jan. Check the website or with the BO for details.**
How Much: £10-£40
Concessions: 20 front row seats sold for £10 when the BO opens (10AM), £10 SRO when sold out, Children half price, Seniors can advance book Tuesday evenings for £30 best available, students can get best available for £20 same day.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. Tintin addicts should add an extra £5-10, and with the family pricing parents should take the recommendation as an average per ticket (so 2 £30 tix + 2 £15 tix = £23 average.)
RZ Other Notes: The audience loved it, the RZ enjoyed it, too bad it’s not selling enough to have kept its originally scheduled 12 week run. Also, beware the basement gents - the doors are out of alignment in the stalls and don’t lock.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

REVIEW: "Dick Whittington And His Cat"

(Yes, a review of Jonathan Sings Larson is coming soon, as is one of Show Business: The Road to Broadway on DVD. End of term work is making for a very busy Zentradi, and he's already behind another show review with two more in the next two days coming up - all family stuff for the Xmas season.)

Are you ready to do the Cool Cat Chat?

You’d better be - panto season is back with a vengeance, and Hackney Empire are leading things off with Dick Whittington and his Cat. A community affair, the show is packed with local references from council elections to a parking fine attached to the great horse.

There aren’t any washed up soap stars here, either: the multi-ethnic cast features West End talent Hannah Jane Fox (the original Scaramouche in We Will Rock You) as the feisty big-note-belting Principal Boy and Clive Rowe (recently The Drier/The Bus in Caroline or Change) as Sarah the Cook. Rowe’s dame is full of flair, but thankfully avoids the grotesque, sprinkling just enough nods to the adults to let the mind fill in the gaps while stealing the show with a knockout number “borrowed” from a certain Broadway show. David Ashley is a gnarly King Rat, bedecked in the show’s best costume, and the most surprising cast decision was caught by the RZ’s companion for the performance: Tameka Empson, who recently donned whiteface to play the Queen in Stratford East’s controversial production of The Blacks, took on the bumbling Good Fairy. One celeb has managed to sneak his way in: Radio personality Kat (how appropriate) lovingly tackles the comedian role as Idle Jack, a position that is anything but.

That said, panto is not made by actors alone, and and Susie McKenna’s script enthralled the school groups (the RZ and his companion were the only adults present on their own), and was packed as full as Sarah’s pasties with corny jokes and audience participation, but could have used a bit of tightening up in the second act. In addition to a set of panto standard costumes, Lotte Collett’s sets are vibrant and colourful, especially her multi-piece ship and during McKenna’s second act diversions under water and in the jungle (with a special surprise I won’t ruin here).

Lastly, praise is due to Steven Edis for providing and conducting a score with both original and pinched numbers full of energy and catchy tunes that pleased both young and older members of the audience.

Dick Whittington doesn’t break any boundaries for pantomime or offer a particularly new or challenging experience, but it does make good everything it promises: some frolicking fun for the family and a traditional panto experience.

Where: Hackney Empire
When: Times vary. Check the website.
How much: £9.50-£19.50
Concessions: Varies with original ticket price, can be booked via the website.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £19.50. This is a solid production, and the RZ has spent this much money on far worse things in the West End. The Empire is a great venue that’s dedicated to the community, and discounts are offered left and right so it is actually an affordable way to take the family to a show.

RZ Other Notes: Sadly, the RZ did not get to have the full panto experience as the ice cream queue was too long to clear and they ran out of his favourite flavour anyways. He and his companion both loathe children, which made things interesting to say the least, but it wouldn't be panto without them. Given that these are the worst things the RZ has to complain about, the next one can't come soon enough.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

REVIEW: "Glengarry Glenn Ross"

Almost twenty-five years after its original run at the National, David Mamet’s masterpiece Glengarry Glenn Ross has returned to the West End with a vengeance. The tale of five estate salesmen willing to lie, cheat, and steal for survival, Glengarry is just as powerful today as it was twenty-five years ago, losing none of its timeliness or brilliance over time.

Glengarry is a personal favourite, and it’s easy to see why: Mamet is all about getting to the point, and there is no filler to pad out or water down the 80 minute (plus interval) piece. The language is sharp and the characters brutal to each other, their clients, and even their office.

Jonathan Pryce leads this revival as Shelley Levine, a salesman in search of his glory days while struggling at the end of his rope. Pryce is phenomenal, bringing out Levine’s weakness and sentimentality in a way that Alan Alda avoided in the 2005 Broadway revival. His enemy, Peter McDonald’s John Williamson, is played with a cool distance and unwavering apathy.

Levine’s other concern is top seller Richard Roma, played here with admirable sleaze by Aidan Gillen. Roma is everything Levine once was - smooth and charismatic, but equally despicable. Rounding out the salesmen are Paul Freeman’s George, a bundle of nerves ready for the chopping block, and Matthew Marsh’s Moss, willing to do anything to save his own neck. Both are excellent actors, though Marsh puts off odd aura of camp, something which would have been his undoing in the show’s cut-throat world and should have been dealt with by director James McDonald. All accents are, fortunately, strong with few wavering moments.

In addition to Mamet’s forceful text and the powerful acting, the characters’ plight is enforced and magnified by Anthony Ward’s pressure cooker sets, a pair of claustrophobic nightmares with low ceilings and little stage depth - there is nowhere in this world for the actors to escape.

Glengarry Glenn Ross is not a happy play, but it is an unforgettably supercharged modern classic. See it before the limited run ends.

Where: Apollo Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:45, W/Sa @ 15:00. Until 12 Jan.
How much: £15-£45
Concessions: Seniors (and there were quite a few when the RZ went) can advance book for £25, drama students (or maybe students in general?) can advance book Wednesday matinees through 19 Dec. for £10, otherwise advance book the upper levels for £17.50 or get best available an hour prior for £20.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £45. This is one to blow you away.
RZ Other Notes: Well, it won’t blow everybody away, as witnessed by the OAP two seats down from the RZ who fell asleep twice in the first act and left shortly after the beginning of the second. Readers with sensitive ears should be warned that Mamet is a wizard with profanity, and a couple of racial slurs are present. That said, the play itself stings because like Avenue Q, its grounding is in truth. In fact, avoid this show completely if you’re in the market for a house or you’ll be unable to trust anybody.

Friday, 23 November 2007

INTERVIEW: "Jonathan Sings Larson" Producers

On 6 Nov., PS Classics in conjunction with the Library of Congress released the newest CD in their Songwriter Series, Jonathan Sings Larson. Comprised of 16 tracks, the CD looks at Jonathan Larson’s personal demo recordings in addition to a pair of live tracks and a bonus DVD featuring Larson performing four songs from tick, tick...BOOM! in 1991. Copious liner notes include excerpts from interviews with Larson, his family and friends, and Steven Schwartz, the composer of Godspell and Wicked. The CD may be purchased at Amazon, CD Universe, or as legal MP3 downloads through eMusic.

Recently, producer Steve Nelson and assistant producer Ashley Griffin were kind enough to answer some questions for this site.

Q: How were you chosen to be the producer for this album?

Steve: I started the Songwriter Series back in the early 90s. I chose Larson as our next project in conjunction with the Library of Congress Advisory panel. [The Library of Congress] has funded the Series since '99.

Ashley: I was hired by Series Producer Steve Nelson to be the Asst. Producer/Production Assistant for the Library of Congress Songwriter Series. In addition to Jonathan Sings Larson I was also the Associate Producer of Charles Sings Strouse.

Q: What did the job entail?

Steve: This is basically audio archaeology - Larson's cassette demos were generally in good shape although new digital transfers had to be made in a few cases. Editing was a bit tricky in spots, but nothing too daunting.

Ashley: The job entailed spending many hours researching, listening to, and archiving everything and anything to do with Jonathan Larson. I spent many hours in the Larson office listening to, and watching all the archival footage they had, making notes, writing down song lengths, and ultimately spending a lot of time thinking about, and discussing with Steve what should be included on the CD and DVD. Once that was decided we got to work typing up lyrics, writing liner notes, etc.

Steve: The DVD was the new thing, as the series had been audio only up to this point. The original High-8 analog tapes weren't in great shape, but the sound as OK and we got the best we could within our time/budget constraints. There is extensive Larson video that awaits a thorough restoration, but that is probably several projects at least.

Q: How much research and pre-planning went into the CD?

Steve: Far too much. This was a complicated one with 100s of hours of listening and trips back and forth between NYC and DC (where the original tapes are housed). The DVD and booklet work were also time consuming.

Ashley: Jonathan Sings Larson took a little more than a year from start to finish. I actually knew quite a bit about Jonathan Larson and his work before I started on the project. The most difficult thing was keeping track of everything we were listening to so that we could go back and decide what we wanted to, or what even could be included. There were hundreds of audio tapes, and dozens of different versions of songs, so we didn't want anything getting lost in the shuffle. In addition to listening, I also read interviews, scripts, play synopsis, etc. so that I could put the material in context. Just keeping track of all the work done on Superbia was incredibly challenging as Jonathan completely rewrote the show several times over about ten years, so it was very important to keep all the material straight.

Q: Considering the sheer volume of material you were assessing, what did you do to avoid burnout?

Ashley: Honestly that was one problem I was fortunate not to have. I did have to make sure that I planned how many hours I’d be in the office ahead of time, and make myself leave at a certain point. Jonathan Larson is so near and dear to my heart that I just felt such an overwhelming responsibility to Jonathan, history, and his fans. Any time I’d start to get tired I’d just remind myself that this was being archived for history. The song I spaced out on might be the song that the fans would most want to hear on the album.

Q: How organised was the original source material?

Steve: Everything's at LC, including all original audio. The Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation has listening copies, but these aren't available to the public.

Ashley: Everything was organized and labelled with a date. Some things were mis-marked, but that was pretty easy to deal with. There was literally a giant tape rack in the middle of the office with all the tapes organized (with individual numbers) so we just went from one end of the rack to the other listening.

Q: What were your initial criteria for song selection?

Steve: Use the best we had with an eye to as thorough a career span as we could get in a single CD.

Ashley: The most basic criteria is that it has to be sung by the composer - in this case Jonathan Larson. Although there were hundreds of demos of Jonathan performing his own work there were several wonderful songs that he never recorded. Also, we wanted to focus on material that no one had heard before. Everyone knows Rent, and many know tick, tick...BOOM! so we wanted to offer material that you couldn't get anywhere else. Ultimately the most important criteria was that we chose the songs that we wanted to listen to ourselves: the songs that we kept singing once we left the office. The ones we wished we could listen to on our iPod.

Q: What surprised you when putting together the collection?

Steve: He recorded a lot and was quite meticulous and demanding as to the sound he wanted.

Ashley: I don't know if one particular thing surprised me, it was more the general experience. Everyone talks about the brilliance of Jonathan Larson, and how he revolutionized musical theater with his innovative new sound and style. But when you’re living in the middle of all his work - watching home movies of him in his apartment trying things out - seeing and hearing his work as he intended for it to be done was so eye opening and made it so clear exactly how revolutionary he was. It's as close as I'll ever be able to get to hanging out with him in his living room. And to get to see that personal intimate side of Jonathan apart from the tragedy of his death which is so a part of, say, going to see Rent, gave a whole new outlook on his life and work.

I really heard everything from the Beatles to David Bowie to Rodgers and Hammerstein in his music in a striking and raw way that became so clear once you began to literally see the progression he made as a writer. How this song gave way to this one, which was rewritten as this.

Superbia was also a bit of a surprise for me. Like all Rent-heads I was incredibly intrigued by this "lost third show." One of the first things I did once I got to the office was to watch the DVD of one of the workshops Jonathan did of Superbia. It's ahead of its time for now; I can only imagine what it must have been like to see it in the 80's.

Q: Were there any tracks you wanted to include, but couldn't due to fidelity issues, participants unwilling to give clearance, outvoting from co-workers, etc.?

Steve: Not really.

Ashley: "Turn the Key/Ever After/Dear Mr. Hammerstein II" - this was a lovely piece from Superbia where (in the first draft of the script) the romantic leads Josh and Elizabeth meet for the first time. They are the only people in Superbia who have emotions, and the only way they have been able to learn about feelings is by reading "ancient" books of old musical theater lyrics (namely by Oscar Hammerstein II.) It couldn't be included unfortunately because 1.) There was no recording of Jonathan singing it, 2.) The only recording was from when the show was presented at a musical theater panel discussion, and there are interruptions from the crowd, narration, etc. 3.) The recording wasn't the best quality. (Meaning the technical aspects, not the performers.)

Q: What are your favourite tracks on the disc?

Steve: I like the live stuff (the DVD tracks), "One of These Days" and most of the RENT tracks. A lot of energy; a lot of him in those tracks. As Michael Greif said, "He wanted it bad."

Ashley: Well, I love all of them of course, but if I had to pick, I'd say my favorites are: "One of These Days", "LCD Readout" (the Superbia tracks), "All I Know", and "Find The Key."

Q: When choosing between multiple versions of the same song, how did you choose which to include - the one closest to the final, the best fidelity, the earliest?

Steve: I almost always go with the most engaging performance - the one that sells the song best.

Ashley: In some instances Jonathan had rewritten some of the lyrics, and then it was an aesthetics call - which we preferred. We mainly chose based on the best performance.

Q: There's very little material from Superbia on this disc, which is a bit of a disappointment to long-term Larson fans. Were there issues with the tapes or was this a creative decision?

Steve: There is a complete concert video of him doing it with Roger Bart and friends. I'd like to see that come out at some point, but that's ultimately a call for my collaborator Victoria Leacock Hoffman and the Larson family.

Ashley: We were originally going to put “Lets All Sing” and “Doin’ it on the Air” on the DVD for this album. [However,] Superbia is NOT in a definitive form, and it’s such a good show that we didn’t want to put something out and have people think “Oh! THIS is Superbia."

Q: The original demo for the song "Boho Days" is on the OCR from tick,tick...BOOM!, and the version on the CD is from the 2006 Library of Congress tribute concert. Why use this song and version rather than one of the other, possibly more obscure, songs from that event?

Steve: We thought about it, but this was the only one that really held its own with [Larson’s] versions. We almost released "Hosing the Furniture," which I would definitely use if there's a volume 2.

Q: A video of "Sunday" is an extra on the "Broadway: An American Musical" DVD set from PBS. What was your motivation for including this track instead of an alternative?

Steve: Ours is a different performance. I like this one better, although video quality on the PBS one is superior.

Q: The runtime for the CD is ~61 minutes. Was the plan to limit the CD to an hour vs. the media's capacity at 80 minutes, or did tracks cut during the selection process throw off the balance?

Steve: I've found over the years that 80 minutes is too much (though we have released CDs in the 70-75 minute range. There were quite a few things I wanted in (as well as quite a bit of video), so maybe there's a volume 2? We'll see.

A big round of thanks are due to Steve and Ashley for their participation. A review of the CD/DVD will be posted shortly.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

REVIEW: "Boeing Boeing"

(Happy Thanksgiving to all the US readers.)

The romantic era for commercial aviation may have died with Concorde’s grounding, but a glimpse at the glamour is back at the Comedy Theatre as French farce Boeing Boeing continues its extended run.

The set-up could have come straight out of Noël Coward: 1960’s Parisian playboy Bernard has three international air stewardess girlfriends and keeps them apart by rigidly holding to their flight timetables. When the schedules are thrown out of alignment and all three girls show up on the same day, it’s up to sarcastic maid Bertha and bumbling friend Robert to keep everybody safely apart.

Yes, the tropes and inanities of Farce are present, such as reciting timetables and the hapless supporting character making a complete idiot of themselves to prevent that one door from being opened. But honestly? Anybody buying a ticket knows what they’re in for: a laugh out loud work of pre-women’s lib comedy that’s perfect for distracting ticket buyers from rainy afternoons and troubles at work.

The madcap mania is backed by Rob Howell’s swingerrific set: a half-moon living room with plenty of doors to slam and devoid of colour excepting a hot pink kitchen door and a motif of primary coloured dots representing the three girls.

Of course, any comedy can be demolished by a sub-par cast regardless of the script’s strengths. Fortunately, Boeing has survived its cast change with flying colours, and even the mid-week matinee the RZ attended was sharp and spot on with the timing. Television legend Jean Marsh is a worn down woman as sarcastic housekeeper Bertha, pushed to her limits by Kevin McNally’s Bernard. Elena Roger, fresh from Evita has the least to do as the Italian Giselle, but busty Jennifer Ellison is full of life as spunky American Gloria. Still, it is Tracy-Ann Oberman who gets the best lines (and biggest laughs) as dominating German Gretchen.

While Boeing Boeing doesn’t soar to the immaculate heights of brilliance, it provides most of what is advertised: a hilarious performance with a high flying cast.

Where: Comedy Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 7:30 PM, Th/Sa 2:30 PM
How Much: £15-45. The theatre is a minefield of restricted view locations, so make sure to check Theatre Monkey before booking.
Concessions: Seniors can book discounted tickets in advance, students get best available for £17.50 from 60 min. before the show.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25 for a funny but ultimately forgettable show. You can get decent tickets for that, but also plenty of restricted views.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ is unsure of how restricted restricted view can be re: the pillar problem, but given that the action goes all the way to the edge of the stage, he recommends checking with the Monkey before booking. If you do go, make sure to take your seats early and stay near your seat during the interval as they play an excellent selection of French oldies (original and covers of US/UK songs) during these times. The day the RZ went, the lineup included “Monday Monday” and “It’s My Party”.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

REVIEW: "Pirate Jenny"

“Gentleman, today you see me washing glasses
And I make the beds for everyone.”

So begins Brecht and Weil’s legendary song of revenge, “Pirate Jenny”. Originally sung during the wedding scene in The Threepenny Opera, playwright Nick Ellis has teamed up with the Cambridge Multimedia Theatre to turn this classic into a full-fledged musical utilising live actors and animated designs.

The plot, in a nutshell, focuses on Jenny, a servant girl abandoned at a boarding house full of rogues and perverts in a Scottish seaside town. Abused by the landlord and tenants, she dreams of being rescued by pirates and murdering all who get in her way. When the opportunity arrives, Jenny sets out to sea, but not all is as it seemed back home, nor is a pirate queen’s life as glamourous as believed. It’s all something of a children’s theatre, complete with a moral delivered straight to the audience, but one with sexual innuendo and cursing.

The cast of four work hard, starting in little more than their underwear and only taking on defined characters in a proper Brechtian manner by putting on a series of coats and hats. The three male actors (who play Jenny’s confidant, boss, and eventual pirate husband) also take on a variety of chorus roles in a series of Weil-sound alike musical numbers. Michael Fentiman’s direction attempts to give meaning and depth to the characters, but they never break past the cartoons who support them.

Cartoons? Yes, Pirate Jenny relies heavily on animated backgrounds and a handful of cartoon characters to play the ship’s crew, boarding house tenants, and other minor roles that do little interacting with the live cast. While adding to Jenny’s sense of fantasy, the cartoons distract as much as they enhance, and I frequently found myself staring at the background waiting for a change instead of the actors.

While Pirate Jenny attempts to rise to Brecht’s standards of ethical instruction, it lacks the depth and maturity of its inspiration’s works, leaving us with an immature and shallow piece that only served to make this critic wish he was at the 2006 Broadway production of Threepenny once again.

Where: Bridewell Theatre
When: Closed, show is on tour.
Cost: £12, general admission
Concessons: Unknown (the RZ’s receipt went MIA)
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £3. Forgettable and mediocre.
RZ Other Notes: Another website with incomplete cast information, and the RZ stupidly forgot to grab a rare free programme (well, suggested donation programme) on the way out. For those with a free evening seeking a quality multimedia experience, check out Cabaret 1927 during one of their BAC or Working Man’s Club performances instead - their work is far more clever and entertaining.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

REVIEW: "Electronica - The Musical"

To Chris Guy & Nathalie Delorme:

Congratulations on the production of your new musical Electronica. Getting anything resembling a musical produced in Fringe London these days is a massive achievement. Programmes were unavailable on Saturday, and while one was promised via email, posting commentary in a timely manner overrode my ability to wait. Please forgive any misspellings or improper song titles as a result. Hopefully this post will still be useful and constructive for the show’s future.

The performance I attended (Saturday, 17 Nov.) was sparsely attended, but a solid show...for a draft. The score is incredibly catchy and most of the songs are well crafted, such as the opening battle (“Change the World” / “I Wear What I Want”), “End of an Era”, and “Just Wondering”. A couple of the numbers (e.g. Jackie’s waltz) are clunkers, but expected for a show in development.

Combining live guitar and keys with extended pre-recorded tracks is an interesting approach to the venue and budgetary restrictions, but why not go entirely pre-recorded at that point? And why use an acoustic guitar when the reliant tracks are so electric? Also, the cast need to be mic’ed when singing - not because it’s impossible to hear them, but because an undistorted voice clashes with punk and electronic backing.

In addition to the score, using Camden Town in 1981 is a smart decision, and the dialogue and costumes are appropriately reflective. However, with strikes every week and the New Romantics (who receive plenty of lipservice) all around plus the Falklands on the horizon, the book lacks the depth necessary to do the era justice. The basic plot is respectable, but the time frame (one week) is too short for the story. Additionally, the characters are shallow and one-dimensional: Tippie gets everything she wants, Koog is slimy, and Alec is the naïve kid manipulated by the rest.

The winner of the central conflict, the battle of the bands in Act Two, is obvious from the first scene - there’s no suspense, and the key performances aren’t shown (could there be a better point to put in a pair of songs to build depth and tension?). The problem is compounded as sub-plots such as Alec’s flirtation with drug use are written off - I expected him to pass out towards the end of the second act, but the actual events were underwhelming. The book also fails to support some of the songs, such as “End of an Era”, which is deserving of a far better set-up. The performance numbers need more introspective lyrics, but they will come with revision.

In spite of the flaws, the evening passed quickly and the pacing was tight - I enjoyed the show greatly. Electronica has the potential for an extended Fringe run or trip to the festival circuit should the book get the attention it needs and deserves, but the strength of the score demands a better text. I look forward to seeing a new revision in 2008, and wish you the best of luck on your future work.

Where: The Red Hedgehog, Highgate
When: 20-24 Nov., 27 Nov.-1 Dec. @ 8:00 PM
How Much: £11
Concessions: £10 if you come via mass transit. They assume you do, though.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: A very tentative £10. The RZ believes in supporting new talent in musical theatre, but this is reading/workshop level stuff, and not the polished work that a tenner will get you in any of the major fringe venues.
RZ Other Thoughts: Again, no programme, no cast info. In the RZ’s opinion, the cast were a mixed bag, and ranged from decent all-round to good at acting or good at singing to flat out annoying. YMMV.

REVIEW: "They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina"

In the midst of Maddy-Mania, the subject of missing children appears daily in newspapers across Britain. Cashing in on good timing, Theatre 503 have mounted a production of Sarah Wooley’s They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina, currently running at the Tristan Bates.

Oak Trees looks at the quieter end of child abduction, long after the media have lost interest. Ray and Eileen, a pair of pensioners living in a small English village, are confronted by a visitor from the American south claiming to be their son, kidnapped some 22 years earlier. Ray is suspicious, but Eileen takes to the man, eager for her prayers to have been answered. As questions and conflicts between the characters are raised, new truths emerge from all parties.

Besides its topical subject matter, Oak Trees is an intriguing play for its sense of structure: except for the penultimate conflict, all of the scenes are presented as a series of intimate two-handers. As a result, Ray and Eileen are given focus as the situation begins to create rifts in their marriage and realities. Adding to the mystery is the lighting, which keeps the cast visible yet in a permanent shadow, mirroring the half truths coming from the text: everybody is holding back, and nothing is entirely revealed. Taking a nod from the film world, instrumental background music is used to great effect, underscoring the key moments of conflict and revelation.

While some may be sick of the constant updates on what Maddy’s parents ate for breakfast, They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina is an intense, psychological look at those required to cope with the aftermath of familial tragedy.

Where: Tristan Bates Theatre @ The Actors’ Centre
When: Tu-Sa @ 7:30 PM until 1 Dec.
Cost: £12 General Admission
Concessions: £8 for the usuals
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12. Well acted, well paced, and while not a life-changer, fairly priced. Fans of dramatic plays and one-acts will feel they got their money’s worth.
RZ Other Notes: The long week took its toll on getting this one out in a timely manner (posted early Sunday morning for a Thursday night performance), so the RZ may not have said as much as he was originally planning. The review for Electronica: The Musical will be coming faster, promise. Also, due to no cast information online and no free cast list at the house (programmes are even hidden - get one at the green room bar if you want to pay), there’s no cast details in the review. The three members are all solid.

Friday, 16 November 2007

REVIEW: "Present Laughter"

Noel Coward is frequently maligned for writing empty plays without depth. How one can accuse him of doing so with Present Laughter, currently running at the National, is beyond me.

Laughter is the tale of one Gerry Essendine (Alex Jennings), aka Coward writing himself, who spends the evening’s three hours ranting and raving about the tolls of an actor as his mistresses, colleagues, and secretary beleaguer him as he prepares for a trip to Africa. While the plot is thin, a sharp commentary on the state of the theatre is hidden within: the threats to ageing actors, casting politics, and the inability to separate onstage from off all surface as the farce plays out.

A particularly pointed moment comes when a young playwright confronts Essendine for playing shallow, empty roles in repetitive, indistinct plays. After Essendine tells slams the young man’s work, he explains that the future of theatre will be in ideas and psychology. Gary replies that may all be fine and good, but the theatre of the present demands a plot. While Coward was writing a decade before Waiting for Godot and the absurdists, his reply to the early avant garde is clear. As in real life, this figure of the alternative follows Essendine for the remainder of the play, a shadow hovering over the traditional farce’s end.

Many of the mainstream critics have complained about the increased presence of World War II overshadowing this production, absent in the 1939 original. In my opinion, the war material (a radio broadcast between the first and second scenes) helped with setting the date, and brought a sense of urgency to the proceedings, although more could have been done to follow it up. The material in no way detracted, but it didn’t add much either.

Much has also been said of Tim Hatley’s set, a claustrophobic wedge of a grand manor, which brings a sense of confinement to Essendine’s world. While doors abound, a clear vision of entrapment lingers throughout the production.

The cast are solid, and I particularly enjoyed Sara Stewart’s devious Liz and Anny Tobin as Gary’s snarky secretary Miss Erikson. In what is perhaps the Lyttleton curse, most of the actors tripped over at least one line over the course of the evening. Given that there were only four performances before the play goes on hiatus for another two weeks, chances are this is due to a lack of rehearsal and refreshment before the current run.

While Present Laughter is a play to be enjoyed in the present, it provides a full evening’s entertainment despite some slow scenes.

Where: National Theatre/Lyttleton
When: In Repertoire. Check the NT Website for dates and times.
Cost: £10-£36.50
Concessions: £10 day seats, £5 standing room, £18.50 regular standby 90 min. prior and £10 student standby 45 min. prior
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £18.50
RZ Other Notes: This play is long. Extremely long, in fact, clocking in at just under three hours with intermission. Given that comedy almost always plays best when short, there are a number of slower moments between the one liners and key pieces. Still, Coward’s self-satire is at its best when he talks about the theatre and nature, and there is quite a bit of autobiographical commentary throughout. That said, 20+ minutes of trims would certainly be appreciated.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

THOUGHTS: "Vincent River"

(This is the shortest review that will ever appear on this site...the RZ has an early class tomorrow, and the press have all raved this one anyways.)

Gay East-Ender Phillip Ridley gives us play where OXO Mum* is confronted by beaten up pretty boy from Essex. Pretty Boy found Mum’s dead kid, they drink and talk, revelations and hijinks ensue. Good dialogue, nice sparse set, uncomfortable bench seats at Trafalgar 2.

*The OXO part is the second to last advert in the series.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 2
When: Nightly, 7:45 PM until 17 Nov.
Cost: £22.50
Concessions: Usuals for £15
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £15. Solid all around, but not one you're going to remember forever.
RZ Other Notes: Another one of Ridley's plays is running now as well, but the RZ doesn't have the time or energy to look it up. There was a post-show Q&A, and the RZ also saw a discussion lecture with Ridley a few weeks ago. Fascinating guy, see his stuff if you're unfamiliar with it.

Monday, 12 November 2007

UPDATE: News, etc. (17 Nov.)

Well, 28 shows on Broadway have stagehands on strike, and the West End Whingers are stuck in New York with it. If you want an in depth discussion, you're better off going to All That Chat or the Broadwayworld boards. The economics, politics, and such are more complicated than the news is letting on, tensions are raised on both sides, and the whole thing is a mess - there are no clear lines here and everybody is screwed until this thing is over.

Back on this side of the pond, it's a busy time of year as Christmas tourists start flooding into the city and the West End there anything opening in the West End? There's plenty in "Off West-End" and the Fringe, and panto season is of course upon us as well, but to the RZ's knowledge there are no new major musicals opening except for La Cage at the Chocolate Factory, and few big plays until after the holidays as well. Corrections are, of course, welcomed.

Lastly, while things have been quiet on the review front this month, that's about to change: the RZ has six shows to attend this week, four of which will be covered on this site. Should international mail manage to deliver his recent shipments, there will also be a CD and film review going up as well, plus an interview or two.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

REVIEW: "Rafta Rafta"

Are Indian families really this conservative? If Ayub Khan-Din’s play Rafta Rafta, now closed at the National, is to be believed, the pre-feminist mentality lives on with the UK’s largest minority. Based on Bill Naughton’s All in Good Time, Khan-Din uses a healthy dose of humour to show two working class Asian families’ responses to a sexless marriage, exposing generational and intra-familial conflicts.

Utilising Bollywood’s writing conventions, Khan-Din’s dialogue avoids the language one would expect with this type of play: profanity is non-existent, and with one exception (played by Simon Nagra’s), the sexual talk so necessary to solving the young couple’s problems emerges through discretionary whispers and evasive terminology: the direct words are never there, just as frustrated Atul (Ronny Jhutti) is incapable of maintaining a dialogue or open relationship with his father, the gregarious Eeshwar (Harish Patel).

As the older generation (all first generation immigrants) deals with foreign words, the younger must reconcile their parents’ culture with modern British surroundings and lifestyles. Perhaps it is most telling that the crudest character (Nagra’s Jivaj) is intermarried, yet his white British wife is far more observant of Indian customs than he of Asian descent.

Also as with Bollywood, music plays a role in the play, with songs by Niraj Chag used sparsely but to great effect. Tim Hatley’s eye-popping house set is full of colour and character, but was it necessary reveal the interior with a turntable effect when we never see the exterior after the first three minutes?

While successfully directed by Nicholas Hytner (artistic director for the National) himself, a touch up session with vocal coach Kate Godfrey between runs would have been beneficial as accents frequently slipped, especially Meerya Syal’s as Lopa, the wisecracking mother who spends her non-speaking time in the matriarchal position of cleaning up after the rest of the cast.

Rafta Rafta, when combined with the season’s earlier run of The Emperor Jones, takes a polar approach to storytelling from the latter, but is no less effective in helping the National reach out to ethnic Britain.

Where: National Theatre/Littleton
When: Closed.
Cost: £10-36.50
Concessions: Day seats + Usual Suspects for £10, SRO when sold out for £5
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £22.00 (Full price dress circle). Major Bollywood fans and members of the community may find additional value in the piece and should add £5.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ found Rafta Rafta an entertaining look at Anglo-Indian culture and a great way to spend a matinee. While this is by no means a brilliant, life-changing production, it’s a fun and well constructed play - far more than the last Indian focused piece he saw (the OLC of Bombay Dreams) - and it deserves a good life in regional and amateur theatre.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

REVIEW: "The Blacks"

(Another one guaranteed to lose readers...make sure to read the additional notes at the end.)

“Kill Whitey!” As a middle class high school student in the American midwest, it was shocking to hear these words for the first time on late night community television. Week after week, though, the angry black man would show up, hang a Jamaican flag, play reggae music, curse out those who called to make requests, and shout black power slogans at the TV camera. Frightening yet fascinating, racial conflict became an exciting aspect of late Friday night television.

Fast forward ten years and an ocean away to Theatre Royal’s new production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, an infamous, racially charged play. Billed as the first UK staging in fifty years, this updated edition relies heavily upon the language and styles of hip hop, but came off as toothless and dull to this American reviewer.

Most of The Blacks is staged as a play within a play: a group of white-faced black actors enter as a royal entourage (including The Queen), and a group of working class black performers enter, carrying a coffin containing what they claim to be a white woman murdered in hatred. The next 90 minutes are spent attempting to convince the audience of black hatred and violence in a white world by re-enacting the murder while covering up the killing of a traitor to the cause before executing the establishment members. Along the way, two members of the performing party attempt to throw off their hate to love each other, and a preacher is barred from the community for sympathising with whites.

Technically, The Blacks is something of an intentional mess: the script is very much in the absurdist tradition, short on plot and long on causing intentional discomfort for the audience to make a point. Boasting two directors (the pseudonymous Ultz and Excalibah, the former also designing), we see actors milling about, passing off hand mikes, and shouting over each other - it’s not engaging or involving and rarely advances anything. Such a staging fits with Genet’s style, and also presents a (sub-conscious?) play on the stereotype of the “lazy black”, although pulling off the chaos night after night clearly requires a great deal of work.

Music plays a large role in this production, and while not a musical, the songs fit the mood and are appropriate enough. No composer is credited, but Carl Ramsey’s lyrics are fitting.

In terms of casting, The Blacks is very much an ensemble piece, though Tameka Empson stands out as the white-faced Queen Elizabeth II, and Excalibah performed with a fury as the evening’s MC. Martina Barnett got the best musical numbers, a pair of chant based tracks.

When first performed in the late 1950s, it’s easy to see how contemporary conventions would have been subverted and white audiences would have been shocked and outraged by what they saw: the key plot device of a black man killing a white woman was the standard propagandist plot for keeping blacks down in society. As a historical setting, original production ran 150 years after the abolition of slavery in Britain and at the same time as the African independence movements, namely the liberation of Ghana from French control. With the loss of empire and black independence in the daily news, The Blacks would have capitalised on the fears and shame of the white bourgeoisie and its role on colonialism.

Meanwhile, Americans have since faced fifty years of open tension and media coverage regarding race relations: Watts, LA, MLK, Malcom X, Farrakhan, August Wilson, Public Enemy, The Boondocks, and even recent controversies both inside the black community (the Read a Book uproar) and outside (the Jena 6) all served to remind white society of its role in moulding the contemporary black community. Racial tension and uproar are nothing new to Americans, though great potential exists should an enterprising director attempt something similar in the US with the execution of George W. Bush and co. and a thorough damning of white America’s crimes. However, this is sadly not that production.

In comparison, the British have had race riots in the past, but public concerns over black integration and identity are muted - perhaps this explains the glowing reviews from the local mainstream press. That said, had Theatre Royal decided to do an alternative adaptation - say The Arabs - there would have been a far greater immediacy, controversy, and shock value in the production (all things Genet wanted to subject white audiences to with the play). Now, the debate over colonisation is tired, and by relying upon Genet’s base rather than extending the political and social issues, the creative team have failed to maintain the edge necessary to cut through the British class system and the audience’s expectations of black society. As it stands, this edition of The Blacks is a wasted but well intentioned opportunity.

Where: Theatre Royal, Stratford East
When: Until 10 Nov. at 7:30PM
How Much: £12-18
Concessions: £7-10
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £7 to see what all the fuss is about and for the cast.
RZ Other Notes: OK, biases out of the way. The RZ hates absurdist theatre, and his view of The Blacks stems almost entirely from a displeasure with the artistic movement, not with the subject matter at hand. Given Genet’s stated desire to use alienation effect (though not in the same manner as Brecht, whom the RZ adores), this is not a play that the audience (especially the white audience) is expected to like. In that respect, the play is quite successful, but don’t go in expecting a coherent plot, good dialogue, or sharp commentary on the current state of affairs. If you do, chances are that you will spend 90 of the play’s 100 minute runtime bored like the Rogue Zentradi.

If you go prepared for a challenging, if flawed work that is fully in line with the house’s history of controversial plays, you are likely to appreciate it more than the RZ.

Friday, 2 November 2007

REVIEW: "Five Tanks"

Five Tanks, running at the Hackney Empire is a work best experienced under the influence. This one-act play by Lab Ky Mo takes a look at the oh-so-mundane world of a London call centre, but imbibes it with such hilarious inanity in the face of disaster that one can’t help but laugh for the wrong reasons throughout.

It’s not just the plot (or lack thereof) that’s funny - we’re treated to a peanut gallery of characters from “I’m not racist” micromanager Nick, desperate to land a bonus and quit, to talentless actress Branwen and unshakeably bummed Dougal who, having narrowly escaped being bombed on a London bus, comes to work regardless out of apathy. Our zero-heroes spend the day on the phones calling everybody but their clients, taking smoke breaks, and complaining about how much they hate going to work. In other words, the same conversations everybody has at the office.

Where Five Tanks truly shines is in its deliciously poor dialogue, such as when supervisor Rehana explains her ritual of breaking the Ramadan fast each night with six packets of crisps and three cans of Red Bull consumed in a specific order (could anybody not high on pot have written that?) Throughout the play we hear of workplace squabbles and scattered back stories familiar to anybody who’s temped their way through low end office jobs: Ex-soldier Erno longs to sail to Australia to see his estranged daughter after a messy divorce, Branwen has an audition and mutilates Mel Gibson’s speech from Braveheart for material, and so on.

There’s supposed to be some satire and sarcasm regarding Muslim-Westerner relations in Five Tanks (Nick uses Reana as a token when discriminating against new employee Saeed), as well as an emotional consideration of the important things in life (family, happiness), but the play lacks the depth for proper thematic exploration. Instead, we see the truth: people care about their snacks and bills, and world events pass them by. It should be meaningful, but instead it’s as mentally nutritious as a bag of crisps. Five Tanks is entertaining, but entirely in the sense of watching a disaster unfold.

Where: Hackney Empire
When: Until November 10, T-Sa 7:30 PM
Cost: £12 General Admission
Concessions: £9 General Admission
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £9 - this is B-movie bad, and if you enjoy camp, schlock, and the finer points of flops, this is the play for you.
RZ Other Notes: There are no comments on the cast in this review as the RZ refuses to buy programmes and the Hackney Empire website doesn’t have a cast list.

Regarding the content of the show, the RZ had a grin on his face the entire time, as he gleefully took in the stupidity onstage. The mainstream critics trashed Five Tanks, perhaps rightly so, but it was too much of a hoot to see how bad things could get to not love it. If you drink (the RZ doesn’t), have a few pints, some alcopops, or a bottle of wine first and enjoy!

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

REVIEW: "Parade"

(Something informal this time as the RZ continues to muck about with writing styles.)

What is left to be said about Parade that hasn’t been covered by every critic and blogger in London? Near-universally raved by the critics and in line for a new London cast recording, the show is yet another hit for the folks at the Donmar.

For the few readers out there who haven’t kept up with the show since its 1998 Broadway incarnation or who are entirely unfamiliar with the story, Parade is a 95% sung through telling of the Leo Frank case, where a Jewish factory supervisor was arrested for the murder of a young girl working in his factory and lynched by a mob when his sentence was overturned. This is not the making of a happy musical, although there are occasional moments of joy to be found in Alfred Uhry’s book and Jason Robert Brown’s score.

What the duo bring to the table instead is an evening of intensity, revealing the power of the media and community to override the workings of the justice system unchecked. While the Frank case is an infamous miscarriage of the courts, a resonance can be felt in newspapers dominated by celebrity murderers and royal car crashes, and the audience is given a vivid reminder of what can go wrong when biases and politics get in the way of doing what is right.

In terms of the production itself, Rob Ashford has redeemed himself from last season’s uninspired work on Curtains with a focused direction and integrated, period inspired choreography lacking in many recent West End offerings. Christopher Oram has a limited space to work in as designer, but creates an effective two tiered set with minimal pieces showing off a variety of locations.

While the original Broadway production focused on Leo and used reporter Britt Craig as a narrator, the new revision is an ensemble piece, and the cast are uniformly excellent - any of them could be lauded for their work here, but it would be unfair to single any of them out when all are worthy of praise.

With its heavy themes and less than cheerful plot, Parade is not for everybody, but those willing to engage it will be rewarded with a tightly constructed, explosive work capable of proving the intellectual and artistic merit of the musical.

Where: Donmar Warehouse
When: Until Nov. 24, M-Sa @ 7:30PM, W/Sa @ 2:30 PM
Cost: £15-32.50
Concessions: Be prepared for confusion - Seniors and Disabled patrons can book in advance, but students and other usual suspects must wait until 30 min. prior to daily performance. All concessions are £12. SRO is also available for £7.50 same day if the performance is otherwise sold out.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. It would be full price, but the Donmar is one of the most uncomfortable theatres in London - all seats are bench seats, and anybody with back problems (like the RZ) or long legs (like the RZ) may wish to consider SRO instead. Still, £25 will buy anything most nights except for the absolute top seats.

RZ Other Notes: Regarding the revisions for the new production, Jason Robert Brown goes into the details on his blog. It’s great reading, even if you aren’t familiar with the original, as it lends some extra insight into the revival.

If you liked Caroline, or Change, you will almost certainly like Parade, which is a similar form of musical-ized play, though Caroline has a far smaller focus plot-wise and a more complex score. As the season currently stands, this will be duking it out with Hairspray (which had press night while the RZ was at the Donmar) for this year’s Best Musical awards. Highly recommended, get to it while you can.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

FEATURE: Ask Michael Billington

So Michael Billington, head critic for the Guardian, is doing a masterclass with the RZ's MA programme in a few days.

Got a question for the man? Be it on the theatre, being a critic, the role of the internet in modern journalism, whatever. Leave it in the comments, and the RZ will do his best to ask as many of them as possible. Please, be polite and professional with your replies.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

REVIEW: "Desperately Seeking Susan"

With the West End under attack from second rate film adaptations and jukebox raiding parties, the new musical Desperately Seeking Susan manages to inflict yet another wound on the theatre-going public. Combined with the Blondie song catalog, the 1985 film is brought to a stage in a shallow, wasteful production.

The primary blame lies with book writer and conceptualist Peter Michael Marino, who gives us cliched dialogue and an utter lack of character depth or development: We don’t care that housewife Roberta Glass (Kelly Price) is bored with yuppie husband Gary (Jonathan Wrather), and her path of self discovery through the world of renegade Susan (Emma Williams) is shallow due to a subplot involving a jewel heist. When a key scene comes for Roberta to leave Gary for new lover Dez (Alex Newman), there is no emotion from the script or Angus Jackson’s direction.

It’s a pity, because the idea to integrate Blondie’s music isn’t entirely bad: most of the numbers serve the plot, but given the low standards they need to perform to, that’s not hard. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography lacks the music’s excitement, though the band were playing in full force. The cast are adequate with the material they’re given, but the book holds them back. The only exception is Ms. Williams, owning the stage with attitude, pizzaz, and a voice to match.

Even the designs are disappointing - Tim Hatley’s set fails to capture 1979 New York, and the encore features a hideous yet giant striped PVC curtain, covering a portion of the stage before running floor to ceiling, with a neon heart finishing off the job. Hatley’s costumes fare better, though who wants to remember 1970s fashion? Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is serviceable, but uninspired, and for a show with two sound designers (Bobby Aitken and Brian Beasley), why couldn’t I hear half the lyrics?

Overall, Desperately Seeking Susan is a pallid attempt to cash in on 80’s nostalgia which lacks the performances of The Wedding Singer or the joyous camp factor of Broadway’s new adaptation of Xanadu.

Where: Novello Theatre
When: M-Th @ 8PM, F @ 5PM & 8:30 PM, Sa @ 3PM & 8PM
Cost: £15-£55
Concessions: The usual suspects get 50% off best remaining stalls 60 min. prior to curtain.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £0. If you can get free tickets and you’re a Blondie fan, you may find value in this show. Otherwise, avoid it or you'll be desperately seeking a refund.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ enjoys a good train wreck as much as anyone (one of his favourite shows of all time is Broadway megaflop In My Life), but Desperately Seeking Susan lacks the shock, camp, or otherwise amazement value of a truly awful production. Rather, it is mediocrity at its worst: a bland and soulless production that leaves little to no impression.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

THOUGHTS: Les Miserables

Recently passing its 22nd anniversary in the West End and celebrating the first anniversary of its revival on Broadway, Cameron Mackintosh decided to swap leading actors in Les Miserables. Fans of the show should make an effort to get to the Queens Theatre before Drew Sarich leaves in six months, as he carries over all of the talent, vocal prowess, and depth that he had in the Broadway production. The rest of the cast are fine, though the RZ preferred Ann Harada as Mme. Thernadier and Max von Essen as Enjorlas to their London counterparts.

That said, the RZ doesn’t much care for the show itself - it’s three hours long, feels like it, and features far, far too many reprises (especially of “I Dreamed a Dream”.) As Peter Brook write in his 1968 book The Empty Space, “One associates culture with a certain sense of duty, historical costumes and long speeches with the sensation of being bored; so, conversely, just the right degree of boringness is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event.” (p. 13) In the RZ’s opinion, this is the only way that Les Miz can still be running after so long. While the RZ has great respect John Napier’s set design and David Hersey’s lights (even if he doesn’t like them), they don’t provide enough eye candy to validly sluice one’s attention from the people’s moans. If any of this site’s readers are unfamiliar with Les Miserables, the RZ recommends downloading the parodies from Forbidden Broadway - you’ll get all you need.

Where: Queens Theatre
When: Until infinity, most likely, M-Sa 7:30 pm, W/Sa 2:30 PM
Cost: £15-55
Concessions: £27.50 best available stalls with student ID, available 60 min. prior to curtain. ONLY ONE TICKET PER ID. Delfont-Mackintosh houses have the worst student rates in the West End, so be aware before you go.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15 for Drew Sarich (one of few actors of whom the RZ is an unashamed fanboy), £25 to see what the fuss is about if you’ve never gone and have an evening to kill.
RZ Other Notes: I’m sure I’ve lost half of the people who read this previously by posting a nasty review of Les Miz, but I really find the show mind numbingly dull - if I could have slept through the entire fight on the barricade I would have, and only went a second time to see Mr. Sarich’s first night. Les Miz fans are welcome (and encouraged!) to post nasty comments.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

UPDATE: Week of 21 Oct...

Short and sweet. Today's writings are short and sweet....

Starting things off with upcoming reviews, it's a big week for cast changes at Les Miserables with the NYC cast saying farewell to Lea Salonga and picking up Judy Kuhn as Fantine. A few other cast members are leaving as well, plus this week begins the London-NYC Valjean switch. Tuesday is John Owen-Jones's first night as Valjean on Broadway, and tomorrow the RZ will be attending Drew Sarich's first performance in the role here in London.

Cast changes are also coming up for The 39 Steps, and the cast of Chicago will have a reunion special for the revival's tenth anniversary in London.

Press openings in the last week include Water at the Lyric Hammersmith, and War Horse at the National. The RZ has tickets for both shows and reviews will be posted when not submitted elsewhere. For previews, Desperately Seeking Susan started previews with the highest concession price in the West End (£27.50, or the same 50% off as the TKTS booth), but the RZ has a better discount for a performance this week.

Oh, and apparently Homer Simpson is coming to do a musical. The RZ suspects tickets will go quickly for this one, and should probably try and book now.

Last, the RZ is jealous of everybody in New York who can go see The Farnsworth Invention, currently in previews. Aaron Sorkin + Des McAnuff + Hank Azaria = win in spite of too much exposition.

REVIEW: "A Night In November"

(Keeping this one quick since I still have to put together this week's news update...)

The conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has expressed itself in countless methods over the centuries: war, terrorism, sport, and the stage. These last two comprised last night's performance of A Night in November at Trafalgar Studios.

Written in 1995 by Belfast-born Marie Jones, Night tells the tale of Kenneth McAllister, a protestant dole clerk in Belfast living a hum-drum life complete with the underlying racism that comes with the Irish divide: checking his car for bombs, lording his acceptance into a golf club over his Catholic boss, etc. until one night when he accompanies his father in law, an open racist, to a football match between the British and Republican Irelands. When the crowd turns hostile and begins invoking slogans in praise of terrorist acts against the Catholic Irish, Kenneth has an epiphany and begins to reassess his life from his family to what it means to be "Irish" in the face of the 1993-1994 World Cup.

The role of Kenneth, along with everybody else, is played by comedian Patrick Kielty. Mr. Kielty does his best with the material, putting on all sorts of voices and mannerisms while running around the stage like a madman, but he is let down by the play itself, which relies solely on exposition and narration with occasional asides to move the story. While this is a flaw inherent with one-actor shows, the introspective material leads to a rather dull play with some choice moments - Kenneth's trip to New York for the match itself and his spiritual awakening are particularly brilliant, but the peaks are few and far between. Cutting the play from 110 minutes over two acts to 95 or 100 minutes without an interval would have helped greatly.

Given that this piece is set at the same time as Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Jones has chosen to give us a more personal look at the Irish situation, rather than a look at the big picture of Northern Ireland in the early 90's. However, Jones lacks McDonagh's command over language, and her play fails to rise to championship standards as a result.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 1
When: Until 1 December, M-Sa 7:30 PM, W/Sa 2:30 PM
Cost: £29-40
Concessions: The usual crowds can get £25 tickets day of excepting Saturday evenings.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £10 for Kielty's performance. Add £5 if you're really into pieces about football (proper footie) or the works on the Irish conflict are of particular interest (as it is to the RZ).
RZ Other Notes: A Night in November may have been a great example of how an audience can kill a show. The RZ saw it the same night as the Rugby World Cup finals where England lost against South Africa, and was curious, especially during the interval, how many people were wishing they could be watching the game at the pub instead. Given that the play is billed as a comedy, the lack of major laughs was noticeable. The RZ also wonders how much of the material went over his head due to being American - perhaps the work is too Irish (even Northern Irish) for him to have fully appreciated it.

Friday, 19 October 2007

REVIEW: "RENT Remixed"

(Not that it should be hard for people to guess what I thought of this. If the review seems as incoherent as the production, it's because I'm only posting the framework of what will be a far longer article for class here.)

The theatre is comprised of many great successes, but an even greater number of failures. Some shows fail from their first performance, yet others succeed in many ways and places, only to fall short in specific locales and times or under certain creative teams. Jonathan Larson’s RENT is one of these shows, and suffers greatly in a newly misconceived production at the Duke of York’s advertised as RENT Remixed. Readers should note that story and character points will be brought up in detail, and are advised to skip to the final paragraph in order to avoid “spoilers.”

As it stands, there are so many problems with William Baker’s production that one is spoiled for choice in areas to pan, but I shall begin with Mr. Baker’s maligned work on the story. Few will disagree that RENT in its original form had book problems, including a fair share of plot holes and the burying of important information in forgettable throwaway lines. However, the overall character through-lines were consistently presented. Not so in Remixed, as songs are moved around, segues are repositioned, dialogue is trimmed, and even the act break is reworked. What’s left is a jumbled mess that destroys the limited narrative of Larson’s original that should (and could) have been fixed during the tumultuous preview period.

Regarding the much-hyped reworked orchestrations, Steve Anderson has come up with a mixed bag of pieces that work and fail, frequently within the same number. There are enough interesting selections here to have compiled a novelty CD of highlights, but the new score lacks cohesion as a whole. While the strong numbers are impressive such as “Contact” which, despite poor staging and hideous costumes provides a terrifying experience in combination with a sequence of fantastic lighting are good, many of the results are mixed. Tone issues are common throughout as the orchestrations, short on rock guitar but heavy on synthesized strings, frequently lack the drive and energy needed to sell the number. Worst off are two numbers known as RENT’s rock anthems. Mr. Anderson changed “What You Own”, a song of self revelation for filmmaker/narrator Mark and songwriter Roger, from a cynical eleven o’clock rouser to a slow, whiny solo for Mark. Similarly, HIV infected dancer Mimi’s powerhouse piece “Out Tonight” is now sung as burlesque, with lots of virtual trumpets but no fire or soul.

In terms of casting, it’s clear that Mr. Baker (unsurprisingly) cared about style and looks over acting or musical capacity, given his background as celebrity stylist for celebrity page favourite Kylie Minogue. Leading this miscast brat pack is Oliver Thornton as Mark. Mr. Thornton plays the role with the cheap antics of someone who has been in the same role for years and jokes around onstage to keep himself entertained rather than the audience. When required to sing, a classically trained opera tenor appears, as if Mr. Thornton is imagining himself across the street at the ENO rather than slumming it here.

Equally miscast is ex-pop star Siobhan Donaghy as Mimi. Ms. Donaghy’s pop experience is helpful when her requirement is strictly to sing towards the audience, but her breath control is distractingly poor, as she gasps for breath after each line in her major songs, and her chemistry with Luke Evans’s borderline abusive Roger is nonexistant. A similar predicament affects TV presenter Denise Van Outen as Maureen, a slutty performance artist and Mark’s Ex. Ms. Van Outen’s singing is passable and she can stir up an audience, but her acting is wooden when interacting with other cast members.

Mark Bailey is also responsible for this production’s sets, a whitewashed set of walls and lit platform with chairs, stairs and a catwalk. It’s even more minimalist than the original designs, and despite looking far too posh (the walls need grime), is perfectly functional for the show with the exception of a large LED board that was broken during the performance I attended.

Overall, RENT Remixed is a failure as a work of musical theatre. It lacks a coherent plot, gives us no emotional attachment to our characters, and poorly represents the score. The only people who should visit this show are diehard RENT fans in need of a fix or the sorts of anoraks who seek out flops and trainwrecks. Unfortunately, the production was capitalized for under £500,000 and only 80% of the budget has been used, meaning that the producers can keep the show open until holiday tourists come, making recoupment a scary yet likely possibility.

Where: Duke of York's
When: Open run, dark on Sundays. Check the booking site for times.
Cost: £15-45 (See note)
Concessions: Students get general admission for £25.
Note: Seats in the circles as well as prime stalls are reserved for £15/25/45. The rest of the stalls are sold as general admission for £30 (going up in a week or two to £35). The RZ strongly recommends checking out Theatre Monkey before you go if you book unreserved.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £15 to see what the fuss is about, but honestly, you're best off avoiding it.
RZ Other Notes: The recommendation in the review proper should be adhered to. If you dont' fit those categories, this is not the show for you. While theatregoers unfamiliar with the original staging or the film may find merit in this piece, and old fans with an extremely open mind will find bits to enjoy, this production will not convert anybody who hated the Michael Grief edition. The RZ is greatly disappointed in the RENT Remixed creative team for wasting their previews on minor staging quibbles (though many of the minor things WERE fixed to an extent) but failing to do anything with the key issues that were pointed out again and again by attendees.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

THOUGHTS: Perfect Pitch

Last night, the RZ had the opportunity to attend Perfect Pitch, a showcase of new British musicals in development. Each night, excerpts from up to three shows are presented as a way for creators to get feedback on their work early on. As these are all unfinished pieces, the RZ will leave some thoughts, but not review them outright.

Lost Boy (20 min.) - This coming of age/boarding school piece is oh-so-English, and you get all the stereotypes here (the athlete, the snobby bully, the quiet brain, the theatre queen) plus a spectre who occasionally steps in to say things in other peoples' voices, guide characters through bits, etc. The tunes weren't particularly incredible, but there's strengths to be found in the characterizations. Sadly, we weren't treated to many book scenes, given the length of the presentation, but there could be a solid work of youth/teen theatre born from last night's staged rehearsal (on book and piano only).

Slow Motion Suicide (30 min.) - The company presented the first 30 minutes of this piece complete with book sequences, and it's very much what one would find at NYMF. Set in a think tank, the employees outsource all of their "mundane" tasks, such as buying groceries and choosing wallpaper, to Personal Liberty, a firm that does it all for them. One employee, though, is starting to feel the corporate world come down around her, and begins to crack under the strain. The songs were more developed here, and we got a four piece arrangement. The book's funny, and the characters are interesting. Hopefully something will come from this one.

All I Want For Christmas (60 min.) - Basically a complete one act, this is the story of a high level banker who hires an actress to play his girlfriend so that he can have the perfect family Christmas. As expected, things go wrong in all sorts of ways, and hilarity ensues with a side of insanity and excitement. The show is already well developed, and ready for a small company/festival willing to take it on.

Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse (Highgate Road)
When: Nightly at 7:30PM until 28 Oct.
Cost: £10 general admission
Concessions: £8 general admission
NOTE: There are 10 shows in rotation, with two or three running per night in different arrangements. Check the website for details when making plans.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £10. You get your two hours of entertainment from these, and it's always a worthy cause to support up and coming talent.
RZ Other Notes: The theatre is set up with front and side seating. The orchestra/piano are always on Stage Left, so sit in the stage right centre seats or the stage right side seats if you want to hear the singers clearly. Everybody is unmic'ed for this.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

REVIEW: "Bad Girls: The Musical"

The musical has always been a medium of adaptation, from early novels and straight plays to today’s films and pop star catalogues, musical theatre has been used to bring a new look at an old work. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bad Girls, a 100+ episode prison drama from British network ITV opened this past August. Retaining one of the TV series’ original stars and filling the stage with a wealth of new actresses and songs, Bad Girls is a mostly new British musical full of talent, but also one that begs the question “why?”

As the show begins, young Rachel Hicks is strip searched and processed upon her entry to prison for possession. The wing’s guards (or “screws” as they’re called) make it clear that she’s in for a tough time, as the scene segues into a long opening number introducing the main prisoners and our setting. The prisoner stereotypes are all represented here, from the domineering top dog to the supposedly reformed Christian, and the screws run the one-dimensional gamut as well. As the first act progresses, prisoner Nikki Wade, played by Caroline Head, is given a shot at an appeal and freedom. At the same time, top dog Shell Dockley is overtaken by newcomer Yvonne Atkins, a mafia wife who makes fast friends. These threads are interwoven with prison politics as a corrupt guard attempts to become Ward Governor while having sexual relations with as many of the prisoners as possible. When tragedy strikes as a result, the ward is thrown into chaos. The second act deals with the aftermath, and most of the plot twists are rather obvious, even to those who don’t know the TV show.

The score, while pleasant, is an uninspired lineup of adult contemporary ballads and pop songs. Most of the numbers are instantly forgettable and shockingly out of tone with the story line - I frequently found myself wishing for a number to end so that we could return to the more engaging book scenes. The one exception was “All Banged Up”, sung by Yvonne (played by Sally Dexter) and “the two Julies”, a pair of bubbly blonde tarts, attempting to seduce a handsome and naive guard. Unfortunately, this song creates a dilemma for the audience: It’s not OK for a guard to try and overpower a prisoner for sex, but should we laugh and cheer on a trio of prisoners attempting the same thing?

A great deal of respect is due to the cast. Three cast members, Nicole Faraday (Dockley), Laura Rogers, and Helen Fraser (Sylvia), worked on the TV series, with Ms. Fraser returning to her original role. The aforementioned Ms. Dexter is also worthy of acclaim as the powerhouse Yvonne, commanding the stage and stealing every scene she appeared in, as did the boyishly charming Chris Grierson as good-guy guard Justin Mickelwhite Also worthy of mention are Colin Richmond’s concrete and steel inspired sets, bringing us into the cold, gray world of prison life alongside Tim Mitchell’s lights.

While fans of the TV series will undoubtedly appreciate Bad Girls more than newcomers to the franchise, the show suffers from a fatal flaw: there is no need for it to be a musical. The book scenes are dramatically sufficient to tell the story on their own, and the songs provide little introspection and frequently harm the show more by breaking up the action rather than supplementing it with emotions and conflicts that dialogue alone can’t reach. It’s entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying as primary character threads are left unfinished and we get a forced ending for some of the secondaries instead. With ticket sales flagging, best to see this one while you can. The educational value of how not to construct a musical is worthy of admission price alone.

Where: Garrick Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 7:30PM, Th/Sa @ 3PM
Cost: £25-55
Concessions: The usual suspects can get best remaining tickets day of performance for £25. A promotion for top tickets at £25 is currently running.
RZ unofficial “worth paying”: £10 if you’re not into the franchise, £15 (maybe £20) if you are. There’s some fun to be had, and a couple of good scenes, but Bad Girls overall is a stinker. It’s worth seeing in the same way that In My Life is worth seeing, only not as much fun.
RZ other notes: This was a musical that could have been better in other hands and if they didn’t stick to the events of the first TV season. The songs should have been darker, more cynical and sarcastic, and not as campy and over the top. Each act also started to drag and could have lost 5-10 min. along the way. (Un?)fortunately, Bad Girls doesn’t appear to be long for this world, given that both circles (aka Mezzanine and Balcony) were closed tonight, and even with their inhabitants moved down to the stalls (Orchestra), they were still less than half full.