Saturday, 29 March 2008

REVIEW: "Peter Pan - El Musical"

Image Hosted by

(Apologies for the poor quality photo...the flier got rather beaten up in the RZ's pocket and he does not have the best lighting options.)

First and foremost, the RZ wishes to mention that he supports the Musicians Union vs. the producers of the West End run of Peter Pan - El Musical. There are no live musicians playing at Peter Pan, and while such practice isn’t uncommon in Spain (and 100% the norm in France where the only live music at the musicals is in the foyer), it’s not standard here in England and the Garrick is under contract to the MU.

That said, the RZ got his tickets for free this time and had few qualms about taking advantage of seeing a production he wouldn’t have been so inclined to pay for with this knowledge.

So how does this continental take on a very English classic hold up?

First and foremost, this Peter Pan is a visually attractive show. The few sets (a pair of doubling constructions), are pleasantly cartoony, especially the London bedroom where our story begins, with books piled high and one of those artificial fires you see at novelty shops. The lighting is a jewel box of colour, from the opening laser show to the final battle, and on the whole is very pretty. Asthmatics should approach with caution, though, as stage fog mania is in full force at the Garrick. On the downside, there is a dearth of flying scenes - once we reach Neverwhere there is, in fact, no flight (and the scene where they depart features painfully visible wires).

The score, despite not being live, is also quite pleasant - lots of fun, energetic theatre-pop that would make for a fun cast recording (samples are on the website), but traditionalists and fans of the Charlap and Leigh version will take issue. Unfortunately, the music does suffer from pre-recording, coming across as narrow and compressed through the speakers. In line with first preview standard, the mics were turned up too loud on some performers, and none of the vocals (which were live) ever truly blended with the scoring underneath. In what may be a first, group numbers were more evenly balanced than solos - everybody gets equally overblown in the RZ's experience. And there is, in fact, one bit of live music as the residents of Neverland’s Indian Village (in all its pre-PC glory) bang black-lit drumsticks in a percussive dance scene.

Another aural annoyance could be written off as a first preview glitch, but the RZ expects the problem to continue: Cristina Fargas wears a lovely pair of earrings as the narrator and Mrs. Darling, but they’re the dangly sort that tapped her headset mic every time she moved her head. As such, her rather nice voice was met with dread after the first number, and the problem remained all night (though she was noticeably fumbling with the earring late in the second act to try and stop it). The RZ hopes that she gets permission to go on without the dreadful things.

Miguel Antelo is an impish Peter, as childish as expected but lacking a certain charm - there’s never a doubt that Isabel Malavia’s Wendy will leave Neverland at the end (it is, after all, the preferable alternative to doing laundry for and minding a dozen Lost Boys). Miguel Gamero is maniacally over the top as Captain Hook, and Pedro Espadas lands the laughs as straight man Smee. Imma Fernández plays Lost Boy Tootles as a loveable scamp with a big belty voice, and she gets a worthy number late in the first act.

So, what we have here is a (mostly) pretty, (generally) inoffensive, and (overall) well played take on a perennial favourite. The question left to address is whether or not this Peter Pan really is something for London Families sick of Disney to enjoy in the West End.

In the RZ’s opinion? Probably not, and it’s for the show’s selling point as much as any of the other issues responsible: without a reminder of the plot details beforehand, young children will have difficulty following the details of a surtitled production - especially one as shoddily titled as this one.

Again, the RZ hopes that he merely had to suffer first preview tech issues, but the surtitle display was insanely problematic and unprofessional. Lines were oversimplified or frequently missing in part or whole (a scene where Captain Hook verbally spars with his pirates went entirely untranslated), and when there was a translation it ran anywhere from one to multiple lines behind what was happening on stage. There’s enough visual clues to piece together the metaplot, but the details are lost.

Also, as previously mentioned, this Peter Pan does maintain the Native American stereotypes of Barrie’s original, and the more culturally sensitive may have issues with it. That said, the RZ grew up before the politically correct movement and enjoyed the relevant scenes as a product of their era (as did his companion, a Bangalore native).

When all is said and done, though, Peter Pan - El Musical is a pantomime without the callbacks (although the infamous “save Tinkerbell” scene is preserved) or the anarchy (the women playing Lost Boys provide the cross-dressing). It’s bright, simple and fun, yet in the end it's an entirely forgettable evening. There are worse options available, but there are others which are far, far better.

Where: Garrick Theatre
When: Until 27 April. M, W-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 15:00, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £20-£45
Concessions: Registered Spanish students can advance book for £30. Best available day seats for other students and seniors for £20.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12.50. No live music shifts the scale to 50% of top ticket at the high end of the scale. This is a fun but mediocre show.
RZ Other Notes: Patrons sitting in the front stalls should bring earplugs, though he has been told that levels are better in the circles. If Peter Pan sells well in spite of its problems, perhaps we could get surtitled Elisabeth when the new German tour comes to an end...or maybe hell will freeze over first.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

REVIEW: "Frankenstein"

(The second review for today. See below for thoughts on Maria Friedman Rearranged.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Train Wreck Express is calling at the Cochrane Theatre in Holborn. Youth Music Theatre: UK have teamed up with Nick Stimson and Jimmy Jewell (responsible for the well-received NHS: The Musical) to take on a subject as cursed as its protagonist, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The story of this gothic horror/sci-fi classic is one most people are familiar with and shall not be covered here (though if you’ve forgotten or haven’t even seen a film, the basics are on Wiki). This new production takes an odd slant, adding a circus freak show as a moral platform to compare Victor and the Frankenstein family against the crassness of exploiting human deformation and misery. It’s an interesting idea, but drags down the first act with an extended opening scene which gives us lots of talk of Christian love which, if you believe some sects, is a rather masochistic form of affection with lots of pain.

And it is painful indeed. Jewell’s music is bland and repetitive, lacking in urgency and emotion without any form of standout song or memorable number. While the RZ doesn’t believe that one should leave every musical humming a song, he does feel that something, even a fragment or a chorus should be recallable six hours later. The Screams of Kitty Genovese is one such show, and another would, in his mind, be The Color Purple.

Stimson’s lyrics never truly come to life either, and include a magnificent blunder in breaking the suspension of disbelief when his wife to be begins singing about wanting emotional human contact and assigning it value in pennies, shillings, and pounds - curious currencies for a show set in 19th century Switzerland (which used, and still uses, the Franc). The dialogue is cliche, relying on a near-deaf ancient judge (who looks remarkably young) for comic relief. And why is there so much talk of the creation being a gigantic monstrosity when he’s a hunk?

There’s no sense of pacing, either. The creation scene is broken up by the death of Victor’s mother, and the first part involves an annoying mass of ensemble members croaking and making buzzing noises which distract from and cover up the main dialogue. The opening and courtroom scenes drag out the first act, and the deaths in the second are rushed over as well, including Victor’s arrest for potential involvement. The visuals are equally unimpressive, with a minimal static set, uninspired lighting, and lots of ensemble members as peasants in goth makeup.

Stimson was also responsible for directing this mishmash, and manages to suck the horror and suspense out of a legendary thriller. What he injects instead is a questionable allegory - is the focus on deviants supposed to be a reference to Victor’s possible homosexuality? The creature is a blonde adonis (think the creation in Rocky Horror with only slightly more fabric covering his legs), and Victor is noticeably fey in his speech patterns. He shuns female contact and finds himself barely capable of talking to his sisters, mother, or fiancee but maintains a close relationship at the beginning with his friend Henry and strokes the creation lovingly before casting it away. As the creation reappears, as much in Victor’s mind as reality, it separates him from his family, fiancee, the church (through his father), and his friend. The freaks return to reinforce Victor’s moments of sin and punishment, again emphasising deviance.

Indeed, if Victor could stop moaning about sin and just shag the creature, there may have been a more entertaining (and far shorter) work onstage. As it stands, Frankenstein is two hours plus interval and could easily be cut to a 100 minute one-act (or less). While there are some moments of unintentional hilarity to be had, nothing about this production makes enough of an impression to be truly lasting - at least Mel Brooks has 'Puttin on the Ritz' and Roger Bart to keep the audience awake in his mediocrity. Thankfully this Frankenstein will be put down after Saturday night’s performance.

Where: Cochrane Theatre
When: Until 29 March, Fr 19:30, Sa 15:00 and 19:30
How Much: £5/£9 (Mat/Eve)
Concessions: £3/£4
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £3. Fellow riders of the train wreck express should see this for as little as possible, and Frankenstein honestly isn’t worth immortalising as worthless.
RZ Other Notes: The cast were, to the RZ’s knowledge, amateurs, so they’re being given a pass, though for the most part they work with what they have and you get the standard mix from ‘actually decent’ to ‘in this because everybody gets a part in a cast of 30’.

THOUGHTS: Maria Friedman Rearranged

(A busy week has kept this review from being finished in a sane amount of time. Apologies.)

Take one West End star, give her a band and a theatre, and let some magic happen. Such is the process for compiling the charming and delightful Maria Friedman Rearranged, currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Backed by 30 musicians, Ms. Friedman takes us through a number of composers, from Jacques Brel (two songs using alternative translations) to Randy Newman and of course a plethora of Sondheim. Fans may be surprised, however, to find out that the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ahrens & Flaherty are missing from her repertoire, despite her involvement in shows from both. Still, Ms. Friedman is given the chance to shine as she changes from painfully distressed to tenderly affectionate to flat out insane as she opens the second set with “The Worst Pies on London” from Sweeney Todd. And if her banter between the songs isn’t as inspired as it could be, well...we weren’t coming for that anyways.

And the band? Oh the band, masterfully conducted (including one song where the two pianists, Michael Haslam and Chris Walker) bounce conducting duty back and forth in a brilliant display of musical acuity. Splitting 40 instruments among 11 musicians (the poor Dan Gresson running across the upper deck on a variety of percussion duties), patrons are treated to a lusher set of orchestrations than on offer from a number of shows in the West End.

Maria Friedman Rearranged is not a pinnacle of one-person shows or retrospectives, but it is an evening of glorious music which musical fans would be foolish to miss.

Where: Menier Chocolate Factory
When: Until 4 May, Tu-Sa @ 20:00, Su @ 15:30
How Much: £20 General Admission
Concessions: £17.50 bookable in advance
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. Standard price for a concert at a club.
RZ Other Notes: Asthma sufferers and those clearing the plague may wish to sit this one out, as the production uses a disgustingly large amount of stage fog, causing a mass coughing outburst at times during the show. It’s unnecessary for a production like this, and has hopefully been scaled back. Also note that the ushers will force you to cross the stage if you wish to sit on the left. The stage and the floor beneath it are both black, so BE CAREFUL - there were multiple falls the night the RZ attended. Lastly, those not wishing to engage in audience participation should avoid the aisles and row of cabaret tables left over from La Cage.

Now, to do something about those uncomfortable benches...

Friday, 21 March 2008

NEWS: Orbital Reminder + More

While the RZ still needs to post about last night's performance of Maria Friedman: Rearranged, he wishes to take a moment to remind London readers with a free day tomorrow (Saturday) that he will be giving a presentation on SF/Cult Genres in musical theatre at Orbital 2008 at the Radisson Edwardian Heathrow at 8:30 PM. You buy a day admission to the convention, so come, see Neil Gaiman, and watch the RZ stumble over the stages of Sailor Moon's 13 years on stage.

In other news, this lovely chart was in today's New York Times. Check the entries for Grease, Legally Blonde, Spring Awakening, and Xanadu for lulz.

*SF/Cult: Any genre you can buy at Forbidden Planet

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

REVIEW: "Snowbound"

It would do the staff of Trafalgar Studios well to hand out orders of pancakes at performances of Ciaran McConville’s new play Snowbound - there’s simply too much syrup on stage for them to do anything else.

This isn’t to say that the RZ finds syrup bad - he’s quite fond of maple, boysenberry, and chocolate. However, Snowbound reads like the lighter side of Lifetime movies - the ones without domestic abuse. We’ve got the mentally challenged little brother, the selfless caretaker, the dead parents, the career-minded sister, the estranged marriage between family friends and the “make ‘em suffer more” tragedy at the start of the second act. Through all of this the audience is assaulted with enough videos and discussions on the nature, wonders, and pains of love to cause cavities.

The design, a cluttered wall of black and white family photos with blank price tags serves to distort the film-within-the-play on love, and for some reason the legendary red benches of Studio 2 (aka the only comfortable bench seats in London) are covered in white drop cloths, presumably to hammer home the winter imagery. The cast of seven are decent enough for the material, but none of them will take home an Olivier.

The RZ also wishes to call out the promotions staff for using pull quotes related to McConville’s prior works - and not always with full details on the placards and show posters.

There’s certainly an audience for this sort of material, but the RZ isn’t it and found himself wanting to pull a de Jongh and catch a short nap but managed to stay awake through the evening. For those big on “inspiring” works (and the RZ uses the term loosely), Snowbound is a must-see. For the more cynical looking to take in a bit of family drama, wait for August: Osage County or Next to Normal to transfer.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 2
When: M-Sa @ 19:45, Th/Sa @ 15:00 until 19 April.
How Much: £24
Concessions: Monday performances for £15, check re: seniors/students.
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £10 (TKTS for Mondays). Decent performances and a professional if not amazing script.
RZ Other Notes: Avoid seats A14-20 as you are likely to get stepped on/have someone’s arse in your face/have a light glaring in your eyes in this area. The RZ recommends ordering interval drinks in advance from the foyer bar as Dealers Choice has a simultaneous interval and the bars get insane. It *is* worth using the loo, however, if only to watch first timers struggle to comprehend the Dyson Airblades. Whingers take note, there is much alcohol consumed onstage along with some utterly nasty (read: stereotypically British) looking pasta.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

REVIEW: "Involution"

“No one owes you, no one's to blame
Save for bad genes or DNA
Ask your conscience the why and how
Ask yourself
Ask your mom
Ask DNA”
--Yokko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop Movie OST: Ask DNA)

In a dystopian Britain, the Church has entered politics, sweeping the elections and outlawing genetic engineering. Cybernetics have advanced enough to be a functional medical treatment, but can’t override the mandatory DNA screenings needed to maintain a quality job or provide a long term alternative to genetic wasting diseases.

In response to this, the long suffering and manipulative Cohen (Ben Murray-Watson) is engaged in a mutli-year lawsuit against the government to allow genetic research to proceed. As the stakes rise, Cohen comes up against the equally manipulative Violet (Jane Lesley, also one of the show’s producers) as she hopes to marry his best friend J (Alfie Talman). When Violet states her intentions to marry J, she wants Cohen to reveal the problems hidden in his DNA - problems keeping him from working as a teacher that she can not determine through legal channels.

As Cohen and Violet square off, he also comes to terms with his carefree and equally affected sister Dorcet (Ursula Early) and her evangelical friend Talulah (Sara Pascoe), the latter believing that faith (be it in Jesus or Xenu) will heal her to the point of discarding her medications.

To be fair, the RZ wishes he presented the above as a diagram instead. Playwright Rachel Welch has filled Involution with a plethora of plotlines and timely arguments about the roles of science, faith, government, family, and more in our daily lives to the point where blinking during the second act means missing one of the many keys to unravelling the entire work. While the story rushes to its conclusion in a short 40 minutes, Welch squanders her first act at nearly twice that length, beating the audience over the head with the her argument’s concept stick on the roles religion should play in science and government (read: none). Sub-plots such as Dorcet buying Cohen a sex robot add some humour to this weighty piece, but also mis-use minutes better spent on cleaning up the mess surrounding these engaging yet rather repulsive characters.

The cast, listed above, do their best with the material and seemed to be settling in and finding new and hidden dimensions of the characters when the RZ saw Involution at the end of its run. Victoria Johnstone’s design, a studio flat littered with cupboards and compartments, is a believable area, and one that played well in the Pacific Playhouse’s miniscule space.

While genetics have been a hot topic since Jurassic Park, recent events such as the deaf IVF case serve to remind us of how pervasive science has come in our biological and social developments. Involution attempts to present punters with a look at the consequences of what ceasing such work means, but needs to evolve itself in order to truly inspire a dialogue on the subject at hand.

Where: Pacific Playhouse
When: Closed
How Much: £10
Concessions: £8
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £8. Festival prices for festival grade work.
RZ Other Thoughts: The cast and director had Q&A sessions after all the shows, and the night the RZ went there were few who stayed but many questions asked. His companion, a non-native speaker followed most of the show well despite its knotted up web of material, but also found the second act (spec. the last 15 minutes) requiring clarification. Given some time with a good dramaturge, Involution has quite a bit of potential, but it’s not there yet.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

REVIEW: "The Harder They Come"

(In honour of the Arts Council, perhaps this one could be referred to as tick-box reviewing...)

Jamaica is a beautiful land of bright colours, reggae music, marijuana, and evangelical Christianity where even the most abject poverty can be accepted with a song and a spliff. At least that’s what Perry Henzell would have audiences believe in (get ready for it) the Barbican’s transfer of Theatre Royal Stratford East’s production of Henzell’s adaptation of his original 1972 film The Harder They Come, which he co-wrote with Trevor Rhone.

Whew, what a mouthful.

This tale of a country boy’s attempts to make it big in the music business via sex, drugs, and violence has gone through two sold-out productions at its fringe home and is parked at the Barbican for a month before embarking on a UK tour. Brimming with soulful reggae classics and a glowing passion for life in the face of adversity, The Harder They Come is a solid night out, albeit flawed. By handling his own adaptation, Henzell assumes a level of familiarity with the film’s plot and the Jamaican politics of its time which modern (white?) British audiences are likely to miss without going home and checking resources on the original material. In addition to the subtextual issues, a more glaring problem comes as the book takes leaps through protagonist Ivan’s life without any solid idea of a timescale. When Ivan turns from frustrated musician to revolutionary anti-hero, it happens in the blink of an eye and a scene lacking clarity.

That said, most audience members aren’t expecting (or seeking) a work about Caribbean socioeconomic concerns, and the score, recycling the film’s line up with a healthy dose of classics and standards (all uncredited) to boot is where it’s at. The result is a mix of tones and outlooks, frequently finding the humour in bleak events - Little Sally wouldn’t call this a happy musical, but it’s joyous nonetheless.

Rolan Bell leads the endlessly energetic cast as the ruthlessly naïve Ivan with some of the best dance moves to hit the London stage in months. The remaining cast have individual identities during the dialogue scenes, but fall back to form the community surrounding Ivan’s life during most of the songs.

Design-wise, this production betrays its low budget roots. A cheap looking fixed set by Ultz (also responsible for Stratford East’s recent production of The Blacks) is decked out in red/yellow/green, containing the cast as they mill about with the band located in centre stage and stage right. His costumes, likely resembling the film (the RZ hasn’t seen it), bring out the the best and worst of 1970’s excess from disco to blaxploitation films. While the period is evoked, nothing in the design resembles the grit present in the material or the original film’s image.

While The Harder They Come doesn’t fall hard on its arse, it’s an imperfect yet infectious time out, though non-Brits are likely to feel they’re missing something. The Island experience is tied far more closely to the Black British community (and therefore UK culture at large) than the Af-Am subculture in the States, one would be hard pressed to justify missing this in what is shaping up to be a solid spring for musical fans.

Where: Barbican Main Stage
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 14:30 until 5 April
How Much: £10-£30
Concessions: All tickets £5 on 2 April @ 14:30, check with Barbican for others.
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £20. Off-Broadway script and production values.
RZ Other Notes: It’s fascinating to see how the newspaper critics handle shows like these. At the Guardian, Lyn Gardner gushed over this show’s fringe run and the fact that it’s apparently the first all-black cast and creative team musical to be in the UK, while the Telegraph’s reviewer took a far more standard approach. Would this have had the lifespan it’s had including its new high profile run if it had white producers or directors? Who knows. What the RZ does know is that the prospects of a West End run happening, let alone turning a profit for The Harder They Come are slim, even if it is following the same adaptation formula as, say, the ultra white-bread Dirty Dancing.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

REVIEW: "Make Me A Song"

If They Might Be Giants were gay Jewish musical theatre composers, they would undoubtedly be William Finn. A master of writing upbeat tunes about remarkably downbeat subjects, Finn’s work (netting him a Tony for Falsettos and multiple nominations otherwise) has been compiled and brought to the UK in the form of Make Me A Song, a revue which ran briefly in New York last year.

To put it bluntly, Make Me A Song is a bizarre choice for a British theatre company's lineup. Finn’s work is undoubtedly American and revolves heavily around the New York Jewish-American experience. While the wider pieces such as the excerpts from Spelling Bee and A New Brain hit, it takes a certain level of insider knowledge to appreciate the nuance of songs like “Passover” and “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, though the RZ’s fellow audience members certainly caught the gist as well as the more personal songs.

Despite the cultural barrier, the material shines over the evening, with the first act devoted to Finn’s career in general and the second presenting a miniature version of Falsettos before giving each performer a farewell piece, wisely ending right when the audience begins to check their watches.

Of course, a solid cast can sell anything, and on most levels this cast delivers. Gareth Snook is the evening’s ringleader, taking the majority of narrative moments and in some cases the role of Finn himself. Simon Thomas has a touch of bad boy to him, but a pure clean voice which betrays the looks. Locals will, of course, instantly recognise Ian H Watkins from his pop career, but the RZ came in ignorant of the performer’s past. In the words of his companion for the evening, “I wanted to hate him but he’s actually really good.” Indeed, Watkins has a boyish charm and innocence which only adds irony to songs like “My Dad’s A Homo”, and he is in fine voice.

On the female side, Louise Dearman is a blonde bombshell who hits the crazy high notes with seeming ease without losing the humour and tenderness of the moment. Sally Ann Triplett is woefully underused as a last minute addition to the cast, but shines in her limited appearances. Unfortunately, Frances Ruffelle has seen better days since her days in Starlight Express and Les Miz. While she can still make her notes and sings without issues, her acting is not what it used to be as shown by her spazz-tastic rendition of “My Friend the Dictionary”. Indeed, Ms. Ruffelle comes off like Natascia Diaz (who the RZ adores) at her worst.

Musical theatre fans will adore this show, and those unfamiliar with William Finn will find this a handy primer, though non-musical fans will be bored. In general, Make Me A Song is a highly pleasant evening, and maybe if it converts enough people to Finn, we can finally get a transfer of Spelling Bee.

Where: New Players Theatre
When: T-Su @ 19:30, Sa/Su @ 15:00
How Much: £15-35
Concessions: None listed.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. This is solid off-Broadway material worthy of off-Broadway prices. However, the RZ is one to carry a grudge....
RZ Other Notes: ...and indeed, the box office staff and ushers at the New Players may be the rudest theatre workers in the West End. While the RZ was not present, his companion mentioned overhearing an usher berate a patron for asking the runtime at the interval before complaining about heavily comped audiences. Given that anybody who knows how to get free tickets to a show (including the RZ and his companion, both comped) is likely to be the sort who spreads word of mouth, the usher in question (along with the box office staff who’ve cancelled the RZ’s bookings before without notice) could use retraining in customer service. The RZ will say that the usher he talked to before the show (a polite, blonde young woman) was helpful as were the bar staff, even when all he wanted was some water, but the service level at the New Players is generally quite poor. Maybe it’s because a full time general manager at the NPT only gets £20,000/year according to the posted advert whereas a box office worker at the Royal Albert Hall gets £18,000. Some motivation to be customer friendly, eh?

Too bad for them - both the RZ and his companion would love to see this again (and pay for the privilege), but the RZ would rather spend his money where it’s more clearly wanted.

Oh, and the runtime which caused so much fuss? While the RZ was told two hours even before the show, it started on the late side and ran closer to 2:10. The song order is being tweaked and already didn’t match the programme, so 2:10 is what it’s likely to stay.