Friday, 29 August 2008

REVIEW: "The Shadowmaster"

Six troubled strangers are invited to a remote mansion on midsummer’s eve. Were The Shadowmaster to take a predictable route, somebody would die, a whodunnit would ensue, and a good time would be had by all. Instead, The Shadowmaster takes something of a Willie Wonka-esque approach, offering those unlucky in love a “second chance” through a vision of alternate realities regarding their life choices.

An adaptation of JM Barrie’s Dear Brutus, was directed and reconceived by the Kings Head’s artistic director Stephanie Sinclaire. The RZ has never read the original Barrie, and unfortunately The Shadowmaster has done little to inspire him to do so: despite clocking in at a mere 95 minutes including interval, each act feels overlong, and the writing is as pleased with itself as Keith Faulkner’s manipulative Lob (of the title). Lob jumps around, manipulating the evening’s events, and screams for attention, resembling Paul McGann as Doctor Who. Neil Henry comes off better as slight-of-hand master and butler Matey, though his character’s path in the second act as a corrupt city banker quickly loses steam.

Our five guests, each in an unhappy relationship, fare little better. One is a snooty Lady with impossibly high standards, another is a threesome of wife, husband, and husband’s mistress, and the last two are a bickering couple: a woman of unknown occupation and her husband, a fallen painter now turned to drink. It is this last role, Billy Geraghty, who saves the show’s second act when his character exudes joy and love for the child he was incapable of having.

To top it all off, Ms. Sinclaire makes questionable use of the stage she should know so well. Designer Georgia Lowe (who is uncredited on the Kings Head’s website) splits the stage between an ageing house and a garden, both wonderfully done given the constraints, but there are times when the blocking sends people seamlessly crossing territory (e.g. the reunion scene where everybody returns to reality and Lob’s interventions with the daughter) in ways that render it all a bit slapdash. Yes, the King’s Head is tiny and the budgets small, but a play like this would have benefited greatly from substituting projections for traditional scenery.

Ultimately, though, The Shadowmaster is better off lurking back to the darkness from which it came. For all of the first act’s posturing about danger lurking in the forest, most of the characters emerged unscathed and even the most potentially traumatic experience came through with a satisfying ending, rendering it all moot. At best The Shadowmaster is a light distraction, albeit one hanging under a lingering cloud of smug.

Where: King’s Head
When: Until 7 September, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa/Su @ 15:30
How Much: £20 reserved, £15 unreserved
Concessions: £12.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5. The play has two good roles but fails to come together into a satisfying whole.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ has to confess, he still misses Betwixt, the last show he saw at the King’s Head, which he found significantly better.

Monday, 25 August 2008


Did you know that the Conservative Party has put forward more gay MP’s than Labour? Neither did the RZ until he say Tory Boyz at the Soho. A part of the National Youth Theatre’s summer residency, this piece manages to avoid the standard acting pitfalls of youth productions, but trades them for massive flaws in the script.

Shall we begin? Good.

First off, there’s a recurring maestro motif as though Edward Heath, suspected queer PM, has been setting up and manipulating the party’s platform on gay issues since his reign. It’s an odd place to start, and leaves the audience wondering why they couldn’t have properly set the stage before starting.

Then there’s the annoying evil Tory, the one who womanises, makes grand claims, and acts like Patrick on Coupling. You know that he’s in for a downfall the moment he announces that he’s leaving research for an election because he’s such a prat that there’s no other choice.

Our “hero” is a young go-getter, working with inner city children on an upcoming education bill, gay, and possibly running for office in the future himself. Since he needs to keep a clean slate on his personal life, he avoids parties and the advances of a (well-meaning?) Labour office worker as well. Because he’s such a do-gooder, though, it’s also obvious that he’ll bring about the evil one’s campaign with a convenient promotion following some not so veiled threats.

Then there’s the education aspect, where Mr. Lead Character goes into the schools, explains politics to kids, and ends the play showing some “hot Tory moves” in a rather unsatisfying ending. The kids are OK, but like real children (and politicians), they have a habit of shouting over each other in just about every scene.

In short? It’s not a bad play, but rough around more than just the edges and comes across as a Conservative Party recruitment platform than a serious historical or politically driven piece.

Where: Soho Theatre
When: In rep until 13 Sep. Check the site for dates, all perfs. at 19:30.
How Much: £20-£22 depending on the day.
Concessions: £17.50-19.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: A tentative £10 for what feels like an excessively staged workshop rather than a finished piece.
RZ Other Notes: Seating is unreserved and on benches. Come early to stake your territory at the risk of getting told to move over by the ushers.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

REVIEW: "The Music Man"

(Review #2 for the day. See below for the RZ's thoughts on Piaf at the Donmar.)

According to some of the RZ’s local friends, The Music Man is a show that never quite resonates properly with British audiences: the isolationist expanses of the midwest combined with a puritanical instinct for a good clean society left Britain for the most part with industrialisation.

It is this desire for an upright, clean Christian society that allows The Music Man’s central figure, “Professor” Harold Hill (Brian Conley), to work his charms: a travelling fraudster, Hill creates moral panic in small towns before proclaiming himself a musical expert and selling the people instruments and uniforms for a band he has no plan to bring together. Hill meets his match in River City, Iowa, though as stubborn self-sufficient librarian Marian (Scarlett Strallen) sees through his lies while the rest of the town falls to Hill’s slick words. It’s obvious where this is going, and the RZ stop bantering on about the plot here. The score (by Meredith Wilson, as is the book) is loaded with Broadway classics including “Ya Got Trouble,” “Pick-A-Little Talk-A-Little,” and of course “76 Trombones.” There are some who write off the score as simplistic or bland, but the numbers are all appealing, and some (“Rock Island,” “Piano Lesson”) feature rather clever techniques that make themselves apparent upon multiple listens.

In terms of production, the fine folks at the Chichester Festival Theatre have done an excellent job. From the clever use of a revolve during “Rock Island” to utilising the venue’s many entrances and exits, Rachel Kavenaugh (director) and Robert Jones (designer) have given us a pastel-hued piece of Americana that’s just the thing for a warm summer day. Howard Harrison’s lighting won’t win any awards, but it’s effective and makes good use of the CFT’s unique arrangement. More importantly, Kavenaugh’s direction actually takes advantage of the diamond-shaped stage, and patrons on the sides feel involved, rather than like voyeurs.

As Harold Hill, Brian Conley is a fast talking smooth moving fellow, but was showing signs of vocal strain when the RZ attended: perhaps a side effect from attempting to channel the late Robert Preston, who originated the role. The desire to mimic the OBC and/or original film cast is a running issue throughout the piece: there was little originality in how the characters were portrayed, and while this approach worked, it would have been nice to see something a little fresher. The RZ wasn’t blown away by Scarlett Strallen in Mary Poppins, and felt similar about her Marian, particularly her consistent but clearly not midwest-American accent. Her fans, however, will undoubtedly adore her performance here. The remainder of the cast are solid, including the children who go uncredited on the website. It’s easy for the roles of Amarylis and Winthrop to be annoying, but they weren’t, and when Marian sees Wintrhop break out of his shell to sing a verse in Wells Fargo Wagon, the moment is genuine.

50 years ago, The Music Man did what would today be considered unthinkable: it beat out West Side Story for the Best Musical Tony. In retrospect it’s easy to pass judgement, but visiting this production made the RZ remember why audiences fell in love with the show: West Side Story may be the more intellectually satisfying piece, but The Music Man is a simple, charming story that does its duties so well that it’s easy to be won over like the people of River City.

Where: Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester
When: In repertoire until 30 August. Check the website for times and dates.
How Much: £12-£36
Concessions: The usual groups can book in advance for half off on main section tickets (so £15 rear section, £18 front section)
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £36 for an excellent revival of a timeless classic. Even with the cost of a train ticket, it’s still cheaper to see it here than in a West End transfer.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ, having spent a number of years in middle America, may find himself recognising and appreciating the characters and setting more than others, but the performance he attended (a Friday matinee loaded with OAP’s and families) was quite well received.

The RZ suggests that patrons visiting from London attempt to catch a matinee instead of an evening performance - it takes 90 min. to get from London Bridge or Victoria to Chichester (and back), and catching an evening performance puts one in danger of missing rail connections and possibly the final underground for the evening.

Props to the CFT website for providing a list of the orchestra on the website.

The RZ had never heard of Brian Conley before this production, and finds the actor to be like Harold Hill himself: entirely elusive with any form of credential. The RZ still has no idea why this man is considered a selling point as his website is devoid of any useful information as to the man's past.


The RZ reviewed Piaf properly as a freelance sample, so he won’t be posting a proper review here.

Therefore, a few notes:

-Everything you’ve heard about Elena Rogers in this production is true. She is absolutely amazing in the title role.
-The supporting cast are generally excellent, and it’s nice to see some of the better actors from RENT: Remixed in a show that doesn’t blow fetid monkey cheese.
-The Whingers commented on their blog about the accents used in the show, and the RZ doesn’t mind the fact that Rogers is the only one who speaks like a French person, but Katherine Kingsley fails at doing German - and fails badly. She sounds like a bad cartoon caricature rather than the biggest blonde bombshell before Marilyn Monroe.
-The RZ never released how huge the Donmar’s stage is until Piaf because they usually add a wall further upstage or cram it so full of furniture that nobody can move. The bare stage really helps you focus on the action, though John Napier wants his section of black brick road returned to Les Miz.
-The songs are sung in French. The RZ understands that audiences (at least in the UK) will be familiar with them in their original language and may have had enough French in school to follow the key phrases, but if you want to integrate the music, which they are halfway attempting to do here, the lyrics need to be in English. If you can translate Brel you can translate Piaf, esp. given that the former was the superior songwriter anyways.
-The story is told so fast that you’ll miss something if you blink - most likely Piaf getting shagged by someone in the male ensemble - they all have a go over the course of the show.
-The text has been shortened for this production, but the last 10 minutes still drag.
-Overall, despite the strengths (legendary music, tour de force leading lady, good staging), the RZ was left feeling cold and detached by the end. Whether this is playwright Pam Grimes’ objective or not is subject to debate.
-None of this matters because the entire run (short of a few recently released questionably restricted view seats) is sold out anyway.

Where: Donmar Warehouse
When: Until 20 Sep. M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £13-£32.50. *SOLD OUT*
Concessions: 10 day seats are sold at 10:30 AM for £15 as well as 20 standing places for £7.50.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15 for Rogers and the music. £20 you get an eye candy bonus from the male ensemble.
RZ Other Notes: In the RZ’s opinion, take the standing places first if you can - they’re head on from the rear of the circle vs. the day seats which are on the sides. For whatever reason the direction doesn’t make very good use of the thrust, and the actors (particularly Rogers) play it to the back of the stalls for 90-95% of the show. Not that it matters so much in a tiny venue like this, but still...

Friday, 8 August 2008

REVIEW: "Starlight Express" Revisited

Due to commitments for a workshop in London and a lack of affordable accommodations, the RZ has had to pass on this year’s Edinburgh festival, instead choosing to take advantage of EasyJet one last time before fares skyrocket again and revisit one of his favourite shows, Starlight Express, in Bochum.

First and foremost, the good news: The show is still as visually spectacular as ever, and even on return the visuals alone justify the cost of all but the most expensive tickets.

Second, most of the current cast are excellent. Kevin Köhler, cast through a reality show, is an innocent, boyish Rusty and keeps the character from coming across as spoilt or whiny. Carl Ellis is an inspired choice as Papa, with a beautiful voice and limitless spirit. Andreas Wolfram is a solid understudy Greaseball, and Ernest Marchain takes the role with the appropriate flair and ego (or so his performance at the prior day’s open day implied). The weak cast member, however, is Carla Langridge as a presence-less Pearl. While the character is far from the RZ’s favourite among the female cast (that would be Dinah), she is central and utterly un-interesting. As the RZ saw the show the day after a large public event, however, it’s possible that energy backstage was low and he caught her on a bad night.

And now for the bad news.

After a visit from Andrew Lloyd Webber earlier this year, approximately eight minutes have been cut since the RZ’s prior visit: the scene with Greaseball, Dinah, and Caboose which establishes the latter two’s motivations after the first race is gone, “Freight” and “Crazy” are shorter, and “Next Time You Fall In Love” has been replaced with the new “Only He/Only You” hybrid from the UK tour. To top it all off, the overture has been cut and the magical moment at the beginning where Greaseball’s components and the characters race through the audience in the dark is gone, replaced with the introduction of the national trains so that the first act is now effectively the 1992 London edition but with Hoppers instead of Rockies.

Word from those involved in the show is that Lloyd Webber feels that if the Bochum production is the show’s flagship then it should stay current with his edits, but in the RZ’s opinion (as well as those he talked to), the Bochum production has run for 20 years under the banner of “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” but Webber seems intent on fixing the show until it breaks. If the next round of proposed changes (cutting “Girls Rolling Stock” and replacing “Lotta Locomotion” with the revised tour edition) go through, the Bochum show will resemble the unwieldy homunculus of the touring editions rather than the cohesive, multi-layered family show that got it where it is today.

Staying on the topic of tours, it is the 2006 UK tour which cost the Bochum production half of its orchestra: when the German producers saw the tour they felt they could adjust the stationary version accordingly, even though the tour relied heavily on click track whereas the Bochum production is entirely live. While the RZ had problems with the sound on his prior visit, he found it even worse the second time around, particularly during the last 7-10 minutes when, in true modern fashion, the sound was pumped up for the finale and curtain call/megamix and the shallowness of the arrangements became especially clear.

Needless to say, it’s hard for the RZ to make the same enthusiastic recommendation as he did eight months ago, but he adores Starlight Express enough that he’s willing to continue encouraging people to go. The Bochum production is still the best version going, the custom venue is a lot of fun, and the town is a nice place to spend a couple days.

RZ Other Notes: Rather than printing a normal souvenir programme, the 20th anniversary cast are memorialised alongside the production’s history in a new hardcover photo book from Klartext. At €20, the page count is higher than the standard programme (last years still being available), but its purpose ends there. The text excerpts (and many photos) are cribbed in more than a few places from the programme and the show’s website, and the new text is relatively shallow. Photos from the original cast are poor quality, and most of the images in the book aren’t annotated with who’s actually in them. The top focus seems to be special events and visitors to the show rather than a serious look at its evolution, either through the lyrical and musical changes or even the developments in the costumes. For a casual fan who just wants some pretty pictures, this is good enough, but how many casual fans are going to shell out twice as much for the hardcover as the souvenir programme, especially when the current cast bios are included with both as a b/w insert? For a serious theatre historian, the book is barely worth using as a starting point for further research, as the details are sketchy and intellectual content is lacking in its entirety. And yet the RZ still handed over his money for it...

On a humourous note, Kevin Köhling’s fellow TV winner, Anna-Maria Schmidt, is profiled in the book and current cast list insert as Pearl even though she dropped out during rehearsals and never went on.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

THOUGHTS: Four Shows...

It's that time again. Time for the RZ to go on holiday with a backlog of reviews to post. So, much like with Jay Johnson, this is one of those rushed "get it out as fast as possible" posts. Apologies in advance, but it's this or nothing.

Pygmalion @ The Old Vic - The RZ caught the understudy matinee (yay, free!) and loved it from start to finish. Shaw is a master for a reason, and the Old Vic uphold their reputation for reliable, solid productions. The remainder of the run is sold out as far as the RZ knows, so get returns if you can and they're affordable.

The Chalk Garden @ The Donmar - Closed this weekend. The RZ wasn't as enamoured with this as the Whingers, but he chalks some of that up to going standing room (always a disconnecting force). It wasn't bad by any means, just not the amazing thing he was led to believe. He doesn't regret standing in a queue for over an hour to get his ticket, and at £7.50, standing room at the Donmar is cheaper than most cinemas and a better way to spend one's afternoon or evening.

Elaine Stritch at Liberty @ The Shaw Theatre - Stritch is a Broadway legend, and commands thes tage from the moment she enters until the curtain comes down. While her one-woman is engaging, entertaining, and classy through and through, it dips into excessive sentimentality when she talks of giving up drinking towards the end (something the RZ knows he's seen in a show recently but can't remember which one) and doesn't quite recover with the closing number. It's a brilliant show, but not worth the £60 (or even more galling £75) they're charging for it at the Shaw, especially when you understand that most people in the US saw it for half that even when they paid full price.

A Conversation With Edith Head @ The Leicester Square - This venue is still under partial rennovation, particularly the gents' (which resembles a military barracks) and the air conditioning (if there will be any) is still down. As a result, this tedious piece is compounded in its dullness by the heat as it drags on for its last 20 minutes. Unlike Elaine Stritch, Susan Claassen lacks the stage presence to keep the audience on her side, and the use of a planted audience member shouting out dates and questions gets annoying with little haste andonly gets worse as the audience's frustration grows with the character's. There's some interesting knowledge in here and some witty bits, but it's better to skip this piece on the whole.