I’ve been a true addict this week — I’ve seen the same two shows twice over (one of them for a third time, if you’re keeping up with the maths, which I saw for the second and third time in less than the same 24 hour time period).
That was Grand Hotel, which ended last night at Southwark Playhouse, which I reviewed originally when it opened for The Stage here, and then re-visited on the bank holiday Monday — before going, the very next day, yet again to a matinee that’s open to the public but laid on towards the end of the run on a Tuesday afternoon so that other working actors can attend. (I duly had Vince Leigh from Sunny Afternoon sitting right in front of me, and Kaisa Hammerlund, currently chanting her way through the Almeida’s Bakkhai, was also there, amongst many others).
I’ve always adored this show, ever since the original daring and audacious Broadway production of Tommy Tune back in 1987, which I still regard as one of the landmark productions of my theatregoing life. Tune is one of the most brilliant of all Broadway actor/dancers turned director/choreographers, who – like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett before him — combined dazzling showmanship with a brilliant visual imagination to tell stories with seamless and organic momentum born of the way they moved.
Thom Southerland’s new production, choreographed with real panache by Lee Proud on a traverse stage, borrows a bit from other places — there’s a strong borrowed echo of the last London production of Cabaret (which was directed by Rufus Norris) in the show’s closing moments, and a few steals from director John Doyle’s use of thrown objects at a key point (here, rose petals, pictured left, just as Doyle uses thrown bank notes in Road Show), but it is performed with highly individualised skill by the entire cast. Each time I’ve seen it I’ve appreciated different performances: the obvious stand-outs are Scott Garnham’s sturdily sung Baron, Victoria Serra’s enchanting, yearning-for-stardom Flaemmchen and George Rae’s Otto Kringelein; but the third time I was knocked out by the pair of athletic Jimmy’s (Jammy Kasonga and Drone Stokes) and by Valerie Cutko’s tall, angular Raffaela.
I also saw the London return of Alexandra Silber twice over at Crazy Coqs. too — at her first night on Tuesday and her last again last night. This Michigan born musical theatre star-in-the-making trained in the UK (at Glasgow’s Royal Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and was seen in shows like Carousel and Fiddler on the Roof in the West End, before going home — and since then I’ve seen her both on Broadway in Master Class and in Philadelphia in the US premiere of Howard Goodall’s Love Story (pictured above, with co-star Will Reynolds).
She told us poignantly of her reasons for re-locating to Britain to train — it followed the death of her beloved father, whose birthday coincided with the opening night of her London return — and also for reasons for going home again (after the heartbreak that followed the ending of a long-term relationship). On Saturday night, she hot-footed – or rather, hot-biked it (on a courier bike, no less, where she was the package being delivered!) — direct from the Royal Albert Hall, where she’d been an encore guest at the Last Night of the Proms’s celebration of Leonard Bernstein, to sing a song from West Side Story, whose recent symphonic recording she had starred in.
Last night she was joined both at the Albert Hall and then at Crazy Coqs by the radiant Gina Beck, who like her possesses an utterly shimmering soprano; on Tuesday she was accompanied on a song from Love Story by its composer Howard Goodall, whom she declared as the future of British musicals (and I entirely concur). On both nights she sang ‘Will he like me?’ from Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me, which she called her favourite song of all time, and she proved why. (There’s a Broadway revival next year that she’s too late for now — she’s about to head there to star in a new production of Fiddler on the Roof — but perhaps a West End producer could cast her in a revival here. She said she mentioned this to Julian Ovenden, who was also a guest at the Prom last night, and he’s up for it, too….)
Between Grand Hotel and Al Silber, that took care of four of my theatrical visits this week, but those weren’t the only repeats I did. In fact the whole week pretty much comprised shows I’d seen before. I also returned to What’s It All About? at the Menier (for the third time) and Cats (for the God-knows-how-many-times), this time in the Opera House at Blackpool’s massive Winter Gardens (intriguingly, Cats of course played its entire Broadway run at New York’s Winter Garden, too). What’s It All About has now this week announced a transfer to the West End’s Criterion, so I’ll be seeing it quite a few more times, I’m sure; and Cats, of course, is returning to the Palladium, so I’ll be back there to see Beverley Knight play Grizabella in October.
But the reason fro seeing it in Blackpool was to see the wonderful Jane McDonald (pictured left in costume with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh) in it; I’d interviewed her for The Stage here before the show opened, and she was a complete joy. Like Grizabella, McDonald ascended to the Heaviside Layer, in her case of stardom, after riding different kind of bumpy waves along the way: she was an entertainer aboard cruise ships and was on what she thought might be her last tour of duty when the documentary TV series The Cruise eavesdropped on life on the ship she was on sixteen years ago, and a star was born.
While I was in Blackpool, I also caught up with Hot Ice — possibly the longest running live show in the world, now in its 79th year at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I’ve seen this before, too, and it still feels happily retro; lots of the costumes sprout feathers, as they might at the less fully clad Lido or Moulin Rouge in Paris, and there’s a lot of dry ice and some slippery ice, too, as several members of the company took tumbles. But there’s still something incredibly thrilling about the speed and skill of these skaters, even if the some of the routines feel pretty deja vu.
Finally, speaking of deja vu, I also saw You Won’t Succeed on Broadway If You Don’t Have Any Jews at the St James, which is itself a re-visiting of songs from an endless succession of Broadway musicals (plus a film or two) that were penned by Jewish composers and lyricists. I was seeing it again for a second time — I’d seen an earlier one nighter incarnation at the Garrick. It’s now been enhanced, not necessarily for the better, for an extended run that first played a season in Tel Aviv before coming back to London. On the one hand, you won’t succeed with this type of revue if you get your basic facts wrong: Kander & Ebb did NOT write Fosse; nor was Rent a hit film; nor did The Producers win 14 Tony Awards; if you want to provide historical background to your thesis about Jewish influences on Broadway, get the basics right. There are times, too, when the dance routines look like a bad TV variety show.
But on the other hand, it fields a large cast that includes some real stand-outs: Jackie Marks, from the original London cast of Les Miserables who took over from Patti LuPone as Fantine, steals the show, reprising that show’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’; and Sarah Earnshaw stops it with I’m Not Getting Married’ from Sondheim’s Company. There are also strong contributions from Johnny Barr, Danny Lane (pictured left – Gypsy’s ‘Everything’s coming up roses’ sung by a man is interesting!), and David Aldbury (whom I first saw in the Union’s production of Howard Goodall’s Love Story and have been looking out for ever since).