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A SPOONFUL OF SHERMAN – CD Review

In London theatre, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Just released on CD, A Spoonful of Sherman is a delightful recording that preserves one of the most sparkling revues of recent years. Staged at the St James Theatre in 2014, the show captured the songwriting genius of Richard and Robert Sherman. I reviewed it then (here) and an extract of my review, now to be found quoted on Wikipedia reads “It is a wonder that this charming show has not been staged before. Amidst all of Broadway’s giant songwriting partnerships, none reaches out to the child within us quite like the legacy of the Sherman Brothers. Cleverly crafted songs that speak of hope against adversity, written in verses that talk to every age.” Listening to the CD now, those words ring ever true.

JULIAN GLOVER’S BEOWULF – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, London

*****

Adapted by Julian Glover from the translations by Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan and from the Bristol Old Vic production directed by John David and John Elvery

Julian Glover

Beowulf is an Old English (possibly the oldest English) poem. Known to have been written in the tenth century, but with probable older origins, it’s verses tell of a time of dragons, sea monsters, smoking swords and throughout it all wassail and riotous assembly in cavernous mead halls.
Julian Glover has been reciting the poem for nigh on thirty years, in a version that he has painstakingly laboured over. His editing of the verse has led to it being mainly recited in the contemporary idiom, with an occasional stanza of Old English and his helpful programme notes tell us of history having stressed that Beowulf “should not only be read to oneself, but spoken out loud”. Thus it was, for two shows only last weekend, that Glover was to give his final performances of the poem in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. 
The venue was enchanting. Lit mainly by flickering candles (supplemented by a floodlit yellow wash) the Playhouse offers an elegant Elizabethan intimacy and that it was packed on a pleasant spring afternoon speaks much for Julian Glover’s reputation.
Glover’s delivery is the work of a master. Such is the actor’s genius that even when speaking in the ancient tongue, typically unintelligible to a modern audience, his rhythm enhanced by a perfect emphasis on the text’s alliterative strengths made even the most incomprehensible language seem crystal clear.
Using minimal props (a tankard, sword and throne, all used only occasionally) and dressed in simple, sober modern blacks, Glover’s recital, through perfectly honed inflection and nuance, was a step back in time. For what must be nigh on millennia, folk have been entertained by talented raconteurs telling stories and this is precisely the ambience that Glover achieved. A man as at home performing in a Broadway musical as he is mastering Shakespeare, this wonderful actor held the crowd in the palm of his hand.
This review covered the matinee performance. Later that evening Glover’s son Jamie, an accomplished actor himself, was to inherit his father’s mantle by concluding the recital and carrying on its oral tradition. 
Today’s writers, directors and dramaturgs would do well to attend the future recitals of Glover Junior. Simply staged and beautifully performed, the purest of theatre does not get better than this.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN – Noel Coward Theatre, West End

In London theatre, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Plaudits have already been heaped on Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman in Greg Doran’s scorching production of Death of a Salesman for the RSC. Arthur Miller’s keynote play, long held up as a searching critique of the 20th-century American psyche, pitches Sher into a role that sees him suicidally depressed, hurled onto the scrap heap and casually catapulted between imaginary decades at the playwright’s whim. Often referred to as the Hamlet of American literature, Sher’s immersion in the role is total as he nails Loman’s doomed fragility.

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PAUL BAKER: A Baker’s Dozen – St James Studio

In Cabaret, London theatre, Musicals by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

St James Studio, London
*****

Making a rare appearance in front of the microphone, Paul Baker’s show A Baker’s Dozen was a polished one-nighter that packed out the St James Studio.
In a set lasting little more than an hour, Baker’s magnificent tenor danced over numbers familiar and new in a set-list that was to prove pleasingly heavy on Newley numbers – reminding us that this fabulous British songwriter deserves greater exposure.
Quick to flex his magnificent belt with Streisand’s Being Good Isn’t Good Enough, Baker was soon into the first of his Taboo tributes with Stranger In This World – preceded by a touching if painful recollection of being bullied as a kid – and that his next number was a Quentin Crisp tribute, blending Sting’s An Englishman In New York, with Taboo’s Freak / Ode To Attention Seekers stayed on message in an inspired combo.  
Fondly reflecting on Philip Henderson’s The Far Pavilions, the composer was in the audience to see Baker deliver a soaring take on Brighter By Far that had been re-arranged for the St James occasion.
As his selection went on to include Makin’ Whoopee, one wished for Baker to make an album of the American Songbook. The man displays a polished understanding of both lyric and presence, par excellence.
Performing solo throughout, there was one exception when director Frances Ruffelle (who had only recently been directed herself by Baker) joined him on stage for Nice from Lucky Stiff,  a duet that reprised their 1997 pairing from the Ahrens and Flaherty show.
Maintaining a standard of nothing short of excellent, a medley of Newley greats treated the crowd to Once In A Lifetime, The Candy Man and What Kind of Fool Am I, with Baker also un-earthing Newley’s Pagliacci-esque The Man Who Makes You Laugh. As the singer sat at an onstage make-up table, donning the pierrot’s white slap and garishly rouged lips, the song’s irony was chilling.
Accompanied throughout by Alex Parker’s quintet, the music was perfectly weighted. Parker’s understanding of the subtleties of musical direction is unmatched for one so young – and under his command the evening’s musical ambience effortlessly ranged from cocktail lounge intimacy to big band bravado.
Wrapping his set with Taboo’s Petrified, a song that Baker has made his own, a few muffled sobs from the St James crowd evidenced the sensitivity of the moment.  
This show is off to New York’s 54 Below later this month and Manhattan is in for a treat. The gig offers moments that are at times reflective, spectacular but most of all and for various reasons, simply spine-tingling. When he returns from the USA, A Bakers Dozen demands a longer London run.

Missed Paul in London? You can catch him at New York’s 54 Below on 19th May.

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Scott Alan and Cynthia Erivo: Home Again – Review

In Cabaret, London theatre, Musicals, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

St James Studio, London

*****

Coming in the midst of the London Festival of Cabaret, Scott Alan leaves a very distinctive handprint on the genre. Typically contemplative, his songs touch emotions that are common to us all – love and loss, rejection and reflection. It is however in Alan’s sharing of his life with his audience, (where his pre-song spiel can often last longer than the song itself) that he re-engineers cabaret. Where earlier in the week this pied-piper of songwriting had assembled a phone-book sized guest list of artists to sing his work, tonight was one of a three-night residency simply featuring Cynthia Erivo alongside the songwriter. 
I have written before of Erivo’s handling of some of Alan’s most sensitive work and as Broadway beckons, it is plain to see that she is not only one of Alan’s most cherished friends, she is also fast becoming a muse to his creativity.
With one of the strongest yet most perfectly controlled voices of her generation, Erivo brings a polished fragility to Alan’s soulful verse, her take on And There It Is displaying an almost ethereal impishness as her lightly smiling face belied a lyric of complex emotions.
When the pair occasionally duetted, their sensitive counterpoint added a depth. Always, which ended the first half was exquisitely rendered and later it was to be Alan who (surprisingly) delivered the opening lines of Anything Worth Holding Onto before Erivo joined him in a song of remarkable profundity that she has long laid claimed to. 
The act one closer was preceded by a confessional to the microphone of the painful loss Alan still feels for Kyle, an ex-boyfriend now deceased. As Alan sobbed at the microphone, there was a sense of witnessing a man on a high wire, as this gifted composer continues to challenge his demons, though any hint of audience prurience or of performer-sensationalism should be swept aside. Alan continually battles his depression and chooses to do so, at times in public and at a piano. His message to those who criticise his on-stage confessionals was blunt. Knowing that his words have inspired other depressives to choose life, he values that contribution over a critic’s carping. It is impossible to fault the man’s integrity, nor to be inspired by his message.
It wasn’t entirely Alan and Erivo. Oliver Tompsett returned to the St James’ stage with a gorgeously nuanced Kiss The Air, Alan’s paean to his mother left bereft after his father’s abrupt marriage walk-out. Tompsett was also to earn an ovation when he was thrust (by Erivo) into joining her in Never Neverland, a song that was not only out of his range but one that he was also completely unfamiliar with. Tompsett rose to the challenge – and where Alan can often be a Lord of Misrule, subjecting his singers to impromptu set-list changes and additions, it was a treat to see him for once hoist with his own petard, Erivo delightfully calling the shots.
Their sold-out run ends tonight – and if Alan needs anything to hold onto at all it is knowing that whilst Erivo is in New York with The Color Purple, the two of them could pack out 54 Below every Sunday night for a year. Get ready to book your tickets, you read it here first!

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Scott Alan: Everything Worth Holding Onto – Review

In Broadway, Cabaret, London theatre, Musicals, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

St James Theatre, London
*****

There was a deliciously different diversity that Scott Alan brought to his one-off gig at the St James Theatre. Entertaining a packed house for an eye-watering (almost) four hours, his guest list ranged from West End stars and TV Reality Show finalists through to audience wannabes.
The New York based singer/songwriter has strong friendships with many of musical theatre’s leading ladies and recent years has seen Cynthia Erivo evolve into a performer who truly gets under the skin of Alan’s writing. With a 3 night Alan & Erivo residency (sold out) about to start at the venue’s smaller Studio room, her inclusion on the bill was an unexpected treat. Erivo set the tone for the evening with her signature Rolls-Royce vocal performance – immense power couched in a silky, elegant style.
An Alan gig is never less than a ballad-fest and Oliver Tompsett, guesting with Darlin’ (Without You), sealed the atmosphere of soulful reflection. It was however to be Madalena Alberto’s take on Blessing, with its verses documenting the pain of Alan coming out to his mother, that brought many to tears. 

In another moment of exquisite soprano serenity, The Phantom Of The Opera’s Christine and her cover, Harriet Jones and Emmi Christensson respectively, gave an enchanting interpretation of Always On Your Side. They proved a breathtakingly beautiful pairing, with later on in the evening and also from Phantom, Oliver Savile impressing too.
Anna Jane Casey offered an accomplished excellence to And There It Is, in yet another performance that spoiled the audience with the riches of talent that Alan is able to invite and it was a precious moment that then saw Sophie Evans, previously one of Lloyd Webber’s Dorothys and a finalist from the BBC’s Over The Rainbow, give a fresh nuance to Look, A Rainbow.  
Newcomer David Albury performed one of the writer’s most popular numbers Never Neverland with an invigorating up-tempo beat – though in a delightful twist Alan was later to invite any audience member who wanted to sing the number, to join him on stage. Reminiscent of kids called up to a pantomime stage, this impromptu people’s chorus made for a moment that was free of all pretension, with some stunning yet to be discovered voices in the routine!
Elsewhere and away from established star names, Alan had unearthed via YouTube Nicola Henderson and Dublin’s Niall O’Halloran, two performers who shone in their brief moment of West End limelight. The Irishman’s Kiss The Air proving particularly powerful.
And there was just so much more to the gig – It speaks volumes for the professional devotion of Eva Noblezada, currently performing Miss Saigon’s Kim 8 times a week, that she could find the honed energy to sing Alan’s Home with a perfectly poised passion. Lucie Jones was shown somewhat less respect in a cheekily foof-fuelled intro from Alan, but her sensational Watch Me Soar more than answered her host’s irreverence.
Teamed with Craig Colton, Zoe Birkett’s The Journey was immense. Carley Stenson wowed with her usual aplomb and in a revelatory performance Danny-Boy Hatchard, aka EastEnders’ Lee Carter took Alan’s Now, a song written amidst the still bleeding wounds of a ripped-apart relationship and stunned the room again.
Alan famously wears his heart on his sleeve, speaking to the audience of his battle with depression and doing much to trample on the stigma associated with mental health. Above all his overarching message and one that many are likely to have found inspirational, is that life is worth holding on to. (Though the frequent references to his evening’s diet comprising white wine and Xanax could have been toned down.) 
Supported on the night by a six-piece band that was all strings and percussion, Musical Director and drummer Ryan Martin delivered a perfectly rehearsed and weighted accompaniment.
As the gig came to a close Erivo returned. Broadway-bound this year as she takes her sensational Celie in The Color Purple to star in New York, when news broke of her casting Alan wrote her a song. At All captured Erivo’s excitement at the achievement of having landed the show’s transfer, yet crossed that emotion with her pain at having to leave her loved ones behind in the UK. Honest lyrics that reduced the singer to tears.
It was left to Sam Bailey to wrap a fine and moving evening with Alan’s cri de coeur, Anything Worth Holding Onto.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE – Shakespeare’s Globe

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Shakespeare’s Globe, London
*****
Written by William ShakespeareDirected by Jonathan Munby

Phoebe Pryce and Jonathan Pryce
Jonathan Munby’s production of The Merchant Of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe is likely to prove a long remembered classic. The staging offers an interaction with the groundlings that defines the raison d’être of this remarkable venue and with some of the Bard’s finest verse bestowed upon both Shylock and Portia, Jonathan Pryce and Rachel Pickup respectively provide a masterclass in English poetry. 
It can be all too easy to forget that The Merchant Of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Munby’s production however makes much wonderfully timed merriment, with Stefan Adegbola’s Launcelot Gobbo putting on a class act that is as much Vaudeville stand up as it is classic Elizabethan drama. Elsewhere, David Sturzaker’s drunken Gratiano and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Nerissa make for excellent comic foils.
The design of both costume and stage is gorgeous. The dress is of the period, with the Venetian masked Carnevale a prominent theme. Designer Mike Britton’s Belmont is suggested magnificently by drapes of burnished gauze that billow in the Southwark breeze, cleverly catching the light and evoking a modest understatement to the wealth of Portia’s estate 
So much for the hilarity, there is heartbreak too – and in the most complex of parent-child dilemmas, Pryce wrestles with the demands of his Jewish faith as daughter Jessica spurns both father and tradition for her gentile lover, Ben Lamb’s Lorenzo. That Jessica is played by Pryce’s real life daughter Phoebe (who eschewing any whiff of nepotistic stunt-casting, more than earns her stripes) only adds to the moments of emotional devastation hurled at us. 
Much too is made of Bassanio’s bisexuality as Daniel Lapaine and Dominic Mafham’s Antonio the eponymous Merchant, make frequent references to their past love. Away from the comedy again, Munby spotlights Portia’s anguish as she comes to realise her new husband’s sexual history, making for another neat and credible shot of pain.
Throughout, Munby’s work is nothing short of visionary. His Princes of Morroco and Arragon (Scott Karim and Christopher Logan respectively) are stereotyped caricatures – indeed Karim’s Arabic creation could be straight out of Disney’s Aladdin. But Munby knows just when to ease off too. Whilst his Princes may be buffoons, there is no hint of grotesque Jewish caricature to Shylock, with the director letting the evil of the play’s prejudice speak for itself.
Whilst Shakespeare’s original English text is respected, Munby takes brave linguistic licence elsewhere. Shylock and Jessica converse in Yiddish behind closed doors, whilst a devastating epilogue sees the now proselytised Jewess lament in Hebrew, whilst her father is subject to the full baptismal onslaught of a Catholic Latin liturgy.
But the heartbeat of this production lies in its devastating depiction of racist hatred. Shylock speaks of having been and is, spat upon. The courtroom scene is imbued with a lynch-mob menace that bays for the Jew’s blood. Whilst his desire for murderous vengeance can never be condoned, this production more than most, speaks clearly of the lifetime of abuse that the old money-lender has endured.
In what is likely to prove one of the capital’s stand out Shakespeare plays of the year, Pryce’s performance dominates and devastates. We share the pain of his yelp as his skullcap is brutally removed, realising more than anything else that the prejudices of 17th century Venice were barely different from those of Hitler’s Berlin in the 1930s. And when we read today of the barbarity wreaked upon Iraq’s Yazidis and upon many of Africa’s Christian communities, we can only weep at Shakespeare’s timeless wisdom.

Runs until 7th June
Image by Manuel Harlan

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GYPSY – West End

In London theatre, Musicals, Regional theatre, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

It is rare to see perfection improved upon, but in its transfer from Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent’s Gypsy achieves just that. A highlight of 2014, the resonance of Jule Styne’s big band brassy score filled the Sussex theatre’s world class open stage. But Gypsy was written in and for the Golden Age of Broadway, to be mounted on a proscenium stage. In re-sculpting their masterpiece to fit the Savoy’s traditional confines, Kent and choreographer Stephen Mear have excelled.

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Death Of A Salesman – Review

In London theatre, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
*****
Written by Arthur MillerDirected by Greg Doran

Harriet Walter and Antony SherTo read my interview with Harriet Walter and her analysis of the role of Linda, click here

Death Of A Salesman not only marks the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth, but in Greg Doran’s production being staged over Shakespeare’s April birthday, is also the RSC’s jewel in its 2015 crown.
Widely acclaimed as the greatest American play, we witness a meticulous dissection of the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life. His sales are flagging, buyers won’t see him anymore and he has been reduced to “commission only” by his young and ruthless boss Howard, a man who (in one of many moments of Miller’s cruel perception) Willy has watched grow up from boyhood to inherit his family’s business. The mounting finance bills on car (and hellishly, even the refrigerator) remind us of the domestic pressures that Antony Sher’s Willy can never escape.
As guilt and failure take their toll on Loman, we see early on how wise his wife (Harriet Walter’s Linda) is to his confusion. “Your mind is overactive, and the mind is what counts, dear.” But she is being kind. As act one unfolds, Harriet Walter delivers one of the most devastating female performances, telling sons Biff and Happy that not only is she fully aware of Willy’s suicidal depression, but that she cannot let him know that she knows, for such a revelation would destroy him. Linda’s strength as a wife and mother, desperate to glue her family together is a recognisable pain and as Walter spoke, the sobbing around the auditorium was profound.
Miller is merciless as he twists the knife into Loman’s last desperate hours. As Biff again disappoints him, the true depths of Willy’s guilt and shame are revealed, whilst Happy (Sam Marks convincing as the shallow even if ultimately loving son, too easily led by his trousers) is happy to desert his desolate father in a restaurant, as he heads off in pursuit of women.
Loman’s descent will be recognised by all and quite possibly be familiar to many and yet along the way he encounters everyday kindnesses too. Linda’s love for her husband breaks our hearts, whilst Charley (a beautifully weighted performance from the lugubrious Joshua Richards) provides one of the most touching definitions of friendship ever penned. In the play’s Requiem, Charley’s eulogy echoes Horatio’s “now cracks a noble heart” speech from Hamlet, as the old New Yorker says of Willy: 
”He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.”
Nowhere else in the canon has the so-called “American dream” been so concisely revealed as the nightmare that it can so easily become.
Besides the faultless text, it is Doran’s company that mark this production as one of the greats. Sat at his kitchen table, the shoe-shining Sher defines Miller’s anti-hero for a new generation and as his mind unravels, Sher’s Loman is as brilliantly desperate as he is pitiful.
In a pairing that has seen Alex Hassell play Hal to Sher’s Falstaff, so is the younger man now Biff. Magnificent throughout, it is late into act two when Hassell, with minimal dialogue and outstanding acting, portrays a young man watching the rock that he had previously believed his father to be, crumble before his eyes. Watching the equal despair of the humiliated father and his devastated son, both now destroyed, is almost unbearable. 
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ powerfully overbearing set depicts a tenemented Brooklyn, the Lomans’ home, where nothing grows anymore – and as Miller has the play’s action flash between the years, so too does the staging mirror Loman’s muddled mind. Credit also to Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Paul Englishby’s music, both perfectly enhancing time and place.
In 1979 Miller described Warren Mitchell in Mitchel Rudman’s National Theatre production, as “definitive”. I saw the NT show more than once and Greg Doran’s version shares that pantheon. 
A tragedy that is timeless and epic and yet also everyman, Death Of A Salesman plays at Stratford, before an immediate transfer to London. The production is unmissable. Drama does not come better than this.

Plays at Stratford until 2nd May 2015. Then plays at the Noel Coward Theatre from 9th May until 18th July 2015

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Hugh Maynard – Something Inside So Strong – Concert Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

London Hippodrome
***** Hugh Maynard – inset Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong
Every now and then a gig comes along that not only marks a performer’s talent, but also evidences their status in the industry and even more rarely, a remarkable generosity of spirit. So it is with Hugh Maynard, currently playing John in the West End’s revived Miss Saigon, who on the night he launched his debut solo album Something Inside So Strong not only sang sensationally but also chose to share his stage with a talented corps of Miss Saigon colleagues. It all made for a memorable night at the Hippodrome.
In front of his 5-piece band (MD Liam Holms) and on his own Maynard sparkled, covering Seal’s Kiss From A Rose in a distinctly fresh interpretation that still retained a hint of the writer’s hallmark edgy tenderness. When A Man Loves A Woman offered a further glimpse of the controlled power of Maynard’s belt, whilst in a disarmingly brave choice for a fella, his take on Brenda Russell’s Get Here (a smash hit for Oleta Adams) showed the full range of his tenor magnificence.
Maynard’s big number in the Boublil and Schoenberg epic is Bui Doi, an impassioned plea on behalf of Vietnam’s “dust of life” kids, the mixed-race progeny fathered by long absent GIs. A neat twist saw a 7-strong ensemble of Miss Saigon’s finest give a stunning, cheeky twist on the number, referring to the “spice of life” and sung a-capella no less, conducted by Maynard and gloriously led by the show’s Carolyn Maitland.
Making the short trip from the Prince Edward Theatre to guest for Maynard, his featured colleagues Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong both sung solos from Les Miserables. Each famous in SE Asia, both guests offered proof, if any was needed, of Cameron Mackintosh’s ability to source talent from across the globe. Hong’s Bring Him Home along with Go’s I Dreamed A Dream set spines-tingling. Their song  choices may have been well worn favourites yet each electrified the Hippodrome crowd before going on to duet with their host. 
One night was not enough and Hugh Maynard needs to return to the cabaret stage soon. Until then he remains a living reminder of the excellence to be found in London’s musical theatre today.

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Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe – Review

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Crazy Coqs, London
*****Joe Stilgoe and Claire Martin
The syncopated excellence of Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Martin, one of our finest jazz divas, defines insouciance as she controls her perfect timbre, her voice swooping like a seabird from the most glorious moment of an occasional mezzo trills, down to a luxuriously resonant contralto. Her pitch is perfect and her timing pinpoint – there is truly nothing more a cabaret singer could offer.
And then there’s Stilgoe. With a reverential impertinence that reminds one of Peter Shaffer’s young Amadeus, eschewing sheet music and much like a Transformer straight out of the recent movie franchise, he becomes one with his piano. Stilgoe really is that good. The pair’s set list, loosely themed around Springtime takes in the Great Songbooks from both sides of the pond and a segue that seamlessly joins Gershwin’s S’Wonderful, to Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and which in less confident hands would appear cheesy, here just seems so natural. Not just a pianist, the young musician’s guitar playing is divine too and he also delivers a neat mimic of a muted trumpet. But it was only when sat at his piano that Stilgoe junior whistled at me, that I truly realised how proud of son Joe, dad Richard should truly be.
For an evening packed with gems, the rest is detail. The pair (whose harmonies were always perfectly aligned) gave a cracking treatment to Sinatra’s That’s Life and also enchanted in Legrand’s Watch What Happens. Martin soloed sublimely with April In Paris, whilst her treatment of the Garland classic Get Happy! referenced the Hollywood star in style, yet bore a fresh interpretation that was nothing short of sensational. 
No matter their patter occasionally drifted. On this night the singing was all that counted and rarely are two performers so marvellously melded. They’re only here for a week, don’t miss ‘em!

In residence until 28th March

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Psycho Live – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Dominion Theatre, London
*****
Screenplay by Joseph StefanoBased on the novel Psycho by Robert BlochDirected by Alfred Hitchcock
Orchestral score by Bernard HerrmannPerformed live by Cinematic SinfoniaConducted by Anthony Gabriele

Janet Leigh takes a shower in Psycho
It’s been a long long time since the opening bars of a movie’s score have made the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. But sat in the Dominion Theatre, as Psycho’s split-text title lines slid across the screen, to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s strings-only orchestration played by the Cinematic Sinfonia orchestra was to truly experience the magic of the movies.
The likes of Netflix and Apple have gone a long way to neuter the majesty of cinema. Imagery that  was once beautifully photographed for the vast expanse of cinemascope is now routinely streamed to our eponymous tiny telephones and tablets and one can fear for a generation currently growing up, who may well consider a trip to a local cinema’s full sized silver screen to be an unnecessary and expensive chore. So whilst this (partly premium-priced) event may well have been one for the fans, it was worth every penny.
Another feature of the evening was in actually seeing and hearing  the film’s music played live, giving rise to a strange sense of witnessing the re-creation of what used to be a fundamental component of any movie’s construction. When any original score was recorded, it would have demanded a conductor facing the screen as he conducts his studio orchestra in time with the action – just the scenario that the Dominion audience were privileged to witness for themselves.
It was of course also a treat to re-visit a movie classic and one can forget how quite how groundbreaking Psycho’s 1960 release was to prove, shaking up many of the movie-industry’s accepted protocols. Intermingling sex with violence and deviancy – even the opening scene of Janet Leigh, bra-clad and in bed with her unmarried lover pushed the envelope of its time. And the dialogue is just so deliciously dated too. When Leigh’s Marion Crane tells Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates, who has just explained to her the gruesome yet mundane details of his interest in taxidermy, that “a man should have a hobby”, a comment so simple and genteel and so firmly fixed in a time gone by.
Shot in black and white by Hitchcock’s TV series camera crew rather than a feature film unit, the production budget was a squeeze. In fact, so tight were the movie’s finances that Herrmann, who resolutely refused to cut his own fee, was forced to trim his orchestra to strings only. Has necessity ever been proved to have been the mother (no pun intended) of such ultimately rich invention? Some years back The Observer published its list of the 50 film scores. Psycho was ranked #2 and the paper wrote:
Hitchcock, who had originally planned to play the shower sequence without accompaniment, later admitted that ’33 per cent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music’, and doubled the composer’s salary as a reward. Herrmann studiously matched the black and white visuals of Hitch’s masterpiece by draining the ‘colour’ from his orchestrations, stripping away all but the stringed instruments to create a monochrome wall of aural unease.
And remarkably for a film that was to achieve iconic status, amongst that season’s major gongs Psycho was to only pick up a Golden Globe for Leigh, winning nothing at the Oscars. But as the years have proven and as modern-day horror director Eli Roth recently commented, “..time is the only critic that matters”.
Hitchcock’s assessment of the music’s contribution was sage. So much of the story’s drama, and in particular its opening chapters, homing in on Marion’s anxiety after she has stolen the cash from her boss, play out with an absolutely excruciating intensity. The performance and the photography are first class, but it is Herrmann’s relentlessly jarring strings with their harsh minor-key harmonics, that seal the woman’s anguish into our watching psyches. And for a feature film that was to give the world the slasher-movie, Herrmann’s jagged chords as Crane is stabbed to death in the most famous shower scene ever, only heighten that moment’s timeless terror.
Conductor Gabriele knows both movie and score intimately, with this having been the fourth occasion that time he has brandished his baton in time with Bates’ bread knife. Gabriele is one of London’s finest stage-conductors, adept at seamlessly linking an orchestra to the ebb and flow of a live production. But there is no scope for fluid flexibility in conductiong in time to a movie. The imagery and dialog are fixed in time and it is Gabriele’s responsibility to ensure that his musicians maintain pinpoint co-ordination with the screen. It is a massive task and it is a mark of Gabriele’s consummate skill that he makes it look so effortless – and a credit too to the Cinematic Sinfonica orchestra for delivering such an immaculately rehearsed sound. 
Gabriele has a passion for film and music, telling me post-Psycho of plans (and dreams) to conduct future movie scores by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, as well as other Herrmann offerings. Personally, I long for Ennio Morricone’s work for The Mission and Once Upon A Time In America to be given the Gabriele treatment. Maybe one day…
Until then, the sheer musical excellence of Psycho Live, wedded to Hitchcock’s masterclass in film-making will stay with me for a long time. And in a further thoughtful touch, possibly barely noticed by many in the audience, how considerate of the Dominion to screen the movie in the run up to Mother’s Day!

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, missing his mother 

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Desperate Divas Cabaret – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

*****
Tiffany Graves, Tom Wakeley and Anita Louise Combe
Tiffany Graves and Anita Louise Combes are West End leading ladies who amongst other things, have both played Chicago’s Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly even if never in the production at the same time as the other. It was Tom Wakeley however, a former Musical Director of the Kander & Ebb hit, that spotted the potential of pairing the two as a double act. It has taken a couple of years to bring Wakeley’s idea to fruition, but their cabaret Desperate Divas, a collection of show tunes loosely themed around the trials of modern dating, is now finally receiving its premier at the St James Studio.
Graves and Combes are vocal sensations and this show is all the more remarkable for having been put together whilst both actresses are currently rehearsing major openings. Graves is shortly to commence touring as Ulla in The Producers, whilst Combes in preparation for the transfer of last year’s sensational Gypsy, from Chichester to the West End’s Savoy. It was a neat touch that saw the gig open with a mash up of When You Got it Flaunt It together with Let Me Entertain You from each show respectively. The tweaked lyrics may have been a little bit cheesy but the songs provided a classy moment that set the tone for the rest of the night.
The divas’ patter was mostly classy, even if occasionally clunky. But this was their first gig – and when schedules allow these talented women to re-group and perform again, (which they must) their spiel will only get better.
The songs however were flawless, combining familiar numbers (in a set list that was inevitably heavy on offerings from Chicago) together with showtunes some of which have yet to be performed in the UK. One of Combes’ desperate deliveries was Where In The World Is My Prince from William Finn’s Little Miss Sunshine, which included the sparklingly memorable rhyme that she’d been “trained by Nikinsky and coached by Lewinsky”. Other treats of the first half included Graves’ (now clad in a wedding dress – bravo to the backstage dressers for executing such speedy costume changes) Always A Bridesmaid from I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, whilst the pair closed act one with Side Show’s plaintive Who Will Love Me As I Am, delivered with stunning harmonies and a thrilling anthemic power.
Graves had played a stunning Sukie Rougemont in the 2013 prodcution of The Witches of Eastwick at Newbury’s Watermill (reviewed here). So to see Words,Words,Words, a bogglingly complex number rarely heard on the cabaret circuit, listed amongst the second half gems, whetted appetites. Graves duly smashed the song, to showstopping whoops from the packed crowd.
Tom Wakeley excelled on piano throughout – ably accompanied by Paul Moylan on double bass.
The pair closed with Chicago’s Class and Nowadays – done to perfection by two singers who could not know their material more intimately nor with greater understanding. That they also threw in a very slick Hot Honey Rag dance routine, tailored brilliantly to the Studio’s confines, was but an added bonus. These women are at the top of their game with voices that are perfectly tuned. Cabaret singing doesn’t get better than this!

Photo credit – Jonathan Hilder of Piers Photography