Hamilton

I’d booked the tickets six months ago, just after the most hyped show of the decade, or the century (or indeed ever) opened in London to rave reviews. (Unlike other smash-hit musicals like Les Mis, which the critics hated – as did I.) In the meantime I followed received wisdom and bought the album and listened to it till I could almost recite the whole thing verbatim.

Hamilton programme.jpg

Hamilton programme

The most astonishing thing about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is that it’s driven as much if not more by its lyrics and its characterisation than by the music. As a one-time lyricist I had always tried to pare the words down to a minimum in the belief that it’s the music everyone wants to hear and nobody is listening much to the lyrics anyway. What’s mould-breaking about the show is not just that America’s founding fathers are all played by non-whites, but that you get the entire history of the American Revolution, and its aftermath, plus a biography of Hamilton’s love life and his relationships with fellow politicians, rapped, sung and very occasionally spoken, and all in the space of just under three hours.

The London show matches the Broadway cast album precisely, which is spooky in a way because it suggests the London cast, and musicians, are puppets of the original. But the cast seem utterly at home in their skins and there are spankingly brilliant performances across the board, especially from Giles Terera as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, Obioma Ugoala as George Washington, Michael Jibson as King George III and Rachelle Ann Go and Rachel John as Hamilton’s wife and sister in law Alexandra and Eliza Schuyler. Jamael Westman’s Hamilton is an intriguing mix of great stage presence and self deprecation, and oddly for a young performer almost straight out of drama school, he comes truly into his own in the latter scenes, as a mature man and a remorseful husband and a grieving father.

Hats off too to the fantastic, unfortunately hidden orchestra (MD Richard Beadle) and the non-stop, gyrating ensemble, who like all clever performers make it look like there are more of them than there are.

Worth the hype? Oh boy. I laughed, I cried, I marvelled, and I learned.

Hamilton (4)

Fearsome sniffer dog at the Victoria Palace

Instructions delivered by Ticketmaster in the days leading up to the performance were draconian: no tickets issued until the day of the performance; arrive an hour early, nobody’s allowed in until all the party is together, and once in you’re not allowed to leave again till the end; bring photo ID, booking confirmation and credit card; be prepared for bag searches (nothing surprising there) and sniffer dogs. All to deter ticket touts. In the event the queue stretched around the block but moved quickly, and the staff were efficient and friendly and the whole thing went without a hitch. (Though it would be nice, since there’s all that time to kill, to have a bit more seating in the bar area.)

 

 

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Funny Girl

There is a funny story behind this show. I was chatting away to various people after the press night of a new musical (Marco Polo: the Untold Story – for my review, click here) when the press lady grabbed my arm and said – ‘Come and meet the two wives of Bob Merrill’.

Bob Merrill, you may or may not know, was an American lyricist and composer, famous mostly for the lyrics of Funny Girl – including lyrics and most of the music of the old favourite ‘People’ – and such oddballs as How much is that doggy in the window? and If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake’.

Funny Girl Bob Merrill (bobmerrill.com)

Bob Merrill (bobmerrrill.com)

Anyway, long story short, after a couple of minutes of chat Mrs Merrill 2 invited me and my friend to accompany the two of them to Funny Girl the following night. Mrs Merrill 1 had been married to Mr Merrill at the time he was writing the show. She said he sung the entire thing, playing every part, to would-be producers by way of attracting their interest and investment. Mrs M 2 lives in London and had seen the show many times at the Menier Chocolate Factory (where this production originated) and again at the Savoy, yet she was more than happy to see it again and was one of the first on her feet at the curtain call. Mrs Merrill 1, who lives in the US, had not seen the show since who knows when, and was, understandably quite overcome by the whole experience.

What a night. And what a privilege to be the guests of two such fascinating ladies. I am still hoping to write their story.

Funny Girl 1

(atgtickets.com)

Oh, and the show? I really have very little to say. It was fabulous, from top to bottom. Beautifully staged, directed, danced, sung, performed. TOTAL star turn from Sheridan Smith. Zestily directed by Michael Mayer and gustily played by a wonderful – and almost visible – orchestra. One of the great things about old musicals is that they don’t tale themselves that seriously. It’s a long time since I had spent an enjoyable evening in the theatre.

Funny Girl runs at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October 2016. Book tickets here.

Mrs Henderson Presents

What is it with musicals? Paper-thin characters, ludicrous plots, over-emphasised, repetitive (and overloud) musical numbers, and what do you get in the end? A thoroughly good night out.

Anyone who knows me knows of my resistance to sentimentality of any kind, not to mention the kind of manipulation creators of musical theatre impose on audience members in their constant efforts to get us to laugh and cry. Those are two of the many reasons why I don’t go to musicals. I don’t see why they should be allowed to get away with the kind of puerile plotting and banal characterisation that you’d never see in a straight play. I don’t see why they expect us to leave our brains behind and blast what’s left of us with childish versions of history or artificially hyped songs about lurv, delivered with relentlessly overstated passion. Or what passes for passion in musical theatre.

Mrs Henderson Presents (delfontmackintosh.co.uk)

(delfontmackintosh.co.uk)

The trouble is that more than once in recent times I’ve found myself sitting in the auditorium and watching a musical that, yes, has made me both laugh and cry. And it’s  often not until later that I’ve begun to think – hang on, that was a clunky piece, that made no sense at all, why would he/she do such a thing? – in other words to pick holes in the plot, and the characterisation, and in pretty well everything else. But not at the time, and this is the crux of the matter.

Mrs Henderson Presents is a case in point. It tells the story of the 70-year-old wealthy widow who, on a whim, bought the Windmill Theatre and turned it from a struggling space showing non-stop revue to the now all-famous ‘We Never Closed’ theatre featuring naked motionless ladies in tableaux vivants. (The motionlessness in order to get past the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship.)

Tracie Bennett (westendtheatre.com)

Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson (westendtheatre.com)

The show, based on the 2005 film starring Judi Dench, isn’t anything like as multi-layered or thought-provoking as it might have been. Nor does it set out to be. It is a slickly-written, cleverly directed piece – direction and book by Terry Johnson – that knows exactly how to press the right buttons to get the audience cheering and whooping. The tea girl becomes the star. The show goes on despite bombs dropping. Mrs H and her producer Vivian Van Damm show the kind of stubborn stoicism you only ever associate with the theatre and the plucky, defiant souls who keep it going against all the odds.

The obligatory clapping-along-with-the-music, not to mention the get-the-audience-on-its-feet-dancing that’s now a common feature at the end of a musical is enough to bring out the curmudgeon in anyone. But maybe that’s the whole point. What many serious, not to say snobbish theatregoers (I include myself) are at risk of forgetting these days is that there is nothing wrong with an enjoyable night out. It’s a case of adjusting expectations and temporarily stifling your inner critic.

For my full review of the show click on londontheatre1.com

Showstopper!

Anyone who’s tried improvisation knows how difficult it is to create a story and keep it going for more than a few minutes. To create a two hour show, with music, on the spot from suggestions from the audience is nothing short of miraculous.

showstopper (theshowstoppers.org)

(theshowstoppers.org)

Showstoppers have been around on the fringe for years and have finally been given a limited-time West End spot at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue. The cast comprises a team of fifteen actors, out of whom six take it in turns (I presume) to perform each night, and six musicians, three per performance. Plus of course the Master of Ceremonies and creator of the show, Dylan Emery, who ‘curates’ the random ideas thrown at him from the audience at the beginning of the show (I’m sorry he ignored the suggestion last night to set the show in a uterus), and sporadically throughout the evening freezes the action to throw in a suggestion of his own, as in: ‘Now they will perform a song about how they got to set up the speed dating event in the style of ’Master of the House’ from Les Mis.’

Last night’s topic was speed dating, set in the Deep South, to the style of various musicals such as Les Mis, Phantom, Company, Lion King and Spinal Tap (not a very inspiring bunch). The story that unfolded involved two old friends, called as I remember Charlene and Joe, having had no luck with the 30-second speed dating thing deciding to get married; a marriage that five years later (after the interval, during which the MC invited the audience to suggest how the story might continue) is on the rocks, partly due to the presence of Joe’s true love, his horse Nessie. Along the way we had a nice pastiche of the song Company, a parodic sequence based on Phantom, the above-mentioned song from Les Mis, a reference to Lion King and a rock number loosely based on Spinal Tap.

Some members of the cast (guardian.com)

Some members of the cast (guardian.com)

Clever? Blimey, the coordination is amazing. Songs, rhyming, sung in harmony, not quite so good you thought they’d worked on it before, but performed by actors and musicians with perfect synchronisation by real (if miked) singers.

I don’t suppose last night’s show was vintage. When you stop thinking how clever these people are, how well and unselfishly they work together, the show itself isn’t really, as it were, showstopping. Despite pleas for something dramatic to set off the second act it ran rather short of ideas and the songs, as Pippa Evans described her marriage, went on and on and on and on … For me the best parts were the parodies, and I wondered whether it might not have worked better had they based the show on one musical rather than half a dozen.

Still, it’s not like anything I or probably most of the packed (and young) audience have ever seen before. Each night is totally different, nice work for the ushers. I’m sure they get a lot of returnees, and deservedly.

Showstoppers runs at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue till 19 November.
www.showstopperlondon.com

Kinky Boots

KINKY BOOTS has an interesting and unusual history. Taken from the true story of a shoe factory in Northampton whose failing business was saved, if temporarily, by moving from making men’s brogues into producing kinky boots for drag queens, it became first the subject of a BBC2 documentary and then a film, and finally a Broadway Tony-award-winning musical that has eventually reached the West End.

(kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk)

(kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk)

The producers of the film created the character of Lola, the drag queen, played by Chiwetel EJiofor (now that’s a film I have to see) and it is he/she and the reluctant inheritor of the shoe factory, Charlie, who form the central characters of the musical. The show makes much of their differences – the provincial down-to-earthness of Charlie versus the exotic otherness of Lola – before making great play of their similarities (they both disappointed and defied their fathers). It is this man-to-man-with-no-sex-involved relationship that’s one of the most unusual things about this show. There’s conventional love interest along the way in the form of Charlie’s fiancée, a London-oriented businesswoman who is replaced by the assistant with a crush – a gloriously funny performance from Amy Lennox. Charlie is played by Killian Donnelly, veteran of virtually every musical running in the West End, and Lola by Matt Henry, whose sole experience as far as I can tell from Googling him – being too mean to buy a programme – is coming fourth on The Voice.

officiallondontheatre.co.uk

Killian Connelly, Matt Henry and Amy Lennox (officiallondontheatre.co.uk)

The show is saved by these performances, and by a wonderfully witty script. The weirdness of its hybrid origins – an American-created show about a story set in the English provinces – is evident here and there, and in particular in the character of Charlie, who turns from unassuming Northamptonshire when he speaks into American rock star when he sings. There’s also an American sassiness, not to mention schmaltz, to the script (Harvey Fierstein). There are some creaking plot moments, in particular when Charlie quite uncharacteristically turns on his buddy Lola solely, it seems, to provide us with the subsequent regret-and-making-up moment; and Charlie’s fiancée doesn’t serve much of a purpose (except to give Amy Lennox a wonderfully comedic moment when she realises has a crush on someone else’s man). And there are a couple of puke-making songs which are both unnecessary and out of keeping with the otherwise light-hearted, hilarious and outrageous tone of the rest of the show.

But these days, when the news around us is so grim, there’s nothing like a fun night out to cheer the spirits. The audience was on its feet at the end and I suspect this one will run and run as long and as far as its steel-reinforced stilettos can carry it.

(standard.co.uk)

(standard.co.uk)

The Pajama Game

Shaftesbury Theatre

It’s the songs that make the show irresistible. I boasted to my cousin beforehand that I could sing every single one of them, word for word, and would do so there and then if she didn’t buy me a drink. She, being considerably younger than me, found to her amazement – though not till afterwards – that she could have done the same, even though she had no idea such classics as ‘Hey There‘ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway‘ came from a show she’d only vaguely heard of.

I did think to begin with the vast expanse of the Shaftesbury Theatre was too big for a show like this. (I wished I had caught it at the little Minerva in Chichester where this production originated.) It’s not just the crudeness of the sound quality – the continuing problem of personal miking makes some of the voices uncomfortably shrill, and you never quite know where the sound is coming from – but a big space like this by definition enduces big performances and a sort of overexuberance that can be quite annoying, and can  detract from what is, at its centre, a small and sweet story of the company man and the union woman falling in love and then falling out again over seven and a half cents.

(shaftesburytheatre.com)

Joanna Riding and Michel Xavier (shaftesburytheatre.com)

But you can get used to anything I guess and by part two it’s impossible not to sit back and just let those fabulous songs wash over you. ‘There once was a man‘ works wonderfully in that space and is wonderfully staged. The performances, over-projection and shrillness apart, are excellent. I particularly enjoyed Alexis Owen-Hobbs as Gladys, and one of my favourite musical songs of all time – ‘I’ll never be jealous again‘ – performed meticulously by Peter Polycarpou and Claire Machin.

The show is directed by the miraculous Richard Eyre and choreographed by Stephen Mear. It runs until September. Resist it if you dare.