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Lea Michele and Darren Criss In Concert: Hammersmith Apollo and touring.

December 5, 2018


(seen at the evening performance on 2nd December 2018).

Or “Rachel Berry” and “Blaine Warbler” to Gleeks. Either way, this pair of young American entertainers gave us a pretty interesting insight into the current state of the US light entertainment scene, and its populous in general. Over almost 2 and a quarter hours they ran the spectrum from Sondheim to Lady Gaga, via Judy Garland and Keane, with almost unwavering success and always striking energy. The same could be said of a (mostly young and female) audience who reacted to everything with matching gusto, adding much to the event.

Kicking off with “Broadway Baby” (from musical “Follies”) as a duet, and moving on to a hugely successful “Suddenly Seymour” (“Little Shop Of Horrors”); then came my first real surprise – Darren Criss grabbing a guitar and picking out… “Falling Slowly” from “Once.” One of my favourite musicals of all time, and the pair gave it a treatment it absolutely deserved.

Mr Criss then left the stage to Ms Michele and her vocal potions (all non-alcoholic, she assured us, and we sort of didn’t stop believing it – enough “in” “Glee” jokes – editor). A friendly interactive chat had her delighting all with snatches of songs suggested by the audience.

Then, she truly unleashed the power. Eva Cassidy’s version of “Over The Rainbow” was nothing short of sensational, Michele’s soaring vocal a chocolate coating perfection. Following it up with ‘signature tune’ “Don’t Rain On My Parade” brought the house down, and rightly – would have been amazing if she had ventured into the aisles but alas, not technically possible.

A pair of “Glee” favourites, “Poker Face” and “Edge of Glory” were nostalgic fun, before a personal “Glitter in the Air” reminded us just how good her voice is, compared with the original “Pink” version. “Run to You” from her album gave way to a ‘thrown in for the season’ delightful stool-bound “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” full of seasonal cheer, before joining Darren Criss again for “Getaway Car” and Darren’s section of the show.

Though admitting to not being a musical theatre person, “Hopelessly Devoted” has to be his audition for any re-make of “Grease,” while “I Dreamed A Dream” self-accompanied had hallmarks of Michele coaching, and was deeply satisfying.

Annoyingly, we got only snatches of “Faith” (George Michael) and “Don’t Stop Me Now” (Queen), both of which in full would have stopped the show. Still, at the piano “Somewhere Only We Know” (Keane) was heartfelt and quietly wonderful, while the younger audience in particular enjoyed Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.”

As a song-writer, his own “Going Nowhere,” “Foolish Thing” and “Not Alone” got a look-in, the last probably the strongest of the self-penned material.


Back together, “Shallow” (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper) was fun, before a final nod to “Glee” with “This Time.”

The encore stripped the show back to just their voices and a guitar as the vast auditorium demonstrated its acoustics and the artistes their skill with an un-amplified “Don’t You Want Me” by “The Human League.” Well, actually, we do.

Sure, there are criticisms. Foremost was the constant, utterly unnecessary swearing. There were younger children in the audience… and if “Blondie” in the same auditorium could keep it clean, so could this pair. Except that they didn’t.

Second, the weird solipsism of young America wasn’t well hidden. For a pair of international stars anchoring a world tour, that was odd. A fair proportion of the audience chat was thanking us for being there, and noting how many people are from Europe. Their slight amazement that anything existed outside of the lower 48 states grated after a while, spoiling the illusion of sophistication somewhat.

Finally, a note to Mr Criss that “Les Misérables” the musical was developed in Paris and opened in 1980 (the song you sang existed, in melodic form at least, even back then) and hit London in 1985, not 1987 as stated. Rachel Berry should be very disappointed in you.

Still, the duo worked hard, and are clearly besotted with each-other’s talents, which is good to see. Well selected songs, a more than decent live band backing them, and a few “burned into the memory forever moments.” What more could anyone want to believe in? Let’s hope they don’t stop, for sure.

 

4 stars.

 

Photos supplied by kind permission of Hush PR. All rights reserved by them.

Dirty Dancing: New Wimbledon Theatre (National Tour)

November 28, 2018


(Seen at the afternoon performance on 24th November 2018).

For one reason or another, I always managed to never quite make it to the Aldwych Theatre when this ran for years in the West End. Of course, correcting it meant a trip to the other side of London… but… one of my favourite theatres, so…

And it was genuinely worth the effort. Everybody thinks they know the story from the famous 1980s movie. Francis “Baby” Houseman and her family spend three weeks at Kellerman’s Summer Hotel (a sort of up-market holiday camp to us Brits). She falls in love with lead Dance Entertainer Johnny Castle, and becomes enmeshed in the world of the Entertainments team. She learns to dance, and both her and Johnny learn a lot more about life.

Frederico Bellone and resident director Russ Spencer give us proper sticks hidden inside the seeming candyfloss. The first half is very much a set-up for the volley of sucker-punches the show delivers in the second. You may think it’s a fairly light dance show before the interval, but that’s just a false sense of security for what follows.

For fans, all the famous elements are here too; Roberto Comotti does extraordinarily well to re-create the famous scenes even on a set designed to tour. Yes, you get the “log,” the “water rehearsal” and of course well, you know what – and they are all inventive, fun and done with high-quality precision as all concerned deserve no less.

Sure, the show uses mostly recorded music, with a decent four-piece band (stay past the final curtain, they are worth it), but the big song is live and thrilling.


Best are the cast. As Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly) seems to cope with the #metoo harassment dished out by the rear stalls, and finds compelling range between dispassionate and tenderness.

Like co-star “Baby” (Mira Malou), the pair excel as dancers, Malou quite a pleasure to watch her growing self-awareness evolve with that skill.


Eye-catching Penny (Simone Covele) is more than just a stage-filling figure with possibly record-breaking extension. Her major dramatic thread is well-handled, the child / woman dynamic warm and very real.

In supporting roles, Lisa Houseman (Lizzie Ottley) almost steals the show with “Lisa’s Hula.” Her parents Dr Jake (Lynden Edwards) and Marjorie (Lorie Haley Fox) display notably strong gravitas and a decent singing voice respectively. A credible family, well cast.

As Elizabeth, Sian Gentle-Green deserves note for vocals and characterisation that should interest the casting director of “Hamilton” next season. Her boss, kindly Max Kellerman (Jack McKenzie) should move her up next season at least – and if he could hold me a cabin for the first three weeks in August, I’d be obliged.

Son Neil Kellerman (Greg Fossard) should learn from his father some manners, but doesn’t need to learn much about acting, going on his ability to create a dislikeable yet not repellent character with few scenes to do so. Robbie Gould (Tom Bowen) does likewise, his shock at the end a notably well-played detail.

Two other mentions – Tito Suarez  (Colin Charles) as mentor and musician, and Billy Kostecki (Alex Wheeler) also deserve recognition for important contributions. And not forgetting Mr Schumacher (Mark Faith) and some neat illusions.


The tightly choreographed (Gillian Bruce) ladies and gentlemen of the dance team never flag in energy, rarely miss a single step and make certain that the true atmosphere of the Catskills in 1963 reaches every corner of the theatre.


This production does exactly what it should – giving the audiences “The Time Of Our Lives” without sparing a thing to keep us entertained at all times, exactly as Kellerman would want. If it comes your way, book in for a summer you won’t forget.

4 stars.

For tour dates, see: https://dirtydancingontour.com/

 

 

Photo credit: Alastair Muir. Used by kind permission of Wimbledon Theatre.

Othello: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

November 21, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 22nd September 2018)

The steady downpour throughout the afternoon helped considerably the melancholy final bedroom scenes in particular, in this somewhat frenetic Claire van Kampen directed production.

Othello is easily my favourite Shakespeare play, and for me, few since have lived up to the growling McKellen Iago and pleading Stubbs Desdemona of the Trevor Nunn Young Vic / RSC production.

This time, Mark Rylance makes an amiable liar – taunting the audience and insouciant (with musical instrument at one point) to the end. Oddly delivering his key “Good Name” speech with back turned to most of the house, he at least manages a less boastful “Money In Purse” than most, finding a lightness that is rather interestingly suggests a more opportunist and reactive Iago than many I have seen.

Jessica Warbeck takes time to settle as Desdemona, early scenes lacking passionate commitment. Yet later with both Emilia (attractive quiet solicitude from Sheila Atim) and husband Othello (Andrew Holland) her character takes on a dignity and humility that suddenly makes sense of her earlier dramatic choices.

In the title role, Holland chooses not to dominate, but build steadily, his errors multiplying and both anger and anguish foregone conclusions almost from the start of the second half.

Other notable performances include a fruity Bianca from Catherine Bailey. As Cassio, Aaron Pierre rather matches her playing – lucky he was able to keep up, as it were…

Steffan Donnelly and Wiliam Chubb do decent service as Roderigo and Brabantio respetively, with Chubb’s outfit one of the better costumes designed from Jonathan Fensom.

The fairly severe editing of the script could arguably veer towards the shorter of the two known versions and thus may be more authentic, but it did lack depth as we failed to really experience the pleasure of knowing the machinations behind the actions as Iago’s mind is set to work.

Indeed, reading this opinion back, it could explain why he read as “reactive” in this production. For future reference, that doesn’t help with dramatic tension across the arc of the play for this viewer, though it does allow less commitment to concentration for the whole event, of course.

Balanced and veering from engrossing to slightly dull, a more than decent introduction for many to this particular work, is the verdict.

 

3 stars.

Beyond The Deepening Shadow: The Tower Of London

November 14, 2018


Described as “a performance,” this was the installation commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces to run for just eight nights, leading up to and including Armistice Day 2018.

Sharing a designer in Tom Piper, whose work on the “Weeping Window” and “Arch” added so much to the poppies installed in the moat for “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” in 2014, Sound Artist Mira Calix, Creative Director Deborah Shaw, Lighting Designer Phil Supple, Staging and Movement director Anna Morrissey and Flames and Mist Effect specialist Mike Jones joined the team to create something marking the end of the First World War, as impressive as the original Tower display, yet different.

They succeeded.


10,000 circular pots of fuel at differing heights were lit each night from 5pm, calculated for the wick to splutter out at 9pm. Each was placed seemingly at random throughout the moat, just as the poppies were.

Smoke effects drifted over the field, and especially composed music played – issuing from the chest level speakers carried by mysterious grey-shrouded figures moving ceaselessly around the moat perimeter among the visitors.

Yes, there were visitors. The lucky few who, like myself, responded quickly to an Historic Royal Palaces email and bought timed entry tickets for just £5 each. An unforgettable experience.

 

Arriving on 11th November 2018, with tickets timed to enter at the exact time 100 years ago that the Treaty of Versailles was signed, I have to admit I hadn’t really known what to expect. Well, not quite true. Disappointed friends had warned of vast crowds the Friday before, so that they were unable even to reach the entrance plaza. Expecting the worst, we arrived early by a different route (walking, as advised, from Monument station to Petty Wales, avoiding the crush on Tower Hill).

 


Vast lines were obvious, myriad nationalities patient behind crowd barriers snaking for distances that would make Disney World in high summer seem deserted. Lacking sign-posts, asking at the ticket window where “moat ticket holders” should go, I was happily directed to a sectioned off entrance through which 15 minutes before my entry-time, my party was ushered with utmost courtesy.

A short time in a holding-pen (watched balefully by those in the ‘public’ line – bit embarrassing), then ushered through ticket checks to a covered pavilion on the Tower Embankment. A greeting from the Master of the Tower, then a few minutes later, ushered further, through a security check and into the Tower itself – by Traitor’s Gate.

A Yeoman Warder demonstrated parade-ground voice lessons (actors should learn), addressing about 200 of us effortlessly. Introduction to the Tower, himself and his job, and how to behave when in the moat. The latter simply to enjoy the experience on our own terms, take pictures and video by all means but no flash photography, feel free to use the benches and don’t worry about the walking artists – they wouldn’t touch us and we don’t touch them.


A walk down a cobbled slope and…


Gasps of wonder from all. Once used to being peered down at (thank goodness zoos today are more far-thinking), all concentration was on the images searing almost literally into our retinas, burning for sure into our souls.

Many cultures and religions celebrate both life and death through kindling of flame. In contrast to the grief of 2014’s poppies, the lights laid in the very same place provoked hope as well as remembrance. While observing the poppies back then, I noted the feeling of seeing soldiers, then graves, then poppies and an all-encompassing humbling.


This time, my over-riding reaction was hope. A lighting of the way.


The grey figures were shadow-guides, the music an expression of pain for sure but also with notes of wisdom and instruction. Certainly against wreaking the same level of destruction ever again (alas, ignored short decades later) but also a reminder of what had been given and how we might proceed more fruitfully from such loss and knowledge.

A slow walk, pausing for short times on the benches, the half-mile took an hour to complete. Fellow moat visitors exhibited utmost courtesy to each other, never walking into each other’s shots as photos were being taken – even sharing ideas for the best spots. Sometimes chatting and exchanging memories and thoughts, other times spread far so that for stretches we got entire sections to ourselves for private reflection.

The path wove movingly for the second quarter-mile, in between part of the display. The corner hiding the “nerve centre,” the grey spirits seemingly meeting and disbanding with more frequency, the music growing more intense.

Finally, with a last long look,


time to ascend the long ramp to the exit. An elevation of some elation, just as it should be. Leaving the Tower in 2014 with the heaviness of loss at what was to come, so 2018 the leaving was more one of hope. Despair at the loss, but a validation that the sacrifice could yet lead to a better future.

“Beyond The Deepening Shadow” is an apt title, and the highest possible tribute underlining those strongest of words spoken each Remembrance Sunday, “For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”

I hope that this entry is my way of honouring their desire to “Speak of Us,” and in this 100th year, my gratitude to those generations who served, and those who continue to serve for us remains as bright as those flames in Tower moat that night.

 

 

Photographs copyright Theatremonkey.com. All rights reserved. Unauthorised reproduction is not permitted.

Getting That Red Hot Ticket: Advanced Level.

November 7, 2018

With “Spice Girl” concert madness likely to strike on Saturday morning, and for those who read the most-ever read entry on this blog about buying “Hamilton” Tickets back in January 2017, this is a sequel, based on a very recent experience trying to get tickets for a concert at a well known London venue.

With spectacular bad luck, “priority booking” opened on a day and time I (for once) wasn’t able to access a computer. Some 8 hours later, when I could, I found nothing left in the front section, and a couple of tolerable single seats behind that, with some stuff in the upstairs section as well. Would there be better on public booking day? Should I chance being fairly happy against ecstatic? Hmm….

At that point, “Advanced Ticket Ninja Monkey” kicked in. “Public Booking” opened 48 hours later, and it was time to prepare by weighing up the variables.

KNOWN:
The best seats were unavailable.

Single seats were left. These sell slowly, if at all, once the initial rush is over.

Several ticket agencies in addition to the main venue promised to put tickets on sale to the public at the same time 48 hours later.

UNKNOWN:
Had all the best seats gone, and were any “held back” for public booking?

Would there be a second date added (irrelevant this time, as I couldn’t make any other)?

Did ticket agencies have their own allocation of tickets, or were they simply going to offer the same as the venue?

 

Plan:
Aside from checking occasionally the “priority booking” link in case anything else showed up, and to see if the single seats were left (yes), the big thing was to visit the major legitimate STAR (Society of Ticket Agents and Retailer) companies and find out who else would put tickets up on the day.

Agents divide into two types: Those who provide the venue with the software to run their box office, or have a business partnership; and more general agents who are allocated a block of tickets to sell or are allowed to sell via the venue’s website but at the price the agent chooses.

To distinguish, have a look at another show, or indeed the name of the venue on that venue’s official website. You’ll see a ticket agency logo or name of a booking company somewhere. Something like “Eventim Apollo” says that Eventim are the ticket company providing the official software. “Powered by Ticketmaster” is another giveaway. Just comparing the style of an agency’s website – page layout and how the seat buying page looks – with that being used by the venue’s website also always shows the direct link.

Find an event with tickets available, and get to the “choose a ticket” screen. Now, do the same with other trusted ticket agencies. You may find, once past the agency’s own website screens that you very obviously end up on the same website as the original venue. If the agency have cleverly incorporated the venue technology into their own page design, though, dig a little deeper.

Look at the “address bar” in your browser, and compare the web address. If you see reference numbers for that performance date that match both on the official website AND that of the agency – you know they are “fishing in the same pool” and won’t have a different choice of seats available. Same chocolate, different wrapper, basically.


In my case, Eventim and AXS matched, so I knew not to bother trying more than one of those. Ticketmaster and See, however, only gave a countdown to booking opening, with no means of finding out more until the day.

Note it’s also a good time to check your browser is compatible with the booking system of each agency, by selecting a ticket and making sure you can get as far as the checkout, just saying. Good practice for the day, too, familiarising yourself with how the systems work.

 

PUBLIC BOOKING DAY
About 15 minutes before booking opened, time to get those tanks into position. Opening windows to the venue’s website and those of likely agents.

Oh, and a quick reminder tip for “Spice Girls” fans using Ticketmaster – the Ticketmaster system doesn’t like multiple windows open in the same browser. Use different browsers (IE, Chrome and Firefox, for example) rather than multiple windows in one. And more than one machine, too, raises your chances.

Now, here was the interesting part: more data became available. The display at See Tickets indicated that only tickets in the lower price bracket were going to be available. Instantly, that told me See were selling from the same pool of tickets as everybody else. I didn’t waste my time, and closed that one.

Ticketmaster were still cagey. I let them be as the clock ticked to 5 minutes to booking opening. In the back of my mind, though, was that the pool could well be shared here too. On the other hand, Ticketmaster sometimes do “hospitality packages” with amazing front seats – if the price were reasonable…

On the venue’s own website, with 5 minutes to go, I waited. BUT in another window I used my “priority tickets” link to just see what was going on. I found the same situation as the past 48 hours. This time, I put the remaining single ticket into my basket, and took it to a point where I had 15 minutes to accept it or release for someone else. A slight chance I.T. could crash under the strain, but a calculated risk, I felt.

Clock strikes. Ticketmaster booking opens… turns out they had the same pool after all, and no package deals either.

Back on to the page holding my ticket, checked out, job done. So I’m a few rows further back than I’d really like, but I’m seeing the show, and I’m happy.

So, there you have it. It’s not just about getting a place in line on the day – as the previous blog has it. It’s also about managing your expectation by finding out exactly what tickets are likely to be left, and who may be selling them. Do all that, and remember the magic period you may be given (not all companies do) to compete the transaction, and you are again a few paces ahead in the race.

Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck: New Wimbledon Theatre.

October 31, 2018

(seen at the performance on 16th September 2018).

Broadcasters aren’t keen on older, white men on TV any more. As Tarbuck admits here, the main reason he isn’t on television is because he can’t cook. The fact over two-thirds of a vast London suburban theatre was full and constantly echoing to laughter for over two and a half hours says more about the state of the nation than the censorious controllers of broadcast media ever can.

Tarbuck and O’Connor appearing together top and tail the show, with Tarbuck taking most of the first half. He gives us a mixture of stand-up, memories and a bit of video (his scoring a goal at Wembley his highlight), sing-a-long (acapella “Do-Re-Mi”) and some “Q and A” when the audience is relaxed enough to be coaxed into it.

For instant transportation back to days when the true “British sense of humour” wasn’t silenced, when everybody knew “it’s only a joke” really did mean that – and was taken that way, and the politics of the few didn’t leave the rest feeling constricted by views they didn’t agree with but couldn’t push against… this was bliss.

Blue, sometimes, but never crude. Stories flowed, wordplay and anecdotes mixed, those who used to grace our screens but have passed are remembered. Time flew even as the clock whirred backwards.

Second half, Mr O’Connor (with false teeth – you had to be there at the interval to get that one) took over. Aged 86, cursed with a trapped nerve in the back that makes walking difficult, talking slightly slurred and gives a rictus grin, this man is the definition of “showbiz legend and trouper.”

Who else in that condition can give 50 minutes of songs, stories and glorious video commentary – and be brave enough to admit that the audience was the one thing making him feel well? In that context, his brief run at “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” out-did for pathos anything even latter-day Garland was recorded singing.

His wife even joined him for her rendition of “I Will Always Love You” – and it was a good one. More to the point, she clearly meant every word and it was reciprocated in their joined hands.

Brought together for some final laughs before the curtain, a cheeky re-written “Favourite Things” had the entire audience mentally adding this pair of names to the end of the list.

It may be “underground in plain sight” but this is proof that there is a real Britain still out there away from the howlings of online and the radio, television and newspapers dictated to. A slice of nostalgia, but also an even bigger helping of hope, and a salute to the truly golden years of entertainment. Here’s to them both.

______________________________________________________

And, just for contrast and for the record…

Spamilton: Menier Chocolate Factory.
(seen at the afternoon performance on 2nd September 2018).

Suffice to say an utter disappointment from a long-term fan of the “Forbidden Broadway” series. Plenty of very old material re-used, and the new stuff served only to tilt at the dull targets of 20 years or more ago, once again.

With the venue running out of programmes – with almost 3 weeks of the show left to run – and no cast list, it’s impossible to name the actors who did pretty well in this (and they are blameless). This is a miniature acknowledgement of that.

Sadly, unlike every CD ever issued by the team, this had me grinning slightly just once (Sondheim as the Yoda of Broadway) – and that is the best that can be said.

1 star. Wouldn’t want to be in the room where it happens ever again, thanks.

Early Doors: Apollo Hammersmith (and touring)

October 24, 2018

Seen at the performance on 2nd October 2018.

Do you like circuses? I loved this one. So glad I was in the regiment, not just wishing I was there.

If those phrases meant anything to you, then you too must be a fan of this mid 2000’s sitcom set in Northern pub “The Grapes.” Nothing ever happens, except that it does. Landlord Ken (John Henshaw) lives with mother Jean (Judith Barker) above the pub. He lusts after barmaid Tanya (Susan Cookson) and it is this triangle that forms the basis of this brand new just-for-stage script.

Downstairs, crotchety barfly Tommy (Nick Birkinshaw – his casting explained with a terrific one-liner) is the most instantly memorable of the drinking population. Corrupt coppers Phil (James Quinn) and Nige (Peter Wright) drop into the kitchenette (super stage design by Liz Ascroft) to regale Ken with their lazy exploits and relieve him of all spirits – literally.

Also back are likely lads Joe (Craig Cash) and Duffy (Phil Mealey) whose lives have moved on now that internet dating is possible. A good sub-plot involving Debbie (Lisa Millett) makes the most of this pair… when they can get their lines out and stop “corpsing,” that is.

Sadly, Eddie and Joan are gone, but replacements June (Vicky Binns) and Freddie (Neil Hurst) are in the spirit and deliver the odd line to great effect.

For nearly two hours, the Cash and Mealey script delivers a strong plot – nicely tied up by daughter Mel (Laura Woodward – pleasant singer, too). There’s old and new jokes, one-liners galore and space for genuine emotion not just pathos.

Frankly, you’ve got to admire the intelligence of the writing and love any show opening with a fabulous musical theatre back-reference. That’s both confidence and class.

The newcomers to the cast, mostly replacing actors who have passed away… plus a few way too expensive to do this old tat (joke) blend in seamlessly with the old regulars. Both they and the audience are as one, having a good time and also finding out a little more about ourselves and humanity in the process.

Fans will love this, newcomers may well get the appeal and want to watch the original programmes.

To the regiment, glad I was there.

 

4 stars.