Tag Archives: new musical

Musical Review: Apartment 40c (London Theatre Workshop, London)

Cosy. The cast of 'Apartment 40c'. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cosy. The cast of ‘Apartment 40c’. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Despite narrative faults, Apartment 40c is a surprising and engaging new musical, marking Tom Lees and Ray Rackham as a musicals writing duo to watch out for.

Overview

One apartment, three couples, six lives. Apartment 40c in New York has seen many occupants of the years. Some of them have loved, some of them have lost, and some of them have found each other. By blurring time and place, it would appear that despite the age and era of its occupants, they have more in common with each other than you’d think.

Nova Skipp (left) and Peter Gerald (right) as Kathryn and Edward. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Nova Skipp (left) and Peter Gerald (right) as Kathryn and Edward. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Book

Librettist Ray Rackam’s almost sci-fi multiverse approach to three different couples is an interesting experience as the stories cross and interact indirectly in very interesting ways, creating a curious enigma about how, and even “if”, these sets of people are linked together. By doing this, Rackham frames the way for some astute exploration of the human condition in surprising ways. Even if you don’t quite connect with the characters on a personal level, or aren’t entirely convinced by their situations, there’s a very clear and intelligent empathy that chimes whenever they open up. It’s never over the top when this happens either. Everything is very honest and as is, meaning you as an audience member take away what you want from each emotional encounter, rather than being told what to feel. This casual and arms length approach continues even when looking at some of the more severe circumstances the characters are placed in, such as loosing a loved one. The result is a musical that is very personal to each audience member.

However, not everything in the actual narrative is as slick as it could be. Some of the couples and their situations aren’t really convincing. For example Eddie and Katie’s double-booked apartment is a bit far-fetched, but not as bewildering as the situation they end up in at the end of a single evening. Elsewhere, plot points and revelations feel contrived, adding to disbelief rather than the suspension of belief.

But it’s Rackham’s ability to make an audience feel and think that’s the main event, despite the sometimes ropey narratives. Plot faults are therefore small niggles rather than major issues. So what if the story is a little unconvincing? The point is how we emote rather than whether we believe.

Alex James Ellison (left) and Alex Crossley (right) as Eddie and Katie. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Alex James Ellison (left) and Alex Crossley (right) as Eddie and Katie. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Music & Lyrics

At first, Tom Lees music seems a bit too recognisable: something along the lines of the American rock music style than has been replicated (often poorly) ad naseum since Rent. However, though familiar, Lee’s music is far from derivative. In it are little shocks and indiscretions with regards to tone and rhythm, deviating away from the formula enough to prick your attention. Lees has found a way to really make the style his own, and by doing so keeps your attention. There are a couple of really haunting ballads that are incredibly beguiling. “Fairy Tales” was my personal highlight from the score: a mixture of childhood innocence and adult pathos with a sweeping melody, performer perfectly by Alex Crossley.

Rackham meets Lees’ musical idiosyncrasies by including unexpected internal rhymes and phrases. They don’t always work well with some feeling more clumsy than others, but they’re certainly interesting. Elsewhere, Rackham employs a more lyrical approach to exploring the themes and feelings that he’s already prying into, using alternative and more abstract imagery to achieve deeper understanding. This is where Rackham as a librettist really shines through, with an unmatched wit and imagination.

Lees arrangements for piano, violin, and cello also work really well. Despite the humility of the ensemble, Lees prises a rich and tender sound from the trio that undulates and colours each musical number. It’s a shame that we only hear Lees’ music and arrangements during the songs, and perhaps a bit of underscoring wouldn’t have gone amiss given just how enchanting it is.

Music and lyrics is certainly the strongest aspect of Lees and Rackham’s partnership. In fact, even if you go wanting to hate this, it’s simply not possible. Yes, you can pick at the smaller foibles, but the score has an absolute and inescapable charm. Maybe, with a different narrative and/or a dedicated book writer, Lees and Rackham can be the new British musicals writers that we’ve been waiting for.

Direction & Production

Jonti Angel and Evie Holdcroft’s set is incredibly striking, turning the upstairs theatre space of the Eel Brook Pub into a real doppelgänger for a New York apartment. It’s brimming with detail and minutia that really lifts the show.

Lees and Rackham,also directing, make good use of the generous space, often having all characters on set at all times, and sometimes choreograph their movements the intricately intersect each other, sometimes recognising but often ignoring their time-bound counterparts. It certainly adds even more enigma and questions to just how closely are these people interlinked. It’s a slickly executed show despite its fringe credentials.

Lizzie Wofford (left) and Drew Weston (right) sharing a tender moment as Kate and Ed. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Lizzie Wofford (left) and Drew Weston (right) sharing a tender moment as Kate and Ed. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

Lees and Rackham have a solid cast on board, although some of the younger actors come across as a little inexperienced alongside more established talents. But overall, it’s very difficult to really pick out anyone particularly outstanding.

If any warrant a particular mention, it’s Lizzie Wofford as long-suffering and good wife, Kate. She has a lot of fun with her character in the little humours she puts up around her as things don’t quite go her way. Her on-stage chemistry with partner Drew Weston as Ed, is really natural and wonderfully sweet too, helped by the fact that he seems to really enjoy playing his role too. However, when push comes to shove, there is a real strength that she finds in her character’s vulnerability, powering on despite the difficult situation she ends up in without completely breaking down. She’s a powerful actress to watch perform in perhaps the strongest of the musical’s roles.

Verdict

It’s not only impossible not find something to like, but something to love. Original and beguiling, this is a thoroughly enjoyable musical penned by a duo with astonishing promise.

Apartment 40c plays at the London Theatre Workshop, London, SW6 4SG, until 20 December 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit http://londontheatreworkshop.co.uk.

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Musical Review: Dogfight (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A forceful and energetic production of a surprising and captivating musical.

Overview

Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Peter Duchan (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) won acclaim Off-Broadway. Now, Danielle Tarento and her multi-award winning team brings the production to Europe for the first time.

US Marine Eddie is on his last night out with his comrades in San Francisco before being shipped off to Vietnam. They put together a “Dogfight” – where each marine competes to bring a date to a party, and the marine with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie thinks he’s on to a winner with Rose, but quickly sees past her frumpy veneer and connects with her sweet and docile personality. Remorsefulness of his actions, can he undo the hurt he’s caused her before he faces the horrors of ’63?

Book

Duchan’s adaptation of the film manages to combine all of it’s main elements, but also expands it to add more narrative substance and intelligence on what is otherwise a bit of a whistle-stop and slightly unbelievable story. Particularly, his lambaste of military hubris has created one of the most instantly unlikable protagonists on the stage. Brash, oversexed, and grossly arrogant, Eddie and his band of “B”s are as odious as they come. Though setting-up a rather easy juxtaposition between Eddie and Rose, Duchan exploits the vast room to explore a less direct, more humorous, heartfelt, and satisfying redemption for Eddie. There’s no fairytale transformation, but a rough and bumpy gradual change that is entertainingly convincing.

Furthermore, Duchan also manages to brutally bring the futility and tragedy of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War to the stage, as well as the ire it garnered from the American public. It explores a real sense of loss and regret that crescendos to a most devastating finale, making it brutally moving as well as adorably sweet.

The only criticism is that, having penned such a high-octane and riotous first act, Act II does slump as the narrative becomes less hectic and more tender. But thankfully, you never lose engagement with the show and are with it all the way to the end, even though you want it to move just a little quicker and as giddy as Act I during the second half.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Music and Lyrics

It’s easy to compare the score to Spring Awakening, especially as there have been many poor imitations since. Composers and lyricists Pasek and Paul certainly following suit with writing a score in this very American modern rock musical in style; in many ways is very comparable to Duncan Sheik’s masterpiece. However, just when you think you’ve heard it all before, Pasek and Paul put in twists in melody, style, timbre, and pace that prick up you ears and reel you right in. There are so many surprises in the music that despite it being very definite of genre,  it’s one of the freshest and original scores to come from America in a long time.

Their orchestrations and choral harmonies are part of the excitement they build into their work. Whilst these intriguing intricacies are rich and rousing, they are always used sparingly and only when it is best suited. The result is an incredibly dynamic score that goes from riotous to tender and lyrical from moment to moment, tossing the audience from wonderment to arousal with masterful strokes.

Lyrically, Pasek and Paul have an incredible grasp on language. The rhymes are seldom obvious, and words are toyed and played about with intelligent and immense wit. Most importantly, they manage to embrace a very real essence of Duchan’s characters. Flits of very homely and unembellished personality comes through every now and then, cutting through the clever language and smarts, giving us flashes of real and believable charisma. An example is Rose quipping, mid-ballad, about the bad choice in dress colour during “Pretty Funny”, which is otherwise one of the most lilting and heartbreaking songs in the whole score. Elsewhere, nothing ever feels silly, clumsy, or forced in the score. Pasek and Paul have the ability to write songs fluidly as if everyday chatter, and it’s astonishing.

Production and Direction

Tarento has done it again, despite not working with her regular partner in crime, Thom Southerland, who is in New York looking after the transfer of Titanic: The MusicalBut director, Matt Ryan, works just as well with Tarento and the rest of the team to create what is another superb production for the Southwark Playhouse. Lee Newby’s set evoking the Golden Gate Bridge sets the scene with whimsy and charm, whilst also giving the orchestra somewhere to sit and a higher level for Ryan to work with at points. But it’s main purpose is to create a sizeable thrust area as somewhere for the bulk of the action takes place. Though there’s little else by way of scenery, Newby’s set allows  Ryan to direct the show in a manner that simply allows the musical itself to do the talking, rather than the production.

Other noticeable aspects of the production is Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography. It’s as high-voltage, slick, and lively as they come. Given the relatively limited space has by no means contained Pankhurst either. Though during the large chorus numbers when there’s limited space for the 11-strong cast as there is, the performance area is filled to the brim but with an exhilarating amount of intricate moves fittingly together like some extraordinary human-Difference Engine. Newby’s attention to detail with the props and costume, too, is something of note. Laura Jane Matthewson, playing Rose, is by far an “ugly” creature, but Newby still managesd to find what is quite possibly the most hideous dress to have ever graced the stage to exaggerate Rose’s frumpiness, making Matthewson look less like Alice in Wonderland and more like Alice in Primark!

Whilst Ryan fills the space action and energy around the various props that are brought in, there are times where he doesn’t quite handle the thrust space entirely well. If you’re sat on the sides you’ll see mostly a character’s back for significant periods of times. There are some very basic directional attempts to try and overcome this, such as sing to this side first then turn and sing to this side, but it’s still a bit of irk to be left to admire an actors back pocket for too long. Whilst it really is difficult to avoid completely, these moments could probably be contained and limited a bit better.

The only other criticism is the sound levels. There are more than a few moments where it’s difficult to hear Pasek and Paul’s great lyrics because it’s drowned out by the level of the band. It’s difficult to know whether this is because of an inability to adjust the sound properly or because of the problems that come with the intimate size of the venue. Whilst the band and the performers are all mic-ed up, part of the problem is that the audience are still getting the sound of the natural acoustic sound that the band makes. This is something which isn’t necessary going to be picked up by the sound engineers who will be listening mostly to just what’s being picked up by the mics. But hopefully this will be corrected in the next few performances because, unless you’re already familiar with the score, you miss out on some of the brilliance of the songs.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Cast

Tarento has managed to find a superlative cast for the production. Making her debut, Matthewson is sensational. Not only has she got a voice that is both soft and powerful at the same time, she portrays Rose in such a sweet and naive manner that it’s impossible not to love her. See draws instant empathy from the audience making you cheer her on every step of the way, as well as struggle to get through “Pretty Funny” with anything less than a tear in your eye.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie is also absolutely fantastic. His ability to make every song his own is nothing short of marvellous, never being afraid to break from singing and actually act moments of a number. His big solo, “Come Back”, is not only an apex of the show but the height of his performance. He sings it with a crushing and deafening force that is worthy of every possible accolade that can be thrown at him.

Special mention must go to Rebecca Trehearn as Marcy, too. Her duet with Matthewson in “Dogfight” was sang with an incredible rawness and spite that made the number absolutely exhilarating.

The rest of the supporting cast are also brilliant, throwing every inch of energy they can muster into the show to create a piece of theatre that has the Southwark Playhouse vibrating with force. No-one sings flat or sharp, no-one feels like they’re dragging their feet, and everyone feels as integral and vital to the production as the show’s leads.

Verdict

Tarento has once again demonstrated that she’s a formidable producer to be reckoned with, with an exceptional cast and production behind her. Plus, this is a new American musical that could only have been fresher and more original if it came foil-packed. This production absolutely blows the mundane fare of Theatreland clear out of the water, and should have the West End shaking in it’s boots. A barnstorming and phenomenal show.

Dogfight plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, utnil 13 September 2014. Tickets are £22 (concessions available). TO book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.


Musical Review: Grim: A New Musical (Charing Cross Theatre, London)

Keeping Grim (Roseanna Christoforou, far right) company. Photograph: Scott Rylander.

Keeping Grim (Roseanna Christoforou, far right) company. Photograph: Scott Rylander.

Rating: **

Verdict

Certainly dark and daring, but significantly falls over its own ambition in its execution.

Overview

Grim is lonely. As she traverses the world taking the souls of those who die, she is mystified by human emotions. Therefore, in order to learn more about what makes mortals tick, she decides to become a student at an English school. However, there she meets Cupid. As he and Grim fall for each other, it creates a whole netherworld of problems, not the mention flaming the ire and superstition of the school’s pupils.

Book

Best-selling novelist and newspaper columnist, Fiona O’Malley, turns her efforts once more to musical theatre after the success of her previous show, The Daily Fail: The Musical. Unfortunately, sinking her teeth into a Gothic fairytale does not yield the same level of results. The plot rattles along, quick, improbable and too shallow even for a bedtime story. Nothing is ever fully explained or expanded, such as Cupid’s presence at the school and the logic behind his actions to be with Grim. The audience are just fed everything on face value and are expected to take it. Other narrative devices lead nowhere or fizzle out unsatisfactory. We just steam through full-speed, skimming the surface of what feels like could have been a properly paced and thought out musical. There’s potentially enough material here to last an entire full-length show. Instead, we get a quick fumble of around 90 minutes (including interval).

Furthermore, at one point I was left wondering who the show’s intended audience are as parts of it felt so much like a family-friendly show/school production. Dialogue is stilted and basic to the point of pantomime. If it weren’t for the overtures to euthanasia and characters donned in black hoods, whilst others dropped like flies, I felt I should have been accompanied by a child and dishing out pick ‘n’ mix to those sat next to me.

However, you can’t fault O’Malley for being bold in her remit. Whilst what she’s written completely hasn’t worked in practise, throughout you can peer a little into what she was setting out to achieve: a romantic and slick new musical for generation Twilight. It’s just a shame her earnest ambition has nowhere near paid off in that she’s unable to come up with the panache and substance for this to have been a successful venture.

Music and Lyrics

The lyrics are dreadful. It’s pretty much a sing-what-you-see-but-make-sure-it-rhymes approach. It’s completely devoid of any poetry or inventive language, let alone any wit and intelligence, making the songs a real trial to sit through. If you’re not bored, you’re wincing at clumsy couplets. O’Malley absolutely needs to employ a proper lyricist.

Musically, composer Joseph Alexander produces an incredibly rich and full orchestral score, which complex choral writing to match, produced using some very high quality samples. He riffs very comfortably somewhere between Danny Elfman and Camille Saints-Saens, effortlessly giving the show the dark fairytale vibe that it aims for. Unfortunately the majority of the music is just too unwieldy. It’s technically very well put together, with things like the by-the-book quartet of previous numbers that come together to cumulate in the Act I finale. But there are seldom any tunes or motifs that have a hook. It meanders around a vague musical theme and offers little with any meat on to enjoy. The whole thing feels more like one long recitative, as if Tim Burton had hurriedly scribbled out an opera. It’s a shame, because one song, “I Wished For Someone Like You”, is the only song in the entire production that feels like a song from a musical: lilting, sweet, and catchy.

Georgi Mottram (left) as Amelia, and Roseanna Christoforou (right) as Grim. Photograph: Scott Rylander.

Georgi Mottram (left) as Amelia, and Roseanna Christoforou (right) as Grim. Photograph: Scott Rylander.

Direction and Production

Anna Driftmier’s set might look sparse, but it leaves plenty of room for the large cast to go about their business. It’s design is simple yet effective: nothing but a painted gauze tab centre stage. Her imposing Gothic wrought-iron gates of the school is all the show really needs, with nothing else but props and Jack Weir’s lighting design plotting out the scene and atmosphere. So much more could have been done on the generous stage of the Charing Cross Theatre, but it’s great to have a production team who know that it’s best to just do what is needed rather than what’s possible.

On the other hand, within the space afforded by Driftmier, director Adam Wollerton and choreographers Adam Jay-Price and Sam Lathwood manage to make the stage feel cramped and crowded. Wollerton constantly seems to want to use as much space as possible, making the full 20+ cast vie for space. Everything else is squished downstage. There’s no use of depth here or appreciation of the space: it’s very basic direction without flair or ingenuity.

This isn’t helped by the choreography. All the actions and moves are too big and over the top. As well as making the show look like a school disco dancing troupe, the gestures employed are so grandiose that it sometimes forces some of the non-dancing actors to hug the edges of the set for fear of getting smacked in the face by a pair of errant jazz hands or over enthusiastic high kick. It, like a lot else in this production, lacks any thought or refinement; it’s brazen and hyperactive with little art or consideration.

Cast

The only cast member that’s worth mentioning is Roseanna Christoforou in the show’s titular role. Even thought she’s not given much to go on from the text, she’s makes the very best of what’s she’s been handed. She effortlessly portrays Grim’s steely inertia and endearing ignorance of human world foibles without managing to make Grim come across two dimensional. Ironically, she feels the most human out of all the cast. What’s more, Christoforou has a fantastic voice which she still manages to make shine through the lack-lustre score, pricking up you ears to her presence whenever she sings.

Verdict

As unsatisfying as this show is, there are still flits here and there of the DNA of something that could be so much better. It’s certainly bold, original, and ambitious: O’Malley has an idea born from an imagination that could have struck gold, and Alexander demonstrates that he’s a talented orchestrator and composer who can write at least one good tune. But in execution, it dies on stage along with several of the characters. Unless you really want to see this, Grim: A New Musical lives up to its moniker.

Grim: A New Musical plays at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL, until 30 August 2014. Tickets are £10 – £19.50. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.