Miss Saigon

Listening to the Miss Saigon gala performance on Radio 2, I was reminded of the genius of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical. It’s less than a month since I day queued on a (thankfully mild) December morning, getting seats in Row A of the Stalls, and the recording brought back great memories. But, perhaps because it’s sung-through, it also translated perfectly to radio in its own right, just as the iconic songs stand on their own merit.

Like Les Misérables, Miss Saigon is an epic musical set against the background of a turbulent period in history. And like Les Mis, Miss Saigon focuses not on the grand historical perspective but examines the impact of these events on the personal lives of people involved. While never overtly political, Miss Saigon has a lot to say about American culture as well as the tragedy of war. Coming hot on the heels of the war of resistance against the French, when Vietnam was part of Indochina, the Vietnamese suffered three decades of continuous war in their country. Miss Saigon captures the disruptive impact of a war on every citizen of the country where it is fought.

The cast boasts a wealth of talent. Understudy Niall Sheehy gave a good performance as Chris, but he was dwarfed by the vocal talents and charisma of Eva Noblezada as Kim who, along with Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, was the standout star of the show. Poor, Vietnamese and a woman, Kim has arguably the least agency of any of the main characters. Along with the other bar girls she has very few options. Yet her (slightly naïve) faith in Chris and her determination to provide her son with a better life give her strength to fight against her situation and survive the war. Noblezada brings both a naivety and a steely determination to the role.

Though unlikely to become a poster boy for the ideal, the Engineer embodies the American Dream and his spirit of entrepreneurialism would surely have seen him prosper if he had found himself born in America. Briones, who played the role in the original West End cast, brings humanity to a man who has learned the only way to survive in turbulent times is to play the game. His morals are questionable but you find yourself feeling for this man who always finds the elusive American Dream just out of his reach. He both demonstrates the overwhelming power of the Dream in giving hope to the downtrodden and gives the lie to the idea of meaningful social mobility for the majority of the world’s population.

Nowadays Vietnam War has perhaps slipped from public consciousness, at least in the UK, with a younger generation who know very little about it. But you don’t have to have any knowledge of the history to appreciate the musical – as the adaptation of the plot from Madame Butterfly demonstrates, Miss Saigon deals with universal themes. The impact of war, cultural difference, personal courage and cowardice are all as relevant today as they have ever been.

When the helicopter comes to evacuate Saigon, both Americans and Vietnamese are swept up in events beyond their own control – it is purely an accident of birth that the Americans are being airlifted to safety while the Vietnamese are left to suffer.

Chris’s ignorance of Vietnamese customs and his and his wife’s inability to comprehend Kim’s desire for a new life for her son are symptomatic of the cultural gulf between the two worlds that have been thrown together. His broken promises, social strictures and his inability to understand Kim’s culture have disastrous consequences – echoing the unintended repercussions of many Western interventions.

Miss Saigon is not only a rousing musical filled with iconic songs but also a fascinating social commentary exploring universal themes.

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Urinetown the Musical

Urinetown isn’t the catchiest title for a musical – but then urination isn’t the most appealing subject for a theatre production. Nevertheless, Urinetown does indeed follow the trials and tribulations of a community in its quest to go to the bathroom.

In a Malthusian dystopia where environmental catastrophe has led to prolonged drought, the population is overwhelming the world’s resources. The severe water shortage has created a unique business opportunity for Caldwell B. Cladwell; with private toilets now unthinkable, citizens must pay him for the privilege to pee – or be dispatched to the eponymous Urinetown.

As Cladwell presides over his lavatorial empire, the scene is set by Officer Lockstock. His self-knowing asides could have been grating in lesser hands than those of Jonathan Slinger, who keeps the narration fresh and the action flowing. They do also allow the musical’s dialogue to remain relatively free from unnecessary exposition.

While throwing out some thought-provoking themes and questions – the corrupting influence of power, is history doomed to repeat itself? – Urinetown sometimes lacks emotional punch. This isn’t to fault the cast, who are fantastic. Jenna Russell relishes her role as Penelope Pennywise, giving her an air of Mrs Lovett – interspersed throughout the musical are parodies, pastiches and tributes to musical tropes and there are several Sondheim-esque moments. Richard Fleeshman has leading man charisma as Bobby Strong, leader of the revolution against Cladwell, and the whole cast perform with such gusto that you can’t help but be swept away with them. Run, Freedom, Run – a catchy gospel number – received the longest mid-performance ovation I’ve ever seen.

Urinetown’s slightly facetious tone may sometimes have failed to tug at my heartstrings but its unexpected plot twists certainly kept me guessing. Urinetown is keen to point out that it’s not a “happy” musical. But neither is it a self-indulgent tragedy. Despite its seemingly far-fetched setting and slightly cartoony style, Urinetown is actually quite a pragmatic look at politics and society.

When storytelling, the most glorious revolutions are often the unsuccessful ones. Take Les Mis – there’s a reason it’s set during the 1832 Paris Uprising rather than the more famous eighteenth-century Revolution. Marius and the Friends of the ABC capture our hearts as the underdogs fighting for a doomed cause against the establishment. The rebels of Les Mis die idealistic (if naive) martyrs. If instead of dying on the barricades the revolutionaries had succeeded, who’s to say that there wouldn’t have been a repeat of the violence, war, in-fighting and Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution of 1787. And that would have made for a very different story. Without giving too much away, Urinetown is no Les Mis, and offers a much less romantic take on revolution.

While it seems ironic that Urinetown opened to a country beset by widespread flooding, it brings home the immediate impact of environmental issues. And the fact that difficult questions – environmental or political – don’t have simple answers.

 

 

On a more practical note, it was my first time at the St. James Theatre and I found myself on the front row, not having bargained for quite how close to the action I’d be. If you like inspecting actors’ fillings and don’t mind the odd spray of saliva my seat comes highly recommended, but if you like your personal space I’d think about sitting a few rows back.

American Psycho

The much-hyped (thanks to the presence of ex-Doctor Matt Smith) new musical American Psycho at the Almeida was, to be honest, a bit of a letdown. I’m a big fan of quirky musicals and, although I didn’t know much about the book or the film I thought I’d give it a go. It turned out to be annoyingly inconsistent – with some intriguing parts, but leaving me a bit unsatisfied. Although not the fault of the musical, I also wasn’t impressed by the reveal about Patrick Bateman’s mental state at the end of the show, which somehow rendered the whole thing a bit pointless for me.

Matt Smith was ok as Patrick, a hard part to play, with a fine line between capturing the emotionless monster with a charming exterior and creating a character that people are bothered about watching. But I didn’t find him particularly engaging or scary and was left pretty unmoved by his serial murdering. In fact at times I almost forgot that he was a serial killer, a fact that for much of the musical seemed pretty inconsequential to the plot. As someone with a serious squeamishness about even the least gratuitous violence, I was at more than one point watching through half-closed eyes as Patrick prepared to kill his next victim. I needn’t have worried – the violence was so symbolic that even I wasn’t bothered by it.

Among the rest of the cast, Cassandra Compton stood out as Patrick’s secretary Jean. There’s a rare touching scene as Jean prepares to meet with Patrick, where I for the first time felt that he harboured any humanity beneath his blank exterior. I found the whole musical a bit soulless – which I guess is an occupational hazard when creating a musical based on a book that satirises the empty, vacuous lifestyles of American yuppies. In general it proved hard to care about the majority of the characters.

At points, as a scene became increasingly serious I would find it increasingly comical – I’m pretty sure this wasn’t intentional. There were some purposefully amusing moments but from the laughs these seemed to appeal largely to the posher elements of the audience.

Again I found the original score patchy – the opening number Clean is a bit grating and You Are What You Wear dragged. I was however a fan of Cards, and the show’s version of In The Air Tonight. The choreography was strong and I particularly liked the Christmas party tableaux created by various members of the cast.

Bret Easton Ellis says in the programme – ‘I think Patrick Batemans have existed throughout history’. This is probably true, and excessive consumerism has always been a characteristic of the social elite. How else to validate your social worth than with an elaborate sugar sculpture at your feast or a conspicuous excess of candles to light your ballroom?

Perhaps because the elite lifestyle is now so commonplace in everyday life – from television and magazines to the street full of designer stores that I walked down to reach the Almeida itself – I found the satirizing of the yuppie lifestyle in American Psycho a bit clunky. As chef Francis Derby points out in the programme, while in the eighties the fine dining of the characters may have seemed elite, ‘now everyone eats like that’. And it doesn’t seem at all unusual that a man would top up his tan. This consumer culture is ingrained in public consciousness, and large swathes of the population aspire to knock-off versions of elite cuisine and fashion. Elite cuisine and fashion that, despite increasing social inequality, is probably accessible to a wider section of the population than ever before.

In satirizing the yuppie lifestyle American Psycho doesn’t seem to say anything new, but merely points out some fairly obvious tenets about the negative effects of vacuous consumerism and social conformity. And yet, despite my reservations, the show did receive an enthusiastic standing ovation – so maybe I’m missing something. Or perhaps if you’re in Doctor Who you get a standing ovation whatever you do.

Matilda the Musical

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This time last week, my friend Amy and I got up horribly early to trek into central London and queue for day tickets to see Matilda the Musical. While it would probably have been more advisable to spend my only day off having a rest, Matilda was definitely worth it. I went with quite high expectations – I think Tim Minchin is a bit of a genius and I’m also a fan of Peter Darling – but they were met and surpassed (and the tickets were only £5 for under-25s)!

And a week later, the songs are still in my head. Minchin’s writing is entertaining and very catchy – in particular ‘Naughty’, whose chorus reminds me of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, with the same cheerful tones and tendency to get stuck in your head.

His irreverent and witty style fits perfectly with Roald Dahl’s story, and the lyrics manage to cover both thought-provoking and witty for the adults, and silly (but also clever) for the children. He has transferred his skill for writing brilliantly witty songs for himself and a piano on to a full-blown West End musical, and the result is fantastic. At points the songs are sentimental, but steer clear of cloying; lyrics such as Matilda’s

“Even if you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change.”

are delivered with such enthusiasm and gusto by the young actress that there is no time for them to become soppy.

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I was impressed (but as a fan of Billy Elliot not surprised!) by the consistent talent of the large young ensemble cast, as well as the obvious talents of Matilda. Matilda sings “Even if you’re little you can do a lot” and the acting, singing and dancing of the young cast certainly prove that’s true.

The show has immaculate staging, and choreography by Peter Darling – the swings in When I Grow Up are probably the best known, but what I found far more astonishing was the ‘School Song’. With the incorporation of 26 alphabet blocks into the song’s staging, to accompany the letters of the alphabet appearing in the lyrics, it’s a really clever idea, but must have been headache-inducing to bring to reality (and to repeat every night on stage).

It’s rare to find a musical, or any form of entertainment, ostensibly aimed at children but so satisfying for adults. Matilda has already been a storming success, but I’m sure it will continue to run for a long time to come.

Singin’ in the Rain

Singin In The Rain

I love MGM musicals, and I’m a bit of an Adam Cooper fan, so I was rather excited to be seeing Singin’ in the Rain this week. It’s an excellent production, with a strong ensemble and some great individual performances. Adam Cooper effortlessly carried off his role as suave, charismatic silent movie star Don Lockwood. Katherine Kingsley gave an equally impressive performance as his co-star Lina Lamont whose unfortunate New York accent puts her at threat from the imminent rise of the talkies. She has real comic talent and makes some astonishing sounds as the vocally challenged star.

Daniel Crossley gave a spirited performance as Don’s friend Cosmo Brown, while Scarlett Strallen had a real air of Debbie Reynolds about her as Don’s love interest Kathy Seldon. Cooper, Strallen and Crossley have great chemistry, as demonstrated in their brilliant rendition of ‘Good Morning’, and seem to be having as much fun as the audience.

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Cooper’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence was stunning, though it was hard to concentrate as my location at the front of the stalls meant that I was sporadically sprayed with water (those in front of me were soaked). The ensemble finale also resulted in a liberal dousing of the audience.

The musical is cleverly staged, and just the smooth-running of the show is a feat in itself – comprising as it does of stunts, perfectly-timed comic sketches, complex choreography and black and white footage. These all come together in a joyous romp of a musical; Singin’ in the Rain has all the charm of the film, and is the perfect show to raise your spirits.

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Rock of Ages

I’d never had any interest in seeing Rock of Ages the musical, but an excellent offer for top-price stalls seats (£17 each!) meant that this week my friend Amy and I headed to the Shaftesbury Theatre. I hadn’t got high expectations of the show before I arrived, but it was an entertaining enough way to spend an evening. I’m 10 years too young to feel any nostalgia for the music (the audience was full of thirty- and forty-somethings) and while I was familiar with most of the songs, they didn’t have the familiarity of the Abba and Queen songs that sustain fellow jukebox musicals Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You.

Shayne Ward has been used, along with fellow cast member Justin Lee Collins, as one of the main draws for the show. He lacks charisma and believability as a rock star, although for the majority of the audience just his presence on the stage seemed enough. In contrast, Oliver Tompsett as Drew provided consistently excellent vocal performances while Amy Thornton, understudying the female lead, was a likeable presence with a strong voice. Nathan Amzi (understudying Simon Lipkin) also seemed to relish his role as Lonny.

It was all a bit juvenile, with puerile humour and lots of basically-naked girls prancing around. The derivative plot contained snippets familiar from many other musicals, and even then I’m sure that Legally Blonde wasn’t the first to point out the stereotypical similarities between gay and European men, or that Billy Elliot was the first to feature riot police or comedy dance fighting. At least it doesn’t take itself too seriously, with references to the show’s frivolity. While it certainly doesn’t score any points for originality or depth, the audience was packed and there was a lively atmosphere in the auditorium, and this seems to be enough to sustain Rock of Ages as a popular success.

The Go-Between

Last year I fell in love with the musical adaptation of The Go-Between at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and have been meaning to read the book since. Although I still haven’t got round to it, when I saw that a radio adaptation was being broadcast this week I was interested to see how it compared to the musical.

As well as being excellent in its own right, the radio adaptation brought back memories of the musical, which had a beautiful score that perfectly captured the emotions of the story. Being on radio, I was able to apply my memories of the musical to the adaptation; my view of it may have been different if I hadn’t seen the musical or if I had read the book.

While the musical’s set conjured a beautiful sense of the period, one of the benefits of radio drama is its ability to create a framework around which the listener constructs their own ideas. The simplicity of radio drama lends itself both to pared-down storytelling and to dramas set in lavish locations, or which would require extensive special effects (such as The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I find the power of the audience’s imagination fascinating; just as theatre productions with the most minimal sets and props can be the most effective, radio is perhaps the most diverse dramatic medium and provides endless possibilities.

The Go-Between explores the theme of entrapment, whether by family duty, societal expectations or personal feelings. Marian’s mother is plagued by worries over her daughter’s impending nuptials while Marian is forced into an unwanted marriage, and her duty prevents her from pursuing her relationship with the famer Ted. Meanwhile both Ted and Marian force Leon into continuing as their ‘go-between’, playing on his devotion to Marian and disregarding his discomfiture. It is this involvement of a child, who cannot comprehend their affair, that results in the final tragedy.

While I felt that the drama was very good, it was perhaps less emotionally engaging than the musical. This may have been due to the excellent music, or the presence of a real person on stage putting a face to the voice. However, I feel that it was probably down to the fact that although the musical also told the story from the viewpoint of Leo, the other characters received further elaboration than was allowed in the radio drama and the audience therefore felt a greater investment in them. Despite this, standing on its own Radio 3’s The Go-Between remains an interesting and emotive look at love and deception at the turn of the twentieth century.