Review - Chicago (Phoenix Theatre)

In mid-1920s Chicago, chorine turned housewife Roxie Hart is arrested for shooting her lover, and joins the merry murderesses locked up in the Cook County Jail, under the watchful eye of corrupt prison matron Mama Morton. In the town of Chicago murder is a form of entertainment, and Roxie soaks up her new found publicity, much to the annoyance of fellow killer Velma Kelly. However, with the threat of capital punishment looming, there's more at stake for the Illinois jailbirds than just front page stories.

Sarah Soetaert (Roxie Hart) and the male ensemble of Chicago
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
In 2018, there is an indisputably growing demand for boundary breaking musical theatre, addressing topical issues, with modern musical stylings and eye popping visuals. And 20 or so years ago Chicago ticked all of those boxes with bells on. When it debuted in New York in 1975 it shocked audiences with its darkly comedic plot and unapologetically sensual dance sequences courtesy of choreographic legend Bob Fosse. However, what was once arguably a pinnacle of fresh and fierce musical theatre feels rather more toothless nowadays. 

That being said, Chicago certainly still makes for entertaining viewing. Fosse's iconic choreography, although not very affronting by today's standards, is as quirky and distinctive as ever, and Kander and Ebb's instantly recognisable tunes are a toe tapping audible treat. Chicago is a perfectly safe bet, which evidently has enough mainstream appeal to warrant a West End revival just 3 years after a UK tour. 

The musical's reputation for stunt casting is also being upheld, with Academy Award winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. taking on the role of silver tongued lawyer Billy Flynn. Unfortunately, despite his undeniable on-screen successes, he looks rather out of depth on stage. In a performance which swings between listless and manic, Gooding Jr. lacks the gravitas needed to mesmerise the rabid Chicago press and beguile the jury, and vocally he seems rather unsure of himself too. He fares better in his brief dance sequences, but Billy Flynn's musical numbers are some of Chicago's standout moments, and it's a shame that they don't pop as much as they should, despite the best efforts of the sizzling on stage band, under the watchful eye of Musical Director Ian Townsend. 

Cuba Gooding Jr and the ensemble of Chicago
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Sarah Soetaert fares much better as Roxie Hart, in a cutesy performance interspersed with excellent thuggish embellishments. Josefina Gabrielle is also excellent as the more hardened criminal Velma Kelly, whilst in the small but notable role of Mary Sunshine A.D Richardson is abundantly entertaining. Additionally, amongst the immensely watchable ensemble, Abramo Ciullo makes a hilariously notable mark as the Jury, multi roling his way through 6 brilliant characters over the course of one song. 

Chicago will always have a place in musical theatre lovers' hearts, and no one could deny the immense impact the original production has had on the musicals which succeeded it, but with a wealth of exciting new musical theatre to be found in Fringe and Regional theatres today, as well as a premium crop of new musicals currently making waves on Broadway, this revival feels slightly stale and unnecessary. It's an entertaining night out for sure, but sadly lacks much of the thrilling fizzle it once possessed. 

I was invited to review Chicago thanks to www.londonboxoffice.co.uk.

Interview - Sophie-Louise Dann (A Spoonful of Sherman)

‘Music is such a great language. It doesn't age. It spans the test of time.’
 
Actor Sophie-Louise Dann, who is currently touring the UK with the joyous A Spoonful of Sherman, a glimmering music revue which celebrates not only the works of the eminent Sherman Brothers, whose musical contributions to Disney movies in the 60s and 70s is iconic to this day, but the entire family’s musical legacy, which spans multiple generations!
 

Sophie-Louise Dann
Photo credit - Matt Martin

‘We delve into their father's past’ Sophie-Louise tells me, ‘Al Sherman was such a gifted songwriter and wrote for the greats, like Maurice Chevalier, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra. In fact, my dear father, who's in his 80s, when he saw the list of songs, said, “Oh, yes. I used to sing those at the Youth Club”. Many people today may be unfamiliar with the once famed songs of Tin Pan Alley era songwriter Al Sherman, but modern musical theatre aficionados may very well recognised one or two of the musicals written by Robbie J. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman’s son, whose musicals Lovebirds and Bumblescratch have enjoyed success in the UK and who was also instrumental in A Spoonful of Sherman’s inception. It certainly sounds like there’s something for everyone in this musical revue. As Sophie-Louise describes it, ‘It really is a cavalcade of music, and I guarantee anyone who comes, the songs they know and love, they will know and love. The songs they don't know will soon become firm favourites.’

For many though, the big draw of this show will unquestionably be the music of the Sherman Brothers. With the title itself alluding to childhood classic Mary Poppins, many will be buying tickets in order to reclaim their childhood for a couple of hours. I am curious about how much of a part the music of the Sherman Brothers played in the childhood of Sophie-Louise Dann. ‘I think our strapline really is 'the songbook of your childhood”’ she declares. ‘You can list the films that we grew up watching: Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats… the list is endless.’ And does she have a particular favourite? ‘I'm very partial to anything from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ she tells me. Who isn’t? Certainly, it seems, the audiences are! ‘We allow the audience to enjoy what they're seeing, and we encourage them to sing along at certain points.’ She explains. ‘Why wouldn't you? You all want to sing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and then if we inspire, or we touch any new audience member, we've done our job.’
 
Sophie-Louise is also keen to talk about the less recognisable songs in the show, such as Tell Him Anything from the Sherman Brothers’ reworking of Cinderella, entitled The Slipper and The Rose. ‘It's a lesser known film, and there are some beautiful songs in it. The stars of the film were Richard Chamberlain and Gemma Craven, and it is so beautiful. It really needs to be back on people conscience, and hopefully this might give it a little airing.’

With so many brilliant songs, both old and new, featuring in the show, I am curious as to whether there are any classics which, in Sophie-Louise Dann’s opinion, slipped through the net? ‘Yeah, of course I might think "Oh, why isn't Bobbing Along from Bedknobs and Broomsticks in there?" but there are only so many we can sing, and I think over the evening we cover at least 60 songs.’ I'm shocked. 60 songs? How on earth do they fit them all in? ‘There's the great device of the medley’ she explains with a chuckle, ‘so you've got a little pick 'n' mix of some of your favourites’.


The cast of A Spoonful of Sherman
Photo credit - Matt Martin
It seems that Sophie-Louise Dann’s passion for the music of the Sherman family is absolutely genuine, and I’m curious to know if this passion played a part in her joining the cast in the first place. ‘I've been in town with three new musicals, Made in Dagenham, Bend it Like Beckham, and latterly, The Girls, and I actually missed having a connection with an audience, and being a little bit more up close and personal. When I knew that this was being expanded from a cabaret into an actual theatrical show, I thought "That's what I've been waiting for”’.

It’s unsurprising that a show like A Spoonful of Sherman would attract such a verifiably versatile performer. The show's company of 5 certainly gets to show off their vocal talents, with perfectly harmonised group numbers, and a range of solos and duets for them to get stuck into, all whilst telling the Sherman family story. ‘We're small but perfectly formed’ Sophie-Louise explains, before lovingly namechecking her co-stars. ‘We have lovely Glenn Facey, Jenna Innes, who is a real talent to watch, and Ben Stock on the piano and singing, and it seems that lately I have to work with ex-boy band members (she’s referring, presumably to her time working with Gary Barlow on the 2017's The Girls) because Mark Read, formerly of A1 in the 90s, is a real talent, and it's so lovely to see him enjoying himself at piano and delivering these lovely songs.’

It must be lovely, I suggest, to be able to perform in such an enjoyable show, and know that the audience is having just as great a time. ‘What is lovely,’ Sophie-Louise Dann asserts, ‘is when you see families out there… dads mouthing the words, and grannies humming along, and the little ones just loving it. It's a rollercoaster, this show. Once you're on, you're on.’

Review - An Evening With Jason Robert Brown (London Palladium)

For one night only, the three-time Tony award winning composer, conductor and pianist Jason Robert Brown presented a spectacular concert, filled with songs from some of his biggest musical hits, as well as one or two lesser known surprises. Joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra, and acclaimed stage stars Rachel Tucker, Betsy Wolfe and Norm Lewis, An Evening With Jason Robert Brown was a truly extraordinary evening.

Jason Robert Brown
Photo credit - Danny Kaan
Brown opened the show with a song from a musical he has yet to write, about a teen living in New York in the 70s, who dreams of being a musician. The song, a jaunty number named Melinda, had the audience's toes tapping, and gave Brown a chance to showcase not only his own characteristic vocals and supreme musicianship, but the virtuosity of the entire BBC Concert Orchestra, which bolstered the bubbly opening number wonderfully. 

Over the course of two and a half hours (and then some), the audience was treated to a whistle stop tour of Jason Robert Brown's career, which stretches back more than 30 years. Of course he may be best known for the seminal two hander musical The Last 5 Years, but lesser known numbers, and those from musicals which have yet to be performed in the UK, were a welcome treat, and gave the event a rather exclusive and intimate feel, despite taking place on the imposing London Palladium stage.

Rachel Tucker
Photo credit - Danny Kaan
West End favourite Rachel Tucker, who Jason Robert Brown described as "The Real Thing" having first seen her in The Last Ship on Broadway, treated the audience to a bittersweet rendition of Stars and the Moon, from the well loved song cycle Songs For A New World, and brought the house down with a disco infused number called Invisible. Brown recalled a few fascinating anecdotes about his career as the night progressed, including the story of how Invisible was written during a project at the Ronald Macdonald House, a place which provides temporary housing and support for paediatric cancer patients and their families. The story was a touching one, and the song's empowering message resonated even more deeply as a result.

A particular standout moment of the concert came when Norm Lewis and Betsy Wolfe dueted on One Second and A Million Miles, a heart achingly beautiful number from The Bridges of Madison County. Wolfe's refined soprano blended gorgeously with Lewis' mellow and emotive tones, creating a swelling sound which perfectly suited the gorgeous romantic song, tinged with sadness. Accompanied by a full orchestra, One Second and A Million Miles could easily have been the standout performance of the night, if it wasn't for Betsy Wolfe's second act showstopper; I Can Do Better Than That from The Last 5 Years.

Betsy Wolfe
Photo credit - Danny Kaan
Wolfe played the role of Cathy Hyatt in a 2013 Off-Broadway production of The Last 5 Years, which was subsequently immortalised in cast album form. Wolfe's belt was incredibly powerful, and her knack for storytelling through song shone through as she laid Cathy's woes bare. Jason Robert Brown got it right when he introduced Wolfe as "radiant". She truly glimmered on stage.

As a the host of the evening, as well as conductor, pianist and vocalist (although not necessarily all at the same time), Jason Robert Brown easily proved himself worthy of gracing the famous London Palladium stage. With an infectious nervous energy, he drew in the audience with a myriad of fascinating stories and a generous outpouring of excellent musical performances. His solo I Love Betsy, the opening number from the rather zany Honeymoon in Vegas, was surprisingly sumptuous, and cast a bright spotlight on the masterly Brown as a performer as well as a writer.

Norm Lewis
Photo credit - Danny Kaan
Of course, with so many excellent musicals to Jason Robert Brown's name, there were always going to be a few popular songs which were not included. It would've been nice to hear more from The Last 5 Years, and the opening number from Songs For A New World would've undoubtedly sounded amazing with such a strong quartet of vocalists and such powerful accompaniment, but the set list was packed with a great mix of numbers, and so a couple of popular omissions were understandable. 

It's a shame that several of Jason Robert Brown's musicals have yet to make it over to the UK, but An Evening With Jason Robert Brown provided a glimpse into his splendid songs and scores, and presented a great selection of numbers which had the majority of the audience jumping to their feet in rapture. Those who were not in attendance will be happy to hear that the concert will feature on BBC Radio 2's Friday Night is Music Night, but any similar events in the future should not be missed. 

Review - Teddy (The Vaults)

The history of the Ted culture is a fascinating one. Originating in London in the 1950s, a rejection of post-war austerity and a rebellious response to American rock and roll music saw in a subculture characterised by its iconic fashions and vicious gang activities. Partially inspired by true events, Tristan Bernays and Dougal Irvine’s rollicking musical Teddy follows a pair of Teds on a mission to track down their musical heroes, Johnny Valentine and the Broken Hearts, at a secret gig in London. A fateful mission which will change both of their lives in ways they could never imagine.
 
Harrison White, Freya Parks, Dylan Wood, Andrew Gallo as Johnny Valentine and the Broken Hearts in Teddy
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Right from the start Teddy’s focus is on the music. The audience is treated to a couple of preshow tunes courtesy of Johnny Valentine and The Broken Hearts. The original songs are all rock and roll inspired and accurately mimic the music of the era, with the musicians (Harrison White, Andrew Gallo and Jenny O'Malley) giving off distinct Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran vibes. On the other hand, dressed in leather jacket, as the hip shaking, lip twitching frontman Johnny Valentine, Dylan Wood evokes another legendary rock and roll icon.

Enthusiastic dancing compliments the lively music, and achieves a sense of reckless chaos with only two actors on stage. An impressive feat, which showcases the skill and dynamism of Teddy’s central couple, as well as the gripping choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves.
 
George Parker and Molly Chesworth in Teddy
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
An unusual feature of Teddy is its dialogue, which takes the form an extended rhyming duologue, performed by George Parker and Molly Chesworth, who portray a number of characters throughout the show. The rhyming dialogue is certainly a distinguishing feature, and while it alternates between wistful and droning, the former normally dominates, and gives the entire piece a nostalgic tone, as if the whole audience is recalling the evening at the centre of the action from their own memories. At times during the slightly overlong first act, the rhyming dialogue becomes slightly tiresome, but the spry second act banishes that, with an adrenaline-charged plot and constantly escalating stakes.

The production exudes a sepia toned 50s aesthetic, from the rusted illuminated ‘T’ which greets audiences in the bar, to the warm glow of the string lights which adorn the auditorium, and dually allude to the makeshift aplomb of Ted culture, as well as the austerity of its post-war roots. A clever detail from lighting designer Christopher Nairne. Additionally, Holly Rose Henshaw’s well researched costume design captures the shapes and fabrics of the Edwardian inspired Ted regalia.

Although it would benefit from a slightly shorter first act to match the sprightly pace of the second, Teddy is an urgent and engrossing glimpse into one of the most iconic subcultures of the 20th century, and will have audiences bopping all night.

Review - Trainspotting Live (The Vaults)

In 1993, Irvin Welsh’s novel Trainspotting shook audiences to the core with its graphic and brazen depiction of the lives of several people with heroin addictions living in Leith, Edinburgh. In the wake of Trainspotting’s success came the beloved 1996 film adaption, as well as a stage adaptation by Harry Gibson. In 2013 the play was given an immersive twist by In Your Face Theatre, and has since been performed around the world, including a couple of stints at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and The Vaults at Waterloo, where it has now returned.

Finlay Bain and Frankie O'Connor in Trainspotting Live
Photo credit - Geraint Lewis
The Vaults’ slightly gritty, rough and ready atmosphere makes it the perfect home for Trainspotting Live. Before the play even begins audiences are forced into the world of Trainspotting Live, and bombarded with lights and sound in a preshow rave which overloads the senses. Staged in traverse, the play plunges audiences into the grim drug fuelled underbelly of Leith, inhabited by Mark Renton and the band of coarse delinquents he associates with. Renton speaks directly to the audience, boasting about his drug usage and dragging them along with him on countless repulsive escapades.

Funnily enough though, in spite of all of the immoral, illegal or even just plain disgusting things Renton and co. get up to, it’s impossible not to be taken by his unabashed openness. The genius of Irvine Welsh’s original writing, which carries over into Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation, is in the fact that Trainspotting presents all of its characters as victims of their circumstances, but never excuses their actions. They are, after all, people let down by the society which they live in. Renton and his pal Tommy even share an entire scene about the fact that they are judged negatively because of the school they went to. Admittedly, this scene also takes place whilst they try and cheat the system to keep claiming a job seeker's allowance with no intention of actually doing much job seeking, but nevertheless it helps to paint a picture of the characters’ upbringings.

Frankie O’Connor is a maniacal force of nature as Renton. With a twinkle in his eye, he leads the audience matter-of-factly through all manner of often rather hilarious, yet harrowing follies. It’s incredible how quickly the normality of taking hard drugs washes over the audience.

It’s easy to laugh at Renton’s unfortunately timed expulsion of bodily fluids, and the jabbering of Finlay Bain’s Tommy, who attends a job interview while on speed. But Gibson’s writing, and the performances given by O’Connor, Bain and the rest of the cast, ensure that the more sinister side of their lifestyle is rarely intangible.

Trainspotting Live’s 75 minute run time races by at 500 miles per hour, and its intensity never dissipates. Midway through, the tone switches from humorous to horrific and with a sudden urgency, a series of distressing scenes puncture the atmosphere, sucking all remaining air out of the already claustrophobic auditorium. As the lives of Renton and his friends fall apart before the audiences eyes, the remarkable stamina of the cast is impossible to ignore. One of the most disturbing later segments of the play sees Tommy try heroin for the first time; a decision which sets him on a nightmarish downward spiral.  It’s a brutally honest plot point which seems to take place a millions miles away from the play’s grim rave begins, which retrospectively seem somehow safe and performative.

Not for the feint hearted, Trainspotting Live is a no holds barred theatrical experience which will leave audiences shell-shocked. Perfectly maintaining the essence of the source material, this grimy and visceral immersive play needs to be seen.

Review - A Spoonful of Sherman (UK Tour)

For the last century the Sherman family has been producing toe tapping tunes for the radio, film, and stage, and now Robert J Sherman (the son of one half of the iconic Sherman Brothers) brings his fascinating and awe inspiring family history into the spotlight, in A Spoonful of Sherman

The cast of A Spoonful of Sherman
Photo credit - Matt Martin
Featuring a quintet of enthusiastic and talented singers, A Spoonful of Sherman is a delightful musical stage show which intersperses the history of the Sherman Family with dozens of their most recognisable tunes, as well as plenty of underappreciated gems. 

Highlights include Al Sherman's Over Someone Else's Shoulder and What A Comforting Thing To Know from lesser known Sherman Brothers musical The Slipper and the Rose. Naturally though, the show takes off during the inevitable medleys from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, two musicals which audiences of all ages are bound to be familiar with. Sophie-Louise Dann's gorgeous rendition of Feed The Birds is heartbreaking and thrilling in equal measures, meanwhile Mark Reid and Jenna Innes' Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious is a nostalgic offering so sweet Lord Scrumptious himself would probably like to get his hands on it. Additionally, Glen Facey's energetic performance as King Louie, singing and dancing to I Wanna Be Like You from The Jungle Book, brings the house down, and lead pianist Ben Stock is hilarious when embodying a cracker crazed macaw in his solo Crunchy Crackers, a tune from Robert J Sherman's own musical creation Love Birds. 

It's impossible not to be enchanted by A Spoonful of Sherman. Younger audience members may find the first section of act one a little dense, but by the time the songs made famous in Disney films start cropping up the whole audience will be bouncing with joy. Telling one fascinating family's history, the show is packed with unbelievable anecdotes and songs for all ages to enjoy. Don't miss this adorable musical experience. 

Review - Assassins (Pleasance Theatre)

There couldn't be a more perfect time to stage Assassins. With a book by John Weidman, which explores the reasons and motivations behind some of the most iconic presidential assassinations in American history, and masterful music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Assassins combines a cleverly told and socially relevant story with witty and whip smart musical theatre tunes, and the result is a poignant masterpiece which reveals the terrifyingly comprehensible reasons behind the dark deeds of some of America's most infamous historical killers.

The cast of Assassins
Fledgling theatre company Sevans Productions have revived this much-loved yet lesser performed musical, complete with a short and silent prologue which draws the audience's attention to none other than president Donald Trump. As if anyone could forget him. 

Moving on from the obligatory MAGA-ism, the bulk of the musical takes place in some sort of assassin purgatory, where historical nasties harp on their convictions. Rather clever set design by director Louise Bakker sees the stage rotate on a large revolve, allowing for plenty of inventive set changes to take place. One particularly striking bit of design sees the assassins slumped in chairs in a glorified waiting room decked out in stars and stripes. It's fascinating to see how the characters interact with each other, separated by generations but brought together by deeds.

The cast of Assassins
As the bebowtied master of ceremonies, also known as the Proprietor, Peter Watts leads an outstanding ensemble of performers who do a uniformly excellent job of humanising the ominous assassins. Highlights of the cast are Abigail Williams’ ditzy Sarah Jane Moore, Andrew Pepper's ostentatious Charles Guiteau, and Jason Kajdi as the Balladeer. The latter begins the musical in what looks like modern dress, overseeing the events and seemingly acting as a mouthpiece for the audience, but as he observes the motivations behind the assassins' actions he is absorbed into their world both literally and metaphorically. When Kajdi shows up again later in the piece, in a starkly lit room, and is introduced as none other than Lee Harvey Oswald, a man teetering on the edge of suicide before being goaded in to shooting JFK, it’s up to the audience to decide the significance of the multiroling which came beforehand. 

The overarching message of this production is easy to decipher; all it takes for a disgruntled citizen to change the course of history is just a single bullet. And a reason. At a time when gun laws are yet again making headlines in America, and on this side of the pond we are divided vehemently over Brexit, Assassins plays out like a cautionary tale. One particularly harrowing moment sees the assassins offer their guns to audience members, an action which highlights how each assassin started out as just an ordinary citizen, disgruntled by or disillusioned with their country and its leader. The musical may have been written in 1993, but in today’s unstable political climate climate Assassins feels as relevant as ever.