Review - On Your Feet! (London Coliseum)

After an impressive run on Broadway and a lengthy US tour, director Jerry Mitchell's production of On Your Feet! has arrived at the London Coliseum, featuring a fantastic cast, lively band, and zazzy choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

The cast of On Your Feet!
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Following Cuban-American singer and former  Miami Sound Machine frontwoman Gloria Estefan and her musician turned producer husband Emilio as they come up against barriers in the form of Gloria's overprotective mother, as well as closed-minded record producers, before eventually beating the odds to become the international superstar power couple they are today, On Your Feet! is a hot new arrival which pulses with rhythm from start to finish. Featuring plenty of fantastic tunes including Dr. Beat, Rhythm Is Gonna Get You, and of course Conga, it's bound to have have audiences dancing in their seats. Especially with breakout stars Christie Prades and George Ioannides at the helm. The duo at the heart of the musical may not be as instantly recognisable to UK audiences as they are to those in the US, but that doesn't dampen the musical's vivaciousness, and neither does its admittedly shaky book, which utilises every trope in the musical biography toolkit. 

Christie Prades and George Ioannides in On Your Feet!
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Of course, Estefan's life story is an inspirational one without a doubt, and the musical does cover some surprising territory; exploring the after-effects of the Cuban revolution, and touching on the prejudices faced by immigrants in America. But the bare bones of the story too-closely resemble so many other biographical musicals which have hit the West End in the last couple of years. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Sunny Afternoon did it first. And so, as strange as it is to say, although Estefan is easy to root for, On Your Feet! is at its best when the story melts away and the musical numbers take front and centre.

Estefan's eclectic songbook overflows with irresistible dance hits and pop ballads which are interspersed with lesser known numbers, and even one new song written specially for the show by Gloria and her daughter Emily Estefan. Conga is the big act 1 closer, and it does and excellent job of getting everyone up out of their seats, meanwhile act 2 culminates at the 1991 American Music Awards with heart-rending soul ballad with Coming Out Of the Dark. And of course, a finale megamix sends everyone home with a smile on their face. EsteFAN or not, sit back and enjoy the show, because the rhythm is going to get you either way! 

Review - Bare: A Pop Opera (The Vaults)

Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s Bare: A Pop Opera is something of a cult favourite amongst musical theatre aficionados. Set in St Cecilia's Boarding School, a close-knit Catholic school in America, a pulsing score accompanies the complex and ultimately tragic story of two closeted students whose relationship is strained when they are cast in a school production of Romeo and Juliet.

Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand in Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
First performed in 2000, Bare: A Pop Opera could almost be described as a period piece in 2019 (and certainly one or two scenes and songs feel dated in a pleasantly nostalgic way, despite attempts to modernise – mostly down to the inclusion of mobile phones). Sadly, director Julie Atherton’s new production at The Vaults highlights the fact that themes of homophobia, body image, and bullying are just as pertinent now as they ever were.

Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand star as Jason and Peter, the schoolboys at the centre of the Bare: A Pop Opera’s main drama. Both actors are believable in their roles, and sell the pain of their joint and individual struggles, although the romantic spark between the pair doesn't fully flare up until they share the show’s titular duet as the story nears its end. The book doesn't offer much of a glimpse into their relationship during happier times, and so as the plot evolves rapidly, its sudden jolt into high drama feels a little disjointed, and as a result the Shakespearian tragedy of the ending falls slightly flat. That being said, watching the couple steal secret kisses between classes as they dodge the ever watchful eyes of their gossipy school friends offers a sobering look at the reality of their relationship.

The cast of Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The production is bolstered by an almighty supporting cast, with the cohort who make up the St Cecilia's student body being excellent without exception. Lizzie Emery is sympathetic as Ivy, the misunderstood school beauty who turns Jason’s head and offers him a chance at (what he perceives to be) normalcy. And she sings the hell out of All Grown Up, an electrifying musical gut punch which stands out as a musical highlight in the show. Meanwhile as Jason’s sister Nadia, who also happens to be Ivy’s reluctant roommate, Georgie Lovatt brings humour and pathos in spades.

However, the most compelling supporting performance comes from Tom Hier, who brings an extra dimension to Matt, a classmate who becomes the Jason’s rival both in theatre (he is usurped of the lead role in the school play despite well-rehearsed audition) and in romance (his unrequited feelings for Ivy transition from sweet to malicious at a terrifying pace). Hier shows how Matt’s rocky relationship with religion conflicts with his own internal moral compass impressively throughout, and shines vocally during Are You There?, an angst and alcohol fuelled duet with Daniel Mack Shand’s Peter.

The cast of Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The onstage band, led by MD Alasdair Brown, rocks the electric pop score throughout, but at times vocals are drowned out almost entirely by the sound of moving scenery in addition to the unavoidable rumble of trains from train station above. This is unfortunate, as the pop opera is sung-through with very little spoken dialogue, and therefore occasionally vital dramatic moments are diluted. Happily though, the enthusiasm of all involved shines through, and No Voice, one of Bare: A Pop Opera’s most chilling musical moments, is an incredibly affective send-off. As haunting harmonies ring out around The Vaults, the audience is left with plenty to think on.

Review - The Light in the Piazza (Southbank Centre)

The English summer may not have materialised as planned, but over at the Southbank Centre the sun in beaming down on Daniel Evans’ production of romantic musical The Light In The Piazza, which is currently making its debut in London some 14 years after an acclaimed run on Broadway.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen in The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Renée Fleming stars opposite Dove Cameron as Margaret and Clara Johnson, an American mother and daughter duo holidaying in sunny Florence in the 1950s, who become intertwined with the local Naccarelli family after Clara meets the young and charming Fabrizio Naccarelli. Although there is a language barrier, Clara and Fabrizio fall almost instantly in love, despite the love-extinguishing efforts of Margaret.

The Light in the Piazza’s Tony Award winning score, written by Adam Guettel, has been long admired by musical theatre fans, and for good reason. Sweeping strings envelop the every scene, casting a dreamy haze over the proceeding. Robert Jones' simple yet evocatively Tuscan set ensures that the sumptuous Orchestra of Opera North, breezily conducted by Kimberly Grigsby is always in full view.
 
The cast of The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
The radiant Dove Cameron, a newcomer to the London stage, is well matched by Rob Houchen, and the pair make the musical’s central romantic plot sing. Clara and Fabrizio seem drawn together by destiny, and it must be said that Houchen, who makes deft work of the musical’s extensive Italian portions and is beautifully expressive and utterly charming throughout, seems fated to have played the role. His breathtaking rendition of the passionate and angst filled Il Mondo Era Vuoto is a masterclass in musical theatre. Cameron is a similarly engaging presence, bringing sweet voiced innocence and joy to Clara, and perfectly encapsulating the rush of first love.
 
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen in The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton

With such an absorbing central romance plot, and gorgeous orchestrations underscoring every moment, it’s easy to allow yourself to be swept up in the emotions of the piece, but although Craig Lucas’ book is brisk and witty throughout, it never really finds its way to a satisfying or dramatic conclusion. However,  that isn't to say that the musical is all fluffy sweetness and romance; there are some darker turns courtesy of Celinde Schoenmaker’s Franca Naccarelli, the scorned wife of Fabrizio’s brother Giuseppe, played by the always charismatic Liam Tamne. Meanwhile the poised Renée Fleming, whose dexterous vocals have earned her four Grammys and a Tony nomination, brings a thrilling edge to Margaret as the root of her high-stung nature is slowly revealed.
 
Despite being semi-staged, the production is totally transportive, with Daniel Evans’ fluid direction keeping the production moving steadily along. Honestly, there’s no doubt about the fact that The Light in the Piazza will make you want to jump on a plane bound for Italy this summer, and find a love of your own. Spellbinding and sun kissed, it’s the perfect summertime treat.


Review - The Woman in Black (Fortune Theatre)

The Woman in Black is now celebrating 30 bone-chilling years on the West End. Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, The Woman in Black sees an elderly former lawyer named Arthur Kipps recounting a fateful trip he made many years earlier, during which time he encountered the titular woman in the derelict Eel Marsh House and fell victim to her curse. Kipps enlists the help of an actor to assist him in putting his story down in a play, but as the two men work to bring the haunting tale to life, a dark prescience lurks in the wings. 
 
Stuart Fox and Matthew Spencer in The woman in Black
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Stuart Fox and Matthew Spencer star as Kipps and The Actor, and do a miraculous job of bringing all of the play’s various eclectic characters to life. Within the intimate auditorium of the Fortune Theatre, which stands in for a cosy Victorian stage, the play is utterly engrossing from beginning to end.

Every tiny bump in the dark rings out across the audience and sends shivers down the spine, with Stephen Mallatratt's script amping up the unease as the story builds towards its chilling conclusion. Matthew Spencer’s portrayal of fear and confusion as he re-enacts the younger Kipps’ encounters at Eel Marsh House are so focused and animated that the entire audience can’t help but be pulled in to the world of the play. Yelps of fear from theatregoers are unsurprisingly common, and only help to stoke the energy in audience.

With 30 year reputation for inducing nightmares in audiences of all ages, and a place on the GCSE Drama curriculum, it’s no surprise that The Woman in Black remains as frighteningly fresh as ever.

Review - Our Town (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

This summer, director Ellen McDougall has brought a bit of olde worlde Americana to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning drama about birth, life, and death in the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners.
 
The cast of  Our Town
Photo credit - Johan Persson
The play is a thought provoking one, although it begins rather slowly. Using meta theatrical techniques which were undoubtedly rather innovative when the play first premiered, a twinkly eyed Stage Manager talks directly to the audience, introducing them to several key personalities within the town. There are plenty of characters to get to know, but at the heart of the story are childhood sweethearts George and Emily, whose rocky courtship marks the beginning of a much more focused and streamlined tale. Actors Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry make a sweet couple, and their awkward first date over ice-cream sodas is an endearing scene which encapsulates the play’s fly-on-the-wall set-up extremely well.

However, the production doesn’t really ramp up until the final act, running at a brisk 30 minutes compared to 1 hour and 20 minutes in the first half. Taking place after the untimely demise of one of the town’s beloved residents, the play delves into the ephemerality of life, dishing out a didactic message about making the most of every second of every day. It’s rather profound, and excellently acted all round, especially when aided by the eerie silence of the outdoor setting post-sunset.

Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town fits perfectly into the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, with its messages about life and themes of introspection reflected in Rosie Elnile’s homespun set design, which mirrors the auditorium’s tiered bleachers, placing the audience well and truly within Grover’s Corners. Structurally Our Town may be a bit of a slow burn, but those who persevere as the story stretches into the chilly summer evening will be rewarded with a conclusion to leave a lump in anyone’s throat.

I was invited to review Our Town thanks to London Box Office

Review - American Idiot (UK Tour)

I can still remember hearing the iconic opening bars of American Idiot for the first time. Looking back the moment feels life changing, in a way. At age 9 I was way too young to understand the meaning behind the song’s subversive lyrics, denouncing the way the Iraq war was being turned into a spectator sport for rabid public onlookers thousands of miles away, but even at age 9 I knew a great song when I heard one. A great song which would go be Grammy nominated, become the band’s signature song, and eventually, share its name with a Tony Award winning rock musical.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
Of course, the fact is, when Green Day dropped their 7th studio album back in 2004, the world was in chaos. The Iraq War was making headlines every night, a global recession was affecting billions, and the USA was still reeling from the September 11th terrorist attacks which had shaken the world just 3 short years earlier. American Idiot was a direct response to this chaos – a punk rock opera telling the story of the Jesus of Suburbia; a restless kid coming of age in a harsh and hostile world. That storyline became the basis of the album’s 2009 stage adaptation, with the central character Johnny, the self-proclaimed Jesus of Suburbia, and his friends Will and Tunny setting out to escape the mundanity of their hometown, each coming up against barriers as they discover that the world is a pretty hostile and unforgiving place.
 
It’s a pretty profound and often uncomfortable watch, and in the 10th Anniversary UK tour director Racky Plews has done something extraordinary with it. The grandiose fist pumping Green Day anthems (the musical comprises of the entire American Idiot album, plus additional songs from 2009's 21st Century Breakdown, and one original song)  are just as hair raising as they’ve always been, but each feels surprisingly intimate and internal, and the book by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Broadway director Michael Mayer, although undeniably thin on the ground, ties the whole thing together and elevates it. Designer Sara Perks’ squalid sets bring the grim and hopeless world into even clearer view, casting a grimy haze over the production.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
The musical’s anti-hero Johnny documents his year in defiant letters; to his parents, his friends, himself. At times he’s funny, even charming in an odd way, possibly thanks to Tom Milner’s astute performance, but he’s also teetering on the edge of terrifying. He’s our narrator, yes, but far from taking us by the hand and leading us through the story, he’s constantly chomping at the bit, pulling away, losing himself on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Especially once he meets the swaggering rocker St Jimmy, who (spoiler alert) is later revealed to be nothing more than Johnny’s drug laden alter ego.

Johnny’s desperation to escape the claustrophobia of his small town is a familiar one. Especially to today’s millennials, promised the world by their parents, who find themselves instead inheriting a bleak, violent, hostile planet, which also happens to be dying at an alarming rate. With that in mind, plus the context of Bush-era America, is it any wonder that all we can do is watch in horror as Johnny’s dream decays, and he’s pulled into a self-destructive spiral of festering nihilism?

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
Similarly horrifying is the ease with which Tunny is seduced into enlisting in the army. Ross William Wild’s Favourite Son, appearing via TV to advertise the military as a glamourous and glorious pursuit, is more akin to a rock star than a military recruiter. Joshua Dowen sings the heck out of the role throughout, making a standout moment out of Are We The Waiting; a rare slow, reflective moment in the musical, which shows Tunny and his fellow recruits, stumbling uncertainly into a route march.

The third member of the trio, Will, doesn’t even make it out of town. His girlfriend Heather tells him that she is pregnant and he decides to do the right thing and stay with her. Will and Heather’s storyline is an interesting one, showing the struggle young people experience when they’re forced by circumstance to mature before they’re ready. Heather handles the situation significantly better than Will to begin with, but in the end they make up for the sake of their child. It’s a slightly more uplifting story on the outside, but of course it’s seeped it sadness, because it represents a cycle. Another generation destined to be raised, as the doctrine of the Jesus of Suburbia foretells, ‘on a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin’.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
There’s a reason Green Day’s American Idiot resonated with so many when it was released. Beyond the fact that every song is a killer, the album encapsulates the anger, frustration, and loss that kicked off the 21st century. And to be honest we’re still living in the shadow of that time now. Which is probably why the musical continues to feel relevant, and why it affected me so deeply. American Idiot is a high octane musical middle finger, and in today’s rocky political climate when it seems as if the world is destined to repeat its past mistakes all over again in addition to making a tonne of new ones, it’s never been more necessary!

Review - Matilda the Musical (Cambridge Theatre)

Oliver, Annie… Matilda?
 
The cast of Matilda the Musical
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
 Almost 10 years after its premiere in Stratford-upon-Avon, Matilda the Musical is still as fresh and fun as ever, and with a film adaptation rumoured to be in the works, it surely won’t be long until the Royal Shakespeare Company’s golden goose becomes as ubiquitous as the likes of family favourite musicals Annie and Oliver.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s book, Matilda the Musical tells the story of a 5 year old genius named Matilda Wormwood, who seeks refuge from her TV and microwave dinner loving parents with the kindly Miss Honey, and rallies her classmates to help take down the school’s bullish head teacher Miss Trunchbull.

Before the show even begins, the world of Matilda the Musical is already apparent, thanks to Rob Howell’s sprawling set design, which covers the proscenium arch with scrabble tiles which spell out little Matilda the Musical themed clues. The whole stage is a pop-up book come to life – kooky, primary coloured, and well matched by some pretty zany costume designs. Matilda’s mum, an amateur ballroom dancer and box-dye enthusiast, is kitted out in an eye-popping pink and purple number, whilst Miss Trunchbull’s drill sergeant-chic blazer and culottes cast a foreboding shadow over the otherwise vivid world.

And the musical isn’t all style over substance (contrary to the doctrine of Matilda's appearance-obsessed mum, who isn't afraid to assert that 'looks are more important than books!). Dennis Kelly’s book is endearing, with some moments of excellent comedy alongside the standard child friendly toilet humour. And the vibrant music by Tim Minchin solidifies Matilda the Musical as a cut above the rest. From Matilda’s synonymous solo Naughty, to the fist pumping heck-yes war cry of Revolting Children, when Matilda and her classmates finally stand up to the tyrannical Trunchbull, there’s not a song in the show that doesn’t jump out off the stage.

There may be plenty of family shows to entertain audiences in London right now, but few radiate the megawatts of joy that Matilda the Musical produces night after night. It's well and truly a must-see musical!
 
I was invited to review Matilda the Musical thanks to seatplan.com