Review - Spring Awakening (Hope Mill Theatre)

At Manchester's tiny, atmospheric Hope Mill Theatre, director Luke Sheppard has captured lightning in a bottle with an electrifying new production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening. 

Nikita Johal, Darragh Cowley, and the cast of Spring Awakening
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 play of the same name, Spring Awakening explores teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and suicide, all set within a stiflingly conservative community. 

Frustrated with the closed mindedness of his schoolteachers, precocious teenager Melchior Gabor teaches himself sex education with the help of some rather explicit literature, and then attempts to educate his nervy schoolfriend Moritz Stiefel who is being haunted by sexually explicit dreams. Along the way he finds himself reconnecting with his childhood friend Wendla Bergmann, who yearns to learn about her oncoming adulthood, and the pair reach out to one another. But without the support and guidance of their prudish elders, Melchior, Wendla and Moritz, and the rest of their young peers, are bound to make mistakes on their journey to adulthood, some of which result in disaster. 

It's easy to see why the original production of this groundbreaking rock musical, which opened on Broadway after an arduous 7 year workshopping period, was greeted with immense critical success,and quickly gathered a huge fanbase. Spring Awakening perfectly captures the frustration of young people in their awkward in-between years, and addreses the ever present issues surrounding consent, discusses domestic abuse, and looks at the failures of institutionalised education. It's a sad fact that these themes still dominate society over 100 years after the original source material was written, but it certainly makes for some very powerful watching. 

In addition to the hefty plot, Spring Awakening's intense pulsing music really is something special. From beginning to end, each of Sater and Sheik's song are filled with raw emotion, and perfectly encapsulate the whirlwind of youth which the plot revolves around. Especially when backed up by an energetic band which amps up the effect of the musical's rock score at every turn.

The cast of Spring Awakening
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
The Grade II listed Hope Mill provides a kitschy environment for Spring Awakening to inhabit, especially when combined with intricate yet understated set design. The image of a butterfly is displayed prominently throughout the venue, as a nod to the longed-for metaphorical Summer which the the teens in the musical dream of. The set is dressed with several atmospheric 19th century objects, which help to set the musical firmly in the past, and contrast nicely with Nic Farman's vibrant lighting design, which is undoubtedly a standout element of the production. Serene yet affronting shades of blue and neon white light which illuminates the stage ethereally. 

A venue as intimate as the Hope Mill Theatre calls for subtle yet punchy performances, especially in regards to Spring Awakening, which swings from earnest dialogue to thunderous rock songs without missing a beat. Luckily, an incredible ensemble of performers has been assembled, showcasing surely some of the most exciting upcoming talents in musical theatre. The cast attacks Tom Jackson Greaves' dynamic choreography with plenty of zeal, whilst imbuing their vocal performances with a power and clarity which rings from the theatre's rafters. From the hilarious and  mischievously titled song My Junk, which brings the students of the Boys' and Girls' schools together in  act 1, to the gorgeous and gut wrenching finale The Song of Purple Summer, each number stuns the senses. Sater's dreamlike lyrics evoke beautiful imagery, and add more layers to the already achingly powerful story. 

The cast of Spring Awakening
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Leading the ensemble rabble, the musical's central trio is infallible, each making their role entirely their own. Darragh Cowley makes his professional debut as Melchior. He has plenty of charisma, which is much needed in order to pull of his character's cockiness, but he also adds a touching childlike aspect to Melchior, which reminds the audience of the themes of youth and innocence at the core of Spring Awakening. 

Cowley is the perfect foil to Jabez Sykes' squirrelly Moritz. Through forces smiles and involuntary squirms, Sykes paints a perfectly defined picture of the anxious youth, and it's absolutely evident that the action of Spring Awakening captures just the tail end of Moritz's downward spiral at the hands of chastising school teachers and pressuring parents. 

Meanwhile Nikita Johal is a breathtaking Wendla. From the moment she confronts her mother about how babies are conceived, clutching at her mother's skirt and dancing around every word before it leaves her mouth, Johal's Wenda is caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and is petrified yet insatiably curious as to where it might take her. It's a perfectly pitched performance, matched with incredibly powerful vocals, which shine in every song. 

There's so much to appreciate about this intricately designed and potently performed production. Voices soar, tears flow openly, and every single drop of angst is rung from the haunting script. From its winsome start to fraught finale, Spring Awakening at the Hope Mill Theatre will make audiences' hairs stand on end. In short, it's a production which absolutely must be experienced.

Review - Bat Out Of Hell (Dominion Theatre)

It may surprise some Meat Loaf fans to hear that the beloved 1977 hard rock album Bat Out Of Hell was always envisioned as a musical. As a fan of bombastic classical music, composer Jim Steinman dreamed of producing a musical version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, with an updated plot and rock and roll inspired score. Some hesitancy from the Barrie estate meant that the songs ended up being released on an album instead. An album which has since become one of the best selling albums of all time. And now, finally, Steinman’s original vision has become a reality, as Bat Out Of Hell the musical bursts into the West End, leaving a trail of flames in its wake.

Christina Bennington and Andrew Polec in Bat Out of Hell
Photo credit - Specular
As per Steinman’s original vision, Bat Out Of Hell loosely retells the story of Peter Pan, relocating Neverland to the gritty abandoned subways underneath what was once Manhattan, ravaged by the Chemical Wars; some sort of apocalypse which resulted in swathes of 18 year olds, known as The Lost, becoming trapped in their youthful bodies forever. Within this urban dystopia the leader of the hell raising eternally teen rebels falls in love with the daughter of the rich head of Falco Industries, who plans to develop the city and who is hell bent on destroying them, and a forbidden love story is thrust into motion. 

The plot is certainly stimulating, and while it’s safe to say that it’s not the musical’s strongest element, it puts a clever spin on a classic story, and sets up an intriguing post apocalyptic world for the characters to live out their love story in. Steinman's dialogue often takes the form of cryptic, obscure, and prophetic declarations, which further emphasise the fairytale inspired plot, but does sometime make the more dialogue led scenes a little bit hard to follow. 

Danielle Steers and the cast of Bat Out Of Hell
Photo credit - Specular
Breathtaking set design by Jon Baussor sees the gritty world of The Lost reaching its jagged tendrils out into the audience, aided by Finn Ross’ eyepopping and inventively utilised video design. Patrick Woodroffe’s rock concert style lighting design only adds to Bat Out Of Hell’s intense nature, with the result often threatening to overload the senses entirely.

The concert vibe on stage does also trickle into the pit, and at times the musical’s incredible band overpowers the vocals. But for the most part, while the world of Bat Out Of Hell may be spectacular to behold on stage, and the story may be enthralling, unsurprisingly, it’s the outstanding music and thrilling vocals from the cast which elevate Bat Out Of Hall to the dizzying heights it manages to reach.

The titular song is, of course, a showstopper. Closing the frankly bizarre and yet tantalising first act, it's a dynamic 10 minute epic, which sends the audience into the interval on a high note, whilst simultaneously acting as one of the musical’s most visually striking sequences.

Andrew Polec in Bat Out Of Hell
Photo credit - Specular
Speaking of high notes, Bat Out of Hell is certainly not short of them. In particular, the role of Strat, leader of The Lost, played at some performances by Simon Gordon, is one which demands vocal stamina by the bucket load, which happily Gordon has no problems providing. He breathes life into often peculiar script, and finds the perfect balance between Strat's wild eyed Peter Pan-like curiosity and his hardened, wrathful core. As the Wendy to Strat's Peter, epic belter Christina Bennington's Raven is an equally intriguing character. The pair share a stunning rendition of It's All Coming Back To Me Now, a number which proves that even without the show's flashiness and fireworks, the characters and emotions still have space to shine through.

Bat Out of Hell is a fantastic showcase for Steinman's ever popular music, and regardless of some of the more muddled moments in the musical’s plot, it’s impossible not to be swept along with the story, with such a watchable cast telling a vibrant tale which refuses to slow down. Unquestionably Bat Out Of Hell is a high octane hit, which will have audiences rocking and rolling long after they leave the theatre.

I was invited to review Bat Out Of Hell thanks to

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 ensemble of Chicago
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
In 2018, there is indisputably a 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

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.