Feelgood Fun: Singin’ in the Rain and International Happiness Day

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Today (20th March) has apparently been declared International Happiness Day. With its boundless energy, classic songs and infectious feelgood vibe, what better way to celebrate the happy occasion than with Gene Kelly’s and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain?

Regularly featured on lists of the greatest movies and musicals of all time, and with a rare 100% positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Singin’ in the Rain has become something of a cultural icon, firmly embedded in our collective consciousness. It tells the story of the first ever screen musical, created by the fictional Monumental Pictures in the 1920s to compete with the new “talkies” being made by rival companies, such as (the non-fictional) Warner Bros’ The Jazz Singer. The transition from silent to speaking films proves fraught for the studios, however: while protagonist Don Lockwood, his girlfriend Kathy Selden and their best friend Cosmo Brown  all readily adapt to the changes, Monumental’s leading lady, Lina Lamont, doesn’t quite have a voice to suit her characters…

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Somewhat unusually for a major musical like this, Singin’ in the Rain has been adapted from film to stage, rather than the other way around. Given the film clips and various special effects (from artificial rain to neon lights on Broadway) required to make the show work, bringing the story to live audiences is an incredibly ambitious undertaking, making Jonathan Church’s fantastic production for The Chichester Festival Theatre all the more impressive. Without losing any of the original movie’s wit, charm or sense of fun (though not without adding some special stage spectacle of his own), Church has successfully translated a film about the film industry into a live theatre piece, and to massive critical acclaim, in a production that would doubtless meet even Kathy Selden’s exacting standards.

Right from the beginning, Simon Higlett’s design work transports viewers instantly to the play’s late 20s setting, with lavish sets and beautiful, colourful costumes. Still more striking is Andrew Wright’s choreography, which the actors navigate with a seemingly boundless energy that’s liable to leave even audience members feeling exhausted!

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James Leece makes for a convincing Don Lockwood, barely pausing for breath between elaborate dance sequences. Faye Tozer is spot on as the manipulative and demanding diva Lina, having here been granted her own dressing room solo which she hilariously squawks her way through. Studio boss R. F. Simpson and frustrated director Roscoe Dexter are also captured brilliantly by Maxwell Caulfield and Paul Grunert. Though quite different to her wide-eyed, youthful and headstrong movie counterpart (Debbie Reynolds was just 19 when she took on the role) Amy Ellen Richardson sings beautifully as Kathy, her final solo number that exposes Lina’s mischief having been switched from a lively rendition of the title track to the much more mellow and romantic “Would You?”. The real star of the show, though, is Stephane Anelli as the eccentric actor/writer/comedian/musician/composer Cosmo Brown, whose genius in getting them all out of sticky situations is far too often overlooked by his friends. Anelli finds the perfect blend of slapstick and silly jokes, all delivered with faultless timing in a performance that rivals Donald O’Connor’s own.

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Highlights of the show naturally included all the big song and dance numbers: “Moses Supposes”, “Good Morning” and of course, “Singin’ in the Rain” itself, which gave viewers in the front couple of rows a chance to experience the rain directly as Leece gleefully splashed across the flooded stage, deliberately kicking water in their direction. Unsurprisingly, plenty of audience members simply couldn’t resist singin’ and dancin’ along themselves, both during this first rendition and at the end of the show, when the whole cast came together to repeat the song, complete with plenty more water a set of gorgeous umbrellas – silver on the outside and brightly coloured underneath (they really ought to be being sold somewhere…). The “Gotta Dance” section also worked remarkably well. This being the most dreamlike and experimental part of the film, I initially had some reservations as to how well it could be done on stage. These were quickly dispelled, however: Jenny Legg was stunning as the mysterious, seductive dancer the hero encounters on Broadway (played by Cyd Charisse on screen), while Amy Richardson was beautiful and semi-angelic in her flowing, shimmering dress.

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As enjoyable as it is in its own right, one of the best things about seeing the stage musical last night was the fact that it served as a welcome reminder of just how much I love the film. It’s one of my all-time favourites, and after listening to the soundtrack for most of the morning, I’m now just about ready to wind down for the night by rewatching the film, again….

Happy Happiness Day everyone!

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Casting Revealed for One Man, Two Guvnors UK Tour

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As part of a 37-city tour of the UK and Ireland, The National Theatre’s award-winning comedy, One Man, Two Guvnors will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome in May. Featuring a range of stage and screen stars, including Eastenders‘ Shaun Williamson, the cast for this the production’s third UK tour has now been announced.

Having previously starred in the West End show, Gavin Spokes will take on the lead role as Francis Henshall, an easily confused yet loveable character who is fired from his skiffle band and subsequently finds himself working for both local gangster, Roscoe Crabbe, and upper class criminal, Stanley Stubbers. Henshall desperately tries to keep his “two guvnors” apart, little knowing that, “Roscoe Crabbe” is in fact his disguised twin sister, Rachel, the real Roscoe having been murdered by her lover – none other than Stanley Stubbers. Spokes has previously performed in Jamie Lloyd’s production of She Stoops to Conquer at the National Theatre and as Oliver Hardy in Laurel and Hardy at the Watermill Theatre. He is currently playing Parsons in the Headlong/Almeida production of 1984.

Rachel/Roscoe Crabbe will be played by Alicia Davies, who was part of the production’s 2013 world tour. Her previous theatre work includes The Bachae and Blood Wedding in Northampton, The Comedy of Errors and The Importance of Being Ernest for Oxford Shakespeare Company and La Cage aux Folles for the Menier and West End. Stanley Stubbers, meanwhile, will be played by Patrick Warner. Like Spokes, Warner has featured in One Man, Two Guvnors in the West End, as well as in The Comedy of Errors for The Merely Players, Junket at the Arcola and Posh at the Royal Court Theatre.

Shaun Williamson (Eastenders, Extras, Life’s Too Short, New Tricks) will take on the role of Charlie “the Duck” Clench, an ageing, semi-retired gangster whose daughter Pauline was previously set to marry Roscoe Crabbe. Pauline, now determined to elope with amateur actor Alan Dangle, will be played by Jasmyn Banks (Eastenders, Little Crackers, Sadie Jones, Life of Riley). Alan will be played by Edward Hancock (Breathless), whose recent stage work includes Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at the Watermill Theatre, Jack in The Adventure for the Pleasance Courtyard and Manchester Royal Exchange and Guy in Posh for The Royal Court and West End.

Derek Elroy will return to the role of Lord Boateng, which he took on in the West End production. His other theatre credits include Kingston 14 at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Dick Whittington and His Cat at the Barbican Centre, and Vox Pop – The Magnets. Emma Barton (Eastenders, Spooks, You, Me and Them) will play Dolly. Her theatre work includes Doctor in the House (UK tour), Lily in Annie at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Roxie Hart in Chicago (West End and UK tour) and Peggy in the RSC’s The Secret Garden.

One Man, Two Guvnors is directed by Nicholas Hytner and adapted by Richard Bean from Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 play, The Servant of Two Masters (Il servitore di due padroni). It will play at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Monday 26th until Saturday 31st May, with tickets priced at £16.50-£35. To book, call 0844 338 5000 or visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.  For more information on the production, visit the One Man, Two Guvnors official website.

Hotel La Tour to Lead Hippodrome Fundraising Gala in May

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Scheduled to take place on Saturday 10th May, the Birmingham Hippodrome’s fifth annual Gala Dinner will take place on the theatre’s grand stage, with Hotel La Tour as headline sponsors. All proceeds from the event will go to Hippodrome Plus, the new name for the Hippodrome’s Education, Access, Community and free outdoor performance work. 

Visiting the theatre in advance of the Gala, Hotel de la Tour’s Managing Director Jane Schofield said:

“The on-going partnership since 2013 with the Hippodrome has proved enormously successful for us and we are thrilled to be part of this very special event.  Both businesses are part of the city’s incredible visitor offer and we are committed to being at the forefront of that positive story.”

Almost 300 guests from businesses across the city will be welcomed to the event, packed full of specially commissioned entertainment, along with some “trademark Hippodrome surprises”. The evening will kick off with a champagne reception sponsored by Matthew Clark and Champagne Taittinger. Later, a live auction sponsored by law firm Shakespeares and presented by CP Bigwood’s Rory Daly will also give attendees the chance to win some fantastic prizes.

Said Hippodrome Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths:

“It’s great to be working with Jane and her team again. The generous support of Hotel La Tour means that we can achieve our aim of providing inspirational theatre experiences throughout the community.  This will be the fifth time we have run this special event on our stage, with funds raised grossing nearly £400,000 since 2005 going directly to supporting the theatre.”

One sponsorship slot still remains to be filled, and brands can also show their support with sealed bids prizes, goodie bag gifts or advertising. Those interested should contact the theatre’s Corporate Development Manager, Judith Greenberg by calling 0121 689 3082 or emailing judithgreenberg@birminghamhippodrome.com.

Find out more about Hippodrome Plus here.

Time and Tradition – Fiddler on the Roof

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First performed in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof, created by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, is one of the world’s most enduring and well-loved musicals, telling the story of the inhabitants of a Russian Jewish village, whose traditional lifestyle is challenged by political and cultural changes beyond their control. A new production by Music & Lyrics in association with the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton is currently showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

The play is set in 1905 in the build-up to Russia’s first wave of revolutionary unrest. Like its characters, it begins with a narrow perspective, largely ignoring the world beyond its own little setting. Its first act is overwhelmingly comic, its humour and dogged optimism masking a darker undercurrent and sidelining the emerging threats to the community’s way of life. Finally though, the cracks begin to show: Act One ends with a pogrom at a wedding, and in Act Two, everything falls apart.

Fiddler%20On%20The%20Roof-Mayflower-475This being my first experience of Fiddler on the Roof, the biggest surprise for me was finding out how much of it I actually already knew. This is a musical which has seeped so fully into our collective consciousness that references abound in film, TV, theatre and even pop music, from Mrs. Doubtfire and The Lion King 3, to The Muppets and Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl”. One might well wonder, then, whether it’s possible to bring anything new to a show already so firmly established in popular culture. This is, however, something that Director/Choreographer Craig Revel Horwood (Strictly Come Dancing) and Musical Director Sarah Travis have amazingly succeeded in doing.

In this production, there is no pit orchestra, with all of the music instead provided by the cast on stage. The actors carry around their instruments, incorporating them into the performance and making them an extension of their characters. I’ve seen similar things done before (the RSC’s Heart of Robin Hood in Christmas 2011 saw musicians transformed into animals, their instruments providing comic sound effects) but never anything on this scale, with an entire, complex musical score being played only by an impressively multi-tasking cast who sing, act, dance and play all at the same time. This has the effect of really bringing music to the forefront of the show, making the audience acutely aware of the importance of the orchestra, not only in this show, but in musical productions generally. The Fiddler%20On%20The%20Roof-Mayflower-1186instruments are shown to be an essential part of the storytelling, not only where they blend in naturally in the gleefully riotous dance sequences and party scenes, but even in terms of conveying emotion elsewhere. Lazar Wolf’s (Paul Kissaun) rising anger and frustration, for example, is translated into an ominous double bass line, while Motel’s (Jon Trenchard) flute is perfectly suited to his endearing combination of quiet timidity and youthful enthusiasm.

It’s an ambitious concept, but one that the exceptionally talented cast pull off with great aplomb, their acting and singing not suffering for all the additional work required of them. Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky and Hutch), returning to Fiddler on the Roof 43 years after the release of the film in which he played the revolutionary Perchik, here presents a rich and complex Tevye, treading the tightrope walk between humour and sadness as adeptly as the title character balances on the roof. He’s well matched by as his bossy wife Golde (Karen Mann), and nowhere is their shared balancing act more compelling than in the uproariously funny yet deeply poignant “Do You Love Me?”, where we learn that, for all their complaining, 25 years together has Paul Michael Glaser - Fiddler on the Rooffostered a deep bond between the couple. The moment of nostalgia they share during “Sunrise, Sunset” at their daughter Tzeitel’s (Emily O’Keefe) wedding is also beautifully bittersweet. These are undoubtedly the production’s most nuanced performances, though Steven Bor as Perchik and Liz Singleton as Hodel come close, with Perchik’s “new-fangled” ideas adding to the comedy, while their eventual separation from the family is deeply moving. Elsewhere, though, a more excessive kind of melodrama is sometimes welcome, as in the case of Yente, the matchmaker and the spectacularly grotesque, pantomime-like ghost of Fruma Sarah, Lazar Wolf’s dead wife, both played by Susannah Van Den Berg.

Along with the music, another interesting touch was the casting of Jennifer Douglas as the Fiddler. Having this part played by a woman (dressed up in a colourful waistcoat and trousers in contrast to the other women’s long skirts and blouses), works as a sign of what is to come, further undermining Tevye’s already rather unconvincing appropriation of her for his analogy about the village clinging to its traditions: we feel almost as though she has been stuck up on the roof out of the way, rather than staying there by choice. Like the story’s other female characters, she is expected to passively observe and accept what happens while others drive the action, remaining essentially powerless despite seeing everything from a unique vantage point. When she finally climbs down from the roof, Tevye’s invitation to her to follow him works as an acknowledgement of her as a real, equal character with her own independent will, symbolising his acceptance of the new order of things and his willingness to let his daughters choose their own fates.

Fiddler on the Roof is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 15th March. A limited number of tickets are still available. Visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website or call 0844 338 5000 to book.

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Fallen Women: La Traviata by the Welsh National Opera

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As part of the Welsh National Opera’s current season themed around the idea of “Fallen Women”, a series of three shows are being performed this week at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Last night, the season began with Giuseppe Verdi’s famous La Traviata, directed by David McVicar and Sarah Crisp, which will be performed again this Saturday (8th March).

tissot convalescentLike a series of sumptuous Victorian paintings brought startlingly to life, the design of the show was utterly magnificent throughout. From the bustling, brightly coloured party scenes that opened the show’s first and second acts, to the more intimate moments we spend in the company of the frail and saintly Violetta once she is “reformed”, designer Tanya McCallin has realised the period in painstaking detail by mirroring the art and culture of the time. Some of the clearest references are reprinted in the programme, such as James Tissot’s The Convalescent, which provides a near-perfect model for Violetta’s angelic, flowing, white dressing gown in Act Two, which stands in sharp contrast with the black velvet and red taffeta she favours while in Paris. Though not as directly referenced, I was particularly reminded of the classic “fallen women” and rich colours and textures found in Pre-Raphaelite works.

One problem did arise as a result of the production’s elaborate set design: a scene change in the middle of Act 2 saw the curtain come down and the music stop for several minutes, leaving the audience a little restless and confused as to whether the second interval had already started. It was worth the wait for what followed, but I wondered whether the changeover might have been better handled with some sort of explanation to the audience in advance, to stop people from getting up and trying to leave. That said, I’m not familiar enough with opera to know whether or not this is usual.

263px-Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Proserpine_-_Google_Art_ProjectJi-Min Park carried the audience away completely with his energy, ardour and youthful naiveté as our heroine’s hapless lover Alfredo. Alfredo’s interfering father, Giorgio, is also brilliantly portrayed by Alan Opie, whose powerful presence commands full attention every time he steps onto the stage. His gravitas offsets his son’s foolishness and triviality, yet he is not without his comic moments: he flounders hopelessly when Violetta attempts to “embrace [him] like a daughter”. Gaudily made-up as life and soul of the party Flora, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s knowing humour is surpassed only by that of Act Two’s ingenious gypsy troupe, whose saucy performance offers welcome light relief from the overarching tragic melodrama. Credit here must also go to Andrew George and Colm Seery for their excellent choreography: the gypsy’s dances are timed to perfection. Sian Meinir lends an edge of tough, practical realism to Violetta’s maid Annina, revealing their debts and the sale of her mistress’s possessions to Alfredo in a moment of obvious frustration with his dreamy guilelessness when it crosses the line into downright stupidity. Naturally, though, Violetta herself must be the star of this show, and Linda Richardson only gets better as things develop. Perhaps her most beautiful singing is alongside Alan Opie’s when Giorgio arrives in Act Two, but it’s after this that the audience really begins feel her anguish over the “great sacrifice” he asks of her as the show builds up towards its tear-jerking ending.

It’s testament to their skills that however infuriating modern viewers might find this story, the performers still manage to sweep us all up along with them, stirring emotional responses that we hardly expect and making us really care about the characters almost in spite of ourselves. Still, as the programme’s fascinating articles by an impressive array of novelists, playwrights and feminist essayists suggests, the WNO does not wish for us to ignore our more rational reactions to La Traviata‘s problematic plot. As David Pountney, the WNO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director, writes in his introduction:

“[Fallen women] is…. a controversial theme, and I hope that bringing these three works together will provoke you to question the assumptions that lie behind them – perhaps even make some of you angry – an entirely healthy reaction to important cultural ideas.”

It cannot be by accident, then, that the voices of this production’s female characters are allowed to speak loudest, even if we are not left entirely convinced by Violetta’s self-sacrifice or, indeed, by her attraction to Alfredo, who is undoubtedly punching above his weight in both wisdom and capacity for compassion. Unlike our Victorian predecessors, force-fed a phobia of “fallen” females, we cannot readily accept Violetta’s miserable death as only due punishment for her “sins” – rather, we are left wondering how the more selfish and silly men we blame for her demise can possibly atone for theirs. If their changeability and inconstancy (interestingly stereotypically “feminine” qualities) so far are anything to judge by, it’s a struggle to believe that the guilt they feel when we leave them will really plague them for long enough to be considered sufficient penance.

What’s important, then, is that though Violetta is effectively silenced – her spirit being the first to fly the stage – the curtain comes down before those that survive her can say or do anything to appropriate or moralise her suffering. When it goes back up again, it’s her and her alone we see at first, not only allowing Richardson to take well-deserved credit for her performance, but also ensuring that Violetta retains her own integrity.

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With its Violetta left exhausted, sweating and sickly (rather than prettily pale and waiflike in line with the bizarre, deathly standards of beauty that proliferated in the 19th century) and still battling on to the end, the WNO ensures that the tragic courtesan character transcends her role of simply “feeding and satisfying” male fantasy, instead confronting us with the reality of her existence (Violetta is, after all, based on a real woman, Marie Duplessis): that, in David Pountney’s words “is where the poignancy comes in”.

The Welsh National Opera’s La Traviata is showing again at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 8th March. Full tour dates can be found here. It is followed at the Hippodrome by Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut this evening and Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude tomorrow night. Keep an eye on Tal Fox’s blog, If You Could See This Now, for a review of Boulevard Solitude, and if you are aged 16-23 and using the Hippodrome’s First Night scheme to get tickets for the opera, don’t forget to let us know here.