“If you’re blue and don’t know where to go to” – Top Hat on Tour at the Birmingham Hippodrome

TOP HAT THE MUSICAL DRESS REHEARSAL

Last night theatre-goers flocked to the Birmingham Hippodrome in posh frocks and dinner suits, “spending every dime for a wonderful time” at the special “Top Hats and Tiaras” themed opening of Top Hat.

Based on the classic 1935 RKO movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Top Hat is an Olivier Award-winning musical adapted by Matthew White and Howard Jacques. The original film was the first to have a score comprised entirely of brand-new songs by the Golden-Era master, Irving Berlin, and proved a phenomenal success, breaking box office records and inspiring new dance trends while cementing the burgeoning popularity of its songwriter and stars. Already a soaring success in its own right, the stage production is the first Irving Berlin movie to be adapted for live performance, packing out theatres and kindling a love of the songs and story in a new generation.

TOP HAT THE MUSICAL DRESS REHEARSAL

Returning to the Birmingham Hippodrome after its previous run in 2011, the show has been hotly anticipated by attendees, with many avid attendees booking their tickets many months in advance. And if last night’s smiling faces and thunderous applause are anything to judge by, it seems that it more than lived up to expectations.

The performances were top notch, with Alan Burkitt deftly capturing Jerry Travers’s cheeky charm, while John Conroy as the Hardwicks’ in cognito butler, Bates, and Sebastien Torkia as ambitious Italian fashion designer, Beddini, left the audience giggling like children. Despite a few vocal slips, Charlotte Gooch made a charismatic and beautiful Dale Tremont, expertly and energetically pulling off some very difficult dance moves. Dancing and choreography were faultless all round, and both Burkitt and Torkia delivered Berlin’s iconic tunes with pitch-perfect gusto They were helped along by an excellent orchestra (led by Jae Alexander) who alone would have made this show worth attending.

TOP HAT THE MUSICAL DRESS REHEARSAL

It wasn’t just the viewers looking fabulous, either – there were some truly stunning costumes on stage. My personal favourite was a radial pleated gown in shimmering gold that made its wearer shine like a sunbeam, followed a close second by Madge’s saucy, red satin number, complete with a low, draped back and offset by a dazzling white crystal choker.

Even more striking than these, however, was the lavish yet versatile set which allowed for fluid shifts in location from New York to London to Venice. The portrayal of Jerry tap-dancing with a hatstand in the hotel room above Dale’s was particularly well-designed, using a clever trick to allow us to see both rooms side-by-side at once.

TOP HAT THE MUSICAL DRESS REHEARSAL

The performance closed with an unquestionably deserved standing ovation and extra renditions of songs that will no doubt be stuck in viewers’ heads for weeks. Definitely a show worth every dime.

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Fallen Women: La Traviata by the Welsh National Opera

La Traviata WNO

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.

Making a Storm this Spring – Singin’ in the Rain & Happy Days

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Full of Spring cheer and energy, two massive musical shows guaranteed to brighten up the rainy days will be bounding over to the Birmingham Hippodrome in March and April.

James Leece as Don, Amy Ellen Richardson as Kathy & Stephane Anelli as Cosmo in Singin' in the Rain - Photo credit Hugo GlendinningFirst up, on Tuesday 18th March, Chichester Festival Theatre’s acclaimed production of Singin’ in the Rain will make its down from the West End’s iconic Palace Theatre. So far, the show has received four Olivier Award nominations, and has played to over 750,000 people. Due to massive demand, an extra matinee performance has already been added to the Hippodrome run at 2pm on Friday 21 March.

The production, which features, “half a mile of flexible pipe work, and a 10 tonne water tank and a water system that creates a downpour from above and flooding from below the stage,” and uses over 12,000 litres of water per performance, is directed by Jonathan Church, who served as artistic director of the Birmingham REP from 2001-06. Starring in the show will be James Leece and Amy Ellen Richardson as lovers Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden, Stephane Anelli as sidekick Cosmo Brown, Steps singer Faye Tozer as demanding starlet Lina Lamont, and international stage and screen star Maxwell Caulfield as studio boss R. F. Simpson.

Said Rob McPherson, the Hippodrome’s Director of Marketing and Development:

Singin’ in the Rain is one of musical theatre’s classic masterpieces and it’s great to see that the show is as popular now as it ever has been. Due to a downpour of public demand we are pleased to announce an extra matinee performance in order to allow as many sitr tour-334 DG editpeople of Birmingham the chance to dig out their umbrellas and join us in the days of Hollywood gone by – we are looking forward to seeing those who will be braving the ‘splash zone’ in the front few rows…”

To get some exclusive behind the scenes insights from star of the show Max Caulfield, check out the latest Hippodrome podcast here. Plus, for a chance to win some extra special Singin’ in the Rain goodies, follow @brumhippodrome on Twitter and send us a picture of yourself singing in the rain. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #BHSingin!

Singin’ in the Rain is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 18th March until Saturday 5th April. Tickets are priced from £16-45 with some £5 First Night seats available for those aged 16-23. You can book via the Birmingham Hippodrome website, or by calling 0844 338 5000. If you’re using the First Night scheme, don’t forget to tell us what you think here.

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Following this, a brand new musical based on the classic TV series Happy Days will be making its UK premiere at the theatre, featuring all the original characters as they battle to save their diner Arnold’s from demolition.

(L-R) Cheryl Baker as Mrs Cunningham, Ben Freeman as The Fonz, Heidi Range as Pinky Tuscadero in Happy Days - A New Musical (Photo Paul Coltas)Happy Days – A New Musical is written by Garry Marshall, creator of the original show and director of many hit feature films including Beaches, Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries. In addition to the Happy Days theme  tune, it will feature 21 brand new songs by Bugsy Malone composer and Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe award-winning songwriter Paul Williams.

Starring in the show will be Emmerdale’s Ben Freeman as The Fonz, Sugababes singer Heidi Range as Pinky Tuscadero and Bucks Fizz’s Cheryl Baker as Mrs Cunningham. Choreography is by Andrew Wright, who also choreographed the current tour of Singin’ in the Rain, while original “Fonz” Henry Winkler will act as Creative Consultant. Amy Anzel, who featured in recent Channel 4 documentary The Sound of Musicals, is producing.

Happy Days – A New Musical will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 22nd until Saturday 26th April. Tickets are priced from £15-37 and can be booked from the Birmingham Hippodrome website, or by calling 0844 338 5000. If you are aged 16-25 and are purchasing £5 First Night tickets, please give us your thoughts here.

All Singing, All Dancing – 2014 at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Having ended a hugely successful 2013 with record-breaking Christmas panto attendance (over 115,000 people saw the show), the Birmingham Hippodrome is now dancing and singing its way into the new year with tons of exciting ballet and musical shows, beginning with a run of Matthew Bourne’s acclaimed Swan Lake production, which opens at the theatre tonight.

Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE. 15-12-2009

Following several previous sell-out seasons at the Hippodrome, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is returning for a two-week run, from Wednesday 5th – Saturday 15th February. Widely considered to be a “modern-day classic”, Bourne’s reinterpretation of the original ballet sees the traditional female cast replaced by an all-male ensemble. The iconic production has so far received over 30 international theatre awards, including three Tony Awards. Said Bourne of his return to Birmingham:

Birmingham Hippodrome continues to be one of the most important dance venues in the country and has some of the best facilities for dancers.  I am privileged and thankful to have such a strong relationship with all at Birmingham Hippodrome and the audience who have been so supportive of my work and my Company.”

This current season will see the Prince played by returning dancers Simon Williams and Sam Archer, as well as Liam Mower, who will be making his debut in the role. The Olivier Award-winning Mower previously starred in the original West End run of Billy Elliot.

In addition to the main production, audience members attending on Thursday 13th February will also have the chance to see a special “curtain raiser” performance by students from Stratford-Upon-Avon College, Walsall College and Birmingham Ormiston Academy. Inspired by Swan Lake, this five-minute show will be performed by 19 students who, over the past few months, have been working closely with Dominic North, one of Matthew Bourne’s principal dancers, and Clare Palethorpe, a freelance dance practitioner. To see get a sneak preview behind the scenes of the show, check out the official Hippodrome blog.

If you’re attending the show, don’t forget to tweet @brumhippodrome about your experience, using the hashtag #BHSwans. If you’ve been lucky enough to grab yourself £5 First Night tickets, please give us your thoughts on the scheme here.

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Following on from Swan Lake, an exciting new production of Fiddler on the Roof will be showing from Tuesday 11th – Saturday 15th March. The nine time Tony Award-winning musical is amongst Broadway’s longest running shows, and is filled with instantly recognisable songs such as If I Were A Rich Man, Matchmaker Matchmaker, To Life, Tradition and Sunrise Sunset.

This latest production is directed and choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood and stars Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky & Hutch) as Tevye, a local milkman whose traditional ideals are challenged when his headstrong daughters decide to marry for love, rather than accept the advice of Yente the Matchmaker. Glaser also featured in the 1971 film adaptation of the show, as the student and Bolshevik revolutionary Perchik. Sarah Travis is the production’s musical director and set and costume are designed by Diego Pitarch. Said Executive Producer John Stalker:

We are thrilled to welcome Paul Michael Glaser to the iconic and starring role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. It is a part he has longed to play for years and that he has chosen to realise his dream in this new production from Craig Revel Horwood for Music & Lyrics is both humbling and tremendously exciting. Musical theatre lovers the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland are in for a very special treat and we expect demand for tickets to be high”.

Tickets for Fiddler on the Roof cost £15-£37 with some £5 tickets available for those aged 16-23 as part of the First Night scheme. Please let us know if you are using the scheme. To book, call 0844 338 5000 or visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

LOTFnew

In May, Matthew Bourne will be directing a second production at the Hippodrome, his large-scale dance spectacular, The Lord of the Flies. The production will be showing from Wednesday 14th until Saturday 17th May as part of the International Dance Festival Birmingham 2014.

Presented by New Adventures in partnership with Re:Bourne, and choreographed by Olivier Award nominee Scott Ambler, the show will bring together professional dancers with young people from the West Midlands region. Professional dancers will include Sam Archer as ‘Maurice’, Luke Murphy as ‘Sam’, Dominic North as ‘Ralph’, Sam Plant as ‘Piggy’, Alastair Postlethwaite as ‘Eric’, Danny Reubens as ‘Jack’ and Dan Wright as ‘Roger’. The young cast will be unique to each venue on the production’s tour, The full cast for the Birmingham Hippodrome performance has yet to be announced. The show will also feature music by Terry Davies and set and costume design by Olivier-Award winner Lez Brotherston. Its touring directors are New Adventures principal dancers Adam Galbraith and Alan Vincent.

Tickets for The Lord of the Flies are priced at £15-£36 and can be booked by calling the box office on 0844 338 5000, or by visiting the Hippodrome’s website.

Finally, if you’re a user of the Hippodrome’s First Night scheme for 16-23 year olds, we’d love to hear your thoughts. The Hippodrome’s current First Night Bloggers have designed this quick survey to find out how you use the scheme and what shows you’d like to see more of, to help the Hippodrome to keep making things even better for you. If you have the time, please take a moment to fill it out. Thanks for your help!