Archive for the ‘ Musicals ’ Category

CD of the Moment: Kitty’s Kisses


My collection of musical theatre cast recordings has expanded faster than I’ve been able to listen to the CDs, a state of affairs that simply cannot be allowed to continue. So one of my aims for 2011 is to work my way through these thus-far unplayed discs, and to write about those which seem particularly worthy of note.  The first of these is a recording of an old show that even I hadn’t heard of before the recording was announced.

Kitty's Kisses CD art

Kitty's Kisses CD cover

Kitty’s Kisses : World Premiere Recording

PS Classics – PS-987

During the 1920s, literally hundreds of musicals opened and closed on Broadway, and even the most successful of them tended to last for one or two years at the most.  A run of a few months was enough to turn a profit and classify a show as a hit.  The cream of these shows are still household names, including Show Boat and Porgy & Bess, but most of them have since been forgotten, their songs and dances lost to the mists of time.  For a musical from 1926 to receive a 21st-century recording, particularly since it has never been recorded before, is quite remarkable.

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South Pacific in East Kent


Earlier in the month, I went to a production of South Pacific performed in the area.  For some reason, I hadn’t quite got around to writing about it, so it’s really about time!  I went because one of my colleagues was performing in it, but I also found that I knew many other people in the cast and crew – the nature of amateur performance, I suppose!  It proved to be quite an effort getting to see it, as the show is long, and ended after the last bus or train back home.  After trying to work out various implausible travel options, I eventually managed to find someone who was going the same night as me and beg a lift from them.

As is often the case, there were things to like about the production, as well as things to dislike and things to love.  The best thing for me was the performance of the leading lady, who made an absolutely brilliant Nellie.  She had a rich voice and an engaging stage presence.  She acted the part of the hick perfectly, and maintained her accent throughout, but was never wearing or annoying, which the character easily could be if played wrongly.  Running a close second were the men of the ensemble in their two big numbers – ‘Bloody Mary’ and the famous, much-parodied ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame’.  Their energy was infectious, their harmonies were good and they were extremely watchable.  For the first time ever in an amateur context, I felt that the male ensemble outshone the female ensemble by many watts of brilliance.

Some frustrations included the accents.  Maintaining an accent is hard.  I know.  I don’t always manage it myself, and accidentally go wandering around North America quite frequently.  But a few people just didn’t try, sticking with their British (specifically Kentish) pronunciation, and others noticeably drifted back and forth across the Atlantic.  Another strange annoyance was footwear.  I don’t often notice shoes (though I do try to find appropriate shoes for my characters), but I could not help but spot many anachronistic items of footwear on the stage.  Sandals, jelly shoes and so on of a distinctly modern nature which looked most out of place in a show that is very firmly set in the Second World War.  This was particularly frustrating in the case of one man who I thought would have been more likely to go barefoot.  It couldn’t have been a health and safety issue, as Luther Billis later turned up with nothing on his feet.  Sometimes the details can be most frustrating.

The glory of South Pacific is in its score, which grips you right from the opening notes of the overture, the three notes which are the leitmotif for Bali H’ai, the special island which holds much intrigue and allure for the American characters.  Treasures such as ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ and ‘Younger Than Springtime’ are included, glorious melodies coupled with romantic lyrics which just send the heart soaring.  There can sometimes be problems with the script of the show, as it is tricky to direct and perform well, but those songs are surefire hits.  Almost every one of the numbers landed really well.  I just wished there was a way to shut the audience up during that magical overture.

There is an aspect of the show which I intend to return to in another post, and that is its anti-racism message and particularly the song ‘Carefully Taught’.  This is the hardest aspect of the show for modern theatre people and audiences, and in this case, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, it didn’t quite work for me.  But it was certainly an enjoyable evening in the theatre, and no doubt ‘Nothing Like a Dame’ echoed through everyone’s heads for quite some time after seeing it.

Here comes her kiss


On Wednesday, I went up to London with a friend to see a production of Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical, presented by SEDOS.  This group has an excellent reputation as one of London’s best amateur performing societies, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch one of Kander and Ebb’s musicals which I hadn’t seen before (though I know the score well through the two cast recordings).  The venue was the Bridewell Theatre, a small and fascinating venue.

The show is based on the novel of the same name by Manuel Puig (which has itself been the basis for a play and a film), adapted by Terrence McNally with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb.  Kiss of the Spider Woman tells of the unlikely and complicated friendship between two prisoners in a South American jail cell – Valentin, a revolutionary, and Molina, serving time for sexual relations with an underage boy.  Molina survives jail by refusing to see what he doesn’t want to see and by recounting the stories of the films featuring screen idol Aurora.  However, he is haunted by the fear of one of her cinematic roles – the Spider Woman, whose kiss means death.  Most of the action takes place inside the jail cell or in the imaginations of the prisoners – Aurora’s films come to life, and we see the two men imagining those they love outside the prison.  The gentlemen of the chorus are prisoners, guards and Aurora’s four dancing men.

This is not one of Kander and Ebb’s best known works, unlikely to eclipse Cabaret, Chicago and New York, New York, but it is a fascinating show.  Molina and Valentin are deeply flawed people to spend an evening with, but very interesting.  McNally’s adaptation succeeds in making them interesting people, and gives little hints about the other characters, who are aptly described as “the people in Molina’s life” – as we see them, they mostly exist as his imaginations.  The Warden is seen as his real self most of the time, but everyone else gets only a few moments in act two where we find out what they’re really like, and how well they match Molina’s idealised version of themselves.  Aurora is deliberately a chameleon, with her presence being the biggest change from the source material in the musical.  In each fantasy sequence where she appears, she takes on a different persona, but is always beautiful and compelling, even as the sinister Spider Woman, who seems to haunt the prison due to Molina’s fear of ugliness and death.  Given the setting, much of the score has a latin feel to it, but twisted beyond expectations – there is a ‘Morphine Tango’, for instance.  Many of the lyrics are about escape, about denying what is real in order to embrace what is not, for this is Molina’s philosophy.  But there is also a searing, soaring anthem in ‘They Day After That’ and a recurring theme of anger, frustration and longing in ‘Over the Wall’ as the various prisoners imagine what is going on outside their jail.  The title number occurs towards the end, but is teased in fragmentary form throughout the show as the Spider Woman’s deadly kiss comes closer and closer to the lead characters.  Everything builds towards a final few scenes which are simultaneously sad and beautiful, tragic and fitting.  Even knowing what was coming, I still found ‘Only in the Movies’, sung by Molina and the People in His Life exceptionally moving.

The setting for this production was simple, with the set largely consisting of two beds and four movable sets of prison bars, wheeled into different configurations depending on the demands of the scene.  Chairs, a hospital bed on wheels and a raised walkway stalked by both the prison’s warden and the sinister Spider Woman were the only other additions, with everything else relying on the imaginations of the characters, actors and audiences.  As Molina spends much of his time living in a fantasy world, slowly taking Valentin with him, this all made perfect sense – we had to exercise our imaginations in the same way he did.  His idol Aurora would appear from various different places to elucidate his philosophy, provide a distraction or enact a movie, bringing life and colour into the jail.  The shadows naturally provided by the theatre’s balcony were used effectively, with the ensemble appearing from the gloom.  Particularly striking was ‘The Day After That’, wherein Valentin recalls how he joined his leftist cause, remembering a rally where people remembered their disappeared loved ones.  The members of the company appeared bearing candles and pictures of those they had lost.  For part of the number, the artificial light was killed, leaving just their faces illuminated by flickering flames.

The direction and choreography were inventive, keeping everything moving, so that there was always something happening – the prison bars on wheels even made the set changes look interesting and engaging.  The band, up on the balcony, sounded super, and the sound in general was excellent.  I know all too well how hard it is to get good sound, so the technical team should be feeling very proud of themselves.  The singing was excellent, with strong harmony (a mostly male musical with strong harmony?  It can be done!).  And the performances from the leads were very enjoyable.  The quartet ‘Dear One’, always a beautiful number, was ravishing, and the trio ‘Anything for Him’ was fascinating and chilling at the same time.  Best of all was the performance of David Walker-Smith as Molina – at turns funny, vulnerable, admirable and touching.  His acting, singing and stage presence were worthy of any and all superlatives.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a brave choice for anyone, not least an amateur group.  The show is dark and strange, the score has moments of haunting beauty, pulsating rhythm and spine-tingling calls from the Spider Woman.  The production met all of the demands of the show head-on, producing a truly fantastic night at the theatre.  I definitely hope to return to a SEDOS production again, and would certainly encourage others to do so.

In defence of Footloose


As one of the 1980s film ‘musicals’ which have been steadily appearing in stage adaptations in recent years (Dirty Dancing, Fame and Flashdance being others), Footloose has come in for a lot of criticism, being for some people an example of all that is wrong with contemporary musical theatre.  I have both seen and performed in Footloose, and although it won’t top my list of favourite musicals (though my role in it will rank as one of the performances I’m most proud of, I think) any time soon, I like the show a lot.  I hadn’t really thought about why until I read some comments on the blog Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals which spurred me to examine why I liked the show – is it actually good?  Or does it match my reaction to Starlight Express – awful, but very entertaining?

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Lucky Stiff


Watching friends perform is wonderful, but also slightly nerve-wracking.  I feel nervous on their behalf, willing them to do well and hoping that my presence in the audience isn’t off-putting.  Thankfully, as long as they start off well, these worries quickly vanish and I can get on with enjoying the performance.  Last night, I watched Lucky Stiff at University College London, starring a young man who was a student in Fame, a Future Kid in Marty’s Project and one of the two guys playing my antagonist Ren in Footloose.

Lucky Stiff is a farce, which I first heard of due to a song called ‘Times Like This’ which appeared on a CD compiling tracks from off-Broadway shows.  That song was enough to encourage me to buy a full recording of the show, which is, like any decent farce, completely bonkers.  Harry Witherspoon, a repressed Englishman, inherits several million dollars from his previously unknown American uncle, on condition that he takes his uncle’s body on a trip to Monte Carlo (thanks to taxidermy, he won’t rot or smell).  Complicating matters are the staff of Universal Dog Home, who had hoped to inherit, his uncle’s ex-girlfriend who is desperate to get hold of a heart-shaped box and a man called Luigi who pops up literally everywhere Harry goes.  Naturally, things get extremely complex, thanks to bad eyesight, ambition, drunken maids and a variety of other unforeseen incidents.  The show is written by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), the team most famous for the much-respected musical Ragtime as well as the songs for the animated film Anastasia.  The twists and turns in the script come thick and fast, as do the laughs. Unusually, neither the plot nor the laughs are put on hold for the songs, some of which represent some truly ludicrous situations (which make perfect sense at the time, of course).  The pace does slow down occasionally, for ‘Times Like This’ and ‘Nice’, but naturally – sometimes songs in farces can feel like someone has slammed the brakes on unexpectedly.

The cast and those behind the scenes did an excellent job with this production, which was staged in the round.  Each brought bags of personality to their role (or roles) and the vocals, both solo and ensemble were impressive, easily filling the space and balancing with the four-person band.  The director included lots of wonderful little touches in each scene and kept the action flowing. Much attention had obviously been paid to ensuring that each side of the audience got their fair turn at seeing the actors’ faces as well.  There were moments when I felt the show was slightly over-choreographed – it’s not a big dance show, but there was a few points at which characters would dance unnecessarily, particularly Harry Witherspoon, who had been in motion quite a bit before claiming “I can’t dance!” – he had even executed a few tap moves (though sans tap shoes), which made this claim unintentionally funny.

My young friend did a good job, and it was nice seeing him act and sing in an English accent.  He was believably awkward, nervous, bemused and frustrated as the plot demanded, and created an endearing character who you really wanted to root for.  It was intriguing, also, to be able to pick out his voice quite easily in the ensemble singing (even the background oohs and aahs) which shows how well you can get to know someone’s voice if you work with them for a while.  There were a couple of moments when I was worried that he would crack and start laughing, but he managed to control himself (though I did spot a smile during his ‘nightmare).  A couple of others in the cast didn’t manage to keep the mirth in quite so well, but none of them ‘corpsed’ in a disastrous manner.  Even when the leading lady found herself amused by various intrusions into a scene, she managed to cover this and convert it into in-character confusion.

I was proud of him, and pleased to be watching it with another talented young performer, who had also been part of shows with both of us.  He did an excellent job of being the ‘straight’ man in the midst of all the chaos, and displayed a good sense of comedy as well as the straight acting and singing skills I already knew he had.  I was pleasantly surprised by the general talent level of the cast, which was extremely high (my only criticism was one guy who seemed slightly lost with the dance moves, and I can certainly empathise with that!).  I spent a lot of the evening smiling broadly, and indeed laughing out loud. I feel very lucky to have seen Lucky Stiff.

Jerry Bock


It has been reported (at Broadwayworld.com) that musical theatre composer Jerry Bock died last night at the age of 81.  Most famous for writing the music for Fiddler on the Roof, his legacy to the world also includes a number of other shows, including Fiorello!, one of the few musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  In a strange coincidence, Joseph Stein, who wrote the book (the spoken words) for Fiddler, died only last month.

Fiddler on the Roof is definitely Bock’s most well-known contribution to musical theatre, containing numbers which evoke emotions from joy to despair, but there are some hidden gems in his catalogue of works.  The melody for ‘Artificial Flowers’ from Tenderloin is truly beautiful (though you wouldn’t know it from Bobby Darrin’s recording), and I have a bit of a soft spot for the score of She Loves Me (not least because the show’s lead would be a wonderful part to play).  It even includes a song called ‘A Trip to the Library’, so how could I fail to like it?  The title song and ‘Where’s My Shoe?’ are great pieces of character writing, and ‘Twelve Days to Christmas’ evokes the panic of festive shopping perfectly.  But my favourite number from the show, and from Jerry Bock, is probably ‘Tonight at Eight’ :

His style may not have been as distinctive as some of the other musical theatre writers of his generation like John Kander or Jerry Herman, but Mr Bock had a flair for melody, sometimes supporting a comic lyric as in ‘Tonight at Eight’, sometimes evoking a particular time or place, sometimes soaring free.  His name may not be that well known outside of theatrical circles, but the power of Fiddler on the Roof ensures that his legacy will last for a long time to come.  Jerry Bock, rest in peace.

Finding my feet again


Having reached a place of despondency with Footloose, things managed to get worse before they got better.  Part of my attack of the glums was probably caused by general feelings of physical exhaustion, as the mildly stuffy nose turned into an uncomfortable sore throat and a somewhat more than mildly stuffy nose.  In order to ensure that breathing was at optimum level for singing, I became quickly identifiable (and quite popular) backstage due to the smell of Olbas Oil.  Several others had been ill in the lead-up to the show, and I believe a good proportion of the cast is now feeling the effects as well.

On the Friday night, I experienced one of my most terrifying moments on stage.  A few lines in to my solo, “Heaven Help Me”, my mouth continued moving, but not a sound came out.  So I sang ‘Someone’s got to … … … … If I don’t who will?’, which made very little sense (for the record, someone’s got to take the high road).  It was only a brief moment of nothingness, but it was truly terrifying.  My mind raced with the horrifying possibilities – what if my voice had run away and I had to continue mouthing the entire song?  Was there any way someone could rescue me, even though I was alone on the stage?  Thankfully, a deep breath at the end of the missing line, and things return to normal.  I still wanted the earth to open up and swallow me, but had to change from ‘at home’ to ‘at church’ costume ready for the final scene of the act.  I don’t know whether it was the nose and throat, some sort of mental affliction or just random fate which conspired to create those few seconds of personal horror, but it certainly galvanised me for the second act – I had to just pretend that act one had not happened and get out there and be the best darned Reverend Moore I could be.  Apparently, I found out later, it looked like a problem with my mic rather than with me, though that seems rather unfair to the hardworking sound man.

After the Friday night show, I opted to walk home, giving me a chance to experience some quiet, some fresh air and a chance to have a good long talk with God.  I expressed my frustrations and anxieties about the role, I told him about the feelings from life in general that had got tangled up with Footloose, and I tried to listen to Him in response (something I am so very bad at doing).

On Saturday, I was still feeling ill, but I was feeling calmer than I had felt all week.  And I started to enjoy the show.  I had enjoyed spending time with my fellow cast members and there was much entertaining people-watching to do, but it wasn’t until Saturday that I felt able to let go and enjoy the experience of performing the role rather than fretting and being neurotic about it.  It was still hard work – Shaw Moore is a very challenging part – but it became considerably more enjoyable than I had made it earlier in the run.  Whether you choose to put this down to God’s influence or to something else, this was most definitely a good thing.  It would have been a terrible shame to have been given such a great opportunity to truly act and then not enjoy it at all.

After the show on Saturday, quite a number of people I had never met came up to me and congratulated me on my performance as Reverend Moore, saying that they found it very moving.  This was very encouraging, and made me want to cry in a very good way.  I still feel I could have done better, but can’t we always do better?  However, I definitely found my feet and am sure I am stronger because of the experience.

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