Archive for the ‘ Musicals ’ Category

Back to Titanic


On Thursday, this being the centenary week of the sinking of RMS Titanic, I travelled up to Bromley after work to watch West Wickham Operatic Society’s great production of Titanic the musical.

Titanic the Musical.  Sounds crass, doesn’t it?  Those three words conjure images of flying icebergs, substandard cover versions of Celine Dion and the horrifying possibility of a tap dance to the strains of Wallace Hartley’s band.

Thankfully, none of these things form part of this show, and strangely it is not just a show I enjoyed watching, it’s one of the shows I’m proudest of having appeared in.  First performed on Broadway in 1997, Titanic has music by Maury Yeston and a script by Peter Stone.  It features dozens of named characters – all bar one of them actually sailed  on the great ship’s fateful voyage.  The ‘star’ is the entire company, and nobody’s heart goes on.  At least, not in so many words.

I had the great fortune to perform in Titanic during November 2008, playing the character of Harold Bride, one of the telegraph operators on the ship.  I was one of a privileged few members of the cast who only played one character (some, even with well over 50 people on stage, were obliged to take on 3 or more roles), and he was a character I came to love.  We were encouraged to research the people we were playing, which made the rehearsal process more educational than for your standard show!  We all knew where the authors had deviated from a totally accurate portrayal of events in service of dramatic effectiveness, and as we truly appreciated the reality of the people we were portraying, more than a few tears were shed in rehearsal.

The scale of the show is huge, following characters from all three classes on the ship as well as a number of crewmen from captain to stoker, chief steward to bellboy.  Each has their hopes and dreams, each has their own way of speaking.  Despite the parade of characters, the audience is somehow never lost and the wide focus makes it clear that this show is not about one or two passengers, but about the ship and all who sailed on her.  Although much of the dialogue is laden with irony due to the audience knowing what’s coming, it never descends into spoof and instead of being crass it serves as a memorial to the great ship and all who sailed on her.  Their hopes and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses, their failures, their heroism and above all their humanity.

The voyage of RMS Titanic is a legend.  This year, there will be many productions of the musical around the world.  Don’t be put off.  Go.  The music is majestic, the ensemble singing is amazing and the show pays homage to those who were lost without being over-sentimental.  There simply is no better dramatisation of these events.

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My posts from the time of the show :

A show in a week?


Sometimes, it’s fun to scare yourself a little.  Roller-coasters.  New culinary sensations.  Whatever gets the adrenaline pumping.  So why not put on a show with one week of rehearsals?  That’s pretty much what Lights Up Productions have been up to.  It’s extraordinarily scary, but very exciting as well.

The show is I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a comic exploration of dating, romance, marriage and every aspect of love.  The cast of eight portray dozens of characters as we move from first dates to meeting the parents, marriage, kids and beyond.  The main ingredient in the rehearsal room has been laughter, as we have dissolved into fits of giggles (and the occasional snort) on many occasions.  There are some serious bits as well, with some of the songs and sketches showing extraordinary honesty, particularly those which look at long-term relationships and at people coping with the loss of their loved ones.

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There are always wolves


I shouldn’t have played the wolf.

That’s not modesty (false or otherwise) on my part, but the truth.  I played Rapunzel’s Prince in Into the Woods and traditionally, the role of the Wolf is doubled by the actor playing Cinderella’s Prince (older brother to the prince I played).  Certain other characters are traditionally doubled in the show, but as it happened, this was the only doubling in our production.  There are many reasons why the original doubling is preserved.  The biggest of them is probably that Cinderella’s Prince doesn’t make an appearance until after the Wolf has been done away with, whereas Rapunzel’s Prince has a scene between the Wolf’s two appearances on stage, making the costume change issue more complicated.  This would also leave the prince’s steward free to double the role, and indeed this was originally mooted for us.

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Lessons from the woods


It’s show week for Into the Woods and things are going well.  We could do with selling a few hundred more tickets, but the feedback we’ve been getting from audiences has been wonderful.  It was quite wonderful to finally get on stage after six months of rehearsal, and it was a particular treat because the set smelt really beautiful at first, as it includes fresh pine – lovely!

At various points in the show, some of the characters consider the lessons they have been learning on their journeys through the woods (though it soon becomes evident that some of them learn nothing at all).  So what have I been learning?

  • A moment of vagueness means a few bars of miming.
  • The slippier the shoes, the further the slide.
  • The hair of a wig tastes most foul in the mouth.
  • Entering too early is embarrassing for all.
  • You may know it’s all good and all learnt and all ready, but you’re pleased when the audience laughs.

And finally, I have learned that if you are going to cut yourself shaving, the day of the dress rehearsal is not a good time to do it.  Having to apply and remove make-up at least twice (depending on how difficult a particular make-up moment turns out to be) means that the cut doesn’t have a chance to heal and actually gets worse.  Oops.

Into the Woods is a very special show indeed, and touches my heartstrings in unexpected ways.  I have tried to explain what the show is about over at a site devoted to East Kent theatre – Stage Corner.

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.

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