Archive for the ‘ Theatre ’ Category

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.

Dream error

I had a dream.  In my dream, I arrived at a community centre I had never seen before.  It was a grey, shabby sort of place but had plenty of car parking.  I knew why I was there – it was this was the next venue for the small-scale touring production of Guys and Dolls I was performing in.  Obviously.  In the twinkling of an eye, I was inside, changing into costume in an impractically small dressing room alongside other cast members, some of them people I have worked with before, others without names, yet still familiar.  In my costume, which included a brightly coloured shirt and a gangster-style hat, I then sat in the small hall, watching my castmates run through part of the show which needed some attention.  They sang the number ‘Too Darn Hot’ and some tweaks were made to the choreography to make it fit the space available.

It wasn’t until I woke up that I thought to question any of this, and there was one burning issue in my mind.  Not “why would you put on a pocket-sized production of Guys and Dolls when you need at least a dozen men?”  Not “what on Earth was my role in the production?” – there is no obvious part for the Singing Librarian in this show.  No, the question I asked as I awoke was “what on Earth was ‘Too Darn Hot’ doing in Guys and Dolls?  Which is a very good question, as it’s normally found in Kiss Me, Kate.  My subconscious mind really should have known that!


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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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Why won’t the sheep cross that land?

Sometimes people should stop and ask themselves “is this really a good idea?”  If they did, I would have been spared my worst theatrical memory, which is still vivid nearly fifteen years later.  By far the worst thing I have ever witnessed on the stage was The Roswell Incident, in a touring production by Music Theatre Wales.  I was studying A Level Theatre Studies at the time, and we had to immerse ourselves in as much theatre as possible, so we would dutifully travel to the nearest towns and cities which were blessed with theatres, and saw many wonderful productions, including Blood Brothers and a Georges Feydeau farce, which made me laugh until I cried.  The Roswell Incident just left me numb, partly because what we did not know until we arrived was that this was a chamber opera (we really hadn’t done our research, for all we knew really was the title and the venue).  The main thought that passed repeatedly through our heads as we watched it unfold was ‘why?’  Why did anyone decide this was a good idea?  Why didn’t anyone stop them?  And why are we watching this?  To be fair, the year was 1997, the 50th anniversary of the famous potential alien crash landing, but that really was no excuse.

The opera opened with lots of flashing lights and exciting sci-fi-type noises in a sequence designed to evoke the flight, and more importantly the crash landing, of an alien vessel.  After this visceral, exciting and engaging beginning, we met our first character, a farmer, and we were treated to an aria (I think that would be the right term) from him.  Even now, I have flashbacks to this moment, as he maintained a straight face as he asked “why won’t the sheep cross that land?”  A fair question, but opera of course tends to stretch most questions and statements out for a very long time indeed.  Sometimes this can be beautiful, but in this case it was almost funny, but not in a good way.  I remember distinctly that “sheep”, on at least one occasion during this song/aria/section of recitative/whatever, lasted for more syllables than it should be allowed to.  “Shee-hee-hee-hee-heep” a relatively accurate rendering of it.  And the word “land” was set on a very low note indeed, right at the bottom of the singer’s range.  Basses can sound glorious, but there is something extraordinarily comical about a man hitting the lowest notes in his register (hitting the highest notes, on the other hand, is often painful rather than funny).  Perhaps time has been unkind, exaggerating these features which struck me on first (and, thank goodness, last) hearing, but there was worse to come.

The alien or aliens (it wasn’t entirely clear) was or were portrayed by four children in platinum blond(e) wigs.  At one point in the proceedings, these four little cherubs sang a song about…  well, about something.  Possibly about being a lovely peace-loving alien or aliens, travelling through space and spreading alien happiness.  I don’t recall.  What I do recall is that the choreography largely involved tipping their heads to one side, straightening them and then tipping them to the other side.  The reason I remember this is because one alien (or one aspect of the alien’s mind) had a loose wig, so that when its head tilted one way, the wig would flop off, then would land neatly back on the child’s head a few bars later, only to come loose again.  Over and over again.  I doubt anyone in the audience would have noticed if the rest of the cast ran around naked at the back of the stage, as the flip-flopping wig had a hypnotic power which held our attention in a truly powerful way.  Which would explain why I can’t remember what the alien or aliens was or were singing about.

To make matters worse, to illustrate the crash of the ship and the terribly sad death of its crew of one or four, the children climbed into body bags.  Except one of them couldn’t get the body bag open, so we were treated to the sight of a poor child struggling with a sheet of black plastic, desperately trying to create an opening to crawl into.  I want to be able to say that he or she just gave up and threw the unopened body bag over their body, but I think that is just wishful thinking.  By this point, anything could have happened and I really wouldn’t have been surprised.

After the wigs and body bags section, the opera went on to examine other perspectives on the incident, including the yearly Roswell UFO Festival and other ways in which the event has made an impact on society.  It may have had some interesting points to make, but by this point it had lost me.  I truly could not believe what I was seeing and hearing.  Now, so many years later, I sometimes have to get the programme out to reassure myself that the whole thing was not a fever dream.  A truly surreal experience, I can’t imagine I will ever see anything like it again.

Managing the stage, watching the champagne

Just as I did last year, I spent the last week of October stage managing for Herne Bay Operatic Society on another relatively small-scale compilation show.  This time around was easier than the previous year for various reasons.  Firstly, I had more of an idea of what I was supposed to be doing, which always helps with both confidence and competence.  Secondly, we had less issues concerning sound, so the constant relay of hand-held mics was avoided – two mics were in use, but infrequently and they only needed to be passed from cast member to cast member on stage once.  Thirdly, I had some help backstage, in the form of a very experienced props mistress, who has been backstage for many of the shows I’ve performed in.  She really knows her stuff and remains calm and controlled at all times.

Unlike last year, I didn’t end up providing off-stage narration, which was quite a relief, but I was required to make a cameo appearance.  I couldn’t quite work out why one of the real cast members couldn’t have done it, but I was required to appear, sweeping the stage, only to be distracted by a rendition of ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’.  I was told that my appearance and reactions to the song made me look like Vic Reeves or a young Eric Morecambe.  I think I shall take that as a positive!

In terms of furniture and props, there wasn’t too much to keep track of – two tables, three chairs and a collection of stools, mostly.  However, the two of us backstage derived much interest and amusement from watching what happened with some drinks served on stage.  Two of the sections were set up to be a Parisian cafe and a sophisticated party.  In the first, a waitress passed out glasses of red wine and champagne (aka different flavours of Schloer) and in the second, the cast came on with glasses of the same ‘champagne’.  There were enough glasses for each member of the cast, and the distribution of the glasses in the second section was important as one man collected his (brought on by someone else) from a table part way through, and any that were left would be cleared by two other cast members in a bit of comic business.  Somehow, though, things often did not quite work out.  I watched in amusement when one cast member exchanged his red wine for champagne, explaining to the waitress that he didn’t like the red Schloer, and I watched in horror on the last night when the same cast member found himself without a glass and instead of managing without (there was no essential ‘business’ with the glasses for him), proceeded to mime having a glass.  In full view of the audience, he would inspect the fluid level, take sips and so forth, all from an invisible glass.  And of course, because he was miming, his movements were larger and more noticeable than those made by people with real glasses.  In another performance, the spare glass disappeared after being taken on to the stage, and I had to creep as close to the action as possible without being spotted by the audience, and mime to another cast member that they needed to put their glass down on the table so that it would be retrievable by the one man who actually needed a champagne class for the scene.  It took a while – I will clearly never be a champion Charades player.  At other times, people somehow managed to mix their drinks, creating all sorts of interesting new colours of liquid on the stage.  I would stand in the wings with the props mistress and watch the champagne with great fascination each night, never sure what I was going to see.

I am still certainly  not experienced enough to tackle stage management on a larger scale, partly for reasons which cross over with my reluctance to move into any management-type role in my career.  I don’t have the confidence to intervene forcefully in some situations.  Although the stage manager is supposed to be in charge, I was very aware that some of the others involved are much more experienced in backstage and technical matters than I am, so being in charge seemed somehow wrong.  I also like to be in control of the things I am supposed to achieve, and with a larger backstage crew, I would be worrying about whether everyone would be ready for each scene change and so forth.  With just a few trusted people to be thinking about back stage and in the lighting/sound control room, this was not an issue.  I did feel more in charge than last year, and was able to exert my authority when it came to matters which I considered to involve the health and safety of those involved with the show, so perhaps this will come.

During the week, several people asked whether I’d ever be interested in directing a show.  This is an idea that both excites and terrifies me (it involves making so very many decisions and probably upsetting quite a few people), and it looks likely that it will happen in the relatively near future.


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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 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.

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