Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

“Follies” at the National Theatre

This lavish production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is a triumph for director Dominic Cooke. This is a piece that divides opinion. While its songs have gained fame, the rambling story of past lives, set around a reunion of former Broadway performers, has too slender a book by James Goldman. But in Cooke’s hands this feast of melancholic nostalgia is coherent and compelling. With no small help from the Olivier’s revolve, a static story is made to at least feel dynamic. The tone is serious, suitably so, with any camp fiercely controlled. The cast is huge, the orchestra lush and Vicki Mortimer’s design will surely garner her an award for the costumes alone. The ‘ghosts’ of lives past appear with a gorgeous array of headgear, while the late 1960s costumes of those meeting one last time before a theatre is demolished are just as meticulous and impressive.

Imelda Staunton as playing Sally and Janie Dee as Phyllis

Follies provides the irony of performers at the top of their game pretending that their careers are over. Imelda Staunton continues her reign as Queen of Musicals by playing Sally and is matched by Janie Dee as Phyllis. The women performed and dated together but have ended up in sad marriages with the wrong men. Sharing their unhappiness are the husbands, Ben and Buddy, brilliantly performed by Philip Quast and Peter Forbes respectively. The women have the stronger numbers. Staunton delivers the hit Losing My Mind impeccably and her hysterical devotion to the man who got away manages against all odds to be convincing. Dee is the wicked witch of the piece, getting the laughs and showing the emptiness of her character’s successful life with pathos. But of all the mid-to-late-life crisis on offer here (and there’s plenty of it) Phyllis is the only one that entertains. There’s young talent in the show, too: Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig both do well as the immature versions of the men but, while Zizi Strallen and Alex Young ably perform their roles as the younger women, the parts themselves are frustratingly thinly written.

Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis, Alex Young as Young Sally, Fred Haig as Young Buddy and Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben

Given its size, Follies is a major investment to stage – a concert production was my only experience so expectations were high. To say this isn’t Sondheim’s best work still makes it head and shoulders above most musicals. But some of the lyrics are strangely flat and a couple of numbers, which take us back the early days of Broadway, of primarily academic interest. It’s the book that causes most problems – much of the show is a series of introductions – that fail to excite – about characters not met again. It’s a poor build up to a prolonged conclusion – the central quartet’s individual “follies” numbers that feel like ground already trodden. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to truly engage and the characters’ angst start to look like whinging. Musicals can cover serious topics – nobody proves that better than Sondheim – but here we just have a collection of personal crises that ends up dispiriting.

Until 3 January 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Into The Woods” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Derek McLane’s set, surrounding the Fiasco Theatre Company as it performs its hit transfer from the States, is a sculptural presence that takes us inside a piano. Discarded keyboards frame the stage and the strings are ropes, suggesting the trees among which James Lapine cleverly mixes and matches fairy tales to Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant music.

menier chocolate factory
Claire Karpen as Cinderella with Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen as the Stepsisters

Visually and aurally, this is a stripped-back show. A single piano, with an impressive array of percussion and a smattering of other instruments, is performed by the cast, and led by pianist Evan Rees. Sacrifices are inevitable, incidentally discordant notes at the entrée of Act Two are unnecessary, but the singing is all you could wish for, especially with Claire Karpen and Vanessa Reseland as Cinderella and The Witch. There’s some lovely doubling of roles as well. Having the princes perform as the wicked stepsisters is worth sacrificing two sopranos; Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen are marvellous, also taking the roles of the wolf and the cow in their stride.

Vanessa Reseland as The Witch
Vanessa Reseland as The Witch

It all seems a casual and convivial affair. The troupe wear home-spun costumes (crochet is always comforting), the props are minimal and the emphasis on invention is, well, jolly. There’s a conversational tone injected by directors Brody and Ben Steinfeld, constructed by having the cast share the role of narrator, while nodding at audience participation and our shared knowledge of the stories. Brilliantly done, but the payoff is to come.

It’s the ‘ever after’ that’s the best bit, when the wishes made have come true but life remains just as complicated. The baker and his wife come into focus – with terrific performances from Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian. This couple are the key and the most relatable characters in the show, even if they do live next to a witch. Fiasco has prepared the ground cleverly; all that complicity and transparency links their stories to our own lives. In showing how you make the make believe, going into these woods feels like a real journey we must all undertake.

Until 17 September 2016

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Catheine Ashmore

“Road Show” at the Union Theatre

The construction of luxury flats on Union Street is a topical tag for Phil Willmott’s production of this Sondheim and Weidman musical. Following the fortune-seeking Meisner brothers, the focus is their later careers as Florida property developers, and the American Dream is examined through the land boom building of Boca Raton. It’s an odd subject matter and a strangely clinical piece.

There’s a good deal of brothers Addison and Wilson’s journey that’s entertaining and insightful: from the gold rush to gambling, with the familiar Sondheim theme of the arts and patronage. The songs and the lyrics are strong but this is sub-standard Sondheim – still good, of course, but much time is spent wondering why it isn’t better.

On his deathbed, the brothers’ father wonders what type of nation his boys will help to create, but this weighty central question feels forced. Too quickly afterwards there’s a deal of rushed campery as the hapless siblings struggle away. Road Show is notable for its explicit gay relationship between Addison and a poor little rich kid called Hollis. It’s the only time we’re allowed a glimpse of sentiment. Call me soppy, but this seems a bit mean.

There’s not much Willmott can do with these problems. However, while miming sequences in the show are a neat move, they could have been better (and should surely have been suspended for a scene in which one brother draws a knife on the other). Willmott is too keen to use his large cast, but having them double up to fill the stage proves distracting. And yet the director has secured a number of strong performances.

In the lead roles Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig perform well and sound great. The latter, as Wilson, convinces as a rogue, fool and thriller but his acting might be better suited to a larger venue. Jenkins’ appropriate restraint is preferable. The brothers’ mother has a great number that Cathryn Sherman makes the most of, and Joshua LeClair is a fine Hollis.

Another big problem is the show’s lack of humour. The laughs are set up but seldom land. Sometimes it’s a question of delivery but more often it’s the piece’s downbeat tone. Both brothers feel like devices to show societal ills, Wilson a con artist, and architect Addison denied his chance to be more a than master builder. The central relationship between them is poorly constructed, their closeness clumsily established and not fully explored until the conclusion. It’s simply not motivating enough, making this a show you can’t roll with, merrily or otherwise.

Until 5 March 2016

www.uniontheatre.biz

“Gypsy” at the Savoy Theatre

Believe the hype. Jonathan Kent’s triumphant revival of Gypsy, coming from the Chichester Festival Theatre, deserves every one of the many stars critics have lavished upon it. And, as for stars, Imelda Staunton’s much lauded performance in the lead really is a triumph, attracting every superlative imaginable.

Of course, it helps that the musical itself is wonderful. Jule Styne’s score has hits and a satisfying coherence that builds power in a symphonic fashion. Arthur Laurents’ book is perfection: powerful family relationships and fundamental emotions elaborated through the story of a pushy showbiz mother, touring America’s dying Vaudeville circuit, and the bitter success of her daughter becoming the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are justly legendary, from ‘Have an Egg Roll Mr Goldstone’ to the phenomenal ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’.

This production of Gypsy has the highest standards. It feels like a bit of Broadway in the West End. Kent’s handling is loving – he knows he’s crafting a gem and creates a tremendous energy. The show sounds gloriously brassy, which is just right, while the detailed, mobile sets from Anthony Ward embody a ‘Hi, ho the glamorous life’ of travelling performers. There are strong performances from Gemma Sutton and Lara Pulver as Momma Rose’s long-suffering daughters, especially Pulver and she blossoms into the striptease sensation that is Gypsy.

Against this flawless backdrop, Staunton excels as Momma Rose. Surely there can be few roles more daunting – remember, the critic Frank Rich described the part as musical theatre’s unlikely answer to King Lear. And think of what big shoes there are to fill. Staunton’s comedy skills are the best around and, in Gypsy, her acting shines. When Staunton wants a laugh – she got it. But Momma Rose is grown with subtlety, her fragility well established before her final breakdown. This makes the famous scene of ‘Rose’s Turn’ startlingly brave and painfully real.

Curtain up until 28 November 2015

www.gypsythemusical.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Sweeney Todd” at the English National Opera

Lonny Price’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd has been widely anticipated since its rapturous reception in New York last year. Now the hot ticket at the ENO, opera megastar Bryn Terfel plays the demon barber, seeking revenge for the injustice that ruined his family while supplying his landlady Mrs Lovett with filling for her cannibalistic pies.

The jewels at the centre of the production are the orchestra and chorus. It’s a precious treat to hear a Sondheim score performed so masterfully, under the baton of David Charles Abell, while a massive chorus, of mostly young musical theatre performers, benefits from the Coliseum’s impressive acoustics and thrilling atmosphere. This Sweeney Todd sounds fantastic.

ENO Sweeney Todd Emma Thompson and ensemble (c) Tristram Kenton
Emma Thompson and ensemble

The quality of many secondary roles is notable. Matthew Seadon-Young and Katie Hall are irresistible as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna. Hall’s performance of ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ is the best I’ve heard. The excellent Rosalie Craig plays the Beggar Woman and Philip Quast is superb as the villainous Judge Turpin.

But what of the stars? There’s an impression we wouldn’t be here without Terfel and Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett, here returning to the stage after 25 years. The audience response may be hysterical but minimal chemistry between the leads means they aren’t really a dream team. Thompson’s celebrity aura never quite leaves her – it doesn’t help she’s dressed like Helena Bonham Carter on a night out – and while her voice is surprisingly strong she is not that funny. It’s a serious allegation but I suspect a moment of shameful scene stealing as a curtseying exit is carried on far too long. Terfel isn’t the greatest actor you’ll ever see, but casting him makes sense. His stage presence cannot be doubted, and any inadequacies can be forgiven for his magnificent voice: pray for a cast recording.

Despite Terfel’s magisterial voice and that wonderful orchestra, Price presents a stripped-back Sweeney Todd. A minimal feel plays with the idea of a concert performance, with musicians on stage interacted with and simple banners used for signage. Musical instruments are transformed into props and the sense of scale comes from the large numbers of people on stage.

Price’s staging is witty and clever but there’s an unwanted irony that couldn’t have been anticipated. This kind of inventiveness, abundant and impressive as it is, is usually seen on the fringe rather than in an opera house. For those lucky enough to have seen the Tooting Arts Club’s production of Sweeney, which has its own West End transfer, it makes for a strange comparison. The two productions couldn’t be of more different scales but it’s possible, and oddly inspiring, that a small team from South London has made the more memorable show.

Until 12 April 2015

www.eno.org.uk

Photo by Tristram Kenton

“Assassins” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Many musicals – and I love them for it – push the boundaries of the genre. Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a great example; musically and lyrically adventurous, with notably long spoken passages and a book by John Weidman that feels defiant. The idea of a musical telling the stories of those who have tried to assassinate presidents of America, seeking out their motivations and uniting them in infamy, is brilliantly bold.

The Menier Chocolate Factory’s new production directed by Jamie Lloyd does justice to the piece’s bravery. Lloyd isn’t frightened by how mad these men and women were. A fairground setting adds a scary surrealism and the staging in traverse makes it confrontational: most of the audience ends up looking down the barrel of a gun at some point. It’s appropriate that we feel ill at ease ­– these are tragic tales and Lloyd’s gory touches ensure there’s no chance of these characters receiving the acclaim many of them wished for.

The cast, onstage watching each other throughout, is tremendous. Intense performances, buoyed by demanding monologues, show the strength of the acting. Catherine Tate plays a hapless housewife who attempted to kill Gerald Ford and Mike McShane has a stirring speech as Samuel Byck who tried to crash a plane into the White House. Assassins takes us to dark places.

A trio serves as the focus of the show. The always-excellent Simon Lipkin presides over the fanatics’ funfair. Aaron Tveit is superb as John Wilkes Booth, creating a charismatic prototype for those who followed his murder of Abraham Lincoln. Jamie Parker is marvellous, first as a balladeer presenting another side of the stories, then as Lee Harvey Oswald, embodying a contest between stability and disruption, so perfectly understood by Lloyd, who has created a show close to perfection.

Until 7 March 2014

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

 

“Sweeney Todd” at Harrington’s Pie & Mash Shop

Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street, a psychotic shaver whose murdered customers were put into pies by Mrs Lovett, is always worth going to see. Staging it in a real pie shop is a stroke of genius. Believe it or not, you even pick up your tickets for the show in the barbers across the road.

More than on being on trend with immersive theatre, the staging goes to the heart of the production company’s ambitions: The Tooting Arts Club aims to unite theatre with the community in inspired fashion, and has created a very special event.

Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop, close to Tooting Broadway Tube, was established in 1908 and is still family run. It’s a tiny place with the kind of basic design beloved of hipster photographers. There’s nowhere to hide and, with only a trio of musicians accompanying, the weight on the cast to make this show work is huge. With director Bill Buckhurst’s help, the production rockets higher than the sales of Mrs Lovett’s pies. Standing on the tables, chatting to the crowd, each performer works incredibly hard. The singing, against the stripped-back score, in such a confined space, is awe-inspiring and the acting skills hard to beat.

Jeremy Secomb makes a superb Todd. Respect to him for playing it really scary, as it would be easier to go for the laughs in a space like this. Secomb provides the grim depth the character deserves and his voice is superb. The hugely talented Siobhán McCarthy plays his accomplice in crime, Lovett, with excellent comic skill. There are few chances to applaud during Sweeney Todd  – clapping seems like an interruption – it’s hard not to with McCarthy’s numbers.

Sweeney Todd usually soaks up a plentiful cast, with lots of extras for those big London crowd scenes, but here we have just six other performers, all of whom are wonderful. Grace Chapman and Nadim Naaman play the charming young couple Johanna and Anthony, Duncan Smith and Ian Mowat are excellent as the villainous men in power, and Joseph Taylor is great as the young Toby. Special mention to Kiara Jay, who seems to be everywhere, though credited as performing just two roles. The whole ensemble revels in the extraordinary buzz around the setting.

What does the unique setting add? To be honest, less than you want to admit. And it has to be said that it’s incredibly uncomfortable; crammed onto a bench with a twisted neck all night. But if you like your musicals up close and personal you can’t get more intimate than just 32 seats. The staging is a huge achievement but the real boast is the excellent production itself.

Until 29 November 2014

www.tootingartsclub.co.uk

Photo by Bronwen Sharp

“Do I Hear a Waltz?” at the Park Theatre

The Park Theatre’s first musical opened last night with the north London venue handing over to the Charles Court company for a production of Do I Hear a Waltz? It’s a real collector’s piece for musical theatre obsessives, being a one-off collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim that is seldom performed.

Rodgers and Sondheim make a fascinating combination. Sondheim’s lyrics bring wit and intelligence to Arthur Laurents’ book, based on his own play, while Rodgers’ ravishing score rises to the challenges of the younger artist and provides glorious tunes. Strangely, put together they often sound odd – a mix of the “ridiculous and the sublime” – a lyric that sums up the show and that I am sure we are supposed to take away with us.

A sensitive secretary visiting Venice has a holiday romance that she finds complicated, even though what’s on offer is simple. Commitment isn’t on the mind of the married antiques dealer she meets, but their shared sense of melancholy gives the whole show a kind of magic, despite its pragmatic approach to affairs of the heart. Added observations about Americans abroad and Italians at home are wry, if a touch too elaborated, and the scenario is impressively novel. But, in general, the premise is too slim to really grab you.

The production itself makes the best of things. There’s a fine performance from Rebecca Seale in the demanding lead role and Philip Lee sounds lovely as the charming shopkeeper looking to add to the itinerary of her holiday. Best value comes from the signora who runs the pensione in which the action takes place, with Rosie Strobel giving the “very, very” character her all. The bare staging and musical accompaniment from just piano and percussion reflect a chamber music feel, but I can’t help wondering what a fuller sound would have been like, as some numbers seem to cry out for it.

Musical director David Eaton has done a wonderful job and clearly knows his stuff but it’s speculation about the piece that will probably excite the aficionado – I suspect it’s more of a curiosity to collect than something that might cross over to a bigger audience.

Until 30 March 2014

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Bill Knight

Written 7 March 2014 for The London Magazine

 

“Merrily We Roll Along” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Another transfer, another success for the Menier Chocolate Factory – Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along has just opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It is the show’s first presentation in the West End, which seems remarkable since it is one of the master-composer’s greatest musicals – a complex work with the potential to appeal to a wide audience. The Menier’s production deserves its new location, showcasing the piece to perfection.

Making her directorial debut, renowned singer and Sondheim soulmate Maria Friedman excels. Under her supervision, Merrily We Roll Along serves as a tremendous vehicle for its leading trio: Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers, who star as Charley, Mary and Frank. Just as excellent are Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle as the women in Frank’s life. The latter benefits from an additional number, requested from Sondheim by Friedman, that makes a rollicking opener to the second act. With the chorus the production’s modest origins reveal themselves – positively – this is a mature team that sounds fantastic.

The musical is played backwards: we meet our heroes at the height of their careers, but bitter and weary. And in the finale we see the college chums ready to take on the world. It’s a device used to great effect and adds layers of meaning to music that emblazons itself on the memory. The score becomes simpler as the evening progresses, but feels richer with each number – a magical trick to pull off.

Nothing is lost in this production. The performances make the most of the narrative device of hindsight, but keep it sincere and never gimmicky. Merrily We Roll Along is clever stuff but it’s intelligent not pompous. All in all, it’s a brilliant piece that mustn’t be missed.

Until 25 July 2013

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 2 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Sweeney Todd” at the Adelphi Theatre

Arriving in London from rave reviews at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent’s production of Sweeney Todd is the must-see show of the summer. Arguably Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, certainly his most famous work, it’s a musical that’s as intellectually stimulating as it is approachable.

Kent and his team make the most of each show-stopping number: almost to the production’s detriment as the evening is in danger of turning into a collection of hits rather than flowing as the excellent book by Hugh Wheeler intends it to. To be fair this really isn’t Kent’s fault – the audience response is rapturous, the atmosphere fantastic.

There is plenty to applaud. Michael Ball is remarkable in the title role. His transformation into the demon barber of Fleet Street makes him unrecognisable. More to the point, he gets to show what a fine actor he can be and remind us what a great voice he has. He does justice to Sondheim’s challenging score and embraces Sweeney’s tragic predicament in a stark manner that avoids camp.

Sweeney’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, is a role to kill for and Imelda Staunton has a great deal of fun with it. Her comedy is spot on and her voice strong. In love with Sweeney, Lovett’s descent into crime is swift, inevitable and wickedly funny, giving the production great pace. Staunton’s is a cracking performance that never slows and continually impresses.

Several recent productions of Sweeney Todd have been performed by opera companies reverent towards the score and resourced in a manner you might miss here – the chorus seems small and at times unsatisfying. There’s also a suspicion that Anthony Ward’s set feels a little lost on the large Adelphi stage; Sweeney’s London hardly teems with people, even if Mark Henderson’s lighting design creates atmosphere in abundance. But such cavils certainly won’t stop you enjoying the evening. This isn’t the perfect production of Sweeney Todd but it’s within a whisker of it.

Until 22 September 2012

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 March 2012 for The London Magazine