Tag Archives: Thom Southerland

“The Braille Legacy” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This new French musical’s world premiere benefits from the talents of director Thom Southerland. It’s the story of Louis Braille, who battles against prejudice to improve lives with his invention of a reading and writing system for the blind. The aim is to inspire and, with a rousing, diligent score, there’s a chance it’ll induce goose bumps and maybe a tear or two.

Now, while Braille changed the world for the better, he did so from behind a desk, his “silent revolution” being slow rather than dramatic. So it’s quite a task for Sébastian Lancrenon’s book to animate Braille’s story for the stage and the results are unsteady.

The first good idea is to show Louis as a rebellious teenager, affording Jack Wolfe in the lead role enough to work with to ensure that this makes a strong professional debut for him. Wolfe’s singing is great and he clearly has a promising future.

But the awful discrimination faced by the blind in the 19th century isn’t established well. The banning of Braille’s system shows the shocking extent of inequity and could have been given greater impact, while a dramatic subplot (about children being used in fatal experiments to “cure” blindness) should have been introduced much earlier. The battle of wills at Louis’ school for the blind becomes deadly serious: and only then can both Jérôme Pradon and Ashley Stillburn, as rival pedagogues, really show their mettle.

Further efforts to enliven the story are similarly flawed. Humour is thin, despite the efforts of Kate Milner-Evans as the wife of Captain Barbier, whose “night writing” formed the basis of Braille’s work. Themes of family and friendship, leading to emotional songs for Ceili O’Connor and Jason Broderick, are powerfully delivered, but hampered by woefully under-inspiring lyrics, translated by Ranjit Bolt.

With this uneven mix, Southerland’s skills come to the fore. He clearly believes the show deserves a large stage and a big sound. Knowing that sentimentality is the strongest element in the show, the director doesn’t shy away from it. And he is a persuasive man.

Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick
Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick

Tim Shortall’s revolving set literally adds the motion needed. The singing is flawless, the whole cast showing an impeccable delivery that makes a lot of a competent score by Jean-Baptiste Sauray. Taking just one detail, the use of blindfolds discarded when blind characters can “see” (if dreaming or using Braille), shows the impressive creativity on offer – a saving grace for a show struggling with some big problems.

Until 24 June 2017

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

“Ragtime” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This is a big one. Based on EL Doctorow’s novel, this musical has a book by Terrence McNally that preserves the theme of hope on a grand scale. The music and lyrics, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, are a huge success, with not a melody or line out of place. It’s the most ambitious show yet from Thom Southerland, who handles the piece brilliantly and deserves the largest number of accolades possible – Ragtime gets five stars from me.

There are many stories to follow here, each with a musical motif meticulously combined into a satisfying whole. An in-depth examination of the ‘pyramid’ of American society, before World War I and on the cusp of change, WASPs, African-Americans and European immigrants are all compellingly portrayed. The fate of children is at the fore, as is the question, what kind of community do we really want? I told you it was immense.

Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell
Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell

A wealthy white family embodies conflict. Father is resistant to change and disconcerted by the “new music”. Mother, a Liberty-like figure, understands you can never go “back to before”. Their roles are superbly performed by Earl Carpenter and Anita Louise Combe. Family life is changed by contact with an African-American couple, Sarah and Coalhouse, whose powerful story of romance and racism is performed with passion by Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell. And there’s a Jewish immigrant, Tateh, whose trials and eventual success are the lightest part of the piece. Gary Tushaw comes close to stealing the show (no mean feat) with a gorgeous performance.

Gary Tushaw
Gary Tushaw

More radical discontent comes with the presence of Anarchist Emma Goldman, ruthlessly embodied by Valerie Cutko, while Mother’s brother (a strong role for Jonathan Stewart) joins Coalhouse’s plan for revenge after a personal tragedy. Violent protest is the focus of the tension-filled second act – almost a mini Les Mis as the mix of fact and fiction creates a powerful synergy. Tackling the theme of terrorism, home grown at that, provides a startling edge.

Joanna Hickman
Joanna Hickman

The production’s masterstroke is to have talented onstage musicians, who memorably use their instruments as props. Tateh beats a drum as he attacks an assailant; there’s banjo-playing Simon Anthony, who makes a chilling racist thug; fife-playing Tom Giles, getting the most out of a number as Henry Ford; and an excellent role for cellist Joanna Hickman as a Chicago-style celebrity with a vaudeville routine. All are led by Jordan Li-Smith, the awesome onstage musical director, who holds the whole score in his head.

There’s a lot of history here, but it never overwhelms the show. Emotion is the key. Southerland directs with clarity yet avoids any mechanical precision. With songs as good at telling stories as these, goosebumps are guaranteed. This is one of the most moving musicals you could buy a ticket for. If it tips over into sentiment, so be it. To sum up a big success quickly – see this show.

Until 10 December 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Allegro” at the Southwark Playhouse

It’s hard to believe there’s a musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that is only now receiving its UK premiere. The coup of finally staging this 1947 piece goes to the team of producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland. While you can understand why this life story of an Everyman, Joseph Taylor Jr, hasn’t joined the composer and lyricist’s formidable hit parade, the show is well worth seeing.

Taking the lead is Gary Tushaw, first handling the puppet that represents his role’s young years, taking us through first love at high school, a career as a doctor and finally the breakdown of his marriage. Tushaw is endearing and sounds great but his character is perhaps a little too saintly. We meet his family, of course – grandmother (Susan Travers) and parents (Steve Watts and Julia J Nagle) – all fine upstanding performances for the roles of fine upstanding citizens. Surprisingly, his love interest isn’t likeable, which makes her a deal more interesting and gives Emily Bull something to get her teeth into.ALLEGRO 1 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander

Southerland injects as much energy into Hammerstein’s book as he can, with the help of some superb choreography from Lee Proud and a nimble set from Anthony Lamble that makes me confident none of the cast suffers from vertigo. And it’s difficult to criticise this “simple” story for being just that – when the “commonplace” is so clearly the aim. Taylor turns his back on big success – that’s his achievement. Time in the city, where living a “ratrace” gives the musical its title song, is far from the overall tone. The piece is obsessed with hope and home. Maybe I am a softie but I was amazed something so sentimental wasn’t cloying.

The ambition of Rodgers and Hammerstein in Allegro wasn’t timid, and nor is Southerland, but the show is small in scope and occasionally condescending. And yet a collection of songs this strong should not be missed. It’s clear that the ensemble, which includes professional debuts for Matthew McDonald, Benjamin Purkiss and Samuel Thomas, are committed to them. With numbers as good as The Gentleman is a Dope for a supporting role (a superb Katie Bernstein), you can’t fail to be impressed.

Until 10 September 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Titanic” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Maury Yeston’s musical, set on the doomed ocean liner, won five Tony Awards, and praise for this production from the Southwark Playhouse has followed it around the world. Now that director Thom Southerland has taken up residence at an oddly charming venue underneath Charing Cross, there’s another chance to see the show. And it’s every bit as good as critics say.

Yeston, with the story and book from Peter Stone, succeeds in making a well-known story exciting enough. Seeing the ship as a microcosm of society is neat, if hardly novel. It’s all about the details, and a careful and inventive execution along with an ambitious and intelligent score ensure success here.

There’s the combination of observing different classes of passengers, mankind’s inevitable search for “progress”, and plenty of emotion when the boat sinks. Impressively, the dangers of Downton Abbey kitsch are avoided and the excitement and glamour of the boat is persuasive, despite audience hindsight. And get ready for tears before the end, with characters we have come to love at a rate of, well it would have to be, knots.

Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere
Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere

The production is hugely impressive. Southerland’s direction is faultless, a miracle of economically effective staging. David Woodhead’s set and costume design are smart, facilitating swift role changes for the 20-strong cast. Yes, 20 –and all performing at the highest standard. One bold thing about Titanic is that there aren’t ‘leading’ roles so it isn’t really fair to highlight individual performers. But indulge me. Niall Sheehy’s role as a coal miner stands out (there just aren’t enough songs about men from the Midlands in musicals) and I can’t resist pointing out that the cast includes the excellent Victoria Serra.

Of course, it’s Yeston who’s the real star. The lyrics, filled as they are with facts and figures, could so easily have failed, but the score energises them remarkably: combining waltz themes with historical references such as rag, inspired contemporary touches and a big choral sound that uses that huge cast superbly. This is a truly accomplished score. Adoration of the ship, described as a “perfectly working machine” could carry to a critique of the musical – its well-engineered construction is a marvel.

Until 13 August 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Main photo by  Scott Rylander

“Grand Hotel” at the Southwark Playhouse

George Forrest and Robert Wright’s 1989 Broadway hit (with Maury Yeston’s input), has a revival by the excellent Thom Southerland that lives up to the ‘grand’ in its title. Set in 1928 Berlin, its location serves to show a slice of upstairs high life, with a glimpse of downstairs tragedy, and every emotion imaginable along the way. With guests and staff squaring off from the start, a narrator, ably performed by David Delve, sets the cynical, smart tone of a show that embraces confrontation and drama.

Luther Davis’s book, adapting the novel by Vicki Baum that was filmed in 1932, crams the stories into this packed hostelry. Southerland juggles them expertly. Central to a theme of observing life is the terminally ill Otto, played superbly by George Ray, anxious to experience glamour while he still can, right down to cartwheeling. Bravo! The desperation of other characters is less existential; it’s all about the money. What make the show so interesting are the swift story arcs that change goodies to baddies, crooks to romantics, in the space of a song.

Grand Hotel 5 Christine Grimandi Scott Garnham Photo Aviv Ron
Christine Grimandi and Scott Garnham

While you might expect more standout numbers, the score is best regarded as a whole rather than in parts, intelligently creating the “din of old Berlin”. Jacob Chapman has the most adventurous song, which he delivers powerfully. Victoria Serra, as aspiring actress Flaemmchen, gives a rendition of ‘Girl In The Mirror’ that should have stopped the show. And a thieving Baron with a “talent for living” becomes truly noble with Scott Garnham’s performance of the musical’s most gorgeous ballad. The object of the Baron’s affections is the ageing ballerina Elizaveta – the kind who memorises her reviews – and Christine Grimandi is sure to get good notices for a performance that boasts the best comic timing in an often dark show.

There’s a cruel edge to this grown-up Grand Hotel, but nothing dour about Southerland’s staging – in traverse, making the most of his huge cast – and there’s real heat and hustle here. I detected a wish to focus more on the staff, pushed as far as it can be, that makes for a fascinating, layered feel. Along with astounding choreography by Lee Proud, especially with the witty ‘Who Couldn’t Dance With You’ sequence, the finale is a kaleidoscopic affair of pure spectacle. Our narrator might melodramatically see “chambers of discontent” in his hotel, but this production is so polished, I’ve no complaints about my stay.

Until 5 September

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Aviv Ron

“Victor/Victoria” at the Southwark Playhouse

Blake Edwards’ joyous, gender-bending musical comedy – with music and lyrics by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse – is sure to please. The story of a soprano who disguises herself as a man performing in drag, Thom Southerland’s new production at the Southwark Playhouse, is a bold rendering full of expert touches and an abundance of talent.

Staged in traverse, and superbly designed by Martin Thomas, Southerland and his choreographer Lee Proud make the most of the show’s cabaret numbers. No tunnel under London Bridge ever looked this good; it’s a most welcoming cabaret, with a fantastic atmosphere from start to finish.

Taking the title role, Anna Francolini makes the most of this star vehicle and her performance has an emotional edge that is genuinely affecting. It helps that she sounds fantastic, too, and can deliver a tricky dance routine. The show stopping numbers, Le Jazz Hot! and Louis Says, are a  delight and the ensemble are superb.

Matthew Curtis plays her love interest who, Orsino-like, is puzzled by his desire for the ‘man’ he sees on stage. Curtis delivers his challenging solo number marvellously. But it’s Victor/Victoria’s impresario and best friend, performed by Richard Dempsey, who steals the show. Camp as Christmas and loving every gloriously silly moment, the incorrigible, Shakespeare-quoting, “Toddy” charms all and gets the loudest guffaw I’ve heard in the theatre this year. But, I won’t spoil the joke – buy a ticket to make sure you don’t miss it.

Until 15 December 2012

www.southwarkplayhouse.org

Written 2 November 2012 for The London Magazine

“Mack and Mabel” at the Southwark Playhouse

Mack and Mabel has a reputation as a difficult musical to stage successfully. But you’d never guess that from the fine production now showing at the Southwark Playhouse. In the expert hands of director Thom Southerland the piece becomes what aficionados have long suggested – one of Jerry Herman’s finest works.

The love story, set in the early days of the movie business, is slight. But, like the films its protagonist Mack Sennett makes, it has all you need to capture an audience: “love, light, laughter”. Perhaps inspired by Mack’s love of speed, Southerland takes the piece at such a pace that you won’t have time to worry about plot. This is a glorious mix of melodrama, bathing beauties and Keystone Cops. The only disappointment is that the often-promised gorilla doesn’t turn up.

One thing everyone agrees on is how fantastic the songs are. There isn’t a bad number in Mack and Mabel and in this production they all get the delivery they deserve. Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are both impressive in the title roles. The latter deserves special mention for her fantastic delivery of the Barbara Cook standard ‘Time Heals Everything’. There are fine performances from Jessica Martin, as studio stalwart Lottie Ames, and Stuart Matthew Price shows he’s thoroughly on the ball, dealing with a minor wardrobe malfunction while sounding fantastic.

Lee Proud’s choreography is outstandingly ambitious and, impressively executed by the ensemble, it adds a great deal of humour. There are fine comic performances, especially from Steven Serlin as the studio’s producer – his crew may be making comedy shorts but Mack and Mabel is a grown-up affair with a famously downbeat ending. Some find this unsatisfying, but Southerland emphasises the work’s melancholy and nostalgia to create a moving, weighty experience that is not to be missed.

Until 25 August 2012

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Annabel Vere

Written 12 July 2012 for The London Magazine

“Calamity Jane” Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Thom Southerland is a director with a reputation for putting on big musicals in small spaces. His State Fair, such a hit last year at the Finborough, is to transfer to the Trafalgar Studios in August. Before that he is working Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate with Fain and Webster’s Calamity Jane. And he has another hit on his hands with a production marked by intelligence and wit.

Katherine Eames plays the stagecoach rider Calamity Jane and her search for love with confidence and style. The clever move here is to gently open up the story to focus on Jane’s hometown of Deadpan and the locals of the Golden Garter bar. Conveniently doubling as the community theatre, it has scheduling problems and a habit of hiring the wrong artistes. After a word from Jane, the volatile crowd deals with a mistaken booking in a most civilised fashion – the performers become part of the neighbourhood. It’s not only endearing but makes this a real ensemble piece, where every member of the cast can play a part.

There are plenty of witty performances. Anthony Wise puts in a terrific comic turn as the bar’s owner. Ted McMillan is great as the wrong act, Francis Fryer. Confusion over his name means the hillbillies are expecting women, which results in a great scene in drag. The same mistake hasn’t been made by Southerland. His clever casting of the super Ms Frances Campbell as Rattlesnake transforms the gender of the role and reminds us of what Jane might become if she doesn’t change her tomboy ways.

The mood is set with a song dedicated to Adeline Adams, the performer the gold prospectors really want to appear at the Golden Garter bar. The whole male cast participate in Phyllida Crowley Smith’s inspired choreography as they serenade Adeline’s photograph on a cigarette card. ‘A Woman’s Touch’ has a similar whimsy, with the ladies in the ensemble appearing like the birds in Snow White to transform Jane’s home. All great fun with not a single number wasted. Careful musical direction from Mark Aspinall allows the romance of the piece time as well – the rendition of ‘Secret Love’ is startlingly beautiful.

There is plenty for those with a sentimental streak in this show. It is as heart warming as a musical of its kind should be. But this is also a very smart production and it’s great to be reminded, yet again, how wonderful fringe theatre in London can be. The stagecoach doesn’t stop at Highgate anymore but you should Whip-Crack-Away up there as soon as you can.

Until 3 July 2010

www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com

Written 24 June 2010 for The London Magazine