Tag Archives: Alan Menken

“Newsies” at the Wembley Park Theatre

While current industrial action makes this story of striking newspaper boys in 1899 New York strangely topical, the show is a traditional affair. Based on the 1992 Disney film, the standard is high and its success in the States is understandable. If Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jack Feldman’s lyrics are disappointingly simplistic, Alan Menken’s score is forceful and director Matt Cole’s choreography strong. This is a family show with wide appeal.

Newsies is very ‘Broadway’, which makes this long-awaited UK premier in Wembley a little odd. The theatre itself is a barn of a place lacking atmosphere, but it suits the dance heavy piece in terms of spaciousness. A lot of effort is made to get the cast running around the cavernous hall. Going amongst the crowd is a small part of the energy expanded – there’s a lot of gymnastics that cannot fail to impress.

Do all the somersaults and splits get a little boring? There really are a lot of them. That said, the tap-dancing number that opens the second act, along with swinging from the lights, is superb. Likewise, the rousing score is effective… but a touch monotone. This is a long show – they want you to get your money’s worth, and that wish is achieved. The question is whether the time could be better spent on other things? Yes, you’ve guessed it, the characters in Newsies are paper thin.

Michael Ahomka Lindsay

The notable exception is Jack, who leads the show and the union that takes action against newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer. It’s a great role for Michael Ahomka-Lindsay, who powers the whole production with a great voice and commanding presence. But Jack’s sidekicks, Crutchie and Davey (he’s the brains) are horribly slim: performers, Matthew Duckett and Ryan Kopel, do their best but the roles are uncomfortably one-dimensional. The ensemble nods at other characters but there’s little besides hearing lots of names. And everyone is hampered by a New Yeurk accent.

The grown-ups are baddies (and poor villains at that, despite Cameron Blakely’s spirited performance) or underused (Moya Angela’s Medda needs to be on the stage more). A brief appearance by Theodore Roosevelt is the show’s only surprise – who would have thought a politician would save the day? But the biggest disappointment is the plucky female reporter who, sigh, becomes Jack’s love interest. Bronté Barbé gives the role a good shot but wastes her big number (which is one of the more interesting) and, despite a big voice, ends up a small character.

Newsies is fantastically naive. And very sentimental. Think Les Mis with optimism. None of this is bad, but the show does takes itself very seriously. The rousing score fits with this. But falling for the happy ending is a tough sell. Praising the potential of youth is hardly a scoop, and achievements come too easy in the swift story, so they fail to teach much. This may sound like a grumpy appraisal but, for all the scale here (of venue, cast, energy and the sound), the show is slight. The headlines are good, but the story itself isn’t worthy of many column inches.

Until 16 April 2023


Photo by Johan Persson

“Little Shop of Horrors” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

If this production is anything to go by, director Maria Aberg has green fingers – she nurtures this hit musical about a carnivorous plant from outer space marvellously.

Adapted from Roger Corman’s B-movie back in the early 1980s, Little Shop of Horrorsis a youthful work from the legendary Alan Menken, packed with musical ideas and barely a bum note. It includes the catchy-as-anything title tune, the brilliant romantic theme ‘Suddenly Seymour’ and the hilarious number ‘Be A Dentist’ – all of which you’ll be humming long after the show ends.

The book and onomatopoeic lyrics by Howard Ashman are great fun and there’s an underlying wit that continually impresses. The story of a freakish flower that changes the fortunes of its florist shop owners is told at a cracking pace, while the fact that growth comes at a price makes the piece a simple but effective morality tale. It’s quirky, dark, campy and cultish – all qualities appreciated by Aberg.

The mock low-budget design from Tom Scutt recalls the show’s Off-Broadway origins and original film source, full of anarchic energy and surprises – an achievement in such a polished production – and adds great charm. Scutt’s wonderfully detailed costume designs are fantastic, too, and his skyscrapers in shopping trolleys a nice nod to the skid-row setting.

Jemima Rooper and Marc Antolin
Jemima Rooper and Marc Antolin

Our hero Seymour isn’t really as sweet as he seems, or maybe he’s just dumb. Either way, Marc Antolin does a great job in the role, sounding great and with terrific stage presence. Jemima Rooper has a nice edge as his love interest and a trio of narrators (Renée Lamb, Christina Modestou and Seyi Omooba) are superb – each has real star quality. A couple of performances are too broad, mistaking the show’s fine edged comedy: Matt Willis’ dentist lacks thrills and Forbes Masson’s Mr Mushnik is reduced to a cheap gag.

Vicky Vox as Audrey II

It’s Seymour’s nemesis, the plotting plant he names Audrey II, that is the star. The clever move is to use not just puppetry here but to cast a drag queen in the role and Vicky Vox steals every scene – this Audrey II really reigns. You’re kept wanting more of Vox, leading to a truly spectacular encore number, including a new wardrobe for everyone, where the show’s crazy creativity is unleashed, making sure the audience leaves blooming.

Until 22 September 2018


Photo by Johan Persson

“Aladdin” at the Prince Edward Theatre

Nobody does family entertainment like Disney. As this latest transfer from Broadway illustrates, their franchises cover all bases for a hit. Theatre is always a gamble, but it’s a safe bet that Aladdin will reap dividends, and someone has clearly put a great deal of money on it. With its many neon-coloured costumes and intricate sets (brilliant work by Gregg Barnes and Bob Crowley), this is a sumptuous night out. And that’s not to mention the magic carpet – with this budget they might have paid for a real one.

Adapted from the 1992 animation, Chad Beguelin’s book is a masterclass in moving movie to stage. It’s what people want and the show does exactly what it says on the tin lamp. Maybe it’s churlish (or naïve) but could they have been more adventurous? If I had one wish the film’s romantic theme, A Whole New World, would have been ditched despite its Oscar. It’s an uncharacteristically weak song from the impressive Alan Menken, who wrote the music here, working with Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin on lyrics.

 Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson
Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson

The additional songs are good and, as they were cut from the original film, they fit well. The first couple of numbers are best, carefully fleshing out the main characters. Dean John-Wilson cuts a dash in the lead (although if you’ve heard his magnificent voice before you might feel he is underused) and Jade Ewen is a charming Princess Jasmine. Combine the strong performances and their opening numbers and the two leads escape from being cartoon characters. Other tunes are catchy, and clever, if functional rather than magical.

With Casey Nicholaw’s ruthlessly efficient direction and choreography there’s little time to pick holes. A breakneck pace defies boredom and there’s plenty of humour as well. The role of Aladdin’s chums, embraced by Nathan Amzi, Stephen Rahman- Hughes and Rachid Sabitri, is a good case in point: their number is good and the staging so exaggerated it might be better suited to a cartoon. But the whole thing is so invigorating, with the addition of some food-based puns, it takes your breath away.

Trevor Dion Nicholas
Trevor Dion Nicholas

Aladdin’s secret weapon is, of course, the Genie. It’s the same for this show. Travelling with the production is Trevor Dion Nicholas, a real high value pro: commanding the stage, directing the fun and guiding the pieces wry edge. Gleefully telling us when his “big production number” is coming up and pointing out “we don’t have time for self discovery”, Nicholas is the proverbial dream. Such a strong theatrical performance fulfils my wish for the show. Bravo.

Booking until 11 February 2017


Photos by Deen van Meer © Disney