Tag Archives: Andrew Lloyd Webber

“Jesus Christ Superstar” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

It wasn’t the pandemic that scuppered my first effort to see this revival of Timothy Sheader’s award-winning production, but the British weather. A word about that trip, though, since the atmosphere was wonderful, even if torrential rain brought an early end to the evening. It just wouldn’t be summer without a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the weather was a comforting touch of normality.

More importantly, front-of-house staff get the first cheer here: kitted out in PPE, but always smizing, they were welcoming and excited, even while wearing a visor and taking a temperature. Getting back to the theatre is the important thing. And, even with the show’s billing as a concert, the chance to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece is welcome – for Tim Rice’s excellent lyrics as much as the score. But that ‘concert’ description is modest. True, there’s no set for the show. And performers are careful to socially distance. But the idea of a fresh look at the Gospel story is present and powerful. And the manner in which current constraints have been used by Sheader, his cast and his choreographer Drew McOnie is brilliant. The production is far from a reduced experience.

From the moment when performers simultaneously take off face masks (to a cheer), the show is gripping. The use of microphones and cables as props, albeit an invention born from social distancing necessity, is effective. And McOnie’s work really comes into focus. Isolated movements, reflecting the emotions of whoever is singing, don’t just feel appropriate to our times – with the space around each performer, intensity is increased. There feels like more to look at and more appreciate than ever.

Jesus Christ Superstar focuses on characters’ immediate, personal relations to the story (including speculation as to Christ’s frame of mind with the marvellous number Gethsemane). This makes the acting in the roles – and Sheader’s direction of them – key. Declan Bennett’s Jesus is mercurial and complex, full of humanity, with a unique charisma. As all know, the show belongs to Judas, and a surprisingly sweet-sounding Ricardo Afonso explores circumstance and motivation in dynamic fashion. Current reviews already testify to the achievements of the cast. Their performances are a further aspect of the show that even the most simple of staging enhances rather than detracts from.

Until 27 September 2020

www.openairtheatre.com

“Cats” from The Shows Must Go On!

Having been warned plenty, I’m not one of those traumatised by the recent movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. This recorded version, based on the stage show directed by Trevor Nunn, is a much safer bet. Along with the good causes its availability prompts donations to, it might restore the show’s once considerable reputation.

Taking the poetry of TS Eliot as his lyrics, which Lloyd Webber treats with a good deal of restrained respect, the idea of a cat reincarnation, voted for by its peers, is more than a little mad. And the synth-laden music hasn’t dated well. But, in what’s essentially a song and dance show, the score’s variety suits the “several kinds of cat” we get to meet, and it would be impossible not to like some of the songs.

Take your pick as to your favourite feline: cats curious, conjuring and glamorous, from the railway or the theatre. I liked cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, enlivened by acrobatic work from Drew Varley and Jo Gibb. Performances throughout are strong, as each number provides time in the spotlight to show off talent. Special mention to Michael Gruber’s Munkustrap, who roots the action, and there are star turns from John Mills and Elaine Paige.

Cats worked so well because of the excellent work by choreographer Gillian Lynne. The fact Lloyd Webber renamed the New London Theatre after her surely indicates his debt to her. But the filming here, directed by David Mallet, is to the detriment of the dance. Too much editing adds a pace that was not Lynne’s intention, speeding up movements meant to be stately. There are some (naff) special effects, including, unforgivably, some slow motion! And there are some injudicious close-ups of performers’ bodies that are uncomfortable. Similarly, seeing performers mime licking one another’s faces is one thing from a seat in the circle but it really doesn’t work with a camera up close.

The filming also mistakes Cats’sense of humour and takes itself a little too seriously. Admittedly, Paige plays Grizabella as if she were Covent Garden’s cat. The show’s big hit, Memory, is a serious song. But part of camp is being serious (thanks, Susan Sontag) and there’s no doubt this legendary performance is effective. Along with this, by contrast, deliberately exaggerated playful touches in the staging and score go all out to entertain.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 17 May 2020

“By Jeeves” from The Shows Must Go On!

Far from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest hit, with a complicated history of rewrites, you might think this week’s digital offering – as usual aiming to raise money for charity – is merely a curio. But this PG Wodehouse-inspired piece, with a lot of talent behind it, makes for diverting entertainment, and Webber’s enthusiasm convinces, even if it isn’t contagious.

The book and, even better, the lyrics come from none other than Alan Ayckbourn. Of course, success depends on how much you like Wodehouse (and I don’t). But the crazy capers of the archetypal nice-but-dim toff and his superior butler are true to the spirit of the original. The story of mixed identities and confused romances is well explicated. And those lyrics are the height of sophistication and silliness – again, the perfect reflection of its source. Let’s just say that Wittgenstein is one of many unexpected rhymes.

There are problems. Ayckbourn also directs, and he does so far too slowly. It takes an age for things to get started and the pace doesn’t pick up enough. The songs are good but there aren’t enough of them and, on a couple of occasions, their inclusion seems almost random. The jokes, too many of which revolve around on the conceit of Bertie putting on a show, are too predictable.

The recording offered is based on the production from Pittsburgh’s Goodspeed Opera House and dates from 2001. Cleverly, the show’s small scale is reflected well. And the cast is top notch. John Scherer is appropriately bumbling as Wooster and sounds great. While Jeeves, who only has a speaking role, is performed by Martin Jarvis, who makes the whole thing look so effortless, he could be filming something else when he’s off stage.

The show’s stronger scenes go to the women, in the roles of Honoria Glossop, Madeline Bassett and Stiffy Byng, resulting in strong performances for Donna Lynne Champlin, Becky Watson and Emily Loesser. The men, you see, have the “combined IQ of 42” and, while this is supposed to be increasingly funny, it ends up tiresome. Maybe the show could have been even more knowing? When Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber let go it improves. A crazy finale provides a highlight: ‘It’s A Pig’ about, well, a housebreaking hog, is so odd I’m glad I’ve seen it… even if just the once.

Available on The Show Must Go On! YouTube channel until 10 May 2020

“Love Never Dies” from The Shows Must Go On!

After The Phantom of the Opera last weekend, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s next fund-raising offering was the hit show’s sequel. Ten years after the Opera Populaire burned down, The Phantom has escaped to Coney Island, become a successful producer, and is ready to try and steal his love and muse, Christine Daaé, from her husband Raoul. Excitingly, this is the 2011 production from Melbourne’s Regent Theatre. Regarded as the best version, director Simon Phillips’ bold work makes the most of a piece that, while far from a flop, failed to escape from the shadow of its progenitor.

Phillips plays to the musical’s strengths and adds an aesthetic (with designer Gabriela Tylesova) that, by loosening the historical setting a little, adds genuine spookiness with a touch of Tim Burton. His cast is strong and embraces the better written characters. The play’s meaty plot, which appropriately has a long credit line – Webber, Glenn Slater, Ben Elton and Frederick Forsyth – is delivered with verve throughout. There are still problems: correcting (perceived) shortcomings in its famous original are all very well, but they make for a show that’s crowded and self-conscious, while Slater’s lyrics end up laboured and uninspired. Yet the show is entertaining and interesting. 

Love Never Dies from the Regent's Theatre Melbourne
Ben Lewis and Anna O’Byrne

You might notice some of the characters’ recollections of the past events seem distorted! Each sleight of hand heightens drama and romance, likewise Lloyd Webber’s lush score. Filling out previous events also aids characterisation – both male leads are more complex characters. Ben Lewis’s Phantom is more human and Simon Gleeson’s Raoul more than just a Prince Charming (in fact, he’s a nasty snob and drunk). Both performers’ rich voices make them perfectly cast, and they excel in their scenes of confrontation. It’s a shame the final lead, sung beautifully by Anna O’Byrne, isn’t afforded the same treatment. Christine almost disappears between the men – very naughty. No matter how many times her name is sung (too many), she lacks agency.

Love Never Dies from the Regent's Theatre Melbourne
Paul Tabone, Dean Vince and Emma J Hawkins

Improvements predominate, though, with beefed up roles for Phantom acolytes. Madame Giry is more interesting, allowing Maria Mercedes a chance to shine, and her daughter Meg (did I miss that relationship before?) becomes a major role, delivered superbly by Sharon Millerchip. Their colleagues in Coney Island, a creepy collection with a strong presence, are well delivered by Paul Tabone, Dean Vince and Emma J Hawkins. Best of all is the role of Gustav, Christine’s son, performed here by Jack Lyall – one of the finest younger performers I’ve seen. OK, so you can guess the plot twist. But having a youngster included opens out the story marvellously. It gives Webber’s score a chance to fly, with new musical possibilities, that he grasps to explore his motif of the “pure and unearthly” with considerable sophistication.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 26 April 2020

Photos by Jeff Busby

“The Phantom of the Opera” from The Shows Must Go On!

Available for only 24 hours, this concert production marking 25 years of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical aimed to raise funds for various charities connected with Covid-19. To celebrate such a hit show, with its potent beauty-and-the-beast love triangle, producer Cameron Macintosh didn’t scrimp. The result is tremendous.

Gorgeous costumes, fantastic video projections and, with the Royal Albert Hall standing in for the Palais Garnier that the Phantom made his home, the atmosphere is impressive throughout. The auditorium is skilfully used in the film and – wait for it – the chandelier has fireworks!

The extravagance continues with a plumped-up ensemble and full corps de ballet, including a guest appearance by Sergei Polunin. Appropriately, there’s a star-studded cast, led by Ramin Karimloo in the title role. Karimloo makes a formidable Phantom, his singing muscular and emotions raw. His is a frightened figure, scared of his love for Christine, with hatred of his rival fuelling his insanity.

'The Phantom of the Opera' anniversary concert
Hadley Fraser and Sierra Boggess

The object of his obsession, played by Sierra Boggess, sounds beautiful and is just as well acted. Boggess is great at bringing out the horror in the story and even shows that Christine herself is a good actress. Also, very few people can make a cape work so well for them. Completing the trio of leads, Raoul Vicomte de Chagny, is a poorer role, but Hadley Fraser does well to inject an edge to the character with a ruthless streak that aids the show’s action.

Both the staging and the cast, directed impeccably by Laurence Connor, are wonderful. But the biggest attraction remains Lloyd Webber’s music. Benefitting from a bigger orchestra than usual, it sounds better than ever; the overture to Act Two is gorgeous and the opera music within the show impressive.

How to end such a fantastic event? I’m pleased I kept watching, after the lengthy applause, for the encore – an appearance by the original ‘angel of music’ Sarah Brightman, backed by four former Phantoms! A very special end to a magnificent event that easily deserves donations.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 18 April 2020

“Jesus Christ Superstar” from The Shows Must Go On!

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s generous gift to theatre-goers confined through Covid-19 during the Easter weekend is, appropriately, the passion story. Retold with an exciting rock score and the brilliant lyrics of Tim Rice, it is one of Webber’s most adventurous endeavours, dating from 1970. This arena production from 2012, while not my favourite, is still a real treat.

The production is star-studded and had a TV competition behind it that led to the casting of Ben Forster in the title role. Mel C of the Spice Girls takes the part of Mary Magdalene and Tim Minchin, a personal hero, is Judas. The delivery is clear, nobody sounds unpleasant and they can all perform to big crowds – important given the settings for the tour – indeed, each gets better as the show progresses. But none of the leads is actors. None manages to get beyond their public personas. Minchin still even sports his trademark eye make-up, and the close-ups provided by a filmed performance highlight this shortcoming.

Things are much better with the Pharisees: Pete Gallagher and Gerard Bentall are strong. Best of all is Alexander Hanson’s very classy Pontius Pilate. All three not only sound great but bring depth to their roles. Hanson’s part during the 39 Lashes is a real study in how to hold a stage. These achievements are despite, rather than aided by, director Laurence Connor’s ideas for the show.

There’s a frisson at the start with a suggested connection between Jesus as a revolutionary figure and modern-day rioters, courtesy of filmed news footage. And it’s understandable that the Occupy movement looked like a godsend for someone seeking to do something different with the show. That the hippy vibes from the original can be given a contemporary spin is fair enough. But the idea isn’t thought through or performed with enough skill. While difficult to judge on screen, the choreography looks suspiciously like a work-out routine and the large ensemble appears drafted en masse from the same drama school.

Some of the ideas fail abysmally. Casting the Pharisees as vaguely Masonic makes no sense, likewise having the Temple as some kind of nightclub surely miss the point that both reflect established religion. Instances of social media seem misplaced (cue projected hashtags) and lots of mobile phones are used. Remember that one of Rice’s best lyrics points out, “Israel in 4BC had no mass communication”.

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Chris Moyles and Ben Foster

The insistent temptation to form a connection with the crowd should surely have been resisted when it comes to mainstream media, too. Connor has Herod as a game show host (a very uncomfortable performance from Chris Moyles) while it is the press that interrogates Jesus as a celebrity. Filmed as he falls, as if paparazzi provide a new station of the cross, Forster does well. But you don’t need to be a reporter to ask these questions – the media as the medium are not needed – they quite literally get in the way. The particular power of this musical is that it deals with spirituality so directly, and with such humanity. Connor ignores that strength to the show’s detriment.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 12 April 2020

Photos by Tristram Kenton

"The Phantom of the Opera" at Her Majesty’s Theatre

January sales for theatregoers means getintolondontheatre.co.uk, which offers good discounts for big shows, giving me the chance to catch up with an old favourite. Boasting the third longest run in the West End – there’s a reason it’s been going since 1986 – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenal hit is still a treat.
Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, with the story effectively captured by Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s book, the love triangle between singer Christine, her ghostly tutor, the Phantom, and eligible bachelor Raoul, with a backdrop of 19th-century Paris, makes for a mix of romance and mystery that’s hard to resist. Any element of horror, due to the Phantom’s crime or his deformity, is so deftly handled it adds to the intrigue without giving the show any age restrictions.
There’s no shortage of hits in a score that grabs the audience, and Stilgoe deserves more praise for his admirable lyrics. Plenty of the numbers have been covered by famous singers but they work well theatrically and are delivered in fine style by a cast keen to show their acting skills as much as their fantastic voices.
The show is really Christine’s, played currently by Kelly Mathieson, who gives the role a feisty edge as her character is “twisted every way” by the demands placed on her. If the camp touches get to her by the end of the show, that’s what capes are for and she works hers expertly. Ben Lewis takes the title role, sounding great and managing to show the “man behind the monster” that drives the show. The Phantom is a charismatic and sympathetic figure, despite his pathology. And Jeremy Taylor is also good, even if we all know that Raoul is too bland to really be with Christine.
While the score has aged and the music isn’t as sophisticated as Lloyd Webber’s later musicals, it is always entertaining. It has to be admitted that there’s a lack of menace, even for a family show, with the Phantom stripped of his mask and mystery too early and gaining a touch too much sympathy when you come to consider what he gets up to. But the humour in the show is still strong, and the easy metatheatricality of staging a musical in an opera house works well. The parody behind the scenes extends into the Phantom’s lair in the sewers – there are plenty of hammy touches, many intentional, and it’s impossible not to love it all.
www.thephantomoftheopera.com
Photo by Johan Persson

"The Woman in White" at the Charing Cross Theatre

If memory serves me correctly, the West End debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, at the Palace Theatre back in 2004, was a grand affair with ambitious, if ineffective, projections and a big orchestra that served a lush score superbly. For its first revival the music has been revised, by Lloyd Webber himself, to suit a smaller setting. As a result, the show joins a string of revivals that remind us how versatile the composer’s work is. This is a piece that impressed first time around but now it is a musical to fall in love with.
The Woman in White is impressively plot driven. It’s based on Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel, expertly condensed by Charlotte Jones, with its Victorian morality deftly handled to embrace current concerns about equality. This is a great yarn – a romance and a crime mystery that flirts with the supernatural – following the adventures of the Fairlie sisters and the mysterious titular character who has a secret that will change their lives. David Zippel’s lyrics serve the story superbly, even if all that exposition makes them occasionally prosaic. Director Thom Southerland aids the clarity to ensure we are entertained – with a staging full of atmosphere via strong work with the striped back set from designer Morgan Large.
For all Southerland’s accomplishments it is his cast that makes the show stand out – a particularly strong group of singers with exquisite control appropriate to the precision in both the score and the production.
Ashley Stillburn makes an appealing hero, as the Fairlies’ drawing teacher and love interest, who becomes a man of action when danger arrives. His rival in love is Chris Peluso as Sir Percival Glyde – “a liar, a braggart and a philistine” – full of charisma and danger. Glyde’s partner in crime is Count Fosco, played by Greg Castiglioni, who comes dangerously close to stealing scenes as he has the musical’s only light relief (credit where it’s due, for an Italian accent that isn’t just a cheap gag).
The trio of female roles secure more praise. The wealthy heiress Laura might be a little too wet but Anna O’Byrne tackles the role sensibly and gives her as much spirit as possible. Similarly, her half-sister Marian is one of those martyred women, beloved by Victorians, that can annoy – but in the role Carolyn Maitland makes her devotion believable and her sacrifices moving. Finally, Sophie Reeves, who plays the ghostly woman in white, delivers an impressive portrayal of mental illness. The whole cast tackles the satisfyingly complex storyline and its melodrama while singing to perfection, making this a clear five-star show.
Until 10 February 2018
www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk
Photo by Darren Bell

"School of Rock" at the New London Theatre

Since Matilda’s triumph, anyone putting kids on stage has more than ever to live up to. Even with credentials as impeccable as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, this film adaptation can’t be called the best thing in the West End. The fact that it is so predictable probably doesn’t matter – many like to see a movie on stage – and with some good songs added, one of which is still buzzing around in my head, this is a crowd-pleasing show.
It’s the story of a wannabe rock star, David Fynn, fraudulently becoming a teacher in a posh school. Too ‘hardcore’ to bother with ‘gold stars’, his attitude endears him to the privileged but ignored pupils and sets him in conflict with their parents. Recognising “soul brothers and sisters” in the children, he takes them to compete in a Battle of the Bands, fulfilling his dreams and engendering new ambitions in them. And there’s your structure. I can’t imagine Julian Fellowes, credited with the book, broke into much of a sweat, unless stubbornly refusing twists or complexity is difficult for him.
Dewey Finn takes the lead and is amiable, busy and charismatic. With the best will in the world, though, you can’t say the role belongs to anyone other than Jack Black who made the film a hit. The other adult roles are disappointingly flat. School of Rock tries too hard to get the kids on side for my taste, and parents get too rough a ride, but pandering to the young audience makes commercial sense and is done well. The children in the cast cannot fail to impress with their talent and energy, creating a palpable excitement. This pedagogical introduction to musical theatre, a well-trodden path for Lloyd Webber, is hard to dislike, but there’s little here for grown ups.
Until 14 January 2018
www.SchoolOfRockTheMusical.co.uk
Photo by Tristram Kenton

"Jesus Christ Superstar" at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Artistic Director Timothy Sheader scores tops marks yet again for his venue’s annual musical. Sheader has wowed with grown-up and demanding shows before, but in this production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept album/rock opera even the glitter is gritty. This abbreviated Passion of Christ could win converts with its charged staging of ‘The Flagellation’ alone.
Updates to the music are respectful, coming mostly from the vocals. The score feels fresh and the rock guitars aren’t just retained, they are revelled in. More startlingly contemporary is choreographer Drew McOnie’s work and the athleisure clothes from designer Tom Scutt. Jesus and the apostles aren’t hippies but hipsters. It makes sense. Flares, glitter, a glam-Rocky-Horror outfit for Peter Caulfield’s excellent Herod and Judas’ hands dripping in silver paint, show carefully colour-coded scenes. All aided by Lee Curran, whose lighting for the finale is breath taking.
Sheader emphasises community (those ‘Shoreditch’ touches have a point). This is a big cast and it encircles the auditorium before mounting the stage, grabbing microphones and playing around with the stands, cultivating the idea this being a concert. The performative angle provides insight into the piece. And such a commanding use of the ensemble adds emotion as those who followed Jesus quickly turn, to hound him, then demand his death.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Webber, , Lyrics - Tim Rice, Music - Andrew Lloyd Webber, Director - Timothy Sheader, Designer - Tom Scutt, Choreography - Drew McOnie, Lighting - Lee Curran, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, UK, 2016, Credit - Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /
There are as many superstars on stage as you could pray for. Anoushka Lucas is an excellent Mary, making the most of her show-stopping number. Tyrone Huntley (above) is a faultless Judas, with a soaring range and tremendous power. As the lead, Declan Bennett may strike you as lacking charisma – his Christ is introspective – but when power is called for Bennett delivers and his acting is astonishingly focused. Moments when it is difficult to hear what Bennett is singing are an especial pity, given that these are Tim Rice’s best lyrics. It’s testament to the strength of the production that a normally fatal flaw does little to diminish the power of this revelatory show.
Until 27 August 2016
www.openairtheatre.com
Photos by Johan Persson