Jason Robert Brown is a composer known for his clever musicals and skilled songwriting, both evident in Adam Lenson’s 20th anniversary revival of his first work, Songs For A New World. A song cycle, rather than ‘proper’ musical, it has numbers set in distant ages and places, mixed with those about relationships that could be from any time and anywhere. The songs are connected by a moment when a life changes and a character develops. Startling and original, it’s the music’s instant appeal and variety, rather than the concept, that is the real highlight.
Lenson has some nice touches to suggest the fluidity the show aims for, but he never distracts attention from the performers – wise, as the four stars on stage are truly stellar. They sound better singing solo than as a group, but their voices are fantastic. First the boys – Damian Humbley and Dean John-Wilson – with songs of depression and ambition, often linked by the mistakes of fathers, perfectly delivered. Then Cynthia Erivo, who sounds appropriately heavenly as a woman who sings about her pregnancy and has a wonderful stage presence. But since I’m such a fan, Jenna Russell was my favourite, with the show’s funniest numbers: a suicidal rich bitch and the desperate wife of Santa Claus.
Yet even with performances like these, it’s frustrating to hunt for themes and connections when you really just want to enjoy the music. Songs For A New World feels like a collection of musicals waiting to break out rather than its bolder aim of something abstract. You want each song to develop – they sound so great. And each character introduced is one you want to know better. A surfeit of talent perhaps, the piece is more a soundtrack to love than a show to see.
I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical, which opened this week at the Palladium, is a logical fit for the theatre. It might be TV, but it’s live, essentially a variety show, with large personalities that can fill a stage. The show’s creators, Harry Hill and Steve Brown, exploit the backstories of the characters and possibilities for songs mercilessly for comedy. At once sincere and surreal, the show might just have that indefinable quality that makes a hit musical – it’s very own X factor.
But first a confession from your reviewer. I’ve never watched The X Factor. Forgive me – I’m at the theatre a lot. As well as making me akin to an alien, this created a concern that I might not have a clue what was going on. As it happens I found lots of it funny. There are a surprising number of theatre jokes and, as most do know the show (like the row behind me), I can report that you’ll be laughing like the proverbial drain. I am qualified at least to say that Sean Foley’s direction is assured and that reports of troubled previews don’t seem to have rattled the fine performers.
The leads of the show provide a plot, a neat little love story between two contestants. Cynthia Erivo plays Chenice, whose backstory – take a deep breath – of life in a caravan under the Westway with a grandfather in an iron lung and not enough money to study UFOs at Golders Green University, is so tragic that it’s envied by other contestants. With a knock-out voice that brings out the irony in the show’s hummable title song, Erivo is joined by Alan Morrissey, who has an appealing stage presence as a plumber with a ukulele who wants to change the world with his songs. The other contestants do well, too, but it’s the ever excellent Simon Lipkin who gets my vote, using the puppetry skills that made Avenue Q such a success to play Chenice’s dog, Barlow.
There are strong comic turns from the judges: the geriatric Louis (Ashley Knight) and Geordie Jordy (Victoria Elliott), headed of course by Simon Cowell, a role energetically taken by Nigel Harman. Like his television creation, Cowell seems self-consciously ripe for satire. Being lampooned so successfully must delight him (as a backer for the show) and the sheer silly scale of the satire, much of it literally messianic, keeps coming. The show contains no subtlety, surely that would be inappropriate – just a lot of laughs.
It’s a musical, so let’s not forget the songs. Brown’s compositions are efficient, and varied, but the music is very much subservient to the comedy. Several numbers are disappointing and only get along by being very loud. But, as well as the title song, there’s another great number for Morrissey, a moment of stillness among too many mock anthems that really stands out.
You could take a guess that there will be choreography with sofas. Tick the box for dancing leprechauns. I am even sure I’ve seen break-dancing monks before and, as with Jerry Springer The Opera, there are Valkyrie on call. And there are still surprises, mostly theatrical I am pleased to say, and bizarre enough to really delight in their eccentricity, with touches of George Formby, postcard-style humour and plain silliness.
There’s a strong sense of weird and wonderful minds behind I Can’t Sing! that avoids any sense of attempting to cash in on a successful formula. It’s mad but also clever stuff. And it works. Combining the prosaic and clichéd with extravagant dreams, there’s a satisfying circularity in what Hill and Brown have achieved – a show so ridiculous that it becomes inspiring.
This musical, fortunately abbreviated to Ceiling/Sky, follows seven twentysomethings living in LA and how they change in the aftermath of an earthquake. The spectrum of characters’ interests and ethnic backgrounds allows John Adams plenty of scope for musical experimentation. Known as a modern classical composer and feted in the UK for his work at the ENO, Adams is a ferociously intelligent musician. This work flaunts his knowledge of great American musicals as well as creating a contemporary urban soundscape. It is dauntingly ambitious in its reach.
Directors Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia see the strengths of this fascinating piece and seek to address some of its more intimidating tendencies by emphasising its theatricality and casting a group of strong, young actors. The cast bravely tackle a demanding score and excel in revealing the humanity of their characters.
Natasha J Barnes plays an offensive TV reporter whose frosty demeanour convincingly breaks down in the face of crisis. She is pursued by a young lawyer (Colin Ryan), who gives a determined, passionate performance, but she prefers a policeman she is writing about. Stewart Charlesworth is wonderful in this role – full of angst and diffidence. In an extremely awkward arrest scene he apprehends Leon Lopez, a petty criminal in love with an illegal immigrant (Anna Mateo). Both bring out the lyricism in some great songs. The final couple are a lecherous preacher played with amusing grace by Jason Denton and his long-suffering girlfriend performed by Cynthia Erivo, whose stunning voice gives her character an aggressive complexity.
But for all Adams’ skill and the cast’s flair, the star of this show is lyricist June Jordan. I confess my ignorance of this poet and essayist but will be scouring The London Library as soon as I have posted this review. The plot is never explained in Ceiling/Sky – you just go straight into the songs. Remarkably, the writing is so clear that this is never a problem. The text is raw, blithe and affirming. It has an earthy quality that is instantly appealing and it is to the production’s credit that every line is clearly heard. While the composition may be of greatest interest to aficionados of musical theatre, the words speak loudly to all of us. I strongly suggest that you go and hear them.