Tag Archives: Drew McOnie

“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

"Torch Song" at the Turbine Theatre

This is a five star start for Paul Taylor-Mills’ new venue next to Battersea Power Station. Opening with an iconic play is clever. Even better is giving us the chance to see this new version of Harvey Fierstein’s classic, which the author revised for its 2017 New York revival. The much loved wit and wisdom of drag queen Arnold is still here but the piece is now sharper and more serious. Recruiting hot talent Drew McOnie to direct, and top notch performers too, The Turbine Theatre has made a precocious debut on the London theatre scene.

A mammoth role, Arnold is surely as attractive to a performer as he is to an audience. But it’s still a coup to get an actor of Matthew Needham’s stature to take the role. Needham has the charisma needed but brings a rawness to the part that makes Arnold’s trials in love, and trauma in life, especially moving. Arnold is always self aware, it can become grating. But Needham gives the role maturity and provides a wild streak to the character that destabilises the self control and creates an energy that balances all the brilliant wisecracks. None of this diminishes Arnold but it makes him more human. The role is still inspirational; Needham gives us a man truly “filled with possibilities” as he searches for love and respect.

Bernice Stegers in Torch Song at the Turbine Theatre
Bernice Stegers

The clear danger in the play’s previous incarnation, Torch Song Trilogy, is that Arnold overpowers the play. Fierstein has corrected this by beefing up other roles and making them more than foils. Arnold’s mother seems more forceful than ever. Taking the part, Bernice Stegers can land a Jewish joke as well as anyone, but there’s also such pain, anger and confusion in her depiction that it is breathtaking. It’s Fierstein’s triumph as a writer that he can present an alternative view, even if offensive, so well. Arnold’s lover and his son provide two professional debuts in the production – Rish Shah and Jay Lycurgo. Both should be proud that they give these roles their due; both are written and performed as feisty and smart independent men.

Matthew Needham & Rish Shah in Torch Song at the Turbine Theatre
Matthew Needham & Rish Shah

Daisy Bolton makes her role, Arnold’s ex’s ex, intriguing – you want to know what happens to her next. As for the ex, the love of Arnold’s life Ed, the character is made more of a constant and Dino Fetscher rises to the challenge of a substantial role. Ed’s opening encounter with Arnold is a monologue, impeccably delivered, and Fetscher makes the character’s shame about his homosexuality moving. Ed’s arguments about staying in the closet are respected and given space, essential for the drama and challenging to the audience.

Matthew Needham & Dino Fetscher in Torch Song at the Turbine Theatre
Matthew Needham & Dino Fetscher

All the performances do justice to Fierstein’s skills, as does McOnie’s direction. Famous first as a choreographer, it isn’t too fanciful to suggest those skills show. McOnie understands the rhythm of the arguments as the characters dance around their positions. The staging is never fussy and for the second act, Fugue in a Nursery, putting most of the action in a giant bed proves wonderfully clever. Moments when the actors step off the small stage become charged but are never over-used. The direction adds a stylishness that enhances the script, making this production of a strong play, exceptionally powerful.

Until 13 October 2019

www.theturbinetheatre.com

Photos by Mark Senior

"The Wild Party" at The Other Palace

The renamed St James Theatre, now in Lord Lloyd Webber’s portfolio, has the new raison d’être of trying out and refining musicals. And there’s the aim of starting conversations from artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills that warms a blogger’s heart. The first show, by Michael John LaChiusa, is a strong start, but a puzzle, too. Seen on Broadway in 2000, it already seems so cogently formed that there is little new to talk about.
The piece is experimental in that it is based on a poem – by Joseph McClure March – can anyone think of another apart from Cats? musical with such a source? George C Wolfe’s book is structurally audacious and, while the scenario couldn’t be slimmer – someone holds a party, that’s it – the tension ratchets up and up. Both music and lyrics have little time for novices or a discernable eye on commercial success. The milieu here isn’t that familiar to a British audience (jokes, in particular, are a touch obscure) but LaChiusa’s knowledge of American music is obviously profound.
A good portion of the show is a series of introductions. Taking the lead is Queenie, a dancer in Vaudeville, brilliantly portrayed by the legendary Frances Ruffelle, who gives this tart-with-a-heart appropriate depth. Her common law husband, played by John Owen-Jones – also tremendous – ensures the show is not one for coulrophobics. This complicated relationship is the vehicle for exploring obsession and dependence.

John Owen-Jones and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt
John Owen-Jones and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt

Presenting other partygoers gives the rest of the ensemble a chance to shine. Dex Lee is particularly strong as the arch hedonist Jackie, a sophisticate who turns bestial. And, as Queenie’s best friend Victoria Hamilton-Barritt really gets her teeth into a juicy role. It would be hard to sacrifice any of these characters… but maybe more focus might have made the show more enjoyable? Combining high and low life and a mix of ages, races and sexualities has a point but means there’s a lot to handle here. And don’t forget a moral. Like many works of art about libertines, The Wild Party is a warning. When the bootleg gin arrives, complete with bathtub on stage, it would make Hogarth proud.
The venue’s aim as an experimental home is fulfilled for Drew McOnie. While his acclaimed choreography adds enormously to what could be a static affair, his remarkably assured debut as a director is the real story. The piece calls for strong acting and McOnie secures it. There’s a cutting pathos to many of the affairs. And a crazed wish for love, sex, drugs and ambition, with a scary intensity that McOnie doesn’t spare us from.
Until 1 April 2017
www.theotherpalace.co.uk
Photos by Scott Rylander

"In The Heights" at King's Cross Theatre

A visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show is essential preparation for his Hamilton next year. Another success story, it has had a 15-month run, after a premiere at the Southwark Playhouse, sharing a King’s Cross venue with The Railway Children. Strong enough to leave an impression wherever it finds a home, the traverse staging here, expertly handled by director Luke Sheppard and serving Drew McOnie’s energetic choreography superbly, seems especially suited for such an engaging piece.
There’s a lot of love surrounding In The Heights, not least from its dedicated young fans. Firstly, there’s love of community – namely, the area of New York that provides a setting. Two matriarchs, the elderly Abuela and the satisfyingly camp beauty salon owner Daniela, create a sense of heritage with impressive efficiency (as well as providing great roles for Norma Atallah and Aimie Atkinson). Home is the key, with nods to the problems of gentrification, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book works well here.
Then there’s love within the family. Most obviously with the Rosarios, who struggle with their daughter’s decision to drop out of college and start dating one of their employees. The production is lucky to have David Bedella beefing out the role of the father – he is always superb – while Juliet Gough matches him in a solo number that makes you feel she is underused. It’s a shame they couldn’t also fit in a sense of their own love affair – it seems too much time was spent on that American dream.
Which brings us to romance. Not one but two struggling couples create sweet moments. There’s Nina Rosario’s star-crossed affair with Benny (both Gabriela Garcia and Arun Blair-Mangat sing their parts deliciously). And Usnavi, with his fumbling approaches to Vanessa, another strong female character that Sarah Naudi makes the most of. Usnavi is a star role for Sam Mackay, who makes light work of his task as narrator and utilises his character’s diffidence well. Alongside great chemistry with well-meaning cousin Sonny, a sterling performance from Damian Buhagiar, it all goes to make a hero out of this everyday guy, which drives the show marvellously.
There are some stumbles from the book when it comes to rounding off stories and a sentimentality that’s hardly sophisticated. But the staging, including a brilliant scene during a power blackout, dancing and energy are all terrific. Miranda’s music is an innovative blend of rap with the Spanish heritage of Manhattan Heights, which revels in its multiculturalism. It’s complex but never alienating. Likewise, the spirit of the piece is a simple one. With a strong knowledge of musical theatre, for all its originality, this is a good old-fashioned show full of big emotions.
Until 8 January 2017
www.intheheightslondon.com
Photos by Johan Persson

"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

"Patience" at the Union Theatre

Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas have become much-anticipated events. And rightly so. Regan’s direction breaths life into G&S in a manner that retains respect for the classics she is dealing with. Patience follows the successful formula: presenting a silly story of love amongst poets, with a milk maid and dragoons thrown in, that does justice to Gilbert’s contemporary satire while providing a knowing eye to what a modern audience might make of it all.
Sullivan’s take on satire was to mock everyone indiscriminately – being uniformly sarcastic somehow makes it seem fairer. The primary target in Patience was the Aesthetic movement, and there are plenty of reference to lilies and the like, but Regan effortlessly broadens the focus to pretentiousness and fashion in general. In so doing, she preserves and expands the show’s humour, ensuring that this is a night full of laughter.
The main character, Bunthorne, a sham aesthete who confesses “my medievalism’s affectation, born of a morbid love of admiration”, is played marvellously by Dominic Brewer, who takes lyrics such as these into his appropriately elongated stride. Followed around by a troupe of smitten maidens, played by an ensemble of uniformly admirable young performers, Bunthorne’s heart belongs to Patience, a young girl confused by the fuss everyone makes about love.
Following topsy-turvy logic, Patience decides the best way to make her love a sacrifice, a key element to its being Aesthetic, is to marry someone she dislikes, so she ignores her true love for the narcissistic Adonis Grosvenor. Edward Charles Bernstone gives an immaculate, intelligent performance in the title role, while the startling Stiofàn O’Doherty is perfectly cast as Grosvenor.
As well as followers of fashion, Sullivan has an eye on the establishment with a troop of dragoons, the residuum of all that is noble in British manhood. There are sterling performances here from both Edward Simpson and Matthew James Willis, who bring out the wit in Drew McOnie’s choreography and whose strong voices highlight another reason why Patience is so good.
This is a musical, after all, and the splendidly subtle musical direction from Richard Bates, with additional input from Michael England, is just as much a star of the show. Accompanying the performance on only a piano and allowing plenty of a capella makes the most of the remarkable voices on offer, ensuring the show is something to be heard as well as seen.
Until 10 March 2012
www.uniontheatre.biz
Written 22 February 2012 for The London Magazine