Tag Archives: Harvey Fierstein

“Hairspray” from The Shows Must Go On!

While few would call Marc Shaiman’s adaptation of John Waters’ movie a great musical, it is a lot of fun. And this version, filmed for TV by Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, performed live with a star cast and plenty of cash behind it, really does the piece proud.

Maddie Baillio is a superb Tracy Turnblad, the teen whose adventures we follow and whose body-positive attitude is inspiring. Baillio has an innocent edge and manages to convey how outrageous the character is supposed to seem. Fighting segregation in 1962 Baltimore, through her protests on The Corny Collins TV show, gives this musical a sense of purpose. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book, along with witty lyrics from Shaiman and Scott Wittman, make sure there is merriment alongside messages.

With the exceptions of the opening and closing numbers, Shaiman’s score, while enjoyable, isn’t quite memorable enough. Although good pastiche, with a point to make about how African American music was appropriated into the mainstream, it doesn’t unify into a whole that builds. The tongue-in-cheek lyrics are often better than the tunes themselves.

The production impresses, though, not least with the massive film studio set of a whole street, moving traffic and even rain! Judicious use of split screens is only one example of the impressive camera work – cinematography that also gets the most out of some great choreography which, inexplicably, IMDb doesn’t seem to credit.

Best of all are the characters and cast that, from Hughes’ film onwards, have become much loved and loathed. As well as star cameos from Rosie O’Donnell and Sean Hayes, this version has a lot to boast about. The legendary Harvey Fierstein reprises his role as Edna Turnblad and it really is a marvel to see how much he can get out of punchlines (even when they aren’t that good). Jennifer Hudson makes Motormouth Maybelle’s anthem, Big, Blonde and Beautiful, as rousing as possible – what a voice! Garrett Clayton as Tracy’s love interest, Link, shows surprising depth, while Ariana Grande, as her friend Penny, proves a fine comic actress. Hairspray also has great villains – the mother and daughter Von Tussles. The latter provides a fine role for Dove Cameron, who made me laugh out loud more than once. As for mummy dearest, the spectacular Kristin Chenoweth is a scream every moment she’s on screen. Tracy may be aiming for a “degree in musicology with a minor in ethnic studies” and, secondly (good girl), Link’s affection, but Chenoweth already has a doctorate in giving a divine performance.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 31 May 2020

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith/NBC

"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

“Funny Girl” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Sheridan Smith once again proves she’s a great star by making this the fastest selling production in the Menier’s history. But let’s not forget how brave her decision was to take on the part of Fanny Brice. Few roles in theatre are so intimately connected with one performer – Barbra Streisand no less – and this show is all about its leading lady. The joy here is that, like her predecessor, Smith makes the piece work.

Jule Styne’s musical about the Ziegfeld Follies comedy star – a rise to fame and failed marriage story – is too feeble a plot, despite the string of hit songs and Bob Merrill’s witty lyrics, to be anything other than a star vehicle. This production does well to showcase the talents of leading man Darius Campbell. And Marilyn Cutts can kvell with the best of them as Fanny’s Yiddisher mama. But both characters are written flatter than a matzo and are ultimately unsatisfying.

Smith’s interpretation of Brice is startling, even riveting. Of course, it’s clever to steer clear of Streisand’s well-known recordings, although a handful of occasions when the famous phrasing is simply better are still, studiously, avoided. But make no mistake – Smith owns the role with perfect comic timing and an ability to belt out a song if she has too. Most importantly is her sheer charm, which makes Brice’s success easy to believe. There are few performers who can win an audience over so quickly and completely.

New York bigwig Michael Mayer is the director here – a coup for the venue. And Isobel Lennart’s book has been spruced up by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein. A transfer to the Savoy was quickly announced and there’s already speculation about the show travelling across the Atlantic. It’s clear the production is itching to get into a bigger space, and expanding Michael Pavelka’s design would be all too easy. I’d be happy to see it again and suspect it could be a rare instance of a move that is better bigger.

Until 5 March 2016

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Casa Valentina” at the Southwark Playhouse

From the true story of a holiday retreat for transvestites at the turn of the 1960s, Harvey Fierstein creates an intriguing and substantial comedy drama that has plenty of balls.

Peopled by brilliant characters, most of whom I’d happily see a play about, director Luke Sheppard’s European premiere revels in these complex roles. There’s a decorated war hero, known as Bessie, performed with great charm by Matt Rixon. Ashley Robinson gives the independent Gloria (“irresistible” as man and woman) an appropriately arresting rendition. And new to this tight-knit crowd comes Jonathan, literally allowing his alter ego Miranda out for the first time, with a sensitive portrayal by Ben Deery.

Gareth Snook in Casa Valentina by Robert Workman
Gareth Snook

This is all moving and interesting. But there’s another story, too, as the community searches for respectability. Driven by the serpentine Charlotte (played mesmerisingly by Gareth Snook), there’s a drive to dissociate transvestites from homosexuals. Charlotte is a zealot and her combat with a closeted judge, played by Robert Morgan, includes a riveting blackmail scene. Fierstein shows us not just the camaraderie of this community, but also how persecution blights lives.

Edward Wolstenholme and Tamsin Carroll Casa Valentina by Robert Workman 2015 6
Edward Wolstenholme and Tamsin Carroll

In the middle are the resorts owners, a married couple (or should that be trio?): George/Valentina and Rita. Edward Wolstenholme takes the title role, trying to make a business work and craving “normality” (he’s in the wrong place in more than once sense), while his understanding wife, the heroine of the piece, is given a strong presence by Tamsin Carroll. Their union collapses under the pressure of his competing personas.

Fierstein doesn’t blindly follow a liberal agenda. Clearly, revealing how difficult these men’s lives are creates sympathy. But the secrecy surrounding cross-dressing takes its toll on them and nobody here is a saint. Of course, the play is all the better for this. A work of deep insight, benefiting from the scrupulous mining of a time and place, Casa Valentina delves into psychology with flair and bravery.

Until 10 October 2015

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Robert Workman

“Kinky Boots” at the Adelphi Theatre

Here’s another musical based on a movie, this time the hit Broadway adaptation of a sweet true story about a Midlands shoe manufacturer saved from bankruptcy by making boots for transvestites. It’s a model musical with basic morals, a focused plot and nicely developing characters you care about. And, judging by the audience’s rapturous response, it looks as if it will kick up its heels and run and run. Given the footwear worn by the cast, that’s no mean achievement.

Kinky Boots is more a collection of songs than true musical theatre… but it is an excellent collection. Putting aside the opening couple of numbers, there’s variety, originality and an exceptionally high hit rate. The production has some issues with delivery from the chorus, making lyrics hard to hear. But these songs feel like old friends, such is their instant appeal – it’s like a jukebox musical without the back catalogue. It’s still fairly hard to believe that Cyndi Lauper’s score won the Tony over Tim Minchin’s Matilda in 2013, but that’s awards for you.

Amy Lennox (Lauren) and Killian Donnelly (Charlie) in Kinky Boots - photo Matt Crocket
Amy Lennox and Killian Donnelly

Killian Donnelly plays Charlie Price, who has just inherited the family business, and is top-notch with a tremendous solo number, ‘Soul of a Man’. There’s a standout turn from Amy Lennox as his love interest, whose quirky delivery of ‘The History Of Wrong Guys’ is a real crowd pleaser. In the lead role of Lola, the drag queen turned shoe designer, Matt Henry sounds superb but his comic skills need honing and, ironically, he doesn’t seem that comfortable in drag… yet. Another problem is that the ensemble feels split, with the shoemakers trying too hard to compete with Lola’s superb troop of backing singers. Since these ‘Angels’ include performers who can do a back somersault in heels, those in the factory lose out a little too obviously.

Backing up the show is Harvey Fierstein’s book and impeccable direction, including choreography, from Jerry Mitchell. It’s an understatement to say they know what they’re doing. Both Broadway legends, their work is almost ruthlessly efficient. Fierstein can write a put down better than most (Lola wouldn’t trust herself to “babysit a cactus”) but the focus is Lauper’s feelgood soundtrack, which elicits near hysterical responses from people around me. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it’s definitely fun, and Kinky Boots can hold its head tall. And, in those heels, that’s very tall indeed.

Until 6 February 2016

www.kinkybootsthemusical.co.uk

Photos by Matt Crocket