Tag Archives: Jason Robert Brown

“The Last Five Years” at the Southwark Playhouse

After having its run cut short by the lockdown, this return to the stage – for this five-star show – is especially welcome. This is a superb production of a fantastic musical.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle and his talented performers Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson, as the couple, Cathy and Jamie whose romance we follow, all get the most from Jason Robert Brown’s superb writing.

The story’s structure is original: Cathy’s tale plays backwards (we start by seeing the marriage end) and alternates with Jamie, who begins by falling in love. Showing us such highs and lows, flipping back and forth from song to song, is explicated and elaborated magnificently by O’Boyle.

The interaction between Lynch and Higginson – which is mostly ignoring one another – as they sing about different times in their lives, creates a layered, often ghostly, effect. A moment when Jamie reaches for Cathy’s hand, which she is oblivious to, results in shivers. Even smarter, both performers take turns on a piano, starting or ending each other’s numbers to startling effect. A revolving stage, part of Lee Newby’s set, adds further sophistication.

Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography places extra demands on both cast members which, along with sounding great, they live up to. Again, some of the imagery created is almost spectral, as if each can see the other in their imagination but fail to really communicate. 

Lynch brings a credible fragility to her sympathetic character that proves moving. We are on her side from the start. It was a worry whether she would manage lighter numbers but, thankfully, these have a satisfactory comedy to them. Lynch works wonders with a ukulele and that revolving stage.

Each time I see The Last Five Years I like Jamie a little less. The character seems more arrogant and selfish as I age! And Jamie objectifies Cathy something rotten. Countering this, Higginson’s performance is often charming and energetic, as well as always heartfelt. There’s an edge that makes me suspect Higginson doesn’t like Jamie much either… I hope so.

George Dyer’s musical direction is also impressive (the percussion sometimes a little heavy). And I wonder if the show was originally conceived for a proscenium stage, understandably altered for extra socially distanced capacity? I’d certainly recommend you don’t sit to the sides. So, the production isn’t perfect… but it’s pretty close, and one of the best shows in years.  

Until 14 November 2020

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Songs for a New World”: a lockdown performance

Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle is presented by Lambert Jackson Productions after the success of its lockdown show, The Last Five Years. The collection showcases Brown’s work as a composer and lyricist – there are some great songs – while affording the cast a chance to impress. The major talent recruited here is stunning and the show enjoyable.

Searching for connections in the cycle can prove off-putting. If the idea is a decisive ‘one moment’, the scenarios are too generic (and cryptic) to become satisfyingly thematic. Instead, there’s a mix of hope and struggle and a touch too much sentimentality. For good or ill, it’s hard not to imagine many of the numbers as part of a bigger show.

Cedric Neal, Rachel John, Ramin Karimloo and Rachel Tucker in “Songs for a New World”: a lockdown performance
Cedric Neal and his lovely staircase

The production contains distractions of its own. Director Séimí Campbell’s decision to cut news footage into the performances is a valiant effort to guide the viewer but tails off as the show goes on. On a lighter note, there’s also the views of the homes of those performing in isolation… what a lovely staircase Cedric Neal has!

Yet the music and performances make Songs for a New World worthwhile. Neal and Rachel John have such gorgeous voices that the whole evening has a sense of power. Both can convey outrage and tenderness with such skill that tears were in my eyes more than once.

Rachel Tucker - Songs For A New World
Rachel Tucker and her sofa

Rachel Tucker’s numbers have a more character behind them. With the funniest songs, Tucker shows what a fine actress she is: making the most of her sofa and the excellent Mrs Claus song (the show’s best pun). It might be noted along the way what a lot of ‘demanding’ women Brown writes about.

Ramin Karimloo is also excellent, although it has to be mentioned that his terrific stage presence is out of place on a screen: in a duet, while John conveys a tête-à-tête, Karimloo makes sure the balcony crowd is getting its money’s worth. Of course, he is still fantastic. And, as a final highlight, there’s a nod to new talent with a debut number for Shem Omari James that he should be proud of.

The singing and musical direction from Josh Winstone is so strong that two (maybe three) numbers that might be less than convincing really shine. With writing as strong as Brown’s, praise doesn’t come higher than that.

Until 25 July 2020

www.lwtheatres.co.uk

“The Last Five Years”: a lockdown performance

A bittersweet highlight of the Covid-19 lockdown, this specially filmed version of a show via The Other Palace theatre is wonderful – even if it made me rue the chance of seeing Jason Robert Brown’s masterpiece live more than ever.

Taking the roles of lovers Cathy and Jamie, Lauren Samuels and Danny Becker have singing voices to die for. They can both belt out a number with fantastic power – and make a song intriguing, dramatic, funny and moving all at the same time. Yet, of course, the sound quality doesn’t touch a live performance. At the back of your mind is how much you’d love to hear Samuels and Becker on a stage.

Brown’s influential musical, with a justly deserved following, is full of fantastic songs and lyrics that blend the joy and poignancy of romance magnificently. The brilliant narrative structure – Jamie starts by falling in love, while Cathy tells her story backwards, beginning with a lament to their failed marriage – is superficially suited to a show produced in isolation as only one scene calls for both performers to be together.

Samuels also directs and, without doubt, has plenty of problem-solving ideas. If I wasn’t too keen on some of the touches (text messages on screen or scenes inserted in boxes), the variety of rooms and costumes impresses. Best of all, Samuels makes sure neither she nor Becker are always looking straight to camera, so the show doesn’t feel like a long monologue.

Lauren Samuels in 'The Last Five Years'
Lauren Samuels

Samuels’ more important skills, as director, are understanding both characters to get the audience emotionally involved and appreciating the impact of the piece’s structure. Because we see her pain first, we have more sympathy for Cathy. And Jamie is less appealing (I’m thinking A Miracle Would Happen). This is balanced by Samuels showing us a fragile and demanding Cathy. Meanwhile, Becker’s appealing performance balances his character’s self-obsession; The Schmuel Song (which I’ve never bothered about before) is a revelation that brought tears to my eyes.

Danny Becker in 'The Last Five Years'
Danny Becker sings The Schmuel Song

Though impeccably executed with sublime singing, the piece has unavoidable restrictions. While the physical separation of the performers reflects the many ways that distance is referenced in the piece, the charge that comes from having them share a stage can’t help but be a loss. And what do I miss most of all? Applause… without doubt. In a theatre, I would be on my feet for Samuels and Becker as soon as the show ended.

Until 27 June 2020

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

"The Bridges of Madison County" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s easy to see why talented composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown would be the go-to man for this project. His masterful The Last Five Years was a similarly simple love story that he managed to make interesting. But here the source material is Robert James Waller’s surprise best-selling book – a soppy affair of little promise. So, while the musical is wonderful and the production, from director Trevor Nunn, consistent with this venue’s high standards, the story is too thin and the show just a little dull.

In Iowa, which we’re too frequently reminded is a boring location, while housewife Francesca’s family is at the state fair, she has an affair with Rick, a photographer on assignment from National Geographic. Francesca’s dedication to her family means the romance is doomed. And that’s it – although on stage this brief encounter doesn’t exactly speed along.

A good deal of the problem comes from the men in Francesca’s life. Her husband, despite Dale Rapley’s efforts in the role, really is boring. And her lover, while initially charismatic, ends up pretentious and annoying. Edward Baker-Duly sounds good as Rick but the character is flat and the performance suffers as a result. Talk of his art, let alone his back story, grates. By the time he starts using his hands to frame a picture (which I’ve never seen a real photographer do), you wonder why Francesca isn’t planning to run away from both of them.

Mercifully, Marsha Norman’s book focuses on Francesca and the piece becomes her story. Since Jenna Russell takes the role – and is, thankfully, barely off stage – the show is pretty much saved. Russell sings every song to perfection and many of her numbers are superb. While Francesca is written as a touch too much the martyr, Russell has the presence to make her seem courageous. And she also injects some humour into the role, allowing us to warm to the character. Unfortunately, Russell is the only cast member that gets even a smile (sorry, the nosey neighbours and squabbling teenage kids don’t cut it).

With a score this intelligent, much can be forgiven: it’s a smart mix of Americana, with a controlled period feel, and delicate Italian touches indicating Francesca’s heritage. But not even Robert Brown’s brains can escape from the clichés in the story and his lyrics are, unusually, pedestrian at times. The whole piece is deliberately underplayed, which Nunn appreciates, and as a strategy that is understandable. This is supposed to be a story of everyday lives. When romance arrives, the score is lush but any heady moments are the only speedy thing here; the result is humdrum and humourless and the show ends up a frigid affair.

Until 14 September 2019

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

"13" at the Ambassadors Theatre

Performed by students of the British Theatre Academy, this musical about turning 13 has the distinction of featuring actors who are all that age or less.

Director and choreographer Ewan Jones has shaped his young charges expertly and all involved should be proud of their professionalism. I couldn’t spot any fumbles – let alone nerves. Even the most obvious failing is charming: the children haven’t entirely learned to deal with an audience’s response and don’t take account of frequent laughter or riotous applause.

The show itself, with a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, uses standard school drama tropes and coming of age lessons. New boy Evan, a huge leading role for the talented Milo Panni, has to work out which group he belongs to, with the added pressure of organising his bar mitzvah, while learning about himself – and love – along the way.

The Academy wasn’t taking the soft option when it chose this age-specific piece. The lyrics are ambitious, the musical genres wide referencing. These songs are not easy to perform. Unlike most musicals for younger voices, fewer songs have support from the whole cast, and there are no adults to carry numbers. It is a struggle for some, and the different maturity of boys and girls is noticeable: Chloe Endean and Isabella Pappas, competing for romance with the school jock, are more advanced vocally, and Madeline Banbury, as Evan’s love interest, shows stand-out acting skills.

The best reason to choose the show is that it is from musical mastermind Jason Robert Brown – any opportunity to see his work should not be missed. Showing his usual wit and intelligence, his strong collection of songs will please any age group. The majority are funny, with jokes for grown-ups that add appeal (the school in question is Dan Quayle Junior High). The show is warm, open and inclusive – qualities Jones appreciates perfectly. There’s no patronising audience or performers here, which makes this a production that’s good for more than the family and friends of its talented cast.

Until 23 August 2017

www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Roy Tan

"Songs For A New World" at the St James Theatre

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.
Until 8 August 2015
www.stjamestheatre.co.uk
Photo by Darren Bell