Tag Archives: Jeanine Tesori

“Violet” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This intriguing musical, about a disfigured woman’s journey across America in the hope of being healed by a television evangelist, won best musical at the New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards with its premiere in 1997. It’s a simple morality tale complicated by adult themes and characters. This production, from director Shuntaro Fujita, does the show proud but cannot hide some odd flaws.

The eponymous heroine is an unlikely central figure, which is for the good. Kaisa Hammarlund gives a brilliant performance in the role, barely stepping off stage during the show and always sounding superb. The problem is that her no nonsense character, and flashbacks to her childhood (where Keiron Crook does well as her father), make her need for a pretty face seem disappointing. Could such a smart woman fall for the fake glamour of the movies? That she does just that makes watching her troubles an uncomfortable affair. While the challenging of themes of self-esteem and the pressure of small-town “superstitions” is admirable, it’s hard to get behind Violet.

Kieron Crook

Romances that develop during Violet’s travels have potential, but feel rushed. The attraction to a young solider, Montgomery, is contrasted with a more meaningful connection established with his African-American colleague, Flick. Again, the performances are strong, from Matthew Harvey and Jay Marsh, respectively. But this love triangle is too scalene; the right man too obviously right from the start. Despite Harvey’s efforts to introduce tension, Violet’s fling with him seems unbelievable. And, while Flick’s attraction could also have been developed further, especially the racism the relationship would suffer from, it is still overwhelming in terms of plot.

Shuntaro tries hard to gloss over shortcomings with a new configuration for the venue and a revolving stage that do wonders for the space. But, while Bryan Crawley’s work on the book, an adaptation of a short story by Doris Betts, is sturdy enough, his lyrics are functional rather than inspired. Which is an especial shame given the quality of the score from Jeanine Tesori. A mix of country, blues, rock and gospel, the music is always interesting. The sense of time and place are rooted and there’s plenty of invention. When the ensemble acts as a chorus the sound is fantastic and there are marvellous turns for Angelica Allen and Simbi Akande that could easily have been extended.

The aftermath of the encounter between Violet and the preacher she has come to see is a painful summation of Tesori’s musical themes. It’s brilliantly written, superbly performed by Hammarlund, and reveals how well grounded the show is. Violet’s mania at this point, a mix of faith and instability provides a final, albeit too brief, reward for the interesting work on show here.

Until 6 April 2019


Photos by Scott Rylander

“Fun Home” at the Young Vic

Jeanine Tesori’s Tony award-winning musical is deceptively simple. It’s a modest story of family tragedy, a shell marriage and a suicide that is never overplayed. The lyrics, by Lisa Kron, are seldom flashy but always smart. Tesori’s music is beautiful, but folksy rather than symphonic. Such restraint takes sophistication. And the show’s aim, of a truthful search into the past, gains sincerity and emotional power through prudent understatement.

Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, it is the artist’s wish to paint “a picture of my father” that we are privileged to see performed. Bechdel is a lesbian and her father slept with men. Rather than supporting one another, in the style of the Gay Union Bechdel joins at college, repressed embarrassment and his frustrated life remain the consistent note. The roles make great parts for Kaisa Hammarlund and Zubin Varla, who are commanding throughout. But note: there are no sentimental pleas for understanding, no claims for revelations. Instead, what’s special about the tone of the piece is that no apologies are made. And there is a refreshing joy about Bechdel’s sexuality, with two songs of discovery – as a child and at college – that are highlights. Bechdel’s mother gets a fair turn, too, brilliantly portrayed by Jenna Russell. Again, there are no answers or explanations as to why she would stay in this marriage, but a bare dignity that is deeply moving.

The production from director Sam Gold is exemplary in its understanding of the piece – nothing distracts from the excellent storytelling and there isn’t a soap box in sight. And Gold gets strong performances from his child performers – indeed the acting all around is superb. Final praise goes to designer David Zinn for a stunning set that embodies the show: a rotating circle of furniture shows Bechdel’s obsession with bird’s-eye views, then a section in New York uses lighting to create comic book style panels, and finally the family home is revealed like a doll’s house. In each case, the point is clear and direct, forceful and impeccably well drawn.

Until 1 September 2018


Photo by Marc Brenner

“Caroline, Or Change” at the Hampstead Theatre

Well done to Edward Hall for bringing this Chichester Festival production to London. Director Michael Longhurst’s modest treatment of this major musical, about racism in the American south, has an intimacy that increases its intensity. The talents of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori are awe inspiring, and this work ground breaking. The piece is sung throughout, so there’s a case for calling it an opera, but the genre doesn’t matter – this is simply something everyone should see.

Caroline, Or Change is at heart a “small domestic tragedy” about a middle-aged black maid, her children, and the family she works for. It’s a given that Sharon D Clarke would be good in the title role, but it’s a thrill to see just how great: her voice gives goose bumps and she portrays Caroline’s tough life, and harsher attitude, unflinchingly. Making Caroline heroic is interesting in itself, and seeing her through the eyes of Noah, the young boy she works for, is a brilliant device. She is not a wholly sympathetic character and Clark’s triumph is to balance the dramatic tension that results from this.

Following Caroline’s day, the washing machine, dryer, radio and bus she travels on all get songs. That might sound like Disney, but the music is for grown-ups and powerfully performed by Me’sha Bryan and Ako Mitchell, while T’Shan Williams, Sharon Rose and Carole Stennett make up a 60s-style singing trio. When allowed to keep coins Noah leaves in his laundry, Caroline’s struggles to take the child’s money. And all is played against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. So there’s change, big and small, with a heroine so poorly equipped to deal with either it becomes heart-breaking.

Kushner is a big ideas man, and there’s plenty of challenging thinking here. But these lyrics must count as some of the most extraordinary written. Along with propelling the plot, extending the family dramas and explicating historical events, the complexity of emotions expressed is remarkable. There’s wit, which makes many lines laugh out loud funny, and breath-taking imagery. Much of the text is pure poetry.

Matching Kushner’s skill with words comes the music of Jeanine Tesori. It’s a huge achievement that these lyrics never feel compromised: always clear, not a word out of place. The musical references have to be various, there’s a clash of cultures to evoke alongside a period feel. With gospel and blues comes Jewish folk music, the American anthem and Christmas carols. Weaved into all of these, with massive intelligence, are motifs for characters that provoke huge emotional impact.

Kushner and Tersori are smart and know great works require originality. Caroline, Or Change isn’t quite like anything else. It’s not just a matter of quirks – although it has delightful surprises – or contrariness. The audience goes home on a high (as it should). But Caroline’s fate is realistic, and any feelgood comes from the legacy of her children: led by her daughter Emmie, who wants to embrace the new and is given a suitably inspirational depiction by Abiona Omonua. Caroline herself can’t change. Given her life, could you? But putting such a fallible figure against dramas big and small is an important triumph of its own.

Until 21 April 2018


Photo by Marc Brenner