Tag Archives: Laurence Connor

“Cinderella” at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

There were long delays to the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical. Like many theatres, the show is still troubled by Covid as my struggle to get a ticket, and a delayed start when I finally did go, illustrates. But the spirit of making sure that the show goes on is alive and well. Gratitude and respect to those working so hard.

First some praise for the clever typography for the posters. The e and r form a shoe! It’s a small point, but indicative of how much skill and thought is behind every aspect of a show that deserves to be hit.

Working for the first time with Emerald Fennell, who wrote the book for the show, says much for Lloyd Webber’s spirit of adventure. The name on a lot of lips after the success of her film, Promising Young Woman, getting Fennell on board to update a fairy story is a smart move. But let’s not forget how adventurous Lloyd Webber has always been. Success numbs us to the fact that musicals about Christ or cats are bonkers ideas.

The tweaks Fennell has made to the story are smart. A “bad Cinderella” stands out for not caring about her looks – in her hometown of Belleville that’s a crime. It’s when Cinderella changes her mind, colluding with a Mephistophelean godmother beautician, that things go wrong. A feminist slant? Maybe, although Cinderella finds no sisterhood in the show. But the female roles are refreshingly strong and undoubtedly make the piece.

Nothing to be scared of

It’s great to see such a confident Cinderella. She has problems, of course, but her strength of character powers the show. While Carrie Hope Fletcher has won praise for her performance, I was lucky enough to see Georgina Onuorah take the role and a great job she did, too. Gifted some great lines, the humour feel fresh and the singing great.

Rebecca Trehearn in Cinderella credit Tristram Kenton
Rebecca Trehearn

Surprisingly, Cinderella isn’t the most interesting character. Both the Queen and her stepmother have more fun by being a little frightening. Rebecca Trehearn is a monarch with a past who might be a psychopath. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt brings a touch of Norma Desmond to a deliciously wicked stepmother. The heir to the throne isn’t Prince Charming (that’s his missing brother), but a sensitive soul who leads to the show’s explorations of masculinity – and isn’t that a toxicity to be scared of? Ivano Turco excels in the part.

Ivano Turco in Cinderella credit Tristram Kenton
Ivano Turco

The lyrics, from David Zippel, are intelligent. He is a safe pair of hands who makes the libretto worth listening to, as it’s sophisticated with the odd, well-judged, crudity. It’s a shame his lines are witty rather than laugh-out-loud funny.

Most importantly, the music is good. There is something here for all, with lots of catchy songs and poppy tunes that please. More traditional, orchestral numbers add some romance even if they don’t quite match. Cinderella herself sometimes sounds as if she should be in a different musical.

Costumes and sets, designed by Gabriela Tylesova, are all very clever. The dresses are just outrageous enough to raise a smile and the ‘cut-out’ sets suggest spontaneity. The action is kept swift by director Laurence Connor. Best of all, by not overstating the effort to be new and different, Cinderella wins respect. There’s enough campy fun to please all. But there’s also a sense of integrity. The show is interesting as well as great entertainment.

Booking until May 2022

www.andrewlloydwebberscinderella.com/

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“Les Misérables” at the Sondheim Theatre

‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ is not the maxim of Cameron Mackintosh. Despite enormous success, the RSC’s production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical has been restaged. Previously a touring version, the ‘new’ show comes from former cast members and now directors Laurence Connor and James Powell. It’s obvious how well they know the piece. And don’t worry – Les Mis is as wonderful as ever.

If a little upstaged by the fantastic concert version of the show, which filled in after lockdown, Connor and Powell have clear ideas. I won’t be drawn into saying if the result is better or worse, but there’s no reasons Trevor Nunn’s previous version should be considered definitive. If the new version seems more static, maybe more traditional, it’s still a crowd pleaser.

The moral struggle between convict turned religious convert Jean Valjean and police inspector Javert, a very literal embodiment of law and order, is focused to the point of perfection. There are social issues, romance and, of course, revolution. The marvel of Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation is not just that all of this is easily followed by an audience, but that it enthrals.

Jon-Robyns-as-Jean-Valjean-Photograph-Johan-Persson
Jon Robyns as Jean-Valjean

There is a rawness to some of the vocals that might raise eyebrows. Squeezing out all possible drama – and the show is melodramatic anyway – is prioritised by Connor and Powell. Bradley Jaden’s Javert is a charismatic figure, fraught with angst. If the role is overshadowed by Valjean, that’s down to Jon Robyns’ star presence. Both male leads give terrific performances.

The comedy is particularly strong, mostly due to the always excellent Josefina Gabrielle and Gerard Carey as the dastardly Thénardier couple. And there’s a superb Enjolras (leader of the 1832 revolt the show documents): Jordan Shaw brings a beauty to the singing of this role that I hadn’t appreciated before.

Connor and Powell have clearly inspired their cast. And credit where it is due, plenty has been learned from Nunn: the staging isn’t fussy, several scenes are powerful because of their simplicity. There is justified confidence in On My Own(and a great performance from Sha Dessi). It’s a shame Empty Chairs at Empty Tables has less impact; I just can’t imagine how that could have been improved.

Talking about the revolution

The redesign comes from Matt Kinley, also long associated with the show. The big news is that the famous revolving stage is gone! The world hasn’t stopped turning as a result, but I did miss it: there’s a little too much marching on a spot. The action, you might say energy, is literally more frontal – with characters facing the audience almost obsessively.

It’s clear where money has been spent. Javert’s final scene does look better. And the projections of Parisian sewers are more technically advanced. Yet backdrops (inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings) impress mostly because of their size. It’s all part of the production being a little, well, flatter. That isn’t always a bad thing: the show also seems speedier.

Nunn was no stranger to a tableau, but the new production feels frozen at times – almost too eager to focus on key moments that are literally in the spotlight. Lighting designer Paule Constable has done lovely work that’s dramatic and directs attention. But occasionally there is a halting feeling to the show. It’s as if everyone is posing for a photo.

These are observations rather than criticism. You are sure to enjoy Les Misérables as much as ever – the music and the performances are marvellous. Debating if the production is tighter and more direct or maybe a little less exciting is now part of the fun. If I’m not sure anything really needed fixing, this new Les Mis is far from broken

www.lesmis.com

Photos by Michael Le Poer Trench and Johan Persson

“The Phantom of the Opera” from The Shows Must Go On!

Available for only 24 hours, this concert production marking 25 years of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical aimed to raise funds for various charities connected with Covid-19. To celebrate such a hit show, with its potent beauty-and-the-beast love triangle, producer Cameron Macintosh didn’t scrimp. The result is tremendous.

Gorgeous costumes, fantastic video projections and, with the Royal Albert Hall standing in for the Palais Garnier that the Phantom made his home, the atmosphere is impressive throughout. The auditorium is skilfully used in the film and – wait for it – the chandelier has fireworks!

The extravagance continues with a plumped-up ensemble and full corps de ballet, including a guest appearance by Sergei Polunin. Appropriately, there’s a star-studded cast, led by Ramin Karimloo in the title role. Karimloo makes a formidable Phantom, his singing muscular and emotions raw. His is a frightened figure, scared of his love for Christine, with hatred of his rival fuelling his insanity.

'The Phantom of the Opera' anniversary concert
Hadley Fraser and Sierra Boggess

The object of his obsession, played by Sierra Boggess, sounds beautiful and is just as well acted. Boggess is great at bringing out the horror in the story and even shows that Christine herself is a good actress. Also, very few people can make a cape work so well for them. Completing the trio of leads, Raoul Vicomte de Chagny, is a poorer role, but Hadley Fraser does well to inject an edge to the character with a ruthless streak that aids the show’s action.

Both the staging and the cast, directed impeccably by Laurence Connor, are wonderful. But the biggest attraction remains Lloyd Webber’s music. Benefitting from a bigger orchestra than usual, it sounds better than ever; the overture to Act Two is gorgeous and the opera music within the show impressive.

How to end such a fantastic event? I’m pleased I kept watching, after the lengthy applause, for the encore – an appearance by the original ‘angel of music’ Sarah Brightman, backed by four former Phantoms! A very special end to a magnificent event that easily deserves donations.

Available on The Shows Must Go On! YouTube channel until 18 April 2020

“Jesus Christ Superstar” from The Shows Must Go On!

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s generous gift to theatre-goers confined through Covid-19 during the Easter weekend is, appropriately, the passion story. Retold with an exciting rock score and the brilliant lyrics of Tim Rice, it is one of Webber’s most adventurous endeavours, dating from 1970. This arena production from 2012, while not my favourite, is still a real treat.

The production is star-studded and had a TV competition behind it that led to the casting of Ben Forster in the title role. Mel C of the Spice Girls takes the part of Mary Magdalene and Tim Minchin, a personal hero, is Judas. The delivery is clear, nobody sounds unpleasant and they can all perform to big crowds – important given the settings for the tour – indeed, each gets better as the show progresses. But none of the leads is actors. None manages to get beyond their public personas. Minchin still even sports his trademark eye make-up, and the close-ups provided by a filmed performance highlight this shortcoming.

Things are much better with the Pharisees: Pete Gallagher and Gerard Bentall are strong. Best of all is Alexander Hanson’s very classy Pontius Pilate. All three not only sound great but bring depth to their roles. Hanson’s part during the 39 Lashes is a real study in how to hold a stage. These achievements are despite, rather than aided by, director Laurence Connor’s ideas for the show.

There’s a frisson at the start with a suggested connection between Jesus as a revolutionary figure and modern-day rioters, courtesy of filmed news footage. And it’s understandable that the Occupy movement looked like a godsend for someone seeking to do something different with the show. That the hippy vibes from the original can be given a contemporary spin is fair enough. But the idea isn’t thought through or performed with enough skill. While difficult to judge on screen, the choreography looks suspiciously like a work-out routine and the large ensemble appears drafted en masse from the same drama school.

Some of the ideas fail abysmally. Casting the Pharisees as vaguely Masonic makes no sense, likewise having the Temple as some kind of nightclub surely miss the point that both reflect established religion. Instances of social media seem misplaced (cue projected hashtags) and lots of mobile phones are used. Remember that one of Rice’s best lyrics points out, “Israel in 4BC had no mass communication”.

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Chris Moyles and Ben Foster

The insistent temptation to form a connection with the crowd should surely have been resisted when it comes to mainstream media, too. Connor has Herod as a game show host (a very uncomfortable performance from Chris Moyles) while it is the press that interrogates Jesus as a celebrity. Filmed as he falls, as if paparazzi provide a new station of the cross, Forster does well. But you don’t need to be a reporter to ask these questions – the media as the medium are not needed – they quite literally get in the way. The particular power of this musical is that it deals with spirituality so directly, and with such humanity. Connor ignores that strength to the show’s detriment.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 12 April 2020

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Chess” at the English National Opera

Nobody can say that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba can’t write a song and their 1984 concept album-turned-musical is full of good numbers, a couple of which were big chart hits. Directed by Laurence Connor, this major revival boasts some wonderful performances. Tim Howar brings a powerful rock sound as the maverick chess master Freddie Trumper, Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke are both fantastic as the female leads, and there’s impressive work from Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal as the men behind the scenes at a chess tournament that pits the USA against the USSR. The star of the show, as the Russian player, Anatoly Sergievksy, who defects to the West, is undoubtedly Michael Ball. Giving an impressively understated performance while belting out the numbers shows a performer of upmost confidence and technical skill. Ball is the master here, even if this chess game isn’t quite worth playing.

With music for the orchestra, the main theme, played during matches, is beautiful but adds little tension to an already wafer-thin story. There just isn’t enough in Richard Nelson’s book to hold attention, despite the backdrop of the Cold War and machinations of the Russian delegation. Connor tries hard with a barrage of video screens that ultimately only prove distracting. But the biggest problem is the writing for many voices. The ENO’s own chorus adds prestige to the event, but they seem lost – underused and with Tim Rice’s lyrics barely audible. As chess travels the world (well, Merano and Bangkok), attempts to add local colour end up pretty risible and Stephen Mear’s choreography surprisingly lacklustre. It all has to rest on the love triangle between Anatoly and the women in his life. There are moments when the cast, especially Ball, make this work, but the whole piece feels so slim that it’s more like a game of draughts.

Until 2 June 2018

www.eno.org

“Miss Saigon” at the Prince Edward Theatre

Miss Saigon is the biggest news in theatre this year. A massive success when it was first staged in 1989, running for a decade, the show’s arrival at the Prince Edward Theatre was keenly anticipated and has been widely applauded. The pre-publicity was big, the reviews had plenty of stars and the production itself feels gargantuan. It’s not just the story of an Asian woman and her relationship with an American that Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil cribbed from Madam Butterfly and updated to Vietnam – the whole show has an operatic feel, with every emotion highly pitched.

This is a new production, directed with a fresh eye and fast pace by Laurence Connor. Those with good memories will enjoy an exercise in compare and contrast. The staging seems simpler, strongly relying on the lighting design – Bruno Poet’s work is stunning and a shoe-in for awards season. There’s also a new song for the American GI Chris’ wife, Ellen. And some of the lyrics have been modernised, with Michael Mahler joining Richard Maltby Jr on the credits list.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh’s timing seems regrettably impeccable – foreign wars and refugees give Miss Saigon a real edge. The show feels dark in our troubled times. Although the local pimp, who goes by the moniker of The Engineer, gets some laughs, the sex trade is depicted as truly seedy and the show’s raunchiness is suitably discomforting. While the famous helicopter still wows, it doesn’t detract from the terror of the scene where the Vietnamese who have helped the Americans are left behind to face their fate. It’s all suitably serious.

Miss-Saigon-Jon-Jon-Briones-as-The-Engineer-Photograph-by-Matthew-Murphy
Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer. Photographed by Matthew Murphy.

A deal of effort has obviously gone into the casting – a move that has paid off. The ensemble is fantastic and the leads more than fantastic. There’s very little dialogue in Miss Saigon, so the show is a real test of a musical theatre actor’s ability. All the more credit then, to Alistair Brammer for establishing our ‘hero’ Chris as a sympathetic character traumatised by the war. The Engineer, like many a devil, has all the best songs but Jon Jon Briones adds an energy to the role that is dynamite. As for Miss Saigon herself, Eva Noblezada makes both her vulnerability and determination believable, with a terrific voice. It’s hard to believe Noblezada hasn’t held the role for years. With a performance this strong, in a show this good, let’s hope that’s just what she will be doing.

Booking until the 25 April 2015

www.miss-saigon.com

Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench