Tag Archives: Marvin Hamlisch

“A Chorus Line” at the London Palladium

Revivals don’t come much bigger than this. Marvin Hamlisch’s classic musical, A Chorus Line, has been reverentially recreated by director Bob Avian for the first time in London since it was a smash hit in 1976. With Michael Bennett and Avian’s choreography re-staged by Baayork Lee, another member of the original team, the dancing is some of the best I’ve seen in the West End. This important piece of theatrical history is alive and kicking – if you’ve ever liked a musical, you’ll love A Chorus Line.

The clever thing about A Chorus Line, starting with its book, by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, is how simple it is. The story of an audition for a Broadway show, a group of dancers assemble on a bare stage to bare their souls. Beyond the frankly silly idea that it’s difficult to get performers to talk about themselves (these guys are the original ‘over-sharers’) it’s a scenario that engenders sympathy, with the twist that the winners will then have to subsume themselves, dancing in strict unison in the background.

As we learn about the auditionees’ lives, from early memories, through puberty to adulthood, their desire for success and love for their work is inspiring. For these show people there really is no business like it – performing puts them in “the world of the living”, despite the professional and physical pitfalls of being dancers. In a series of great songs, each cast member tries to stand out and impress the deity-like director, played with suitable imperiousness by John Partridge; for all the skill of the set-up it’s the cast’s acting skills that really need to come to the fore.

Remarkably, given the size of the ensemble, the performances are consistently satisfying. Yes, they can all move fantastically, but establishing character on a crowded stage is no small feat either; the demanding monologues prove how important acting is in musical theatre – Gary Wood’s performance as Paul is exemplary. Avian has a team that works as well as his fictional counterpart on stage hopes for. Step forward, please, Victoria Hamilton-Barrit whose singing is fantastic and, making a West End debut,  Rebecca Herzsenhorn who revels in the role of Val. As with the casting process itself, it seems cruel to highlight only a few members when in truth they all perform with a chutzpah and skill that make the evening a delight. A Chorus Line is like a distilled form of the musical genre – pure, refined and intoxicating. And you’ll carry that singular sensation with you long after the curtain goes down.

Until 31 August 2013

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 27 February 2013 for The London Magazine

“Sweet Smell of Success” at the Arcola Theatre

The musicals staged in London’s fringe theatres are often excellent, but every now and again a real stunner comes along and, for now, the title of best musical on the fringe has to go to Sweet Smell of Success at the Arcola Theatre. Nominated for seven Tony Awards on Broadway, and receiving its UK premiere in Dalston, its director Mehmet Ergen has a real hit on his hands.

Based on an Ernest Lehman novella, which became a film in 1957, Sweet Smell of Success has society journalist JJ Hunsecker making and breaking careers at a time when “it’s not love that makes the world go around – it’s the word.” The year is 1952 and gossip, encompassing politics as well as celebrity, is hugely influential in an America where mass media and McCarthyism are at their height. JJ’s obsession with his younger sister Susan leads him to try and break up her relationship with a singer. Caught in the middle is the hero of the piece, Sidney Falcone, desperate for success as a press agent and dependent on JJ’s newspaper column for exposure.

This is smart musical for grown-ups. The cynical story has dark overtones of crime and corruption, with a bleak view of consumers only interested in the “dirt”. The jazz-inspired score by Marvin Hamlisch is fascinating, the lyrics by Craig Carnelia intelligent, and the book by John Guare fantastic. You don’t often get plots this strong in a musical and it should reach out to those the genre doesn’t normally appeal to. Ergen’s production takes advantage of all this: the sound is impressively big, with clear delivery, clever staging and adventurous choreography by Nathan M Wright.

If Sweet Smell of Success has a flaw it’s that it’s a little too cold to love unconditionally. Adrian der Gregorian does a good job of making Sidney appealing despite his Faustian pact and he has a terrific voice. But JJ is a little too repellent in David Bamber’s portrayal – he needs more charisma – and although some tricksy lines are dealt with expertly, Bamber isn’t a singer and you can’t help wondering what the role would be like if his voice were stronger.

Thankfully, the show has heart in the shape of the lovers JJ tries to part. As the success around them turns bitter, it is their relationship that becomes the focus of the show. Caroline Keiff is wonderful as Susan, struggling movingly for independence, and she has great chemistry with Stuart Matthew Price’s Dallas. It is the latter who will really win you over with a scrupulous performance and some stupendous singing that should not be missed.

Until 22 December 2012


Photo by Simon Annand

Written 15 November 2012 for The London Magazine